The Twentieth Century: Russia and the Soviet Union

Due to their delegate being a member of my lobbying group and one of the P5 sponsors of our resolution.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia’s situation was much like China’s. A stagnant imperial family ruled distantly from the people, too entrenched in its own power to consider any reform, and determined to stay in total, autocratic control. Revolutionary groups simmered under the surface, but were unable to make any impact without an external crisis. This came quickly in the new century, as Russia was attacked in the Far East by Japan in 1904. Russia was comprehensively humiliated; it lost the siege of Port Arthur, the Battle of Mukden, and the naval Battle of Tsushima Straits. With the army deployed in the East and the war being lost, the people grew extremely restless. In January 1905, a peaceful procession in Saint Petersburg was massacred by the Imperial Guard; in the mass fury which followed, revolutionary fervour grew to such an extent that Tsar Nicholas II was forced to issue the October Manifesto, which conceded the creation of a national legislature, the Duma. The Tsar, however, quickly granted himself veto power over whatever the Duma passed. This very uneasy arrangement persisted for almost a decade, with the revolutionaries still plotting, until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Russia, as protector of Serbia, played a significant role in the July Crisis, and entered the war allied with France and Britain against the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s was effort was marked by the valour of the men being utterly betrayed by totally incompetent direction and logistics. Although the army tried to fight the best it could, the politicians and commanders at the top were corrupt, disinterested and lazy. The Tsar and his wife in particular were guilty; they believed that Rasputin, a Siberian mystic, was the only man who could cure their son’s haemophilia, and so listened to whatever he said. Shortages and starvation caused by the war multiplied and compounded themselves. Strikes grew to record numbers of incidence, and law and order could barely be kept. The assassination of Rasputin in 1916 by a group of Russian nobles could not stem the tide, and in 1917, Revolution came. In February (early March; Russia used a different calendar during this time, creating date discrepancies), troops ordered to fire on a group of striking women in St Petersburg mutinied, and the government lost control of the city. The Tsar abdicated on March 2nd, and a democratic provisional government was proclaimed by the Duma with Prince Lvov at its head. The government issued radical legislation which turned Russia from the most despotic state in the world to the most Liberal, but Lvov quickly resigned and left Alexander Kerensky leader. Kerensky made public his determination to continue in the war, and launched an offensive; when this failed, the army broke down and Germany pressed farther and father into Russian territory. Faced with this, merely the latest in a succession of crises and unable to effectively co-rule with the Petrograd Soviet, the Provisional Government was overthrown by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks in October (November) 1917. The National Assembly was dismissed, and a Carthaginian peace signed with Germany. However, the Bolsheviks were still far from having secure power, and the Russian Civil War began. This lengthy and horrible conflict pitted the Bolsheviks against basically anybody who was not a Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks possessed the key advantages of interior lines, control of the main cities and industrial cities, and unity; the anti-Bolsheviks, or whites, were composed of monarchists, republicans, other Communists, and a dozen other affiliations. These groups did not get along, and were unable to cooperate against the Reds. Foreign help from the Western Powers and Japan could not help the Whites, and the Reds were able to defeat each in turn. Determined to continue the spread of the Revolution, the Bolsheviks attacked Poland in 1920. They were, however, stopped in the Battle of Warsaw, and settled back into consolidating their power domestically. The system used during the Civil War, known as War Communism was incredibly harsh, and of course equally unpopular. Knowing that this was unsustainable, Lenin cancelled the policy and replaced it with the New Economic Policy, or NEP. This was a limited restoration of capitalism, which the Party did not at all like. Lenin said it was meant to be temporary, but did not say for how long it was to be kept, nor had he designated a successor by the time he died in 1924.

The Revolution of 1905.

The Revolution of 1905.

Lenin speaking to men of the Red Army in the Civil War.

Lenin speaking to men of the Red Army in the Civil War.

