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Joseph Stalin's personality left a giant imprint on the Soviet system. This chapter describes Stalin's relations with his deputies and their evolution into four phases. The first phase begins by assessing the rise of the Stalinist faction from the end of 1923 to 1924, when a solid majority formed within the Politburo against Leon Trotsky, whose impetuous behaviour and poor political judgement stoked up widespread unease within the leadership. The consolidation of dictatorship from the 1920s to the late 1930s and the operation of the Stalinist dictatorship at its peak, following the Great Purges, is the subject of the second phase. The third phase examines Stalin and his entourage during the war years, a period of marked decentralisation. The fourth phase discusses Stalin's last years, as the decision-making structures of the post-Stalin era. Although an important staging post on the road to dictatorship, the leadership system of the early 1930s is best viewed as a phase of unconsolidated oligarchic rule.
Though the ‘personal factor’ in Soviet history has been debated countless times, it should surprise no one that key events and even entire stages are associated with individuals, such as Lenin with NEP, Stalin with the Great Break, Khrushchev with the Thaw, Gorbachev with Perestroika. Though these are conventions and imprecise references, they reflect an obvious fact: Soviet leaders (like leaders of other countries) had a substantial influence on the course of events. What is at issue is just how strong that influence was, what were its mechanisms, what role was played by this or that leader to cause a period or event to be named after him.
Research on the role of Stalin in the Stalinist dictatorship has provoked widely divergent views. On the one hand, the totalitarian model proceeded from the assumption that Stalin was the lynchpin of the system, and that it would collapse without him. On the other hand, some historians for various reasons have expressed doubts about the strength of Stalin's power and have even written about a loss of real power in certain periods (a peculiar version of the theory of the ‘weak dictator’). However, the majority of historians writing abut Stalin and Stalinism prefer to work with actual documents, thanks to which substantial material has been accumulated and important observations made. This tradition of careful work with sources has played the biggest role in the last ten years since the archives were opened.
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