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Essay: Was Stalin successful at dealing with opposition?

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In this essay, dealing with opposition will be defined as fully eliminating threats, rather than merely postponing or temporarily preventing them. It will be argued that Stalin was the most successful in dealing with opposition than any other ruler during the period 1855-1964. This is due to his repressive approach in destroying potential threats to his regime which led him to be able to rule supreme. The success of Russian rulers in dealing with opposition can be assessed by the measures implemented by the rulers themselves in controlling opposition imposed by peasants, workers, soldiers, political parties and intelligentsia. The extent to which the rulers prevented opposition thwarting their aims throughout their rule, in conjunction with the consequential longevity of the rulers’ legacy will be taken into consideration. External circumstances and differing conditions of society will be assessed in regard to the rulers’ subsequent inhibition in successfully installing their policies, thus potentially affecting the degree of success between the rulers. For example, Stalin developed Lenin’s ruling foundations; this organised structure implemented by Stalin’s predecessor will be taken into consideration when reflecting upon Stalin’s accessibility, thus success, in dealing with opposition. As Volkogonov argues, Stalin built on the legacy of Lenin. Stalin extended inherited forms of repression, whereas Lenin officially set them in motion.

There is certainty in the fact that under Stalin’s rule, there were millions of victims and therefore, immense suffering; not only with those culpable but also those in association with those condemned. Between 1935 and 1939, however, in the midst of The Great Terror, people supported the violence implemented by the State and even participated in it willingly. Therefore, whilst taking into consideration the number of innocent people killed under Stalin’s reign, Stalin undoubtedly dealt with opposition more successfully than any other ruler in the period due to the ruthless annihilation of anyone who caused/could cause suspicion.

Stalin’s paranoia is another factor that must be measured in order to come to a conclusive decision in regard to his success. Stalin’s paranoia led him target uninvolved members of Russian society as well as conjure imaginary opposition.

The severity of Stalin’s paranoia is highlighted by Khrushchev in a speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:

…‘enemies’ were actually never enemies, spies, wreckers … but were always honest Communists … often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes… the sickly suspicion created in him a general distrust even toward eminent Party workers whom he had known for years. Everywhere and in everything he saw ‘enemies’, ‘two-facers’ and ‘spies’…

This source is valuable because it shows the extent to which paranoia acted as a trigger for Stalin’s actions. With this speech having been delivered three years after the death of Stalin, its purpose was to direct the Communist Party onto a more Leninist route and reinforce the safety of party positions after the uncertainty of positions during Stalin’s rule. This source, however, is limited in its value in regard to understanding the Stalinist era. This is because Khrushchev painted the Communist Party as a victim of Stalin, rather than an accomplice to its crimes. The source forces the blame solely on Stalin, when in reality, the Party was very loyal to Stalin during his regime and played a key role in the repressive structure. Despite this source conveying the backlash against Stalin after his death, the source is useful as it depicts the paranoia that swarmed Stalin and thus, contributed to many of his repressive measures and helped him to be more successful than any other Russian ruler during this period. Additionally, one cannot deal with opposition after death and therefore, oppositional backlash post death cannot be factored in to Stalin’s regime. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the Stalinist regime does not dispel Stalin’s legacy. The legacy of a ruler depends on the long-term; Stalin’s legacy, although ambiguous, is alive. Christopher Hill, although recognising that Stalin indirectly murdered millions, declared that humanity ‘not only in Russia, but in all countries, will always be in [Stalin’s] debt’. REFERENCE which portrays the contrasting views of Stalin’s nature.

Stalin’s suspicion led him to follow an excessively repressive approach and hence, effectively destroy any real opposition. Therefore, having considered the infringing factors upon the success of Stalin dealing with opposition, this essay will now lay out the other rulers and their dealings with opposition in comparison to Stalin.


Rulers during this period faced significant mass opposition from peasants and workers. Stalin was more successful in dealing with peasant-proletariat opposition than any other ruler during this period.

