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The Interwar Years (1919-1938)

The Soviet Union During the Inter-War Years (1924-1935)

Attempts at Reconciliation and Disarmament (1921-1930)

Eastern Europe During the Inter-War Years (1919-1938)


The Soviet Union was the first totalitarian state to establish itself after World War One. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin seized power in the Russian Revolution, establishing a single-party dictatorship under the Bolsheviks. After suffering a series of strokes, Lenin died on January 21, 1924, with no clear path of succession. The obvious choice, to many, was Leon Trotsky, who had headed the Military Revolutionary Committee that had carried out the Bolshevik Revolution. He had been a high-ranking member of the party throughout Lenin's time in power, and was considered by many to be the Communist Party's foremost Marxist theorist, but was also considered aloof and cold by many party members.

Trotsky's main competition for power was Joseph Stalin. Stalin had been involved in the Communist Party since before the Revolution. He served under Lenin as commissar for nationalities, and in 1923 became general secretary of the party. Lenin supported Trotsky over Stalin as his successor, claiming Stalin was "too rude" to lead the government. However, Stalin's position as general secretary allowed him to manipulate the party structure and place his supporters in crucial positions throughout the party, ultimately insuring his victory.

During the struggle for power an ideological rift began to open between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky advocated 'permanent world revolution,' claiming that the Soviet Union should strive continuously to encourage proletarian revolutions throughout the world. Stalin contrasted Trotsky's view with a 'socialism in one country' message, which stressed the consolidation of the communist regime within the Soviet Union, and concentration on domestic developments and improvements before looking to world revolution. This rift, combined with Stalin's rise to power as party leader, sealed Trotsky's fate. By 1927, Trotsky had lost his position on the Central Committee, and was expelled from the party. He fled to Turkey, and eventually to Mexico, where he was killed in 1940 by a Stalinist agent.

His main opposition gone, Stalin consolidated power, demonstrating his independence. In 1928 he abandoned Lenin's economic policy and installed a system of central planning, which dictated everything from where factories should be built to how farmers should plant their crops. He allocated natural resources for heavy industrial development, at the expense of consumer products, believing that heavy industry would be the foundation of the profitable state. Simultaneously, Stalin introduced a policy of collectivization, under which were created governmentally owned and operated farms in which peasants pooled their lands. The more well off peasant class, the kulaks, rebelled against collectivization. Stalin would accept no resistance, and initiated a reign of terror during 1929 and 1930, during which as many as 3 million were killed.

During the 1930s, Stalin sought to eliminate all barriers to his complete and total exercise of power. In 1933, he created the Central Purge Commission, which publicly investigated and tried members of the Communist Party for treason. In 1933 and 1934, 1,140,000 members were expelled from the party. Between 1933 and 1938, thousands were arrested and expelled, or shot, including about 25 percent of the army officer corps. 1108 of the 1966 delegates attending the 1934 Communist Party Congress were arrested, and of the 139 members of the Central Committee, 98 were shot. Many longstanding and prominent party members were tried. In all cases, the defendants were forced to confess publicly, and then were shot.


Historians disagree over whether or not totalitarianism is an inherent aspect of Marxist-Leninist theory, or whether Joseph Stalin, as many claim, deviated from the true tenets of Marxism-Leninism in constructing his government. Most can agree, however, that the Marxist idea of "dictatorship of the proletariat" enabled the rise of the totalitarian state. Whether or not there was an aspect of totalitarianism inherent in Lenin's philosophy, he never consolidated power to the same extent as Stalin did. Indeed, upon his deathbed, dictating his last testament, Lenin decried the dictatorial nature of his government and expressed the fear that in the wrong hands, totalitarianism could be used in a manner antagonistic to the masses, for which the government was intended to work.

Despite these misgivings, Lenin's rule no doubt set the stage for Stalin's complete totalitarianism. Though his publicly stated philosophy was government by local councils, called soviets, true power rested securely in the hands of the Central Committee alone. The party controlled the police (official and secret), the army, and the bureaucracy. Stalin capitalized on this power to a much greater extent after coming to power.

Lenin had some sense that this might happen, and expressed his doubts in his 'political testament.' Both candidates to succeed him had impressive histories and credentials. However, Lenin expressed doubts about Stalin, fearing he would abuse the power concentrated in his hands. Though he clearly preferred Trotsky, and praised him as "the most able man in the present Central Committee," he expressed reservations about Trotsky's overconfident nature, and thought that perhaps Trotsky was too interested in the administrative side of government to be an effective practical leader.

The success of Stalin's 'communism in one country' philosophy was both the result of, and a cause for, the spirit of nationalism, which was prominent in many of the nations of Europe following the First World War. Destroyed through interactions with the other nations of the continent, many nations chose to recede from international affairs and concentrate on reversing the demoralizing effects of the war. Though Stalin would have been hard-pressed to convince the Soviet people that he could lead communism in the eradication of all of the problems of the world, he did a fair job of convincing them that under his leadership, communism could address the problems of his country, which when it had grown in strength, could then effect global change. This type of moral argument for nationalism was typical of the political leaders of the inter-war period. This nationalism translated easily into many facets of totalitarianism, including the elimination of dissent, the demand for uniformity, and the destruction of individualism as the individual was overshadowed by the united nation.

Stalin's economic policies enjoyed only limited success. Industrialization proved to be a somewhat effective policy, though it proceeded along a different path and schedule than Stalin had planned. In any case, under Stalin the Soviet Union made many advances in technology and heavy industry, and the country benefited from these. However, agricultural policies never achieved the goal of self-sufficiency, and the Soviet Union continued to import crops and heavily subsidize agriculture. Doubtless, the slaughter of 3 million kulaks helped the situation very little. However, Stalin's main focus during the 1930s was consolidating power and eliminating rivals, two tasks at which he proved greatly successful.

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