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Stalin era

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Stalin era

The History of the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1953 covers the period of the Second World War victory against Germany, as the USSR was under the firm control of Joseph Stalin. He sought to destroy his enemies while transforming Soviet society with aggressive economic planning, in particular a sweeping collectivization of agriculture and rapid development of heavy industry. He introduced his "Westernizer" ideals to the Soviet Union by broadly and thoroughly reforming Soviet policy; such was exemplified by a period of rapid industrialization. He also promoted a secret police and a mass mobilization party, which led to millions of deaths as a result of purges and policies of starvation to force farmers to submit.

World War II, known as "The Great Patriotic War" in the Soviet Union, devastated much of the USSR with about one out of every three World War II deaths being a citizen of the Soviet Union. After World War II, the Soviet Union's armies occupied eastern Europe, where they put puppet regimes in power making the Soviet bloc. In western Europe, democratic governments were reestablished, with the help of aid provided by the United States. By 1949, the Cold War had hardened the lines, with NATO confronting Stalin's Warsaw Bloc. After 1945, Stalin did not engage in any wars; rebuilding the economy was a slow process. Stalin continued his absolute rule until his death.

The Soviet state's development


At the 15th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in December 1927, Joseph Stalin attacked the left by expelling Leon Trotsky and his supporters from the party and then moving against the right by abandoning Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy which had been championed by Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Ivanovich Rykov. Warning delegates of an impending capitalist encirclement, he insisted that survival and development could only occur by pursuing the rapid development of heavy industry.

The party, under Stalin's direction, established Gosplan (the State Planning Commission), a state organization responsible for guiding the socialist economy towards accelerated industrialization. In April 1928 Gosplan released two drafts that began the process that would industrialize the primarily agrarian nation. This 1,700 page report became the basis of the First Five-Year Plan for National Economic Construction, or Piatiletka, calling for the doubling of Soviet capital stock between 1928 and 1933.[1]

Shifting from Lenin's NEP, the first Five-Year Plan established central planning as the basis of economic decision-making and the stress on rapid heavy industrialization (see Economy of the Soviet Union). It began the rapid process of transforming a largely agrarian nation consisting of peasants into an industrial superpower. In effect, the initial goals were laying the foundations for future exponential economic growth.

The new economic system put forward by the first Five-Year plan involved a complicated series of planning arrangements (see Overview of the Soviet economic planning process). The first Five-Year plan focused on the mobilization of natural resources to build up the country's heavy industrial base by increasing output of coal, iron, and other vital resources. Despite approximately 1,000,000 deaths this process was largely successful, and industry grew faster long-term than any other country in History.

Industrialization in practice

The mobilization of resources by state planning expanded the country's industrial base. From 1928 to 1932, peak iron output, necessary for further development of the industrial infrastructure rose from 3.3 million to 6.2 million tons per year. Coal, the integral product fueling modern economies and Stalinist industrialization, successfully rose from 35.4 million to 64 million tons, and output of iron ore rose from 5.7 million to 19 million tons. A number of industrial complexes such as Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk, the Moscow and Gorky automobile plants, the Urals and Kramatorsk heavy machinery plants, and Kharkov, Stalingrad and Chelyabinsk tractor plants had been built or were under construction.

In real terms, the workers' standards of living tended to drop, rather than rise during the industrialization. Stalin's laws to "tighten work discipline" made the situation worse: e.g., a 1932 change to the RSFSR labor law code enabled firing workers who had been absent without a reason from the work place for just one day. Being fired accordingly meant losing "the right to use ration and commodity cards" as well as the "loss of the right to use an apartment″ and even blacklisted for new employment which altogether meant a threat of starving.[2] Those measures, however, were not fully enforced, as managers often desperately needed to hire new workers. In contrast, the 1938 legislation, which introduced labor books, followed by major revisions of the labor law, were enforced. For example, being absent or even 20 minutes late were grounds for becoming fired; managers who failed to enforce these laws faced criminal prosecution. Later, the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, 26 June 1940 "On the Transfer to the Eight-Hour Working Day, the Seven-day Work Week, and on the Prohibition of Unauthorized Departure by Laborers and Office Workers from Factories and Offices"[3] replaced the 1938 revisions with obligatory criminal penalties for quitting a job (2–4 months imprisonment), for being late 20 minutes (6 months of probation and pay confiscation of 25 per cent), etc.

Based on these figures the Soviet government declared that Five Year Industrial Production Plan had been fulfilled by 93.7% in only four years, while parts devoted to heavy-industry part were fulfilled by 108%. Stalin in December 1932 declared the plan a success to the Central Committee, since increases in the output of coal and iron would fuel future development.

During the second five-year plan (1933–37), on the basis of the huge investment during the first plan, industry expanded extremely rapidly, and nearly reached the plan. By 1937 coal output was 127 million tons, pig iron 14.5 million tons, and there had been very rapid developments in the armaments industry.

While undoubtedly marking a massive leap in industrial capacity, the first Five Year Plan was extremely harsh on industrial workers; quotas were difficult to fulfill, requiring that miners put in 16 to 18-hour workdays. Failure to fulfill the quotas could result in treason charges. Working conditions were poor, even hazardous. By some estimates, 127,000 workers died during the four years (from 1928 to 1932). Due to the allocation of resources for industry along with decreasing productivity since collectivization, a famine occurred. The use of forced labor must also not be overlooked. In the construction of the industrial complexes, inmates of labor camps were used as expendable resources. But conditions improved rapidly during the second plan. Throughout the 1930s, industrialization was combined with a rapid expansion of education at schools and in higher education.

