A 1924, where Stalin rose to power. The categorisation

A dictatorial regime can be
defined as a system of government where one individual or a small organisation
enjoys absolute political power. Dictatorial regimes, “… exert their authority
through the diverse mechanisms of repression, fear, co-optation, acceptance and
approval.” (Smith, 2008, p.55). Throughout this essay, I will conceptualise and
apply theoretical approaches to the dictatorial regime in Russia under Lenin
and Stalin from 1917 to 1953, to ultimately explain the survival of the regime.
This regime is fascinating since despite its notorious brutality, Stalin
remains surprisingly popular amongst modern-day Russians, being voted in 2017 the
most “outstanding” figure in Russian history. Additionally, the regime is commonly
classed within the top ten most deadly dictatorships as demonstrated by Russian
politician Alexander Yakovlev estimating a death toll of 20 million solely
during the Stalinist-period. Overall, I will argue that the regime is
totalitarian personalistic which relied primarily upon repression and diffuse legitimation
for its survival.

The Russian communist regime came
to power as a result of the October Revolution in 1917, after the Alexander
Kerensky-led provisional government and the Constituent Assembly were
overthrown and dissolved by the Bolsheviks, a faction of the Russian Social
Democratic Labour Party. Following this, came a period of so-called
‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ under Lenin until 1924, where Stalin rose to

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The categorisation of dictatorial
regimes can be accomplished with the consideration of the different ways to
conceptualise dictatorships. The two main approaches political scientists and
scholars use to conceptualise dictatorships are continuous typologies and
categorical typologies. Distinguishing different types of dictatorship on the
continuous spectrum can be done by looking at the degree of political
competitiveness in terms of which agents are able to exercise political power.
As well as, by identifying how open or closed the regime is. Whilst, use of categorical
typology consists of determining different types of dictatorship through two
methods; the examination of the strategy used by the dictator to obtain and maintain
power or the examination of institutional structures.

Accordingly, use of these two
approaches allows the categorisation of the regime in Russia under Stalin and
Lenin. Continuous typology can be applied with reference to Diamond (2002), who
provides a spectrum of political regimes according to political competitiveness
ranging from liberal democracy to politically closed authoritarian. Throughout
its entirety, the Russian dictatorship remained politically uncompetitive according
to both continuous typology measures. The single-party nature of the regime
demonstrates this as scope for political power for opposition or outsiders is
largely restricted. Likewise, elections between 1917 and 1936 remained
restricted, with Lenin keen not to allow elections undermine Bolshevik’s
newfound power after the use of the Red Guards to override the 1917 Constituent
Assembly election, following the Bolshevik loss. Elections were held under the regime;
however, these were often uncontested usually with no more than one candidate,
selected by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. These elections falsely
presented the state as democratic and attempted to sustain the regimes apparent
‘legitimacy’. The reasoning for Stalin and Lenin’s use of election is that, “by
organizing periodic elections they try to obtain at least a semblance of
democratic legitimacy … by placing those elections under tight authoritarian
controls they try to cement their continued hold on power.” (Schedler, 2002). Lenin
and Stalin were both revolutionaries meaning they weren’t concerned with
cooperation or tolerant negotiation, concern lay with the promotion of
communist agenda and monopolisation of power with the Bolsheviks. Therefore,
Russia in relation to continuous typology should be classed as a closed
hegemonic electoral authoritarian regime. This is exhibited through the use of
elections as self-promoting and theatrical tools to sustain the regime and
inability of other groups and individuals to obtain power.

