Introduction - the political structure of the USSR
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik or SSSR in Russian, CCCP in the Cyrillic alphabet) was a federated state that ruled over ~22,402,200 km2 of land in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The Union, which has its origins in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, was officially established on November 30, 1922. The 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union put the legal status of the other Republics thusly -
ARTICLE 13. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a federal state, formed on the basis of the voluntary association of Soviet Socialist Republics having equal rights
The right to cessation actually existed only on paper, however. The USSR's political structure had five main elements -
The Politburo ("political bureau"), which existed from 1917 to 1991 as the main policymaking body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In theory it was subject to the will of the Central Committee, but in reality Bolshevik dictatorship worked the other way around. The General Secretary of the Party sat at the heart of the Politburo.
The Central Committee was in theory the highest decision-making body of the Union, but in reality nothing but a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Politburo. It acted as a parliament of sorts until 1934, when Stalin purged it with the ruthlessness he purged all other institutions of the Soviet apparatus. From then until his death in 1954 it lost every single vestige of its power, then enjoyed a brief spurt of power, then was denied it again.
The Supreme Soviet was technically the highest legislative assembly of the Party, which could be used to pass Constitutional amendments (the actual written Constitution of the Union and the way things worked had little relation anyway). As with the Central Committee, it was in reality a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Politburo and over less representative organisations. There was one representative for every 300,000 citizens in the Supreme Soviet.
The Party Congress, which met every five years to over-see the operation of the Party and elect members to the Central Committee. In reality, it was dictated to by the Politburo.
Finally, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was the only legal political party in the Union from 1917 to 1990, when it called for the end of its guarantee of power. In the Soviet Union, the Party had absolute power over all matters political and economical (note that, for instance, the People's Republic of China and Vietnam have relaxed economic control in recent decades, but kept political authority).
In the start there were four Republics – the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), the Byelorussian SSR, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian SSR.
At its territorial height the Union had fifteen Republics. They were, with the dates of membership in the Union -
- The Armenian SSR, which was a former part of the Russian Empire (from 1828). It joined the Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 and became a Republic in the Union in 1936. It is now the independent state of Armenia.
- The Azerbaijan SSR, which was incorporated into the Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic in 1920, and became a Republic within the Union in 1936. It is now the independent state of Azerbaijan.
- The Byelorussian SSR, which was a former part of the Russian Empire. It became a constituent Republic of the USSR in 1922. It is now the independent state of Belarus.
- The Estonian SSR, which was occupied by Russia in 1940, then captured by the Germans, then re-captured by the Russians. After withdrawing from the Russian Empire after its collapse in 1918, it became a Republic of the USSR in 1944, and is now the independent state of Estonia.
- The Georgian SSR, which was a former part of the Russian Empire. The Red Army reincorporated it back into the Soviet Union ruthlessly in 1921, and it remained a Republic within the Union until 1991. It is now the independent state of Georgia.
- The Kazakh SSR, which was a former part of the Russian Empire, was incorporated into the Soviet Union after the Revolution. It declared independence as the state of Kazakhstan in 1991.
- The Kyrghiz SSR, which had been part of the Russian Empire since 1876. Soviet power was established in 1919 and Kyrghiz became a full Republic in the Union in 1936. It became the independent state of Kyrgyzstan in 1991.
- The Latvian SSR, which had enjoyed independence after the Revolution until Russia incorporated it into the Union in 1940 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It gained independence as Latvia in 1991.
- The Lithuanian SSR, which was also independent after 1918 until 1940, when Russia incorporated it into the Union. It was the first Republic to declare independence, doing so in March of 1990. It is now the independent state of Lithuania.
- The Moldovian SSR, which was incorporated into the Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Operation Barbarossa then forced the Red Army out, but they returned in 1944 and stayed until 1991, when it became the independent state of Moldova.
- The Russia SFSR (that's Soviet Federated Socialist Republic), which existed from 1917 until 1991, when it became the Russian Federation. It dominated the Union in all ways and the capital city of the union, Moscow, was located there.
- The Tadzhik SSR, which fell under Soviet control in 1921 and became a constituent Republic in 1929. In 1991 it became the independent state of Tajikistan.
- The Turkmen SSR, which became a Republic in 1924 after being under the domination of Russia since 1918. In 1991 it became the independent state of Turkmenistan.
- The Ukrainian SSR, which was briefly independent until 1920. It was a founding Republic of the Union in 1922, and it remained a member until 1991 (apart from a brief occupation by Germany, 1941-44), when it became the independent state of Ukraine.
- The Uzbek SSR, which had been a former part of the Russian Empire. It became a Republic in 1925, and remained so until 1991 when it became an independent country by the name of Uzbekistan.
History of the Soviet Union part 1 - Lenin
I. Lenin's Revolution
Chronologically, the history of the Soviet Union certainly begins with the Russian Revolution of February 1917. What started out as looking like the first victory for democracy in Europe, and a glorious one at that, was soon guided away from the sandy beaches of liberal democracy onto the sharp rocks of Bolshevik dictatorship. After seizing power in October, Lenin did not prevent the meeting of the Constituent Assembly (the body which was to be "the highest form of the democratic principle" in Russia), but the next day he had it closed down by force. Thus began the concentration of power in the Party and away from the people.
The Soviet system was forged amidst a war that claimed more lives than World War I. When the Bolshevik Party came to power on October 25th, the Russian civil war had begun (Lenin himself believed it to have started in August with the Kornilov affair). The last Prime Minister of Russia before October, Kerensky, lost all legitimacy in the so-called "Kornilov Affair". The Provisional Government, which Kerensky headed, had always had a hard time satisfying both the political Left and Right, but during this time Kerensky managed to alienate just about everyone. It was so absurd that one can't help but think it could only happen in Russia.