From 1921 until 1954, during the period of state-guided, forced industrialization, it is claimed 3.7 million people were sentenced for alleged counter-revolutionary crimes, including 0.6 million sentenced to death, 2.4 million sentenced to labor camps, and 0.7 million sentenced to expatriation. Other estimates put these figures much higher. Much like the famine, the evidence supporting these high numbers is an object of dispute among historians. This is, however, the minority view on the subject. Stalinist repression reached its peak during the Great Purge of 1937–8, which, unsurprisingly, considerably slowed industrial production in 1937.


In 1928, Soviet economic policy markedly turned toward the mass collectivization of agriculture. 1928 also marked the end of the NEP, which allowed peasants to sell their surplus on the open market. Demand for food intensified, especially in the USSR's primary grain producing regions, with new, forced approaches implemented. Upon joining kolkhozes (collective farms), peasants had to give up their private plots of land and property. Every harvest, Kolkhoz produce was sold to the state for a low price set by the state itself. However, the natural progress of collectivization was slow, and the November 1929 Plenum of the Central Committee decided to accelerate collectivization through force.

Given the goals of the first Five Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture in order to feed the rapidly growing urban population and to obtain a source of foreign currency through increased cereal exports. Given its late start, the USSR needed to import a substantial number of the expensive—and largely Western—technologies necessary for heavy industrialization. Naturally, a substantial foreign currency reserve would be necessary.

By 1936, about 90% of Soviet agriculture had been collectivized. In many cases, peasants bitterly opposed this process and often slaughtered their animals rather than give them to collective farms, even though the Government only wanted the grain. Kulaks, prosperous peasants, were forcibly resettled to Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Russian Far North (a large portion of the kulaks served at forced labor camps). However, just about anyone opposing collectivization was deemed a "kulak". The policy of liquidation of kulaks as a class—formulated by Stalin at the end of 1929—meant some executions, and even more deportation to special settlements and, sometimes, to forced labor camps.

Despite the expectations, collectivization led to a catastrophic drop in farm productivity, which did not return to the levels achieved under the NEP until 1940. The upheaval associated with collectivization was particularly severe in Ukraine and the heavily-Ukrainian Volga region. The scale of the Ukrainian famine has led many Ukrainian scholars to argue that there was a deliberate policy of starving the Ukrainian people (see Holodomor for more information). In Ukraine alone, the number of people who died in the famines is estimated to be between three and ten million people. This calculation does not take into account the famine deaths in the adjoining regions of Russia. There are disputed accounts on the actual number of 'victims' as estimated by other countries. Soviet sources vary between denying the existence of the famine outright or estimating much smaller numbers of famine-related deaths. The actual number of casualties remains an object of bitter dispute. In 1975, Abramov and Kocharli estimated that 265,800 kulak families were sent to the Gulag in 1930. In 1979, Roy Medvedev used Abramov's and Kocharli's estimate to calculate that 2.5 million peasants were exiled between 1930 and 1931, but he suspected that he nevertheless underestimated the total number. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union huge numbers of archival files have been opened, and it is now possible to make more accurate estimates.

In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the collectivization of agriculture was started in 1948. Through the frightful means of terror, mass killings and deportations, most of the peasantry was collectivized by 1952. Agricultural production fell dramatically in all the other Soviet Republics.[4]

Changes in Soviet society

In the period of rapid industrialization and mass collectivization preceding World War II, Soviet employment figures experienced exponential growth. 3.9 million jobs per annum were expected by 1923, but the number actually climbed to an astounding 6.4 million. By 1937, the number rose yet again, to about 7.9 million. Finally, in 1940 it reached 8.3 million. Between 1926 and 1930, the urban population increased by 30 million. Unemployment had been a problem in late Imperial Russia and even under the NEP, but it ceased being a major factor after the implementation of Stalin's massive industrialization program. The sharp mobilization of resources used in order to industrialize the heretofore agrarian society created a massive need for labor; unemployment virtually dropped to zero. Wage setting by Soviet planners also contributed to the sharp decrease in unemployment, which dropped in real terms by 50% from 1928 to 1940. With wages artificially depressed, the state could afford to employ far more workers than would be financially viable in a market economy. Several ambitious extraction projects were begun that endeavored to supply raw materials for both military hardware and consumer goods.

