|Join the party!
|Opiates for the masses
|—George Friedman, Flashpoints, p.41.
The Soviet Union (Russian: Сове́тский Сою́з, Sovetsky Soyuz), officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR (Russian: Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, or CCCP, "SSSR") was a communist state and superpower that existed between 1922 and 1991. Nominally a federation, the USSR was a one-party state that was under totalitarian rule during the 1930s to the early 1950s. It's often cited as a prime example of Communism's many failures but is also irresponsibly used as a scapegoat by right-wingers. On the opposite end, its crimes against humanity are defended or denied by Stalin apologists and Russian nationalists hankering for the "glory days."
Revolution and totalitarianism
“”Many who lauded Stalin's Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the "thoroughly democratic" elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin's death.
|—J. Arch Getty
The Soviet Union began in 1917 when two revolutions occurred in Russia. The first overthrew the Tsardom while the second consolidated power under the Bolsheviks. After a brutal civil war, the communist regime won out by implementing a series of ruthlessly pragmatic policies.
The first policy was the creation of the Cheka, the not-so-secret police, in 1918 to combat anti-Bolshevik activities. The Cheka used extreme measures of torture, rape, and terror to exercise control over the population and deter desertion from the Red Army.
The second was known as "war communism" in which the government expropriated and nationalized industry and agricultural surplus leading to the rise of a large but inexperienced bureaucracy to manage it. The policy was successful in halting the advance of the White Movement army and giving breathing room for the Red Army to reconquer most of the former Russian territories. The policy was a disaster in socio-economic terms, leading to a collapse of agricultural surplus, high inflation, and a drop in real wages. This led to the Kronstadt Rebellion which demanded free elections for socialist parties and an end to the politicization of the military, to which the Bolsheviks responded by brutally crushing them using the thinly-veiled excuse of a memorandum allegedly written by a reactionary leader.
The third policy was a response to the Kronstadt Rebellion and widespread discontent, resulting in the Bolsheviks implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP), which bought back some elements of capitalism by allowing a return of most agriculture, retail, and small-scale light industry to private ownership. After the rise of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet government implemented a plan of forced collectivization which was opposed by the peasantry, who reacted by slaughtering the livestock and destroying the equipment. As Stalin was not yet total master of the CPSU, the plan was slowed down in March 1930 which resulted in a vast majority of farmers abandoning the collective farms. Stalin blamed local officials for "overzealously" enforcing the program, which was supposed to be voluntary. However, the government tried again in the fall of 1930, this time also enacting punitive measures. Afterward, a series of brutal five-year plans were crafted to industrialize the nation, killing millions in the process, but they did successfully make the USSR an industrial powerhouse (and, probably saved the USSR from conquest by Nazi Germany later on).
There was a period of thaw in 1934 which came to a halt with the assassination of Sergei Kirov, whom moderates in the party wanted to replace Stalin, in what is believed to be a false flag operation. Regardless, the assassination gave Stalin the justification to unleash the Yezhovschina[note 1] or the Great Purge, as it's known in the West, in which the last remaining political opposition in the Communist Party was killed in show trials.
Second World War
Operation Barbarossa started on June 22, 1941, with a sweeping invasion of Soviet territory, with the Red Army suffering colossal casualties and ultimately millions of soldiers were surrounded, forced to surrender, stripped of supplies, and compelled to walk on "death marches" to labor camps. The invasion also witnessed an escalation of the Holocaust, along with mass reprisals and brutality towards the Soviet civilian population. The war would come to a turning point at the infamous Battle of Stalingrad which saw an estimate two million casualties, half on either side.
Believing that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", the Western Powers allied themselves with the Soviet Union, emerging victorious in World War II. This led to the USSR de facto taking control of Eastern Europe, while the Western Allies took de facto control of Western Europe.
Cold War and collapse
Unsurprisingly, this alliance fell apart as soon as the war ended. Indeed, the nuclear bombing of Imperial Japan confirmed the possibility of nuclear explosives, and the Soviets pressed ahead with the development of their nuclear weapons. Thus began the Cold War, a titanic struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies. The two sides competed in every imaginable venue, from space exploration to fundamental research in the sciences and mathematics, everything short of direct all-out war. Mainland China fell to communism in 1949 and the Nationalists fled to the Island of Formosa, modern-day Taiwan, and the communist regime started to break away from Moscow's influence due to the Soviet government's desire for peaceful co-existence with capitalism.
