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Soviet Union


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21-5 Interesting Facts About Soviet Russia

21. George Koval, the Soviet master spy infiltrated the Manhattan project, stole nearly all of USA’s nuclear secrets, single-handedly provided the key technology for Russia’s nuclear arsenal, was only discovered to be a spy in 2002. – Source

22. In 1933 Soviet Russia dumped 6200 people on an island in Siberia and left them with only flour for food, a small amount of tools and no shelter. A month later about 4000 of them were dead. – Source

23. During the Cuban missile crisis, a Soviet Submarine came under attack from depth charges, the captain assumed WW3 had started and prepared to launch a nuclear weapon, but his executive officer overruled him. It turned out the depth charges were training rounds being used to signal them to surface. – Source

24. The physical document that dissolved the Soviet Union is missing as of February 7, 2013. – Source

25. The first manmade aircraft to successfully land on another planet and send back data was the Soviet Venera 7 in 1970. After landing on Venus, the craft sent back only 23 minutes of weak data, presumably because it landed on its side. – Source


In the Soviet Union, Priests and Nuns Were Crucified, Boiled in Tar, and Drowned

Anti-Bolshevik soldiers. Wikimedia Commons.

As Soviet troops moved into White-held territory, they often made no distinction between the civilians and the people they were fighting. If a village was controlled by their enemies, then they assumed that the people who lived there supported them. This meant that they could be considered enemies as well. Often, this meant waves of executions. And priests, monks, and nuns were frequent targets. Monasteries and churches were sacked, and those inside were often taken to secluded areas nearby where they were often forced to dig their own graves before being shot.

In one case, a priest who tried to cross himself before his execution had his arm cut off. Other killings were even more brutal. Priests were crucified in a mocking imitation of Jesus. Others were given molten lead to consume as communion. In Voronezh, soldiers got wind that one convent of nuns had been praying for a White victory. They broke down the door to the convent and reportedly boiled the nuns alive in hot tar. In another case, a priest was arrested and dressed in women&rsquos clothing. The soldiers then ordered him to dance. And when he refused, he was murdered.

In Petrograd, a priest was discovered performing a ceremony for people murdered by the Bolsheviks. He and 32 others were driven to a cliff overlooking the sea. There, he was allowed to perform last rites for the victims one-by-one before they were shot and pushed over into the water. In the city of Perm, a priest was arrested by the Cheka for supporting the Whites. They paraded him through the streets before slicing out his eyes. After hours of torture, he was buried alive. Meanwhile, the city&rsquos archbishop performed a rite of anathema on the Bolsheviks for their crimes. A mass-killing of the city&rsquos clergy followed shortly afterward as revenge.

Anyone who spoke out against the murders was targeted for death. And often, even trying to collect the body of a murdered priest for burial was a death sentence. In one case, the wife of an Orthodox priest came to the Cheka to ask for her husband&rsquos body. She was murdered on the spot, and her body was mutilated before being left to rot. Meanwhile, the Soviets were beginning to shut down Orthodox churches and putting them to new use as warehouses or Bolshevik headquarters. There were even reports of drunken orgies taking place in the shuttered buildings.

A priest who was tortured and killed for praying for the Tsar during the Civil War. Wikimedia Commons.

Everywhere, the Bolsheviks were attempting to stamp out centuries of Russian religious culture. Medieval churches and cathedrals were simply dynamited. The bodies of saints were exhumed and declared to be nothing but dusty bones. The persecution against the Church continued past the end of the Civil War. It wasn&rsquot until WWII, when the Soviets realized the power of the Church to help unite the Russian nation, that the persecution was relaxed. Tens of thousands of priests were arrested and murdered in the meantime. But the Church endured through the years of violence. Religion too was a powerful idea, and not even the Soviets could destroy it.


Leaders of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin was born in Ulyanovsk, Russia, in 1870. He founded the Communist Party in 1912, but he spent years leading up to the Russian Revolution in exile abroad before Germany arranged for him to go back to Russia to get them out of World War One. From there Lenin led the October Revolution to overthrow the provisional government that had overthrown the monarchy during the February Revolution. Lenin and the Communists then quickly consolidated power and eventually won the Russian Civil War (1917-22). Lenin then spent the last few years of his life trying to shape the future of the Soviet Union.

Josef Stalin

Lenin's warning in his final years about the unchecked power of party members went unheeded, however, and this led to a power struggle for control following his death, Joseph Stalin was born in Gori, Georgia in 1878, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. Like Lenin, Stalin was in exile leading up to the Russian Revolution. Stalin then helped shape the young Soviet Union through the resulting Russian Civil War, the Polish-Soviet War, and the invasion of Georgia. During this period Stalin clashed with Lenin and other Soviet Leaders over ideology, strategy, and his violent tendencies. After Lenin's death, Stalin accumulated power, eventually become the unquestioned leader by 1929. Stalin then spent years leading up to World War Two pushing his economic policy of Collectivization and trying to industrialize the country. Stalin also spent this time purging, executing and deporting his enemies to Siberia. The Soviets and the Germans signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to split up Eastern Europe but then Hitler violated it and invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in World War Two over Germany. Stalin took control of Eastern Europe after World War Two and established the Soviet Bloc. Relations with the West deteriorated and the Cold War started in 1947. Stalin died a few years later in 1953.

