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The Use of The Concept of Totalitarianism to Understand The Soviet Experience

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In terms of discussing the Soviet experience, totalitarianism is a term often found in academic journals and articles. However, can this term be wholly applied to the entirety of the Soviet Union leadership? In this essay, I will discuss the concept of totalitarianism and where in Soviet history it is applicable. Totalitarianism is defined as the political concept in which a citizen is totally subject to an absolute state authority; to further explain this, I will utilise Friedrich and Brzezinski’s six criteria of a totalitarian regime. In addition to this, because totalitarianism is often applied to Stalin’s era (1924-1953), I will also discuss if the concept of totalitarianism can be applied to the Soviet Union under Lenin (1917-1924), Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Gorbachev (1985-1991).

Friedrich and Brzezinski (1965: 22) argue that there are six characteristics that define a totalitarian regime: a singular guiding ideology; a single mass party led by an omnipotent figure; a system of terror (e.g. secret police and terror regimes); a monopoly over the military and weapons; a monopoly on communication within and around the state; and direct control of the economy via the government or any other channels. Kohn (2002: 621) implies that Arendt, a political theorist who developed further ideas of totalitarianism was “aware that her concept of totalitarianism could become fully meaningful only after the regimes she described had come to an end” Therefore, whilst the concept of totalitarianism will vary in usefulness, it is worth mentioning that Arendt’s work and her theories will be useful for many years.

Lenin’s leadership of the Soviet Union began in 1917 after the Russian Revolution and ended following his death in 1924. Whilst Stalinist Russia has famously been dubbed a key example of a totalitarian state, Leninism has been considered “the ideological foundation” of totalitarianism (McFaul & Markov, 1993: 310). Lenin’s leadership actually falls within Friedrich and Brzezinski’s criteria to a degree. Marxism and Communism act as the basic form of ideology and, via the Cheka, torture and killings were common. This was in order to reduce the formation of opposition following the civil war. The Cheka also aided the monopolisation of communication within the state, for example, strikes were banned, and popular culture had limited freedom. The little freedom artists and authors had was allowed in order to reduce the chances of uprisings within Russia. However, although strikes and most popular culture were banned, Lenin’s regime obviously experienced bouts of frivolity whether it be peasant revolts or someone owning a banned book.

Economic policies within Lenin’s War Communism system were incredibly totalitarian, due to a large portion of industry being nationalised by the Bolshevik government. The general aim was to “abolish private trade” and “militarise labour in essential industries” (Figes, 2014: 151). In doing this, it provided a tight grip on Russia’s economy and workforce. However, Lenin soon stepped away from the concept of totalitarianism with the NEP (New Economic Policy). The NEP troubled many as some citizens may have believed that Lenin was headed towards capitalism. As capitalism was seen as an enemy of the state due to its Western connotations, Lenin introduced the NEP to avoid an economic disaster (Figes, 2014: 151). The NEP liberated peasants slightly, allowing them to sell surplus stocks. This then encouraged peasants, farmers and small businesses to create a sizeable stock of food in order to reduce the famine that plagued Russia at the time. Although this was statistically successful, totalitarianism is not that useful to explain the Soviet experience and Lenin’s regime. In contrast to this, it could be theorised that totalitarianism is useful in another way; it offers the people steady jobs and at least a minimum wage, regardless of the difficulty of their work.

Totalitarianism is often attributed to Stalin’s regime, primarily due to the substantial power he held as leader. The concept can almost entirely be applied to Stalin’s leadership as there is evidence to support all six of Friedrich and Brzezinski’s criteria. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin began to assert his desire for power and soon rose ranks. For scholars with a focus on the totalitarian model, the Great Purges of 1937-1938 are the primary example of a system of terror with a totalitarian regime. The Purges allowed Stalin to maintain control of the Soviet Union and eliminate political opponents; everyone was vulnerable, and citizens lived in fear of being sent to gulags. This aided Stalin in forming a totalitarian regime.

As well as being an actor in creating terror, the NKVD (a form of secret police) additionally reported those participating in suspicious activity and regulated forms of censorship and communication. The Russian state infiltrated all; from the common peasant to high-ranking members of the Communist Party (Kenez, 2006: 109). An interesting addendum to the totalitarian regime that developed under Stalin is his creation of the ‘cult of personality’. In order to present Stalin in a positive light, images from Russian history were amended in order to portray Stalin as a Russian hero and citizens would have images of their leader around their home (Figes, 2014: 334). However ‘in the course of the Terror, Stalin had to scale down his totalist aims’ (Service 2014: 235)

