Thursday, 14 February 2013

On the meaning of control in Stalinist Russia

Here is an essay I wrote a year ago on the nature of control and power in Stalinist Russia. I booked at George Orwell's famous novel 1984 as a basis for establishing the meaning of control in the political climate.

The essay is a few thousand words long, so I will probably shorten it in the near future to provide a more concise, blog-friendly version of my argument. I also haven't looked at it in a year, so please be forgiving; as a 16 year old this was my first lengthy essay and the first essay whereby I conducted independent research and wrote the whole thing on my own. Since I wrote it in the space of a week and a half my research wasn't extensive, so some of the opinions are simplified.

The meaning and level of control in Stalinist Russia

To look into control in Stalinist Russia, the meaning of total and complete control must first be established. The political novel 1984 by George Orwell depicts a society in which controlling the ideas and thoughts of the people is more important than a physical repression of the opposition. Following this theory, if the thoughts of an entire population are controlled completely, then absolute control exists. If we take this as the definition of ultimate authority then it cannot exist, even in a repressive regime such as that of Stalin. However 1984 very effectively portrays a realistic society in which the people accept everything without doubt or question. 1984 suggests that it is more important for the ideas of a regime to be maintained than a single individual’s power. Therefore the question the political novel raises is about the possibility of complete control over a population, not in the hands of an individual but an ideology, as Party member O’Brien reveals whilst torturing Winston:

Power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual… Alone - free - the human being is always defeated… every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal… power is power over human beings. Over the body but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter - external reality, as you would call it - is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute…We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. [1]

This analysis of ultimate authority is important as it encompasses the idea that control can only be considered total if it is uninfluenced, and only if the authority controls by some method every single member of the population. Most significantly it stresses the importance of control of the mind; if the population of a country believe their leader has absolute power then they automatically do. This version of absolute power is perhaps the most extreme, as it requires almost unfeasible levels of repression, control and indoctrination from a central power. This essay will argue that Stalin achieved the highest level of control over his population in any society before or since, and analyse the ways in which he tried to gain control and how far he succeeded in achieving this.

The other problem in assessing whether absolute power is possible is how, and if, power can be measured. Stephen J. Lee identifies two ways of assessing power and control over a state when discussing the variants of totalitarianism. In the ‘strong’ variant totalitarianism “achieves total control over the population through conversion...the most important criterion for success is the degree to which the ideology and objectives of the regime are accomplished.”[2] However, he also remarks “the strong model implies that the regime is always in control…[that] power…is a ‘top-down’ process”. On the other hand the ‘weak’ analysis “assess[es] the methods by which the regime has tried to achieve conformity...[this] allows for the existence of administrative confusion and influence of...the population on the development of policy”. Clearly only the ‘strong’ variant of totalitarianism could be the achievement of absolute power, however as Stephen J. Lee points out there is no real way of accurately measuring how much a population really follows and believes in a certain cause or ideology (as opposed to being apathetic or too afraid to object).

Therefore, although it would seem that with recent totalitarian regimes such as that of the Soviet Union the level of control and indoctrination achieved was unprecedented (and therefore the central figure in control held almost ultimate power), in reality it is very hard to measure how far the public invested into the ideology and personality cult created by this authority. An easier way to investigate the acquisition and maintaining of control is to assess how far a central power was able to impose policies and make decisions without any influence from the people themselves.  However if we want to assess how far a leader controls the minds of the people and therefore their reality we must try and assess how far a leader manages to convince the population of their own encompassing power.

As we have established before, control of the mind is central to understanding what Stalin was trying to achieve in Russia. This essay argues that Stalin had more control over the thoughts of the Russian people than any other society in history. Stalin harnessed a frightening amount of control over the minds of the Russian people, and achieved an unprecedented amount of power over his own society. His personality cult and reign of terror both acted as ways for him to stay in power by convincing most of the population that he had total control.

Firstly, Stalin was the most powerful dictator of the 20th century, if not throughout history. His search for power was total and he was ruthless in keeping it. He carried out frequent purges mainly in the 30’s so he could gain power and control. These brought the number of deaths up to more than seven million, not mentioning the millions more who died from the famine of 1932-3. His uncompromising stance in terms of eliminating possible threats to his power was unparalleled; he saw even latent future threats as immediate problems. This level of brutality might suggest a strong leader who was able to destroy any threats to his power (even imagined ones) and therefore who was able to maintain a high level of control over his regime, almost ultimate. By creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion he was able to control the population to a certain extent. However these purges also hint at the fear Stalin possessed that his position would be challenged. Especially after the Second World War with a re-instigation of terror, it can be argued that the system of purges was restored not because of Stalin’s increasing power but because of his heightened paranoia about losing control and therefore his increasingly vulnerable position. Stalin was constantly afraid of losing his power, and this could suggest he really was constantly under threat from those in the government or military wishing to seize the position he had.

