TL;DR version: How tyrants hold power, in general, and how did Stalin?

I mean, for example, Hitler was voted (the "enabling bill") as the absolute ruler of Germany and his will became legally law (let's not debate legitimacy here).

But, as far as I know, the supreme power in soviet empire was never delegated, legally, to Stalin. The supreme governing body was the Politburo. Still, somewhat (how?), Stalin controlled the Politburo.

How could that have been? A motion for his instant dismissal, taken with a simple majority, could have toppled his power instantly. Mussolini had that surprise when he convened a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism. But, fact is, the GCF was not convened unless Mussolini wanted and his dismissal came after many years when the GCF was simply not convened.

Still, nothing similar happened in Kremlin. The Politburo was convened regularly (or, quite often), a simple majority would have dismiss Stalin immediately, people in the Politburo were quite harsh politicians, so I doubt about moral issues and cowardice, they saw people killed around them, so they must have some hints that theirs own lives are at stake.

A simple vote would have suffice and the occasion presented herself many times.

Was a law? A custom? What prevented such coup against Stalin and what was the legal, or maybe also the psychological base of his power? Why the Politburo simply did not dismiss him but accepted quite easily even killing among its own members? I imagine others too were hungry for power.

Other oligarchies that come into mind (the Khmer Rouge regime, the Argentinian and Greek juntas, Franco regime etc.) were never submitted to such degree to a single person.

On a larger scale, how others dictators keep such a tight grip on power? For example, when they are abroad, any meeting could topple them. Still this rarely, if ever, happens.

Thank you.

Edit: Thanks to Semaphore, let's admit fear as a reason. But, still, the Politburo members were the most powerful people in the empire and their votes counted as equal weight with Stalin's. A simple bill passed against him would have been enough. I think police and army would obey the new master, even if a bit reluctantly. Not much later, Krustchev denounced Stalin and it was not a general uprising against him. So, if it is fear, what made the entire Politburo so fearful so they accepted kills even among themselves? I mean the real reason, they were 10 people in room, during a meeting, no arms, no guns, no monsters inside. They were not handcuffed. Anyone could pass a bill and it would have been over.

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    I think you're rather overvaluing the value of legal authority in a fear-based dictatorship here. – Semaphore Aug 22 '14 at 15:01
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    Mostly fear of repercussions I believe. In such a system you don't know who's legit or not, you don't know who's being rewarded handsomely to pretend to support an overthrow just to see if you're going to support an overthrow, you don't know who's listening through the walls etc.... I don't think he would officially give himself absolute power as that would go against the ideology and likely create (ideologically legitimate) discontent. – Juicy Aug 22 '14 at 15:06
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    I believe Mussolini's fear factor and perceived control was inferior to Stalin's. They weren't the same calibre of tyrant. Also differences in mentality between Russians and Italians, some people are more receptive to tyrants depending on their history. It's a very interesting question but I don't believe there's a definite historical answer to it. – Juicy Aug 22 '14 at 15:11
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    @axeoth Stalin was in the habit of purging any potential or imagined threat. That includes the Soviet leadership such as the Politburo. Even Molotov's wife was enslaved in a labour camp, and he was one of Stalin's staunchest ally. – Semaphore Aug 22 '14 at 15:33
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    Re: the edit; only the living cast votes. Those who failed to assure Stalin that their votes would support Stalin were "elected" to the house of the dead, where their votes didn't count. Stalin practiced what Glen Cook called "preemptive revenge". – MCW Aug 22 '14 at 18:24

In the opinion of Milovan Ðilas, the society level policy apparatus of soviet-style societies--the party elites, the elite state bureaucracy, the elite firm and industry managers--form a "new class" which has a greater interest in maintaining its class rule than it does for the lives of its individual members.