The opposition faced by the peasants after Stalin’s implementation of collectivisation was in the form of burning crops and slaughtering livestock in order to protest. Stalin’s efficient response of relaxing collectivisation for a year was beneficial because it enabled the peasants’ anger to temporarily subside whilst also demonstrating Stalin’s capability to prevent using repressive measures immediately. However, after Stalin re-enforced collectivisation in 1931, the peasants resisted again, this time by hiding grain, which led Stalin to brand the Kulaks as ‘enemies of the state’ and demonised them as greedy rural capitalists. Most were imprisoned, deported, shot or sent to be used as slave labour in the Gulags. This meant that Stalin could dissolve the Kulak class by relocating them to distant parts of Russia, thus, permanently removing opposition. By the end of 1931, two million Kulaks had been sent to Gulags. REFERENCE. Stalin also sent in army squads to confiscate all food as the ‘war on kulak parasites’ REFERENCE commenced. This man-made famine from 1932 to 1933 resulted in the death of 10 million Kulaks. Stalin sacrificed the peasantry in order to bring about industrialisation. Gooding has argued that ‘throughout the ages the tsarist state had pinned its peasants like moths to a board, and the Soviet state acted in a similar spirit in the 1930s’ REFERENCE. Certainly, Stalin used repressive measures in order to reign in control over the Kulak class, however, this method of controlling opposition enabled him to rule supreme. By 1939, 99% of agricultural land had been collectivised and 90% of peasants lived on one of the 250,000 kolkhoz. REFERENCE This shows that Stalin was able to effectively overcome resistance from the Kulaks. Overall, Stalin smothered mass opposition from peasants and workers but his success came at a terrible cost in human lives.

Though Lenin was more successful than Nicholas II at dealing with peasant-proletariat opposition, he was not as successful as Stalin. The removal of the Tsarist state cleared the pathway to dictatorship as Lenin was prepared to take repression to new extremes simply because he was not restrained by tradition. Lenin’s declaration that it was better to arrest a hundred innocents than let one guilty man go free encouraged mass arrests. This was much like Stalin’s outlook, with him believing that death acts as the solution to all problems; ‘no man – no problem.’ REFERENCE Lenin’s New Economic Policy, for example, in 1921 favoured the peasants as it reintroduced a measure of stability to the economy thus allowing the Soviet people to recover from years of war whilst stopping potential organised opposition gaining popularity. Furthermore, Lenin, unlike Stalin, was willing to view the peasants as a separate part of the proletariat and made more effort to get them on side. Overall, Lenin successfully indoctrinated and repressively coerced Russia which led him to easily suppress worker opposition.

Below is an order from Lenin to Communists in Penza, August 11th 1918, demanding that they publicly hang at least 100 kulaks and confiscate their grain, to set an example:


Comrades! The uprising… suppressed without mercy… entire revolution demands this…
final decisive… You need to hang (so that the public sees) at least 100… kulaks… publish their names… choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks. P.S. Use your toughest people for this.

This source is valuable as it shows the uncompromising repression with which Lenin dealt with Kulak opposition. Additionally, it was written just days after the peasant revolt in Kuchkino Volost which shows that despite the revolt having been handled efficiently, tension was rife, therefore, Lenin intended to set a precedent and eliminate opposition with certainty.

Unlike Stalin, Nicholas II failed to effectively deal with peasant opposition. This failure, however, can be partly blamed on the harshness of conditions in Russia during this period. The peasants made up 80% of the population in 1894, all of whom were impoverished, hard worked, in debt and required to pay high taxes. The 1905 ‘Bloody Sunday’ saw the army in St Petersburg shoot at a crowd demanding radical reforms. Consequently, Nicholas was forced to grant a constitution which conveys his lack of control over his people. Accordingly the events of 1905 were echoed in 1912 when two hundred striking miners of the Lena Goldfields were massacred. Like the Novocherkassk massacre in 1962 under Khrushchev, this revealed that the authorities had not improved their methods in dealing with worker opposition. Nicholas’ failure to amend the workers’ 12-hour days and degrading body searches by factory managers bolstered opposition. Although the October Manifesto in 1905 appeased the masses, Nicholas soon ignored the people’s demands, made the duma impotent, and executed fifteen thousand people. Despite spasms of repression, unlike Stalin, Nicholas never had the resources to crush opposition from the masses nor was he willing to truly reform and desert autocratic rule. Nicholas II was ultimately unsuccessful in dealing with mass opposition.