The Moscow and Gorky automobile plants produced automobiles for the public—despite few Soviet citizens affording to buy a car—and the expansion of steel production and other industrial materials made the manufacture of a greater number of cars possible. Car and truck production, for example, reached 200,000 in 1931.[1]

The Soviet leadership believed that industrial workers needed to be educated in order to be competitive and so embarked on a program contemporaneous with industrialization to greatly increase the number of schools and the general quality of education. In 1927, 7.9 million students attended 118,558 schools. By 1933, the number rose to 9.7 million students in 166,275 schools. In addition, 900 specialist departments and 566 institutions were built and fully operational by 1933. Literacy rates increased substantially as a result, especially in the Central Asian republics.[5]

The Soviet people also benefited from a type of social liberalization. Women were to be given the same education as men and, at least legally speaking, obtained the same rights as men in the workplace. Although in practice these goals were not reached, the efforts to achieve them and the statement of theoretical equality led to a general improvement in the socio-economic status of women. Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which marked a massive improvement over the Imperial era. Stalin's policies granted the Soviet people access to free health care and education. Widespread immunization programs created the first generation free from the fear of typhus and cholera. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers and infant mortality rates were substantially reduced, resulting in the life expectancy for both men and women to increase by over 20 years by the mid-to-late 1950s.[6] Many of the more extreme social and political ideas that were fashionable in the 1920s such as anarchism, internationalism, and the belief that the nuclear family was a bourgeois concept, were abandoned. Schools began to teach a more nationalistic course with emphasis on Russian history and leaders, though Marxist underpinnings necessarily remained. Stalin also began to create a Lenin cult. During the 1930s, Soviet society assumed the basic form it would maintain until its collapse in 1991.

Urban women under Stalin were also the first generation of women able to give birth in a hospital with access to prenatal care. Education was another area in which there was improvement after economic development. The generation born during Stalin's rule was the first near-universally literate generation. Engineers were sent abroad to learn industrial technology, and hundreds of foreign engineers were brought to Russia on contract. Transport links were also improved, as many new railways were built, although with forced labour, costing thousands of lives. Workers who exceeded their quotas, Stakhanovites, received many incentives for their work, although many such workers were in fact "arranged" to succeed by receiving extreme help in their work, and then their achievements were used for propaganda.

Starting in the early 1930s, the Soviet government began an all-out war on organized religion in the country. Many churches and monasteries were closed and scores of clergymen were imprisoned or executed. The state propaganda machine vigorously promoted atheism and denounced religion as being an artifact of capitalist society. In 1937, Pope Pius XI decried the attacks on religion in the Soviet Union. By 1940, only a small number of churches remained open. It should be noted that the early anti-religious campaigns under Lenin were mostly directed at the Russian Orthodox Church, as it was a symbol of the czarist government. In the 1930s however, all faiths were targeted: minority Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

The Great Purges

Main article: Great Purge

As this process unfolded, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power using the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov (which many suspect Stalin of having planned, although there is no evidence for this) as a pretext to launch the Great Purges against his suspected political and ideological opponents, most notably the old cadres and the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had already been expelled from the party in 1927, exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928 and then expelled from the USSR entirely in 1929. Stalin used the purges to politically and physically destroy his other formal rivals (and former allies) accusing Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev of being behind Kirov's assassination and planning to overthrow Stalin. Ultimately, those supposedly involved in this and other conspiracies numbered in the tens of thousands with various Old Bolsheviks and senior party members blamed with conspiracy and sabotage which were used to explain industrial accidents, production shortfalls and other failures of Stalin's regime. Measures used against opposition and suspected opposition ranged from imprisonment in work camps (Gulags) to execution to assassination (of Trotsky's son Lev Sedov and likely of Sergei Kirov—Trotsky himself was to die at the hands of one of Stalin's assassins in 1940).

Several show trials were held in Moscow, to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewhere in the country. There were four key trials from 1936 to 1938, The Trial of the Sixteen was the first (December 1936); then the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937); then the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937); and finally the Trial of the Twenty One (including Bukharin) in March 1938. See also: Moscow Trials. During these, the defendants were typically accused of things such as sabotage, spying, counter-revolution, and conspiring with Germany and Japan to invade and partition the Soviet Union. Most confessed to the charges. The initial trials in 1935–36 were carried out by the OGPU under Genrikh Yagoda. The following year, he and his associates were removed from office and arrested. They were later tried and executed in 1938–39. The secret police were renamed the NKVD and control given to Nikolai Yezhov, known as the "Bloody Dwarf".

The "Great Purge" swept the Soviet Union in 1937. It was widely known as the "Yezhovschina", the "Reign of Yezhov". The rate of arrests was staggering. In the armed forces alone, three of five marshals were eliminated along with 90% of the generals, 80% of the colonels, and all the regional commanders, a total of more than 30,000 officers. The entire Politburo and most of the Central Committee were purged, along with foreign communists who were living in the Soviet Union, and numerous intellectuals, bureaucrats, and factory managers. The total of people imprisoned or executed during the Yezhovschina numbered about two million. By 1938, the mass purges were starting to disrupt the country's infrastructure, and Stalin began winding them down. Yezhov was gradually relieved of power. Yezhov was relieved of all powers in 1939, then tried and executed in 1940. His successor as head of the NKVD (from 1938 to 1945) was Lavrentiy Beria, a Georgian friend of Stalin's. Arrests and executions continued into 1952, although nothing on the scale of the Yezhovschina ever happened again.

During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without trial, of anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin's regime became commonplace. By the NKVD's own count, 681,692 people were shot during 1937–38 alone, and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were transported to Gulag work camps.

The mass terror and purges were little known to the outside world, and many western intellectuals continued to believe that the Soviets had created a successful alternative to a capitalist world that was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. In 1936, the country adopted its first formal constitution, which on paper at least granted freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.

In March 1939, the 18th congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow. Most of the delegates present at the 17th congress in 1934 were gone, and Stalin was heavily praised by Litvinov and the western democracies criticized for failing to adopt the principles of "collective security" against Nazi Germany.