Ðilas claims that this new class goes through three stages:

  1. Ensuring its power through revolution, coup, direct imposition of military government, including the elimination (cf: Soviet Union), or neutering (cf: China, the Eastern European States) any internal opposition. "Salami tactics" in Hungary are the quintessential example of the second method of dealing with internal opposition. It has been observed elsewhere that the one party intolerable to a soviet-style society's elite is a Social Democratic Party, ie: another party vying for the claim of legitimacy on the basis of workers' democracy.
  2. The party must turn on itself. In order to regularise class rule following the chaos of imposing it, the party must eliminate irregular members and ideas within the party itself. This can be by paper purges, or by blood, it can be fast or it can be slow. But the central element here is that members of the "new class" are holding back both the material necessity of an expanded economy (for justifying its actions "for workers" through growth, and by producing an industry capable of military defence of the state). Such members of the "new class" must be eliminated from economic control.
  3. Quiet and decline. With any threat to their hegemony eliminated, the new class turns to enjoyment of their rule. Economic growth is no longer a priority as the proletariat has been completely neutralised by this point. Ðilas was writing in 1957, so his predictive claim in this area was borne out by the reduced growth rates, and the eventual reaction in China returning to capital.

Ðilas' claims are weak, poorly specified (his "new class" doesn't specify a method of appropriation, or a relationship with property, etc.; there is no mode of production specified, but such wouldn't be necessary if Ðilas was only predicting a temporary, rather than a self-reproducing society).

From Ðilas' analysis the question does not make sense. Stalin did not hold power. The Politbureau was willing to tolerate elimination of internal members in order to preserve the rule by the class which its members were part of. Stalin here is the tool of the entire party, bureaucracy, and firm management. If Stalin was incapable of the purges necessary to destroy any remaining working class strength or independent sources of power in the new class then he too would have been thrown beneath the wheels of the juggernaut. Soviet growth did achieve the ends desired in the 1930s: the old urban working class was subsumed beneath a new urban working class off the farms, who viewed industry beneficially due to the increases in work and the leisureful pace of Soviet industry prior to the Great Patriotic War. In the countryside the entire new class was dizzy with the success of its goals of neutering the peasant's capacity for industrial or political action, its destruction of the small and regional rural working classes. And, inside itself, the party renewed itself by destroying old bolsheviks, 1917 or 1919 or 1921 bolsheviks in favour of new "party minded" apparatus people more faithful to the new classes' goals than to Lenin or Marxism or the mission of working class emancipation.

In summary:

  1. The question is wrong in fact.
  2. Stalin wasn't a tyrant. He was an oligarch elected by his class.
  3. Stalin did not have policy control.
  4. The politbureau wanted exactly what Stalin was doing--or rather, Stalin did exactly what the politbureau and new class wanted--even at the cost of many of its members, and many of the members of the ruling class in Soviet Society.

It is worth remember that Khrushchev's criticism focused on extra-legal actions against party members, not against workers.


  • Ðilas, The New Class

  • Conquest, Great Purge

  • Andrle, Soviet Workers

  • Fitzpatrick, S's work.

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    Thank you. Upvoted. Although it does answer mainly from a psychological/social point of view, I still find it to be a very good explanation. Maybe there wasn't after all, any legal basis for Stalin's power and, in this case, the explanation suits well. It was a kind of oligarchy, after all, and the oligarchy agreed to pay the price, even in blood. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 13:37
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    For the time being, I will select this answer, as basically it answers: "There was no such legal mechanism, but let me show you the psychological/social one". If better answers come, I will change. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:59


I think it would be extremely instructive to consider the anti-Beria coup. The conspirators discussed the plans in secret and Beria was arrested by Marshal Georgy Zhukov himself. This plan required an absolute devotion of participants since any leak to a Beria agent was deadly. This is why only high-level people were involved - a Marshal(!!) making an arrest (of another Marshal!)


Another instructive example is the Anti-Party Group which had a majority on Politburo but failed to remove Khrushchev because he claimed (with the critical support of Zhukov) that he can only be removed by the full Central Committee plenary meeting (and he carried that).


Stalin did not consolidate power overnight. He became the gensec in 1922 - as a counterweight to the extremely popular Trotsky. He was the junior member of the triumvirate (with Zinoviev and Kamenev) and was not taken seriously by the party. By 1930 he was an uncontested leader - after ridding himself of Trotsky (1926), Zinoviev/Kamenev (1927), Bukharin(1928), Rykov/Tomsky (1929). By that time, Politburo was stacked with Stalin's people who were grateful for their promotion. At about the same time his ex-personal secretary Mekhlis was given control of Pravda and he started to push the notion of "Stalin the genius and all-father". In a few years rank and file were worshiping Stalin.