Moreover, application of
categorical typology can conceptualise the regime by examining the strategies
used to maintain power and the institutional structures. In relation to
strategies used to maintain power, distinguishing whether autocracies attempt
to generate loyalty to the regime or whether they rely on repression to maintain
power must be done. The Stalinist regime can be identified as totalitarian with
reference to Wintrobe (2007) who asserts totalitarianism relies on repression
along with loyalty. Some key traits of a totalitarian regime are; one ideology,
state control of individuals and society, a dynamic dictator and one-party rule,
all of which Stalin’s regime exhibit. Therefore, this conceptualisation is appropriate
since Stalin attempted to generate tight loyalty whilst, also relying on
repression to retain power. Repressive strategies used by Stalin and Lenin
include, the Great Purges and the Red Terror which created a climate where
there was no choice but loyalty to the regime. Haber (2006) also contributes to
categorical typology, where he based categorisation according to the dictator’s
methods to deal with launching organisation of terrorising, co-optation or
setting up of rival organisations. Stalin exercised terror to deal with
launching organisation, as he would remove or kill any individual or groups
with any conflicts with the official party line. Additionally, another method
to categorise dictatorships is through discussion of their institutional
structure. Political scientists Chubb, Gandhi and Vreeland (2010) focus on who
possesses power within the regime in order to classify a dictatorship as either
military, civilian or monarchic. Application of this approach classifies the
Stalinist regime as a civilian dictatorship of either a single-party regime or
a personalistic regime. Although the regime was dominated by one party, it would
categorise as personalistic because of the Stalin cult of personality; personalistic
regimes are distinctive as Geddes (1999) explains “personalist regimes differ
from both military and single-party in that access to office … depends much
more on the discretion of an individual leader … neither the military nor the
party exercises independent decision-making power.”.

With consideration of
categorisation of Stalin’s regime as personalistic totalitarian, the
application of theoretical approaches can also be used to explain the regime’s
survival of nearly 40 years. Political scholar Gerschewski (2010) produced
three pillars of regime stability which allows the explanation of the regimes
durability. Within Gerschewski’s framework, there will also be an application
of three additional elements to further explain the regimes survival of ideas,
institutions and interests.

The first pillar is legitimation consisting
of two forms which are diffuse legitimation and specific legitimation.
Legitimation is the process whereby an ideology becomes legitimate through its
conformity with established societal norms. Diffuse legitimation incorporates
the ideas element since it is the use of ideas in justifying non-democratic
rule, Lenin demonstrated this in 1919 by formulating the phrase “aggravation of
class struggle” in reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Stalin
exhibits diffuse legitimation in 1933 when he put forward the theory of “class
struggle under socialism” which produced a foundation for the assertion that
the continuous repression of ‘capitalist’ elements was necessary to prevent them
from achieving their presumed goal of destroying the Soviet Union. Furthermore,
Stalin argued that tolerance towards those opposing the official party line was
“rotten liberalism”, weakening the party and would lead to the party’s
destruction. Stalin’s use of diffuse legitimation facilitated the survival of
the regime, producing the belief amongst the populace that Stalin’s actions
were what was necessary for the progression of the communist agenda, therefore,
rationalised the purges and brutality as a means toward the ends. This belief
is still prevalent demonstrated by 40% of modern-day Russians feeling the
Stalinist-period brought “more good than bad”, underscoring the successfulness of
rationally justifying Stalin’s strategies. Additionally, diffuse legitimation
was shown with Stalin’s placement of blame of failures of the regime upon
so-called saboteurs, as described by historian Timothy Snyder, “… any problem
in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy
action could be defined as evidence of progress.”.

Whereas, specific legitimation encompasses
the interests element of dictatorship survival and relates to specific outputs
desired by the population being produced to incentivise loyalty. Wright (2008)
argues that those dictators which have a long-time horizon will be incentivised
to generate economic development. Stalin had a long-time horizon, so therefore,
attempted to generate economic development through the implementation of three five-year
plans between 1928 and 1938 which focused on the industrialisation of Russia; to
achieve Stalin’s promise of Russia becoming the leading industrial powerhouse
by 1960. These five-year plans resulted with a few successes of production
improvements such as, in coal by 27% and electricity by 14%, and in areas such
as, transport, water and quality of goods. Since achieving the five-year plan
goals became a measure of progression towards the communist ideal, officials mislead
the populace about levels of productivity to feed propaganda promoting loyalty
to the regime. These goals became a top priority as Stalin attempted to
transform the peasant society into an industrial powerhouse bringing hardship
including no leave and long working days. This suffering was tolerated since workers
had little choice as their wages were paid in food rations, meaning that if
they didn’t comply, they would either be without food or persecuted, as well
as, because of the circulation of propaganda such as, with one poster titled
“peasants can live like a human being”. This created belief amongst workers that
there was a necessity for “constant struggle, struggle, and struggle” in the
movement towards communism where their living standards would greatly increase.
In total, Stalin used specific legitimation to create a climate where the
populace had no choice but to comply, establishing loyalty, explaining the
regime’s survival.

