Examining Totalitarianism Through the Soviet Union
Katie Sisco HST 112 Sravani Biswas Thursday 3:30 – 4:30 4/18/11 Examining Totalitarianism Through the Soviet Union Woodrow Wilson’s hopes that World War I would serve as the “war to end all wars,” certainly were not fulfilled with the rise of dictatorships throughout Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. At the end of World War I, the age of absolute monarchy began to crumble. Just a month after the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne when protests and riots erupted among the Russian people.
This paved the way for waves of socialism and communism throughout Russia under the rule of powerful leaders, such as V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Both men contributed to the development of Communist USSR, but both also differed in their “totalitarian” tactics in molding the regime. Most history books, such as The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, define totalitarianism as something similar to “highly centralized systems of government that attempt to control society and ensure obedience through a single party and police terror” (Hunt, p. 844).
Most concepts of totalitarianism also include the notion of absolute control over private as well as public life. Totalitarian regimes essentially seek to have power over every single faction of society. Totalitarianism is often confused with authoritarianism, which although similar, does possess particular differences to totalitarianism. Authoritarianism refers more to absolute power in a strictly political sense. An authoritarian rule often uses corruption to secure the leader or leaders’ complete political domination, and shows less concern towards social and general economic matters.
Therefore, totalitarian leaders care more about spreading a resolute ideology among all parties and individuals in their particular state more than they care about gaining recognition as an individual all-powerful dictator. The Making of the West examines totalitarianism further in the “Terms of History” section, which explains, “A totalitarian state, as its definition evolved late in the twentieth century, was one that intensified government’s concern with private life and individual thought, leaving no realm of existence outside the state’s will” (Hunt, p. 845).
Many supporters of regimes, which have been labeled as “totalitarian,” claim that their critics use the term in various forms of propaganda to convey negative connotations. The ideology of the Soviet Union developed and changed at great lengths from its beginnings after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The union and power of Europe’s working classes began to grow towards the end of the nineteenth century. V. I. Lenin gained recognition among Russian Marxists in the early 1900s with his various publications and unique ideas about the best form of Marxism and socialism for Russia.
Instead of a widespread form of power among all working class men, Lenin believed that Russia would benefit more from a select group of what Lynn Hunt describes as a “highly disciplined socialist elite” (Hunt, p. 776), leading all of Russia directly into a full form of socialism. Lenin named his “elite” group the “Bolsheviks,” or the Russian meaning of “majority. ” The Bolsheviks essentially hoped to eradicate the “Mensheviks,” who represented the original group of Russian Marxists that Lenin believed he could overcome.
After the Germans paved the way for his safe return to Russia from exile in April 1917, V. I. Lenin delivered his April Theses in Petrograd. Lenin’s charismatic speaking abilities and his original “promise” that the soviets would take power in order to provide benefits for both workers and peasants alike, allowed the Bolsheviks to overthrow Russia’s Provisional Government. With a disgruntled army, weakening power, and an influx of soviet protest, the Provisional Government officially collapsed in November 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution. Within the next year, the new government made radical changes.
In accordance with Marxist doctrine, the Bolsheviks ended all forms of private property, including and especially, factories, which thus became publicly owned. This change allowed the Bolsheviks to control and remodel Russia’s means of production. In an excerpt from In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women, Ekaterina Olitskaia provides a first hand account of life in Russia from 1917 to World War II. Olitskaia was a socialist-minded student at the Stebut Agricultural Institute for women in Petrograd when the first revolutionary waves broke out in Russia in early 1917.
In regards to the changes in labor and production Olitskaia explains, “We inexperienced young people never imagined that there were any serious contradictions within the workers’ movement since we just tended to agree with whomever had spoken last” (Olitskaia, p. 37). This statement details how the original charismatic nature of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, could persuade many members of society to agree with whatever ideology they preached. Such tactics of charm and appeal to achieve mass support demonstrate one of the fundamentals of totalitarianism.
The Bolsheviks quickly brought many changes to Russia after taking power in the winter of 1917. They reorganized the voting structure so that the only candidates, whom Russians could elect, came from one single political party, the Communist Party. This forceful nature of a one party rule also insinuated totalitarian intentions in 1918. The Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which gave enormous amounts of land to Germany in the hope of establishing a peaceful alliance, influenced many Russians to counter the Bolsheviks in the upcoming civil war.
