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The Practice Of Joseph Stalin's Great Terror

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As a man who claimed 20 million lives during his dictatorship, Joseph Stalin has quite the record of how much terror was used on civilians throughout history. Though while Stalinist terror was taking place, Nazi Germany was taking the main focus leaving Stalin’s regime out of the picture. In the early years of the U. S. S. R, it became acceptable for basic soviet administration practices to be based around state violence and state terrorism. Using terror was one of the crucial strategies to controlling the Stalinist state. Without violence, the Stalinist administration would not have been able to control civilians how they wanted to. When looking at the historical case of Stalinist Russia, Stalin’s fear of external and internal enemies provoked the use of terror as an ideology by threatening civilians and forcing their support of his regime, as well as repression and random imprisonment as tactics of social control. Stalin used terror as an ideology to send a message to potential opponents and repress individuals seen as threats.

During the beginning of Stalin’s rule, he created a five-year plan which included forced industrialization and collectivization. This forced collectivization led to a widespread famine called Holodomor which left millions of people dead. The difference in this repression from others is how the state authorities responded. Although they were the force that drove the peasants to join collective farms and deliver fixed quotas of grain, they blamed the poor harvest on the enemies of the state. Therefore, they went door to door confiscating food, livestock, and seeds. Then, they punished the farms by not allowing them food purchases or credit. On top of that, they banned private farming, household gardening, fishing, and began internal passports which prevented villagers from getting food anywhere else. By using this tactic of punishing villagers for something they did not start, it handed Stalin and his officials even more power and control. Following Holodomor, Ukrainian villagers had even more support for the Soviet regime than previously. However, when being threatened with retribution for anti-Soviet behaviors, Ukrainians were more loyal than when threats subsided. Though it may seem confusing how civilians who were terrorized by Stalin’s administration were more loyal to them afterward, it is out of fear that they may have terrorized them again. Although it would seem as if people’s natural reaction to repression would be opposition, the Ukrainians pro-soviet attitudes only encouraged Stalin to further his acts of terror.

While forced collectivization did not turn out well, neither did force industrialization. Stalin’s goal was completely unrealistic, but he did not think in terms of reality so he believed it could work. He wanted rapid expansion on industrial development and heavy industry which he enforced with quotas given to industrial managers. However, this only caused workers to perform poorly and managers having to falsify production figures (flowers). The response to this failure in management structure was intensified centralization which did not work. According to Flowers, “…the more centralized the system, the more anarchic it became, as total control is not possible” (flowers). As a response to the inability to control the economy like Stalin believed he could, he used terror to coerce the workers and managers (flowers). There is a pattern that Stalin followed which concentrated on lack of control. When he lost control of something external such as the economy, he would make even more irrational decisions to try and control what he could. This pattern continued throughout his rule and is the reason for so many harsh orders.

As part of ‘The Great Terror” also known as “The Great Purge”, Stalin sent dissenting members of his regime and any other people he considered a threat to what is known as The Gulag. This was the imprisonment of innocent people. Stalin’s goal was to create equality among all socioeconomic classes. Therefore, incarcerating repressed opponents and ‘socially alien elements’ such as wealthy farmers and priests was a necessary tactic for his regime. According to Miller and Smith, “Imprisonment was used primarily as an instrument of political power, with people being punished for ideological reasons”. Along with these civilians, people could be imprisoned for absence, laziness, or idleness in the workplace. Although the main goal was to prevent any internal enemies opposing the soviet regime and create equality among socio-economic classes, the economic use of prison labor became a byproduct of the main goal. An interesting point made by Miller and Smith was that “Stalin was afraid of hidden enemies and unconscious enemies” meaning enemies who did not even know they were anti-Soviet yet. This explains the extremities of this imprisonment tactic because Stalin’s paranoia led him into a rabbit hole of “what ifs” and used that as a viable reason to incarcerate innocent people.

Stalin was always ahead of the game for the sole purpose of his dictatorship and control of his people. However, he almost connected too many dots creating many conspiracies of internal enemies out to get him. He used the famine and forced incarceration as a way to repress individuals who could be potential spies, signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland at the same time he commenced collectivization, created non-regime and regime designated areas where certain people were allowed to work and live, and he also created the internal passports mentioned earlier. The majority of peasants were not allowed to leave their areas or have access to an internal passport. The reason for this external conflict linking with internal conflict is due to Stalin’s loss of power. While he could not control what was going on outside of the Soviet Union, he could control what was going on inside of it. Therefore, he used that power to his advantage.

