History of the Soviet Union
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|Language||Russian (de facto) (official)|
|President||Ivan Silayev (last, 1991)|
|Area||8,649,538 sq. mi. (1991)|
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established in December 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) on territory generally corresponding to that of the old Russian Empire, which had collapsed in 1917. A communist empire would be created by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in its place, and during the next seven decades would spawn failed harvests, famine, social and political repression, religious persecution, and mass murder within; place neighboring nations under its heel; and on at least two occasions bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.
- 1 Revolutions and civil war
- 2 Era of the New Economic Policy
- 3 Transformation and Terror
- 4 War Years
- 5 Reconstruction and Cold War
- 6 The Khrushchev Era
- 7 The Brezhnev Era
- 8 Tensions with the West
- 9 The Gorbachev Era
- 10 Collapse of the Soviet Union
- 11 Further reading
- 12 See also
Revolutions and civil war
The February Revolution
By early 1917, the existing order in Russia verged on collapse. The country's involvement in World War I had already cost millions of lives and caused severe disruption in Russia's backward economy. In an effort to reverse the steadily worsening military situation, Emperor Nicholas II commanded Russian forces at the front, abandoning the conduct of government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg before 1914; Leningrad after 1924) to his unpopular wife and a series of incompetent ministers. As a consequence of these conditions, the morale of the people rapidly deteriorated.
The spark to the events that ended tsarist rule was ignited on the streets of Petrograd in February 1917 (according to the old Julian calendar then in use in Russia). Provoked by shortages of food and fuel, crowds of hungry citizens and striking workers began spontaneous rioting and demonstrations on March 7 (February 23, according to the Julian calendar). Local reserve troops, called in to suppress the riots, refused to fire on the crowds, and some soldiers joined the workers and other rioters. On March 12, with tsarist authority in Petrograd rapidly disintegrating, two separate bodies emerged, each claiming to represent the Russian people. One was the Executive Committee of the Duma, which the Duma had established in defiance of the tsar's orders of March 11. The other body was the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, founded on the model of the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905. With the consent of the Petrograd Soviet, the Executive Committee of the Duma organized the Provisional Government on March 15. Delegates of the new government met Nicholas that evening at Pskov, where rebellious railroad workers had stopped the imperial train as the tsar attempted to return to the capital. Advised by his generals that he lacked the support of the country, Nicholas informed the delegates that he was abdicating in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. When Michael in turn refused the throne on March 16 (March 3), the rule of tsars and emperors in Russia came to an end.
Period of Dual Power
The collapse of the monarchy left two rival political institutions - the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet - to share administrative authority over the country. The Petrograd Soviet, drawing its membership from socialist deputies elected in factories and regiments, coordinated the activities of other soviets that sprang up across Russia at this time. The Petrograd Soviet was dominated by moderate socialists of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and by the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The Bolshevik faction of the latter party provided the opposition. While representing the interests of Russia's working classes, the Petrograd Soviet at first did not seek to undermine the Provisional Government's authority directly. Nevertheless, the Petrograd Soviet's "Order No. 1" of March 14 (March 1) instructed soldiers and sailors to obey their officers and the government only if their orders did not contradict the decrees of the Petrograd Soviet, thereby effectively limiting the Provisional Government's control over the armed forces.
The Provisional Government, in contrast to the socialist Petrograd Soviet, chiefly represented the propertied classes. Headed by ministers of a moderate or liberal bent, the new government pledged to convene a constituent assembly that would usher in a new era of bourgeois democracy. In the meantime, the government granted unprecedented rights - full freedom of speech, press, and religion, as well as legal equality - to all citizens. The government did not take up the matter of land redistribution, however, leaving it for the constituent assembly. Even more damaging, the ministers favored keeping Russia's military commitments to its allies, a position that became increasingly unpopular as the war dragged on. The government suffered its first crisis in the "April Days," when demonstrations against the government's annexationist war aims forced two ministers to resign, leading to the appointment of moderate socialist Aleksandr Kerensky as war minister. Kerensky, quickly assuming de facto leadership of the government, ordered the army to launch a major offensive in June, which, after early successes, turned into a full-scale retreat in July.
While the Provisional Government grappled with foreign foes, the Bolsheviks, who were opposed to bourgeois democracy, gained new strength. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, returned to Petrograd in April 1917 from his wartime residence in Switzerland. Although he had been born into a noble family, from his youth Lenin espoused the cause of the common workers. A committed revolutionary and pragmatic Marxist thinker, Lenin astounded the Bolsheviks already in Petrograd by his April Theses, boldly calling for the overthrow of the Provisional Government, the transfer of "all power to the soviets," and the expropriation of factories by workers and of land belonging to the church, the nobility, and the gentry by peasants. Lenin's dynamic presence quickly won the other Bolshevik leaders to his position, and the radicalized orientation of the Bolshevik faction attracted new members. Inspired by Lenin's slogans, crowds of workers, soldiers, and sailors took to the streets of Petrograd in July to wrest power from the Provisional Government. But the spontaneity of the "July Days" caught the Bolshevik leaders by surprise, and the Petrograd Soviet, controlled by moderate Mensheviks, refused to take power or enforce Bolshevik demands. After the uprising died down, the Provisional Government outlawed the Bolsheviks and jailed Leon Trotsky (Lev Trotskii, originally Lev Bronstein), an active Bolshevik leader. Lenin fled to Finland.
In the aftermath of the "July Days," conservatives sought to reassert order in society. The army's commander in chief, General Lavr Kornilov, who protested the influence of the soviets on both the army and the government, appeared as a counterrevolutionary threat to Kerensky, now prime minister. Kerensky dismissed Kornilov from his command, but Kornilov, disobeying the order, launched an extemporaneous revolt on September 10 (August 28). To defend the capital, Kerensky sought help from all quarters and relaxed his ban on Bolshevik activities. Railroad workers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks halted Kornilov's troop trains, and Kornilov soon surrendered, ending the only serious challenge to the Provisional Government from the right.
The Bolshevik Revolution
Although the Provisional Government survived the Kornilov revolt, popular support for the government faded rapidly as the national mood swung to the left in the fall of 1917. Workers took control of their factories through elected committees; peasants expropriated lands belonging to the state, church, nobility, and gentry; and armies melted away as peasant soldiers deserted to take part in the land seizures. The Bolsheviks, skillfully exploiting these popular trends in their propaganda, dominated the Petrograd Soviet and the Moscow Soviet by September, with Trotsky, freed from prison after the Kornilov revolt, now chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.
Realizing that the time was ripe for seizing power by armed force, Lenin returned to Petrograd in October and convinced a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had hoped to take power legally, to accept armed uprising in principle. Trotsky won the Petrograd garrison over to Soviet authority, depriving the Provisional Government of its main military support in Petrograd.
The actual insurrection - the Bolshevik Revolution - began on the morning of November 6 (October 24) when Kerensky ordered the Bolshevik press closed. Interpreting this action as a counter-revolutionary move, the Bolsheviks called on their supporters to defend the Petrograd Soviet. By evening the Bolsheviks controlled utilities and most government buildings in Petrograd, allowing Lenin to proclaim the downfall of the Provisional Government on the morning of November 7 (October 25). The Bolsheviks captured the Provisional Government's cabinet at its Winter Palace headquarters that night with hardly a shot fired in the government's defense. Kerensky left Petrograd to organize resistance, but his countercoup failed and he fled Russia. Bolshevik uprisings soon took place elsewhere; the Bolsheviks gained control of Moscow by November 15 (November 2). The Second Congress of Soviets, meeting in Petrograd on November 7 (October 25), ratified the Bolshevik takeover after moderate deputies (mainly Mensheviks and right-wing members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, or SRs) quit the session. The remaining Bolsheviks and left-wing SRs declared the soviets the governing bodies of Russia and named the Council of People's Commissars (Sovet narodnykh kommissarov-Sovnarkom) to serve as the cabinet. Lenin became chairman of this council. Trotsky took the post of commissar of foreign affairs; Stalin, a Georgian, became commissar of nationalities. By acting decisively while their opponents vacillated, the Bolsheviks succeeded in effecting their coup d'état.
On coming to power, the Bolsheviks issued a series of revolutionary decrees that ratified peasants' seizures of land and workers' control of industry; abolished legal class privileges; nationalized the banks; and set up revolutionary tribunals in place of the courts. At the same time, the revolutionaries now constituting the regime worked to secure power inside and outside the government. Deeming Western forms of parliamentary democracy irrelevant, Lenin argued for a dictatorship of the proletariat (see Glossary) based on one-party Bolshevik rule, although for a time left-wing SRs also participated in the Sovnarkom. The Soviet government created a secret police, the Vecheka to persecute enemies of the state (including bourgeois liberals and moderate socialists). Having convened the Constituent Assembly, which had been elected in November with the Bolsheviks winning only a quarter of the seats, the Soviet government dissolved the assembly in January after a one-day session, ending a short-lived experiment in parliamentary democracy in Russia.
