How did totalitarianism rise in Russia? How did the Soviet government establish itself in the 1920s? How did Joseph Stalin rise to the top of the Soviet government? What domestic and foreign...

How did totalitarianism rise in Russia? How did the Soviet government establish itself in the 1920s? How did Joseph Stalin rise to the top of the Soviet government? What domestic and foreign policies did the Soviet government pursue in the 1920s?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the 1920s, Vladimir Lenin sought to move the Soviet government towards a path of "state capitalism."  A new economic approach was needed to stabilize Soviet government in the wake of a destructive civil war.  Lenin embraced the New Economic Policy as a way to bridge the stages of economic development where Marxist socialism could be recognized.  

The battles in the Russian Civil War between the Bolshevik Red and Menshevik Whites were brutal.  With so much of poverty gripping Russia, Lenin recognized that a type of "state capitalism" was needed in order to solidify Bolshevik support.  At the same time, Lenin understood that the Soviet economy had to pass through the Marxist stage of development to prepare it for socialism/ communism.  This became the primary domestic focus.  Lenin understood that the credibility of his government resided in addressing Soviet economic concerns and fortifying the base of urban workers that was the bulwark of Bolshevik support.

Domestic policy for the Soviet Union cast a looming shadow over foreign policy. For example, the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo in 1921 enabled alliances with Germany, perhaps the only nation in Europe that might have been more forlorn than the Soviet Union.  In signing the treaty, the Bolsheviks were able to rely on German support and cooperation between both nations.  This kept some level of control over foreign affairs, while the real challenges existed on the domestic front.

I think that totalitarianism rises in Russia as a result of Lenin's death. The focus of transforming Russia into a Communist vision was so forceful and so transformative in all aspects of Russian life that there was little in way of establishing power once Lenin died.  Few thought about it. Given the domestic challenges being faced, there was not time or emphasis placed on a transferral of power. The government was so driven by Lenin and his embodiment of power that it could only be established by him.  Everyone else played a supporting role to Lenin.  When he died, the result was a power vacuum in which Stalin emerged.

Members of the inner cabinet that worked with Lenin were more focused on the theoretical and intellectual claims to power.  Stalin was much more pragmatic in terms of designing a centralized system in which power rested in the hands of a single individual.  Stalin was able to design a system where his power alienated his enemies.  This system also enabled him to "spin" events in his favor, leverage he used to neutralize other threats vying for power.  By the mid-1930s, Stalin's claim to power had become complete.

It is in this vacuum in which totalitarianism is evident in the Soviet Union. Stalin's actions and intent underscore the the presence of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism can be seen as  "a system of rule, driven by an ideology, that seeks direction of all aspects of public activity, political, economic and social, and uses to that end, at least to a degree, propaganda and terror."  From this definition, one can see how the actions and behavior of Stalin helped to fuel the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. 

Given the above definition of totalitarianism, Stalin facilitated its rise in Russia. For example, Stalin's abandonment of the NEP in favor of centralized control of the economy reflects a singular approach to government.  The same centralization techniques that enabled him to assume power were mirrored in the way that Stalin demonstrated power and complete control over the economy.

At the same time, Stalin was able to use his own interpretation of Marxism as "an elaborate ideology" that justified his claims to power.  The monopoly on power extended to legislation, government planning, and enforcement.  Stalin's use of the secret police, purges, and banishment to work camps were all representative of his totalitarian "terroristic police control."  Stalin was the party, ensuring that there would be no other threats to his position.  Any threats were banished and removed with singularity and unilateralism.

Nikita Khrushchev once said that "It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god."  In making this critique against Stalin, he pointed out how Stalin abandoned Marxism- Leninist philosophy for a totalitarian one.  Stalin's Cult of Personality and insistence that his presence enveloped all of Soviet society in his own insistence of "Socialist Realism" established himself as his own ideology.  He became associated with all aspects of the Russian state.  In doing so, he facilitated the rise of totalitarianism in Russia.  It was no longer about the workers and their struggles.  It was about him.

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