Russia’s 1920s are the story of the rise of Joseph Stalin. His main rival for supreme power was Leon Trotsky, a better speaker and more charismatic man than himself. However, Stalin had the advantage of the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party, which he could use to appoint his followers to key positions. Stalin used the divisions within the top echelons of the Party over the NEP to dispose of Trotsky. He aligned himself with the group which opposed Trotsky to get him expelled from the Party, then turned on his erstwhile allies and destroyed them too. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union, leaving Stalin in supreme power. He set out immediately to wield it, initiating two major modernisation drives: collectivisation and the Five-Year Plans. Under collectivisation, the vast numbers of peasants which had worked their land for centuries were forced into gigantic state-run collective farms. This actually hurt agricultural production, but it brought the peasantry under state control. The Five-Year Plans were more successful empirically; knowing how behind the Soviet Union was industrially, was determined to get ahead at any cost. This was to be paid by the Soviet people. The breakneck industrial targets incurred a massive human cost, although they succeeded in making the Soviet Union a modern industrial power. These programmes were not the only ways in which the peoples of the Soviet Union suffered in the 1930s, however; the purges were also to come. In 1934, the head of the Leningrad branch of the Party was assassinated, and Stalin announced a crisis. The Great Terror began in response; millions were taken from their homes, arrested without trial, disappeared, deported to the Gulags, or killed. Those at the top were not safe; two successive heads of the secret police, Yagoda and Yezhov, were killed, along with almost all of the remaining Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time and much of the military high command. While Stalin was busy having his own people massacred, he was busy collaborating with a man just as evil as himself. In 1939, The Soviet Union signed an alliance with Nazi Germany, swallowed the Eastern half of Poland, and attacked Finland. From this point, things took a downward turn; the Finnish war turned sour and dragged on until March 1940, and in June 1941, despite multiple warnings from Britain about Hitler’s intentions, Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the largest military operation in history. The first 6 months of the war for the Soviet Union were catastrophic. The German military drove forward to the major cities, and by November had encircled Leningrad and was at the gates of Moscow. In early December, however, the Red Army launched a massive counterattack and drove Germany back from Moscow. The war in the Northern part of the front very slowly went in the Soviet Union’s favour, but in the south, Germany advanced towards the oil wells of the Caucasus and Stalingrad. The German Army became bogged down in Stalingrad, and in the bloodiest battle in history, was driven back by the Red Army. In 1943, the German military had its back broken at Kursk, and the Red Army rapidly drove through Poland and into Germany itself. In April 1945, Berlin was captured, Hitler shot himself, and Germany surrendered on May 8th. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Stalin devoted himself to asserting control over the states conquered in the War. While cracking down again at home, he sought, successfully, to bring the governments of the states of Eastern Europe under his control. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, the West had always been the one which attacked it, and it sought security in the form of buffer states to protect itself from further Western aggression. The only state which escaped was Yugoslavia, and by 1950, the Cold War was firmly in place. The first Soviet nuclear bomb was dropped in 1949, and Stalin was making ominous moves towards the West when he died in March 1953. Like Lenin before him, he had left no designated successor.

Stalin "disappeared" those whom he purged.

Stalin “disappeared” those whom he purged.

The signing of the alliance with Germany.

The signing of the alliance with Germany.

The iconic image of the Hammer and Sickle atop the Reichstag, 1945.

The iconic image of the Hammer and Sickle atop the Reichstag, 1945.

Stalin’s death left a power vacuum, which was soon contested between Nikita Khrushchev on one side and a group of three top Party members on the other. Khrushchev won, and became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union. To general astonishment, at the 20 Party Congress in 1956, he gave the so-called Secret Speech, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes and cult of personality. This signaled a short period of relaxation, but not of real change or reform. When Hungary tried to break away from the Warsaw Pact (The Soviet NATO, formed in 1955), an invasion was ordered, and the revolution crushed. Khrushchev’s time at the top was the Soviet Union’s peak; it launched Sputnik, enjoyed great economic growth, and had success in building its influence in the Third World. In 1962, however, the Cuban Missile Crisis came terrifyingly near to war with the United States; the Party bosses came to view Khrushchev as a dangerous brinksman, and removed him from power in 1964. He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, whose tenure was characterised by total stagnation. The late 1960s and 1970s were a period of detente, or reduced tensions between the US and Soviet Union. Several arms limitations treaties were signed, and US and Soviet astronauts even shook hands in space. This came to an end in 1979-1980, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States produced Ronald Reagan as president. The Soviet Union became bogged down in a war very similar to the United State’s experiences in Vietnam, while Reagan stepped up the harsh rhetoric against Communism. Brezhnev died in 1982, was briefly succeeded by two geriatrics, and eventually by Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer. Gorbachev initiated the twin policies of Perestroika and Glasnost, which sought to reform both the command economy and the system of political repression. The fabric of the Soviet Union became to break apart in the late 1980s. By 1989, it was clear that the Soviet Union no longer had the will or ability to keep control of the Eastern Bloc, and one by one, they broke away. The Union itself followed them in 1991, with a failed coup leaving in its wake chaos under Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin tried hard to liberalise the Russian economy through shock therapy, which resulted in economic anarchy. Oligarchs became unbelievably rich while corruption and inflation spiraled out of control. Russia’s economy was collapsing while it was fighting an insurgency in Chechnya. The economic crisis of 1998 was the last straw; The people had had enough of Yeltsin, and he announced his resignation in the last hours of 1999. He left the government in the hands of Vladimir Putin. The new century would see the creation of yet another form of dictatorship in Russia.

Khrushchev delivering the Secret Speech.

Khrushchev delivering the Secret Speech.

Sputnik, the world's first satellite.

Sputnik, the world’s first satellite.

Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

The famous photo of Yeltsin atop a tank following the failed coup attempt in 1991.

The famous photo of Yeltsin atop a tank following the failed coup attempt in 1991.

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