General Lvar Kornilov was a military man of the old style, a traditional authoritarian conservative who was concerned with keeping the Army together and winning World War I. A man of fairly under-developed political ideas, he nevertheless became the nexus of a movement which aimed to place him in power. Kornilov did not want to do away with the Provisional Government, but rather save it by establishing it as a stronger dictatorship. He thus advanced reform plans to Kerensky to set up a military dictatorship, with a ban on strikes and workers' meetings, the militarization of the defence industry and railways, and the disbandment of revolutionary regiments. Kerensky was torn between what to do - he feared a Bolshevik seizure of power if he passed Kornilov's reforms, but he was aware of the great popularity of the latter among the Right. Ultimately it would emerge that he had rather mis-judged the situation.
Kerensky called a conference in Moscow to try and effect a rapprochement between Left and Right. It was here that the people of Moscow fell out of love with him, as he bumbled incoherently and Kornilov stole the show. Kerensky now needed a way out to salvage his own legitimacy, and it seems that this way came in the shape of the nobleman V.N. Lvov. Lvov went to Kornilov and told him that Kerensky was willing to cede power to him absolutely, or was willing to establish a dictatorship of which Kerensky himself would be part. Kornilov said his own absolute dictatorship was preferable, but that he would subordinate himself to Kerensky if it was seen as best for the revolution. Lvov returned to Kerensky and told him that Kornilov was demanding power, which Kerensky viewed as treason. To gain further "proof" of the conspiracy, he had a conversation with Kornilov over a primitive telex machine. He impersonated Lvov, asking Kornilov to confirm what he had said earlier (without saying exactly what he had said), which Kornilov of course did. Kerensky then took this as proof of a "counter-revolution" to the cabinet, who all realised that Kerensky was just trying to save his own skin, and promptly resigned.
Kerensky, now dictator, then dismissed Kornilov by telex. Kornilov, who now believed that Kerensky had been captured by the Left Bolsheviks because of the establishment of a Right military dictatorship, decided to march to the capital with troops to defend the Provisional Government. Meanwhile, Kerensky put out a special edition of the press denouncing Kornilov as a "counter-revolutionary" and calling for the defence of the capital. And it was at this moment he sealed his own fate, for only the Bolsheviks had the organisation to defend the capital, and so he released prominent members of the Party from prison and armed some 40,000. When the two forces met no fighting actually took place because it soon became apparent that both were in the capital to defend the government, not overthrow it. Kornilov and some thirty members of the officer corps - many of whom would later be part of the White army - were placed in a Monastery by Kerensky. This won him no friends with the Right, who had been faithful to the Kornilov movement until the end. Meanwhile, the Left suspected Kerensky as having actually being involved with the Kornilov movement, and many murdered their officers for the same reason.
Kerensky, having gained dictatorial powers, had lost all real authority. From Finland, Lenin sent articles to Pravda urging the Bolsheviks to stage a coup. But most of the Party leadership in Petrograd was unsure what to do - they knew they didn't have the popular support needed to carry the masses or even the Petrograd garrison. The Bolshevik military organisation - the Military Revolutionary Committee - managed to subvert the garrison by posing as the defender of the Petrograd Soviet, the left-wing organisation which held power along with the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks timed their coup to coincide with a Soviet Congress, at which their political opponents on the Left bitterly denounced their violent assault on the Provisional Government. They walked out in fury, leaving the Bolsheviks to dominate the Congress and legalise their dictatorship. It is almost certain this is what Lenin intended all along.
II. Domestic affairs until Lenin's death - the civil war
The new Bolshevik regime, which theoretically found itself at war on three fronts when it assumed power (against the Whites, against the Central Powers, and against class enemies), ended the war with the Central Powers with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 (of which more below). Lenin had more important things to deal with, such as the establishment of his regime in a powerful and well-entrenched enough position to fight the civil war. At first no-one thought the Bolsheviks would last - the press dismissed them as a passing phase, and their initial incompetence in running the machinery of state seemed to bear this out. And yet, with serious, organised opposition lacking, they slowly managed to establish absolute power and liquidate their opposition.
The Civil War, though begun, did not yet see the Whites fielding huge armies. In central Russia armed resistance was virtually non-existant. And so, though the Bolsheviks faced resistance and sabotage in the factories and the civil service, they could win out by sheer force of terror. Commissars were appointed in the civil service to oversee its work, dissidents were arrested and low-level Bolsheviks were promoted to high-level positions in the civil service. There weren't many massive purges of the bureaucracy, but the civil service was left with a low level of acumen due to the necessity of promoting low-level, un-educated Bolsheviks. In the provinces, the Bolsheviks promised the people "Bread and Land" and threw all power to the local Soviets (Councils). The peasants carved up the gentry's land, which is what they had been waiting to do all this time anyway - the need for a Provisional Government now seemed less to them, so they would support the Bolsheviks.