The second pillar is repression which
is the persecution of a group or individual within a society for political
reasons. Throughout the entirety of Stalin’s regime, repression is the most
prevalent strategy and was enforced by the NKVD and public ‘show trials’ resulting
in the gulag, a system of labour camps. Repression was exhibited under Lenin
during the Red Terror, where the Bolshevik government carried out mass killings
of representatives of the Tsarist regime, alongside with those classed as the
bourgeoise. During this period, estimates for the death total reaches up to
200,000 which would’ve been justified by Stalin as he argued that there was a
necessity for a “class struggle” in the pursuit of a communist utopia.
Therefore, the peasants and general populace would fear resisting the regime so
would stay loyal to prevent being persecuted. This repression continued with
the implementation of collectivisation within the five-year plans. Collectivisation
was presented as the fix to the agricultural distribution crisis, however, due
to some resistance resulted in repression of 10 million so-called kulaks, an
estimation from Stalin himself. This further instilled fear amongst the
populace presenting Stalin a false sense of loyalty. The most lethal repressive
strategy used by Stalin was the Great Purge which was a tool used by Stalin to
eradicate any accused of disloyalty like opposition groups or rivals such as,
the right-wing and left-wing Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. During the
Great Purge, 67% of the Central Committee members, 79% of the generals and
admirals and a third of the Communist party were executed. As well as, around
20 million of the Russian populace being sent to the gulag. This persecution further
inculcated fear into under the regime thus, strengthening loyalty to the regime
as Stalin expanded his control to all aspects of life. This repression
established a Stalin cult of personality, which found basis in the fear of persecution
and brutality. This advocated the portrayal of Stalin as an all-powerful and
all-knowing leader mirroring religious ideas, where Stalin was referred to as a
‘father’, insinuating his actions were to benefit his ‘children’ – the
populace. This cult of personality remains a persuasive explanation for the
regimes survival as it created the deliberate obsession of individual
dedication and loyalty to the leader.

The final pillar is co-optation
which incorporates the institutions element of dictatorial regimes and is the
invitation of members to an elite group to manage opposition thus, increase
stability of the regime. Generally, Stalin didn’t employ this strategy,
however, whilst secretary general of the Central Committee, Stalin appointed
loyal followers to surrounding positions so to assemble a strong base of
support within the party. This allowed him to create a loyal support from his
own party and accordingly rise to power. Generally, rather than co-opting
rivals and opposition, Stalin employed terror and repression by persecuting
those deemed disloyal in any way.

Overall, when considering which
theoretical approach best explains the Stalin regime survival, the most
compelling explanation is presented from application of the three pillars of
regime stability from Gerschewski of repression and legitimation, specifically
diffuse legitimation. This is because legitimation constructed a climate within
Russia where all of Stalin’s actions were justifiable according to communist
and socialist ideas circulated through the distribution of propaganda, enforced
through imposition of repression throughout the state. This situation consisted
of high levels of loyalty to the regime, not by choice, but by force, other
regimes which employed such strict control were vulnerable to military coups,
which Stalin’s regime was not because of the use of purges. Therefore, the
stability of the regime was ensured by its extreme brutality which injected
fear and created absolute loyalty from those within its control, limiting
ability for opposition groups to be able to form and gather enough resources to
truly pose a threat.