In foreign affairs, the Soviet government, seeking to disengage Russia from the world war, called on the belligerent powers for an armistice and peace without annexations. The Allied Powers rejected this appeal, but Germany and its allies agreed to a cease-fire and began negotiations in December 1917. After dictating harsh terms that the Soviet government would not accept, however, Germany resumed its offensive in February 1918, meeting scant resistance from disintegrating Russian armies. Lenin, after bitter debate with leading Bolsheviks who favored prolonging the war in hopes of precipitating class warfare in Germany, persuaded a slim majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee that peace must be made at any cost. On March 3, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. With the new border dangerously close to Petrograd, the government was soon transferred to Moscow. An enormous part of the population and resources of the Russian Empire was lost by this treaty, but Lenin understood that no alternative could ensure the survival of the fledgling Soviet state.
Civil War and War Communism
Soon after buying peace with Germany, the Soviet state found itself under attack from other quarters. By the spring of 1918, elements dissatisfied with the Communists (as the Bolsheviks started calling themselves, conforming with the name change from Russian Social Democratic Labor Party to Russian Communist Party [Bolshevik] in March) established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia against the Communist-controlled area. Anti-Communists, often led by former officers of the tsarist army, clashed with the Red Army, founded and organized by Trotsky, now serving as commissar of war. A civil war to determine the future of Russia had begun.
The White armies enjoyed, to varying degrees, the support of the Allied Powers. Desiring to defeat Germany in any way possible, Britain, France, and the United States landed troops in Russia and provided logistical support to the Whites, whom the Allies trusted to resume Russia's struggle against Germany after overthrowing the Communist regime. (Japan also sent troops, but with the intention of seizing territory in Siberia.) After the Allies defeated Germany in November 1918, they opted to continue their intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Communists in the interests of averting world socialist revolution.
During the Civil War, the Soviet regime also had to deal with struggles for independence in regions that it had given up under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which the regime immediately repudiated after Germany's defeat by the Allies in November 1918). By force of arms, the Communists established Soviet republics in Belorussia (January 1919), Ukraine (March 1919), Azerbaijan (April 1920), Armenia (November 1920), and Georgia (March 1921), but they were unable to win back the Baltic region, where the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been founded shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In December 1917, during a civil war between Finnish Reds and Whites, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland but was disappointed when that country became a parliamentary republic in 1918. Poland, reborn after World War I, fought a successful war with Soviet Russia from April 1920 to March 1921 over the location of the frontier between the two states.
During its struggle for survival, the Soviet state placed great hopes on revolution's breaking out in the industrialized countries. To coordinate the socialist movement under Soviet auspices, Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919. Although no successful socialist revolutions occurred elsewhere immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Comintern provided the Communist leadership with the means through which they later controlled foreign communist parties. By the end of 1920, the Communists had clearly triumphed in the Civil War. Although in 1919 Soviet Russia had shrunk to the size of sixteenth century Muscovy, the Red Army had the advantage of defending the heartland with Moscow at its center. The White armies, divided geographically and without a clearly defined cause, went down in defeat one by one. The monarchical cause was effectively killed when Communists shot the imperial family in July 1918. The Allied governments, lacking support for intervention from their war-weary citizenry, withdrew most of their forces by 1920. The last foreign troops departed Siberia in 1922, leaving the Soviet state unchallenged from abroad.
During the Civil War, the Communist regime took increasingly repressive measures against its opponents within the country. The Soviet constitution of 1918 deprived members of the former "exploiting classes"—nobles, priests, and capitalists—of civil rights. Left-wing SRs, formerly partners of the Bolsheviks, became targets for persecution during the Red Terror that followed an attempt on Lenin's life in August 1918. In those desperate times, both Reds and Whites murdered and executed without trial large numbers of suspected enemies. The party also took measures to ensure greater discipline among its members by tightening its organization and creating specialized administrative organs.
In the economic life of the country, too, the Communist regime sought to exert control through a series of drastic measures that came to be known as war communism. To coordinate what remained of Russia's economic resources after years of war, in 1918 the government nationalized industry and subordinated it to central administrations in Moscow. Rejecting workers' control of factories as inefficient, the regime brought in expert managers to run the factories and organized and directed the factory workers as in a military mobilization. To feed the urban population, the Soviet government carried out mass requisitions of grain from the peasantry.
The results of war communism were unsatisfactory. Industrial production continued to fall. Workers received wages in kind because inflation had made the ruble practically worthless. In the countryside, peasants rebelled against payments in valueless money by curtailing or consuming their agricultural production. In late 1920, strikes broke out in the industrial centers, and peasant uprisings sprang up across the land as famine ravaged the countryside. To the Soviet government, however, the most disquieting manifestation of dissatisfaction with war communism was the rebellion in March 1921 of sailors at the naval base at Kronshtadt (near Petrograd), which had earlier won renown as a bastion of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although Trotsky and the Red Army succeeded in putting down the mutiny, the rebellion signaled to the party leadership that the austere policies of war communism had to be abolished. The harsh legacy of the Civil War period, however, would have a profound influence on the future development of the country.
Era of the New Economic Policy
While the Kronshtadt base rebelled against the severe policies of war communism, the Tenth Party Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) met in March 1921 to hear Lenin argue for a new course in Soviet policy. Lenin realized that the radical approach to communism was unsuited to existing conditions and jeopardized the survival of his regime. Now the Soviet leader proposed a tactical retreat, convincing the congress to adopt a temporary compromise with capitalism under the program that came to be known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). Under NEP, market forces and the monetary system regained their importance. The state scrapped its policy of grain requisitioning in favor of taxation, permitting peasants to dispose of their produce as they pleased. NEP also denationalized service enterprises and much small-scale industry, leaving the "commanding heights" of the economy—large-scale industry, transportation, and foreign trade—under state control. Under the mixed economy of NEP, agriculture and industry staged recoveries, with most branches of the economy attaining prewar levels of production by the late 1920s. In general, standards of living improved during this time, and the "NEP man" - the independent private trader - became a symbol of the era.
About the time that the party sanctioned partial decentralization of the economy, it also approved a quasi-federal structure for the state. During the Civil War years, the non-Russian Soviet republics on the periphery of Russia were theoretically independent, but in fact they were controlled by Moscow through the party and the Red Army. Some Communists favored a centralized Soviet state, while nationalists wanted autonomy for the borderlands. A compromise between the two positions was reached in December 1922 by the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The constituent republics of this Soviet Union (the Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Transcaucasian republics) exercised a degree of cultural and linguistic autonomy, while the Communist, predominantly Russian, leadership in Moscow retained political authority over the entire country.
The party consolidated its authority throughout the country, becoming a monolithic presence in state and society. Potential rivals outside the party, including prominent members of the abolished Menshevik faction and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, were exiled. Within the party, Lenin denounced the formation of factions, particularly by radical-left party members. Central party organs subordinated local soviets under their authority. Purges of party members periodically removed the less committed from the rosters. The Politburo created the new post of general secretary for supervising personnel matters and assigned Stalin to this office in April 1922. Stalin, a minor member of the Central Committee at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, was thought to be a rather lackluster personality and therefore well suited to the routine work required of the general secretary.
From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and into the early NEP years, the actual leader of the Soviet state was Lenin. Although a collective of prominent Communists nominally guided the party and the Soviet Union, Lenin commanded such prestige and authority that even such brilliant theoreticians as Trotsky and Nikolai I. Bukharin generally yielded to his will. But when Lenin became temporarily incapacitated after a stroke in May 1922, the unity of the Politburo fractured, and a troika (triumvirate) formed by Stalin, Lev B. Kamenev, and Grigorii V. Zinov'ev assumed leadership in opposition to Trotsky. Lenin recovered late in 1922 and found fault with the troika, and particularly with Stalin. Stalin, in Lenin's view, had used coercion to force non-Russian republics to join the Soviet Union; he was "rude"; and he was accumulating too much power through his office of general secretary. Although Lenin recommended that Stalin be removed from that position, the Politburo decided not to take action, and Stalin remained general secretary when Lenin died in January 1924.
