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Geoffrey Allen
Professor Puricelli
HIS 102-006
17 April 2015
At Any Cost: Stalin and Soviet Modernization
Its the early nineteen hundreds, Western Europe and the United States are well into their
process of industrialization and are moving even further still into technological developments. As
Africa, South America, and parts of Asia are violated and exploited for their resources, one
nation lags behind in kind, yet avoids being a target: Russia. Knowing they cannot rely on their
Czar to bring them into the twentieth century, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin overthrow their
government. Under the banner of communism, the refreshed, Bolshevik led Russia pushes forth
to industrialize their newly christened Soviet Union. Soon though, Lenin falls ill, and eventually
dies. The man that supplants him, Joseph Stalin, stands at the head of a nation filled to the brim
with human capital, culture, and a desire to survive in the increasingly distanced world outside
their borders. Stalin succeeds in bringing about a Soviet Union capable of contending with the
greatest of empires, but at a nigh unjustifiable cost. Ultimately, Stalins desire to modernize his
nation led him to violate basic human rights, and to eradicate groups considered unfit for his
Soviet society.
With little industry existing within Russias borders, Stalins first concern was in
garnering enough money to create a usable infrastructure, exploiting Russias farmers and
peasantry, he pursued a program known as collectivization. Russia, having only abolished legal
serfdom as late 1861, was still mostly populated by agrarian peasantry (Lestrade 225). These

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peasants lived in divided farms, cared for their land, and grew grain to feed their families and
trade with others. It was here that Stalin found the source for the income that the Soviet Union
would need to kindle the tinder of Soviet industry. Starting in 1928, literally millions of Soviet
citizenry were uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to work on massive farming
communes in a process called collectivization (Naimark 54). With agriculture firmly under the
federal governments thumb, grain was able to be confiscated and utilized to feed the hundreds of
thousands now living in the swelling Russian urban centers, but also to sell to other nations to
gain the sheer monetary power necessary for a nation such as Russia to advance their still
primitive industrial infrastructure (Naimark 53). The plan was a failure in nearly every respect.
During the period most wrought with forced collectivization, citizens revolted against the
acquisition of their livelihoods (Suny 224). This frustration and defiance was reflected in the
numbers of grain produced, as the crops yielded from 1927 (the first year such plans were
implemented) to 1929 were markedly reduced compared to those harvested years prior to
collectivization (Suny 225). It would take until 1930 for the ambitious, aggressive plan to play
out in the way Stalin and his cronies desired domestically. Across the sea and in foreign markets
however, the plan fell to pieces, as Soviet grain was in little demand in the already saturated
market (Suny 226). Regardless, in time, an unbelievable sixty million people would be torn from
their farmlands and placed upon these collectives (Naimark 54). Those who would not submit to
collectivization were ultimately shipped off to prison camps known as gulags where as many as
eighteen million people during Stalins reign would face a fate less preferable to death.
The violation of the rights of property and liberty implicit in collectivization would be
reason enough to condemn Stalin, but the punishment for failing to comply, a sentence in the
brutal work camp institution known as the Gulag, paints an even more vivid picture of the evils

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perpetrated by the Stalinist government. Poorly supplied in construction material, workable
resources, clothing, and even the most basic edible foodstuffs, gulags resembled a Stalinist
response to the Nazis concentration camp (Forsythe 514). Forced to live and work in the
foreboding, and exceedingly lethal Siberian tundra, the men, women, and children of the gulags
fought viciously to cling to even a shred of their lives. Cannibalism is reported to have been
rampant in these camps, sometimes by way of killing, but more often out of desperate desire for
survival through necrophagy, the consumption of corpses (Naimark 62). Stalin was well aware of
these difficulties. Ever the paranoid micro-manager, the Soviet leader received constant
correspondence regarding the maintenance of the gulags; despite this, he still decided to reduce
the funding granted towards keeping those banished to the unforgiving camps alive and working
(Naimark 63). While the official story paints these camps as places where those who refused to
work on collectivized farms could still contribute to Soviet society by way of land clearing,
lumber work, or canal construction, the true intent was clear; to eliminate dissenters (Naimark
57, 60). One camp operator known only as Shpek wrote following a conversation with a higherup well aware of the situation, After this conversation, I refused to organize the camp, for I
had understood that they were going to send people out there and that I was supposed to see to it
that they all died. (Naimark 60). All in all of the eighteen million people isolated in these
horrific camps, and as many as 2.3 million are estimated to have perished, all under the watchful
eye of Joseph Stalin (Forsythe 518). The targets of this mass-murder spree were undeniably
varied, in nationality, political outlook, gender, wealth, and age; but all were deemed
unacceptable by Stalin, and thus given the label of Kulak.
By turning the blame for the failures of collectivization towards a group already
experiencing animosity, Stalin was able to reduce the number of mouths that Soviet grain

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producers needed to feed, and to trim the populace of any who would oppose his policies by way
of an extermination known as Dekulakization. Kulak, meaning fist (for tight-fisted), was a
catch-all term utilized by Stalin for labeling dissidents, and unwanted citizenry of the Soviet
Union (Naimark 55). The primary target of Kulak accusations were mostly the more successful
individuals of the peasantry, such as those that had possessed land, or the variety of holy-men
that had once preached (Naimark 56). By painting the picture of rural life as a class struggle
between the rich peasantry and the poor peasantry, Stalin was able to eliminate not only those
that had a vested interest in opposing the collectivization of farms, such as the former land
owners, but also those whose religious beliefs werent in line with the newly and firmly atheistic
Soviet Union (Naimark 56, Suny 224). Utilizing a system of statewide propaganda, and federally
appointed bureaucracy, Stalin was able to turn the Soviet state, and its people, against the socalled kulaks. Many different mantras were instilled in the minds of the terrified peasantry to
inspire them to independent action, such as We will make soap of kulaks. and Our class
enemy must be wiped off the face of the earth. (Naimark 57). One can assume the lack of
subtlety reflects the attitude Stalins administration had towards the minds of the peasantry, as it
takes little imagination to grasp the action intended to be spurred by such phrases. Despite these
facts, the planned elimination of an undesired political group curiously evades the label of
genocide. One may assume that this is because of the scale of the undertaking, seemingly much
smaller than that of the Holocaust, or that of the Rwandan Hutu on Tutsi killings; however the
Serbian attempts to eliminate Bosnian Muslims (far smaller on scale than any of the three attacks
aforementioned), still receives the label of genocide, so this cant be the case (Naimark 26). The
honest reason for Dekulakization evading the label of genocide falls squarely on Stalins
shoulders. Following World War II, a United Nations gathered to determine the meaning of

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certain terms, amongst these was genocide. While the originator of the term, Raphael Lemkin,
felt the name should include virtually every grouping conceivable, the victorious allied Soviet
Union vied for the exclusion of political groups as a legitimate category (Naimark 16, 21). This
ensured that their Dekulakization cleansing of society couldnt be retroactively brought up as a
case of a crime against humanity. However, a cleansing of any other name is still just as cruel,
and its intentions clear. Stalins goal in eradicating these socially unacceptable people was to
ensure that the only genetic lines to survive this period would be those unerringly loyal to Stalin
and the Soviet cause.
To properly clear the way for his dystopic Soviet society, Stalin found it useful to remove
the power base of another group of people, the Ukrainians, by way of a mass starvation known as
the Holodomor. Ukraine had long been the bread bowl of Russian and Eastern Europe, its flat
plains serving well to grow the grain and bumper crops required to feed the millions living
beneath the shadows of the Urals (Suny 227). Some figures plant Ukraine as having contributed
as much as forty-six percent of all requisitioned grain deliveries during the brutal process of
collectivization (Naimark 71). Despite this, the Soviet regime continued to increase the
percentage of grain harvest that was required to be handed over towards the federal machine
(Suny 227). The Ukrainians, already hesitant over the idea of collectivization, responded
negatively, with much of its intellectual base opposing the plan and attempting to inspire feelings
of long-held nationalism in rebellion; this only served to further cement Stalins resentment
(Naimark 72). Ellman holds that Stalin was more concerned with the fate of industrialization
than with the lives of the peasants, a position that becomes more defensible as one considers the
implications and origins of the famine (Ellman 664). The Ukrainians attempted many forms of
resistance, from out-right theft, to the more passive act of simply fleeing from the collectives and

