During the second half of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin set the stage for gaining absolute power by employing police repression against opposition elements within the Communist Party. The machinery of coercion had previously been used only against opponents of Bolshevism, not against party members themselves. The first victims were Politburo members Leon Trotskii, Grigorii Zinov'ev, and Lev Kamenev, who were defeated and expelled from the party in late 1927. Stalin then turned against Nikolai Bukharin, who was denounced as a "right opposition," for opposing his policy of forced collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense of the peasantry.
Stalin had eliminated all likely potential opposition to his leadership by late 1934 and was the unchallenged leader of both party and state. Nevertheless, he proceeded to purge the party rank and file and to terrorize the entire country with widespread arrests and executions. During the ensuing Great Terror, which included the notorious show trials of Stalin's former Bolshevik opponents in 1936-1938 and reached its peak in 1937 and 1938, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or killed in prison.
By the time the terror subsided in 1939, Stalin had managed to bring both the party and the public to a state of complete submission to his rule. Soviet society was so atomized and the people so fearful of reprisals that mass arrests were no longer necessary. Stalin ruled as absolute dictator of the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953.
Letter from Rykov
Repression and Terror: Kirov Murder and Purges
The murder of Sergei Kirov on December 1, 1934, set off a chain of events that culminated in the Great Terror of the 1930s. Kirov was a full member of the ruling Politburo, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus, and an influential member of the ruling elite. His concern for the welfare of the workers in Leningrad and his skill as an orator had earned him considerable popularity. Some party members had even approached him secretly with the proposal that he take over as general secretary.
It is doubtful that Kirov represented an immediate threat to Stalin's predominance, but he did disagree with some of Stalin's policies, and Stalin had begun to doubt the loyalty of members of the Leningrad apparatus. In need of a pretext for launching a broad purge, Stalin evidently decided that murdering Kirov would be expedient. The murder was carried out by a young assassin named Leonid Nikolaev. Recent evidence has indicated that Stalin and the NKVD planned the crime.
Stalin then used the murder as an excuse for introducing draconian laws against political crime and for conducting a witch-hunt for alleged conspirators against Kirov. Over the next four-and-a-half years, millions of innocent party members and others were arrested -- many of them for complicity in the vast plot that supposedly lay behind the killing of Kirov. From the Soviet point of view, his murder was probably the crime of the century because it paved the way for the Great Terror. Stalin never visited Leningrad again and directed one of his most vicious post-War purges against the city -- Russia's historic window to the West.
Speech of Bukharin
Study of Kirov's murder
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