The Civil War truly represented how so many different factions of revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries with different beliefs and ideals for Russia could never comprise a truly “totalitarian” state. One of the most essential components for declaring a regime “totalitarian” is the implementation of a uniform way of thinking among all the people. Ekaterina Olitaskaia describes, “It was clear that there could be no unity among student socialists. We had been able to join forces against the tsar, but a joint effort to build a new society was proving impossible” (Olitskaia, p. 8). This statement clearly proves the lack of unity among socialists, whose allegiance Lenin needed to successfully operate a total “totalitarian” state. While ideology seemed nearly impossible to homogenize at the time, the Bolsheviks still employed various tactics used in totalitarianism. The outbreak of the Civil War paved the way for military leaders, such as Leon Trotsky to come to power and enforce a system of war communism involving propaganda and terror tactics. Ekaterina Olitskaia wrote how “the violent methods of War Communism corrupted the leaders and infuriated the eople. Crude antireligious propaganda, the confiscation of church property, the mockery of popular beliefs, and the attendant moral collapse – all this I saw with my own eyes” (Olitskaia, p. 39). Methods such as these as well as the force of the Cheka, or the secret police, to jail all political adversaries, particularly poor peasants, showed more of the authoritarian qualities of totalitarianism. One of the main policies of war communism involved the state seizing crops from peasants to export and sell in order to quicker mobilize socialist industrialization.
Peasants decided to not just sit back and let war communists take possession of their crops and land. Throughout the early 1920s, peasants formed Green Armies to fight against the Bolsheviks and their revolution. Even declared supporters of socialism, such as Ekaterina Olitskaia, met fierce opposition through terror from the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. Olitskaia describes the Bolsheviks’ extreme use of terror towards their opponents. “Actually, there was nobody left for them to persecute. Everyone who had been in any way connected with the Whites had left with them.
But they suspected each and every one of us” (Olitskaia, p. 48). This idea further deters from the true concept of a fully totalitarian state. The Bolsheviks were not converting all the soviets and Russian people to their ideology; they were too busy persecuting supposed dissenters instead of trying to include them under the umbrella of communism. Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor, used similar terror tactics, such as purges of supposed enemies, and predominantly persecuted “kulaks” or prosperous peasants for not giving up their crops to the government.
Stalin’s new USSR even used terror against former Bolsheviks from Lenin’s regime. Shockingly, some of the Bolsheviks claimed to appreciate their executions as a step forward for communist democracy. The catalyst for all of Stalin’s operations in building the Soviet Union stemmed from an economic push to transform Russia from an agrarian state to a fully industrialized state. Stalin’s Five Year Plans sought to unify Russia in a Communist utopia by getting rid of Lenin’s allowance of free private trade and agriculture in his New Economic Policy.
Stalin fostered more incentive for socialist and communist thinkers to accept his ideology than Lenin did. In his compilation titled Speeches by Stakhanovites, N. I. Slavnikova describes how “workers and peasants who exceeded their production quotas – were rewarded, honored, and, above all, publicized for breaking production records” (Slavnikova, p. 331). Stalin certainly employed better ways of gaining support than Lenin did. While Joseph Stalin could not have molded the USSR without the groundwork established by V. I. Lenin, Stalin’s dictatorship certainly exhibited more qualities of totalitarianism than Lenin’s did.
Not only did Stalin unify Soviet workers under a communist homogeneity that rejected all notions of a private sector, he also dominated aspects of private life. Limiting birth control and glamorizing the institution of marriage allowed Stalin to greater manipulate socialism and the Russian population under his decree. While the Soviet Union as a whole cannot technically be defined as “totalitarian” due to peasant resistance and early variation in socialist ideals, Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship did embody many more qualities of totalitarianism than V. I. Lenin’s did. Bibliography
Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Third ed. Vol. C. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print. Olitskaia, Ekaterina, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Yuri Slezkine. “My Reminiscences (1). ” In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Print. Slavnikova, N. I. , Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Yuri Slezkine. “Speeches by Stakhanovites. ” In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Print.