Foreign relations before 1941

The young Soviet Union initially struggled with foreign relations, being the first communist-run country in the world. The old great powers were not pleased to see the established world order rocked by an ideology claiming to be the harbinger of a world revolution. Indeed, many had actively opposed the very establishment of Soviet rule by meddling in the Russian Civil War. Slowly the international community had to accept, however, that the Soviet Union was there to stay. By 1933, France, Germany, Great Britain and Japan, along with many other countries had recognized the Soviet government and established diplomatic ties. On November 16, 1933, the United States joined the list. Thus, by the 1930s, Soviet Russia was no longer an international pariah.[7]

Franco-Soviet relations were initially hostile because the USSR officially opposed the World War I peace settlement of 1919 that France emphatically championed. While the Soviet Union was interested in conquering territories in Eastern Europe, France was determined to protect the fledgling nations there. This led to a rosy German–Soviet relationship in the 1920s. However, Adolf Hitler's foreign policy centered on a massive seizure of Eastern European and Russian lands for Germany's own ends, and when Hitler pulled out of the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1933, the threat hit home. Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov reversed Soviet policy regarding the Paris Peace Settlement, leading to a Franco-Soviet rapprochement. In May 1935, the USSR concluded pacts of mutual assistance with France and Czechoslovakia; the Comintern was also instructed to form a united front with leftist parties against the forces of Fascism. The pact was undermined, however, by strong ideological hostility to the Soviet Union and the Comintern's new front in France, Poland's refusal to permit the Red Army on its soil, France's defensive military strategy, and a continuing Soviet interest in patching up relations with Germany.

The Soviet Union also supplied military aid to the Republicans in Spain, but held back somewhat. Its support of the government also gave the Republicans a Communist taint in the eyes of anti-Bolsheviks in the UK and France, weakening the calls for Anglo-French intervention in the war.

In response to all of this the Nazi government promulgated an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan and later Italy and various Eastern European countries (such as Hungary), ostensibly to suppress Communist activity but more realistically to forge an alliance against the USSR.

When Nazi Germany entered Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union's agreement with Czechoslovakia failed to amount to anything because of Poland and Romania's refusals to permit a Soviet intervention. On April 17, 1939, Stalin suggested a revived military alliance with the UK and France. The Anglo-French military mission sent in August, however, failed to impress Soviet officials; it was sent by a slow ocean-going ship and consisted of low-ranking officers who gave only vague details about their militaries. Stalin favoured Germany.

Stalin arranged the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany on August 23, along with the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement to open economic relations. A secret appendix to the pact gave Eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia and Finland to the USSR, and Western Poland and Lithuania to Nazi Germany. This reflected the Soviet desire of territorial gains.

Propaganda was also considered an important foreign relations tool. International exhibitions, the distribution of media such as films and journals like USSR in Construction, as well as inviting prominent foreign individuals to tour the Soviet Union, were used as a method of gaining international influence.[8]

The start of World War II

Germany invaded Poland on September 1; the USSR followed on September 17. The Soviets quelled opposition by executing and arresting thousands. They sent hundreds of thousands to Siberia and other remote parts of the USSR. Estimates varying from the figure over 1.5 million.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15] to the most conservative figures[16][17][18] using recently found NKVD documents showing 309,000[19][20][21] to 381,220.[21][22] in four major waves of deportations between 1939 and 1941 (see Soviet invasion of Poland.)

With Poland being divided between two powers, the Soviet Union put forth its territorial demands to Finland for a minor part of the Karelian Isthmus, a naval base at Hanko (Hangö) peninsula and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. Finland rejected the demands and on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, thus triggering the Winter War. Despite outnumbering Finnish troops by over 2.5:1, the war proved embarrassingly difficult for the Red Army, which was ill-equipped for the winter weather and lacking competent commanders since the purge of the Soviet high command. The Finns resisted fiercely, and received considerable support and sympathy from the Allies. But in the spring of 1940, the snows melted, and a renewed Soviet offensive compelled them to surrender and relinquish the Karelia Isthmus and some smaller territories.

In 1940, the USSR occupied and illegally annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. On June 14, 1941, the USSR performed first mass deportations from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (see Occupation of the Baltic states.)

On June 26, 1940 the Soviet government issued an ultimatum to the Romanian minister in Moscow, demanding Romania immediately cede Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. Italy and Germany, which needed a stable Romania and access to its oil fields urged King Carol II to do so. Under duress, with no prospect of aid from France or Britain, Carol complied. On June 28, Soviet troops crossed the Dniester and occupied Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the Herta region[23] (see Soviet occupation of Bessarabia.)

The Great Patriotic War

On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler abruptly broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Soviet intelligence was fooled by German disinformation and sent to Moscow false alarms about German invasion in April, May and beginning of June. Despite the popular myth there was no warning "Germany will attack on 22 June without declaration of war", moreover, Soviet intelligence reported that Germany would either invade the USSR after fall of the British Empire[24] or after an unacceptable ultimatum demanding German occupation of Ukraine during the German invasion of Britain.[25] Like in Sino-Soviet conflict on Chinese Eastern Railway or Soviet-Japanese border conflicts Soviet troops on western border received a directive undersigned by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and General of the Army Georgy Zhukov that ordered (as demanded by Stalin): "do not answer to any provocations" and "do not undertake any (offensive) actions without specific orders" – which meant that Soviet troops could open fire only on their soil and forbade counter-attack on German soil.