Georgy Malenkov

Georgy Malenkov was born in Orenburg, Russia in 1902. His advancement through the party was advance by his family connections with Lenin and later under the watchful eye of Stalin. He was heavily involved in Stalin's purging of his enemies in the 1930s, gaining Stalin's favor and avoiding his wrath. Upon Stalin's death, Malenkov became the leader of the Soviet Union. However, Malenkov had a reformist streak as he called for cuts in military spending and easing up on political repression. This fact led to his undoing as a few weeks later Nikita Khrushchev organized a coalition as him and undercut all of his authority as leader. By 1955 Malenkov was no longer the leader of the Soviet Union. In 1957, he joined a failed coup attempt against Khrushchev and was expelled from the Communist Party. Malenkov was then sent to Kazakhstan to serve as manager of a hydroelectric plant to spend the rest of his life in disgrace. He died in 1988.

Nikita Khrushchev

In 1894, Nikita Khrushchev was born in Kalinovka, Russia. In 1918, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party and fought in the Red Army. Khrushchev rose quickly through the ranks of the Communist Party during the 1930s and '40s. Shortly after taking over the leadership of the Soviet Union from Malenkov, Khrushchev gave a speech where he denounced the excesses under Stalin. This speech was the start of his policy of de-Stalinization, which resulted in protests in Poland and Hungary that were put down. Khrushchev relaxed restrictions on free expression, released political prisoners and launched bold but ultimately unattainable agricultural goals. He largely tried to pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West but at the same time started the Cuban Missile Crisis and started construction on the Berlin Wall. Poor economic growth, deteriorating relations with China and other issues eventually led to Khrushchev being ousted from power by "retiring" due to his health. Khrushchev spent his remaining years at his estate, dying in 1971.

Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev was born in Kamianske, Ukraine in 1906, which was then part of the Russian Empire. He joined the Komsomol (political youth organization) in 1923 and in 1929 became a full member of the Communist party. Brezhnev fought in World War Two, reaching the rank of major general and in 1952 became a member of the Central Committee. Brezhnev took over as the leader for Khrushchev and ended his cultural reforms by clamping down on the cultural freedom and he gave the KGB back some of their former powers they had under Stalin. The Soviet economy grew under Khrushchev at a rate that was on pace to catch up with America but by the mid-1970s entered an era of stagnation and never recovered. Brezhnev also built up the Soviet Union's military at the cost of their economy. During the 1970s Brezhnev pursued a policy of detente with the West trying to normalize relations but the Soviet's costly decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 ended the detente policy. In his last few years, Brezhnev's health deteriorated, and he was mostly a figured head. He died in 1982.

Yuri Andropov

Yuri Andropov was born in the Stavropol Governorate in 1914, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. Andropov joined the Communist Party in 1939, and his superiors quickly noticed his abilities making him head of the Komsomol. After being transferred to Moscow in 1951, he was assigned to the Secretariat staff and then became ambassador to Hungary from 1954-57. After returning to Moscow from his ambassadorship he rose quickly through the party ranks and became head of the KGB in 1967. Andropov started positioning himself for succession as leader of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev in poor health. Andropov was declared his successor and quickly consolidated power. Andropov led an anti-corruption campaign and dismissed many party ministers and secretaries. Andropov also did reluctantly continue the Soviet war in Afghanistan. His rule was short however because by August of 1983 his ill health overtook him and he spent his last days in the hospital, dying in 1984.

Konstantin Chernenko

Konstantin Chernenko was born in the Yeniseysk Governorate in 1911, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Chernenko joined the Komsomol in 1929 and became a full member of the Communist Party in 1931. Chernenko started working for the propaganda department in 1933 and rose through the ranks. The turning point in his career was a meeting with future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1948. Brezhnev continued to help him rise through the ranks, with Chernenko gaining full membership to the Central Committee in 1971. Chernenko replaced Andropov as leader despite his own ailing health. Chernenko supported a greater role for labor unions and reforming education and propaganda. Chernenko negotiated a trade pact with China but did little to de-escalate the Cold War, boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics and did not end the war in Afghanistan. By the middle of 1984, Chernenko's health started deteriorating and he died in March of 1985.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai, Russia in 1931. He joined and became very active in the Communist party while at Moscow State University and also graduated with a law degree. By 1979 he had become a candidate member of the Politburo and in 1985 he became the leader of the Soviet Union after Chernenko's death. Gorbachev engaged in a race to amass nuclear weapons in space with the United States, which proved costly for the suffering Soviet economy. Gorbachev managed to end the costly Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1987. He worked to provide more freedoms and reforms to the Soviet people with his policies of glasnost and perestroika (openness and restructure). In 1989 Gorbachev organized elections to require Communist Party members to run against non-members to make a more democratic electoral system. He also removed the Communist Party's constitutional role in governing the state, which inadvertently led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This fact was in spite of Gorbachev wanting to keep the Soviet Union together. By 1990 Gorbachev was grappling with different groups waging war and demanding independence, along with a sputtering Soviet economy. In 1991 Gorbachev's rival Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Republic and was pushing radical changes to the economy. By the end of December of 1991, the Soviet Union had completely crumbled, and Gorbachev stepped down and gave Yeltsin complete power over Russia.

Gennady Yanayev

Gennady Yanayev was born in Perevoz, Russia in 1937. He spent years in local politics before he rose to prominence as Chairman of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. This fact helped him to gain a seat in the Politburo in 1990 and later that year with Gorbachev's help he became the first vice president of the Soviet Union. Yanayev quickly had growing doubts about Gorbachev's reform policies and started working with the Gang of Eight against Gorbachev. He took formal leadership of the Gang of Eight and deposed Gorbachev during the August coup of 1991. The coup collapsed after three days due to the growing popularity of Boris Yeltsin, and Yanayev was arrested. He was pardoned in 1994 and spent the rest of his life working for the Russian tourism administration until his death in 2010.