The Great Terror, according to Getty, ‘illustrates the unpredictability and incoherence of the Stalinist system’, which was ‘unable to plan or to efficiently carry out any kind of operation’.31 Terror was ‘defensive, not pro-active, which partly resulted ‘from a complex of perceptions that fall into the categories of anxiety and fear’. Getty contends that the Soviet leaders, Stalin among them, were ‘frightened little men terrified of their surroundings, ‘frightened little men with big weapons’.

Although the terror started off as directed terror towards groups of people, Stalin lost control and directed the terror towards the majority of innocent civilians. This tactic of killing everyone was provoked by internal terror within Stalin. To this sources point, Stalin was truly a frightened little man with weapons.

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Although his actions may seem to say otherwise, Stalin was not racist like Hitler. He cared for politics more than himself or anyone else. Therefore, the acts of terror he committed towards minority groups did not stem from his own hatred towards certain ethnicities of people, but for the sake of his regime. Robert C. Tucker labeled him as a “neo-tsarist Marxist” combining both ideologies he valued. According to source 8, “He re-interpreted Marxism in his own way and presented his understanding as ‘creative Marxism’, demonstrating his capacity to adjust to new conditions and, accordingly, to re-interpret and re-invent his ideology”. He created his own ideology which valued the equality of socio-economic classes but also put his own terrorist twist on it. Stalin would refer to himself in the third person out of respect for his regime.

Stalin was more than just a person, it was an ideology based around terror and Soviet control. This overarching ideology became so powerful in the Soviet Union that Stalin ultimately became the totalitarian dictator he always wanted to be.

Another reason for Stalin’s terror is centered around the idea of being this heroic figure who saved his people creating more power in his hands. Although he began the terror in which he would “save his people”, this was a sensible tactic in his mind. In hindsight, his tactic worked since he achieved victory after the repression while creating the soviet’s regime under his image and control. His regime’s ideology broke away from his predecessors and promoted him as the “sole legitimate heir of the October revolution”. To this day communist and nationalist politicians try to avoid talking about Stalin’s terror by saying they were difficult times or blaming civilians for what happened. People who currently believe in the imperial ideology are very apologetic of Stalin and called “Stalin’s vulgar defenders” or “sophisticated apologists”. Despite what happened in the Soviet Union civilians will continue defending Stalin as a key figure in the success of the soviet empire.

While we know Stalin’s character was not filled with great intentions, he was increasingly more irrational as he gained more power. According to flowers, “The Stalin of 1934 was considerably more vengeful and suspicious than the Stalin of 1929, let alone that of 1924 and before that” (flowers). Though he was obtaining more control of his society, he was losing control of the world around him. With this problem arising, it caused him to create even more irrational plans. Considering the economic process was controlled by neither a rational plan nor the market, he did not learn that being irrational was not a viable solution. This spiral of false reality that Stalin lived in engulfed the entire Soviet society and nearly destroyed it before it was reined in.

Not only did Stalin’s power and terror remain influential on civilians at the time of his rule, but also at civilians today. Studies have been conducted to see how many people vote and which types of people vote for political parties in Russia. According to Zhukov and Talibova, “Localities exposed to higher levels of state terror are significantly less likely to vote today, even after accounting for several important contextual factors and econometric concerns”. This data shows that fewer people will vote due to concern for terror to arise or to be targeted with violent attacks. The Soviet authorities ensured there would be punishment passed down from generation to generation by applying the principle of ‘guilt by association. Therefore, civilians who experienced the repression and Stalin-era terror will choose to opt-out of voting out of concern for their families. Findings from Zhukov and Talibova also suggest,

For other community members not directly victimized, but who potentially witnessed their repressed neighbors’ plight, the message was clear: political participation is dangerous; expressing the ‘wrong’ political preferences can ruin your life; if you oppose the regime, it is better to keep quiet.

Though Stalin is no longer alive, his power remains throughout contemporary Russia. While his terror was particularly not favored by anyone, this encompasses the reason for the terror. He had so much power at the time and yet even in his grave he has power over people who are sons and grandsons of people who lived under his reign.

As Stalin’s history of terror remains, so does his memory of him. Stalin’s rule displays how power in the wrong person’s hands can destroy an entire society. Terror was not simply for his own enjoyment, but to motivate people to follow his regime. Stalin wanted civilians to worship him. These tactics are also about control. Although Stalin was already irrational, he became even more unjustifiable when issues outside of his control arose. This lead to a need to control what he could. When he already repressed, imprisoned, and killed most of his society, he knew he could control them however he wanted. Though some would call him a psychopath, he would refer to himself as a powerful dictator in which he did everything in his power to be.

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The Practice Of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. (2022, February 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from
“The Practice Of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror.” Edubirdie, 26 Feb. 2022,
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The Practice Of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 26 [cited 2022 Nov 29]. Available from:
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