The Nazi invasion caught the Soviet military unprepared. In the larger sense, Stalin expected invasion but not so soon.[26] The Army had been decimated by the Purges; time was needed for a recovery of competence. As such, mobilization did not occur and the Soviet Army was tatically unprepared as of the invasion. The initial weeks of the war were a disaster, with tens of thousands of men being killed, wounded, or captured. Whole divisions disintegrated against the German onslaught.

It is said that Stalin, at first, refused to believe Nazi Germany had broken the treaty. However, new evidence shows Stalin held meetings with a variety of senior Soviet government and military figures, including Vyacheslav Molotov (People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs), Semyon Timoshenko (People's Commissar for Defense), Georgy Zhukov (Chief of Staff of the Red Army), Nikolai Kuznetsov (Commander of both North Caucasus and Baltic Military Districts), and Boris Shaposhnikov (Deputy People's Commissar for Defense). All in all, on the very first day of the attack, Stalin held meetings with over 15 individual members of the Soviet government and military apparatus.

German troops reached the outskirts of Moscow in December 1941, but failed to capture it, due to staunch Soviet defence and counterattacks. At the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–43, the Red Army inflicted a crushing defeat on the German army. Due to the unwillingness of the Japanese to open a second front in Manchuria, the Soviets were able to call dozens of Red Army divisions back from eastern Russia. These units were instrumental in turning the tide, because most of their officer corps had escaped Stalin's purges. The Soviet forces soon launched massive counterattacks along the entire German line. By 1944, the Germans had been pushed out of the Soviet Union onto the banks of the Vistula River, just east of Prussia. With Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov attacking from Prussia, and Marshal Konev slicing Germany in half from the south the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. On May 2, 1945 the last German troops surrendered to the overjoyed Soviet troops in Berlin.

Wartime developments

From the end of 1944 to 1949, large sections of eastern Germany came under the Soviet Union's occupation and on 2 May 1945, the capital city Berlin was taken, while over fifteen million Germans were removed from eastern Germany and pushed into central Germany (later called German Democratic Republic) and western Germany (later called Federal Republic of Germany). Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czech, etc., were then moved onto German land.

An atmosphere of patriotic emergency took over the Soviet Union during the war, and persecution of the Orthodox Church was halted. The Church was now permitted to operate with a fair degree of freedom, so long as it did not get involved in politics. In 1944, a new Soviet national anthem was written, replacing the Internationale, which had been used as the national anthem since 1918. These changes were made because it was thought that the people would respond better to a fight for their country than for a political ideology.

The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II because the West did not open up a second ground front in Europe until the invasion of Italy and the Battle of Normandy. Approximately 26.6 million Soviets, among them 18 million civilians, were killed in the war. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. The retreating Soviet army was ordered to pursue a 'scorched earth' policy whereby retreating Soviet troops were ordered to destroy civilian infrastructure and food supplies so that the Nazi German troops could not use them.

Stalin's original declaration in March 1946 that there were 7 million war dead was revised in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev with a round number of 20 million. In the late 1980s, demographers in the State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat) took another look using demographic methods and came up with an estimate of 26–27 million. A variety of other estimates have been made.[27] In most detailed estimates roughly two-thirds of the estimated deaths were civilian losses. However, the breakdown of war losses by nationality is less well known. One study, relying on indirect evidence from the 1959 population census, found that while in terms of the aggregate human losses the major Slavic groups suffered most, the largest losses relative to population size were incurred by minority nationalities mainly from European Russia, among groups from which men were mustered to the front in "nationality battalions" and appear to have suffered disproportionately.[28]

After the war, the Soviet Union occupied and dominated Eastern Europe, in line with their particular Marxist ideology.

Stalin was determined to punish those peoples he saw as collaborating with Germany during the war and to deal with the problem of nationalism, which would tend to pull the Soviet Union apart. Millions of Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities were deported to Gulags in Siberia. (Previously, following the 1939 annexation of eastern Poland, thousands of Polish Army officers, including reservists, had been executed in the spring of 1940, in what came to be known as the Katyn massacre.) In addition, in 1941, 1943 and 1944 several whole nationalities had been deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia, including, among others, the Volga Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks. Though these groups were later politically "rehabilitated", some were never given back their former autonomous regions.[29][30][31][32]

At the same time, in a famous Victory Day toast in May 1945, Stalin extolled the role of the Russian people in the defeat of the fascists: "I would like to raise a toast to the health of our Soviet people and, before all, the Russian people. I drink, before all, to the health of the Russian people, because in this war they earned general recognition as the leading force of the Soviet Union among all the nationalities of our country... And this trust of the Russian people in the Soviet Government was the decisive strength, which secured the historic victory over the enemy of humanity – over fascism..."[33]

World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, with almost no country left unscathed. The Soviet Union was especially devastated due to the mass destruction of the industrial base that it had built up in the 1930s. The USSR also experienced a major famine in 1946–48 due to war devastation that cost an estimated 1 to 1.5 million lives as well as secondary population losses due to reduced fertility. However, the Soviet Union recovered its production capabilities and overcame pre-war capabilities, becoming the country with the most powerful land army in history by the end of the war, and having the most powerful military production capabilities.