References

Davies, R W (1994), “Changing Economic Systems: An Overview.” in R W Davies, M Harrison and S G Wheatcroft (eds), The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-23.

Davies, R W, M Harrison, O Khlevniuk, and S G Wheatcroft (in preparation), The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, vol. 7. The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937-1939. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Dexter, K, and I Rodionov (2017), “The Factories, Research and Design Establishments of the Soviet Defence Industry: A Guide: Ver. 18”, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.

Goskomstat Rossii (1997), Naselenie Rossii za 100 let (1897-1997). Statisticheskii sbornik, Moscow.

Harrison, M (2017a), “The Soviet Economy, 1917-1991: Its Life and Afterlife,” The Independent Review 22(2): 199-206.

Harrison, M (2017b), “Foundations of the Soviet Command Economy, 1917 to 1941,” in S Pons and S Smith (eds), The Cambridge History of Communism, vol. 1: World Revolution and Socialism in One Country, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 327-347.

Markevich, A, and M Harrison (2011), “Great War, Civil War, and Recovery: Russia’s National Income, 1913 to 1928”, Journal of Economic History 71(3): 672-703.

Novokmet, F, T Piketty, and G Zucman (2017), “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016”, WID.world working paper no. 2017/09.

Singer, J D, S Bremer, and J Stuckey (1972), “Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820-1965”, in B Russett (ed.), Peace, War, and Numbers, Beverly Hills: Sage, pp. 19-48.

TsSU (1972), Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR. 1922-1972. Iubileinyi statisticheskii sbornik. Moscow: Statistika.


What are the best books on Soviet History?

Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick of The New Yorker. Hands down. It's from a verifiable period of USSR history. Much of the very early stuff was/is fraught with propaganda.

Do you think you could expand a little on what the book covers?

Edit: Yes, we know this is the real Tom Hanks, so please stop pointing it out.

Thank you so much, I'll be sure to check it out.

If you're interested in WWII, I usually recommend Ivan's War by Catherine Merridale. It's a well-researched, fascinating look at how the Soviet Union was affected and reacted to the German invasion and the four years of conflict that followed.

It touches not only on the grand scale of events but delves into the experience at the individual level ─ what life was like for individual soldiers and those behind the front lines.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 by Antony Beevor

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Moscow, 1937 by Karl Schlögel

The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive & the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher M. Andrew, Vasili Mitrokhin

Iron Curtain : The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents by Ronald Grigor Suny

Soviet Politics 1917-1991 by Mary McAuley

Red Nations: The Nationalities Experience in and after the USSR by Dr Jeremy Smith

Now, you may also want to read most of what Solzhenitsyn wrote. Not as historical research, most of his stuff is romanticized or novelized. But, he does have a lot of portrayals of Soviet life, which are nice to have as a background.

"Red Tsar" is an intense portrait of cultural paranoia

Thank you this is an excellent list.

Tony Cliff's trilogy Building the Party, All Power to the Soviets and Revolution Besieged is a fantastic, though very detailed and dense work. It's a great explanation for anyone interested in how the Soviet period came about in the first place, why its even called the Soviet period and how revolutionaries demanding democracy could see their dreams "besieged", resulting in Stalin. It takes a very partisan view towards the question of "did Lenin lead to Stalin?" so be warned if "neutrality" is your thing.

Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain - good mix of the 'straight forward' and more complex and 'revisionist' parts of Soviet historiography.

You should check out the Modern Russian History section on our booklist if you have not already.

It really depends on what particular aspect of the Soviet Union you are looking for. There is a huge amount of literature covering the USSR, examining nearly every topic possible, so its difficult to properly give answer without narrowing it down a bit.

I'm particularly interested in early Soviet history 1917-1953

Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization is well worth a read. It's adapted from a collection of diaries that Kotkin himself found, and really gets into the everyday lives and challenges of Soviet citizens during the Stalinist era, discusses (albeit as a matter of factly) Soviet settler colonialism east of the Urals, and gives you an idea of what the Soviet economic system looked like. It's been a while since I read it, but the principle downside is, I'm very uncomfortable about Kotkin's view of people as basically rational and constantly negotiating with a totalitarian system which profoundly effects their lives but not their thoughts or dreams. To me, this surface level analysis is insufficient, and satirically critical Soviet novels of the same era like Master and Margarita by Bulgakov actually do a much better job of getting under the skin of Soviets and exploring small intimacies that are interwoven into the totalizing power of the state.


A Short History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991

As we have a particular interest in visiting the countries and territories that once formed the USSR, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, we thought it would be beneficial to create a short history of how this vast empire came into being and what eventually led to its downfall. Of course, the topic is far more in-depth and complex than the 1,500-odd word narrative we have generated below to describe it but our aim was to keep this post short and provide just a general overview.

Map of the Soviet Union

The origins of communism – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

It all began with German philosophers and social scientists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in 1848, wrote The Communist Manifesto for a London-based group of revolutionary socialists known as The Communist League. In the manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism, as it existed throughout nineteenth-century Europe, would eventually self-destruct and be replaced by a worker-led government wherein the workers would jointly own and benefit from all means of production. Communism, meaning the abolition of private ownership and where ‘each contributes and receives according to their abilities and needs’ was born.

The Russian Revolution and Vladimir Lenin

The concept of communism lay unproven until a member of the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary party, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, seized the opportunity to harness and coordinate the proletariat unrest in Russia against the aristocratic monarchist Russian government led by Tsar Nicholas II, a member of the ruling Romanov family. In 1917, Russia was already in turmoil and Lenin masterminded the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty causing Nicholas II first to abdicate and then assassinated.