Why is this important? For this argument the most important thing about the red terror is not the brutality itself but what it reveals about Stalin and how much control he had over his peiole; to look at this we must analyse how it came to happen, and especially, how Stalin maintained support during and after this period. It is hard for us in modern society to see Stalin without focusing on the terror he inflicted. However as Lewis and Whitehead point out; “it would be wrong to see [Stalin] as a criminal psychopath, without acknowledging his skills of manipulation, persuasion, endurance and – in extremis – self-correction.”[3] It was not that terror turned Soviet Russia into a country of terrified subjects made loyal only be the iron fist; in fact the level of participation the common public had in many of the arrests could show the terror was not the only factor in Stalin’s control of his population. Hence what’s also interesting about Stalin is how much popular support he maintained despite this red terror. McCauley remarks upon a symptom of this, saying “many people...believed that all the injustices of the 1930s were the fault of nasty and incompetent officials. Some went to their deaths convinced that if only comrade Stalin had known what was really going on he would have stepped in to right the injustice”[4]. This inherent belief in Stalin’s fairness was due to his cult of personality, which was crucial to Stalin’s dictatorship and to the control his regime had over the people.

Stalin had built up his cult in stages, first presenting himself as a disciple of Lenin and changing this image in steps to finally make himself appear as more powerful and successful than Lenin, a leader who would guide his people to success. As with other regimes of the time, propaganda in the form of radio announcements, posters, films and parades was a key element in creating this cult. However Stalin’s personality cult if arguably the most elaborate in history. It aimed to make sure every last member of the population was constantly reminded of Stalin and how he was a deity leading them. Alexander Avdeyenko remembers “I now see that period as one of sincere enthusiasm…and yet, as self-hypnosis in the first place from the personality cult of Stalin… Man wants to believe in something great.”[5] This manipulation of the people that Stalin accomplished was a key factor in the success of his reign. It seemed that people honestly believed in Stalin’s all-seeing power, which had two paradoxical effects.

The first effect of this is that the people believed that Stalin was really the all-powerful, wise and guiding figure he projected himself as. Therefore they put their trust in Stalin as a wise leader, and as mentioned earlier many didn’t think to blame him for the thousands of incorrect arrests carried out during the terror.

The second effect was that many people believed Stalin was omniscient, almost like a god, and would know if they hid any piece of information or tried to oppose the regime in any way. Although this doesn’t go as far as the ideas of “Thought crime” present in 1984(in which thinking any bad thoughts about the party leads to death), they are almost bizarrely close. People could be arrested for a great deal of so-called ‘crimes’, and everyone was encouraged to become an informer and show their loyalty to Stalin. Because of this anyone could be reported and arrested for not responding in the right way to a question or having the right attitude. N. Mandelstam states “Denunciations poured into every institution on a quite unmanageable scale”[6]. The fact that many people voluntarily denounced those they personally knew shows their belief that Stalin was all-powerful and would know either way if someone had ‘opposed’ the state. Perhaps some of them also did feel loyalty to Stalin and therefore believed they were carrying out their duty as his supporter. It is rumoured that around a million innocent people were imprisoned for their ‘crimes’ against the state.

This idea of different levels of support and tolerance from the people is crucial to the argument; even if Stalin was not openly supported by all the mass population they believed in the fact that “the very survival of individuals and groups often depended on co-operation with the state.”[7] Although this form of passive acceptance doesn’t seem very important, it is markedly different from political apathy. Since the individual believes that they have to obey the state in order to survive, they have also accepted that the ruling party will know if they do not inherently cooperate. People under Stalin were faced with the propaganda shouting out his greatness, his omnipresence and on the other side saw people they knew and neighbours being taken away on a frightening scale. Because of this manipulation most of the population either maintained support for Stalin or felt that they had to completely obey him, as he would somehow find out if they did not. Thus perhaps it didn’t matter that not all of the population religiously advocated and believed in the cause of Stalin’s communism, as a large proportion of those who didn’t still bought into his image as an all-powerful, all-seeing dictator.

