I spent a lot of time studying the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Europe in the 1940s when I was in college. When I was getting my degree and now that I have it, people like to ask me why, as an American, I spent so much time studying Eastern European Communism.
Holy crap, my entire life was changed by the events in 1989 and 1991. I was at an impressionable age when the Berlin Wall fell and took the DDR with it and then when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the СССР and took the Soviet Union with him. To make matters worse, I grew up as an American and we are taught countries are stronger than their leaders or something as arbitrary as a wall. The President is not the United States of America and sometimes, the president doesn’t even represent the Citizens of the United States of America (and we stop that thought there or I will go on a tangent).
These countries fell, dissolved, poof gone, because of things that aren’t supposed to be stronger than a country. They weren’t at war. They weren’t invaded. Nope, one day they were fine and then they weren’t and within a few months, I was being retaught geography because the world map had changed. It’s no wonder I had to learn about it.
What I learned most was that both countries had brutal histories and that there were a lot of insane leaders. One of the things that really struck a cord with me though was Stalin’s free pass. If Joseph (Иосиф Сталин) had come to power at any time other than when he did, things probably would have gone a lot differently for the entire world.
The horror stories we hear about the Soviet Union weren’t born from socialism, they were born from Stalinism. Furthermore, Stalin changed the face of the Soviet Union in ways no one else could have.
Of all the people that could have taken over after the death of Vladimir Lenin, he absolutely did not want Joseph Stalin to take over and he was vocal about saying as much. However, Stalin was fairly savvy in his political climb to power and despite the denouncement of an ailing Lenin, Stalin managed to take over the Soviet Union. He charmed his way into the job, starting with arranging Lenin’s state funeral. Lenin detested Stalin and yet, here was Stalin paying respects and even organizing the man’s funeral.
Organizing Lenin’s funeral and even acting as a pall bearer for his casket when he knew Lenin despised him, earned Stalin a great deal of respect within the Communist Party and with the general public. Because that’s the big key to the USSR, until Stalin came to power in 1924, the general public of the Soviet Union supported the Communist party.
Which is where the crazy train left the station with Joseph Stalin as conductor and engineer. It would be a horrible decision for all of the Soviet Union. The first real sign that there might be trouble came in 1927. In 1927, there was a world wide drought (this would lead to the Dust Bowl in the US in 1928 or so). The Soviet Union at the time was producing enough grain to feed all of the Soviet Union, mostly in lower Siberia and the steppes of southern Russia. Stalin decided to go to this region and demand that the kulaks (peasant farmers essentially), release the grain they had been hoarding.
Using armed troops, Stalin swept through grain growing areas of Russia confiscating grain stores held by kulaks, often leaving them nothing, meaning they would starve to death. The appropriated grain was sent back to Moscow to be divvied out. To convince the citizens that his actions were justified, Stalin told the city folk of the Soviet Union that the kulak populations had grown greedy and rich and were hoarding more grain than they needed in order to drive up prices.
After that, Stalin created a branch of police that did nothing but go out and confiscate grain and other edibles and send it back to Moscow to be divvied out, mostly to citizens of the cities that were working in factories. The policy was so well enforced that farmers began to starve to death and really began to hoard all food items they had or could get their hands on… which made the effects of the multi-year drought significantly worse.
Then came the start of World War II in 1932. In the beginning, the Soviet Union tried to stay neutral. They weren’t interested in joining forces with the Allied or Axis powers. They were doing their own thing and a world war wasn’t going to make their lives any easier.
That plan was thwarted by Hitler’s desire to gobble up land and when Nazi armies began to get close to the borders of the Soviet Union, they had no choice but to join the Allied Powers and fight the Nazis. Because the universe has a sick sense of humor, Stalin famously called Hitler a madman.