Meanwhile, freedom was offered to the Russian Empire. Bolshevik policy towards the Russian Empire seems uncertain in the first few years after the Revolution because not only did they lack power to enforce it, but they were also unsure what to do. Lenin had always opposed national self-determination (international Marxism called for the liquidation of the nation-states of Europe, after all), but as the war wore on and the Romanovs fostered nationalism to aid it, Lenin became convinced nationalism as a factor could not be wished away. Then, as the Russian Civil War wore on, the Communist Party slowly came round to the fact that the national movements were counter-revolutionary in nature. Stalin was especially zealous in advocating the conquering of old parts of the Empire by force, especially his native Georgia. It is entirely sensible to ask why after World War I the Habsburg Empire died and the Czarist one was reborn - the answer perhaps lies in the ability of Russia, due to its size and resources, to dominate the smaller minorities. Mark Mazower remarks: "Communism turned out to be the last, and perhaps the highest, stage of imperialism." Between 1920 and Lenin's death in 1924, many countries were re-incorporated into the Soviet Union (see above).
The Russian Civil War was fought not just between the Bolsheviks and supporters of the Czar, but between the Bolsheviks and the Russian people. The Russian economy during the civil war was run by a system generally referred to as "War Communism" - a strict and militarized centrally-planned economy of the sort that would be familiar to those living under Stalin in the 1930s. The first major plank of it was the attempt to totally abolish the free market by the Grain Monopoly of May 1918. This absurd and anti-utilitarian step simply diverted resources away from the civil war, but it also helped it in a sinister way - it allowed the Bolsheviks to liquidate their internal enemies. In 1917 they had established Cheka, the first internal security organisation which would eventually become the KGB. They declared all of the peasants' grain to be the state's property and dispatched Cheka to requisition it. They also nationalised all industry and tried to place it under the direct authority of the Party.
This was the first step against the kulaks, which the Bolsheviks usually defined as someone who employed wage labour, then just as "rich peasants", then the moderately rich peasants, and so on. Marxism claimed the peasantry were a dying class, so it was in the interests of the revolution to speed up their death anyway - it was merely convenient that this would help solve the grain crisis in the cities. Stalin didn't complete the liquidation of the kulaks as a class until the mass collectivizations of the 1930s. Lenin, however, made a good start, even if he did rescind it under the New Economic Policy (see below). Meanwhile, the Cheka continued its Red Terror against anyone seen as an opponent of the Revolution, and also murdered the Imperial family.
When the civil war was over, with the Whites defeated, the country was devastated. Lenin realised the futility of the Grain Monopoly, the Kronstadt revolt having proved its huge unpopularity in the countryside. Thus between 1921 and 1928 the Soviet Union enjoyed the "New Economic Policy", which was a period of liberalisation and market freedom that brought the expected prosperity. In 1920 industrial output was at one seventh of its pre-Revolution level - in 1928 output in all sectors exceeded the pre-Revolutionary level. Small and medium enterprises were privatised, and large ones left largely to their own devices, although under state ownership. Agricultural production soared and the Soviet Union became the World's largest producer of grain - the break-up of the old feudal order gave peasants a huge incentive to maximise efficiency.
The NEP was deemed to be a temporary retreat - "a peasant Brest-Litovsk" - which was needed before true socialism. Conventional Marxist doctrine argued that it was impossible to build socialism from the ground up - it had to be built on the corpse of a capitalist country. Russia needed to undergo this stage of bourgeois development before the revolution could be completed. Many Bolsheviks disagreed with this view, indicating the growth of the nepmen - petty traders - and kulaks - the richer peasant middle-class. These classes were naturally viewed as counter-revolutionary, and Stalin would eventually build his power on their liquidation.
III. Foreign affairs until Lenin's death
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Poland (which is now just called Brest and in Belarus) was a huge blow for the Russian nation. By it she lost 34% of her population, 32% of her agricultural land and 89% of her coalmines. Meanwhile, Eastern Europe seemed to have fallen under a Pax Germanica - the British Foreign Office thought Germany could carry on fighting the whole world for ever, perhaps extending the ground war against India. The Germans promised the Ukraine independence, and in return got one million tonnes of grain a year from Europe's breadbasket. The fact Germany collapsed a few months later was certainly not expected at the time.
The Treaty was perhaps the biggest embarrassment of the Bolshevik government in its early months. The Right was devastated by the break-up of the Empire and it seemed Russia was returned to the power of 17th century Muscovy. There was an attempt on Lenin's life in 1918. And it wasn't even the Right that was scandalized by the Treaty. Yet the German collapse made things seem much better, and the Red Army was soon able to move back into Eastern Europe and remain there while the Weimar Republic was crippled. It was in the years around 1920 that the Bolsheviks were most confident that they would be able to export Communism to Eastern Europe and beyond (there was a similar revival of hope after World War II), mainly due to the impoverished state of the Continent after the war. Within only a few years it seemed that the ripeness of the West for revolution had in reality being over-estimated – the Hungarian Béla Kun gave his country only four months of Communist rule, and the Berlin revolt by Rosa Luxemberg came to naught.
Of particular import at this time were the actions of Poland and the Bolshevik reaction to it. Poland had always lived in the shadow of the three great Empires of Eastern Europe, and during World War I both the Central Powers and the Russian Empire had conscripted Poles into their armies to fight another. But at Versailles, Poland was granted independence and a belt of land – the Polish corridor – stretching from the River Wisla to the Baltic Sea, and parts of Posen and West Prussia. Newly strengthened and supported by the Allies as a buffer zone between Russia and Germany, the Poles suddenly turned out to have imperialist aspirations of their own. The Polish head of state talked of restoring "historic" Poland and their troops marched into Belarus and the Ukraine. On May 6, 1920, Polish troops marched into Kiev, facing little opposition. Seeing an opportunity to help win the civil war by inspiring patriotism through proving he could keep the Empire together (and, some scholars have argued, as the first step towards an invasion of all of Europe), Lenin decided to take offensive action against Poland. He did so against the advice of both Trotsky and Stalin, who turned out to be justified in their skepticism – militarily, the invasion was a disaster.
