To what extent was the Soviet Union a totalitarian state by 1939?
The term 'totalitarianism' emerged in the 1920s and '30s, to describe the dictatorial regimes which appeared at that time in Germany and the USSR. The Soviet Union was undoubtedly totalitarian by the late 1930s. However, Stalin's power was anything but absolute up until that time. It took the Great Terror, the cult of personality and two decades of political patronage to put him in a position where he could abandon the pretences of law and rule like a tsarist despot.
According to the political scientist Carl Friedrich, a totalitarian regime is distinguished by the following characteristics: a powerful ideology, which promised the onset of a golden era; a single mass-based party, led by a charismatic dictator; a system of terror, built around a ruthless secret police force; and the centralised control of the economy, the mass media and the armed forces. Clearly, the Soviet Union shared all of these characteristics by the late 1930s. As far as ideology was concerned, Marxism-Leninism offered a powerful and appealing vision for the nation: a society that was devoid of exploitation, and in which all men and women were equal. Of course, the reality in no way mirrored that vision, but this could be rationalised on the grounds that state control was necessary until capitalism had been vanquished elsewhere in the world. Marxism also offered a deterministic interpretation of history, in which all societies were moving towards socialism. Hence, dissidents (those who opposed the Stalinist vision) could be swept away on the grounds that they were standing in the way of history. Politically, the Soviet system had many characteristics of totalitarianism even before Stalin had consolidated his rule. Russia had become a one party state within a year of the Bolsheviks seizing power, and that party soon grew to have millions of members. With the outbreak of the civil war, the Cheka had been given the power...
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