Delving into the past by Chris Hallam.

Seventy years ago, in March 1953, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin died. This was a major event. There has even been a film about it, The Death of Stalin (2017). But how did Stalin ever come to power in the first place?

Stalin died of natural causes at the age of 74. An intensely paranoid and insecure man, Stalin had spent much of his life, terrified by the risk of assassination. Thirty years earlier, he had been an underling to Lenin, the man who had brought communism to Russia in the revolution of October 1917. By the early 1920s, Lenin was already in poor health and would, in fact, die himself in January 1924. Who would succeed him? Some thought Stalin, but most people thought the next leader would be a man named Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky had been the founder and commander of the Red Army in the civil war which had followed the Bolshevik (i.e. communist) takeover in Russia. Trotsky’s ‘Reds’ had beaten the anti-communist ‘Whites.’ What was more, Trotsky was seen as a much cleverer and charismatic figure than Stalin, who was widely seen as a dull, unexciting character.

Not everyone liked Trotsky though. Some thought him too clever for his own good. Others distrusted him because until recently he had been a Menshevik, a member of one of the rival political parties in Russia. Others disliked his military ways: they worried he might end up pushing the revolution in a military direction as Napoleon had after he came to power following the French one in 1789. Trotsky always favoured expanding the revolution by aggressively spreading communism overseas. Stalin, in contrast, favoured strengthening communism within Russia. Finally, many Russian Bolsheviks disliked Trotsky simply because he was Jewish. In theory, the Bolsheviks weren’t supposed to be racist in that way. In practice, many of them were.

Stalin also had control of much of the party’s internal machinery, giving him a major advantage over Trotsky and all his other potential leadership rivals. Ultimately, by the end of the 1920s, Stalin had succeeded in becoming supreme leader of what was now the Soviet Union. Trotsky was driven into exile. He was eventually murdered with an ice pick by a Stalinist agent in Mexico in 1940.

The Stalin years were very hard ones for Soviet Russia. The regime unleashed what became known as the Great Terror. Thousands of people judged to be either ‘saboteurs’ or ‘enemies of the state’ were ‘purged’ from society, often being executed by the NKVD, the dreaded Soviet secret police or were sent away to gulags: brutal forced labour camps in Siberia. At the same time, Stalin pushed

through efforts to modernise the USSR through industrialisation and the collectivization of agriculture. These schemes often led to famines and more deaths.

In 1939, Stalin led the USSR into what became known as The Great Patriotic War i.e. World War II. Initially, Stalin formed an unlikely alliance with Hitler as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in August 1939. In July 1941, however, the Nazis launched Operation: Barbarossa, betraying Stalin with a sudden surprise attack on the USSR. Stalin now joined Churchill and Roosevelt on the Allied side fighting against Germany. The fighting on the Eastern Front, particularly during the Battle of Stalingrad was amongst the bloodiest experienced anywhere during the Second World War. in the end, the Soviet forces defeated the Nazis, completely pushing them back. The price of victory was great: 20 million people from the USSR were killed as a result of the war, more than any other single country.

In the years after the war, relation between East and West again as the world descended into the tense global standoff known as the Cold War. This was the state of affairs at the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953.