A friend recently picked my brain on how fascism had arisen with such drastic consequences in Europe in the early 20th century. I explained the rise of Nazism in Germany via email and decided I would explain the rise of the Soviet Union in a blog post. And I may decide to convert my email into a blog post as well, because I think these are important things that need to be understood. There is one thing we need to get crystal clear before I talk about the Soviet Union: The Soviet Union might have claimed to be a socialist government, but it was a fascist dictatorship. There was nothing socialist about it once Stalin got involved, it was completely fascist. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines fascism as a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. In contrast socialism as defined as any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Under socialism everyone is “equal” no one, including a leader is more important than the average man.
To understand the rise of the Soviet Union, we have to go back to WWI. The country had been struggling with famine for nearly a decade and rampant poverty for nearly a decade when WWI broke out. In order to save face, Tsar Nicholas sent Russian troops to fight in WWI. Supply lines were practically nonexistent. And there wasn’t enough food to feed troops in battle anyway. This meant the Tsar’s army was ill-equipped for war. Between starving troops that didn’t even have rifles and harsh conditions, the Russian Army was a nightmare. It was so bad somewhere between 1.6 and 2.8 million Russian troops died as a result of WWI, more than any other country in the war. On top of that, another estimated million Russian Civilians died in WWI. And while Russia is a huge country, it does not have a matching population. Losing 3 million or more Russians in WWI was economically and morally devastating. The gap between the rich and poor was massive and it was the poor dying. When the Bolsheviks started vying for a revolution they promised to close the gap between the rich and poor and get Russia out of WWI.
Both of these things sounded great to the general population of Russia. They were destitute and starving, nearly anything sounded like an improvement over the Tsar and the system that had made them this way. However, it wasn’t just the poor and destitute that supported the Bolsheviks. Many nobles, fed up with Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. They joined the Bolshevik cause and with them they brought money and most importantly, they brought factions of the Tsar’s Army to the Bolshevik cause.
Lenin delivered on the Bolshevik promises, he pulled Russia out of WWI and he started bridging the gap between the rich and poor. The first five years or so of Bolshevik Russia were much different than Tsarist Russia. It was also much, much, much different than what Bolshevik Russia would become after Lenin’s death. This is important to note, because it is during this time that socialist clubs began popping up in the US, Britain, Australia, Canada, and other “westernized” countries around the world. Socialism was working at this point in Russia and it wasn’t yet a fascist dictatorship.
That would only happen after Lenin’s death in 1924. No it wasn’t perfect, but no system of government is perfect. The five years of Lenin’s rule is actually what encouraged the constitutional monarchy of Britain and the Republican country of the US to start thinking about adopting socialist programs such as welfare for the poor, salary protection when fired from a job (unemployment insurance), pensions for the old, and nationalized health care. The Great Depression that followed the collapse of Wall Street in 1929 would lead to the adoption of many of these programs by several of the above mentioned countries. Unfortunately, by the time Wall Street collapsed Red Russia was well into its new government style a fascist dictatorship under the control of Stalin.
Now for the big part of why the Soviet Union became the fascist dictatorship most of us grew up with. The answer is Josef Stalin. There is in fact a special sort of fascist dictatorship named Stalinism after the Soviet leader. It’s part government and part cult of personality. It is more dangerous than plain old fascism. The cult of personality revolving around Stalin was so powerful that it convinced even good people to ignore evil in the name of their charismatic leader. Stalin’s dedicated followers loved him so much, they would learn to hate in his name.
By 1931, Stalin and his followers were the minority of the Soviet Population, but crossing them would be deadly. They were willing to kill to protect the ideal that Stalin was the great savior of the Soviet Union. If you didn’t think Stalin was amazing, it was an opinion you kept to yourself, even if you were among intimate friends, because if one of them liked Stalin they would report you and punishment was harsh. If you were really lucky you were ostracized by those around you. If you were semi-lucky they killed you. If you were unlucky you were sent to a Siberian work prison known as a gulag. If you were incredibly unlucky, they sent you and your entire family to a gulag and entire family didn’t always mean you, wife and children…. it could mean you, your wife, your kids, your parents, and your in-laws, and possibly your siblings and their children. In this way Hitler and Stalin learned 2 things really quickly; when it was just the life of a dissenter on the line they would stay defiant, but when you started punishing their entire family for their dissent they shut up and went away.
As global economic depression made life unbearable in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, the cult of Stalin grew stronger. The minority held all the power and all the money. It was a miserable time to be a Russian. There were several attempts to overthrow Stalin, but it’s difficult to fight a zealous minority willing to brutalize you, your family, and everyone you’ve ever known for your transgressions. Stalin’s followers would bully, harass, and threaten dissenters even if the comment was as minor as you didn’t like Stalin’s haircut and Stalin’s followers could be anyone anywhere.
When even saying the leader’s haircut sucks can get your apartment burned to the ground or lose your wife her job, which you desperately need not just for the wages but because it affects the amount of ration coupons you get, you learn to shut the hell up pretty quick. Furthermore, if you end up ostracized for not loving Stalin your kids’ future is up for grabs… they may not be able to attend school or they might be taken from you and rehomed with a family loyal to Stalin. Stalin’s followers believed every word that came out of his mouth. And should they find out something he said was a lie, they made excuses about why he needed to lie.
It was in this way that Stalin was allowed to murder millions of Russians. It’s the holocaust no one talks about, during Stalin’s 28 year rule over the Soviet Union he sent millions to the gulags to die. Even his most trusted advisors and friends could find themselves in the gulags should they criticize him for something. My thesis was actually on this very topic; even in the 1930s when an advisor or friend was sent to the gulags by Stalin, he would have the negative retouched and get a reprinted photo minus the person he’d just sent to be worked to death in the harsh Siberian winters. It was so common, there’s even a name for it.
Stalin built a corrupt authoritarian fascist regime using bribery, dedication to himself, and bullying. It was so effective it got its own name Stalism. No dictator before or since has been so efficient that a style of government was named after them.