With the rest of the industrial world still recovering from World War II until the early 1970s, both sides pretty much had things to themselves. Their power was quickly abused, establishing puppet regimes throughout the world, such as the US in Iran and much of Latin America and the USSR in much of Indochina and North Africa.
After Stalin's death, Nikita Khrushchev became the Soviet leader after a brief power struggle. On February 25, 1956, Khrushchev shocked the communist bloc with the Secret Speech in which he characterized Stalin as a murderous tyrant who sought a "godhead" status by building a cult of personality. The report of this speech was later leaked to the West by Israeli intelligence services and politically devastated the organized Left in the Western bloc. The Communist Party of the United States alone lost more than 30,000 members in the weeks following the report's publication. This also laid the foundations for the Sino-Soviet split, which came to fruition with the Soviets' refusal to provide China with nuclear weapons.
However, the Eastern Bloc began to decline in the 1980s. Reformist Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and began to slowly open relations with the West, ending decades of censorship. Partly as a result of this, revolutions created by disillusioned populations occurred throughout the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s. This expanded into the Union itself in 1991. A Russian presidency was established, which brought Boris Yeltsin to power. In a desperate attempt to keep stability, Gorbachev proposed the Union be replaced with a confederation. Hardline communists tried to stop this in the August Coup which failed and was the final blow to the Union. Members began seceding, and then, on December 25, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union fell, despite the 1991 referendum resulting in most of the population voting to stay in the Union. Nevertheless, modern Russia remains a powerful country, at least militarily due to inheriting the bulk of the Soviet arsenal.
“” The Stalinist project, as it crystallised in late 1920s Russia, is best seen as a ‘modernising counter-revolution.’ In that it crushed the social and cultural gains of 1917, it was counter-revolutionary. Civil liberties, dissent, and intellectual freedoms were stamped out, workers’ organisations were subordinated to the party-state, and oppositionists were exiled or murdered.
Besides the actions taken in the Civil War itself, the Soviet Union was from day one a one-party communist state with an extensive and largely uncontrolled police state. Though there were some gains initially, dissent was increasingly suppressed both within and outside the Communist Party which intensified after Lenin's death. Some of the notable actions of the USSR include:
- The Holodomor and other famines with an estimated death toll between 4.3 to 9.1 million
- Forced labour in the Gulag system with an estimated death toll between 1,053,829 to 6 million
- Ethnic cleansing with a death toll of 790,000 to 1.5 million
When founded, the USSR was under the policy of "war communism" and after the Kronstadt Revolt, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was implemented which was seen by the Bolsheviks as a necessary evil to rebuild the economy. While mostly successful, the NEP was also assailed by the Scissor Crisis in 1923 due to the growth of agricultural production causing the prices of agricultural products to drop. Meanwhile, due to a lack of industrial recovery, the price of industrial consumer goods (such as textiles) grew, and the income of peasants dropped.
After WWII, the Soviet Union rebuilt its devastated economy thanks to massive reparations from East Germany. In terms of housing, the first thirty years were marked by the dismal tsarist legacy, and the conditions worsened under Stalin with millions living in communal squalor. From the early 1950s, the communist government sought to eliminate the housing crisis by constructing large-scale low-cost concrete apartment buildings nicknamed Khrushchyovka that were later exported to the Eastern bloc.
“”The issue of labor discipline lay at the heart of the antagonistic relationship between the Soviet elite and its workforce. That "discipline" was slack in Soviet factories has long been noted by Western and Soviet commentators alike: high labor turnover; absenteeism, closely tied to heavy drinking on and off the job; and, more importantly, a highly irregular pace of work, with periods of intense labor (usually involving forced overtime) interspersed with countless opportunities for time-wasting, slow work, and a general disregard for production quality.
|—Labor discipline, the use of work time, and the decline of the Soviet System, 1928-1991 by Donald Filtzer
In the 1970s, the USSR's economy become sluggish, and the period became known as the Era of Stagnation. The reason for this was a prioritization of massive military spending and an inefficient agricultural system, along with the usual pitfalls of command economies in failing to produce consumer goods in great quantities and of high quality. The Soviets were forced to import grain from Western countries to feed their population and suffered from decreasing standards of living which never managed to achieve parity with those in the capitalist bloc.
Under Gorbachev, some attempts were made at reforming the ailing Soviet economy starting with Uskroeniye ("acceleration") which was abandoned in 1986 after the explosion of Chernobyl. Later, Gorbachev created the perestroika ("restructuring") program to attempt to replace it.
