The lingering sickness and death of Lenin occasioned a bitter struggle for power. The principal antagonists, Trotsky and Stalin, both claimed to be the rightful executors of Lenin’s policies. In contrast to Trotsky, who was primarily a theorist and a military leader, Stalin, the party’s general secretary since 1922, was a clever and determined organizer. Through his mastery of the Communist Party apparatus, he succeeded in winning the support of a majority of delegates to party conferences and in consolidating his rule. Trotsky was expelled from the party in November 1927. He was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928, and then banished from the Soviet Union the following year. In 1940 he was assassinated in Mexico by an agent of Stalin.
Having disposed of Trotsky, Stalin turned against his former allies in the struggle. These leaders, notably Nikolay Bukharin and Aleksey Rykov, were driven from the higher councils of the party. In 1929, as he celebrated his 50th birthday, Stalin was hailed as the supreme leader of the party and the country. Thereafter, the dictator relied solely on his control of the party and the police and on cronies he had elevated to power. Important among these were Vyacheslav Molotov, Grigory Ordzhonikidze, Lazar Kaganovich, and Valerian Kuybyshev.
Economic Transformation and Trauma Stalin and the Soviet leadership renounced the NEP, and the measure of capitalism it permitted, in 1928. The inauguration of the first of the USSR’s Five-Year Plans that year began the era of the planned economy. Its basic aim was to harness all economic activity to the systematic development of heavy industry, thereby transforming the Soviet Union from an agrarian country into a leading industrial and military power and altering the very nature of society. Carrying the plan out, the Stalin government poured resources into the production of coal, iron, steel, railway equipment, and machine tools. Whole new cities, such as Magnitogorsk in the Urals, were built with the at times enthusiastic participation of young workers and intellectuals.
Economic transformation was accomplished at staggering human cost. Anyone who expressed reservations risked reprisals from the police. Ordinary newcomers to the cities often lived in wretched and unsanitary conditions. The collectivization of agriculture, a centerpiece of Stalin’s economic program, relied on brute force far more than on enthusiasm. In extensive sections of the Soviet Union—Ukraine, the Volga valley of the RSFSR, and Kazakhstan, in particular—starvation and epidemic disease were rampant from 1932 to 1935. By some estimates, between 5 million and 7 million peasants died in this state-made famine.
The Great Purge The mid- to late 1930s were marked by Stalin’s campaign to eliminate all elements alleged to have reservations about his policies. The process was touched off in December 1934 when a disgruntled party member assassinated Sergey Kirov, a popular and high-ranking party official. Although it remains unknown whether Kirov himself harbored doubts about Stalin’s line, the event served as Stalin’s justification to initiate a vicious purge of the party and of all Soviet institutions.
Stalin had any person he or his assistants distrusted removed from posts of authority; many were jailed, sent to the forced-labor camps of Gulag (Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps), or executed. In a series of three show trials in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, a number of once prominent Soviet leaders, including Grigory Zinovyev, Bukharin, and Rykov, were convicted and executed on concocted charges of conspiring with Germany and Japan to overthrow Stalin’s government. In a closed-door trial in June 1937, the topmost commanders of the army, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, were found guilty of similar charges and shot. Two-thirds of the 1934 Central Committee of the party was executed, as were more than half of the senior officers of the army. Furthermore, the political police, or NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), had license to extend the purges to lower-level officials and rank-and-file citizens. In the darkest years of the terror, from 1937 to 1938, the NKVD under Nikolay Yezhov rounded up several million people; as many as 1 million people were shot, while another 2 million are estimated to have died in the camps. In December 1938 Stalin’s appointment of a new NKVD chief, Lavrenty Beria, signaled the end of the mass terror, although some arrests and executions continued into 1939.