132: Stalin Comes to Power


Stalin rises to complete power in the Soviet Union, and the Red Army goes through major changes during the 1920s.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 132 - The Soviet Union Part 2 - Stalin Comes to Power. This is your semi-annual reminder that one of the best ways that you can help the podcast is by leaving a review for the podcast on your podcast platform of choice if it supports reviews. It helps spread the word about the podcast and lets other people know that you think it is great, hopefully you think it is great. I would also like to thank Bryan, Hunter, Þorsteinn, Miko, Mike, Duane, and Dongledog for choosing to become a member to support the podcast, you can find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members Last episode covered the early life and political career of Joseph Stalin, and the first half of this episode will continue that story as Stalin continues to grow in power and eventually becomes the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. The most important event on that path would be the death of Vladimir Lenin on January 21, 1924 after a long period of health issues which started in March 1923 when he would suffer a stroke. He death would setup a power struggle for the future of the Soviet Union, with Stalin being one of the key players in that power struggle. The second half of this episode will shift away from political topics and instead focus on the Soviet military during the 1920s. The Civil War years had seen the Red Army rise to a place of particular prominence within the Soviet Union, as winning the Civil War was the focus of all of the Soviet leader. After the end of the Civil War this would inevitably change, and there would be a reevaluation of the Army as the Soviet leaders shifted from a period of active warfare to a period of possible warfare with other nations. The threat of war with other nations, both real and imagined, particularly the possibility of an attack from the capitalist nations of Western Europe seeking to overthrow the Communist system would be an important part of interwar decision making in the Soviet Union. It would be the reason that so many political, economic, and military decisions were made and it would be a constant refrain within official propaganda from Stalin and others. In the political area it would prompt Stalin and others to react very harshly to the possibility of internal threads to the state, particularly in the form of political opposition which would reduce support for the Communist party.. Stalin was particularly sensitive to this area of concern, as would be shown quite clearly during the purges of the late 1930s. In the realm of economics, it would cause almost an obsession with industrialization and general economic mobilization, the most well known outcome of this would be the Five Year Plans of the 1930s, but there would be many smaller impacts of the constant need to push for greater and greater economic targets. For the military it meant the need to greatly increase its strength, to ensure that it could protect the Soviet Union, which would cause the Red Army to be the largest and most powerful in the world for much of the interwar period. All of this was in service of ensuring that if a conflict were to begin the Soviet Union was as ready as it possibly could be for that conflict, and that it would be able to use that conflict to its advantage to maybe dust off some of those worldwide revolution ideas that died at the gates of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet war.

At the end of the last episode I mentioned that Lenin was preparing a speech for the 12th Party Congress in March 1923 that would have been a direct challenge to Stalin, criticizing some of his decisions and actions. It is unlikely that Lenin actually wanted Stalin completely removed from the party, and it is far more likely that he just believed that Stalin was gathering too much power and wanted to limit the growth of his power. For better or for worse Stalin was an important part of the party leadership, and Lenin just wanted to ensure that he did not become too powerful. However, this speech would never be given, because of Lenin’s third stroke. After the stroke Lenin would lose the ability to speak for a few months, and while he would begin to recover, he would never be able to reenter the work of leading the party. The Georgian Affair, and the letter that he had written to the Georgian Bolsheviks, would largely be forgotten, as it was mostly just a setup for Lenin’s planned actions at the Party congress which never occurred. The power struggle for what would happen after Lenin would begin during the middle of 1923 and only intensify in the months leading up to his death. The succession crisis that this would cause would be critical to the future of the Soviet Union, because as long as Lenin was alive there were limits to how much power any other member of the party could have. Challenging Lenin’s power was simply not possible but with Lenin gone the jockeying for power among the other party leaders turned into a very high stakes game, with the stakes only rising in the years that followed.