Now, imagine, say, Molotov and Malenkov wanting to remove Stalin. They need to kill him more-or-less right away after removing him, otherwise the aforementioned rank-and-file will tear them apart on the spot. They also need to fight the overwhelming temptation to turn the co-conspirator in thus currying favor with Stalin. Finally the next day after killing Stalin they risk being killed by their "innocent" colleagues for murdering "the father and teacher".

They also have to think of tomorrow. They remember that Stalin started with killing off those who were once his equals. This means that, say, Molotov must be thinking "if we depose Stalin today, tomorrow I will have to kill Malenkov - but what if he gets me first?" Trying to outmaneuver a colleague in subservience to Stalin appears to be a better strategy than deposing Stalin to face the wrath of colleagues. Remember that de-stalinization was one of the charges that Beria had to face.

The general atmosphere of mutual mistrust was so pervasive in the Politburo, that it is hard to imagine that a noticeable group might form for such a risky enterprise as a plot against Stalin.

  • You need to discuss the mid-level rank and file of the party, who were purged twice IIRC in the 1930s, a paper purge first, then a blood purge. Stalin appeared to intervene at quite low levels; and, those who initiated and survived the purges tended to hold policy positions aligned with Stalin's: usually for independent reasons (Fitzpatrick S, Conquest R, Ðilas M, etc) – Samuel Russell Aug 22 '14 at 23:18
  • Thanks and upvoted. However: the coup against Beria showed that it was possible for he Politburo to organize a coup and this against all the police in the USSR. Second, if Stalin was killed o the spot (again, one gun would have been enough), as rumors tell Beria was killed, then even all the Police could not bring him back to life and the most pragmatic ones will start looking forward towards the new leader-would-be. Good point about Khrushchev: the CC approval was needed to remove the GenSec and this made a coup very dangerous. Rank and file were not so fanatics to tear apart people. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:28
  • ...unless they were declared traitors. But who would have declared the Politburo traitors if Stalin was already dead? Which voice? – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:29
  • I cannot accept two answers, but I recommend upvoting this one, as it gives one very good explanation: the Politburo could not remove Stalin, legally, without bringing the matter before the CC. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 15:05
  • The next day after Stalin's murder, the non-murdering Politburo members would execute the murdering one for treason. – sds Aug 24 '14 at 2:30

What do you mean, 'legal mechanisms'?

Putting "how tyrants hold power" and "legal or moral mechanism" in the same sentence is completely missing the point. Stalin didn't have power because being chairman of Politburo, but he was chairman of Politburo because he had power. I'm not completely sure, but I believe that legally the Politburo decisions actually weren't binding on anybody, although they definitely were so in practice. Obtaining and holding power from in-group threats in such situations is accomplished by using actual power, and legal mechanisms are used only as post factum justification of keeping, losing or acquiring power.

A nice example of 'legal mechanisms' is the actual legal head of USSR (and also member of Politburo) Mikhail Kalinin, whose wife Stalin simply had arrested, tortured, and kept in prison for ~7 years, all the while Kalinin legally (theoretically) had much more power than Stalin. That is not an isolated case.

The OP proposed scenario "10 people in room, during a meeting, no arms, no guns, no monsters inside. They were not handcuffed. Anyone could pass a bill and it would have been over." is somewhat possible - but with some clarifications. If anyone there actually proposes such a bill, then the only realistic result is that within the hour one part of Politburo forcibly removes the other part (whoever voted the opposite) from any and all power they hold. The winning party may or may not be the one with most 'votes' - no legal process would be followed unless as a public show when it's already clear what the result will be. The predetermined result could be a surprise to someone (who's being deposed), but not to the one(s) initiating it.

Personal loyalty and control of security forces

You can hold power by properly managing those particular individuals and organizations that may threaten you. Stalin had a close circle of loyal people, and controlled the internal security apparatus. Stalin also favoured pre-emptive strikes, and mere suspicion or risk of betrayal was enough.