Although the Bolsheviks would no doubt have ordered the Red Army to London had they the strength to do so, the dangers of civil war and their exhausted economy prevented them from doing so. It has been suggested that the invasion of Poland was a warning shot to the West against an invasion of Russia (the West had tried to kill the Revolution at birth with its support of the Whites, after all). However, the Treaty of Riga in 1921 only proved the impotence of the Red Army when it came to fighting prolonged wars abroad (they were having enough trouble at home!) By the Treaty they ceded parts of Belorussia to Poland, and along with the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany in 1922, this heralded an era of peace between Soviet Russia and the West. It became clear to the Bolsheviks that their best chance for spreading Communism was in the East.
In the East, many nations formerly dominated by Russia or Turkey enjoyed a brief period of independence while these two were week. In the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were eventually conquered by the Red Army, becoming part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (one of the original four Republics). The temporary independence of these nations could never last once Russia and Turkey decided to reassert their dominance in the region, because they were far too small and ethnically diverse for a sense of nationhood to develop. The most viable as an independent state was Georgia, but once it was surrounded in a sea of Red it could not withstand domination. Of course, military conquest is never a base for domination of a population for decades - this had to be achieved through, among other things, land reform. Because in many of these states the landowning class was often of a different ethnicity to the peasants (for instance, large landowners in Georgia were usually Armenians), the Bolsheviks could break up the landed estates of the aliens and hand them to the peasants to win support. This gave the peasantry a vested interest in the continuation of Bolshevik power (the opposite happened in Poland, where the peasantry in fact rose up against the Reds).
IV. From the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars to the Secretary-General: Lenin's nadir
Joseph Stalin's first major job in the Soviet regime was heading the Commissariat for Nationality Affairs, as well as being Commissar for State Control between 1919 and 1923. Most importantly of all, he became Secretary-General of the Party in 1922. Stalin had always had a reputation for taking the mundane jobs and being a workhorse, and Lenin had always thought he was using him. Stalin's first main base of power, which he used in the upcoming factional struggles over Lenin's succession, were the regional Party secretaries whose patronage he controlled. In one year alone he made over 10,000 changes. He was assisted in this by the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB, who became the GPU in 1922), who he had place almost every regional Party boss under surveillence - the secret police overwhelmingly sided with Stalin in his struggle against Leon Trotsky, because having written from the conspiratory apparatus himself he was bound to augment its power.
Lenin suffered his first major stroke on May 15, 1922. At this point he became concerned more than ever before with the issue of the succession - at this point it seemed certain he favoured a collective leadership to come after him, clearly believing no-one to be equal to the task he had managed during the Revolution. It is likely at this point that he favoured Stalin as part of this collective leadership - he was, after all, a very competent administrator and not as individualistic as Trotsky. Lenin had always tolerated Stalin's use of patronage because Stalin had justified it as a way of enforcing orthodox Leninism in the Party apparatus. But when Stalin started making moves to oust Trotsky from important positions in the Party, it seemed clear to Lenin that Stalin was really thirsting for power. Trotsky would later claim while in exile that at this point Lenin approached him suggesting they form a bloc against Stalin - but then, on 15 December, 1923 Lenin suffered his second major stroke.
It was at this point that Stalin began to take total control. He placed himself in charge of Lenin's health and access to his person, allowing him to hear no political news and only to dictate for ten minutes a day. It was at this point that Lenin dictated his "Testament", which was supposed to be heard at an upcoming Party Congress. Due to its vicious assault on Stalin he did not allow it to be read to the Congress, and they would only hear it in 1956 when Stalin's successors were concerned with disassociating themselves with him. The delegates were made aware of its contents, but they mostly attributed it to Lenin's poor health and a personal quarrel with Stalin. This is largely beared out by its contents anyway - the parts that deal directly with Stalin talk of his "rudeness", lack of "loyalty" and lack of "tolerance". But there were also parts that attacked Stalin's policies. He was accused of being a 'Great Russian' chauvinist for his treatment of the Georgians; of subverting the democratic process of the Party; and of having an irreconcilable split with Trotsky.
What is amazing is that Trotsky, head of the Red Army and certainly able to command its loyalty, did not even attempt to seriously stop Stalin's rise to power. Trotsky - considered by the Party rank and file as an outsider because of his Jewish looks - decided suddenly to become the champion of Party democracy and speak out against Stalin's centralising policies. He hardly had the credentials for this, and would surely have had a better chance doing battle with Stalin in the Party apparatus. He sent an Open Letter to the Central Committee accusing it of suppressing democracy, for which a motion of censure was passed against him by the delegates, most of whom had been picked by Stalin. Politically, Trotsky was dead, and Stalin's dominance was assured.
Lenin died on 21 January, 1924. Almost all strata of the Party apparatus was by now a tool in Stalin's hands. Democratic centralism (which meant the Party would have ferocious arguments among itself but, once it had reached a decision, all were expected to toe the Party line) was replaced by the cult of Stalin, where the only way to remain loyal was to repeat at breakfast what Stalin had said the evening before. The planks of Stalinism - the cult, the terror, the police - all seemed to be in place. Over the coming decades, they would be honed with terrifying skill.