The first major target in this new game was Leon Trotsky. From the time of the Civil War until late 1923 Trotsky had been in control of the Soviet military, a place that he had shown to be quite skilled at during the Civil War years, famously racing around the Soviet Union in a train to organize and bolster the Red Army at various areas of greatest need. If war was to happen in the years that followed 1923, the man who controlled the military would be in a very powerful position, and so it was Trotsky’s position as military leader that Stalin would seek to erode away. In September 1923 the Central Committee would place Stalin and Voroshilov, a close collaborator with Stalin, at the head of several military governing bodies, a direct challenge to Trotsky. This would be combined with a change to the organization of the Central Committee, and the creation of a seven member leadership group within the Committee. This was an idea put forward by Zinoviev, and one that was supported by many of those that were trying to get remove Trotsky’s power during this period. At this point the three most powerful members of the Party were Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev all of which were working together to reduce Trotsky’s position within the party. This would take some time, as Trotsky was a very popular leader, and well known throughout Russia, but with Stalin controlling the Secretariat, their ally Bukharin controlling the official state newspaper Pravda, and others in important positions there was little that Trotsky could do. But as soon as Trotsky’s position was eroded the collaboration between Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev would begin to fade as Stalin would instead start working against them. In this he was joined by Bukharin, Rykov, and others. Over the course of of 1925 there would be several disagreements, ranging from really specific items like how the agenda of each Politburo meeting would be set to much more wide ranging topics, such as how the Soviet Union should work within the New Economic Plan that had been put in place after the Civil War. The Zinoviev and Kamenev faction claimed that the NEP was simply the first step on the way back to capitalism, as it reintroduced various capitalist elements such as rural land ownership. They could not say that the NEP should be scrapped completely, as it had been put in place with a strong majority of the party leadership and was strongly supported by Lenin, but they still wanted it to be changed. Stalin and his group would get behind the NEP, which had the benefit of the gradual recovery of the Soviet economy in the mid 1920s. The attack by Zinoviev and Kamenev would come to a head during the Fourteenth Party Congress in December 1925. During this Congress they would try to attack Stalin and his faction directly, but the overall support for the anti-Stalin coalition was just too weak, and could not carry the day. The outcome was a move again Zinoviev’s source of power, which was his almost completely control of the party in Leningrad. This was done by sending representatives of the Central Committee to Leningrad to ensure that Stalin’s hand picked man, Sergei Kirov, was elected to the position of Leningrad party leader, which he was. Immediately after this happened Zinoviev’s power in Leningrad was dismantled, with party officials loyal to him either removed or sent elsewhere within the Soviet Union to disperse their influence. Zinoviev was also removed from the Politburo, the first of several removals that would occur during 1926, with Kamenev and Trotsky to follow. It would during this time that the idea that all of those being removed were enemies of the state, and had been plotting against the party was brought out again to use against other leaders. During the Civil War it had also been used to accuse of leftist groups like the Mensheviks and SRs, and now it was being used to settle leadership disputes. By the time of the 15th Party Congress in December 1927, it was clear that Stalin and his faction had achieved their goal of gaining complete control of the party and the Soviet Union. Some of the opposition had publicly capitulated, while some like Trotsky would eventually go into exile. At the Congress Stalin would also, in a perfectly calculated move, tender his resignation as General Secretary of the party. This resignation was of course rejected, and Stalin knew that it would be, but the public act of submitting his resignation was important. He wanted to be able to say that he tried to resign, and everybody else just would not let him, how could use accuse him of being power hungry after that. And so, Stalin was in power, and there would be no real threats to him until his death in 1953. Before we move onto military discussions, I will say that this has been a very high level summary of the events that were occurring during this period from 1923 to 1927, there is so much complexity and so many complications that it would be possible to have an entire podcast just on those 4 years of political maneuvering in the Soviet Union. But the most important piece of this period is that Stalin was in power, and he had achieved that power largely through outmaneuvering the other Community Party leaders combining his position as General Secretary with a good sense of timing. Those of the opposition were also not at this point killed, or even often arrested, that would come later, and would be the primary focus of the purges during the 1930s.


