What significance did Stalin's purges have?


Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder

Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder

To person

Prof. Dr. Hans-Henning Schröder is a research group leader in the Russia / CIS research group of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). His main research interests are current political developments in Russia, the history of the Soviet Union and Russian foreign and security policy.

(1918 - 1953)

In the years after the revolution, Joseph Stalin took power. Several million people fell victim to his dictatorship. Even after the Second World War, repression and "purge campaigns" accompanied Stalin's rule.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) and Josef Stalin in 1922. (& copy AP)

The regime, which replaced the Tsarist autocracy after the short summer of democracy, ruled the peoples of the Russian Empire for 74 years and led them on a path to modernity that was different from that of the states in Western and Eastern Europe Central Europe differed in many respects. But the ideas on which this path was based were part of a great European utopia that has now been put into practice in Soviet Russia.

Revolutionary reorganization

However, the revolutionary reorganization of state and society took place under extreme conditions. Already in the spring of 1918 there was fierce fighting between "whites", opponents of the October revolution, some of whom wanted to restore the old tsarist order, and "reds", the Bolsheviks. Great Britain, the United States, Japan and France sent intervention troops to support the whites against the Soviet side.

With a tremendous effort, the Bolsheviks organized the resistance and built a rigid supply dictatorship associated with massive repression. The "communism" of the civil war phase with high inflation and the forcible confiscation of essential goods was an over-bureaucratized organization of shortages that aroused discontent and resistance across the country. Industrial production sank to a minimum during the civil war and the black market flourished. In just two years the Bolsheviks succeeded in ruining their social base: the workers were in a state of dissolution due to the collapse of industry, the rural majority, originally won over to Soviet power by the 1917 soil decree, was in an uprising in 1920. The system of "war communism" was bankrupt despite the military victory and could only be maintained through massive repression against peasants, striking workers and members of the opposition.

After the suppression of the "whites", the Soviet leadership under Lenin decided to take a political turn: in March 1921 they replaced the obligation to deliver with a tax in kind and allowed trade in surpluses developed rapidly and led to a significant increase in agricultural production. Since the Soviet leadership had a political monopoly after the expulsion of the whites and the suppression of all competing left parties such as the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, they could reserve control over large-scale industry, banks and foreign trade and so on control economic development.

The aim of the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) was on the one hand to increase economic performance, on the other hand to reconcile society with the regime and thus to overcome the consequences of civil war and the supply dictatorship. From 1921 to 1928 there was a fragile social agreement that made it possible to return to the pre-war economic performance and to create the basis for the country's further industrialization.

At the head of the "Russian Communist Party" (the Bolsheviks), however, there were fierce leadership battles in which General Secretary Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin (1879-1953) ultimately prevailed. He knew how to take advantage of the emotional reaction to Lenin's death on January 24, 1924, and to organize a cult of Lenin, which was flanked by the establishment of a bureaucratic organization. This apparatus was the power base with the help of which Stalin became the dominant figure after the elimination of his opponents in the late 1920s. In the further development of the Lenin cult, Stalin now also became the object of cultic veneration. The mythization of his person gave him additional power.