History of the Soviet Union part 2 - Stalin
I. The Stalinist economy
By 1929, after destroying his erstwhile allies and expelling Trotsky from the Party (1927), Stalin began his wholesale assault on the Union itself (after destroying also his allies in round two of the battle against Trotsky). Stalin's first concern was to break down any rudimentary classes that had formed during the period of the NEP, to make easier his return to the brutal methods of War Communism with a totally planned economy. The assault on the kulaks - which aimed at and achieved the liquidation of the kulaks as a class - was the first stage of this, which began in 1929. A kulak was basically any peasant that resisted the collectivisation of agriculture which was carried out to increase efficiency. Many formerly landless peasants actually stood to gain from the collectivisation anyway because it gave them an equal share of labour and output. People resisting the change would be deported to Siberia and a gulag (the Soviet Union did this to roughly seven million people), which happened to millions of people in the 1930s. Often seen as the "driving force" behind the Soviet economy in the 1930s, the gualgs were in reality very anti-utilitarian in nature, and did not aim for the maximisation of output by the inmates. They did serve a very important economic function in the peripheries, however, explaining the regime's high output of natural resources in the first years. In the first great liquidation of the kulaks, in 1930-31, perhaps 2.5 million peasants were exiled.
Many peasants opposed the agricultural changes bitterly. Some destroyed their animals rather than have them made communal property. The high level of efficiency achieved in Soviet agriculture during the NEP period was destroyed and not regained until 1940. Famines ensued on a huge scale during this period, especially in the Ukraine (where it is believed between two and five million people perished), which was actually encouraged by Stalin as a way of squashing their national aspirations. However, the mobilization of agricultural resources by the state and mass expropriations had another effect - they allowed the Union to export grain and get capital to spend on heavy industry.
Exactly ten years before Operation Barbarossa began Stalin made a telling prophesy - "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must catch up this distance in ten years. Either we do it or we go under." Historians dispute the exact degree of success of the Five Year Plans - but undoubtedly, in terms of raising output, they were a success, even if the human cost is incalcuable. Entire new cities were constructed and the urban work force more than tripled in ten years. Pig iron output doubled, coal output tripled, iron ore output almost quadrupled. The vast pace of Soviet industrialisation, when contrasted with the depression currently going on in the West, explains the sympathy with which many Western intellectuals viewed the Soviet Union during this period (there was a motion in the Cambridge Union in 1932, "This house sees more hope in Moscow than Detriot").
Although Stalinist apologists may hold up the basic healthcare provisions or increase in education of this period, working conditions were horrendous. The working class were allowed no political power (political life was dead in the Soviet Union now anyway), housing standards declined and much growth was provided for by restricting the consumption of the people. Labour discipline became one of the main preoccupatinos of the regime - secret police activity in the Union exploded in the early 1930s as Stalin had finally achieved what every totalitarian ruler desires - the complete atomisation and isolation of the individual.
II. Terror and purges
From 1934 onwards, terror and purges were a Stalinist institution. It is firstly necessary to understand the mostly arbitrary nature of the purges. The best education in Marxism or having the best interests of the Party at your heart could not save you from them. We have already discussed the liquidation of the kulaks (the point when the collectivised farms had created a new class that would itself need liquidation seems to have come two years before Stalin's death, when he proposed to break down the farms and reform them in larger units). The working class, which as I have discussed had no class consciousness of its own because the Party had always frustrated its interests, was transformed into a gigantic forced labour force by the Labour Book of 1938.
Between 1936 and 1938 Stalin rid himself of the Party bureaucracy by liquidating them as a class. They, like the farmers and workers before them, were turned into forced labours with no real power. Finally, Stalin purged the military and police officials who had helped him carry out the rest of the purges. Up to half of the administrative machinery of the Party was reportedly liquidated. None of these elements were hostile to the regime - active opposition had ceased in 1930 when Stalin banned factionalism (and look how weak it had been, given it prevented his rise to power) - the point was merely to reinforce the domination of the totalitarian government over the individual. No-one was safe; yet those left behind, by not being excluded, felt an increased sense of their own inclusion.
The pretext for the start of the purge was the murder of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad, almost certainly on Stalin's orders, in 1934. Stalin used this as an excuse to begin his systematic purge of the Party - hundreds were shot for alleged complicity in his death. Kirov had been the head of the Leningrad Party apparatus and disagreed with Stalin on some issues, but was not a real threat. The shake-up snowballed from there, and the Kirov affair culminated in the Moscow show trial of sixteen old Bolsheviks. They all provided confessions and were then executed - often without inducement, because serving the Party was "an inner need". If the Party demanded a confession for the general good, the Party got one. The Red Army generals and over 50% of the officer corps were then purged, the generals accused of spying for the Germans.
Here is a list of just some of the people executed or who commited suicide during the Great Terror -
- All of Lenin's Politburo apart from Stalin and Trotsky (Trotsky was assassinated in 1940).
- Two successive heads of the NKVD, who Stalin had appointed to the position.
- The man who led the charge against the Winter Palace in 1917.
- The military judges who condemned the Red Army generals to death.
- All of Stalin's erstwhile friends.
Stalin has often been seen as a "paranoid" individual. It's difficult to say whether his behaviour can really be described as paranoid or whether he was just exceptionally ruthless. He certainly dominated all aspects of the Party and state apparatus with extreme ruthlessness and prevented any conspiracy emerging. His simultaneous assault on the Russian people - the workers and the peasants - and the Party bureaucracy would have affirmed the massive power of the secret police had he not emasculated them as well. Stalin was the archtypical totalitarian ruler of the twentieth century - all powerful, all obeyed, and seemingly all irrational.
