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.

Stalin's Great Purge

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.

Poster with an inscription in Russian of a mustachioed man in military uniform greeting a group of happy children warmly.

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.

Impact of the Great Purge

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.

Stalin Builds a Totalitarian State

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.

Propaganda and the “Cult of Personality”

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.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments