He perpetrated crimes against humanity, carried out politically motivated mass murders, and systematically violated his people's individual rights. Police spies did not hesitate to open private letters or plant listening devices. A vast network of internal spies reported on groups or individuals. Nothing appeared in print without official approval. There was no free press, and no safe method of voicing protest. Grumblers or critics were rounded up and sent to the Gulag, a system of brutal labor camps, where many died.
Even though Stalin's power was absolute, he had obsessive fears that rival party leaders were plotting against him. In 1934, he launched the Great Purge. During this reign of terror, Stalin and his secret police cracked down especially on Old Bolsheviks, or party activists from the early days of the revolution. His net soon widened to target army heroes, industrial managers, writers, and ordinary citizens. They were charged with a wide range of crimes, from counter-revolutionary plots to failure to meet production quotas.
Between 1936 and 1938, Stalin staged a series of spectacular public “show trials” in Moscow. Former Communist leaders confessed to all kinds of crimes after officials tortured them or threatened their families or friends.
Stalin used propaganda to win the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens. This poster reads, “Thanks to dear Stalin for a happy childhood.”
Many of the purged party members were never tried but were sent straight to the Gulag. Secret police files reveal that at least four million people were purged during the Stalin years. Some historians estimate the toll to be much greater.
The purges increased Stalin's power. The purges destroyed the older generation of revolutionaries, replacing them with younger party members who owed absolute loyalty to Stalin. The program of terror increased Stalin's power by impressing on the Soviet people the dangers of disloyalty.
However, the Soviet Union paid a heavy price. Among the victims of the purges were experts in industry, economics, and engineering, and many of the Soviet Union's most talented writers and thinkers. The purged also included most of the nation's military leaders and about half of its military officers. The loss of so many military leaders would come back to haunt Stalin in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
In what ways did Stalin's terror tactics harm the Soviet Union?
The use of terror and intimidation was one of the major characteristics of Stalin's totalitarian stage. Like other totalitrarian rulers, Stalin sought to control the hearts and minds of Soviet citizens. He tried to do this by tirelessly distributing propaganda, censoring opposing ideas, imposing Russian culture on minorities, and replacing religion with communist ideology.
Stalin tried to boost morale and faith in the communist system by making himself a godlike figure. He used propaganda as a tool to build up a “cult of personality” around himself.
Using modern technology, the party bombarded the public with relentless propaganda. Radios and loudspeakers blared into factories and villages. In movies, theaters, and schools, citizens heard about communist successes and the evils of capitalism.
Billboards and posters urged workers to meet or exceed production quotas. Headlines in the Communist party newspaper Pravda, or “Truth,” linked enemies at home to foreign agents seeking to overthrow the Communist regime.