As important as Lenin's activities were to the foundation of the Soviet Union, his legacy to the Soviet future was perhaps even more significant. By willingly changing his policies to suit new situations, Lenin had developed a pragmatic interpretation of Marxism (later called Marxism–Leninism) that implied that the party should follow any course that would ultimately lead to communism. His party, while still permitting intraorganizational debate, insisted that its members adhere to its decisions once they were adopted, in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Finally, because his party embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat, organized opposition could not be tolerated, and adversaries would be prosecuted. Thus, although the Soviet regime was not totalitarian when he died, Lenin had nonetheless laid the foundations upon which such a tyranny might later arise.
Stalin's Rise to Power
After Lenin's death, two conflicting schools of thought regarding the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Left-wing Communists believed that world revolution was essential for the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. Trotsky, one of the primary proponents of this position, called for Soviet support for permanent revolution around the world. As for domestic policy, the left wing advocated the rapid development of the economy and the creation of a socialist society. In contrast with these militant Communists, the right wing of the party, recognizing that world revolution was unlikely in the immediate future, favored the gradual development of the Soviet Union through NEP programs. Yet even Bukharin, one of the major right-wing theoreticians, believed that socialism could not triumph in the Soviet Union without assistance from more economically advanced socialist countries.
Against this backdrop of contrasting perceptions of the Soviet future, the leading figures of the All-Union Communist Party - the new name of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) as of December 1925 - competed for influence. The Kamenev-Zinov'ev-Stalin troika, supporting the militant international program, successfully maneuvered against Trotsky and engineered his removal as commissar of war in 1925. In the meantime, Stalin gradually consolidated his power base and, when he had sufficient strength, broke with Kamenev and Zinov'ev. Belatedly recognizing Stalin's political power, Kamenev and Zinov'ev made amends with Trotsky to join against their former partner. But Stalin countered their attacks on his position with his well-timed formulation of the theory of "socialism in one country." This doctrine, calling for construction of a socialist society in the Soviet Union regardless of the international situation, distanced Stalin from the left and won support from Bukharin and the party's right wing. With this support, Stalin ousted the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions in 1926 and 1927 and forced Trotsky into exile. By the end of the NEP era, free debate within the party thus became progressively limited as Stalin gradually eliminated his opponents.
Foreign Policy, 1921-28
In the 1920s, as the new Soviet state temporarily retreated from the revolutionary path to socialism, the party also adopted a less ideological approach in its relations with the rest of the world. Lenin, ever the practical leader, having become convinced that socialist revolution would not break out in other countries in the near future, realized that his government required normal relations with the Western world for it to survive. Not only were good relations important for national security, but the economy also required trade with the industrial countries. Blocking Soviet attainment of these desires were lingering suspicions of communism on the part of the Western powers and concern over the foreign debts incurred by the tsarist government that the Soviet government had unilaterally canceled. In April 1922, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Georgii Chicherin, circumvented these difficulties by achieving an understanding with Germany, the other pariah state of Europe, at Rapallo, Italy. In the Treaty of Rapallo, Germany and Russia agreed on mutual recognition, cancellation of debt claims, normalization of trade relations, and secret cooperation in military development. After concluding the treaty, the Soviet Union soon obtained diplomatic recognition from other major powers, beginning with Britain in February 1924. Although the United States withheld recognition until 1933, private American firms began to extend technological assistance and develop commercial links beginning in the 1920s.
Toward the non-Western world, the Soviet leadership limited its policy to promoting opposition among the indigenous populations against imperialist exploitation. Moscow did pursue an active policy in China, aiding the rise of the Nationalist Party, a non-Marxist organization committed to reform and national sovereignty. After the triumph of the Nationalists, a debate developed among Soviet leaders concerning the future status of relations with China. Stalin wanted the Chinese Communist Party to join the Nationalists and infiltrate the government from within, while Trotsky proposed an armed communist uprising and forcible imposition of socialism in that country. Although Stalin's plan was finally accepted, it came to nought when in 1926 the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Chinese communists massacred and Soviet advisers expelled.
Society and Culture in the 1920s
In many respects, the NEP period was a time of relative freedom and experimentation for the social and cultural life of the Soviet Union. The government tolerated a variety of trends in these fields, provided they were not overtly hostile to the regime. In art and literature, numerous schools, some traditional and others radically experimental, proliferated. Communist writers Maksim Gorky and Vladimir Maiakovskii were active during this time, but other authors, many of whose works were later repressed, published work lacking socialist political content. Film, as a means of influencing a largely illiterate society, received encouragement from the state; much of cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein's best work dates from this period.
Education, under Commissar Anatolii Lunacharskii, entered a phase of experimentation based on progressive theories of learning. At the same time, the state expanded the primary and secondary school system and introduced night schools for working adults. The quality of higher education suffered, however, because admissions policies preferred entrants from the proletarian class over those of bourgeois backgrounds, regardless of the applicants' qualifications.
Under NEP the state eased its active persecution of religion begun during war communism but continued to agitate on behalf of atheism. The party supported the Living Church reform movement within the Russian Orthodox Church in hopes that it would undermine faith in the church, but the movement died out in the late 1920s.
In family life, attitudes generally became more permissive. The state legalized abortion, and it made divorce progressively easier to obtain. In general, traditional attitudes toward such institutions as marriage were subtly undermined by the party's promotion of revolutionary ideals.
Transformation and Terror
Industrialization and Collectivization
At the end of the 1920s, a dramatic new phase in economic development began when Stalin decided to carry out a program of intensive socialist construction. To some extent, Stalin chose to advocate accelerated economic development at this point as a political maneuver to eliminate rivals within the party. Because Bukharin and some other party members would not give up the gradualistic NEP in favor of radical development, Stalin branded them as "right-wing deviationists" and used the party organization to remove them from influential positions in 1929 and 1930. Yet Stalin's break with NEP also revealed that his doctrine of building "socialism in one country" paralleled the line that Trotsky had originally supported early in the 1920s. Marxism supplied no basis for Stalin's model of a planned economy, although the centralized economic controls of the war communism years seemingly furnished a Leninist precedent. Nonetheless, between 1927 and 1929 the State Planning Commission (Gosplan) worked out the First Five-Year Plan for intensive economic growth; Stalin began to implement this plan, his "revolution from above", in 1928.
The First Five-Year Plan called for rapid industrialization of the economy, with particular growth in heavy industry. The economy was centralized: small-scale industry and services were nationalized, managers strove to fulfill Gosplan's output quotas, and the trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity. But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred, and inflation grew.
To satisfy the state's need for increased food supplies, the First Five-Year Plan called for the organization of the peasantry into collective units that the authorities could easily control. This collectivization program entailed compounding the peasants' lands and animals into collective farms and state farms and restricting the peasants' movements from these farms, thus in effect reintroducing a kind of serfdom into the countryside. Although the program was designed to affect all peasants, Stalin in particular sought to liquidate the wealthiest peasants, the kulaks. Generally speaking, the kulaks were only marginally better off than other peasants, but the party claimed that the kulaks ensnared the rest of the peasantry in capitalistic relationships. Yet collectivization met widespread resistance not only from kulaks but from poorer peasants as well, and a desperate struggle of the peasantry against the authorities ensued. Peasants slaughtered their cows and pigs rather than turn them over to the collective farms, with the result that livestock resources remained below the 1929 level for years afterward. The state in turn forcibly collectivized reluctant peasants and deported kulaks and active rebels to Siberian gulags. Within the collective farms, the authorities in many instances exacted such high levels of procurements that starvation was widespread. In some places, famine was allowed to run its course; millions of peasants in the Ukrainian Republic starved to death when the state deliberately withheld food shipments.
By 1932 Stalin realized that both the economy and society were seriously overstrained. Although industry failed to meet its production targets and agriculture actually lost ground in comparison with 1928 yields, Stalin declared that the First Five-Year Plan had successfully met its goals in four years. He then proceeded to set more realistic goals. Under the Second Five-Year Plan (1933–37), the state devoted attention to consumer goods, and the factories built during the first plan helped increase industrial output in general. The Third Five-Year Plan, begun in 1938, produced poorer results because of a sudden shift of emphasis to armaments production in response to the worsening international climate. All in all, however, the Soviet economy had become industrialized by the end of the 1930s. Agriculture, which had been exploited to finance the industrialization drive, continued to show poor returns throughout the decade.
Period of the Purges
The complete subjugation of the party to Stalin, its leader, paralleled the subordination of industry and agriculture to the state. After squelching Bukharin and the "right-wing deviationists" in 1929 and 1930, Stalin's position was assured. To secure his absolute control over the party, however, Stalin began to purge from party ranks those leaders and their followers whose loyalty he doubted.
