World History 2 199 - 12.2.1 The Birth of the Soviet Union and the Rise of Stalin

After the Bolshevik seizure of the government and Russia’s hasty departure from World War I, Lenin moved to consolidate power in Russia. Civil war raged from 1918 to 1921 between the Red Army of the Bolsheviks and the White Army representing all the groups that opposed them, including the Russian upper classes, forces loyal to the monarchy, and Lenin’s enemies within the Russian Social Democrats, such as the Menshevik faction. Members of the White Army disagreed on whether they sought an anti-Bolshevik communist government or the return of a tsarist government. The Red Army, though smaller, had a focused goal and was better organized.

British, French, Japanese, and U.S. troops all invaded Russia in support of the White Army and stayed until 1920, but they were unable to stop the Bolsheviks from seizing control. The civil war ended in 1921 with the Bolsheviks in control. Approximately 1.5 million soldiers had died in the fighting, but the civilian death toll was substantially higher—about eight million.

During the civil war, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership also sought to take over lands outside Russia that had been controlled by the now-deposed tsar. Lenin approached these regions with the goal of creating a federal state of republics governed by a soviet, an elected committee of workers’ representatives. Each republic in this new “Soviet Union” would represent an ethnicity and be nominally independent but ultimately under the central government’s control. Many of these areas fiercely resisted incorporation by the Bolsheviks.

In 1919, for example, the Red Army invaded Ukraine and faced strong resistance, but by 1920, the Bolsheviks had taken control. Belarus was also established as a Soviet republic fairly easily. Both Ukraine and Belarus had some autonomy but had to rely on Lenin’s government to direct foreign policy. Other areas, like the Caucasus, proved more contentious. Azerbaijan and Armenia were incorporated by the Bolsheviks in 1920. The government in Georgia was heavily Menshevik and resisted Bolshevik rule, but in 1921 the Red Army took control of this region as well. In 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established. It incorporated the country of Russia and the regions Russia had absorbed as soviet republics under a new centralized national government quite different from what the revolutionaries had envisioned only a few years before (Figure 12.8).

This map is titled “Post-Soviet Union Independent States.” It shows the region of the former Soviet Union. The post Soviet Union states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan are shown.
Figure 12.8 This map shows the region of the former Soviet Union with the post–Soviet Union states detailed. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Bolsheviks had used the civil war to strengthen their control over the economy. This included wielding oversight of industrialization and taking steps toward the elimination of private property. The national government decided what could be produced and rationed goods throughout the country. Such control was held up as necessary to meet government and military needs, but the focus on top-down administration vied with the revolution’s slogans about workers having more power under communism.

World War I and the civil war had created massive dislocations in the Russian economy. Industrial production had dropped significantly below prewar levels, as had agricultural production and particularly grain output. People were out of work, and prices had risen. The economy was essentially bankrupt. To combat these problems, Lenin abandoned the earlier economic approach, called war communism, and introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. The NEP kept the government in overall control of the economy, but it introduced some aspects of capitalism, such as giving peasants the ability to sell their produce on the market and allowing small businesses to operate through private not state ownership. This was not the pure socialist state Lenin had envisioned. Instead, it was an emergency response to significant hardships and growing discontent among the Russian people.

By the end of the civil war, Russia’s Communist Party bureaucracy had grown quite large and intricate. There were multiple layers of leaders, from the local through the regional and national levels. One who began to exploit his understanding and control of this bureaucracy was Joseph Stalin (Figure 12.9). Stalin had grown up in poverty in the Russian Empire’s state of Georgia. He adopted the surname Stalin in adulthood because it meant “man of steel,” and he became a Bolshevik in the early 1900s. In 1922, Stalin became the Communist Party’s general secretary. This was not a high-level position, but Stalin realized he could use it to consolidate power behind the scenes. He controlled all appointments within the party and could ensure that only those who agreed with him achieved these positions.

A man wears a military style uniform and waves with his right hand.
Figure 12.9 This 1941 photo shows Stalin in a style of military tunic that other Soviet officials adopted and that later came to be named after him. (credit: “Stalin in July 1941” by Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Lenin’s death in 1924 opened a power vacuum and a debate over the future of policy in the Soviet Union. There were two very different paths the country could follow. Favoring one path were leaders such as Leon Trotsky, the man responsible for making the Red Army a dependable fighting force during the civil war (Figure 12.10). Trotsky hoped to both increase industrialization and end the more capitalistic policies of the NEP. In particular, Trotsky hoped the Soviet Union could serve as an example to spur more revolutionary movements around the world. On the other side were those who wanted to continue the NEP and pursue a slower, less radical path to industrialization. Stalin, then in his forties, strove to keep out of these specific debates. He and Trotsky held opposing views on communist ideology and the future of the Soviet Union, but Stalin’s control over the Communist bureaucracy gave him leverage.

A man wears eyeglasses, a shirt, tie, and jacket. He stares directly into the camera.
Figure 12.10 This photo shows Trotsky in the 1930s, when he was in exile from Russia. (credit: “Leon Trotsky, 1930s” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1927, Stalin expelled Trotsky from the Communist Party. In 1929, Trotsky was forced into exile. He was assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940. By the end of the 1920s, although the new Soviet government did seek to fulfill some of the promises Bolshevism had held out, the collective approach of the early years of the decade had devolved to one-man rule.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax