Article 58 in which people could be imprisoned for "anti-Soviet activities"). Stalin is said to have personally signed 40,000 death warrants of suspected opponents of the regime.
During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without fair trial of anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin's regime became commonplace. At these times the Russian word troika gained a new, horrible meaning: a quick, simplified trial by a committee of three.
By the NKVD's accounting, 681,692 people were shot during 1937-38 (although many historians think that this was an undercount) and millions of people were transported to Gulag labor camps.
Several show trials were held in Moscow to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewere in the country. There were four key trials during this period: the Trial of the Sixteen (August 1936); Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One (including Bukharin) in March 1938.
Trotsky's August 1940 assassination in Mexico, where he had lived in exile since 1936, eliminated the last of Stalin's opponents among the former Party leadership. Only two members of the "Old Bolsheviks" (Lenin's Politburo) now remained - Stalin himself and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
It is believed by most historians that with the famines, forced migrations, state terrorism, prison and labor camp mortality and political purges, Stalin and his colleagues were responsible for the deaths of millions. How many millons died under Stalin is greatly disputed. Although no official figures have been released by the Soviet or Russian governments, most estimates put the figure at between eight and twenty million. Comparison of the 1926-39 census results suggests 5-10 million deaths in excess of what would be normal in the period, mostly through famine in 1931-34. The highest estimates put the figure as high as 50 million from the 1920s to the 1950s.
In August 1939 Stalin agreed to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany which divided Eastern Europe into the two powers' respective spheres of influence. In June 1941, however, Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Stalin had not expected this and the Soviet Union was largely unprepared for this invasion. Until the last moment, Stalin had sought to avoid any obvious defensive preparation which might provoke German attack, in the hope of buying time to modernize and strengthen his military forces. Even after the attack commenced Stalin appeared unwilling to accept the fact and, according to some historians, was too stunned to react appropriately for a number of days.
The Nazis initially made huge advances, capturing or killing hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops. The earlier execution of many of the Red Army's experienced generals in the Red Army had a severely negative effect on Russia's ability to organise defences. In response on November 6, 1941, Stalin addressed the Soviet Union for only the second time during his three-decade rule (the first time was earlier that year on July 2). He stated that even though 350,000 troops were killed in German attacks so far, that the Germans have lost 4.5 million soldiers (a wildly false lie) and that Soviet victory was near. The Soviet Red Army did in fact put up fierce resistance, but during the war's early stages was largely ineffective against the better-equipped and trained Nazi forces until the invaders were halted and then driven back before Moscow (December 1941).
Stalin's Order No. 227 of July 27, 1942 illustrates the ruthlessness with which he sought to stiffen army resolve: all those who retreated or otherwise left their positions without orders to do so were to be summarily shot. In the war's opening stages, the retreating Red Army also sought to deny resources to the enemy through a scorched earth policy of destroying the infrastructure and food supplies of areas before the Germans could seize them. Unfortunately, this, along with abuse by German troops, caused starvation and suffering among the civilian population that was left behind.
The Soviets bore the brunt of civilian and military losses in World War II. Between 21 and 28 million Soviets, most of them civilians, died in the "Great Patriotic War", as the Soviets called the German-Soviet conflict. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities occupied by the Nazis. The Nazis considered Slavs to be "sub-human", ranking the killings in the eyes of many as ethnically targeted mass murder, or genocide. The conflict left a huge deficit of men of the wartime fighting-age generation in Russia. As a result, to this day, World War II is remembered very vividly in Russia, and May 9, Victory Day, is one of its biggest national holidays.
Many elderly Russians are nostalgic for the Stalin era.
Following World War II Stalin's regime installed friendly Communist-led satellite governments in the countries that the Soviet army had occupied, including Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the later "Communist Bloc" allied from 1955 in the Warsaw Pact. Stalin saw this as a necessary step to protect the Soviet Union, and ensure that it was surrounded by countries with friendly "puppet" governments, to act as a "buffer" against any future invaders, a reversal of inter-war western hopes for a sympathetic Eastern European Cordon sanitaire against Communism.
But this action convinced many in the west that the Soviet Union intended to spread communism across the world. The relations between the Soviet Union and its former World War II western allies soon broke down, and gave way to a prolonged period of tension and distrust between east and west known as the Cold War.
At home Stalin presented himself as a great wartime leader who had led the USSR to victory against the Germans. Internally his repressive policies continued, but never reached the extremes of the 1930s. Stalin had, according to some, prepared a new wave of arrests and executions aimed at "cosmopolitans," a code word for Jews, in 1953, but died before implementing his plans.
On March 1, 1953, after an all-night dinner with interior minister Lavrenty Beria and future premiers Georgi Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin collapsed. He died four days later, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 73. Officially, the cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. His body was left in state in Lenin's Tomb until October 31, 1961. The political memoirs of Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claimed Beria had boasted to Molotov that he poisoned Stalin. After his death his body was embalmed and put on display with Lenin's. However, anti-Stalinists quickly removed his body and buried it.
Under Stalin the Soviet Union was industrialized to the point that by the time of World War II the Soviet industrial-military complex was able to help resist the German invasion. Unfortunately, this had been achieved at a staggering cost in human lives.
While the social and economic transformations over which he presided laid the foundations for the USSR's emergence as a global superpower, much of Stalin's conduct of Soviet affairs was subsequently repudiated by his successors in the Communist Party leadership, notably in his denunciation by Khrushchev in February 1956. His successors were not, on the other hand, able to wean themselves from the basic principles on which Stalin based his rule -- the political monopoly of the Communist Party presiding over a command economy, relying on force to maintain its position at home and abroad.