The Soviet Era




The first few years of Soviet rule were marked by an extraordinary outburst of social and cultural change. Although the Bolsheviks had maintained complete control of the economy during the civil war, Lenin decided at its end that a partial return to a market economy would help the country recover from the destruction of the previous three years. His New Economic Policy, or NEP, brought about a period of relative prosperity, allowing the young Soviet government to consolidate its political position and rebuild the country's infrastructure. This was also the period during which the Russian Avant-Garde reached its height, developing the radical new styles of Constructivism, Futurism, and Suprematism. Although the country still faced enormous challenges, there was a widespread sense of optimism and opportunity.

Lenin's death in 1924 was followed by an extended and extremely divisive struggle for power in the Communist Party. By the latter part of the decade, Joseph Stalin had emerged as the victor, and he immediately set the country on a much different course. The NEP was scrapped, to be replaced by an economic plan dictated from the top. Agricultural lands were collectivized, creating large, state-run farms. Industrial development was pushed along at breakneck speed, and production was almost entirely diverted from consumer products to capital equipment. Art and literature were placed under much tighter control, and the radical energy of the Russian Avant-Garde was replaced by the solemn grandeur of Soviet realism. Religion was violently repressed, as churches were closed, destroyed, or converted to other uses. Stalin purged all opposition to himself within the party as well as all opposition to party policy in the country. By the end of the 1930s, the Soviet Union had become a country in which life was more strictly regulated than ever before. Experimentation had ended, and discipline was the rule of the day.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviet Union found itself unprepared for the conflict. Political purges had stripped the military of much of its experienced leadership, and industrial production was slow in converting from civil to military production. Although its non-aggression pact with Germany (1939) served for a while to forestall an attack by Hitler, the Soviets were caught by surprise by the invasion of June 1941. By the end of the year, the Germans had seized most of the Soviet territory in the west, surrounded St. Petersburg (having been renamed once again as Leningrad), and advanced to within a few hundred miles of Moscow. With tremendous effort, a Russian counter-offensive pushed back the advance on the capital, but in the summer of 1942 the Germans launched a new invasion against the southern front in an attempt to gain control of the rail center of Stalingrad on the Volga and the vital Caucasus oil fields. Despite an overwhelming disadvantage in numbers and inferior weaponry, the Russian army succeeded in holding out against the enormous German army. In November, a relieving force managed to encircle the attackers and compel the surrender of the entire force, marking a decisive turning point in the war. From that point onward, the Russian army remained on the attack. By 1944 they had driven the Germans back to Poland, and on May 2, 1945, Berlin fell.

As was the case with the Napoleonic Wars, the Soviet Union emerged from World War II considerably stronger than it had been before the war. Although the country suffered enormous devastation and lost more than twenty million lives, it had gained considerable territory and now ranked as one of the two great world powers along with the United States. Nonetheless, life in the country continued to suffer. Industrial production was once again concentrated on heavy industry, agricultural failures produced widespread famine, political freedoms were restricted even further, and another huge wave of purges was carried out. As the Cold War got underway, an increasing proportion of the Soviet Union's resources were funneled into military projects, further exacerbating the quality of life. Stalin remained in power until 1953, when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Almost immediately after the death of Stalin, many of the repressive policies that he had instituted were dismantled. Under the leadership of Nikita Khruschev, political controls were to some degree relaxed, and cultural life experienced a brief period of revival. However, opposition to Khruschev gradually gained strength within the party, and in 1964 he was ousted. In a notable break with historical traditions, Khruschev was permitted to quietly retire. By the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev, as general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), had become the next prominent Soviet leader. His tenure was marked by a determined emphasis on domestic stability and an aggressive foreign policy. The country entered a decade-long period of stagnation, its rigid economy slowly deteriorating and its political climate becoming increasingly pessimistic. When Breshnev died in 1982 he was succeeded as general secretary first by Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, and then by Konstantin Chernenko, neither of whom managed to survive long enough to effect significant changes. In March of 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary, the need for reforms was pressing.

Gorbachev's platform for a new Soviet Union was founded on two now-famous terms--glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Like Khruschev, Gorbachev intended to revitalize the Soviet economy by loosening up a bit on social control, opening some room for new ideas, relaxing control of the economy, and generally allowing for a little fresh air. Restructuring began in earnest, with a vigorous housecleaning of the bureaucracy and a significant investigation into corruption. Glasnost, however, lost some credibility right at the outset when it was discovered in April 1986 that the government had waited several days before admitting to the infamous nuclear disaster at Chernobyl--a reactor explosion that had thrown radioactive material over a wide area of the country. Backed into a corner on Chernobyl, Gorbachev countered with the dramatic removal of all controls on reporting--and at that point the fresh air really began to howl.

For the first time in decades, the problems of the country became subjects for open public discussion. Poverty, corruption, the enormous mismanagement of the country's resources, the unpopularity of the Afghan war, and a host of other problems and grievances were raised. Radical reform leaders emerged, including the new Moscow Party chief Boris Yeltsin, and prominent dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were able to voice their views for the first time. For some peculiar reason, the government found that it was the target of most of the criticism, but it also found that it wasn't any longer in much a position to do anything but try to move with the flow of events. Early in 1989, Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. In the spring of 1989, the first open elections since 1917 were held, allowing voters a novel choice of more than one candidate for seats in the Congress of People's Deputies. The governments of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, subjected to the same rising tide of public criticism, fell one after the other in a rapid series of revolutions culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall.

In 1990, the Soviet Union itself began to unravel. Its own constituent republics began to issue declarations of independence. In the Russian Republic, Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Parliament, taking a lead in the independence movement. Large scale strikes shattered the Communist Party's traditional claim to be the representative of workers' rights. Demonstrations against the government and the party intensified. The economy worsened, food shortages became a problem, and the crime rate began to skyrocket. Gorbachev, caught between popular demands for more radical reform and party demands for the re-imposition of strict control, failed to satisfy either side.

The following summer, the radical reform movements became strong enough to openly defy the government. In the press, criticism of Gorbachev intensified. Yeltsin, on the other hand, was the overwhelming victor in June elections for the Russian presidency. On August 18, party conservatives made a desparate bid for power. A group led by Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov and Vice President Gennady Yanayev detained Gorbachev at his country retreat in the Crimea. After he refused to support the imposition of military law, the head of state was placed under house arrest. The next morning the coup leaders issued the announcement that Gorbachev had resigned and that a state of emergency had been declared. Military units were dispatched to enforce the authority of the new government, but they were met with overwhelming popular protest led by Yeltsin and the other presidents of the republics. After three days the attempted coup had collapsed. Gorbachev was reinstated, only to realize that his position had become completely obsolete. By the end of the year the Soviet Union had been voted out of existence, to be replaced by a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On December 25, Gorbachev resigned, and on midnight of December 31, the Soviet flag atop the Kremlin was replaced by the Russian tricolour.

Ancient Russia | The Mongols & the Emergence of Moscow | The Romanovs |
Napoleon's Invasion | The Path to Revolution | The Soviet Era

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