III. World War II
The political situation in Eastern Europe had been carved during Russia's period of weakness following the Revolution, and so were seen as detrimental. This is why the Soviet Union did not initially oppose the Anschluss or the disemberment of Czechoslovakia - because this seemed likely to eventually cause a war between the Western powers, this would surely help the spread of Communism. In August 1939 the Union opened up talks with the Western powers, but they failed due to mutual suspicion - Russia said it wanted the right to intervene in neighbouring countries to defend herself from the German threat, but the West thought it just wanted to expand its sphere of influence. Poland wouldn't even let Soviet troops in as allies in the event of war, for fears they might never leave.
So Stalin opened negotiations with the Germans to at least stall their lone resistance to German expansionism. German continental imperialism could not be held off for ever - Germany's desire for Lebensraum (living space) could not be abated indefinitely. The output of the talks was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence - Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bessarabia went to the Soviet Union. On September 1st, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, kicking off the Second World War, and Soviet troops invaded Eastern Poland on September 17th. The three Baltic republics signed "mutual assistance" treaties with the USSR and were duly occupied, but Stalin decided to invade Finland after it refused his demand for territorial concessions. Finland was defeated after three months of intense fighting that was costly for the Red Army, which only occupied about 10% of it by the peace terms.
Then, on June 22, 1941, Germany dramatically changed world power politics, invading the Soviet Union with 3,050,000 German troops and in concert with other Axis powers (Romania and Italy) there were four million men involved. Stalin himself had refused to believe an attack was imminent, and until after the twelth hour continued to think a rapprochement was possible. The Axis armies over-ran in weeks what it had taken the Soviet Union years to conquer and were approaching Moscow by December. To the Germans, the war in the East was a war of annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg) against the "Judaeo-Bolshevik foe". Commissars were shot upon capture and Russian POWs were killed in death marches and work camps. Behind the Wehrmacht came the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads, who set about the extermination of Russian Jewry. Initially the mode of execution was shooting, but when this began to take a toll on the executioners mobile gas vans were commissioned. From there, it was just one more step to the death camps set up in the General Government (half of Nazi-occupied Poland).
Had Hitler being a conventional dictator and not a rival totalitarian ruler, he might at least have won the support of the people of the Ukraine. Conventional dictators understand the nature of power and that it must be based on support - Hitler was prepared to rule entirely by violence, and so any initial welcoming of German tanks soon turned to partisan strikes. The reprisals by the German Army were brutal - they set up a sort of quota of lex talionis where there would be a certain degree of reprisal for particular degrees of damage to German life or property. This is one of the reasons the war in the East was so costly in lives, with perhaps seven million civilians killed. The behaviour of the Red Army in the territory it occupied as it pushed the Germans backwards was also less than exemplary, and five million Germans fled in the face of the Red Army advance.
Although the Soviet Union emerged victorious, it had born the massive brunt of the German war machine - one million Red Army soldiers had died in the Battle of Stalingrad alone. On April 22nd, 1944, Soviet and American forces met at the River Elbe. The war in Europe was over. Three months later, amidst the atomic bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union invaded some Japanese possessions in Asia, thus claiming a part in the victory over Japan.
IV. From the war until Stalin's death
The war had established Russia's status as a great power - it seemed Stalin's industrialisation drive had been justified. He was now concerned with consolidating this position through domination of Eastern Europe - this did not mean he directly anticipated the Cold War (he expected rivalries to emerge between the Western powers over colonies, particularly between the UK and the USA). The spread of Communism was very much on his mind though, as was the emasculation of Germany. For its part, the British Foreign Office concluded that it was better for Russia to dominate Eastern Europe than for Germany to dominate Western Europe.
Because Allied troops would not be invading Eastern Europe, little could be done to stop the advance of the Red Army. Although the Soviet Union conceded influence in Greece (where the Greek Civil War would soon end in the defeat of the Communists), they received it in Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria. In three years, eight countries fell under Soviet domination. Their intentions were not always clear in countries that eventually fell under their domination, because they could not relied on Allied toleration - but at the end of the day, all Roosevelt and Churchill could do was protest, not very effectively. Stalin could not afford to be too belligerent because of his country's exhaustion and American nuclear monopoly - a factor that would change soon enough.
As the Iron Curtain became demarcated, neither side seriously thought about intervening militarily in the other's sphere of influence. Stalin could begin the consolidation process and build "people's democracy" in the new Soviet Republics. The takeover was now conceived only in military terms, but in political ones as well - there were anti-Communist partisan activities into the late 1940s, but they were never organised enough to face up to brutal repression, and many turned in their weapons in amnesties. Until 1947 Soviet policy was fairly moderate: at this point, in the face of increasing Western anti-Communism (the Truman Doctrine was articulated in that year) the Union became much more militant. First there was the blockade of Berlin and the subsequent Berlin Airlift by America. Then, Stalin viciously attacked any "coalitionism" among the Communist movements and one by one "People's Democracy's" were established, all subject to Stalinist totalitarian domination.
Agriculture was collectivised and hundreds of thousands of kulaks deported to forced labour camps. Stalin seemed to repeating the experiment that had proved successful in modernising Russia in the 1930s - the secret police became omnipowerful, the cities came to dominate the modernising effort of the regimes, and the peasantry were subject to massive expropriations. As they had been in Russia, even the workers were subject to gruelling regulations and the terror. Under Stalin, no-one had been free from it.