War and Stalinist industrial-military development

Although the Soviet Union received aid and weapons from the United States under the lend-lease program, the Soviet production of war materials was greater than that of Nazi Germany because of rapid growth of Soviet industrial production during the interwar years (additional supplies from lend-lease accounted for about 10–12% of the Soviet Union's own industrial output). The Second Five Year Plan raised steel production to 18 million tons and coal to 128 million tons. Before it was interrupted, the Third Five Year Plan produced no less than 19 million tons of steel and 150 million tons of coal.

The Soviet Union's industrial output provided an armaments industry which supported their army, helping it resist the Nazi military offensive. According to Robert L. Hutchings, "One can hardly doubt that if there had been a slower buildup of industry, the attack would have been successful and world history would have evolved quite differently." For the laborers involved in industry, however, life was difficult. Workers were encouraged to fulfill and overachieve quotas through propaganda, such as the Stakhanovite movement.

Some historians, however, interpret the lack of preparedness of the Soviet Union to defend itself as a flaw in Stalin's economic planning. David Shearer, for example, argues that there was "a command-administrative economy" but it was not "a planned one". He argues that the Soviet Union was still suffering from the Great Purge, and was completely unprepared for the Nazi German invasion. Economist Holland Hunter, in addition, argues in his Overambitious First Soviet Five-Year Plan, that an array "of alternative paths were available, evolving out of the situation existing at the end of the 1920s... that could have been as good as those achieved by, say, 1936 yet with far less turbulence, waste, destruction and sacrifice."

The Cold War

Main article: The Cold War

Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union extended its political and military influence over Eastern Europe, in a move that was seen by some as a continuation of the older policies of the Russian Empire. Some territories that had been lost by Soviet Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II: the Baltic States and eastern portions of interwar Poland. The Russian SFSR also gained the northern half of East Prussia (Kaliningrad Oblast) from Germany. The Ukrainian SSR gained Transcarpathia (as Zakarpattia Oblast) from Czechoslovakia, and Ukrainian populated Northern Bukovina (as Chernivtsi Oblast) from Romania. Finally, in the late 1940s, pro-Soviet Communist Parties won the elections in five countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) and subsequently became People's Democracies. These elections are generally regarded as rigged, and the Western powers did not recognize the elections as legitimate. For the duration of the Cold War, the countries of Eastern Europe became Soviet satellite states — they were "independent" nations, which were one-party Communist States whose General Secretary had to be approved by the Kremlin, and so their governments usually kept their policy in line with the wishes of the Soviet Union, although nationalistic forces and pressures within the satellite states played a part in causing some deviation from strict Soviet rule.

The tenor of Soviet–U.S. relations

The wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was an aberration from the normal tenor of Russian–U.S. relations. Strategic rivalry between the huge, sprawling nations goes back to the 1890s when, after a century of friendship, Americans and Russians became rivals over the development of Manchuria. Tsarist Russia, unable to compete industrially, sought to close off and colonize parts of East Asia, while Americans demanded open competition for markets.

Lasting Russian mistrust arose from the landing of U.S. troops in Soviet Russia in 1918, which became involved, directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war.

In addition, the Soviets requested that the United States and Britain open a second front on the European continent; but the Allied invasion did not occur until June 1944, more than two years later. In the meantime, the Russians suffered horrendous casualties, more than 20 million dead, and the Soviets were forced to withstand the brunt of German strength. The allies claimed that a second front had been opened in 1943 in Italy and were not prepared to immediately assault Nazi-occupied France.

The breakdown of postwar peace

When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US, British, and French) troops were essentially facing each other along a line down the center of Europe ranging from Lübeck to Trieste. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the "iron curtain" of the Cold War. In hindsight, Yalta signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that neither side would use force to push the other out. This tacit accord applied to Asia as well, as evinced by U.S. occupation of Japan and the division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an agreement on the postwar status quo in which Soviet Union hegemony reigned over about one-third and the Allies over two-thirds.

The Soviets were able to use a well organized ring of spies in the United States, to gain critical advantages during meetings with representatives of Britain and the United States. Several of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisors and cabinet members regularly reported their activities to NKVD handlers.[verification needed]

There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and socialism. Each vindicated in 1945 by previous disasters, those contrasts had been simplified and refined in national ideologies to represent two ways of life. Conflicting models of Democratic Centralism versus Liberal Democracy, of state planning against free enterprise, of full or partial employment, of equality versus economic freedom, were to compete for the allegiance of the developing and developed world in the postwar years.

Even so, the basic structures and tensions that marked the cold war were not yet in place in 1945-1946. Despite the necessary means of the United States to advance a different vision of postwar Europe, Joseph Stalin viewed the re-emergence of Germany and Japan as the Soviet Union's chief threats, not the United States. At the time, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against the USSR seemed slim from Stalin's standpoint. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga reinforced this view, predicting a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries which would culminate by 1947–48 in another great depression. For one, Stalin assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to the Soviet Union.

Varga's analysis was partly based on trends in U.S. federal expenditures. Due to the war effort mostly, in the first peacetime year of 1946, federal spending still amounted to $62 billion, or 30% of GDP, up from 3% of GDP in 1929, before the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War. Thus, Stalin assumed that the Americans would need to look to the Soviet Union, to maintain the same level of exports and state expenditures.