The Provisional Government dealt with opposition from peasants and workers without any success. The inability to take action upon the peasant’s demands led to the peasants loathing the Provisional Government; peasants seized land, burnt down manor houses and stripped houses of goods, to which the Provisional Government failed to retaliate. The lack of control of the Provisional Government over the peasants reinforces that they failed to efficiently handle opposition. Additionally, severe shortages of food and fuel were unable to be amended due to the continuation of the war. This meant that factories couldn’t run properly which led to worker strikes; a physical demonstration of the workers’ resentment. Due to the dire economic situation, workers were culled which merely led to additional strikes. Finally, the Provisional Government, similarly to Nicholas II, failed to give the workers eight-hour days which led to the workers leaving in protest after eight hours into shift. The eventual usurpation of the Provisional Government suggests its weakness made its downfall inevitable.

To conclude, Stalin was the most successful ruler in dealing with mass opposition between 1855 and 1964. Stalin’s expansion of Leninist policies led him to be able to crush any opposition that threatened his position. Pipes said that ‘Stalin was a true Leninist’ . Stalin pushed repression and reform further than Lenin and by doing so, fully eliminated opposition.
Nicholas II’s waves of repression were not enough to control the crowds. This, combined with the Tsar’s attachment to the autocracy made him unable to fully rid opposition. The eventual execution of the Tsar in 1918 shows the extensive opposition that wasn’t dealt with.


Thurston Tucker Conquest Getty

The perception of Stalin and his repressive method has divided historians. The views of R. W. Thurston in his book Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, and those portrayed in the work of R. C. Tucker in The Soviet Political Mind: Studies in Stalinism and Post-Stalin Change, reflect the contrasting views that exist amongst historians.

R. W. Thurston argues that Stalin’s violent events were not intended to and did not, in fact, spread fear and terror throughout the Soviet population, but rather were carried out against perceived enemies with the support and often the active participation of the Soviet population. Thurston denies that the Great Terror of 1937-1938 was a series of acts of random violence and writes that the main targets of Stalin’s regime were the elite -not the entire population at large.

Stalin’s fear for the safety of the nation spread throughout his comrades in the Central Committee. Thurston agrees with this and writes that the secret police functionaries ‘tortured and shot largely because they felt they had to get to the bottom of a huge conspiracy that threatened the nation’
Ironically, the intellectuals and others vulnerable to arrest believed in the Stalinist system, agreeing that the arrests of possible conspirators were necessary, even if their own arrests were a mistake. Finally, argues Thurston, the mass of workers had faith in the regime which gave them opportunities to move out of the village and to have a voice in production decisions and in criticizing their bosses (p. 192).


Stalin was relatively successful in dealing with opposition from the military. In 1936 and 1937, at the orders of Stalin, thousands of Red Army senior officers were dismissed from their commands, on the pretence that they were opposition. The purges had the objective of cleansing the Red Army of the “politically unreliable elements,” mainly among higher-ranking officers. Many army, corps, and divisional commanders were discharged: most were imprisoned or sent to labor camps; others were executed. Despite the purges significantly impairing the combat capabilities of the Red Army, Stalin targeted those who caused him suspicion, hence decreasing future opposition. Hoyt concludes “the Soviet defence system was damaged to the point of incompetence” and stresses “the fear in which high officers lived.” Clark says, “Stalin not only cut the heart out of the army, he also gave it brain damage.” By 1940, Stalin began to relent and restored approximately one-third of previously dismissed officers.

The Kronstadt Manifesto criticised the corrupt living of the Bolshevik bosses and the mass executions that were taking place. Similarly to Nicholas II, Lenin was determined that the army should be called to brutally crush the rebellion

Unlike Stalin, the Provisional Government failed to successfully deal with opposition from soldiers. As the Provisional Government refused to leave the war, desertions increased, resulting in the formation of death squads to hunt down and execute deserters. The Provisional Government, rather than focusing on external enemies, created more internal enemies. The soldiers consequently came to loathe the Provisional Government. This hatred was demonstrated in September 1917 when Kornilov ordered his troops to march on Petrograd. This increased the popularity of the Bolsheviks amongst the public. With many units of armed soldiers being under the control of the Bolsheviks, the Provisional Government’s downfall was inevitable.