History of the Soviet Union part 3 - Khrushchev and Brezhnev
After Stalin's death in 1953 a collective leadership took power, with Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov as Premier and chair of the Secretariat. Stalin's obvious successor was Beria, head of the KGB, but as part of the transferral of power back from the secret police structures and to the Party (which had grown emasculated as society raced ahead around it) he was executed for "antistate activites". Malenkov's ascendency was short-lived and his agricultural policy proved unfruitful, although interestingly he was fairly friendly towards the West. In 1955 he was forced to resign and was succeeded by Nikolay Bulganin, who was then succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev (who had been first secretary since Stalin's death anyway, effectively heading the Party). Although Stalin had set out to legitimise his leadership through the use of Lenin, Khrushchev - to the amazement of many - denounced Stalin's "cult of personality" and many of his policies.
Stalin, he said, was responsible for Russia's great losses during the Second World War, for the deaths of "honest and innocent Communists" and the deportation of "thousands" of people. Portraits of the dictator were removed and the Party "de-Stalinified". Khrushchev, of course, was busy making use of Stalin's propaganda apparatus to ensure his own ascendency, and once he was firmly entrenched in 1961 he softened some of the anti-Stalinist rhetoric. There was a debate about the relationship of law and ideology under Communism - if it was maintained that the Party was above the law, there was nothing to prevent the rise of another Stalin (the Party feared this because the ascendency of the security services destroyed the power of the Party).
Some of Beria's associates were executed in 1955. These were the last discredited officials to be put to death in the Soviet Union. The seeming "liberalisation" of the government between 1953 and 1964 encouraged rebellion and attempts at reform, such as the East Berlin worker strike just after Stalin's death. This didn't last, however, and in 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally repressed in Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops under a Russian hubris. The Czech reformers had called for a separation of Party and state - but the Party was not, for now, going anywhere. Any reform would have to take place under its gaze.
II. Economy and society up until Gorbachev
As early as 1955, some American commentators were severely worried by the progress of the Soviet economy, fearing it might overtake them. Indeed, every aspect of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule was dedicated to economic progress. The welfare state, housing, education and health care all existed to a degree which they would foster economic progress. Historians dispute the exact progress of the Soviet economy in providing an increased standard of living for its citizens, but by the 1970s the Union was certainly a complex industrial power. Khrushchev did promise an increase in consumer goods, trying to base his regime on their provision, but achieved little. In agriculture he also not very successful, which contributed to his removal from power in 1963.
People were deeply dissatisfied with the consumer good shortages, which hilighted the issue of corruption among party cadres. By preaching propaganda to the people about progress and materialism, the Party had fostered a new generation of youth whose wishes it could now not live up to. Agriculture in the countryside was harmed by the migration of youth to the towns - the rural life no longer appealed to them. De-Stalinization was allowing the middle classes to grow, and middle classes demand a certain quality of life that the regime could not provide. The centrally planned economy could not become efficient and respond to the needs of the consumers in the way a market economy could. The old linchpin of the economy, agriculture, was also failing to improve its efficiency fast enough to make up for it. Without Stalinist coercion to make things work, the whole system began to stagnate. Growth in mineral production in Siberia still used forced labour.
The Soviet Union also had to deal with the arms race with the Western nations, something which placed a huge burden on its young industries. The "East" was in many ways behind the "West" by centuries (the Russian industrial revolution had only really begun in the 1890s), and so the burden was great. There was also a huge focus on "glamour" industries such as space exploration and nuclear power - the launch of Sputnik is what scared so many Westerners into thinking the East might eventually outdo them.
III. International affairs until Gorbachev
During and just after de-Stalinization, some of the Russian satellite states smelt freedom and pushed. Unlike 1917 and 1989, they found that the central power was not weak enough to move. Poland achieved some tiny concessions, but independence movements in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were brutally suppressed. The latter was especially worrying because the challenge came from within the Communist Party itself and was tied up with issues of Party ideology, not national self-determination. The Czech rebellion was disturbed by the lack of progress in the economy and wanted to create "socialism with a human face" - 600,000 Soviet troops had other ideas. The international Communist movement was split over the move to put down the revolt, but Soviet control of Eastern Europe was re-asserted. In the battle for Europe, the Soviet position seemed marginally improved by the success of the reaction. The impact of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that Communist countries could intervene in each other's internal affairs if the common system was threatened, was to tie Soviet Russia into a costly foreign policy stretching from Nicaragua to Vietnam.
In Asia, the Sino-Soviet split occured in the 1960s. Issues of both Marxist doctrine and old-fashioned Imperial nationalism with at stake, but for Soviet planners the rift was a nightmare - yet another front to think about. The Chinese continued to agitate in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh's Communist guerillas in Vietnam found themselves the happy object of aid lavished by both the Chinese and the Soviet Union. When Vietnam was reunited under the Communist leadership, the Soviet Union continued to support Vietnam in its war with China, although the enterprise was doomed to failure. The USSR's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 seemed to add another Asian nation to the Soviet sphere of influence, even though fighting continued for a long time.
The Cuban Missile Crisis had the effect of making the Soviet Union and America think more carefully about its actions in the Cold War. After the success of Fidel Castro's revolution, America had installed an economic embargo against Cuba, pushing them into the arms of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union pledged not to provide any weapons to Cuba, then proceded to smuggle nuclear ballistic missiles there. Coupled with Khrushchev telling Kennedy that he was ready to take over West Berlin by force, the Soviet strategy seemed clear. Eventually the Union capitulated and removed the missiles in return for the promise of the USA not to invade Cuba (as they had done at the Bay of Pigs in 1961), and this apparently show of weakness was one of the main reasons for Khrushchev's subsequent removal.
