Wednesday, 21 December 2016
Eight Decades of the Soviet Union
To those of us on this side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was usually presented as this grey monolith that never changed. Over here the Roaring Twenties became the Great Depression, the Atomic Age became the Space Age, but over there it was always the age of grey cabbage.
The reality was that the Soviet Union never stood still. Instead it lurched from crisis to disaster, from oppression to invasion, and back again. When people looked back nostalgically from the grim years of Disaster Capitalism that followed, they remembered only a short, brief interlude in the seventies when things were dull, but stable; when life was grim, but tolerable.
1920s Civil War
The Red Army, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, was able to defeat the disparate and divided White forces, but in truth the Revolution was itself a very diverse affair. The urban proletariat of the Russian Empire had been tiny, and the use of a brutal War Communism had hardly made the Bolsheviks popular. So when the sailors on the island base of Kronstadt rebelled, it looked like it was all over. Had the Russian people been given a vote at this point, Lenin would have lost. Instead the Red Army, under the leadership one Leon Trotsky, was sent in to crush the revolt.
The next few years though were one of hope and a fair amount of freedom. Music and literature, Russia's great contribution to European culture, thrived. The country was ruined by war, but best economic minds were drafted in to devise the Five Year Plan. A planned economy would rise from the ruins of war.
In 1924, the man who had led this daring experiment, Vladamir Ilyrich Lenin, died. He was a difficult man to judge. Whilst genuinely committed to progressive ends, no means were too brutal to achieve them. A man who believed that history was inevitable, he'd done more than any person in the twentieth century to change it..
His death led to the rise of Joseph Stalin. An utterly charismatic man, he rose to power through the secret committees of the Communist Party, underestimated by everyone until it was too late. Trotsky was expelled from the party in 1927, and exiled from the Soviet Union two years later. Thousands of other party members followed him.
Then in 1928 their was a shortfall in grain production. Stalin threw the Five Year Plan out of the window and embarked on a massive program of collectivisation.
Stalin blamed hoarding by kulaks - wealthy farmers - and so the process was speeded up. This turned failure into disaster, with up to 10 million people starving to death.
However starvation and counter-revolutionary 'kulaks' were not all that the people of the Soviet Union had to fear. In 1934 the popular mayor of Leningrad was assassinated, apparently by a 'fascist plot'. Over the next few years the Soviet people enjoyed the bizarre spectacle of dozens of senior communists, including every Old Bolshevik except Stalin and the exiled Trotsky, being paraded through court and confessing to being part of conspiracy to bring down the very revolution they had fought for.
These people though were just the tip of a very large iceberg of repression. Thousands of intellectuals, and hundreds of thousands of 'kulaks', Poles and others, were arrested by the Secret Police, and executed, tortured or exiled to the gulags in Siberia. In all, maybe a million people died. The final victim was the head of the Secret Police himself, Nikolai Yezhov.
The purge had also removed most of the senior military commander. When the Soviet Union went to war with Finland in 1939 the army suffered disaster after disaster.
If this wasn't enough dramatic change for a decade, in August the people learnt the world's only communist state had just entered into a pact with the world's only Nazi state. Within months the two strange bedfellows were carving up Poland between them.
The country was ruined by the war, but it also now occupied the whole of eastern Europe and part of Germany. The Iron Curtain came down across Europe and the Cold War began. The allies of the war years were now enemies.
Then in 1953 Stalin died. Disabled by a stroke, he was probably finished off by his doctor. By the end he admitted he didn't even trust himself. He was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev.
All the senior Soviet leaders were gangsters, but Khrushchev was a gangster who wanted to be a social scientist. Slowly he introduced reforms and reduced the oppression. Gradually intellectuals began to think again, and some people even began to dream.
It wasn't all peace and love though. In 1956 popular protests toppled the communist government of Hungary. Fears the country would leave the Warsaw Pact, and open a way for NATO to attack Russia, led Khrushchev to order in Soviet tanks to restore order. 200,000 Hungarians became refugees and 2500 died, as did 700 Soviet soldiers, many shot by their own officers for refusing to obey orders.
Then in 1959 Khrushchev visited the United States of America. He was charming, he cracked jokes and he loved America. From it's hot dogs to its mass produced cars, this was a world he thought he could remake in the USSR. Stalin had been an aberration, the world of plenty promised by the communist revolution was still possible.
Khrushchev's foreign policy missteps almost led to nuclear war with the USA over Cuba in 1962.
Disaster was averted, but things weren't much better on the home front.
Armed with the second best computers available (the best were working a missile defence system around Moscow) the Soviet planners were trying to finally make the planned economy work. A new system of prices was introduced, with the rates set by a complex algorithm. Logic would replace the market and the planned economy would deliver the workers paradise that had been promised for forty years.
The first result was that the cost of meat and butter shot up 25%. On top of other problems, this led to a minor revolt in Southern Russia. Twenty two people were killed, seven executed, and the authorities panicked. There were to be no more economic reforms.
Khrushchev had also tried, and failed, to improve agricultural production. Worse, he had started to take away the privileges of senior party members and talked about running multi-candidate elections. The party decided he had to go. In 1964 he was removed from power and exiled to his dacha. There he regaled passers by with his opinions of what had gone wrong, and wondered what sort of paradise this was that had to keep its people in chains.
He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who brought back repression. In 1968 Czechoslovakia decided it wanted 'communism with a human face', but instead it received Soviet tanks. Back at home the arts and the sciences had to follow the party line.
The economy, already stuttering, went into terminal decline. Instead of taking raw materials and turning them into useful things - adding value - the Soviet economy did exactly the opposite. It dug valuable natural resources out of the ground, and turned them into things nobody wanted.
The only reason the whole thing limped on into the seventies was that in 1961 they had struck oil in Siberia. The USSR used the money to buy computers from IBM = killing off their own research program - and an entire car factory from Italy. There they made their own version of an old Fiat design, the crude but tough car that they would export to the world as the Lada.
To western visitors there were attractions to the country. Moscow and Leningrad were beautiful cities, with streets free of traffic jams, advertising billboards and beggars. The opera and the ballet were cheap and first class.
However by 1979 there were problems on the eastern frontiers. Afghanistan was a friendly communist country. However the repressive regime was not popular and soon large parts of the country were in open rebellion, with the rebels receiving support from the CIA. A palace coup removed the Soviet Union's man and so Soviet paratroopers moved in to remove his replacement.
Initially all went well, and it seemed a re-run of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in '68. But this was deceptive. Afghanistan was to be very different.
The 1980s started with the flamboyance of the Moscow Olympic games. Brezhnev died in 1982 and his next two successors were both old, ill and dead within two years of taking office. The communist party leadership realised that a change was needed. The new leader was Mikael Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Politburo and the first Soviet leader to have been born after the revolution.
By this time the war in Afghanistan was going badly. Gorbachev wanted to pull the troops out, but rightly feared the forces that would be unleashed if he did so. Desperately he tried to negotiate with President Reagan to end the cold War, but instead the USA launched a new arms race, and supplied the Afghan insurgents with more and more advanced weaponry, some of which would later be turned on their own troops.
At home Gorbachev introduced restructuring - perestroika - and freedom - glasnost. To the West he was a hero, but to those who had to live through his reforms he was more like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, someone who could not control the forces he had unleashed. His aim of a more democratic communism, combined with a planned economy, was similar to Khrushchev's, and the outcome was similar too: economic chaos and food shortages. However whilst a high oil price had bailed the country out before, now a low one doomed it.
In eastern Europe the Brezhnev Doctrine, of military intervention in any communist country that turned capitalist, was replaced by the 'Sinatra Doctrine', meaning everyone was free to chose My Way. By 1989 the old, out-of-touch leadership of the Soviet satellite nations were facing open revolt on the streets. When Gorbachev made it clear Soviet tanks were not coming to help this time, the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the rest of the Iron Curtain.
The Soviet Union was actually a federation of 15 Republics, although a very centralised one. Many of these states were formed in territories added to the Czarist Empire only in the late nineteenth century. Most were artificial constructions based around the predominant ethnicity. With the economy in crisis, there were fears that many would try to ceded.
In the end it was actually Russia that started to break away first, passing a declaration of semi-independence from the Soviet Union. Hard liners saw the writing on the wall and launched a coup. Soviet coups had been in terminal decline for a while. Budapest and Prague had gone all write, but in Afghanistan it had taken four gos before they managed to bump of President Amin. This one was even worse, lasting barely two days.
After that the Soviet Republics didn't plan on hanging around to see if the hardliners would try again, and one by one they declared independence. Gorbachev was faced with a choice, send in the tanks or let them go. Once again he chose peace, and so on 21 December 1991 the Soviet Union was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The world's first Soviet socialist republic had come to an end. There had been moments of hope, but most;y it had been a story of repression rather than freedom, of scarcity rather than plenty. The revolution had failed, and in the end the leadership accepted it had failed and let the Soviet Union die peacefully in its bed. To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing it did in its life so became it as the leaving it.
It seems unlikely that the kleptocratic leaders of the fascistic gangster states that replaced the Soviet Union will leave power quite so gracefully.
I'm extremely grateful for the lectures given to the Glossop Guild by Chris Bins
Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford