Stalin and Propaganda
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Established as one of the most authoritative and intimidating rulers to have ever walked the face of the Earth, Joseph Stalin was the unmatched communist leader of the Soviet Union for nearly three decades. His regime of fear and terror took the lives of millions, and the implementation of harsh commanding methods consolidated his supreme control over the nation. From 1924 to 1940, the key elements involved in Stalin’s dictatorial regime over the Soviet Union were political propaganda and the accumulation of fear. These aspects resulted in additional governing procedures; the acute censorship of the media and education, and use of the secret police. Together, these components of Stalin’s rule enabled him to manipulate Russian society and therefore maintain his supreme authority over the Soviet Union.
Communist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, was Stalin’s predecessor in the leadership of Bolshevik Communist Party; a leadership which lasted from the early 1900’s until Lenin died in 1924. After the armed takeover of the government in 1917, Lenin was accompanied by Leon Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Communist Party became the governing body of Russia. At this point, Stalin had been of little significance regarding the Party’s political growth, and ultimately was not considered to be a symbolic member of the Bolshevik faction.
Trotsky described him as the Party’s most “eminent mediocrity” and historian Chris Truman states that “Stalin was seen as ‘dull’ and ‘uninteresting’ by the intellectual elite”. In corroboration, Dennett and Dixon convey that “Stalin was not an intellectual and had no strong talents in the areas of writing or speaking”, and further describe Stalin’s major role within the Party as one of organisation and practicality, rather than leadership. These qualities, however, were not wasted as Lenin recognised Stalin as a hard-working and organised member of the Party, and as a result Stalin was able to ascend the Party’s ranks.
On becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, Stalin utilised his power and organisational skills to constitute a substantial foothold in the ladder of political hierarchy by appointing his own supporters into prominent political positions. This evidence, provided by Greer and Darlington, shows that Stalin was, in fact, not an ‘eminent mediocrity’, but rather a skilled, politically cunning, manipulator; a trait which would come to light during the bitter power struggle with Trotsky following the death of Lenin, and Stalin’s subsequent rule over the Soviet Union; a rule which would prevail mercilessly for over a quarter of a century, and result in the death and suffering of tens of millions.
One of the most evident adaptations of authority into a physical entity is propaganda; a form of communication aimed at changing or influencing the attitude of a community by using one-sided information. Propaganda exists purely to swing the opinion of the masses in order for the most desired outcome. Under Stalin’s watchful eye, the Soviet propaganda messages fluctuated with the ever-changing wishes of the government, and enabled the production of a personality cult; a term which implies a concentration of power into a single leader through amplified, flattering popular culture, and copious propaganda campaigns.
Greer and Darlington articulate that ‘the adulation of Stalin, known as the personality cult, began in the late 1920’s but became fully developed after 1933, lasting until his death in 1953’.The cult of personality forced censorship upon the media, arts and education system, while simultaneously manufacturing a glorified image of Stalin and marginalising those who opposed him. This type of propaganda campaign successfully enabled Stalin to be displayed as an omnipresent, god-like leader who was the strong, yet paternal, saviour of the Soviet state. The propaganda machine played a large part in Stalin’s possession of power, as it left no room for other opinions or views. This extreme censorship disabled any attempt of social anarchy due to the limited span of information that was fed to the Russian people.
The initiation of Stalin’s propaganda machine was fundamental for the gain and maintenance of his control over the Soviet Union. Prior to the complete development of the personality cult, basic propaganda was manipulated into all forms which were perceptible by the eyes and ears of Soviet society. The intense propaganda regime began shortly after the death of Lenin, where Stalin “spent the first part of his reign marginalizing his rival, Leon Trotsky” in the attempt of presenting himself as Lenin’s true heir; an attempt which proved successful in 1928. After outmanoeuvring his rivals, Stalin’s propaganda messages were altered to focus heavily on uniting and encouraging the people to actively participate in the radical realignment of
the USSR’s industrial, economic and political positions. It was at this point that the cult of personality slowly crawled into the conventional life of the average Soviet citizen.
“Stalin’s image came to dominate everyday life in the Soviet Union” during the time of the personality cult, and it was the constant bombardment of Stalin’s image and voice that played a leading role in cementing his position of power. Buildings, homes and workplaces were covered in portraits of Stalin, “who was referred to as the ‘Granite Bolshevik’ and ‘Supreme Genius of Humanity”. Through the personality cult, Stalin’s relationship with Lenin and his limited roles within the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution were greatly exaggerated in order to link Stalin’s image with all things positive, and “laud him as the inspiration of a nation”. American novelist, John Steinbeck, commented on the prolific measures of propaganda during his visit to the Soviet Union in the 1940’s; “Everything in the Soviet Union takes place under the fixed stare of the plaster, bronze, drawn or embroidered eye of Stalin.
His portrait does not just hang in every museum, but in a museum’s every room. Statues of him dignify the façade of every public building. His bust stands in front of all airports, railways and bus stations… he is everywhere, he sees everything”. Stalin’s reliance on propaganda was rudimentary for the reinforcement of his authority, and visual propaganda was advantageous in formulating an indestructible leadership. However, visual propaganda was not the only form of publication Stalin used. The application of censored, propaganda-based radio was prolific in the manipulation of Russian society, and proved to be especially useful in spanning the propaganda campaign to the vast population who were illiterate.
This is consolidated by Alexander Avdeyenki, a steelworker during the time of Stalin’s rule; “Day and night, radio told us that Stalin was the greatest man on earth-the greatest statesman, the father of the nation, the genius of all time ”. Films, art and literature were controlled by the government, and their subject matter was warped to highlight Stalin’s importance. Extreme pressure was put on artists and writers to follow strict, governmental guidelines, and film-makers were shot if communism was not accentuated in their films.
The education system provided a bridge between Stalin’s communist ideologies and the youth of the Soviet Union, and school played the crucial role of
moulding the thoughts of children. Historian John Phillips states, “Education became a tool for indoctrination”, and Orlando Figes quotes a schooling theorist in his text The Whispers: Private Live in Stalin’s Russia; “We must make the young into a generation of Communists. Children, like soft wax, are very malleable and they should be moulded into good Communists”. One major step along the educational bridge between communism and Russia’s youth was the inclusion of falsified biographical and historical information into the curriculum, in order to illustrate Stalin as the true inheritor of Lenin’s legacy, and belittle his enemies. Stalin literally re-wrote historical facts in order to accentuate himself.
These measures ensured the indoctrination of the next generation was thorough, and was another defining aspect in the maintenance of Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union. Propaganda, in all its forms, was used to ultimately force the average Soviet citizen to picture reality through spectacles warped and distorted with Stalin’s communist viewpoints. It is suggested by historian Stephen Phillips that “any support for Stalin was, according to the traditional view of Western historians, imposed through the Soviet regime’s excessive use of propaganda”. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the difference between true and propaganda-constructed support for the Communist Party. Nevertheless, the propaganda machine played a vital role in solidifying Stalin’s authority during his vicious reign over the USSR.
Hand in hand with propaganda was the accumulation of fear within the Party and citizenry; an element of Stalin’s rule which was achieved during the Great Purge and the increased use of the secret police unit. The purging of the Communist Party was not introduced under Stalin, but had been common practise to the faction since the 1917 revolution. Under the eyes of Lenin, suspect party members, “would hand in their membership cards for ‘routine checking’ and would simply not have them returned”.
Under the control of Stalin, however, the Great Purges “unleashed terror inside the party, which then engulfed people in the wider society in a further wave of terror”. Additionally, the secret police unit was first established under Lenin, and was known as the ‘Cheka’. In 1922, the OPGU replaced the Cheka and assisted Stalin in the deportation and execution of the millions who resisted the industrialisation and farm land collectivisation processes. In 1934, the OPGU and its duties were engulfed into the newly formed NKVD, which was granted unrestricted control.