Over the next few years, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks consolidated the Russian Revolution and set up a number of regional councils called soviets both in Russia and within the annexed Russian ‘colonies’ of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Bolsheviks also supported their neighbours in similar revolutions and signed treaties with the Transcaucasian republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia), Ukraine, and Belarus and by 1924, Russia had created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, comprising twelve republics. During WW2, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were added bringing the total to fifteen states within the union.

The Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin

When Lenin died in 1924 and after a brief power struggle, his position as head of government was taken by the Georgian, Joseph Stalin. And thus began the darkest period in the history of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s interpretation of Leninist-Marxism led to the 1932-33 famine, the rapid expansion of the forced labour camps known as gulags, multiple political purges (particularly the Great Purge of 1936-38), and by 1937 he had become a dictator in charge of a totalitarian state and totally obsessed with self-glorification a personality cult. He implemented a huge growth in patriotic statues in public places constant praise in the state-owned press who positioned him as a benevolent and caring father figure the subject of artistic creations in literature, paintings, film and music extensive renaming of streets, places and geographic features and a form of ornate pompous architecture based on Gothic and Baroque forms that became known as Stalinist architecture.

The height of the Soviet Union and the Cold War

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was taken first by Georgy Malenkov, who lasted just six months and was then ousted by Nikita Khrushchev who almost immediately began the process of de-Stalinisation – the dismantling of Stalin’s reputation and rebuilding of the Soviet Union along less repressive lines. Khrushchev’s agricultural and industrial policies largely failed and he was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964 who stayed as general Secretary until his death in 1982. Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov who lasted two years before being replaced by Konstantin Chernenko who, one year later in 1985 and following Chernenko’s death, was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, the unwitting architect of the dissolution of the USSR.

In the thirty-year period spanning Khrushchev to Gorbachev, successive leaders of the USSR struggled with the rise of capitalism in Western Europe and North America and the associated visible improvements in standards of living, education, material wealth, agricultural practices, technology and health, and various leaders tried to counteract the soviet perceptions that the USSR was falling behind. Khrushchev, for example, redirected Soviet architects to design and build simpler more-functional style of buildings creating what is now known as the Soviet Modernism style of architecture, a branch of Brutalist architecture. He also relaxed the censorship of the arts, allowing, for example, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of life in a Soviet gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962 and probably the most savage indictment of Stalin’s gulags.

Leonid Brezhnev reversed many of Khrushchev’s liberalisation policies and throughout his eighteen years in power, Brezhnev reverted to the Stalinist model using repression and fear to implement his agricultural and military policies, and did very little to de-escalate the Cold War with Europe and the USA despite his support of détente. Although Brezhnev built up the USSR’s military might, including nuclear weapons, his agricultural and other manufacturing policies at home failed and the economy of Russia stagnated.

Neither Andropov nor Chernenko were in power long enough to have any impact on Russia’s economy and it fell to Mikhail Gorbachev to restart the process of bringing Russia and the USSR states in line with the growth in prosperity in Western Europe and North America.

Perestroika and glasnost

Before he became the eighth and final General Secretary, Gorbachev was a keen supporter of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation program and was heavily influenced by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and subsequent attempts to cover up what had happened. He also felt that Russia and the whole USSR was in desperate need of social reform and, in 1985 when he became General Secretary, he implemented his two famous programs of perestroika and glasnost. Perestroika, meaning restructuring, was aimed at reforming the policies and practices of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to become more like the western free-market system based on democratic elections and an embracing, rather than repression, of different cultures and religions. Glasnost, meaning openness and transparency, was a program introduced at all levels of government aimed at encouraging constructive criticism of local and national programs, something that would have never happened under Stalin’s rule.

USSR stamp: Propaganda for Perestroika. It reads “Restructuring is the reliance on the living creativity of the masses.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union

Although a committed socialist, Gorbachev felt that without the freedom of expression afforded by glasnost and the free-market reforms built into perestroika, the USSR would not survive against the capitalist systems of the West. His objective was to build a better implementation of communism and, in that, he failed. Six years later, in 1991, the USSR was disbanded and all the member states returned to an autonomous status.

This was not surprising. If you look at the history of, for example, the ‘stans’ – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, you will see that each area was originally annexed by Russia at various times in the nineteenth century and thus became part of the Russian Empire. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the ‘stans’ were automatically included in the conversion to a communist soviet state and there had always been a resentment to Russian rule and, in particular, Russification, a process whereby a non-Russian community gave up its culture and language in favour of the Russian one. When Gorbachev announced his perestroika/glasnost programs, each of these satellite states saw it as an opportunity to regain their national independence and began to reform along national lines.

The same happened in the other Soviet states (Transcaucasian republics, Ukraine, and Belarus) and, particularly, in the three Baltic states assigned to Russia after WW2. The whole USSR was seething with separatist movements and, ironically, it was a non-USSR state, East Germany, that sealed the fate of the USSR. East Germany came under communist control at the end of WW2 but was never formally admitted into the USSR, similar to other east European communist states such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Albania and Yugoslavia. In November 1989, the world watched at East Germans tore down the hated Berlin Wall and poured into West Berlin thus starting the process of Germany’s reunification. This very emotional moment in history gave strength of purpose to all other USSR and satellite states and on the 26 December, 1991, the dissolution of the USSR was complete. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned the day before saying his General Secretary office no longer existed and handed over his President of Russia position to Boris Yeltsin. When Yeltsin died in 2007, Vladimir Putin became the President and remains so to this day.

The aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union

Throughout all the original fifteen republics of the countries that made up the USSR, you will find many vestiges of this experiment in communism: statues of the leaders such as Lenin and Stalin (although decommunisation policies in countries such as Ukraine, for example, have caused many statues and other images of both men to be removed and destroyed) monuments extolling the patriotic glory of Mother Russia buildings in both Stalinist and Soviet Modernism styles, many now in a state of decay artistic works such as bas relief, mosaics and paintings glorifying the workers, family units, and military personnel and other remnants of the era including museums, especially the Stalin Museum in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia, that tries hard but fails to be unbiased and not venerate the tyrannical leader.

One wonders what Marx and Engels would have made of the growth and decline of the USSR. There is no doubt that both were sincere in their belief that communism was the only way forward but it would appear that they failed to take account of the more pragmatic aspects of the effects of rule and power. It’s a pity they were unable to take note of Lord Acton’s famous remark in a letter to Bishop Creighton, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.’ The letter was written in April 1887, thirty-nine years after Marx and Engels produced The Communist Manifesto.

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Were there any elections in the USSR?

It&rsquos somewhat surprising that the Soviet one-party system had elections at all. But it did. Since the new Soviet constitution, adopted in 1936, had established a legislative body called the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, people were supposed to vote its members into office every four years.

And election day would often resemble a public holiday marked by mass celebrations.

Music, deficit goods and festivities

Akin to other states, where political power was monopolized, the turnout of the Soviet elections was always exceptional: near 100%. Those who participated in the Soviet elections say there was no pressure to attend. Instead, people went to vote voluntarily, because they considered demonstrating their faith in the system their duty, but also because they were subtly incentivized to attend by the authorities.

Prior to elections, authorities always launched campaigns aimed to increase the turnout. Newspapers printed announcements of upcoming elections to inform people of the date. Soviet newspapers also flooded people with rather boring reports about preparations for elections.

Agitational posters also incentivized people to cast a vote.

Voters also received personal notes that appealed to comrades&rsquo consciousness:

Judging by the massive turnout, the strategy worked. People would come to cast a vote together with family members and friends and often staged group photos to memorize the remarkable day. The environment at the voting stations was usually festive.

The elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in 1958.

Music played and people would even dance at some of the voting stations.

Artists perform for the voters at the polling stations in Georgian SSR, March 4, 1984.

&ldquoWe always went to vote first thing in the morning, because at the voting stations, you could buy deficit goods like oranges, cake, pastries and also some rare books that were otherwise impossible to buy and these were quickly sold out,&rdquo remembers Alexandra Goryushina, an 83-year-old woman who participated in Soviet elections.

&lsquoSacred duty&rsquo

Although the festive environment and deficit goods did their share in luring people to the voting stations, the prevailing majority of the Soviet citizens believed it was their duty to vote, as every vote at the non-alternative elections automatically became a vote of confidence in the validity of the communist system.

Elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in a reindeer-breeding state farm, June 15,1975.

&ldquoPeople were coming to voting stations regardless of the opportunity to buy deficit [products and goods]. Some people wanted sausage, some didn&rsquot. But everyone thought it was necessary to vote. It was a sacred [duty],&rdquo said Nikolay Bobrov who has participated in Soviet elections since 1971.

March 4, 1984. Workers of Tumanovskiy Collective Farm of Arzamas district of Gorky region go to the elections.

Even if someone did not like the idea of voting for already pre-approved candidates that faced no competition while running for an elected office, peer pressure forced them to cast a vote anyhow.

&ldquoMy father, for example, did not like elections very much, but he went to vote [nonetheless],&rdquo said Bobrov.

Uncontested candidates

There was no opposition in the USSR. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the only legitimate political force in the country. All citizens were expected to support it and any opposition to the party line was regarded as a sign of untrustworthy dissent.

A candidate to the Supreme Soviet addresses Soviet people.

Most of the candidates ran on the CPSU&rsquos platform, yet there were also formally independent candidates. Nonetheless, those also ran in alliance with the CPSU candidates and not against them.

In each electoral district there was only one candidate who ran on the platform of what was known as the &ldquounbreakable bloc of Communists and non-party members&rdquo.

Leningrad. Elections to the Supreme Soviet. March 1, 1984.

One was allowed to vote against the only candidate available, but to do so, a person had to use a polling booth, while a vote for the uncontested candidate could be cast by submitting a blank ballot (a process that didn&rsquot require stepping in a polling booth).

Most people simply cast a blank ballot and those who entered polling booths were eyed with suspicion as potential dissidents.

Only after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced democratization measures in the Soviet political system by establishing a new legislative body, known as the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, did the Soviet people have a taste of a competitive election process.

Click here to learn how Russian women won the right to vote.

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Famous Birthdays

Birthdays 1 - 100 of 299

Vladimir Lenin

1870-04-22 Vladimir Lenin [Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov], Marxist Revolutionary and Soviet Leader, born in Simbirsk, Russia (d. 1924)

    Mikhail Kalinin, Soviet communist leader and statesman, born in Verkhnyaya Troitsa, Russia (d. 1946) [OS] Felix Dzerzhinsky [Iron Felix, Bloody Felix], Ivyanets, Lithuania, Soviet statesman, established and developed Soviet secret police (Cheka, forerunner to the KGB)

Joseph Stalin

1878-12-18 Joseph Stalin, Dictator and General Secretary of the Soviet Union (1922-53), born in Gori, Tiflis Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1953)

    Kliment J Woroshilov, marshal/president USSR (1953-60) Bela Kun, Czehul Romania, head of Hungarian Soviet Republic (1919) Heinrich Neuhaus, Soviet pianist (The Art of Piano Playing), born in Elisavetgrad, Russian Empire (d. 1964)

Vladimir Zworykin

1888-07-29 Vladimir K. Zworykin, Russian-American inventor (development of television, cathode ray tube), born in Murom, Russian Empire (d. 1982)

    Solomon Mikhoels, Soviet actor and chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (d. 1948) William Christian Bullitt Jr., 1st US ambassador to USSR, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (d. 1967) Vlas Chubar, Soviet politician (d. 1939) Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov, Soviet physicist (d. 1951) W Averell Harriman, American (Gov-D-NY)/ambassador to USSR (1943-46) E. H. Carr, English historian (History of Soviet Russia), born in London (d. 1982) Vsevolod Pudovkin, Soviet film director/theorist (Mother, Deserter) Vladimir Mayakovsky, Russian poet (Ode to Revolution), born in Baghdati, Soviet Georgia (d. 1930) [OS=7/7] Ernst Toller, German playwright, President of Bavarian Soviet Republic (1919), born in Samotschin (d. 1939)

Nikita Khrushchev

1894-04-15 Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1953-64), born in Kalinovka, Russia (d. 1971)

    Nikolai Bulganin, Premier of USSR (1955-58), born in Gorky, Russia (d. 1975 Miron Merzhanov, Soviet architect (d. 1975) Richard Sorge, German spy for the Soviet Union in Tokyo during World War II, born in Baku, Russian Empire (d. 1944) Anastas Mikoyan, Armenian revolutionary and member of Supreme Soviet, born in Sanahin, Yelizavetpol Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1978) Dziga Vertiv [Denis A Kaufman], Russian director (Sjagai, Soviet!) Hovhannes Bagramyan, Soviet military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union of Armenian origin, born in Yelizavetpol, Elisabethpol Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1982)

Lavrentiy Beria

1899-03-29 Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet politician and head of the NKVD secret service, born in Merkheuli, Russian Empire (d. 1953)

    Ivan Ivanov-Vano Soviet animator and Russian animation director (d. 1987) Sergey Vladimirovich Obraztsov, Soviet puppet master, born in Moscow, Russia (d. 1992) Igor Kurchatov, Russian nuclear physicist, born in Sim, Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia (d. 1960) Nikolaj V Podgorny, pres USSR (1965-77) Aram Khachaturian, Soviet composer (Gayane Sabre Dance), born in Tbilisi, Georgia (d. 1978) Aleksei N Kosygin, Soviet premier (1964-80) Nikolai Tikhonov, Soviet politician (Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union 1980-85), born in Kharkiv, Kharkov Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1997) Mikhail Sholokhov, Soviet writer (And Quiet Flows the Don, Nobel 1965), born in Veshenskaya, Don Host Oblast, Russian Empire (d. 1984) Oleg Antonov, Soviet aircraft designer (d. 1984) Klavdiya Shulzhenko, Soviet jazz and pop singer ("Let's Smoke"), born in Kharkiv, Russian Empire (now Ukraine) (d. 1984) William Hayter, British diplomat and Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1953-57), born in Oxford, England (d. 1995)

Leonid Brezhnev

1906-12-19 Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Union (1964-82), born in Kamenskoye, Ukraine (d. 1982)

    Yevgeniy Abalakov, Soviet mountaineer (d. 1948) Anthony Blunt, British art historian and spy for USSR, born in Bournemouth, Hampshire, England (d. 1983) Fyodor Matveyevich Okhlopkov, Yakut-born Soviet sniper (d. 1968) Harrison E Salisbury, journalist/author (50th Anniv of Soviet Union) Vladimir Alatortsev, USSR, International Chess Master (1950) Andrei Gromyko, Soviet politician (President of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), born in Staryya Hramyki, Mogilev Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1989) [NS 7/18] Andrei Gromyko, Soviet politician (President of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), born in Staryya Hramyki, Mogilev Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1989) [OS 7/5] Aleksandr Tvardovsky, Russian poet and editor in chief (Novyj Mir), born in Zagorye, Russian Empire (d. 1971) [OS=June 8] Mikhail Botvinnik, Russian world chess champion (1948-63), born in Repino, Russia (d. 1995) Sergey Sokolov, Soviet marshal and Minister of Defence of the Soviet Union (1984-87), born in Yevpatoria, Russian Empire (d. 2012)

Konstantin Chernenko

1911-09-24 Konstantin Chernenko, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1984-85), born in Bolshaya Tes, Yeniseysk Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1985)

Kim Philby

1912-01-01 Kim Philby, British spy and Soviet mole who was a member of the "Cambridge Five", born in Ambala, Punjab, India (d. 1988)

Yuri Andropov

1914-06-15 Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1982-84) and KGB Chief (1967-82), born in Nagutskaya, Stavropol Region, Russian Empire (d. 1984)

    Vasily Zaitsev, Soviet World War II hero (d. 1991) Georgy Sviridov, Soviet Russian neo-romantic composer (The Blizzard Time Forward!), born in Fatezh, Kursk Governorate, Russian Empire (d. 1998) Paul Keres, USSR, chess grandmaster (1950) Yuri "Petrovich" Lyubimov, USSR, director (Taganka) Nikolai Ogarkov, Soviet field marshal, born in Molokovo, Tver, Russian Republic (d. 1994) Yevgeny Pepelyaev, Bodaybo, Irkutsk, Soviet Union, fighter pilot, (d. 2013) Marcus Klingburg, Israeli soviet spy and epidemiologist Nina Dumbadze, Soviet discus thrower (Olympic bronze 1952), born in Odessa, Ukraine (d. 1983) Oleg Penkovsky, Soviet military intelligence (GRU), born in Vladikavkaz, Russia (d. 1963) Yegor Ligachev, Soviet politician Georgy Beregovoy, Soviet cosmonaut (Soyuz 3), born in Fedorivka, Poltava Oblast, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (d. 1995)