The number of Russians killed or wounded in World War I is now estimated at between 7.3 and 8.5 million, excluding losses due to illness or civilian casualty.


Stalin was successful in dealing with political opposition. Stalin’s employment of police repression against opposition within the Communist Party helped him secure absolute power, thus aiding him in ruling as an unchallenged, supreme leader.

Stalin initially rid all of the original Bolsheviks that participated in the Revolution of 1917 to be certain that no opposition could arise.

The targeting and execution of powerful individuals, such as Trotsky, helped Stalin consolidate his power and hence eliminate potential opposition. Stalin used the death of Kirov to conduct Moscow trials that consequently wiped out many of Stalin’s rivals and critics. For example, after Bukharin opposed Stalin’s policy of collectivisation, his rapid industrialisation at the expense of the peasantry, Stalin made sure to have him killed. After Ryutin accused him of being an evil genius in a 200 page indictment, Stalin made sure to eliminate him. From 1933 to1934, one million people were expelled from the Party on the basis that they were Ryutinists.

Stalin’s ruthlessness can be seen through Rykov’s pleading letter to Stalin in March, 1938:

On March 13… condemned me to death by shooting. I ask for clemency. My guilt before the party and the country is great, but I have a passionate desire… enough strength to expiate it… not a completely corrupt person… many years of noble, honest work for the revolution…
I ask that you spare my life.

The source is valuable as despite Rykov’s imploring, Stalin went ahead, mercilessly, and executed him.

There is much debate over whether or not Stalin arranged the murder. Thurston argues that:

Stalin secretly arranged the murder, which ostensibly benefitted him in several ways….it removed a dangerous leader and provided the means to frighten the whole country.

Amy Knight reflects on the companionship of Stalin and Kirov, stating that:

‘since the death of Stalin’s wife…. Kirov had become an indispensable companion to Stalin, vacationing with him in the South and even having the rare privilege (given Stalin’s extreme self-consciousness about his physical appearance) of accompanying him to the sauna. Though separated by hundreds of kilometres, they talked often on the telephone…’

Kirov’s humanity stands out especially in comparison to Stalin, in the pre-revolutionary period. In a 1911 letter to Mariia L’vovna from prison, Kirov described an execution and his own reaction to it:

What a terrible mood I am in! I have good reason to suppose that tonight I will witness a nightmarish, simply horrible event. It seems that I am just about to hear the sound of the executioner’s axe…. When you are free you do not experience a horror like this so directly. Here when such a ‘routine event’ occurs almost in front of your eyes—it is indescribably difficult. But how boundless is the human soul! People get used to such executions and carry them out with amazing indifference.

Stalin, by contrast, was said to have little reaction to the executions that went on when he was in prison before the revolution. Isaac Deutscher said that “In the tension of such moments, Koba [Stalin] would, if an eyewitness is to be believed, fall sound asleep, astonishing his comrades by his strong nerves, or else he would go on with his unsuccessful attempt to master the intricacies of German grammar.”

Yezhov didn’t seem too worried if a few innocent people were murdered in his ‘meatgrinder’, remarking: ‘If during this operation an extra thousand people will be shot, that isn’t such a big deal.’

Most Russians blamed him for the Great Terror, just as Stalin wanted it. Inevitably, the dictator turned on him and liquidated him in his turn.

Stalin conducted mass murders of political prisoners performed by the Soviet secret political police, the NKVD, in 1941.

1. The chistka of 1932-35 where over 20% of party members were expelled non-violently.

2. The show trials which saw old Bolsheviks publicly tried and executed.

3. The Great Terror of 1937-38 when 1000s of party members, officials, armed force and professionals were denounced, arrested and executed.

