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Purges and Hysteria in the Soviet Union

Collectivization of Agriculture, and Upheaval | Hopes for Liberalization, and the Murder of Kirov | Crackdown within the Communist Party I Show Trials and Purges, 1936-38 | Hysteria, More Purges and German Tricks | Great Purge conclusion.

Collectivization of Agriculture, and Upheaval

While the capitalist West was suffering from economic depression, the Soviet Union was pursuing planned growth in basic manufacturing – for the sake of industry rather than public consumption. The Soviet Union had a "command economy," without unemployment and with as much invested in economic growth as the government could muster. Soviet manufacturing was not advancing in production efficiency, but it was advancing in volume produced. In percentage of the world's share in manufacturing the Soviet Union had surpassed France, Great Britain and Germany. The United States had a 33 percent share of the world's manufacturing. The Soviet Union had 13 percent, and Germany was third at 11 percent.

During the Depression, unemployment in capitalist nations enabled the Soviet Union to import thousands of engineers. And others came, running from unemployment and eager to help build socialism. Not receiving wages high enough to consume much of anything except subsistence food, building socialism had to be an incentive too for Soviet citizens. And they were told that they were sacrificing for the Revolution and for the future.

A fatherly Stalin

Soviet portrait of Stalin

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik gradualist and ally of Stalin, executed during the purges of 1938. A party dedicated to social engineering and a set ideology eventually crushed those who did not fall in line. And old revolutionaries were not as awed by Stalin as was the younger generation of patriotic Communists.

Meanwhile, the so-called class war in agriculture during the late twenties had extended into the thirties. The rationing of food in cities was combined with a gigantic police operation to collectivize agriculture. All over the Soviet Union, peasants resisted collectivization. They burned their crops, destroyed their tools and their livestock. This was seen in cities as criminal sabotage. In places, peasant resistance became uprisings that were crushed by forces sent by Moscow. Police and army units surrounded rebellious peasant communities, burned homes and shot into crowds. A million peasants are believed to have died in 1932. By 1933 the Soviet Union had lost forty-five percent of its cattle, two-thirds of its sheep and goats and half its horses, and 1933 was a year of famine, the worst areas of the famine being the grain producing regions in the Ukraine and the southern Urals. Starving people invaded cities, banging on doors and rummaging through garbage cans. And while peasants and their children were dying of starvation, the government was exporting millions of tons of grain to earn foreign currency for industrialization.

An estimated three million peasant households had been expropriated. According to Soviet statistics the number of so-called rich peasants – the Kulaks – had dropped from 5.5 million to 150,000. The homes, barns, land and tools of rebellious peasants had been turned over to the new collective farms. Trainloads of peasants, including children and old people, had been transported to remote areas, some to labor camps or to colonies in Russia's far north or in Siberia. Arrested peasants made up new labor battalions that worked at building railways, cutting timber and building the canal between the White and Baltic seas.

The inhumanity of the force employed against the peasants increased tensions among Bolshevik strategists, and it increased Bolshevik fears of opposition to their revolution. More intellectuals stood trial in 1930, and more Mensheviks (Social Democrats) were persecuted in 1931. In 1931 Stalin spoke of his programs in terms of the need to protect the Revolution against its enemies. "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries," he said. "We must catch up in ten years, or they will crush us."

Extending the battle to the home front, there were to be no more diverse schools of thought. Supervision of literature had begun, and Stalin himself intervened in the studies of philosophy and history. Ideological battle erupted in the Comintern. Lenin's approval of Communists working with reformers was reversed. Communist parties outside the Soviet Union conformed to Stalin's policies and pulled their membership out of reformist unions and other organizations. Communist organizers began organizing alone, hoping to benefit from increased visibility and by putting themselves at the forefront of the assault against capitalism. Bukharin and his followers, past supporters of peasant free enterprise, were persecuted. And Stalin's wife committed suicide with the pistol she had been given for self-protection.

Calm returned to the countryside in 1933. A good harvest that year brought relief to the nation and the Bolsheviks. With Hitler in power and winning adulation from the German public, the Bolsheviks decided to bolster adulation for their regime. And it worked. The dead had been buried, dissident peasants were out-of-sight in distant work camps, and in the cities the persecuted remained a small minority. While many people in the United States were feeling despair, many people in the Soviet Union had a sense of direction.

A new breed of Soviet citizen was developing. Young adults were grateful for the opportunities that had been denied their poor parents: opportunities at occupations such as teaching, medicine and engineering. For many of them Stalin was a symbol of unity, and they believed that unity was necessary in the face of a world hostile to their nation. Many believed they were building a new society. Foreigners noted that workers were putting pictures of Bolsheviks on their walls – pictures of Stalin, Molotov, Kalinin and Kirov. And peasants on collectives had icon-like pictures of Lenin and Stalin in their homes. How much all of this was adulation and how much was a demonstration of conformity is hard to measure, but foreign observers did see a good amount of the old Russian tradition of adulation for those in power.

During 1934, H.G. Wells came again to the Soviet Union, and he was impressed by what he saw. He visited Stalin, and, amid all that they talked about, Stalin pointed out that Wells was proceeding from the assumption that all people are good. "But," he said, "I do not forget that many people are evil."

Other well-meaning and intelligent people visited the Soviet Union, among them the American singer, actor and human rights advocate Paul Robeson. In an interview that he gave in Moscow to a correspondent for New York's Daily Worker, Robeson said that wherever he turned in Moscow he found happiness and "bounding life, the feeling of safety and abundance of freedom." Commenting on recent trials and executions, Robeson said that from what he had seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, "anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!" note44


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