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Joseph Stalin

Civil War and Consolidation

The Coming of the Revolution

The Struggle for Power

In November 1917 the Bolsheviks held St. Petersburg and little else, but they moved quickly to consolidate their power. They broke up the first (and only) meeting of the Constituent Assembly, a democratically elected body that had been viewed as the legitimate Russian government, in January 1918. Two months later, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, taking Russia out of World War I, and transferred their capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow. And in March, they declared themselves the Communist Party, and it was under this name that they would govern Russia for seventy years.

But their hold on power was hardly secure--after all, the Bolsheviks were still little more than a revolutionary clique, and Russia was a vast empire. For the next three years, Lenin and his followers fought a confused civil war against two different sets of enemies: firstly, against soldiers sent by foreign powers (Britain and the U.S. among them) to stamp out the Revolution, and secondly against the so-called "Whites," a loose collection of armies united only by their opposition to the Bolshevik "Reds." A number of times during these years, the Communist cause seemed lost, but the White and foreign armies failed to work together, and many of the White leaders terrorized and alienated the peasantry. Red tactics were, if anything, even more appalling--these were the years of the Red Terror, carried out under the orders of Trotsky, whose ruthless military genius constituted the guiding force behind the Red Army.

Thousands were massacred for opposing the Bolsheviks; thousands more for simply belonging to the wrong class. Marxism's doctrine of "class warfare," previously purely theoretical, took on a terrible reality, as the dreaded secret police, the "Cheka," branded all "bourgeois" as enemies of the revolution; actions reputedly in defiance of the Tsars' oppression--including the murder, on July 16, 1918, of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family--in fact reached heights of horror far transcending the Tsars' worst excesses. Similarly, the economic policies pursued by Lenin, involving massive seizures of food and supplies from the peasantry, only exacerbated the suffering, and eventually led to the terrible famine of 1921, in which nearly five million people died. Only then did the government finally restore a limited market economy to the countryside, calling it the New Economic Policy (N.E.P.).

Stalin served as People's Commissar for Nationalities during the civil war years, and together with Lenin, promulgated a "Decree on Nationality" promising the right of self-determination to all ethnic minorities within Russia. However, the decree was nothing more than empty propaganda--the Bolsheviks had no intention of breaking up the Russian Empire. Meanwhile, as one of the highest-ranking Bolsheviks, Stalin was given a military command and shuttled from one crisis spot to another as the struggle with the Whites raged on. Later, official Soviet history would describe him as a brilliant commander, and a number of independent historians have accepted this verdict. But the facts indicate a more mixed success: Stalin won a number of undeniable victories, notably in halting a joint White-British advance from the north against St. Petersburg in June 1919, but in the defense of Tsaritsyn, a city in southern Russia, he feuded with Trotsky and refused to follow orders, and while the city did not fall to the Whites, Stalin seems to have committed a number of tactical blunders. Later, Soviet writings portrayed the Tsaritsyn campaign as a great triumph, and Tsaritsyn itself was Stalingrad to reflect this version of events--but in fact, Stalin's own ego seems to have repeatedly stood in the way of military success.

It was during this period (the exact date is uncertain) that Stalin married his young secretary, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, the daughter of a family that he had known during his years in Georgia. In 1921, she bore Stalin his second child, Vasily, and the new sense of political tranquility perhaps allowed Stalin to spend some time with his new family: with the defeat of the Whites and the withdrawal of the foreign armies, peace finally prevailed over much of Russia. The Communist Party now moved to recover the regions that had broken away during the Revolution and the civil war. As Commissar for Nationalities, Stalin traveled around eastern Russia, through areas that the Red Army was bringing under Moscow's control. One of these breakaway regions was his native Georgia, where a Menshevik-led government had taken control. The Red Army rolled across the Georgian border in February 1921, with Stalin supervising operations, and resistance collapsed quickly--by summer, his native land was under Bolshevik rule. His arrival there to address the local Communist Party marked his first return in nine years; many Georgians received him angrily, regarding him as a traitor. But if he felt any guilt, he did not show it; indeed, Stalin's desire to keep his birthplace under an iron fist led to his only major dispute with Lenin during 1920 and '21--Lenin favored a more lenient approach.

By 1922, it was clear that Stalin and Trotsky disliked each other strongly, and that after Lenin's death they would come into conflict with one another. And Lenin's death was suddenly a pressing concern, for the Bolshevik leader suffered a stroke in May of '22, and from then on began a slow decline. Stalin had recently been elected General Secretary of the Party's Central Committee, and during 1922, Lenin seems to have become concerned over his protégé's growing influence over the expanding Soviet bureaucracy. At the same time, the two men's diverging views on the Georgian issue took on larger significance: the Politburo was laying plans for a formal constitution that would define the relationship between Russia and the other Communist Party-ruled regions (such as Georgia). Stalin and Kamenev believed all the other nationalities should be strictly subordinated to Russia, but they were overruled by Lenin, who insisted on constitutional equality in the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). (In practice, however, this official equality would have no meaning.) Thus, ironically, the Georgian-born dictator would prove a fierce Russian nationalist.

But he was not dictator yet, and as Lenin slipped toward the grave, suffering a series of strokes in the winter of 1922, he began to have serious doubts about Stalin's trustworthiness. In December of that year, he dictated a Testament, in which he warned of a coming conflict between Trotsky and Stalin, and expressed his preference for Trotsky, suggesting that his fellow Communists remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary, claiming he was temperamentally unsuited for the job. Meanwhile Stalin, who was supervising Lenin's medical care, knew his leader's views and was harshly reprimanding Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, for allowing her bedridden husband to write a letter to Trotsky. Lenin would not learn of this incident until March of 1923, at which point he demanded an apology from Stalin and threatened to break off relations with him. At the same time, he and Trotsky were discussing the possibility of purging the Stalin- controlled bureaucracy, and had ordered an investigation into Stalin's handling of recent disturbances in Georgia. Stalin's power--and probably his life--hung by a thread.

Had Lenin lived, he and Trotsky would have likely brought down Stalin, who lacked the resources to stand up to the two of them as a unit. But even as Stalin was composing a careful apology for the incident with Krupskaya, Lenin suffered a final stroke on March 7, 1923. He would live until January of the following year, but he would never recover the power of speech. With Lenin gone, the struggle for power commenced in earnest.

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