Dmitri Polyakov

1921-07-06 Dmitri Polyakov, Soviet Major General and spy for the CIA, born in Ukraine (d. 1988)

    Maria Gorokhovskaya, Russian gymnast (Olympic Champion 1952), born in Yevpatoria, Soviet Union Viktor Chukarin, Soviet gymnast (Olympic gold 1952, 56), born in Mariupol, Ukraine (d. 1984) Anatoli Papanov, Russian actor (Cold Summer of 1953) named as a People's Artist of the USSR (1973), born in Vyazma, Russia (d. 1987) Vsevolod Bobrov, Soviet ice hockey left wing (Olympic gold 1956) and soccer striker (3 caps), born in Morshansk, Tambov, Russia (d. 1979) Yelena Bonner, Soviet dissident and wife of Andre Sakharov, born in Merv, Turkmenistan, Soviet Union (d. 2011) [1] Aleksandra Chudina, Soviet athlete, track jumper (Olympic-2 silver-1952), born in Kurkinsky District, Russia (d. 1990) Gevork Vartanian, Soviet intelligence agent (Operation Long Jump), born in Rostov-on-Don (d. 2012) Nina Bocharova, Soviet-Ukrainian gymnast (Olympic gold balance beam, team 1952), born in Suprunivka, Ukraine (d. 2020) Sergey Yablonsky, Soviet and Russian mathematician and one of the founders of the Soviet school of mathematical cybernetics and discrete mathematics (d. 1998), born in Moscow, Russia Pavel Belyayev, Soviet fighter pilot and cosmonaut (Voskhod II), born in Chelishchevo, Russia (d. 1970) Arkady Natanovich Strugatsky, Soviet-Russian sci-fi author (Tale of the Troika), born in Batumi, Georgia (d. 1991) Yakov Rylsky, USSR sabre team (Olympic bronze 1956), born in Aleksandrovka, Verkhubinsky District, Kazakhstan (d. 1999) Vladimir Shainsky, Soviet and Russian composer, born in Kiev, Ukraine (d. 2017) Konstantin Petrovich Feokistov, USSR, cosmonaut (Voskhod I) Sergei Filatov, Soviet equestrian dressage (Olympic gold 1960), born in Lysyye Gory, Tambov Governorate (d. 1997) Galina Vishnevskaya, Russian soprano opera singer (Britten's "War Requiem"), born in Leningrad, Russia (d. 2012) Ivan Kalita, Soviet equestrian dressage (Olympic silver 1968), born in Tambov Governorate (d. 1996) Mstislav Rostropovich, Soviet-Russian cellist and conductor, born in Baku, Azerbaijan SSR (d. 2007) Eldar Ryazanov, Russian film director and screenwriter (A Cruel Romance), born in Kuybyshev, USSR (d. 2015) Vladimir Shatalov, Soviet cosmonaut (Soyuz 4, 8, 10), born in Petropavlovsk, Kazakh SSR

Eduard Shevardnadze

1928-01-25 Eduard Shevardnadze, President of Georgia (1995-2003) and Soviet Foreign Minister (1985-90), born in Mamati, Georgia (d. 2014)

    Vasily Grigoryevich Lazarev, Siberia USSR, cosmonaut (Soyuz 12, 18A) Nina Otkalenko, USSR, 800m runner (9 world records) Valentin Muratov, Russian gymnast (4 gold, 1 silver medals 1952, 1956 Olympics), born in Moscow, Russia (d. 2006) Rudolf Plyukfelder, Soviet light heavyweight lifter (Olympic gold 1964), born in Novoorlivka, Ukraine Nina Ponomareva Romaschkova, Soviet discus thrower (Olympic gold 1952, 60), involved shoplift scandal, born in Smychka (d. 2016) Vladimir Antoshin, USSR, International Chess Grandmaster (1964) Tigran Petrosian, Soviet Armenian world chess champion (1963-69), born in Tiflis, Georgian SSR, Soviet Union (d. 1984) Larisa Bogoraz, Soviet dissident (d. 2004)

Francis Gary Powers

1929-08-17 Francis Gary Powers, American spy captured by the USSR after his U-2 spy was shot plane in 1959, born in Jenkins, Kentucky (d. 1977)

    Elizabeta Bagrintseve, USSR, discus thrower (Olympic silver 1952) Andrian Grigoryevich Nikolayev, Soviet cosmonaut (Vostok III, Soyuz 9), born in Shorshely, Russia (d. 2004) Nikolay Ryzhkov, Premier of USSR (1985-1991) Lev Yashin, Soviet-Russian football goalkeeper (Soviet Union 1954-1967) Alevtina Koltschina, USSR, cross coutry relay skier (Olympic gold 1960) Yury Tyukalov, Soviet rower (Olympic 1952,56 Gold), born in Leningrad, Russia (d. 2018) Yuri Petrovich Artyukin, USSR, cosmonaut (Soyuz 14) Konstantin Vyrupayev, Soviet wrestler (Greco-Roman Bantamweight Olympic Gold 1956), born in Irkutsk, Russia (d. 2012)
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Key Facts & Information