The period of Stalin's purges began in December 1934 when Sergei Kirov, a popular Leningrad party chief who advocated a moderate policy toward the peasants, was assassinated. Although details remain murky, many Western historians believe that Stalin instigated the murder to rid himself of a potential opponent. In any event, in the resultant mass purge of the local Leningrad party, thousands were deported to camps in Siberia. Zinov'ev and Kamenev, Stalin's former political partners, received prison sentences for their alleged role in Kirov's murder. At the same time, the NKVD (secret police) stepped up surveillance through its agents and informers and claimed to uncover anti-Soviet conspiracies among prominent long-term party members. At three publicized show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, dozens of these Old Bolsheviks, including Zinov'ev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, confessed to improbable crimes against the Soviet state and were executed. (The last of Stalin's old enemies, Trotsky, who had supposedly masterminded the conspiracies against Stalin from abroad, was murdered in Mexico in 1940, presumably by the NKVD.) Coincident with the show trials against the original leadership of the party, unpublicized purges swept through the ranks of younger leaders in party, government, industrial management, and cultural affairs. Party purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly severe. The Ezhovshchina ("era of Ezhov," named for NKVD chief Nikolai Ezhov) ravaged the military as well, leading to the execution or incarceration of about half the entire military officer corps. The secret police also terrorized the general populace, with untold numbers of common people punished for spurious crimes. By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled.
The reasons for this period of widespread purges remain unclear. Western historians variously hypothesize that Stalin created the terror out of a desire to goad the population to carry out his intensive modernization program, or to atomize society to preclude dissent, or simply out of brutal paranoia. Whatever the causes, the purges must be viewed as a counterproductive episode that weakened the Soviet state.
In 1936, just as the purges were intensifying the Great Terror, Stalin approved a new Soviet constitution to replace that of 1924. Hailed as "the most democratic constitution in the world," the 1936 document stipulated free and secret elections based on universal suffrage and guaranteed the citizenry a range of civil and economic rights. But in practice the freedoms implied by these rights were denied by provisions elsewhere in the constitution that indicated that the basic structure of Soviet society could not be changed and that the party retained all political power.
The power of the party, in turn, now was concentrated in the persons of Stalin and his handpicked Politburo. Symbolic of the lack of influence of the party rank and file, party congresses (see Glossary) met less and less frequently. State power, far from "withering away" after the revolution as Karl Marx had predicted, instead grew in strength. Stalin's personal dictatorship found reflection in the adulation that surrounded him; the reverence accorded Stalin in Soviet society gradually eclipsed that given to Lenin.
Mobilization of Society
Concomitant with industrialization and collectivization, society also experienced wide-ranging regimentation. Collective enterprises replaced individualistic efforts across the board: not only did the regime abolish private farms and businesses, but it collectivized scientific and literary endeavors as well. As the 1930s progressed, the revolutionary experimentation that had characterized many facets of cultural and social life gave way to conservative norms.
Considerations of order and discipline dominated social policy, which became an instrument for the modernization effort. Workers came under strict labor codes demanding punctuality and discipline, and labor unions served as extensions of the industrial ministries. At the same time, higher pay and privileges accrued to productive workers and labor brigades. To provide greater social stability, the state aimed to strengthen the family by restricting divorce and abolishing abortion.
Literature and the arts came under direct party control during the 1930s as mandatory membership in unions of writers, musicians, and other artists entailed adherence to established standards. After 1934, the party dictated that creative works had to express socialistic spirit through traditional forms. This officially sanctioned doctrine, called socialist realism, applied to all fields of artistic endeavor. The state repressed works that were stylistically innovative or lacked appropriate content.
The party also subjected science and the liberal arts to its scrutiny. Development of scientific theory in a number of fields had to be based upon the party's understanding of the Marxist dialectic, which derailed serious research in certain disciplines. The party took a more active role in directing work in the social sciences. In the writing of history, the orthodox Marxist interpretation employed in the late 1920s was modified to include nationalistic themes and to stress the role of great leaders to foster legitimacy for Stalin's dictatorship.
Education returned to traditional forms as the party discarded the experimental programs of Lunacharskii after 1929. Admission procedures underwent modification: candidates for higher education now were selected by their academic records, rather than by class origins.
Religion suffered from a state policy of increased repression, starting with the closure of numerous churches in 1929. Persecution of clergy was particularly severe during the purges of the late 1930s, when many of the faithful went underground.
Foreign Policy, 1928-39
Soviet foreign policy underwent a series of changes during the first decade of Stalin's rule. Soon after assuming control of the party, Stalin oversaw a radicalization of Soviet foreign policy that complemented his strenuous domestic policies. To heighten the urgency of his demands for modernization, Stalin portrayed the Western powers, particularly France, as warmongers eager to attack the Soviet Union. The diplomatic isolation practiced by the Soviet Union in the early 1930s seemed ideologically justified by the Great Depression; world capitalism appeared destined for destruction. To aid the triumph of communism, Stalin resolved to weaken the moderate social democrats of Europe, the communists' rivals for working-class support. Conversely, the Comintern ordered the Communist Party of Germany to aid the anti-Soviet National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) in its bid for power in the hopes that a Nazi regime would exacerbate social tensions and produce conditions that would lead to a communist revolution in Germany. Stalin thus shares responsibility for Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and its tragic consequences for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.
The dynamics of Soviet foreign relations changed drastically after Stalin recognized the danger posed by Nazi Germany. From 1934 through 1937, the Soviet Union tried to restrain German militarism by building coalitions hostile to fascism. In the international communist movement, the Comintern adopted the popular front policy of cooperation with socialists and liberals against fascism, thus reversing its line of the early 1930s. In 1934 the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, where Maksim M. Litvinov, the commissar of foreign affairs, advocated disarmament and collective security against fascist aggression. In 1935 the Soviet Union concluded defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, and from 1936 to 1939 it gave assistance to antifascists in the Spanish Civil War. The menace of fascist militarism to the Soviet Union increased when Germany and Japan (itself a threat to Soviet Far Eastern territory in the 1930s) signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. But the West proved unwilling to counter German provocative behavior, and after France and Britain acquiesced to Hitler's demands for Czechoslovak territory at Munich in 1938, Stalin abandoned his efforts to forge a collective security agreement with the West.
Convinced now that the West would not fight Hitler, Stalin decided to come to an understanding with Germany. Signaling a shift in foreign policy, Viacheslav Molotov, Stalin's loyal assistant, replaced Litvinov (who was Jewish) as commissar of foreign affairs in May 1939. Hitler, who had decided to attack Poland despite the guarantees of Britain and France to defend that country, soon responded to the changed Soviet stance. While Britain and France dilatorily attempted to induce the Soviet Union to join them in pledging to protect Poland, the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in intensive negotiations. The product of the talks between the former ideological foes—the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939—shocked the world. The open provisions of the agreement pledged absolute neutrality in the event one of the parties should become involved in war, while a secret protocol partitioned Poland between the parties and assigned Romanian territory as well as Estonia and Latvia (and later Lithuania) to the Soviet sphere of influence. With his eastern flank thus secured, Hitler began the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II had begun.
Prelude to War
When German troops invaded Poland, the Soviet Union was ill-prepared to enter a major war. Although military expenditures had increased dramatically during the 1930s and the standing army was expanded in 1939, Soviet weaponry was inferior to that of the German army. More important, the purges had deprived the armed services of many capable leaders, resulting in diminished morale and effectiveness. The time gained through the pact with the Nazis was therefore critical to the development of Soviet defenses, particularly after Hitler's forces had overrun much of western Europe, against little resistance, by the summer of 1940. To strengthen its western frontier, the Soviet Union quickly secured the territory located in its sphere of interest. Soviet forces seized eastern Poland in September 1939; entered Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (which were later converted into Soviet republics) in October 1939; and seized the Romanian territories of Bessarabia (later incorporated into the Moldavian Republic) and northern Bukovina (later added to the Ukrainian Republic) in June 1940. Only Finland resisted Stalin's program of expansion, first by refusing to cede territory and then by putting up a determined defense when the Red Army invaded in November 1939. Although the Soviet Union finally won its original demands in March 1940, the Soviet-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War) pointed out grave deficiencies in Soviet military capabilities, which Hitler undoubtedly noted.