The Soviet Union actually called for complete nuclear disarmament twice, but both times refused to allow any inspectors to verify the process in their country. They also announced that they were taking a third of their military strength away in 1960, but refused to allow stringent inspections. Although the policy of détente with the West seemed promising, Soviet military build-up in reality continued at a high rate. The Berlin Wall was put up in 1961 to stop people fleeing to the West (where they caused quite a problem for the authorities and had the potential to become a serious political force, although this was defused with skill). The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks were agreed in the early 1970s to try and set up a real structure for disarmament, but when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and started repression anew in Poland, US president Ronald Reagan shelved SALT II and started a massive arms build-up. He had undone détente.
History of the Soviet Union part 4 - the end
The Soviet economy was under incredible strain by the 1980s, and its response to the needs of the people was becoming more and more fraught. It had built up a huge working class and even a middle class which it could no longer satisfy. Its concentration on heavy industry was starting to have huge ecological repurcussions for Eastern Europe, something which made it harder to believe in the Communist utopia. Far from making significant changes to the system, the Communists had just kept going back to it. Attempts to decentralise and reform did take place in Hungary and Poland, but they weren't very successful - the radical reform movement had died in 1968 in Prague. Everywhere living standards were falling and consumers goods becoming more scarce, although Western investment did help to alleviate the problem in the short-term. But it seemed that the system had inherent flaws that would have to eventually lead to its destruction, although no-one in the West saw it coming until it did. But within Soviet society, Party rule was questioned all through the 1970s and 1980s, and by failing to live up to their promises of the social revolution by providing for the people, the legitimacy and purpose of Soviet power were diminishing.
As the Party's authority declined, people looked elsewhere. In retrospect, the displacement of the Party in the "provinces" - Romania, Poland, the Balkans - was the first sign of its impending destruction. A sense of despair was overtaking the Party as it became clear it would never outmodernise the West and that, while socialism might not be a bankrupt ideology, the reality of the Party's implementation was. As with the Czarist Empire, the growth of nationalism would eventually prove instrumental to the events after 1989. Nationalism was fostered by the Party bosses in the SSRs as a way of trying to save the system - by linking nationalism and socialism - "National communism" - they hoped to deflect attention from their failures in the economy. This could never really be a success, because the élites subservience to Moscow was always ostensible. Nor were there enough members of minorities left in the SSRs to focus people on - had there been plenty of people with plenty of property to expropriate, a short-term panacea might have been found.
Having said all this, the fact of Communist leadership in Eastern Europe was not really challenged. For sure, people within the region sought to reform it within the Marxist tradition - they did not necessarily see a switch to multiparty democracy as desirable. Possible opposition groups such as the Church or the intelligentsia were paralysed either by lack of desire to influence events or rifts between themselves and the mass of people who could make reforms happen. Western Europe seemed to have resigned itself to the existence of Communist dominance over the East, as shown by its extension of credit to the East. Ever since the Prague Spring people had hoped that an analagous reform movement might appear in Moscow itself, but the pessimistic school of Sovietologists dismissed this as unthinkable.
After Brezhnev's death, Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov came to power. He was reformist minded and relatively forward-looking, but died of kidney failure on February 9, 1984. He was replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was an intelligent product of the Soviet education system, and he realised that changes had to be made. This is not to say he anticipated the break-up of the Union under his watch, but he was aware that the division of labour between Russia and the SSRs had to change. Their initial raison d'être , as a security buffer against Germany, had profoundly altered - now the Cold War was becoming hot in Asia, and the more unpredictable threat seemed to be China. Defence spending was sucking up a huge proportion of the Russian GNP, much of which was being spent on maintaining troops in Eastern Europe (who had to keep Soviet citizens in as much as keep NATO out). The Eastern European republics were actually cutting defence spending during this period, so the burden on Russia was massive. Something had to be done to make Eastern Europe an economic support again.
The bogging-down of the Red Army in Afghanistan also called into question its use as a coercive force, and the very doctrine of coercive force. Western European nations had pulled down their Empires when it became clear that maintaining them was more costly as a whole than liquidating them, which is why the pull-out was usually rapid and bloodless, even if it followed a period of fighting. Gorbachev announced the Sinatra Doctrine (named after the song 'My Way', because socialist countries could go their own way) and the "democratisation of all levels of our society". In the various democratic organs that were set up, the Communists suffered defeat. Public demonstrations increased as glasnost relaxed censorship and repression, and anti-Communism was now unmistakable and a huge political factor. Things went differently in various SSRs, but in most the Communist Party was not overly recalcitrant. There was police violence in Czechoslovakia and harsh street fighting in Romania as one-by-one Communist governments fell. Moscow did not intervene.
Gorbachev received the Nobel Prize in Peace in 1990 for allowing Eastern Europe to give up its Communist governments. Now it seemed reform could take place in Russia itself. Gorbachev had created a directly-elected new post, the President of the Russian Socialist Federal Republic. Populist candidate Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the vote. Then, in August of 1991, when the Republics were to sign a treaty restructuring the USSR (they would have been independent but with a common foreign policy and military), there was a coup in Moscow. Gennadi Yaneyev, backed by the KGB and military, took power and made Gorbachev their prisoner. But in the face of popular opposition they gave up the ghost after a mere three days, at which point Yeltsin moved into the power vacuum. He suspended the activities of the Communist Party, which marginalised Gorbachev, whose authority was within it. On December 26, 1991, the Supreme Soviet voted the USSR out of existence, and Gorbachev resigned his position as President. 11 of the 12 remaining Republics (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia had already left) formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. The age of imperialism was finally over.
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Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad (Penguin Books, 1998)
Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy (Pimlico, 1996)
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Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard 2003