The rest of this episode will shift focus to the Soviet military during the post Civil War period. Just like every other military around Europe and the world, the Soviet military leaders would spend a lot of time during the early and mid 1920s determining what a future war might look like based on the lessons of the the First World War. For the Red Army one thing seemed obvious, the importance of industry and economic mobilization, which was a real weakness of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. During the First World War it had been very apparent that Russia was not on the same industrial level as the other major powers of Europe, and the events of the revolution and civil war had done nothing to help the Soviet economy to recover. This challenge would result in the rise of a number of military economists which would try to determine how best the economy of the Soviet Union could be organized to support the Red Army in a future war. One of these military economists, Piotr Karatygin would write “industry is the army of the rear in wartime, and should be subject to organisation, mobilisation and planned management just like the army.” While another P. Dybenko, writing in Tasks of the industry for the defense of the country “A future war cannot be won by the accumulation of mobilisation reserves. The forthcoming bloody struggle with capitalism can only be secured by an industry that operates intensively during the war, and which is well-prepared in advance for a fast transition to production of arms and ammunition.” The one benefit that these theorists had is that the economy of the Soviet Union was centrally managed, which meant that if things needed to be changed and planned, they could be. This ability to alter the future economy, and its known importance to modern warfare would result in a focus on economic matters in military journals like War and Revolution and War and Technology, two major Red Army publications. The economic focus of the Soviet military would also come into play in official documents written by military leaders. For example, the Chief of Staff of the Red Army Mikhail Tukhachevskii would write in a War Plan published in 1926 that the Soviet economy was in no way prepared for a long war and this problem had to be rectified if the Red Army was to be victorious in a future conflict.

One note from the Organization-Mobilisation directorate, dated June 1926, would have this to say about the state of the Soviet economy in terms of its preparations for war: “All calculations connected with the mobilisation of industry and the supply of its products to the army are built on sand as long as the calculations do not encompass the whole economic system … as long as they are not elements in a unitary economic plan in case of war.” Economic planning was just one piece of the equation though, and would be accompanied by a more military focused set of planning. One example of this would be the book Future War, which would be a 735 page book written by the Red Army’s 4th Directorate, the one in charge of military intelligence. This book looked at two likely scenarios for a future conflict: the invasion of the Soviet Union by another nation and a successful Communist revolution in another nation, with the revolutionaries called on the support of the Red Army. A major focus of the book was the military readiness and preparations of the nations of Eastern Europe, who were the most likely invaders and also the most likely nations in which the Red Army would need to project power. The exact nations to be studied were important because there was a major difference in the militaries between eastern and western Europe during this time. After the massive demobilizations after the First World War, the Soviet writers could still point to a much greater focus on artillery, aviation, and armored forces among the armies of Britain and France, whereas the armies of Eastern Europe had a much greater percentage of infantry. This force makeup was almost forced on those nations by their economic and industrial capabilities, and it was largely mirrored by the conditions within the Red Army. Future War advocated for a major change in the force structure of the Red Army, with a massive increase in the number of motorized and armored units to provide mobility, in artillery and machine guns to increase firepower, and in aviation assets to improve airborne strike capabilities. The exact number of these items that needed to be built was ambiguous, which was just as well because the factories did not exist anyway. One of the keys to the Future War, and the planning done by Tukhachevskii as Chief of Staff during this period, was that war was probably not likely to happen in the next few years. From a political perspective, and among the public, there were constant statements that war was just on the horizon, but from a military perspective a real analysis made this seem unlikely. This meant that much of the real planning activities for the military and economy were on a slightly longer timeframe, with Tukhachevskii using five years in 1927 as the kind of time horizen being worked on. nUnder this timeframe Tukhachevskii would push hard for more military control of the economy. Tukhachevskii would go one step further in May 1927 and advocate for the creation of some kind of defense organization that would have the authority to prepare the Soviet union’s defense, in both military and economic areas. This was based on the idea that if the Red Army was to be successful in a future conflict, the economy, even in peacetime, should be built around the military’s needs. To quote Tukhachevskii “This compels us to influence the development of the economy so that ‘bottlenecks’, which weaken our defence capability, disappear during the process of economic restructuring and thus create a favourable economic environment for waging war.” The challenges that the economy would face during wartime were well known, with one Politburo report from May 1927 stating that the Soviet economy was not able to produce the military technology required for a modern military, it was not able to build up adequate mobilization reserves, and it was simply unable to provide the economic output required for the defense of the Soviet Union. The People’s Commisar for Defense Voroshilov would report in that same year that the overall state of the Soviet defense industry was a ‘crisis’ and that there were far more problems than there were positive things to report. The challenges faced by industry also were not just the big ticket items, tanks and airplanes, it was basically everything. For example the production of gunpowder was estimated to be just around 40% of what would be needed in a war, artillery shell production capacity was much lower, with annual production at the time being just 300,000 per year, with over 16 million believed to be required on an annual basis during a war. To try and solve some of these problems an economic expansion plan would be put in place in 1928, the First Five year Plan, which we will discuss next episode. Along with the overall expansion of industry, a new set of councils and commissions were created to more closely align military and economic planning with groups like the Council of Labour and Defense being formed, along with new directorates inside of the Supreme Council of the Economy and the State Planning Commission being created to focus on military needs.