As the European war continued and the theaters of the conflict widened, Hitler began to chafe under his pact with the Soviet Union. The German dictator refused to grant Stalin a free hand in the Balkans and instead moved the German forces deeper into eastern Europe and strengthened his ties with Finland. Hitler thus prepared for war against the Soviet Union under a plan that he officially approved in December 1940. Stalin, however, apparently believed that the Soviet Union could avert war by not offending Germany. The Soviet Union continued its regular shipments of resources to Germany and maintained its armed forces at a low stage of readiness. But despite Stalin's efforts to mollify Hitler, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union just as 180 German divisions swept across the border early on the morning of June 22, 1941.
The Great Patriotic War
The German blitzkrieg nearly succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union within the first months. The Soviet forces, caught unprepared, lost whole armies and vast quantities of equipment to the German onslaught in the first weeks of the war. By November the German army had seized the Ukrainian Republic, begun its siege of Leningrad, and threatened the security of Moscow itself. The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Union calls the phase of World War II involving that country, thus began inauspiciously for the Soviet Union.
By the end of 1941, however, the German forces had lost their momentum. Harsh winter weather, attacks from bands of partisans, and difficulties in obtaining supplies over long distances restricted German movements. At the same time the Red Army, after recovering from the initial blow, launched its first counterattacks against the invaders in December. To ensure the army's ability to fight the war, the Soviet authorities evacuated thousands of factories and key personnel from the war zone to the interior of the country, where the plants began producing war matériel. Finally, the country was bolstered by the prospect of receiving assistance from Britain and the United States.
After a lull in active hostilities during the winter of 1941–42, the German army renewed its offensive, scoring a number of victories in the Ukrainian Republic, Crimea, and southern Russia in the first half of 1942. Then, in an effort to gain control of the lower Volga River region, the German forces attempted to capture the city of Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd) on the west bank of the river. Here, Soviet forces put up fierce resistance even after Hitler's determined actions to take the city had reduced it to rubble. Finally, Soviet forces led by General Georgii K. Zhukov surrounded the German attackers and forced their surrender in February 1943. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad proved decisive; after losing this battle the Germans lacked the strength to sustain their offensive operations against the Soviet Union.
After Stalingrad, the Soviet Union held the initiative for the rest of the war. By the end of 1943, the Red Army had broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. By the end of 1944, the front had moved beyond the 1939 Soviet frontiers into eastern Europe. With a decisive superiority in troops and weaponry, Soviet forces drove into eastern Germany, capturing Berlin in May 1945. The war with Germany thus ended triumphantly for the Soviet Union.
In gaining the victory, the Soviet government had to rely on the support of the people. To increase popular enthusiasm for the war, Stalin changed his domestic policies to heighten patriotic spirit. Nationalistic slogans replaced much of the communist rhetoric in official pronouncements and the mass media. Active persecution of religion ceased, and in 1943 Stalin allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to name a patriarch after the office had stood vacant for nearly two decades. In the countryside, authorities permitted greater freedom on the collective farms. Harsh German rule in the occupied territories also aided the Soviet cause. Nazi administrators of conquered Soviet territories made little attempt to exploit the population's dissatisfaction with Soviet political and economic policies. Instead, the Nazis preserved the collective-farm system, systematically carried out genocidal policies against Jews, and deported others (mainly Ukrainians) to work in Germany. Under these circumstances, the great majority of the Soviet people fought and worked on their country's behalf, thus ensuring the regime's survival.
The war with Germany also brought about a temporary alliance with the two greatest powers in the "imperialist camp," namely, Britain and the United States. Despite deep-seated mistrust between the Western democracies and the Soviet state, the demands of war made cooperation critical. The Soviet Union benefited from shipments of weaponry and equipment from the Western Allies; during the course of the war the United States alone furnished supplies worth over US$11 billion. At the same time, by engaging considerable German resources, the Soviet Union gave the United States and Britain time to prepare to invade German-occupied western Europe. Relations began to sour, however, when the war turned in the Allies' favor. The postponement of the European invasion to June 1944 became a source of irritation to Stalin, whose country meanwhile bore the brunt of the struggle with Germany. Then, as Soviet armies pushed into eastern Europe, the question of the postwar order increased the friction within the coalition. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin clashed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill over his plans to extend Soviet influence to Poland after the war. At the same time, however, Stalin promised to join the war against Japan ninety days after Germany had been defeated. Breaking the neutrality pact that the Soviet Union had concluded with Japan in April 1941, the Red Army entered the war in East Asia several days before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Now, with all common enemies defeated, little remained to preserve the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union.
The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union emerge as one of the world's two great military powers. Its battle-tested forces occupied most of postwar Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union won island holdings from Japan and further concessions from Finland (which had joined in the German invasion in 1941) in addition to the territories the Soviet Union had seized as a consequence of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. But these achievements had been bought at a high cost. An estimated 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, the heaviest loss of life of any of the combatant countries. The war also inflicted severe material losses throughout the vast territory that had been included in the war zone. The suffering and losses resulting from the war made a lasting impression on the Soviet people and leaders that cannot be overlooked.
Reconstruction and Cold War
Although the Soviet Union was victorious in World War II, its economy had been devastated in the struggle. Roughly a quarter of the country's capital resources had been destroyed, and industrial and agricultural output in 1945 fell far short of prewar levels. To help rebuild the country, the Soviet government obtained limited credits from Britain and Sweden but refused economic assistance proposed by the United States under the Marshall Plan. Instead, the Soviet Union compelled Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe to supply machinery and raw materials. Germany and former Nazi satellites (including Finland) made reparations to the Soviet Union. The Soviet people bore much of the cost of rebuilding because the reconstruction program emphasized heavy industry while neglecting agriculture and consumer goods. By the time of Stalin's death in 1953, steel production was twice its 1940 level, but the production of many consumer goods and foodstuffs was lower than it had been in the late 1920s.
During the postwar reconstruction period, Stalin tightened domestic controls, justifying the repression by playing up the threat of war with the West. Many repatriated Soviet citizens who had lived abroad during the war, whether as prisoners of war, forced laborers, or defectors, were executed or sent to prison camps. The limited freedoms granted in wartime to the church and to collective farmers were revoked. The party tightened its admission standards and purged many who had become party members during the war.
In 1946 Andrei Zhdanov, a close associate of Stalin, helped launch an ideological campaign designed to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism in all fields. This campaign, colloquially known as the Zhdanovshchina ("era of Zhdanov"), attacked writers, composers, economists, historians, and scientists whose work allegedly manifested Western influence. Although Zhdanov died in 1948, the cultural purge continued for several years afterward, stifling Soviet intellectual development. Another campaign, related to the Zhdanovshchina, lauded the real or purported achievements of past and present Russian inventors and scientists. In this intellectual climate, the genetic theories of biologist Trofim D. Lysenko, which were supposedly derived from Marxist principles but lacked scientific bases, were imposed upon Soviet science to the detriment of research and agricultural development. The anticosmopolitan trends of these years adversely affected Jewish cultural and scientific figures in particular. In general, a pronounced sense of Russian nationalism, as opposed to socialist consciousness, pervaded Soviet society.
The Cold War
After World War II, the Soviet Union and its Western allies soon parted ways as mutual suspicions of the other's intentions and actions flourished. Eager to consolidate influence over a number of countries near the Soviet Union, Stalin pursued aggressive policies after World War II that provoked strong Western reaction. The United States worked to contain Soviet expansion in this period of international relations that has come to be known as the Cold War.
Mindful of the numerous invasions of Russia and the Soviet Union from the West throughout history, Stalin sought to create a buffer zone of subservient East European countries, most of which the Red Army (known as the Soviet army after 1946) had occupied in the course of the war. Taking advantage of its military occupation of these countries, the Soviet Union actively assisted local communist parties in coming to power. By 1948 seven East European countries had communist governments. The Soviet Union initially maintained control behind the "iron curtain" (to use Churchill's phrase) through troops, security police, and its diplomatic service. Unequal trade agreements with the East European countries permitted the Soviet Union access to valued resources.
Soviet actions in Eastern Europe helped produce Western hostility toward their former ally, but the Western powers could do nothing to halt consolidation of Soviet authority in that region short of going to war. However, the United States and its allies had greater success in halting Soviet expansion in areas where Soviet influence was more tenuous. British and American diplomatic support for Iran forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops from the northeastern part of that country in 1946. Soviet efforts to acquire territory from Turkey and establish a communist government in Greece were stymied when the United States extended military and economic support to those countries under the Truman Doctrine in 1947. Later that year, the United States introduced the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of other countries of Europe. The Soviet Union forbade the countries it dominated from taking part in the program, and the Marshall Plan contributed to reducing Soviet influence in the participating West European nations.
Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union became especially strained over the issue of Germany. At the Potsdam Conference of July–August 1945, the Allied Powers confirmed their decision to divide Germany and the city of Berlin into zones of occupation (with the eastern sectors placed under Soviet administration) until such time as the Allies would permit Germany to establish a central government. Disagreements between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies soon arose over their respective occupation policies and the matter of reparations. In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off the West's land access to the American, British, and French sectors of Berlin in retaliation for steps taken by the United States and Britain to unite Germany. Britain and the United States thereupon sponsored an airlift to keep the beleaguered sectors provisioned until the Soviet Union lifted the blockade in May 1949. Following the Berlin blockade, the West and the Soviet Union divided Germany into two countries, one oriented to the West, the other to the East. The crisis also provided the catalyst for the Western countries in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective security system designed to use conventional armies and nuclear weapons to offset Soviet forces.
While the Soviet Union gained a new satellite nation in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), it lost its influence in Yugoslavia. The local communists in Yugoslavia had come into power without Soviet assistance, and their leader, Josip Broz Tito, refused to subordinate the country to Stalin's control. Tito's defiance led the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform; founded in 1947 to partially replace the Comintern, which had been abolished in 1943) to expel the Yugoslav party from the international communist movement in 1948. To guard against the rise of other independent leaders, Stalin purged many of the chief communists in other East European states.
In Asia, the Chinese Communists, headed by Mao Zedong and assisted by the Soviet Union, achieved victory over the Nationalists in 1949. Several months afterward, in 1950, China and the Soviet Union concluded a mutual defense treaty against Japan and the United States. Hard negotiations over concessions and aid between the two communist countries served as an indication that China, with its independent party and enormous population, would not become a Soviet satellite, although for a time their relations appeared particularly close. Elsewhere in Asia, the Soviet Union pursued a vigorous policy of support for national liberation movements, especially in Malaya and Indochina, which were still colonies of Britain and France, respectively. Thinking that the West would not defend the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Stalin allowed or encouraged the Soviet-equipped forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to invade South Korea in 1950. But forces from the United States and other members of the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea, leading China to intervene militarily on behalf of North Korea, probably on Soviet instigation. Although the Soviet Union avoided direct participation in the conflict (which would end in 1953), the Korean War inspired the United States to strengthen its military capability and to conclude a peace treaty and security pact with Japan. Chinese participation in the war also strengthened China's independent position in relation to the Soviet Union.
Death of Stalin
In the early 1950s, Stalin, now an old man, apparently permitted his subordinates in the Politburo (enlarged and called the Presidium by the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952) greater powers of action within their spheres. (Also at the Nineteenth Party Congress, the name of the party was changed from the All-Union Communist Party [Bolshevik] to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.) Indicative of the Soviet leader's waning strength, Secretary Georgii M. Malenkov delivered the political report to the Nineteenth Party Congress in place of Stalin. Although the general secretary took a smaller part in the day-to-day administration of party affairs, he maintained his animosity toward potential enemies. In January 1953, the party newspaper announced that a group of predominantly Jewish doctors had murdered high Soviet officials, including Zhdanov. Western historians speculate that the disclosure of this "doctors' plot" may have been a prelude to an intended purge directed against Malenkov, Molotov, and secret police chief Lavrenty Beria. In any case, when Stalin died on March 5, 1953 (under circumstances that are still unclear), his inner circle, which had feared him for years, secretly rejoiced.
During his quarter-century of dictatorial control, Stalin had overseen impressive development in the Soviet Union. From a comparatively backward agricultural society, the country had been transformed into a powerful industrial state. But in the course of that transformation, millions of people had been killed, and Stalin's use of repressive controls had become an integral function of his regime. How Stalin's system would be maintained or altered would be a question of vital concern to Soviet leaders for years after him.
The Khrushchev Era
Collective Leadership and the Rise of Khrushchev
Stalin died without naming an heir, and none of his associates had the power to immediately claim supreme leadership. The deceased dictator's colleagues initially tried to rule jointly through a collective leadership, with Malenkov holding the top positions of prime minister (chairman of the Council of Ministers; the name changed from Council of People's Commissars in 1946) and general secretary (the latter office for only two weeks). The arrangement was first challenged in 1953 when Beria, the powerful head of the security forces, plotted a coup. Beria's associates in the Presidium, however, ordered Marshal Zhukov to arrest him, and he was secretly executed. With Beria's death came the end of the inordinate power of the secret police; the party has maintained strict control over the state security organs ever since.
After the elimination of Beria, the succession struggle became more subtle. Malenkov found a formidable rival in Nikita S. Khrushchev, whom the Presidium elected first secretary (Stalin's title of general secretary was abolished) in September. Of peasant background, Khrushchev had served as head of the Ukrainian party organization during and after World War II and was a member of the Soviet political elite during the Stalin period. The rivalry between Malenkov and Khrushchev surfaced publicly through Malenkov's support for increased production of consumer goods, while Khrushchev conservatively stood for development of heavy industry. After a poor showing by light industry and agriculture, Malenkov resigned as prime minister in February 1955. The new prime minister, Nikolai A. Bulganin, had little influence or real power; Khrushchev was now the most important figure within the collective leadership.
At the Twentieth Party Congress, held in February 1956, Khrushchev further advanced his position within the party by denouncing Stalin's crimes in a dramatic "secret speech." Khrushchev revealed that Stalin had arbitrarily liquidated thousands of party members and military leaders (thereby contributing to the initial Soviet defeats in World War II) and had established a pernicious cult of personality (see Glossary). With this speech Khrushchev not only distanced himself from Stalin and from Stalin's close associates, Molotov, Malenkov, and Lazar M. Kaganovich, but also abjured the dictator's policies of terror. As a direct result of the "de-Stalinization" campaign launched by the speech, the release of political prisoners, which had begun in 1953, was stepped up, and some of Stalin's victims were posthumously rehabilitated. Khrushchev later intensified his campaign against Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, winning approval to remove Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum, where it had originally been interred. De-Stalinization encouraged many in artistic and intellectual circles to speak out against the abuses of the former regime. Although Khrushchev's tolerance of critical creative works vacillated during his years of leadership, the new cultural period - known as the "thaw" - represented a clear break with the repression of the arts under Stalin.
After the Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev continued to expand his influence, although he still faced opposition. Khrushchev's rivals in the Presidium, spurred by reversals in Soviet foreign policy in Eastern Europe in 1956, potentially threatening economic reforms, and the de-Stalinization campaign, united to vote him out of office in June 1957. Khrushchev, however, demanded that the question be put to the Central Committee of the CPSU, where he enjoyed strong support. The Central Committee overturned the Presidium's decision and expelled Khrushchev's opponents (Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich), whom Khrushchev labeled the "anti-party group." In a departure from Stalinist procedure, Khrushchev did not order the imprisonment or execution of his defeated rivals but instead placed them in relatively minor offices. Khrushchev moved to consolidate his power further in the ensuring months. In October he removed Marshal Zhukov (who had helped Khrushchev squelch the "anti-party group") from the office of defense minister, presumably because he feared Zhukov's influence in the armed forces. Khrushchev became prime minister in March 1958 when Bulganin resigned, thus formally confirming his predominant position in the state as well as in the party.
Despite his rank, Khrushchev never exercised the dictatorial authority of Stalin, nor did he ever completely control the party even at the peak of his power. His attacks on members of the "anti-party group" at the Twenty-First Party Congress in 1959 and the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 suggest that his opponents still retained support within the party. Khrushchev's relative political insecurity probably accounted for some of his grandiose pronouncements (for example, his 1961 promise that the Soviet Union would attain communism by 1980). His desire to undermine opposition and mollify critics explained the nature of many of his domestic reforms and the vacillations in his foreign policy toward the West.
Foreign Policy under Khrushchev
Almost immediately after Stalin died, the collective leadership began altering the conduct of Soviet foreign policy to permit better relations with the West and new approaches to the nonaligned countries. Malenkov introduced a change in tone by speaking out against nuclear war as a threat to civilization. Khrushchev initially contradicted this position, saying capitalism alone would be destroyed in a nuclear war, but he adopted Malenkov's view after securing his preeminent position. In 1955, to ease tensions between East and West, Khrushchev recognized permanent neutrality for Austria. Meeting President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Geneva, Switzerland, later that year, Khrushchev confirmed Soviet commitment to "peaceful coexistence" with capitalism. Regarding the developing nations, Khrushchev tried to win the goodwill of their national leaders, instead of following the established Soviet policy of shunning the governments while supporting local communist parties. Soviet influence in the international alignments of India and Egypt, as well as of other Third World countries, began in the middle of the 1950s. Cuba's entry into the socialist camp in 1961 was a coup for the Soviet Union.