A coup cannot be accomplished by 'passing a bill' - passing that bill is an act that is done after the coup in order to legitimize it. One does not simply 'make a vote' if there's no guarantee of personal safety afterwards - if it's not known beforehand that the security forces won't simply arrest everyone passing the bill or that the army will eliminate the local security. You need many allies to make such a coup, but asking for such allies is a clear death sentence unless they're very, very motivated to be a part of the coup.

OP statement "I think police and army would obey the new master, even if a bit reluctantly." is absolutely false. Internal security would obey Beria, and army would obey their generals, no matter what was the legal situation. If a coup was done legally, not with 'actual power', the chekists or soldiers would easily shoot or arrest everyone involved without question - there was no such thing in Soviet practice as legislator immunity. In addition, any legal decisions not supported with actual force can be simply ignored, deleted, rewritten or not communicated to the people, since party and security apparatus had full control of mass communication.

Divide and conquer

The Soviet power trio was based on competition between internal security forces, the Party, and the army. None of them (their leaders or controllers) could obtain or hold power if the other two were against them; and everyone who'd attempt to gain power would be sure that failure means death. Politic manipulations can ensure that the balance stays intact, and that any conspiracies stay small enough so that they can't get a critical mass.

In addition, even a successful coup is very risky. You need strong allies with their own power base, but only one can be at the top. If you want to be the new leader, then you'll get support only if everyone else is clearly convinced that the old leader is much worse for their own personal interests and safety. This is a hard thing to do, and it generally happens only when/if the old leader becoming frail or insane. Replacing one tyrant with another, risking your life for it, and risking the new leader killing you right after the coup to remove a potential challenger... it requires a very strong reason to do so.

  • The initial meaning of the question was about a legal, even formal, delegation of powers towards Stalin. Something like "The Politburo entrusts comrade Stalin with the task of hunting down traitors, even among the members of Politburo. He has complete authority as judge, prosecutor and executioner. Signed today ..." or something similar. But, then, @Semaphore (IIRC) suggested it was rather fear than law. So, this deviated a bit through subsequent edits as this part too interested me. But, in fact, there are, indeed, two questions therein. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:11
  • The "10 people in room, during a meeting, no arms, no guns, no monsters inside. They were not handcuffed. Anyone could pass a bill and it would have been over." and "I think police and army would obey the new master, even if a bit reluctantly." worked quite well against Beria, and not much late. And despite all the checkists. And the bill was the coup. Beria was arrested and shot after the bill. On orders of whom would the police kill half of the Politburo? Imagine the scene and give a concrete example. Stalin shouting: "Hey, the other nine are traitors! They dismissed me! Kill them all!"? – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:22
  • The longer I think about it, I tend to agree with @Samuel Russell's answer. Ruling class was willing to pay in blood the luxury to feel being in power. It was like an accepted omertà. Everyone knew, inside his heart, that a killed made place for another's promotion. And everyone dreamed about the promotion and was confident that he will avoid the fall. Well, it did not work for everybody. It was a dangerous game. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:24
  • Another instructive example would be the fate of Kirov. During the 17th Congress of Communist Party of USSR a large number of party representatives voted for Kirov rather than Stalin. After that Stalin had Kirov assassinated and more than half of party representatives, that's over 1000 of high ranking communists, were arrested and executed. – Michael Aug 24 '14 at 0:01
  • @Michael: Kirov died a bit before the purges and maybe he did not know, at that time, the danger of being a rival, real or not, to Stalin. It was in Dec '34. But, until '36 and, especially, '38, they knew very well. And Yezhov for example, knew it better than anyone else. Yet, he sat like a duck. – user1284631 Aug 24 '14 at 11:24

Stalin's first important position was being elected to the Politburo (the main policy-making and executive board) of the Central Committee (the highest body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, directing all Party and government activities), in May 1917. He remained a member of the Politburo for the rest of his life.

During the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), Stalin was an officer of the Red Army and acted more or less as a general, giving him military credentials.

Between 1917 and 1923, Stalin held posts as People’s Commissar of Nationalities Affairs, People’s Commissar of Workers and Peasants Inspection, Revolutionary Military Council member, and member of the Central Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets. These posts gave him much political experience, contacts and credibility.