In the early 1930’s, Stalin’s position of power became vulnerable. Discontent and fear of social disorder arose within the Communist Party as a result of the harsh industrialisation processes, and people began questioning Stalin’s authority. Sergi Kirov, who was seen by Stalin as a political rival, was murdered in 1934 following his strong impression made at the Seventeenth Party Congress. Many historians believe his assassination was planned by Stalin, but strong conclusions cannot be met due to the elusiveness of the evidence for this claim. However, it is no doubt that Kirov’s assassination was beneficial to Stalin, as it was a defining act which allowed the escalation of a full scale purge of the Communist Party, the armed forces and the ‘normal’ citizens of the USSR.
“Stalin was quick to exploit the situation. Within two hours of learning of Kirov’s murder, he had signed a Decree against Terrorist Acts”. The decree allowed the arrest, trial and execution of anyone labelled as an ‘enemy of the people’; a vague term which “could be applied to anybody, covering any supposed offence that the authorities chose”. The Decree against Terrorist Acts was a law which ultimately placed boundless power into the hands of a ruthless dictator. This was a turning point in Stalin’s draconian rule, as the train of control and destruction now had another driving force alongside propaganda; absolute fear.
The time from 1934 to 1939 was a period of nationwide anxiety, and the purges were Stalin’s principle weapon for achieving the extension and consolidation of his power. Anyone who actively, allegedly or was associated with someone, who expressed dissatisfaction towards communism was taken by the NKVD, and either executed or deported to labour camps. Historian Chris Truman states that the NKVD, “according to the very few that survived this experience, used both physical and psychological torture” to gain false confessions and information about other ‘traitors’. Victor Serge, a suspect of the time who managed to escape the USSR, makes an account of the atmosphere during the purges; “The shot fired by Nikolaev [Kirov’s assassinator] ushered in an era of panic and savagery”.
Those accused of crimes against the Soviet Union were unfairly trialled in a series of elaborate, widely publicised show trials, and as a result, many people believed the accusations were legitimate, thus preluding a nationwide panic. In reality, “the evidence was flimsy and obviously fake”, and many accusations were falsely confessed as a result of extensive torture or threats to kill the defendants’ family members. The show trials created an atmosphere of constant worry, and it was common for citizens to give each other up to prove their devout loyalty to Stalin, in the hope of preventing their own barbarous death.
The administration of fear was another vital component in the maintenance of Stalin’s dictatorial regime. For Stalin, the purges meant the elimination of existing and possible enemies, resulting in the firm establishment of his individual power through the mediums of genocide and violence. The NKVD provided great assistance to Stalin as it was their duty to carry out the executions of those who were ‘enemies of the people’, and report directly back to Stalin.
Joseph Stalin is arguably the most barbaric and callous leader to ever rule a nation. His ruthless methods of control and manipulation provided him with an impenetrable, dictatorial reign which spanned for over 30 years. Under his watchful eye, the Soviet Union suffered greatly with the propaganda machine censoring and directing the minds of the Soviet citizens, and the purges taking countless lives in a brutal attempt to eradicate any potential rivalry. Stalin’s time as leader between 1924 and 1940 was enhanced and maintained by the commencement of a strict propaganda program and by the creation of nation-wide fear. These two aspects of the Communist regime sparked the instalment of further governing procedures; the acute censorship of Russian media, arts and education and the increase in the use of a secret police unit.
Historical references prove that regardless of his initial belittlement from the intellectuals of the Party, Stalin had the apt ability to execute a strategy of control and manipulation through a two pronged attack; propaganda and fear. Both were clearly effective and fundamental to his savage, unrelenting reign over the Soviet Union that spanned for twenty-five years, a reign which only ended with his death in 1953. Regardless of Stalin’s intellectual and leadership capabilities, he was able to execute his strategy without any consideration for his own people, and his desire to be ultimately powerful overrode any other humane quality. It is therefore established, that Stalin’s reign over the USSR was indeed, one of propaganda, panic and power.