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Simply... Modern Soviet History


new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

Modern Soviet History

TSARIST DARK AGES (1400s to 1917)

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From the time the Moscow Grand Dukes threw off the Tartar yoke and declared themselves Tsars their despotic rule kept Russian society under tight control. Limited industrialization and unlimited centralization occurred under modernizing Tsars like Peter and Catherine the Great. But for over a century following the French Revolution Tsarist Russia stood as an imperial bulwark against the liberal and democratic ideas of Europe. The Royal Family in alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church ruled ruthlessly over a largely illiterate peasant country. Rigorous censorship alienated Russian intellectuals who became bitter foes of Tsarist privilege and power. Opposition was dealt with effectively by the notorious Okhrana secret police. In 1861 Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in order to forestall more radical social changes. But with the dawning of the twentieth century factories and universities in the growing urban centres of St Petersburg and Moscow became a breeding ground for a radical opposition inspired by socialists and anarchists.


The Tsarist war effort in the First World War stretched the economy - adding starvation and conscription to the already heavy burden of the Russian people. Defeat on the battlefield and corruption in public office added fuel to the fire of revolt and by February 1917 the Tsar was forced to abdicate The liberal regime of Alexander Kerensky came to power with the support of the middle class. As the year wore on the failure of this ineffectual government to end the war and suffering caused Russian people to be drawn to Bolshevik demands for 'Bread, Land and Peace' and 'All Power to the Soviets'. By October the country was in revolt: some of the peasants seized land; workers took over their factories; soldiers deserted the ranks; and the famous storming of the Winter Palace brought the Bolsheviks to power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. The Bolsheviks made unfavorable peace terms with the German High Command surrendering territory, but buying time. They launched a program of nationalizing industry under workers' control, abolished private ownership in land and ranks in the military, and brought about a series of radical social reforms - including the not-to-be repeated policy of self-determination granted to Finland.

THE GOLDEN AGE (1918 - 29)

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From the start the fledgling Russian Revolution faced the hostility of major powers outside the newly-declared Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A young Winston Churchill looked askance at Soviet society and recommended 'strangling the Bolshevik baby in its cradle.' This policy was followed with enthusiasm by 21 countries who made common cause with the pro-Tsarist 'White' opposition in a ruthless counter-revolutionary war that did not end until 1921. This new war sapped the energy and person-power of the Bolsheviks, left the economy in tatters and further exhausted an already war-weary population. The Bolsheviks increasingly fell back on authoritarian habits of rule when dealing with any opposition. An anarchist-inspired revolt of Kronstadt sailors for more direct democracy and a peasant movement in the Ukraine demanding local control were suppressed by the Red Army under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. Inside the Communist Party a Workers' Opposition led by feminist activist Alexandra Kollontal was forced to stop agitating against what it saw as a drift towards top-down conservatism in Bolshevik policy.

In the early 1920s the Bolsheviks abandoned their militant economic policy of War Communism and adopted a New Economic Policy. This allowed more market freedoms for the peasant population in order to reverse the catastrophic fall in food production. Lenin was the main architect of a Bolshevik strategy that enabled the regime to survive in difficult circumstances. After Lenin's death in early 1924 an uneasy balance of power existed between the main Bolshevik leaders - Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin and Joseph Stalin. As the decade drew to a close Stalin came out on top eliminating the last vestiges of internal party democracy.

In some ways the 1920s were the golden age of the Russian revolution. This was a period of excitement, intense debate and idealism. A liberal policy in the arts meant a flowering of literature, music and the visual arts as well as lively discussions about the function and nature of revolutionary culture. GOELRO - a nationwide electrification plan was launched by Lenin in 1920. There were significant gains in the areas of public health and literacy.


[image, unknown] By 1930 Stalin and those close to him had their own way in implementing a series of five year plans that stressed industrialization at breakneck speed and the collectivization of agriculture. Ironically this program was similar to one recommended by Stalin's bitter opponent Leon Trotsky who was forced into exile. Industrial production increased spectacularly in this period but Soviet agriculture has still not recovered from the effects of forced collectivization of the countryside. Those who stood in Stalin's way were dealt with ruthlessly. Any moderately well-off peasant family faced seizure of property, deportation to labour camps. death by starvation or summary execution. Estimates of victims vary from five to ten million. The age-old connection between peasant and land was broken.

But the paranoid Stalin did not restrict his brutality to these 'petty capitalists'. He uncovered a series of 'plots' by 'wreckers' and 'foreign agents' that allowed purges of the Soviet bureaucracy and the execution of most of his old comrades in the Bolshevik leadership. These sad days are powerfully evoked in the new Soviet best-selling novel Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov. Of the 139 members in the Bolshevik central committee of 1934, 110 had been arrested by the time of the next party congress in 1939. Hundreds of thousands perished in such purges often after being forced to make humiliating public confessions. Bukharin at his trial charged that these confessions were a 'mediaeval principle of justice'. The present hierarchical structure of Soviet society is a product of the Stalin era This is what makes Stalin such a controversial figure in Soviet history. Those who support and benefit from the present status quo feel the need to defend its origins while those who support a program of change are challenging Stalin's legacy.


