Life in the USSR Under Stalin: Nationalities & Culture

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Joseph Stalin molded the polyethnic USSR in his own image. This lesson explores Stalin's relationship with the USSR's ethnic groups and his overall impact on Russian culture and society before WWII.

Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin sought to create a new communist state out of the remains of the old tsarist state. Tsarist Russia was composed of Russians, plus dozens of ethnic minorities who, after the revolution, could start advocating for self-determination. Joseph Stalin was an important member of Vladimir Lenin's inner circle and, as such, Lenin named Stalin the Commissar of Nationalities, a position Stalin held from 1917 to 1923. Lenin saw Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, as the perfect choice to work with the ethnic minorities that had lived under the tsarist government. At first, Lenin and Stalin believed that the various ethnic minorities had the right to self-determination. But as it became clear that many minorities did not want to join the U.S.S.R. voluntarily, Lenin and Stalin argued that self-determination only applied to socialist states. Thus, they coerced the various ethnic nationalities into joining the U.S.S.R. and instituted a centralized state similar to tsarist Russia. But while these states would become part of a larger Soviet collective, Stalin allowed and even encouraged local languages, customs, and religions. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin engaged in a series of power struggles with his rivals in the Soviet government that would last over a decade. Nevertheless, he quickly began building toward his distinct vision of Soviet society with a series of economic, agricultural, and cultural reforms in the late 1920s.

Industry and Agriculture under Stalin

Stalin sought to jump-start the Russian economy with an aggressive industrial and agricultural program, launching the first of several Five-Year Plans in 1928. These Five-Year Plans were successful in the long-term, as they prepared Soviet industry for World War Two and the Cold War. But for Soviet citizens, the Five-Year Plans caused massive socioeconomic disruption and suffering. The first Five-Year Plan called for a 250% increase in overall industrial development, the nationalization of industries, and the construction of thousands of new industrial plants. The second, third, and fourth Five-Year Plans (1933-37, 1938-42, and 1946-53 respectively) focused on arming the Soviet Union for World War Two and the Cold War. These Five-Year Plans placed particular emphasis on heavy industry, but this led to massive shortages in consumer goods.

This 1933 poster from Uzbekistan (strengthen working discipline in collective farms) shows Soviet propaganda at work in a non-Russian region.
Collectivization propaganda

A similar disruption in everyday life occurred in agriculture. The state absorbed individual farms into collective farms with the goal of providing surplus grain to industrial workers in the cities. Many farmers resisted forced relocation and, in some cases, the state cracked down on peasant families. In particular, Stalin targeted wealthy peasants, known as kulaks. Over 5 million kulaks were deported. Peasant resistance and the agricultural disruptions caused by collectivization helped lead to a terrible famine in 1932-33 that caused millions of deaths. Despite the peasant resistance and famine, by 1940 the state had successfully collectivized around 97% of peasant farms.

Socialist Realism and Culture under Stalin

In the process of consolidating and maintaining his power, Stalin built a cult of personality around himself and conducted purges of his perceived enemies. One of the worst purges, in the late 1930s, was known as The Great Terror. While purges and repression had occurred throughout the entirety of Stalin's rule, the repression of the Great Terror was on a much higher scale. Starting with the 1934 murder of Sergei Kirov, a popular Communist party official and Stalin opponent, Stalin unleashed his secret police force, the NKVD, upon anyone suspected of treason. Communist Party officials and soldiers in the Red Army, along with thousands of civilians, were denounced for crimes and either executed outright or sent to the Gulag, Soviet forced-labor camps. Stalin also organized youth movements - the Komsomol and the Young Pioneers. These youth groups encouraged loyalty to Stalin and the denunciation of anyone suspected of treason, including family members. The NKVD and organizations like the Komsomol relied on the force of the police and the fear of denunciation to enforce loyalty, but Stalin also pushed certain cultural tenets to solidify his power over the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens.

This poster, taken from Azerbaijan in 1938, shows off the Socialist Realist style alongside the motifs of military and industrial might.
Stalin propaganda.

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