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the country itself; those that were found to have subverted collectivization in such a manner
were sent back home, or to the aforementioned gulags (Naimark 73). So great was the suffering
of this period that a multitude of foreign nations offered supplementary grain to feed the starving
Ukrainians, grain that Stalin declined (Naimark 73). Desperate for food, and weak from hunger,
Ukrainian society was seen to have nearly broken down completely, by 1933 it is said that
Corpses lined the roads, whole families disappeared, and instances of cannibalism were
reported (Suny 228). Perhaps the most disturbing element of this famine was Stalins
insistence that those suffering from it had brought it upon themselves, and deserved to starve
(Ellman 664). This insistence is placed at a time where Naimark insists Most scholars agree that
there was enough grain in the Soviet Union in this period to feed everyone in Ukraine at a
minimal level. (Naimark 74). When the requisitioning finally ceased, a mind-boggling death toll
of three to five million Ukrainians had perished from starvation, disease, or Stalins gulags
(Naimark 70). Stalins attempt to remove the Ukrainian nation from the ranks of his destitute
followers would not be the last of his statewide cleansings, however.
For a time following the Holodomor of 1932-33, there was a general easing of the Soviet
state and its persecution of individuals living in its borders; but this dull period only served as
the calm before the worst and most indiscriminate of Stalins storms, the Great Terror. In the
year 1937, the atmosphere across Europe and the Soviet Union was one of unbearable tension,
and nations were swiftly ramping up defense policies in order to prepare for war (Naimark 99).
Stalin, paranoid as he had ever been, decided that yet another cleansing would be required for the
Soviet state to emerge victorious from the creeping threat of war (Naimark 100). In order to
ensure the Soviet Union would follow him without question, Stalin finally turned his eyes upon
members of his own cabinet who he had possessed personal doubts about. By way of show trials,

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Stalin forced his former allies and officers into harsh interrogation, the results of which led to
them regurgitating the new version of party history, one that had been rewritten to comply
with Stalins megalomania and infallibility. (Naimark 101). Already hard at work combatting
his political rivals, Stalin turned towards the NKVD (a sort of prototypical KGB) and set them
against the populace. His most loyal lapdog in this pursuit was the newly promoted leader of the
NKVD, Yezhov. Yezhov was described as being a ruthless killer with an unshakable belief that
the ends justified the means, he was known to justify the execution of many innocent people if
the trade-off was to catch the guilty ones. (Naimark 108). This is reflected in the staggering
numbers of people incarcerated during his reign, as many as 1,575,000 individuals are cited as
having been brought in by the NKVD from 1937 to 1938 alone (Naimark 109). The figure that
speaks most of his character, and of the Great Terror itself is the sheer percentage of those
arrested that were then summarily executed, 681,692 in all (Naimark 109). The rest would be
sent to live in the harsh Gulag, which remained a favored punishment during the entirety of
Stalins life (Naimark 109). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Great Terror was the
complicity of the citizenry in the purging of society. Its known that Stalin and his tyrannical
NKVD actively supported turning in ones neighbor if they were suspected of being an enemy of
the state (Naimark 117). In the end, despite Stalins attempt to refine the Soviet state by way of
eliminating dissenters, traitors, suspected class enemies, and unwanted nationalism, he only
succeeding in crippling the country. Its said that following the purge the judiciary, police, and
military organizations were in shambles, and that the manufacturing sectors suffered from
constant accidents due to a lack of professionals (Naimark 119). Stalin had succeeded in
thrusting his nation into the future, but with a populace controlled by fear, and many of its
greatest minds already dead.

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In retrospect, Stalin remains a controversial figure, his fiendish pursuit of modernization
forced the Soviet Union out of obscurity, but at a tremendous human cost. By treating the
citizenry beneath him as mere numbers rather than individuals, he was able to undertake massive
civic projects. Collectivization and the grain acquisitions that occurred because of it was
responsible for much of the capital the Soviet state was able to garner before the advent of World
War Two. The Gulag itself lingers in the Russian culture, with unimaginable numbers of families
cut viciously short, or separated during its imprisonment of nearly eighteen million Soviet
citizens. For better or for worse, Stalins elimination of the Kulaks led to the revision of the term
of genocide, which remains to this day. Much like the Gulag, the memory of the Holodomor
has lingering consequences, and could be attributed to the animosity between the two states to
this day. The Great Terror itself still exists in memory as a warning to all people living today,
like the actions of the Nazis, about what it means to stand idly by while men do evil. Stalin
showed what it meant for a man to be a figure, a gear, a cog in a machine greater than oneself,
and what an impact that could have on the human spirit. The cost of this lesson lay in the shallow
graves of an entire generation.

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Works Cited
Ellman, Michael. "Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932 33 Revisited." Europe-Asia Studies
59.4 (2007): Web.
Forsythe, David P. "Soviet Gulag." Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.
513-21. Print.
Lestrade, V. C. De. "The Present Condition of the Peasants in the Russian Empire." The ANNALS
of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2.2 (1891): Web.
Naimark, Norman M. Stalin's Genocides. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States. New
York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

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