4. There was also signs of opposition within the Politburo. In 1932, former Moscow Party Secretary, Ryutin, circulated a 200-page document highly critical of Stalin.

5. He called Stalin ‘the evil genius of the Russian revolution’. Referring to his ‘personal dictatorship’, he urged Stalin’s removal, and the end to collectivisation.

Stalin had eliminated all likely potential opposition to his leadership by late 1934 and was the unchallenged leader of both party and state. Nevertheless, he proceeded to purge the party rank and file and to terrorize the entire country with widespread arrests and executions. During the ensuing Great Terror, which included the notorious show trials of Stalin’s former Bolshevik opponents in 1936-1938 and reached its peak in 1937 and 1938, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or killed in prison.

By the time the terror subsided in 1939, Stalin had managed to bring both the party and the public to a state of complete submission to his rule. Soviet society was so atomized and the people so fearful of reprisals that mass arrests were no longer necessary. Stalin ruled as absolute dictator of the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953.


Alexander III was less successful than Stalin in dealing with political opposition and intelligentsia. Alexander III’s malleable personality led Pobedonostev to manipulate the Tsar into believing that the political parties were subversive, illegitimate and corrupt. He therefore made no distinction between supporters and revolutionaries. The Tsar’s accession was during a period in need of reform, especially after his father, Alexander II, was assassinated by the People’s Will. The dire social and economic state of Russia contributed to the instability of the regime, thus it was necessary for Alexander III to preserve his power and eliminate any opposition that could jeopardise his autocratic power.

The Tsar’s short-term methods, such as taking control of the press and restricting its freedom (fourteen major newspapers were banned from 1882-9 for displaying liberal ideas) meant that political opposition could not enforce beliefs on Russia through articles, hence strengthening the position of the Tsar. Additionally, the Okhrana preserved stability by censoring all foreign material that Russia imported as well as arresting and executing those who posed as opposition. Consequently, political ideologies such as democracy and the concept of parliamentary government were prevented from influencing citizens. Despite Alexander III’s repressive measures, there was a strong underground political movement existing still. Overall, Alexander III’s repressive measures were short term successful, as Populism was in decline and Marxism was in infancy, however, in the long term his methods didn’t solve anything, therefore, Alexander III failed to eliminate opposition and ultimately left Russia in a conflicted state for his son, Nicholas II.

Nicholas II was more successful than Alexander III at restraining political opposition yet failed to achieve Stalin’s elimination of them.

Nicholas II’s commitment to the policies of his ‘unforgettable dead father’, along with his education from Pobedonostev led him to fail to provide Russia with the reform it needed. Nicholas II’s response to 1905 revolution of the October Manifesto and Fundamental Laws which provided legal recognition of political parties and the establishment of a broad franchise to give them popular credibility, temporarily satisfied the Revolution. Nicholas II consequently did everything in his favour to revert the changes and nullify the concessions he had granted. This demonstrates the Tsar’s weakness in having to satisfy the demands of the Revolution.

Post 1905, Nicholas II prevented the newly formed parties from exerting any direct role in government and constrained their influence over legislation in the Duma which indicates that his handling of political opposition was more successful. The Tsar’s government survived attacks by constitutional democrats and radical parties in between 1906 and 1907 by dissolving first and second dumas. Additionally, the control in ensuring that the Third and Fourth Dumas were dominated by parties right of centre meant that Nicholas II had more control over the political parties. With the Union of Russian People aiming to strengthen Tsarist autocracy by destroying the party system altogether, Nicholas II’s handing of political opposition was more successful.

During the First World War, however, political parties recoiled against the Tsar and channelled a path towards the new regime. Radicals weaved their plan of overthrowing the Tsar from 1915. SRs and Mensheviks March 1917 uprising. Kadets and Octobrists: alienated by autocracy that they formed a Progressive Bloc within the Duma. By 1916 it had become the main constitutional basis for opposition and resistance to the regime.

Nicholas II failed to prevent the Kadets and Octobrists from rising up in Duma to form Provisional Committee with their purpose to seize power through the Provisional Government.

Alexander III and Nicholas II (at first), drove political parties into introspection and suspicion by making them illegal. Radical parties became increasingly revolutionary which led to the downfall of the Tsarist regime.