Although this bizarre mix of popular support and terrifying repression in Stalin’s regime suggests he really did come close to achieving a high level of power and control, it didn’t necessarily correlate with a high level of control over the people. Some historians claim that Stalin’s policies were carried out by local forces who were often were too vigorous in implementing these policies (and would therefore have to be pulled back by corrective action from the central authority). The huge purges that were carried out may not have been intended to be so devastating, as Stephen J. Lee points out; “the purges were … exacerbated by local forces which interpreted Stalin’s orders in their own way…Stalin sought constantly to regain control.”[8] One interpretation would conclude that this shows Stalin did not have complete level of power as he only gave the order to implement a policy. It was up to the officials at the local level to decide how they wanted to interpret this policy and carry it out.

If Stalin’s rule is interpreted this way, it could be said his control was more limited than it appeared as he wasn’t even totally in control of his own party. Arch Getty remarks, “Even if one assumes Stalin’s personality was the only or main factor in the initiation of policies, one must still explain the obvious disparities between central orders and local outcomes.”[9] This view on Stalin’s actual power is interesting, as it challenges whether control correlates with efficiency and successful carrying out of policies. Even if the implementation of Stalin’s policies wasn’t very efficient and often led to the policies being adjusted, did he still have a high level of control because he created those policies in the first place? If a leader has to change and drop policies because of the way they are carried out by the people perhaps he cannot be said to have absolute control. However this essay argues that the very flexibility is a sign that Stalin did hold vast amounts of power. If the local authorities sought constantly to exceed the quotas they were given, surely this shows they believed Stalin was all-powerful and would know if they didn’t try to fulfil the quota. This is also discussed by Lee, who states “[the local officials’] motive was sheer survival by trying to exceed central diktats.”[10]

This also raises the question about whether the Communist party achieved a high level of power and control even though Stalin himself may not have had ultimate control. Joseph Brodsky said of Stalin; "We are not dealing with the tyranny of an individual but with the tyranny of a party that has simply put the production of tyrants on an industrial footing.”[11] Certainly the fact that the Party survived after Stalin’s death and continued to have power supports this view. However the chaos within the Communist party after Stalin’s death, as well as the de-Stalinization under Khrushchev show what an impact Stalin had on the people.  Khrushchev’s speech “destroyed the myth of Stalin, the omnipotent godhead of the revolution”[12], whilst shocking all of those within the party who gathered to hear it. The stunned reaction of the party was important as it shows how many, even within the party, believed in the myth of Stalin’s power and wisdom and didn’t see through the façade; that is, until Khrushchev revealed just how much Stalin had a personal hand in the mass political terror during his reign. This bizarre reversal of propaganda is effectively described by Bakradze who said “Stalin was born to be two legends. They created one for him as a living god, flattered by everyone, glorified by everyone. After his death they created another legend, namely that he was Satan.”[13] The fact that the party flipped Stalin’s image from saint to demon as soon as he died showed they were afraid of his legacy becoming too powerful.

However the complaints about the democratic system years later, under Gorbachev, and the failures of Perestroika(restructuring) show the level of faith some people had in Stalin even in the 1980’s. A Soviet journalist wrote in a British newspaper in 1989, “Many in the Soviet Union certainly yearn for a ‘strong hand’…One popular grievance is that under Stalin there was enough soap, whereas now it is rationed. Democracy, it is said, has spoiled the people.”[14] Even under a more pragmatic form of Soviet rule some felt nostalgic for a strong ruler, still believing in Stalin’s personality cult. This shows how effective Stalin had been at maintaining control over his people. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the end of the 20th century also suggests that that under Stalin the Soviet Union was the strongest. Therefore perhaps a strong individual with a cult of personality is necessary to achieve great control. Coming back to Stalin we have to address the fact that despite a lack of complete control, he achieved a frightening degree of power over the minds of the very people themselves.

