Russia has a long history of highly centralized and often harsh rule, challenged intermittently by peasant uprisings. Long before Lenin created a secret police and Stalin expanded its powers, there is a history of tsars such as Nicholas I using secret police to suppress political enemies. Dissidents were often sent into exile, prisons or penal camps, though the conditions of these pale when compared to the gulag. Pushkin and Lermontov suffered terms of exile, and Dostoevsky served time in a penal camp, which became the subject of his book Notes from the House of the Dead. As a young man, Stalin himself served time in such camps, exiled to Siberia in 1903.
The famine-plagued 1890s were a time of increasing political discontent. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was formed in 1898, which split into the Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) factions at a congress in 1903. Strikes and protests culminated in the January 1905 march on the Winter Palace to demand reforms, where over a hundred people were massacred. This Bloody Sunday fueled revolutionary sentiment, and a general strike paralyzed Russia in October. That year Tsar Nicholas II agreed to the establishment of the Duma, an elected body to represent the people, but in ensuing years he undermined its power, changing election law to skew the Duma towards upper-class representation. The demands of World War I caused critical shortages of food, fuel and housing, and support for the Tsar fell precipitously. In 1917, the people of Russia revolted with the military’s support. A temporary government was set up, and Nicholas was imprisoned and killed the following year. In October, the Bolsheviks (later called Communists) installed Lenin as head of the new government. For the next two years, a civil war was fought between the increasingly repressive Communists and anti-Communists, who lost despite support by many countries. Discontent among the Russian populace continued to grow. In 1921, peasant uprisings and strikes protested Bolshevik economic policies, as government control of the economy increased. In 1922, the communist government established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin quickly rose to power, becoming dictator in 1929. He began programs of rapid industrial development and the forced collectivization of agriculture. Under the new policies, most peasants joined collectives or went to work for state farms. Collectivization was useful to the party as a way of extending its control over the vast rural areas of the country. Millions were displaced and deprived of their lands. Those who resisted were sent to labor camps, their families deported to Siberia or the Far East. Impossibly high agricultural demands led to great suffering, including widespread starvation, since the crops were sold for industrialization. Unsuitable farming practices ruined much land and millions died. To maintain an unchallenged hold on power, Stalin built up the camps and the secret police and inaugurated the Purges, or The Terror. These included show trials, in which accusations of conspiracy or sabotage were presented without evidence, and the accused were often tortured into confessing. Stalin targeted those in the Communist Party and the Red Army he considered rivals or threats. Countless more were killed. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Stalin gradually cut off contact with the West and extended the influence of Communism. Apparently in the process of preparing for yet another Purge, Stalin died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953.
In the decade after Stalin’s death, the political climate eased somewhat. Nikita Khrushchev attacked Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to the 20th Communist Party Congress, in which he criticized Stalin’s “cult of personality” and listed crimes against loyal officials. It was selective in its criticisms but had an enormous impact. A period of relative liberalism ensued that saw an official process of “de-Stalinization.” Thousands of prisoners were released. However, citizens who hoped these developments presaged an era of significant reform were to be disappointed. This would have to wait until the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, who became head of the Communist Party in 1985.
- Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. Doubleday, 2003.
- Brown, Archie et al, eds. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Former Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury, 2003.
- New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002.
- “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Literature and Its Times, v. 4. Gale, 1997.
- “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Novels for Students, v. 6. Gale, 1999.
- World Book Encyclopedia. World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. World Book, Inc.
- Zieglar, Charles E. The History of Russia. Greenwood Press, 1999.
Content last updated: April 30, 2006