stalin: a glossary of key events   

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(Extracts from N Pereira's article in History Today Vol. 42, August 1992)



In March 1917 Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Brest-Litovsk was a Russian town on the border with Germany) with Germany and Austria-Hungary, ending their part in the First World War. Its terms were very harsh: Russia had to give up Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine and Georgia, and pay a fine of 300 Million roubles. However, Lenin believed it necessary to give the Bolsheviks a breathing space to extend their control over the rest of Russia.

The Civil War

Following the Revolution the Bolsheviks controlled Petrograd and Moscow, but little of the rest of Russia. In May 1918 their enemies seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railway and there began a bitter fight for control of Russia. The Bolsheviks introduced conscription - all men between 18 and 40 had to serve in the army, and Trotsky organised the Red Army. Opposed to them were the 'Whites', a collection of people opposed to the Bolsheviks, ranging from supporters of the royal family to Socialist Revolutionaries. They were aided by Britain, France, America and Japan. However, they never worked together effectively, and Trotsky's brilliant organisation and leadership of the Red Army allowed the White Armies to be defeated one at a time. By 1920 the Bolsheviks had established control over most of Russia.

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The vast majority of the population in Russia were peasants, earning their living from farming. However, not enough food was reaching the cities to feed the workers, partly because the government only offered low prices for the grain they bought, and partly because the peasants were keeping food to feed themselves better. In 1929 to solve the problem of the shortfall, Stalin announced that farms would be collectivised. This meant that instead of each individual family working their own farm, groups of 50-100 families would work a collective farm. It was hoped that this would be more efficient, and allow more modern methods, such as tractors, to be used. The peasants would not be allowed to sell grain for a profit, but would instead sell their grain to the government at a fixed price.

Stalin knew that the richer peasants, known as Kulaks, would oppose this idea, so he deported about 1.5 million of them, many of whom later died from cold or starvation. However, many other peasants opposed collectivisation, which took away their incentive to produce more food, since they could not sell it for profit. They destroyed animals, crops and machinery in protest, and this led to a serious drop in food production. As a result of collectivisation 5-6 million people starved to death in the following three years.

Constituent Assembly

In November 1917 elections were held for the Constituent Assembly, which was to give Russia a new constitution. They were the first free elections in Russia's history, and the Bolsheviks won only a quarter of the seats. When it met in January 1918, the Bolsheviks, realising it was a threat to their power, immediately closed it.

Five Year Plans

Russia was a very backward country compared to the rest of Europe, and Stalin realised that if communism was to survive then it had to modernise quickly. A series of five year plans were introduced with the aim of rapidly increasing Russia's industrial production. Though the plans did not always achieve the targets that had been set, it is undoubtedly the case that Russia's industrial capacity grew enormously as a result. By 1940 Russia had overtaken Britain in production of iron and steel. However, although some workers, such as the Stakhanovites worked hard out of patriotism, others only worked out of fear - failure to meet production targets could result in a labour camp sentence.

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The Great Patriotic War

The German invasion of Russia was initially a great success - within a week the Russian defences had been destroyed, and 600,000 prisoners captured. Stalin's response was to institute a 'scorched earth' policy. Retreating soldiers removed or destroyed anything that could be of value to the advancing Germans - crops, animals, railway cars. They even moved 1360 factories to the east, out of reach of the German armies. This massive effort by the Russian people, made despite the hatred Stalin had earned in the 1930s, was due to their patriotism, and the atrocities carried out by the Germans, who believed the Russians were an inferior race. The weather also came to the aid of the Russians. The winter of 1941 was extremely harsh, and the Germans were not equipped to deal with it, suffering thousands of casualties from frostbite. As their advance ground to a halt the Russians were able to prepare a counter-offensive, aided by supplies sent by America. In 1943 the Russians won a major victory at Stalingrad, and went onto the offensive, driving the Germans out of Russia, and eventually capturing Berlin in 1945. Without doubt the heroic efforts of the Russian people played a major role in the defeat of Hitler, but the price was high - the Great Patriotic War caused the deaths of about 20 million Russians.