An external war coupled with a multi-year drought brought new challenges to the Soviet Union, challenges Stalin wasn’t prepared to deal with. So let the disappearances begin. During the first year of Soviet involvement in WWII, Stalin was mostly okay. It was during the second year of WWII that Stalin seems to have really started to lose his grip. Stalin began to send anyone who disagreed with him to the gulags of Siberia, which were forced labor camps (not unlike concentration camps). The majority of people sent to gulags never returned. The meager rations given to inhabitants of the gulags made them weak and susceptible to diseases. They were not accustomed to Siberian winters and gulags weren’t exactly luxury villas with heat and insulation, because being Russian actually isn’t enough to live in Siberia.
If Stalin couldn’t send someone to a gulag but still needed to get rid of them, he simply had them killed. He even went so far as to send a hit squad to Mexico to assassinate Leon Trotsky. With Stalin’s madness increasing (and there is some madness there), and the conditions in the Soviet Union deteriorating, Trotsky, even though he was living in exile in Mexico, was gaining more and more followers and Stalin feared they would overthrow him and install Trotsky in his place. So he had Trotsky killed, problem solved.
Trotsky was not the only opponent of Stalin thought and oddly, he also wasn’t the most powerful. Trotsky was just the only one not in the Soviet Union. It is at this point in 1936, with WWII raging in Europe and Soviet troops sustaining heavy losses because of the chaos at home, that we get something called the Disappeared Photos. Whenever Stalin sent someone powerful to a gulag or had them killed, he ordered people under him to change photographs and remove the traitor from them. The last I heard, there were over 300 of these Disappeared photos found. We know they are these special photos because both copies exist, the copy with the person, usually with Stalin in it as well, and then a copy of the picture with the person gone.
We are fairly sure that around 20 million (yep, million, 5 times the number of US citizens at the time of this writing) died during WWII if you include civilian casualties of war along with troops. That is a sobering number. More Soviet Troops and civilians died during WWII than in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and occupied France all together. The losses of the Soviet Union accounted for something like three quarters of all deaths during WWII.
What we don’t know is how many people Stalin sent to the gulags. That number could be very sobering as well. Estimates by scholars think that Stalin killed around 14 million Russians between 1936 and 1950. That is nearly one million people per year sent to gulags or murdered by hit squads sent out by Stalin. Stalin justified the deaths and prison sentences by calling them enemies of the state. If scholars are correct, Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler killed and imprisoned in Nazi Germany.
By the time, Stalin died in 1953, the population of Soviet Russia had dropped by more than one hundred million people. Stalin didn’t kill all of them directly, but he might as well have. Remember the bit about the multi-year drought and Dust Bowl? This is where it becomes important. Starvation, malnutrition, and suicide all increased exponentially because of Stalin’s policies on grain distribution during the drought. And just like American farmers during these drought years, Soviet farmers discovered it was more cost effective to kill their livestock than raise them for food. It became such a problem that any farmer discovered slaughtering their livestock and not turning it over for distribution, were sent to the gulags or killed on the spot.
Okay, I’m already at 1,400 words… Remember I said that Stalin was mad? Stalin suffered from depression and as he aged, he became increasingly paranoid about everything. After the death of his wife, he was never the same and began to send even more people to gulags or to face hit squads. A forensic psychologist using notes released after the fall of the Soviet Union decided that Stalin exhibited symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. Or he had antisocial personality disorder with psychopathic tendencies. Considering the age of the files released and the lack of understanding of personality disorders and diseases at the time the files were written, it’s hard to tell for sure.
In closing, Stalin was right to be paranoid. His treatment of kulaks and small business owners, whom he also considered greedy, he wasn’t earning a lot of brownie points with the general public or within the Communist party anymore. His vision of the Soviet Union differed greatly with most of the Communist party and specifically Vladimir Lenin’s. Those that followed after Stalin often left his brutal policies in effect, thereby furthering a government based on brutality, death, and disorder, hence why the USSR is not called a socialist government by historians and the term Stalinism was coined for it instead.
Below this on the right is a disappeared photo and the left is the original, they are like spot the difference pictures. It is suspected that everyone missing from the photo was either killed by a hit squad or sent to the gulags to die.