Some of these reforms included the Law on State Enterprise, passed in July 1987, which stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Under the law, state enterprises were self-financing and had to cover their own expenses (wages, taxes, and supplies) through revenue instead of the government rescuing unprofitable enterprises from bankruptcy. These reforms proved incapable of transforming the Soviet economy and growing deficits expanded due to an increase in social benefits, causing an expansion of the money supply and loss of control over monetary policy. Likewise, prices increased by 9.5% in 1989 and 29% in 1990.
|The Republics of the Soviet Union (1956 — 1989)
|Map of the Soviet Union
|Byelorussia (now Belarus)
|Alma-Ata (now Almaty)
|Kirghizia (now Kyrgyzstan)
|Frunze (now Bishkek)
|Moldavia (now Moldova)
|Kishinev (now Chişinău)
|Moscow (also the capital of the USSR as a whole)
|Ashkhabad (now Ashgabat)
|Kiev (now Kyiv)
(From 1940-1956 there was also a 16th Union Republic, the Karelo-Finnish SSR, which was demoted to "Republic" status as a part of Russia.)
Even littler countries
There were also about twenty "autonomous republics" for the smaller ethnic groups. Their autonomy didn't extend much beyond having their name on the bit of land they inhabited. The even-smaller-than-that ethnic groups also had counties and districts for them, including a Jewish Autonomous Region in the ancient Biblical homeland of, er, Siberia. The USSR's million or so Roma got jack-all apart from a newspaper. Russia has encouraged agitation in a number of these little places to hurt the less-little independent countries of today, for instance South Ossetia against Georgia and Transnistria against Moldova—as if those places need to get any littler. There is also the puppet states of "Donetsk People's Republic" and the "Luhansk People's Republic" within Ukraine.
Loyal (mostly) commies
These countries were members of the Warsaw Pact, the mutual defence organization created by the Soviet Union to keep its friends close and its enemies closer. East Germany was reunified with West Germany in 1990; Poland, Hungary, and Czechia are now NATO allies, much to the great annoyance of Russia. The Warsaw Pact did not survive the end of the Soviet Union, and none of its former member countries are communist any longer.
- Albania (withdrew from the pact after the split between Mao and the Soviets, now fiercely pro-US even by post-Soviet NATO member standards)
- Czechoslovakia (broken in two after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact to make spelling easier)
- East Germany (DDR)[note 2] (many older Germans still speak of "the wall in the mind," and there's still a substantial disparity between east and west even now, but by all indications, younger Germans don't get the fuss)
- Hungary (withdrew from the Warsaw Pact after the 1956 revolution but was forced to join again after the Soviet Union invaded it and crushed the revolution). Hungary took a more liberal approach to communism (known colloquially as "Goulash Communism"), which allowed, among other things, the marketing of the Rubik's Cube in the 1980s.
- Poland was permitted a remarkable array of personal freedoms and liberties alien to other countries behind the Iron Curtain, partially due to overt Western pressure (hundreds of thousands of Poles fought alongside the Allies against the Nazis) but also because of the continued influence of the Catholic Church within the country. In the 1980s, Poland formed the biggest threat to the well-being of the entire Soviet empire: the independent Solidarity trade union led by Lech Wałęsa, which galvanized an inchoate natural opposition to Soviet hegemony, and Pope John Paul II, a Polish native, provided an inspirational figurehead for the deeply Catholic nation.
- Romania pursued its own foreign policy under Nicolae Ceaușescu, which included not invading Czechoslovakia.
Comecon was the communist version of the European Union. Besides the above, members were:
- Mongolia, the second country to turn communist (in 1925), was among the first to follow Gorbachev's reforms and bring in democracy in early 1990.
- Vietnam remains a Third World country with a love-hate relationship with her powerful Northern neighbour, Red China.
- Cuba pretty much seems to think it's still 1984.
- Yugoslavia and Albania, basically only nominal members for all the difference they made.
Commies that weren't so loyal
These were Communist countries that either did not join or withdrew from the Warsaw Pact.
- People's Republic of China
- Yugoslavia: Josip Broz Tito independently set up communism in Yugoslavia after his Yugoslav partisans came out on top in World War II (while helped by the Allies). Stalin didn't like that Tito then wouldn't follow his directives and tried to have him killed several times. Tito, understandably, threatened to have Stalin killed in turn and promised whoever he sent wouldn't fail. Stalin backed off and Yugoslavia stayed independent of Soviet control. Tito established a more democratic form of socialism in the 1950s where state enterprises were run by workers' councils. Yugoslav citizens were also given much more freedom to travel and work abroad than in most communist countries. Both these things helped the Yugoslav economy, which remained far better than most during the Cold War. Tito chose to wisely stay out of the conflict between the US and USSR, placing Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement. Whatever its relative merits, though, ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia resulted in the infamous violent breakup of the place in 1991, with a bloody round of wars following.
- North Vietnam and, after 1975, unified Vietnam.
- Afghanistan (as in, not quite, but bloody and pointless enough)
- North Korea (Kim Il-sung was upset at Khrushchev for that whole "peaceful coexistence" thing. North Korean propaganda suddenly became anti-Soviet and denounced Khrushchev as a traitor to communism. Mao Zedong was Kim's new role model… or at least that was until the Cultural Revolution shocked Kim and prompted him to switch his loyalty back to the Soviets. By this time, the U.S.S.R. was led by Brezhnev, who was more to Kim's liking, though still not quite Stalinist enough for him. Kim would continue to play the Soviets and Chinese against each other for the rest of the Cold War, beginning North Korea's long tradition of being a huge annoyance to its allies.
OK, comrades. Time for "Гимн СССР"!
From 1917 to 1944, the Internationale served as the Soviet national anthem. Near the end of the Great Patriotic War (as the Soviets called it), the government decided to reinvent the anthem, in the hopes of reinventing the country with it, making references to the Soviets' defeat of the Nazis, to instill pride within the population. The original version praised the union forged through "the will of the people." The chorus implored the Motherland to greatness and its people to follow the red flag to freedom. The second verse praised Lenin for showing the way and Stalin for leading them on. The third verse encouraged the army to fight on against the "daring, despicable invaders." This was changed to "we destroyed the invaders" after the war.
By the 1970s, the first verse and the first half of the second verse remained unchanged. However, mention of Stalin's leadership in the second verse had been replaced by praise for the people's righteousness. In the third verse, mention of the military's victory over the Nazis was replaced by praise of communism's "deathless ideal."
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, another national anthem was commissioned. But the Rooskies didn't like it. As bombastic, nationalistic, and over-the-top as Гимн СССР's lyrics were[note 3], its melody and harmony rank among the most gorgeous of any national anthem ever written.[note 4] So about five years later, the Russian Federation reintroduced "Гимн СССР" with new lyrics. (Although they did keep the first lines of the chorus — "Славься Отечество, наше свободное!" — which (roughly translated) means "Sing to the Fatherland and our freedom!")
Intriguingly, both versions of the USSR national anthem and the post-Soviet Russian Federation anthem were written by the same man, Sergey Mikhalkov (1913-2009), who was a real-life example of a "Vicar of Bray."
- Sound file of the 1944 version of the anthem of the Soviet Union sung in Russian
- Sound file of the 1977 version of the anthem of the Soviet Union sung in Russian
- Sound file of a 2001 recording of the Russian national anthem sung in, you've guessed it, Russian
- Video of an instrumental performance of the Russian national anthem at a Victory Day parade in 2010
Mathematics and science in the Soviet Union
While the Soviet Union made plenty of internationally recognized contributions to pure mathematics and the natural sciences, it had a habit of ripping off the scientific and technological achievements of the "corrupt, capitalist West" (most notably in the case of the "atomic spies").
When it comes to space exploration, the Soviets were quite advanced, neck-and-neck with the US (give or take). They had a lot of initial successes; however, for a variety of reasons, they were not able to win the Moon Race. Despite it running counter to their economic philosophy, the Soviets did not have a unified space agency until 1974, long after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev. Instead, rival design companies spent their time squabbling for contracts, which led to a general dilution of the Soviet effort. Adding to this, the primary genius behind the Soviet space program in the 1950s and 1960s, Sergei Korolyov, was in very poor health due to spending WW2 in the gulags (thanks, Stalin!) and died young. Khrushchev also refused to consistently and adequately fund the many projects going on, leading to the US not only having all their eggs in one basket but in a much better-appointed basket to boot.
That said, the Soviets were able to accomplish some remarkable things, launching the first satellite, the first probe to land on another planet (Venus), the first man in space, first in orbit, first spacewalk and more. They also were able to come up with a very economical and reliable launch platform, the Soyuz family, which are very reliant and still significantly cheaper than launching the space shuttle, despite not being reusable. The Soviets also came up with their space shuttle, the Buran, which was arguably more advanced in some aspects than the US model. Unfortunately, its development came right before the fall of the Soviet Union, which left the craft in a dilapidated hangar that eventually collapsed, destroying it.
Also, entire branches of science (such as genetics, cybernetics, and sociology) were known to fall out of favor with the Party because of nepotism and ideological bias, being ostracized as "bourgeois pseudoscience". Instead, the state invested in dubious research such as abiotic oil and Lysenkoism. This was especially true under Joseph Stalin; however, these started to fade during the era of Khrushchev. The study of parapsychology, however, continued until at least 1975.[note 5]
- Vladimir Lenin: The man who started it all
- Joseph Stalin: The absolute worst leader of the Soviet Union
- Mikhail Gorbachev: By far the best leader of the Soviet Union
- Union of Buddhist Socialist Republics: A modern country otherwise known as Burma
- Complete History of the Soviet Union, Arranged to the Melody of Tetris (or, the epic Red Army Choir cover)
- List of bands banned on Soviet radio, and why, Boing Boing
- The Soviet National Anthem misheard.
- Soviet national anthem in 10 different versions
- "Period of Yezhov", named after Nikolai Yezhov, the leader of the NKVD
- Nothing to do with rhythm gaming or computer memory architectures.
- And completely false, like all of USSR's propaganda was.
- Seriously, listen to it without paying attention to the words some time. Particularly one of the versions rendered by a large chorus and full orchestra. You'll feel patriotic all over even if you're not Russian... until you remember the massacres.
- The US was also guilty of this.
- See the Wikipedia article on Communist state.
- The formation of the Soviet Union: the Soviet federal system (Warning: Text Wall)
- "State and Society Under Stalin: Constitutions and Elections in the 1930s"
- History of Cheka
- Britannica: War Communism
- The Kronstadt Rebellion in the Early Soviet Union
- Britannica: New Economic Policy
- Britannica: Collectivization
- Hitler's "war of annihilation": Operation Barbarossa, 80 years on
- Stalingrad name may return to city in wave of Second World War patriotism
- Peace and Conflict, archived from the original
- The New York Times: Soviets, After 33 Years, Publish Khrushchev's Anti-Stalin Speech, originally published April 6, 1989. Archived (warning: paywall, as usual)
- The New York Times op-ed: When Communism Inspired Americans, originally published April 29, 2017,
- Britannica: Sino-Soviet split
- See the Wikipedia article on Soviet Union referendum, 1991 § Results.
- "After 1917:Civil and 'Modernising' counter-revolution"
- Stanislav Kulchytsky, "How many of us perished in Holodomor in 1933", Zerkalo Nedeli, 23–29 November 2002. Available online "in Russian". Archived from the original on 21 July 2006. Retrieved 10 January 2003. and "in Ukrainian". Archived from the original on 5 May 2006. Retrieved 1 February 2003.
- Volkava, Elena (2012-03-26). "The Kazakh Famine of 1930–33 and the Politics of History in the Post-Soviet Space". Wilson Center. Retrieved 2015-07-09.
- Conquest, Robert (1986), The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, Oxford University Press, p. 306, ISBN 0-19-505180-7.
- Pool, The Stalinist Penal System, p. 131
- Alexopoulos, Golfo (2017).Illness and Inhumanity in Stalin's Gulag. Yale University Press
- Pohl, J. Otto (1997). The Stalinist Penal System. McFarland. p. 58, 148. ISBN 0786403365. Pohl cites Russian archival sources for the death toll in the special settlements from 1941-49
- Naimark, Norman M. Stalin's Genocides (Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity). Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 131. ISBN 0-691-14784-1
- Britannica: New Economic Policy
- Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:Scissors Crisis
- East Germany a case study: Post War government and reparations
- Housing in the Soviet Union: Soviet Studies Vol 32 by Henry W Morton
- "Labor discipline and decline of the Soviet System"
- Alpha History: Stagnation in the Soviet Union
- Bibliotekar:Course towards accelerating socio-economic development(In Russian)
- New York Times:New struggle in the Kremlin: How to change the economy, originally published on June 4, 1987. (warning: paywall)
- Britannica: Soviet Union Economic Policy in the Gorbachev Era
- See the Wikipedia article on Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic.
- Rubik’s Cube: The best puzzle ever?, BBC
- Sergei Mikhalkov, The Economist
- Soviet and Czechoslovakian parapsychology Research