To What Extent was Stalin's Personal Paranoia the Main Reason for the Purges?

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To What Extent was Stalin’s Personal Paranoia the Main Reason for the Purges?

        The Purges, to the agreement of many, ran from December 1st 1934, the date of Kirov’s murder, to 21st August 1940, the date of Trotsky’s murder.  The entire country was in fear of what could happen to them as all were at risk, either by acquaintances implications or because of the smallest of ‘revolutionary’ acts.  One woman was arrested for saying that Tukachevsky, a high ranking military officer, was handsome after his arrest.  However, there is no single satisfactory explanation for this terrible epoch in Soviet and even world history.  Some historians look to the psyche of Stalin and point to his suspicious distrustful nature as the cause.  Others believe that the situation was a logical consequence of Bolshevik theory, whilst some explanations see the Purges as a rational economic decision by Stalin, or a way to remove people as scapegoats for his own economic failures.  All of these arguments have their flaws however; seeking an explanation for such an uncontrollable catastrophe is complicated.

If Stalin’s personality was in fact the main reason for the Purges, this cannot explain the terror alone as the structure of society was partly to blame.  By the time Stalin had outsmarted his political rivals in 1928, Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister in Britain.  Baldwin could never have achieved the power that Stalin did however, because he was in a democracy.  Any similar attempt to do so would have caused huge objections due to the undermining of the British political system.  Alan Wood dismisses the idea that Stalin’s terror was a logical consequence of Bolshevik theory as he says ‘Lenin was not squeamish but nowhere does he mention or resort to such extreme methods’ yet he does concede that Lenin’s advocacy of a highly centralised Party ‘must inevitably give rise to the tyranny of a single dictator’.

The Purges did originally begin in 1921 and were intended to cleanse the party of careerists, yet dissidents and doubters were also at risk.  Only in the most extreme cases were people expelled from the Party however, the death sentence was inconceivable, especially as Lenin forbade the use of the death sentence against Party members and the Party members had taken a secret and solemn vow never to set the guillotine in motion against one another.  Lenin also used show trials, in 1922, which Stalin also followed.  One crucial difference between Lenin’s rational terror and Stalin’s use of terror was that Lenin’s terror was not lied about and was the product of years of war and the change in society.  Lenin’s terror was not organised meticulously from the top either, it was often random uncontrolled attacks from the political police, the Cheka.  Conquest states, in his authoritative work on the subject, that Lenin was also an extremely powerful dictator, but that his claims to leadership were practically unchallengeable, unlike Stalin.  Stalin’s leadership was only attained through his own political manoeuvres and this is why he had to revert to such methods, to get rid of any alternatives. This implies that Lenin would have done the same had his leadership been as ‘shakily based’. 

The compliance of many of the Party members and the willingness to confess can also be partly explained by Lenin’s stance towards the Party line.  Although in some cases confessions did not come, even after torture, continuous interrogations and threats to family; in the majority of examples Party members were willing to confess and do so publicly, accepting the shame that went with this.  Lenin would also probably have acted in a similar way because Lenin exhibited a fetish for ideological purity and the ‘correct line’.  Pyatakov reportedly said of Lenin ‘he would be ready to believe that black was white and white was black if the Party required it’.  This attitude goes someway towards explaining the attitudes of the accused as Smirnov is recorded as having said, just before being shot ‘We deserve this for our unworthy attitude at the trial’.  The sacrosanct rule of Lenin can also be traced back to the rule of the Tsars who were believed to have possessed a God-given right to rule.  Historians tend to agree that Stalin’s manifestation of terror had stemmed somewhat from Lenin’s milder version.  Even some Bolsheviks at the time recognised this inevitability.  Trotsky believed that ‘Lenin’s methods lead to this; the party organisation at first substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally a single ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee’.  Khrushchev disagrees with this view however as he said that ‘Had Leninist principles been observed…we certainly would not have had such a brutal violation of revolutionary legality and many thousands of people would not have fallen victim to the method of terror’. 

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The communist system in Russia at the time certainly did lead to the likely possibility that one dictator would accrue a dangerous level of power, which would be abused by the wrong person.  Lenin’s attitudes to the Party also led to the belief by fellow members that the Party was right and therefore the leader was right, this resulted in many of the accused supporting the Purges and the lack of resistance to Stalin’s rise to power.  Lenin had himself also implemented a few tamer versions of Stalin’s terror, yet Leninism only suggested such extremes as the Purges, Stalin ...

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