Finally there are number of similar figures in the 20th century that some say had the same level of control over their population, such as Mao and Hitler, and therefore should be compared to Stalin. However none of these rulers were on the same level as Stalin in terms of manipulation and terror, which is why this essay on control focuses on Stalin alone. Hitler had a huge cult of personality and also imposed an extreme ideology involving systematic massacre of those not ‘racially pure’ such as the Jews and gypsies. However as much as he appeared to control the minds of the population using propaganda and organisations such as the SS and Gestapo, he did not achieve the same effect on his people as Stalin. Many believed religiously in his cult but many more were in opposition to him and not afraid to act out against him. The number of undercover anti-Nazi organisations at the time and even movements such as the Edelweiss Pirates from the very youth he aimed to indoctrinate show this. This and the hiding of many Jews during the war despite knowledge of the consequences (such as Oskar Schindler’s protection of a number of Jews working in his factory[15]) show that Hitler projected himself as a great and powerful ruler but failed to make his population believe in his constant presence as an all-seeing god. Therefore the meaning of control in Stalin’s Russia was much more omnipresent and achieved a higher level of actual control than Hitler’s regime in Germany.

Mao could also be compared to Stalin in terms of his aims of complete control, however again he did not have as much power as Stalin did. Certainly, unlike Stalin, Mao did not have as much control over the policies of his party as he appeared to. Also, and perhaps more significantly, Mao did not stay as the chairman of the People’s Republic, agreeing to step down in 1958 during a period of political conflict that followed the failure of the Great Leap Forward. J.A.G Roberts states “Although Mao remained chairman of the party, he later claimed that after the Wuhan meeting he was treated like a ‘dead dinosaur’”[16]. Certainly the fact that the CCP stayed in power shows Mao was not as powerful or necessary to the CCP as is commonly thought. Another argument claims that the CCP party itself may be said to have as much control as Stalin as it still stays in power today. However again the party did not and does not hold the people’s minds in its own control. This is shown by events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the other numerous demonstrations uprisings that had to be forcefully put down by the government. The hushed demonstrations still being carried out today are a sign of the Chinese government’s lack of control. There is not the same level of fear or omnipotence that Stalin maintained throughout his regime.

Martin McCauley said of Stalin; “[If] totalitarianism demands that all institutions have to be controlled, that the ruling ideology has to be totally pervasive, that control over the population has to be complete, then no state on earth will qualify. Yet even in this definition Stalin came nearer to creating the model totalitarian state than before or since.”[17] The novel 1984, used to define an interpretation of absolute power, was influenced by him and Soviet Russia. Certainly there are many frightening similarities between Orwell’s fictional world and the USSR. For example the slogan “2+2=5” used in 1984 to show how the party controlled the population in its entirety came from Stalin’s Five-Year plan, which he declared had to be completed in 4 years.

In conclusion, it cannot be said that Stalin achieved absolute control during his lifetime even with his personality cult and terrifying purges, but what he did achieve was frighteningly close. What matters most about this is how he managed to convince his people that he was almost omnipresent; and the extent to which he controlled the population so that many believed he could hear and see everything they did. By this essay’s definition it can at first be hard to see how such an extreme level of indoctrination (as depicted in 1984) can be achieved. However Stalinist Russia in which he managed to seize and maintain power over the population came surprisingly close to the definition of complete control, even considering his regime’s many flaws and problems. Stalin’s unprecedented and impressive indoctrination shows us that we are never truly safe from being controlled by a single ruler. Stalinist Russia is, if anything, an example of how frightening close a single ruler or group can come to controlling an entire population.

[1] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, London, Secker and Walburg, 1949.
[2] Stephen J. Lee, European Dictatorships 1918 – 1945, (Oxon, Routledge, 2008(Third edition)), p28.
[3] Jonathan Lewis & Philip Whitehead, Stalin: A time for judgement,( London, Methuen London, 1990), p220.
[4] Martin McCauley, Stalin and Stalinism, (Essex, England, Longman Group UK Limited, first published 1983),p43
[5] Alexander Avdeyenko as quoted in Lewis and Whitehead, p92.
[6] N. Mandelstam as quoted in McCauley, p92.
[7] Lee, p85.
[8] Lee, p65.
[9] J. Arch Getty, ‘The Politics of Stalinism’, in A. Nove The Stalin Phenomenon ,(London 1993), p128
[10] Lee, p84.
[11] Joseph Brodsky, ‘On Tyranny’, as quoted in Jonathan Lewis & Philip Whitehead, Stalin: A time for judgement ,( London, Methuen London, 1990).
[12] Lewis and Whitehead, p193
[13] Akaki Bakradze as quoted in Lewis and Whitehead, p220.
[14] Mikhailov as quoted in Lewis and Whitehead, p216.
[15]Herbert Steinhouse, “The real Oscar Schindler”,, 13th March 2012
[16] J.A.G. Roberts, A History of China, (second edition published UK, Palgrave Macmillian, 2006)
[17] Martin McCauley, p44.

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