Economic and industrial monopolisation was rife under Stalin. Traditional peasants were used to small farms and often threatened to withhold grain from the state if they were forced to comply with Communist standards (Figes, 2014: 209). When collectivisation was implemented from 1928 to 1940 however, “army and police units” were used in order to force “60 million people into 100,000 villages” to organise a collective (Figes, 2014: 210): any resistance meant abuse, arrest or being moved to a gulag. The intensity of violence used in the early period of Stalin’s regime highlights the concept of totalitarianism and is exceedingly useful to explain the Soviet experience under Stalin. World War II devastated the Soviet Union and its economy but strengthened Stalin’s totalitarian control; the war provided information regarding the “distribution of loyalty” within the state and meant that he could better “manage his enemies”. Service (2015: 235) stated that “the state not only monopolised the instrumentalities of coercion but also dominated the means of mass communication’, which implies little to no challenge to the criteria of the single ideology.

However, Stalin still struggled to avoid dissidence. After establishing collectivisation, the year 1929 brought a peasant revolt in which crops were burned and livestock were slaughtered. Disease was rampant and in 1932 “millions of peasants ran away from the collective farms” (Figes, 2014: 216). The flood of peasants into large cities caused famine and diseases exacerbated, emphasising the dire situation felt by the kulaks.

State repression decreased during the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ and gulags were abolished; this had a profound impact on Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin. Citizens had more political freedom and millions of political prisoners were released. Many Russians still revered Stalin but Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ denounced Stalinism, causing both the young and old generation to doubt the legitimacy of Stalin’s. While de-Stalinisation resulted in people realising the true intent of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, it is difficult to apply the concept of totalitarianism to Khrushchev’s administration. Khrushchev still maintained a considerable amount of control over the government in order to pursue the truest form of Communism. Laird (1966: 30) argues that Khrushchev’s regime was characterized by the “absence of the use of fear as the key element of rule”, but in turn ironically completed Stalin’s goal of a revolution. This implies that the Soviet experience can be explained through the Khrushchev thaw, but specifically post-1964. Laird (1966: 34) later implies that the reason for Khrushchev’s ousting was due to his paranoia and longing for totalitarian power: “the demands of a totalitarian system for a single focal point of all power and authority proved to be irresistible and, Khrushchev, like Stalin succumbed to the demands of the system and his own human weakness.” (Laird, 1966: 35). This further suggests that there was a psychological element to being a leader during the Soviet era and that totalitarian leadership is troubling.

Gorbachev also fails to meet the majority of Friedrich and Brzezinski’s criteria for totalitarianism – glasnost makes this difficult. Glasnost is the policy of permitting more a more public discussion of state affairs (Service, 2014: 107). Gorbachev does meet the leading figure criterion but in this period of the Soviet experience, it was no longer a totalitarian state, just an economically focused nation with a chequered past. A balance of being socially liberal (to an extent) and economically conservative perfect blends the use of Communism and capitalism, this creating a form of economic stability within state that has never truly known economic stability. Because of Gorbachev’s success in completely revitalising the Soviet regime, Karklins (1994) states that he is a self-assured autocrat taking charge and using his power against the system itself”

In comparison to Stalinism, the freedom provided by glasnost is in reality the exact opposite of totalitarianism. There are some issues, for example the use of private enterprise which upset a minority of Russians but Gorbachev avoided mass terror and achieved a moderately successful economic standard. The lack of repression, unlike in Stalin’s regime displays ideals of becoming institutionally corporatist rather than that of Friedrich and Brzezinski’s model of totalitarianism. Therefore, the concept of totalitarianism is not useful under Gorbachev.

In conclusion, totalitarianism is a useful concept when addressing Stalinism. It is moderately useful when addressing Lenin and Khrushchev’s regime, but is not useful when addressing Gorbachev’s regime. Totalitarianism is extremely helpful when one wishes to provide a general explanation for the Soviet experience, however it lacks the development to explain everything within Soviet culture, politics and society. Because the concept is also so intangible, it also has the possibility to undermine the fear and struggle citizens endured. This is because it can have a scapegoat effect; implies that it was down to the regime, rather than blaming the individuals who were responsible for causing any harm. On the other hand, perhaps using the concept of totalitarianism has a positive side to things. It could shift the blame from Russian culture and citizens onto politics and external influences (e.g. Enlightenment and Western development). Assessing the level of totalitarianism as a Western outsider is difficult; however, peasants under Stalin’s regime suffered immensely and compartmentalising it into one single concept is even harder. For now, the concept essentially ‘gets the job done’ but may be entirely too static to be wholeheartedly applied to the entirety of the Soviet experience. Overall, each period of the Soviet experience varied in degrees of totalitarianism. Stalin’s era allowed the criteria for totalitarianism to be utilised the most but the whiplash-like relaxation during Khrushchev’s thaw led to a “near-indifference toward the people’s private life” under Gorbachev.  

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