However, there would be no postwar crisis of overproduction. And, as Varga anticipated, the U.S. maintained a roughly comparable level of government spending in the postwar era. It was just maintained in a vastly different way. In the end, the postwar U.S. government would look a lot like the wartime government, with the military establishment, along with military-security, accounting for a significant share of federal expenditures.

Domestic events

The mild political liberalization that took place in the Soviet Union during the war quickly came to an end in 1945. The Orthodox Church was generally left unmolested after the war and was even allowed to print small amounts of religious literature, but persecution of minority religions was resumed. Stalin and the Communist Party were given full credit for the victory over Germany, and generals such as Zhukov were demoted to regional commands (the Ukraine in his case). With the onset of the Cold War, anti-Western propaganda was stepped up, with the capitalist world depicted as a decadent place where crime, unemployment, and poverty were rampant.

Things such as the light bulb and the automobile were claimed to have been invented by Russians, and art and science were subjected to rigorous censorship. The former was only allowed to contain themes of socialist realism, and the latter was heavily influenced by the quack biologist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected the concept of Mendelian genetics. Even the theory of relativity was dismissed as "bourgeoise idealism". Much of this censorship was the work of Andrei Zhdanov, known as Stalin's "ideological hatchet man", until his death from a heart attack in 1948. Stalin's personality cult reached its height in the postwar period, with his picture displayed in every school, factory, and government office, yet he rarely appeared in public. Postwar reconstruction proceeded rapidly, but as the emphasis was all on heavy industry and energy, living standards remained low, especially outside of the major cities.

In October 1952, the first postwar party congress convened in Moscow. The Communist Party was formally renamed to the "Communist Party of the Soviet Union". Stalin spoke only briefly, and for most of the proceedings sat in silence while Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov delivered the main speeches.

Terror by the secret police continued in the postwar period. Although nothing comparable to 1937 ever happened again, there were many smaller purges, including a mass purge of the Georgian party apparatus in 1951–52. Stalin's paranoia in his last years worsened as he began to suffer from the effects of arteriosclerosis. He finally suffered a massive stroke on March 3, 1953 and died two days later.

Two visions of the world

The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman since April 1945, was determined to shape the postwar world to America's best interest. He saw the ravaged, war-torn Europe as a place to implant the American system — capitalism, western democracy, constitutional rule — and (according to Soviet thinking) extend American hegemony throughout the world. The Soviet Union was attempting the same thing, extending its own systems as far as it could reach, and with two opposite empires struggling for hegemony, relationships between the United States and the Soviet Union quickly soured.

World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge intact — and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective — was the United States, which moved quickly to consolidate its position. As the world's greatest industrial power, and as one of the few nations not ravaged by the war, the United States stood to gain more than any other country from opening up a global market for its exports and access to vital raw materials.

The beginning of the Cold War

Truman could advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced 50% of the world's industrial goods and a vast military power that rested on a monopoly of the new atomic bomb (see also Soviet atomic bomb project). Such a power could mould and benefit from a recovering Europe, which in turn required a healthy Germany at its center; these aims were at the center of what the Soviet Union strove to avoid as the wartime alliance broke down.

The resolve of the United States to advance a different vision of the postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests. National security had been important to Soviet foreign policy since the 1920s, when the Communist Party adopted Stalin's "socialism in one country" and rejected Leon Trotsky's ideas of "world revolution". Before the war, Stalin did not attempt to push Soviet boundaries beyond their full Tsarist extent.

In this sense, the aims of the Soviet Union may not have been aggressive expansionism but rather consolidation, i.e., attempting to secure the war-torn country's western borders. Stalin, assuming that Japan and Germany could menace the Soviet Union once again by the 1960s, thus quickly imposed Moscow-dominated governments in the springboards of the Nazi onslaught: Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Much of the rest of the world, however, viewed these moves as an aggressive attempt to expand Soviet influence and communist rule.

Disagreements over postwar plans first centered on Eastern and Central Europe. Having lost more than 20 million in the war, suffered German and Nazi German invasion, and suffered tens of millions of casualties due to onslaughts from the West three times in the preceding 150 years, first with Napoleon I, the Stalin was determined to destroy Germany's capacity for another war by keeping it under tight control. U.S. aims were quite different.

Winston Churchill, an anti-Communist, condemned Stalin for cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "iron curtain." Afterwards, Truman finally refused to give the war-torn Soviet Union "reparations" from West Germany's industrial plants, Stalin retaliated by sealing off East Germany as a Communist state.

The Soviet Union's historic lack of warm water maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was yet another area where interests diverged between East and West. Stalin pressed the Turks for improved access out of the Black Sea through Turkey's Dardanelles Strait, which would allow Soviet passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Churchill had earlier recognized Stalin's claims, but now the British and Americans forced the Soviet Union to pull back.

Soviet leadership policies were often more measured, however: the Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Northern Iran, at Anglo-American behest; Stalin did observe his 1944 agreement with Churchill and did not aid the communists in the struggle against government in Greece; in Finland he accepted a friendly, non-communist government; and Russian troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945. However, a pro-Soviet government seized power in Czechoslovakia three years later.

"Containment" and the Marshall Plan

An Anglo-American effort was made to support the Greek government in order to protect the free peoples against totalitarian regimes. This was articulated in the Truman Doctrine Speech of March 1947, which declared that the United States would spend as much as $400 million in efforts to "contain" communism.