Along with all of the emphasis placed on the economic conditions within the Soviet Union, and the ability of the military to be supported by Soviet industry, the Red Army would also greatly evolve during the 1920s. The first step was a massive reduction in the side of the Red Army, which ballooned up to 5 million soldiers in 1920, with this number reduced down to 1.5 million by the end of 1921. The reduction in size would continue throughout the 1920s, with the goal of keeping the Red army as small as possible while still retaining enough troops to serve as a well trained core for future expansion. This was also a period where the army lost its top place within Soviet society, a position it had occupied since the start of the Civil War. The men who were demobilized were also faced with a return to civilian life at a time when the Soviet economy was struggling, which often made it hard to find new jobs, a problem that would only be solved with time. This was in no way a problem unique to the Red Army, with many nations after the First World War having similar issues employing the veterans of the First World War in economies that would experience contraction after the war. By 1924 there would be an effort to use the time spent in the Red Army as a period of socialist education for the soldiers. They were, after all, a captive audience, and the overall socialist literacy of many of the conscripts brought into the army was quite low. Their period in the army provided a time where their socialist education could take place, especially during the second year of service after the most basic of training. These efforts would be successful, at least in terms of education, although not always in how those educated individuals would impact society, especially in rural areas that were a bit less receptive to some of the socialist ideology that soldiers brought back with them. Another important change would be made in 1925 when the position of political commissars within military units was shifted. During the Civil War years the Red Army had been organized so that there were two commanders, the military officer and the political commissar, this had been done for revolutionary reasons, wanting to ensure that the Red Army did not become an area of resistance to the Communist leadership. But this also made the organization of the Red army confusing and cumbersome. A group of reformers led by Mikhail Frunze the People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs starting in January 1925 would change this. Commissars would be demoted to a Staff Office level. This was just one of many changes led by Frunze with the goal of moving the Red Army into a more organized and professionally led military force. For those familiar with military history, or even most modern militaries, the idea of a professional officer corps is a key piece of how most modern militaries work. But the concept of professional officers and a professional command structure within the Red Army was an important break from the some of the political ideals that had been a part of the Bolshevik revolution and which still had some support among Communist leaders. Initially the Red Army had been seen as a people’s army, rejecting the officer classes of Tsarist times, and now in 1925 they were being brought back. Although technically the Red Army could claim that these new officers were also from the working class, so they were okay, not like those crusty old tsarist officers of the bourgeoisie. Regardless of political outlook, the new structure would make the Red Army better able to create that kind of core of experienced leaders that would be critical to the wartime expansion of the army.

Efforts to form this strong officer corps would come up against several very harmful events during the 1930s, with the large military purges of the immediate prewar being the most well known. One of these purges would occur in 1930, with it given the name Operation Vesna. During this purge thousands of officers and others were arrested, with the accusation that they were plotting for the return of a Tsar or they were trying to bring back the Whites. There is no real evidence of this actually occurring, but that was not necessarily a problem. The suspicion of this plot ran all the way up to Tukhachevskii, but after meeting with him Stalin believed him to the innocent. This would not be the last time that Tukhachevskii was close to being accused of treasonous activity. In May 1931 the operation would end, but it was only a preview of later purges both in scope and impact on the Soviet military.