Stalinist Modes of Violent Power Consolidation

Last week the student discussions in my “Mao and Modern China” module at Leeds University centred on the old dichotomy between violent coercion and persuasive communication in the early years of the People’s Republic of China. We might also phrase the inquiry as a look into Mao’s role in the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries.

Accordingly, a handful of points from some recent (and some rather old) work on the Soviet Union may be of interest.

In the town Tambov, about 500 km south and east of Moscow, the Soviet Red Army had its work cut out for it in 1920. The Red Army had only been able to pacify mobile rebels enjoying rural sanctuaries around Tambov via the mobilisation of more than 100,000 troops for the task.  Led by Marshal Tukhachevsky (famous for his purge in 1937 and patronage of composer Dmitri Shostakovich), the campaign was bloody. Historian Stephan Kotkin notes that things in Tambov settled down only “after public executions, hostage taking, and conspicuous deportations of entire villages to concentration camps.” [Source: Stephan Kotkin, Stalin, vol. 1, . Stalin: Volume 1, Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), p. 394.]

Stalin’s own writings published in Pravda in 1930 about the connection between military tactics and power consolidation are quite interesting:

Calvary charges, which are necessary and useful for accomplishing tasks of a military character, are unsuitable and disastrous for accomplishing the tasks of collective-farm development.

People who talk about a retreat fail to understand at least two things. a.) They do not know the laws of an offensive. They do not understand that an offensive without consolidating captured positions is an offensive that is doomed to failure.

When may an offensive — in the military sphere, say — be successful? When you do not confine yourself to advancing headlong, but endeavor at the same time to consolidate the positions gained, regroup your forces in conformity with changing conditions, move up the rear service,s and bring up the reserves. Why is all this necessary? In order to guarantee yourself against surprises, to liquidate any break-throughs, against which no offensive is guaranteed, and thus pave the way fro the complete route of the enemy.

[Source: Pravda, no. 92, 3 April, 1930. in J. Stalin, Works, vol. 12, april 1929-June 1930, Moscow: Foreign Languages Press, 1955, pp. 208, 221.]

Finally, a note on political charisma; Stalin, I was surprised to learn, forbade the most exaggerated mythification of his earliest years in Georgia, and prevented publication of a book about his childhood. [Source: Jan Plamper, The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stainism, and the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).]

Image via ‘Isaac Babel: They Wouldn’t Let Me Finish,’ Red Wedge, 12 November 2014.

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