With the gains of the new diplomacy came reversals as well. By conceding the independence of Yugoslavia in 1955 as well as by his de-Stalinization campaign, Khrushchev provoked unrest in Eastern Europe, where the policies of the Stalin era weighed heavily. In Poland, riots brought about a change in communist party leadership, which the Soviet Union reluctantly recognized in October 1956. A popular uprising against Soviet control then broke out in Hungary, where the local communist leaders, headed by Imre Nagy, called for a multiparty political system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the defensive alliance founded by the Soviet Union and its East European satellites in 1955. The Soviet army crushed the revolt early in November 1956, causing numerous casualties. Although the Hungarian Revolution hurt Soviet standing in world opinion, it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would use force if necessary to maintain control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe.
Outside the Soviet sphere of control, China grew increasingly restive under Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong. Chinese discontent with the new Soviet leadership stemmed from low levels of Soviet aid, feeble Soviet support for China in its disputes with Taiwan and India, and the new Soviet doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the West (which Mao viewed as a betrayal of Marxism–Leninism). Against Khrushchev's wishes, China embarked on a nuclear arms program, declaring in 1960 that nuclear war could defeat imperialism. The dispute between militant China and the more moderate Soviet Union escalated into a schism in the world communist movement after 1960. Albania left the Soviet camp and became an ally of China, Romania distanced itself from the Soviet Union in international affairs, and communist parties around the world split over orientation to Moscow or Beijing. The monolithic bloc of world communism had shattered.
Soviet relations with the West, especially the United States, seesawed between moments of relative relaxation and periods of tension and crisis. For his part, Khrushchev wanted peaceful coexistence with the West, not only to avoid nuclear war but also to permit the Soviet Union to develop its economy. Khrushchev's meetings with President Eisenhower in 1955 and President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and his tour of the United States in 1959 demonstrated the Soviet leader's desire for fundamentally smooth relations between the West and the Soviet Union and its allies. Yet Khrushchev also needed to demonstrate to Soviet conservatives and militant Chinese that the Soviet Union was a firm defender of the socialist camp. Thus in 1958 Khrushchev challenged the status of Berlin; when the West would not yield to his demands that the western sectors be incorporated into East Germany, he approved the erection of the Berlin Wall around those sectors in 1961. To maintain national prestige, Khrushchev canceled a summit meeting with Eisenhower in 1960 after Soviet air defense troops shot down a United States U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet territory. Finally, mistrust over military intentions hobbled east–west relations during this time. The West feared the Soviet lead in space technology and saw in the buildup of the Soviet military an emerging "missile gap" in the Soviet Union's favor. By contrast, the Soviet Union felt threatened by a rearmed Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), by the United States alliance system encircling the Soviet Union, and by the West's superior strategic and economic strength. To offset the United States military advantage and thereby improve the Soviet negotiating position, Khrushchev in 1962 tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, but he agreed to withdraw them after Kennedy ordered a blockade around the island nation. After coming close to war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States took steps to reduce the nuclear threat. In 1963 the two countries established the "hot line" between Washington and Moscow to reduce the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. In the same year, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which forbade testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
Khrushchev's Reforms and Fall
Throughout his years of leadership, Khrushchev attempted to carry out reform in a range of fields. The problems of Soviet agriculture, a major concern of Khrushchev's, had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on the collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture. In his dramatic virgin land campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened to farming vast tracts of land in the northern part of the Kazakh Republic and neighboring areas of the Russian Republic. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later innovations by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing maize and increasing meat and dairy production failed miserably, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside.
Khrushchev's reforms in industry and administrative organization created even greater problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy, in 1957 Khrushchev did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow and replaced them with regional economic councils. Although Khrushchev intended these economic councils to be more responsive to local needs, the decentralization of industry led to disruption and inefficiency. Connected with this decentralization was Khrushchev's decision in 1962 to reorganize party organizations along economic, rather than administrative, lines. The resulting bifurcation of the party apparatus into industrial and agricultural sectors at the oblast level and below contributed to the disarray and alienated many party officials at all levels. Symptomatic of the country's economic difficulties was the abandonment in 1963 of Khrushchev's special seven-year economic plan (1959–65) two years short of its completion.
By 1964 Khrushchev's prestige had been injured in a number of areas. Industrial growth slowed, while agriculture showed no new progress. Abroad, the split with China, the Berlin crisis, and the Cuban fiasco hurt the Soviet Union's international stature, and Khrushchev's efforts to improve relations with the West antagonized many in the military. Lastly, the 1962 party reorganization caused turmoil throughout the Soviet political chain of command. In October 1964, while Khrushchev was vacationing in Crimea, the Presidium voted him out of office and refused to permit him to take his case to the Central Committee. Khrushchev retired as a private citizen after his successors denounced him for his "hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions." Yet along with his failed policies, Khrushchev must also be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism and the cult of personality.
The Brezhnev Era
Collective Leadership and the Rise of Brezhnev
After removing Khrushchev from power, the leaders of the Politburo (as the Presidium was renamed in 1966 by the Twenty-Third Party Congress) and Secretariat again established a collective leadership. As was the case following Stalin's death, several individuals, including Aleksei N. Kosygin, Nikolai V. Podgornyi, and Leonid I. Brezhnev, contended for power behind a facade of unity. Kosygin accepted the position of prime minister, which he held until his retirement in 1980. Brezhnev, who took the post of first secretary, may have originally been viewed as an interim appointment by his fellows.
Born to a Russian worker's family in 1906, Brezhnev became a protege of Khrushchev early in his career and through his influence rose to membership in the Presidium. As his own power grew, Brezhnev built up a coterie of followers whom he, as first secretary (the title reverted to general secretary after April 1966), gradually maneuvered into powerful positions. At the same time, Brezhnev slowly demoted or isolated possible contenders for his office. He succeeded in elevating Podgornyi to the ceremonial position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative organization in the government, in December 1965, thus eliminating him as a rival. But Brezhnev's rise was very gradual; only in 1971, when Brezhnev succeeded in appointing four close associates to the Politburo, did it become clear that his was the most influential voice in the collective leadership. After several more personnel changes, Brezhnev assumed the chairmanship of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1977, confirming his primacy in both party and state.
The years after Khrushchev were notable for the stability of cadres in the party and state apparatus. By introducing the slogan "Trust in Cadres" in 1965, Brezhnev won the support of many bureaucrats wary of the constant reorganizations of the Khrushchev era and eager for security in established hierarchies. As an example of the new stability, nearly half of the Central Committee members in 1981 were holdovers from fifteen years earlier. The corollary to this stability was the aging of Soviet leaders; the average age of Politburo members rose from fifty-five in 1966 to sixty-eight in 1982. The Soviet leadership (or the "gerontocracy," as it was referred to in the West) became increasingly conservative and ossified.
Conservative policies characterized the regime's agenda in the years after Khrushchev. Upon assuming power, the collective leadership not only reversed such policies of Khrushchev's as the bifurcation of the party but also halted de-Stalinization, and positive references to the dead dictator began to appear. The Soviet Constitution of 1977, although differing in certain respects from the 1936 Stalin document, retains the general thrust of the latter. In contrast to the relative cultural freedom tolerated during the early Khrushchev years, Brezhnev and his colleagues continued the more restrictive line of the later Khrushchev era. The leadership was unwilling or unable to employ Stalinist means to control Soviet society; instead, it opted to exert repressive tactics against political dissidents even after the Soviet Union acceded to the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Dissidents persecuted during this time included writers and activists in outlawed religious, nationalist, and human rights movements. In the latter part of the Brezhnev era, the regime tolerated popular expressions of antisemitism. Under conditions of "developed socialism" (the historical stage that the Soviet Union attained in 1977 according to the CPSU), the study of Marxism–Leninism served as a means to bolster the authority of the regime rather than as a tool for revolutionary action.
Foreign Policy of a Superpower
A major concern of Khrushchev's successors was to reestablish Soviet primacy in the community of communist states by undermining the influence of China. Although the new leaders originally approached China without hostility, Mao's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy as "revisionist" and his competition for influence in the Third World soon led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. Sino-Soviet relations reached a low point in 1969 when clashes broke out along the disputed Ussuri River in the Far East. Later the Chinese, intimidated by Soviet military strength, agreed not to patrol the border area claimed by the Soviet Union; but strained relations between the two countries continued into the early 1980s.
