Soviet Union: A Totalitarian State

Soviet Union
A Totalitarian State
Presentation created by Robert Martinez
Primary Content Source: Prentice Hall World History
Images as cited.
Karl Marx had predicted that under
communism the state would wither away. The
opposite occurred under Stalin. He turned the
Soviet Union into a totalitarian state. In this
form of government, a one-party dictatorship
attempts to regulate every aspect of the lives
of its citizens.
To ensure obedience, Stalin’s Communist party
used secret police, censorship, violent purges,
and terror. Police spies did not hesitate to open
private letters or plant listening devices.
Nothing appeared in print without official
approval. Critics were rounded up and sent to
brutal labor camps, where they died.
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.
Newsreels and
newspapers showed
bumper harvests and
new hydroelectric
dams opening up, or
proclaimed the misery
of workers in the
capitalist West.
Billboards and posters
urged workers to meet
or exceed production
Stalinist propaganda also revived extreme nationalism.
Headlines in the Communist party newspaper, Pravda,
linked enemies at home to foreign agents seeking to
restore power to the landowners and capitalists.
Supporters of Stalin’s aims were often glorified as
national heroes. For example, the government put up
statues honoring a 14-year-old boy who turned his own
father over to the secret police fro associating with
In accordance with the ideas of
Marx, atheism, or the belief that
there is no god, became an
official state policy. Early on, the
Communists targeted the
Russian Orthodox Church,
which had strongly supported
the czars. The party seized
religious property and converted
churches into offices and
museums. Many priests and
other religious leaders were
killed or died in prison camps.
Other religions were persecuted as well.
At one show trial, 15 Roman Catholic
priests were charged with
“counterrevolutionary activities,” such
as teaching religion to the young.
The state seized Jewish synagogues and
banned the use of Hebrew. Islam was also
officially discouraged. Muslims living in the
Soviet Union generally faced fewer restrictions,
partly because the Communists hoped to win
support among colonized peoples in the
Middle East.
The Communists
replaced religion with
their own ideology. Like
a religion, communist
ideology had its own
“sacred” texts – the
writings of Marx and
Lenin – and its own
shrines, such as the
tomb of Lenin. Portraits
of Stalin replaced
religious icons in
Russian homes.
The Communists
transformed Russian life.
They destroyed the old
social order of
landowning nobles at the
top and serfs at the
bottom. But instead of
creating a society of
equals, as they
promised, they created a
society where a few elite
groups emerged as a
new ruling class.
At the head of society were members of the
Communist party. Only a small fraction of
Soviet citizens were allowed to join the party.
Many who did so were motivated by a desire to
get ahead, rather than a belief in communist
The Soviet elite also included industrial
managers, military leaders, scientists, and some
artists and writers. The elite enjoyed benefits
denied to most people. They had the best
apartments in the cities and vacation homes in
the country. They could shop at special stores
for scarce consumer goods.
Although excluded from party membership,
most people did enjoy benefits unknown
before the revolution. Free education was
offered to all. The state also provided free
medical care, day care for children,
inexpensive housing, and public recreation.
While these benefits were real, the standard of
living remained low. As elsewhere, industrial
growth led millions of people to migrate to
cities. Although the state built massive
apartment complexes, housing was scarce.
Entire families might be packed into a single
room. Bread was plentiful, but meat, fresh fruit,
and other foods were in short supply.
After the Russian Revolution, the Communists built
schools everywhere and required all children to attend.
The state supported technical schools and universities
as well. Schools served many important goals.
Educated workers were needed to build a modern
industrial state. In addition to basic skills, schools
taught communist values, such as atheism, the glory of
collective farming, and love of Stalin.
The Communist party also set up programs for
students outside school. These programs
included sports, cultural activities, and political
classes to train teenagers for party
membership. Sometimes, young Communists
would be sent to help harvest crops or to
participate in huge parades.
Under the Communists, women won equality under the
law. They gained access to education and a wide range
of jobs. By the 1930s, many Soviet women were
working in medicine, engineering, or the sciences. By
their labor, women contributed to Soviet economic
growth. They worked in factories, in construction, and
on collectives. Within the family, their wages were
needed because men earned low salaries. The
government provided day nurseries for children.
The Bolshevik Revolution at first meant greater
freedom for Russian artists and writers. “Art
must serve politics,” Lenin had insisted, but he
generally did not interfere with artistic
freedom. Artists welcomed the chance to
experiment with ideas and forms.
Under Stalin, the heavy hand of state control gripped
the arts. Stalin forced artists and writers to conform to
a style called socialist realism. Its goal was to boost
socialism by showing Soviet life in a positive light.
Their overall message had to promote hope in the
communist future. Popular themes for socialist-realist
artists were peasants, workers, heroes of the
revolution, and – of course – Stalin.
Government controlled what books were
published, what music was heard, and which
works of art were displayed. Artists who
ignored Communist guidelines could not get
materials, work space, or jobs. Under Stalin’s
totalitarian policies, writers, artists, and
composers faced government persecution.
Despite restrictions, some Soviet writers produced
magnificent works. And Quiet Flows the Don, by
Mikhail Sholokhov, passed the censor. The novel tells
the story of a man who spends years fighting in World
War I, the Russian Revolution, and the civil war.
Sholokhov later became one of the few Soviet writers
to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
By the time Stalin died in 1953, the Soviet Union
had become a military superpower and a world
leader in heavy industry. Yet Stalin’s efforts
exacted a brutal toll. The Soviet people were
dominated by a totalitarian system based on
terror. Most people in the Soviet Union lived
meager lives compared with people in the West.
The Soviet Union was
not the only totalitarian
state to emerge in the
decades after World War
I. In the 1920s and
1930s, dictators arose in
Italy and Germany.
They, too, created oneparty states and cults of
personality to impose
dictatorial rule on their