Nicholas II’s efficient use of the Okhrana in arresting the leading members of the League of Liberation.

In one respect, Alexander III and Nicholas II were largely successful between 1881 and 1904 as no dilution of autocratic power took place. This period, however, saw a remarkable growth for revolutionary groups. For example, the Populists formed the Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1900 which was to launch a campaign of political activism and targeted assassinations. Additionally, the RSDLP divided to form the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903. Despite the illusion of Alexander III and Nicholas II preventing opposition from impeding their autocratic power, beneath the surface, networks of opposing powers were forming. These parties would go on to threaten the whole integrity of Tsarist power, hence, can be seen as the foundation for the collapse of tsarism. Despite the efficiency of the Okhrana delaying the detrimental impact of the political parties on tsarism, the political parties were only temporarily prevented from hindering the system of tsarism, therefore, it can be seen that Alexander III and Nicholas II failed to efficiently eliminate opposition.


Alexander II failed to effectively deal with opposition. The likes of the intelligentsia and Populist movements grew throughout the reign, becoming more and more revolutionary. It was widely felt among the intelligentsia that the reforms of the 1860s had not gone far enough. The regime faced an insoluble dilemma in that it saw the need for reform but was unprepared to face the inevitable consequences of further demands, as this would lead to the end of an autocracy. This culminated in a student uprising at the University of Moscow. Alexander II’s effective handling of the situation (conducting mass arrests and closing the university from 1861 to 1863) was beneficial. Furthermore, the emancipation of the surfs and additional reforms led to raised expectations and paved the way for greater demands.

The intelligentsia was responsible for the first attempted assassination of the Tsar in 1866 which led the Tsar to stop reforming Russia, and ultimately increased opposition from the Populists.

The Tsar’s attempt to increase restriction through the Censorship Laws was ineffective as radical texts such as Chernyshevski’s ‘what is to be done?’ were still published. The Tsar’s Third Section, responsible for the removal of political opposition was infiltrated by the People’s Will. This demonstrates the ineffective nature of the Tsar’s institutions as they were infested by opposition. Alexander II’s reforms merely stoked the fire of opposition. The fact that the Tsar was assassinated demonstrates that the Tsar did not deal with political opposition effectively. The external circumstances of Alexander II’s accession to the throne partly inhibited him from successfully implementing policies as Russia had become too radical but his weak leadership and inability to satisfy the demands of his people led to his downfall.

Compared with all the other rulers, the Provisional Government was the least effective in dealing with political opposition. The main reason for excessive opposition was the Provisional Government’s continuation of war. The Provisional Government was too moderate and too indecisive to effectively deal with opposition. By abolishing the Okhrana and press censorship, and allowing political freedom, it gave the government’s opponents, such as Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the ability to thrive. The Bolsheviks eventual usurpation of the Provisional Government demonstrates the inefficient handling of political opposition by the Provisional Government.

The coercive, repressive, dictatorial rule between 1929 – 1953 was managed by a man who believed that death acts as the solution to all problems; ‘no man – no problem.’ This conventional view of Stalin often overlooks a possible humane side to Stalin. Stalin, speaking about his late first wife said ‘this creature softened my heart of stone. She dies and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.’

Stalin’s Cult of Personality spread the image of Stalin as a ‘symbol of the Party’. Nikolai Bukharin was asked in 1933 why he and the other Party members had entrusted the leadership to such a ‘devil’ as Stalin. Bukharin replied:

You do not understand… he was not trusted, but he was the man whom the Party trusted… he is like the symbol of the Party… the people trust him… that is why we all walked into his jaws… knowing probably that he would devour us.


To conclude, Stalin was the most successful Russian ruler from 1855 to 1964 at dealing with opposition. Stalin effected the greatest transformation in terms of how Russia was to be governed in practice; he identified opponents even before they became opponents. Stalin directed art towards the celebration of the Communist State to form his own Cult of Personality. Lenin fundamentally changed the country’s philosophy but Stalin developed the groundwork to install great fundamental changes to Russian society.


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