Under the collective leadership, the Soviet Union again used force in Eastern Europe, this time in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 reform-minded elements of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rapidly began to liberalize their rule, loosen censorship, and strengthen Western ties. In response, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia and installed a new regime. Out of these events arose the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which warned that the Soviet Union would act to maintain its hegemony in Eastern Europe. Soviet suppression of the reform movement reduced blatant gestures of defiance on the part of Romania and served as a threatening example to the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. But it also helped disillusion communist parties in Western Europe to the extent that by 1977 most of the leading parties embraced Eurocommunism, which freed them to pursue political programs independent of Moscow's dictates.
Soviet influence in the developing world expanded somewhat during this period. New communist or Marxist governments having close relations with the Soviet Union rose to power in several countries, including Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. In the Middle East, the Soviet Union vied for influence by backing the Arabs in their dispute with Israel. After the June 1967 War, the Soviet Union rebuilt the defeated Syrian and Egyptian armies, but it suffered a setback when Egypt expelled Soviet advisers from the country in 1972 and subsequently entered a closer relationship with the United States. The Soviet Union retained ties with Syria and supported Palestinian claims for their right to an independent state. But Soviet prestige among moderate Muslim states suffered in the 1980s as a result of Soviet military activities in Afghanistan. Attempting to shore up a communist government in that country, Brezhnev sent in Soviet armed forces in December 1979, but a large part of the Afghan population resisted both the occupiers and the Marxist Afghan regime. The resulting war in Afghanistan continued to be an unresolved problem for the Soviet Union at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982.
Soviet relations with the West first improved, then deteriorated in the years after Khrushchev. The gradual winding down of the United States commitment to the war in Vietnam after 1968 opened the way for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear arms. After the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed in July 1968, the two countries began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969. At the Moscow Summit of May 1972, Brezhnev and President Richard M. Nixon signed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both agreements essentially froze the deployment of strategic defensive and offensive weapons. A period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974. The crowning achievement of the era of détente was the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and bound the signatories to respect basic principles of human rights. But even during the period of détente, the Soviet Union increased weapons deployments, with the result that by the end of the 1970s it achieved parity or even superiority in strength compared with the United States. The Soviet Union also heightened its condemnation of the NATO alliance in an attempt to weaken Western unity. Although SALT a second agreement was signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Carter administration withdrew the agreement from consideration by the United States Senate, and détente effectively came to an end. In reaction to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the United States imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union and boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued up to Brezhnev's death.
Despite Khrushchev's tinkerings with economic planning, the economic system remained dependent on central plans drawn up with no reference to market mechanisms. Reformers, of whom the economist Evsei Liberman was most noteworthy, advocated greater freedom for individual enterprises (see Glossary) from outside controls and sought to turn the enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit. Prime Minister Kosygin championed Liberman's proposals and succeeded in incorporating them into a general economic reform program approved in September 1965. This reform included scrapping Khrushchev's regional economic councils in favor of resurrecting the central industrial ministries of the Stalin era. Opposition from party conservatives and cautious managers, however, soon stalled the Liberman reforms, forcing the state to abandon them.
After this short-lived attempt at revamping the economic system, planners reverted to drafting comprehensive centralized plans of the type first developed under Stalin. In industry, plans stressed the heavy and defense-related branches, with the light consumer-goods branches slighted. As a developed industrial country, the Soviet Union by the 1970s found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high rates of growth in the industrial sector that it had sustained in earlier years. Increasingly large investment and labor inputs were required for growth, but these inputs were becoming more difficult to obtain. Although the planned goals of the five-year plans of the 1970s had been scaled down from previous plans, the targets remained largely unmet. The industrial shortfalls were felt most sharply in the sphere of consumer goods, where the public steadily demanded improved quality and increased quantity. Agricultural development continued to lag in the Brezhnev years. Despite steadily higher investments in agriculture, growth under Brezhnev fell below that attained under Khrushchev. Droughts occurring irregularly throughout the 1970s forced the Soviet Union to import large quantities of grain from the West, including the United States. In the countryside, Brezhnev continued the trend toward converting collective farms into state farms and raised the incomes of all farm workers. Despite the wage raises, peasants still devoted much time and effort to their private plots, which provided the Soviet Union with an inordinate share of its agricultural goods.
The standard of living in the Soviet Union presented a problem to the Brezhnev leadership after improvements made in the late 1960s gradually leveled off at a position well below that of many Western industrial (and some East European) countries. Although certain goods and appliances became more accessible during the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in housing and food supply were slight. Shortages of consumer goods abetted pilferage of government property and growth of the black market. Vodka, however, remained readily available, and alcoholism was an important factor in both the declining life expectancy and the rising infant mortality that the Soviet Union experienced in the later Brezhnev years.
Culture and the Arts
Progress in developing the education system was mixed during the Brezhnev years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of working-age people with secondary and higher education steadily increased. Yet at the same time, access to higher education grew more difficult. By 1980 the percentage of secondary school graduates admitted to universities had dropped to only two-thirds of the 1960 figure. Students accepted into the universities increasingly came from professional families rather than from worker or peasant households. This trend toward the perpetuation of the educated elite was not only a function of the superior cultural background of elite families but was also, in many cases, a result of their power to influence the admissions procedures.
Progress in science also enjoyed varied success under Brezhnev. In the most visible test of its ability - the race with the United States to put a man on the moon - the Soviet Union failed, but through persistence the Soviet space program continued to make headway in other areas. In general, despite leads in such fields as metallurgy and thermonuclear fusion, Soviet science lagged behind that of the West, hampered in part by the slow development of computer technology.
In literature and the arts, a greater variety of creative works became accessible to the public than had previously been available. True, the state continued to determine what could be legally published or performed, punishing persistent offenders with exile or prison. Nonetheless, greater experimentation in art forms became permissible in the 1970s, with the result that more sophisticated and subtly critical work began to be produced. The regime loosened the strictures of socialist realism; thus, for instance, many protagonists of the novels of author Iurii Trifonov concerned themselves with problems of daily life rather than with building socialism. In music, although the state continued to frown on such Western phenomena as jazz and rock, it began to permit Western musical ensembles specializing in these genres to make limited appearances. But the native balladeer Vladimir Vysotskii, widely popular in the Soviet Union, was denied official recognition because of his iconoclastic lyrics.
In the religious life of the Soviet Union, a resurgence in popular devotion to the major faiths became apparent in the late 1970s despite continued de facto disapproval on the part of the authorities. This revival may have been connected with the generally growing interest of Soviet citizens in their respective national traditions.
Death of Brezhnev
Shortly after his cult of personality began to take root in the mid-1970s, Brezhnev began to experience periods of ill health. After Brezhnev's first stroke in 1975, Politburo members Mikhail A. Suslov and Andrei P. Kirilenko assumed some of Brezhnev's functions for a time. Then, after another bout of poor health in 1978, Brezhnev delegated more of his responsibilities to Konstantin U. Chernenko, a long-time associate who soon began to be regarded as the heir apparent. His prospects of succeeding Brezhnev, however, were hurt by problems plaguing the general secretary in the early 1980s. Not only had economic failures hurt Brezhnev's prestige, but scandals involving his family and political allies also damaged his stature. Meanwhile, Iurii V. Andropov, chief of the secret police, the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti—KGB), apparently also began a campaign to discredit Brezhnev. Andropov took over Suslov's functions after Suslov died in 1982, and he used his position to advance himself as the next CPSU general secretary. Brezhnev himself, despite ill health following another stroke in March, would not relinquish his office. Soon after reviewing the traditional Bolshevik Revolution parade in November 1982, Brezhnev died.
Ultimately, the Soviet Union paid a high price for the stability that prevailed during the years of the Brezhnev regime. By avoiding necessary political and economic change, the Brezhnev leadership ensured the economic and political decline that the country experienced during the 1980s. This deterioration of power and prestige stood in sharp contrast to the dynamism that marked the Soviet Union's revolutionary beginnings.
Tensions with the West
The Shootdown of KAL 007
Considered by many as the second or third most critical single incident of the Cold War (after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Able Archer 83), the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983 would signal a change in the relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union prompted by the subsequent deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in West Germany just 6 minutes from launch to Moscow. A civilian passenger jet carrying 269 passengers and crew, including a sitting congressman Larry McDonald, on a flight from Anchorage, Alaska to South Korea, it had strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down near Sakhalin Island just as it re-entered international waters. .
The Gorbachev Era
Glasnost and Perestroika
Fall of Communism
Coup attempt against Gorbachev
Collapse of the Soviet Union
- The collapse of the Soviet Union, 1990-1991, ALEX PRAVDA