In April 1922, Stalin was selected to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party, a post that gave him control over all party appointments, promotions, and demotions. This allowed him to promote his allies to powerful positions within the party and remove enemies. He appointed only loyal friends to leadership posts in local trade unions, cooperatives, and army units. Not only did these men report directly to Stalin in many cases, but he kept detailed files on them, and on all party members and industrial managers to make sure of their loyalty to him.

Thus, from a legal point of view, Stalin had two basic levers of power: General Secretary of the Communist Party, and member of the Politburo. Using his power from these two posts, he gradually replaced the members of the Central Committee with men who he knew would be absolutely loyal to him. Since a majority in the Central Committee (kind of the Congress of the Soviet Union) had absolute power, as long as he could control that majority he effectively had the power of a dictator.

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    Good excepting the last paragraph which doesn't deal with Stalin's control of internal dissent by fostering pre-existing urban working class opinion on his own policy track during the pre GPW period (Ural-Siberian, Giddy with Success, Rapid industrialisation). Stalin faced disorganised popular support or discontent as a limitation on his policy until part way through the GPW. – Samuel Russell Aug 22 '14 at 23:20
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    @SamuelRussell: Yes, but it provides a fair explanation about what was the official levels of power that Stalin had (albeit I feel these are not the only ones). It reminds me of Robespierre, who also managed to have much control by being in both the Jacobin Club and the National Convention. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 13:54
  • Do you have a document or a synthesis on what his exact appointing/promoting powers were as a General Secretary? – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 13:56

I hesitate to call fear of death, beatings or imprisonment a moral mechanism. These are what kept Stalin's grip on power.

The basic calculus of an omnipresent secret police force watching for transgressions and the fact that anyone you discussed overthrowing Stalin could turn you in meant that possible dissident elements were completely isolated from each other and rendered impotent. This reached the point of Stalin's savage purges of the military in 1938 that were a large part of the reason that Hitler could have any hope that his invasion of Russia might topple the Soviet state.

  • By moral I had in mind something like "personality cult" ie indoctrination. Still, this kind of fear that you consider here works with low-classes people. Even if they would want, they could not approach Stalin to harm him or put a motion against him. But people in the Politburo could do both. Stalin was not a karateka for them to feel threated by direct beatings, imprisonment, death etc. Yes, police could make such threats. But, again, why the police did obey Stalin even when commanded to arrest members of the Politburo? It was some kind of document that subordinated police to him? – user1284631 Aug 22 '14 at 17:54
  • Stalin's police didn't threaten. They pulled you out of your house and did it. To everybody. – Oldcat Aug 22 '14 at 18:20
  • true. But why did the police obey Stalin against members of the Politburo? Was the police subordinated to Stalin instead of the Politburo? (No matter it was a force of the state, the Politburo named its chief, so the state always obeyed the Party - that is the Politburo). But why did the Politburo/police obey Stalin? It was the police formally subordinated to Stalin? – user1284631 Aug 22 '14 at 18:47
  • If a policeman disobeyed he was killed. If his boss did, other bosses were sent to kill him. If one Politburo member said anything he was killed and the others applauded it. – Oldcat Aug 22 '14 at 18:53
  • Stalin ran the Party, and the Party ran everything. The Politburo were just a set of advisers that had no function other than advising Stalin. A Politburo member might have other jobs - all given by Stalin - and run forces like one of the secret Police bureaus. But there were more than one of all these Police so Stalin could use one to purge the other. In the end he used all the organs to purge the Army itself. – Oldcat Aug 22 '14 at 18:56

Some considerations you may consider.

  • Stalin was extremely popular with the people, and after the war he was seen as the leader of the victorious side in WWII. There was a huge personality cult. Any move against him would be very much suspicious of treachery even if formally legal.

  • Mafia-style rule. As you know many of the mafia leaders in Russia are of Georgian origin. Georgians have certain talents as to covertly controling people and imposing their authority even outside of formal system.

  • As to your assertion that the Politburo members may want dispose Stalin so to save themselves and their families. This is unevident. In fact they even could think his system is just in general. There was a firm principle in the USSR that the government members and their families should not have any privilegies. Even some of Stalin's own relatives were repressed and his son died in a POW camp.