[image, unknown] The war with Germany is known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. The USSR bore the brunt of Hitler's army which swept east in 1941: lost 7.5 million soldiers and six to eight million civilians. Add those who died in Stalin's labour camps and the total is close to 10 per cent of the entire Soviet population. Twenty-five million people were left homeless. But in the national emergency the Soviet people pulled together under extreme pressure. In such conditions the despotic Stalin appeared to many as a tower of determination. A certain popular fondness developed for the old dictator despite the fact that he had paved the way for early German victories by refusing to believe that Hitler was about to invade and by a pre-war purge that had devastated the Red Army's officer corps.

The war provided the Soviet Union with some of its 'fine hours' such as the hand-to-hand fighting in the streets of Stalingrad where small but tough Red Army units trounced the cream of Hitler's Panzer divisions. As a byproduct of victory the Soviet Union found itself in military occupation of Eastern Europe from the Turkish border to the Baltic. Despite promises to leave, the Red Army set up permanent shop as part of an extensive buffer zone against future invasions. Stalin's intransigence over Eastern Europe combined with US hostility and empire-building to create a Cold War atmosphere that froze international relations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Stalin died in 1953 just as he was about to launch a new series of purges.


[image, unknown] After the trauma of Stalinism and the Second World War the Soviet people were ready for a time of greater peace and tranquility. Nikita Khrushchev came to power in 1956 and immediately shocked the country in a speech on the crimes committed by Stalin. Some labour camps were shut down, some prisoners were released and censorship was eased. People were optimistic about a more open and humane socialism. But the limits of Khrushchev's liberalism were soon made clear by his use of the Red Army to crush the anti-Stalinist revolution in Hungary in November 1956. Khrushchev certainly left his personal stamp on Soviet politics whether banging his shoe on the table at the UN, launching his abortive 'virgin lands' campaign that brought at first record grain harvests and later massive soil erosion to Asian Kazakhstan, or allowing the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's anti-Stalinist novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But for most in the Soviet bureaucracy Khrushchev's crude peasant manners and flamboyant style were too erratic and unpredictable. Plotting against him commenced and he was retired into obscurity in 1964, thus ending the first real attempt to reform the Stalinist system.

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THE LOCUST YEARS (1964 - 82)

The next two decades of Soviet history were a time of Stalinism without the mass brutality. Leonid Brezhnev presided over accumulating problems in both economic and political life. Corruption became widespread. Popular cynicism about Soviet rulers increased along with absenteeism and alcoholism. Previously high levels of growth in the economy began to falter. Consumer dissatisfaction with shortages and shoddy goods grew along with expectations and disposable income. Half-hearted economic reforms in the 1960s were derailed by the bureaucracy. The system of Nomenklatura meant that promotion depended on loyalty to party bosses. There was increasing dissatisfaction with the crude censorship in the arts. Those who dissented were no longer executed but harassed, imprisoned or exiled. Soviet life was changing however and the arbitrary and wasteful practices of the past seemed anachronistic to new generations of educated citizens.

Despite a brief period of Brezhnev-Nixon detente and a limited arms control agreement, the Cold War entered a new phase with Soviet military interventions in Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979) matching US aggression in Vietnam and Central America. The world was carved up into the spheres of influence' of the two super-powers. The main thrust of Soviet foreign and military policy in this period was to gain the stature of military parity and superpower recognition equal to that of the US. Military spending ate up a vast share of Soviet resources.


Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded by the stern reformer Yuri Andropov. Andropov lived for less than two years and his successor from the old guard, Konstantin Chernenko, lived only a little over a year. Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985 marks the first time a new generation has been in the driver's seat in the Kremlin. The old guard who knew the days and ways of Stalin had clung tenaciously to power. Gorbachev started slowly, mostly pushing reforms already formulated under Andropov. Soon, however, a more comprehensive reform program began to take shape including not only extensive economic restructuring (perestroika) - a greater role for the market, more consumer goods - but also new ideas about openness in political life (glasnost). Multi-candidate elections, a freer press and a more serious commitment to peace (a new arms control agreement and withdrawal from Afghanistan) have all made their way onto Gorbachev's agenda. His commitment to open debate has sparked a struggle for greater democracy in everything from the staid Soviet Writers' Union to the factory floor where some workers are demanding direct elections of plant management. Hundreds of independent organizations and political clubs have been formed to press for more democracy. Gorbachev is talking about the need for a new 'revolution' to change the old autocratic habits of control. How far Gorbachev can or will go remains an open question.

All photos and engravings: Camera Press

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New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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