The Great Purge, Show Trials and the Terror

In 1935, following the assassination of Kirov, an important member of the Party, Stalin launched a purge of the Party, aimed at expelling unreliable members. Anybody could be denounced for being Trotskyites or counter-revolutionaries, even on the evidence of a single comment. Millions were expelled from the party and sent to labour camps. In 1936 the Show Trials began, where important Party members were put on public trial, found guilty and executed. In 1937 the armed forced were also purged - by 1939 every admiral, three of the five top army commanders, and about half of all officers had been shot. By now the whole of Russia was living in terror. Children were encouraged to denounce their parents, and some did, and you could even be arrested for failure to denounce suspicious people. The terror undoubtedly ensured Stalin's domination of the country, but both the economy and the armed forces suffered from the loss of so many experienced leaders.

Gulags/Labour Camps

The targets set by the five year plans were very demanding, and prisoners were used as slave labour to help achieve them. By the end of the 1930s there were labour camps in all parts of Russia, and by 1938 they contained 8 million people. The work was extremely hard, and conditions in the camps very poor. About 20% of the prisoners in the camps died very year cold, over-work and lack of food, but this did not matter as Stalin's Terror ensured there were always others to take their place. Between 1936 and 1950 about 12 million prisoners died in the camps.

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The Iron Curtain

In 1946 Churchill made a speech in which he claimed 'From Stettin to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe ... All are subject not only to Soviet influence, but a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow.' From 1946-9 Russia ensured the establishment of Communist governments across eastern Europe, and 2000 miles of fortified border fences were established. An iron curtain had descended, and there was little contact between east and west. Russia's experiences during the Second World War led her to do this for her own security, but it caused great suspicion in the west, and was the start of the cold War, which lasted until the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989.

Lenin's Testament

When Lenin was very ill in 1923 he wrote a letter to the party Congress in which he criticised Stalin, saying 'comrade Stalin is too rude and this defect .. (is) .. intolerable in a Secretary General. That is why I suggest that comrades think of a way ofd removing Stalin from his post ...' When it was read to the Central Committee in 1924 following Lenin's death it was very damaging to Stalin's position, and could have led to his removal. However, due to his control of the Party Stalin had enough allies to ensure that it was suppressed, and he retained his position as General Secretary of the Party. Most Russians never got to know what Lenin really thought of Stalin.


In 1848 Karl Marx wrote a book called the Communist Manifesto in which he predicted that the working class would overthrow the rulers of the country, and that all wealth would be divided equally, creating the socialist society. He believed that this revolution was inevitable, and people who believed his ideas were called Marxists. In Russia there were several Marxist parties, including the Social Revolutionaries, and the Social Democrats, which split into the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1903. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were members of the Bolshevik Party, which seized power in the October Revolution of 1917.

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Nazi-Soviet Pact

Alarmed by Hitler's growing power and Germany's expansion in the 1930s Stalin looked for allies against a possible German attack. However, France and Britain, suspicious of Stalin and believing the Russian Army to be weak, turned him down. Stalin now turned to the only alternative, Hitler himself. In August 1939 the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, in which the two countries agreed not to attack each other. They also agreed to divide Poland between them, and that Russia could take back Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and part of Finland - land that had been lost in 1918. This agreement provided Russia with security in the short term, but also freed Hitler from the fear of Russian intervention when he invaded Poland, and later France.

Provisional Government

In February 1917 the tsar was overthrown and replaced by the Provisional Government, made up of members of the Duma (Parliament). Most of the socialist parties agreed to co-operate with it for the time being, believing that the time was not yet right for the creation of the socialist state, but Lenin believed the socialist revolution should take place at once. He persuaded the Bolsheviks to work to overthrow the Provisional Government, a task they achieved in October 1917.

The Social Democratic Party

Founded in 1898, it was a Marxist revolutionary party. In 1903 it split into the Mensheviks, and the Bolsheviks who were led by Lenin. The Bolsheviks were a small, tightly organised group who were implacable in their opposition both to tsarism, and later the Provisional Government. In October 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government, and all other political parties were banned. They changed their name to the Communist Party in 1918.

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Following the overthrow of the Provisional Government in 1917 a new revolutionary government, the Sovnarkom, was appointed. It was headed by Lenin, and included Trotsky as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and Stalin, as Chairman for Nationality Affairs.


In August 1935 Alexei Stakhanov managed to cut 102 tons of coal in a single shift - in Germany the average was 10 tons. He was made a national hero, and his example used to encourage others to increase production. Stakhanovites, as they became known, were rewarded with better housing and living conditions. However they were very unpopular with other workers, and some were even murdered by them. The government therefore quietly ended the Stakhanovite campaign in the later 1930s.


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