  • Your assertion that a simple Politburo vote would be enough to dispose Stalin is doubtful. Most likely one would need a vote of the Central Committee which was a much wider body, much more difficult to involve in any conspiracy and much more influenced by the popular popularity and propaganda. Additionally, Politburo very rarely (if ever) was convened in full composition.

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    I did upvote your answer, but only for the last paragraph, that states that only the CC could demote Stalin, and I think this is true (the letters of Lenin asking for Stalin's removal were addressed to the CC, not to the Politburo, thus supporting your point). As fo the popularity, this wouldn't play much role in a coup at the top, and besides he grasped all power well before WW2. The fact that he was Georgian would not make him a dictator per se, the Tsars before him were not Georgians. And Stalin's own relatives were repressed because Stalin wanted that, not against his will. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:00
  • And he almost despised his son Yakov (the one that fell in the hands of Germans), to the point that when the latter tried, before the war, to shot himself and missed, Stalin commented that he wasn't even capable of shooting straight. Being close to Stalin, I mean in personal life, was a threat rather than an advantage. He hated those who knew him, because he wanted everybody to see him as the image he constructed, not as he really was. Knowing him was like "inhaling poison gas" (yes, I know about Tukhacevski affair). – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:07
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    Your statement "Georgians have certain talents as to covertly controlling people..." is far too wide-reaching. – Joe Aug 23 '14 at 19:22
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    Oh those crafty Georgians :) -1 – default locale Sep 2 '14 at 6:35

{I'm curious, since you suggest that Hitler was somehow "legal", do you think a dictatorship might happen in the US as well? Do you think those odds are big? Hitler wasn't really "legal"}

To address your question: Aside from this question being largely based on wrong assumptions, it also shows a somewhat superficial understanding of the workings of a Dictatorship, and moreover, of how a democracy works.

Dictatorships work by being based on fear, and of course, rewards to some. But mostly fear, instilled by brutal and swift punishments.

Dictatorships work just like American slavery worked: Fear, brutal whippings and dismemberment of feet and arms, taking kids away from their mother. Slaves didn't rise up, even though they outnumbered the whites 10 to 1 because they were terrorized. Also, not rocking the boat meant you lived. Plus, nowhere to go. In places where that was possible, the Africans massively disappeared.

Finally, for these type of questions, Wikipedia is your friend.

  • No, and I was afraid of such answer. Let's not mix legality and legitimacy here. I do not believe anything. Facts are that somewhat legal resolutions (one could always doubt about their legitimacy) were voted by the Reichstag granting dictatorial powers to Hitler, Mussolini was named Prime-minister with the signature of the legal authority at that time, the King (under threat or not, that's another discussion), Petain was voted into absolute powers "to revise constitution" by some gathered French deputies and so on. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:32
  • I only state facts and I am sorry that I did not find a better word than "legal". I am not a native English speaker and sometimes my English is quite approximative. Those resolutions were voted and born, at least an appearance of legality. If they were legal and legitimate, that only a Court, presumably Constitutional Courts, could say. Not me. With all the respect, I state again that I do not believe anything with respect to this topic. I am only interested in understanding. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:34
  • Your answer greatly leave outside dictatorships based on ideology and fanaticism. But, most of all, on tradition. People had absolute rulers ror long time, because this was the tradition, the life as they knew it. The question was only to replace an absolute ruler by another one. Example: all empires and kingdoms from Antiquity and Middle Age. But, in Soviet empire, they went through a kind of democracy, quickly replaced by the "War communism", a state from which they would never recovered. As Martov put it, the beast did feel the taste of blood. This made a new kind of despotism possible. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:39
  • Most of all, slaves also lacked guns. It is difficult to revolt when the sole guns available are on the other side of the front line. – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:40
  • Another thing about legaility: how a regime came into power is one thing and I do not debate it here. But, once in power, it passes resolutions which could be assumed to be legal under that regime. Otherwise, all revolutions would be illegal as I doubt they respect the law of the regime that they destroy. They might be legitimate, that's another thing, because they represent the will of people (albeit, a quite evasive concept). – user1284631 Aug 23 '14 at 14:43

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