Examining Totalitarianism Through the Soviet Union

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Katie Sisco
HST 112
Sravani Biswas
Thursday 3:30 - 4:30
4/18/11

Examining Totalitarianism Through the Soviet Union

Woodrow Wilson’s hopes that World War I would serve as the “war to end all wars,” certainly were not fulfilled with the rise of dictatorships throughout Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. At the end of World War I, the age of absolute monarchy began to crumble. Just a month after the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne when protests and riots erupted among the Russian people. This paved the way for waves of socialism and communism throughout Russia under the rule of powerful leaders, such as V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Both men contributed to the development of Communist USSR, but both also differed in their “totalitarian” tactics in molding the regime. Most history books, such as The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, define totalitarianism as something similar to “highly centralized systems of government that attempt to control society and ensure obedience through a single party and police terror” (Hunt, p. 844). Most concepts of totalitarianism also include the notion of absolute control over private as well as public life. Totalitarian regimes essentially seek to have power over every single faction of society. Totalitarianism is often confused with authoritarianism, which although similar, does possess particular differences to totalitarianism. Authoritarianism refers more to absolute power in a strictly political sense. An authoritarian rule often uses corruption to secure the leader or leaders’ complete political domination, and shows less concern towards social and general economic matters. Therefore, totalitarian leaders care more about spreading a resolute ideology among all parties and individuals in their particular state more than they care about gaining recognition as an individual all-powerful dictator. The Making of the West examines totalitarianism further in the “Terms of History” section, which explains, “A totalitarian state, as its definition evolved late in the twentieth century, was one that intensified government’s concern with private life and individual thought, leaving no realm of existence outside the state’s will” (Hunt, p. 845). Many supporters of regimes, which have been labeled as “totalitarian,” claim that their critics use the term in various forms of propaganda to convey negative connotations. The ideology of the Soviet Union developed and changed at great lengths from its beginnings after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. The union and power of Europe’s working classes began to grow towards the end of the nineteenth century. V.I. Lenin gained recognition among Russian Marxists in the early 1900s with his various publications and unique ideas about the best form of Marxism and socialism for Russia. Instead of a widespread form of power among all working class men, Lenin believed that Russia would benefit more from a select group of what Lynn Hunt describes as a “highly disciplined socialist elite” (Hunt, p. 776), leading all of Russia directly into a full form of socialism. Lenin named his “elite” group the “Bolsheviks,” or the Russian meaning of “majority.” The Bolsheviks essentially hoped to eradicate the “Mensheviks,” who represented the original group of Russian Marxists that Lenin believed he could overcome.

After the Germans paved the way for his safe return to Russia from exile in April 1917, V.I. Lenin delivered his April Theses in Petrograd. Lenin’s charismatic speaking abilities and his original “promise” that the soviets would take power in order to provide benefits for both workers and peasants alike, allowed the Bolsheviks to overthrow Russia’s Provisional Government. With a disgruntled army, weakening power, and an influx of soviet protest, the Provisional Government officially collapsed in November 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution. Within the next year, the...
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