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

  • After the Bolshevik triumph at the end of October, 1917, Lenin needed the support of the Russians as the nation was near collapse. Despite the lack of experience in running a government, Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Party were able to introduce new laws right after the revolution.
  • Initially, the Bolsheviks showed support of the Constituent Assembly. However, with the return of Lenin in 1917, he distinguished the party from other socialist- and bourgeois-dominated bodies, including the Provisional Government and the Constituent Assembly.
  • After the election, Lenin anonymously issued the Theses on the Constituent Assembly on December 26, 1917, in the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda. He argued that a republic of Soviets should not be composed of a Constituent Assembly with bourgeois members.
  • On July 16, 1918, the last of the Russian royal family was sentenced to death. Many believed that the impromptu murder was planned by the Bolsheviks. All of Nicholas II’s family, his wife, and children were executed.
  • In line with the promise of giving the Russian people peace, Bolshevik leader Lenin signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers composed of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.
  • On December 22, 1917, open talks between representatives took place in Brest-Litovsk (modern-day Belarus).
  • On March 3, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, and Russia was successful in exiting the war but faced humiliating territorial loss.
  • Between 1918 and 1920, the Russian Civil War occurred in opposition to Lenin’s regime. Groups composed of militarists, monarchists, and some foreigners were collectively known as the Whites, while Lenin supporters were the Reds.
  • After the Russian Civil War, the once small Bolshevik Party held total control of Russia. Moreover, Lenin recaptured several territories of the former Russian Empire and organized them into socialist republics all ruled by the Soviets.
  • By 1922, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly known as the USSR, was established by Lenin. After two years, each Republic delegated representatives to the Congress of Soviets and agreed with a constitution.

THE UNION OF THE SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS

  • Aside from having a supreme governing body with the Central Executive Committee of the Congress, Russia became a Communist one-party state.
  • In 1924, upon the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin rose to power, defeating expected successor Leon Trotsky. Stalin ruled as a dictator and employed a series of brutal policies, including the Great Purge.
  • From 1924 until Stalin’s death in 1953, the USSR changed from an agrarian society to an industrial and military nation.
  • In order to transform the Soviet Union, Stalin led a series of Five-Year Plans which included collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization. The succeeding Five-Year Plans still included industrialization plus the massive production of armaments.
  • Collectivization was Stalin’s policy, which initially encouraged the transformation of agriculture from private-capitalist to collective-socialist production.
  • Collective farms were called kolkhoz and were composed of 50 to 100 families that replaced outmoded farms owned by the peasantry. Richer peasants known as the kulaks were excluded.
  • In order to modernize agriculture, small farms were combined into one and machinery like tractors was used to boost productivity. All products were sold to the government and farmers received wages.
  • In 1930, many peasants rebelled against Stalin’s policy of Collectivization. They burned farmland and killed domestic animals rather than selling to the state.
  • The direct consequence was famine. After a year, Stalin doubled the policy this worsened the famine. Stalin blamed the kulaks who were sent to gulags. By 1939, 99% of farmland was collectivized and 90% of all production went to the government.
  • Dekulakization was Stalin’s response to the kulaks’ organized protests against Collectivization. There were also reports of kolkhoznik (collective farmers) attacked by non-collective neighbors.
  • During the initial years of the Second World War, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler with hopes that the Fuhrer would spare the USSR. However, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the USSR. In response, Stalin made an alliance with the U.S. and Britain.
  • After the surrender of the Nazis, Stalin felt uncomfortable with his alliance. By 1948, he installed communist governments in Eastern Europe.
  • As a result of Communist expansionism, the U.S. and Britain were threatened. In response, NATO or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949.
  • By 1955, the USSR and its allies in the Eastern bloc formed the Warsaw Pact which set the stage for the Cold War. The Cold War lasted until 1991, the same year of the union’s collapse.
  • Upon the death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev consolidated power and became the premier of the USSR.
  • Under Khrushchev, tensions of the Cold War rose. He instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, against U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
  • Khrushchev became known for his de-Stalinization policy. Through a speech, he criticized Stalin’s regime. Among his policies included the release of political prisoners, loosening of censorship, and closing of gulags or labor camps.
  • After the success of the Soviet’s Sputnik 1 and Yuri Gagarin’s mission, technological rivalry against the United States began with the Space Race.

THE USSR AND GORBACHEV

  • After the costly space race and military conflicts in Berlin, Cuba, and Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a stagnant economy and unstable political system.
  • With the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s as the new Soviet leader, the USSR began to implement policies that aimed to restructure the Soviet economy and politics. By the time of Gorbachev’s succession, the USSR’s economy had stagnated and the nation was isolated from the West. Some of his initial policies included:
    • Withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan
    • Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty agreement with the U.S.
    • The implementation of democratization in governance
    • The introduction of reconstruction concepts including perestroika and glasnost

    The Soviet Union Worksheets

    This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about the Soviet Union across 23 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use The Soviet Union worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Soviet Union, officially known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the USSR, which was formed in 1922 through a treaty between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Transcaucasia by the Communist leader, Vladimir Lenin. Before its collapse in 1991, the USSR grew and, at its height, controlled 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.

    Complete List Of Included Worksheets

    • The Soviet Union Facts
    • Mapping the USSR
    • From Lenin to Gorbachev
    • Soviet Glossary
    • Soviet Infographic
    • The Cold War
    • Soviet Pact and Facts
    • Collectivization Bulletin
    • Soviet Events
    • The Man of Steel
    • The Soviet Union and WWII

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    Use With Any Curriculum

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