Stalin emerged from the immense stresses and strains of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ immeasurably strengthened. Proclaimed as the indefatigable infallible ‘Generalissimo’ who had ensured victory over the barbarian Teutonic hordes, he enjoyed, arguably for the first time, buoyant levels of popular support. The regime had proven its ability to survive the supreme challenge of Hitler’s ‘war of annihilation’, the most destructive in history. The imperative to expel the invader had forged a certain national unity between people and government and in this sense the successful prosecution of the war more than any other single factor legitimised the Stalinist system and Stalin himself as undisputed vozhd’. The dilemma facing the triumphant leadership after May 1945 was how best to reconstruct the shattered Soviet economy and society, while safeguarding the sole socialist bastion in an unpredictable international climate. In theory at least, the relatively moderate wartime policies could have been continued both at home and abroad and it is possible that some in the party-state elites favoured measured reform. For Stalin, however, this was anathema and soon the regime reverted to increased repression and state intervention, severely testing its citizens’ new-found loyalty and tentative trust.
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