By successfully aiding Greece in 1947, Truman also set a precedent for the U.S. aid to anticommunist regimes worldwide, even authoritarian ones at times. U.S. foreign policy moved into alignment with State Department officer George Kennan's argument that the Soviets had to be "contained" using "unalterable counterforce at every point", until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred.

The United States launched massive economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12 billion into Western Europe. The rationale was that economically stable nations were less likely to fall prey to Soviet influence, a view which was vindicated in the long run.

In response Stalin blockaded Berlin in 1948. The city was within the Soviet zone, although subject to the control of all four major powers. The Soviets cut off all rail and road routes to West Berlin. Convinced that he could starve and freeze West Berlin into submission, no trucks or trains were allowed entry into the city. However, this decision backfired when Truman embarked on a highly visible move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally — supplying the beleaguered city by air. Military confrontation threatened while Truman, with British help, flew supplies over East Germany into West Berlin during the 1948–49 blockade. This costly aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift.

Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the United States' first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin replied to these moves by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan, exploding the first Soviet atomic device in 1949, and signing an alliance with Communist China in February 1950. However, the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's counterpart to NATO, was not created until 1955, two years after Stalin's death.

U.S. officials quickly moved to expand the policy of "containment". In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to persuade Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb; in early 1950 the U.S. embarked on its first attempt to prop up colonialism in French Indochina in the face of mounting popular, communist-led resistance; and the United States embarked on what the Soviets considered a blatant violation of wartime treaties: plans to form a West German army.

The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. In the late 1940s Communist parties won large shares of the vote in free elections in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Finland; and won significant popular support in Asia (Vietnam, India, and Japan) and throughout Latin America. In addition they won large support in China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread appeal.

In response, the United States sustained a massive anti-communist ideological offensive. The United States aimed to "contain" communism through both aggressive diplomacy and interventionist policies. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the leader of the "free world" at least as effectively as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" camp.

Korean War

Main article: Korean War

In 1950 the Soviet Union protested against the fact that the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council was held by the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China, and boycotted the meetings. While the Soviet Union was absent, the UN passed a resolution condemning North Korean actions and offering military support to South Korea. After this incident the Soviet Union was never absent at the meetings of the Security Council.

See also




Further reading

  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century (1989).
  • Hosking, Geoffrey. The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within (2nd ed. Harvard UP 1992) 570 pp.
  • Kort, Michael. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath (7th ed. 2010) 502 pp.
  • McCauley, Martin. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (2007), 522 pp.
  • Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia. Vol. 2: Since 1855 (2nd ed. 2005).
  • Nove, Alec. An Economic History of the USSR, 1917–1991 (3rd ed. 1993).

Stalin and Stalinism

  • Daniels, R. V., ed. The Stalin Revolution (1965)
  • Davies, Sarah, and James Harris, eds. Stalin: A New History, (2006), 310 pp, 14 specialized essays by scholars excerpt and text search.
  • De Jonge, Alex. Stalin and the Shaping of the Soviet Union (1986).
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed. Stalinism: New Directions, (1999), 396 pp, excerpts from many scholars on the impact of Stalinism on the people online edition.
  • Hoffmann, David L. ed. Stalinism: The Essential Readings, (2002) essays by 12 scholars.
  • Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations (1990).
  • Kershaw, Ian, and Moshe Lewin. Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (2004) excerpt and text search.
  • Lee, Stephen J. Stalin and the Soviet Union (1999) online edition.
  • Lewis, Jonathan. Stalin: A Time for Judgement (1990).
  • McNeal, Robert H. Stalin: Man and Ruler (1988)
  • Martens, Ludo. Another view of Stalin (1994), a highly favorable view from a Maoist historian
  • Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography (2004), along with Tucker the standard biography
  • Tucker, Robert C. Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879–1929 (1973)
  • with Service, a standard biography; online at ACLS History e-books.


  • Bendavid-Val, Leah, James H. Billington and Philip Brookman. Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US (1999)
  • Clark, Katerina. Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931–1941 (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (1996) excerpt and text search
  • .

World War II

  • Bellamy, Chris. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (2008), 880pp excerpt and text search
  • Berkhoff, Karel C. Motherland in Danger: Soviet Propaganda during World War II (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Broekmeyer, Marius. Stalin, the Russians, and Their War, 1941–1945. 2004. 315 pp.
  • Overy, Richard. Russia's War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941–1945 (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Roberts, Geoffrey. Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 (2006).
  • Seaton, Albert. Stalin as Military Commander, (1998) online edition

Cold war

  • Goncharov, Sergei, John Lewis and Litai Xue, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao and the Korean War (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Gorlizki, Yoram, and Oleg Khlevniuk. Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953 (2004) online edition
  • Harrison, Mark. "The Soviet Union after 1945: Economic Recovery and Political Repression," Past & Present (2011) Vol. 210 Issue suppl_6, pp 103–120.
  • Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Mastny, Vojtech. Russia's Road to the Cold War: Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941–1945 (1979)
  • ; Amazon excerpt and text search.
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (2004), Pulitzer Prize; excerpt and text search
  • Ulam, Adam B. Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917–1973, 2nd ed. (1974)
  • Zubok, Vladislav M. A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (2007)

External links

  • .
  • ,
  • – several full issues of the propaganda journal by the USSR government 1930–41.

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