The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union

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Martin McCauley on the history of the Soviet Union

Eminent historian and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union”, Martin McCauley, offers his take on a number of key issues in the history of the Soviet Union.

You may also like to read McCauley’s other works including:

  • McCauley, M., 2013. Stalin and Stalinism. London: Routledge

  • McCauley, M., 1993. The Soviet Union 1917-1991. London: Routledge

  • McCauley, M., 2007. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. London: Routledge

  1. The importance or otherwise of Stalin's role in the management of the Great Patriotic War.

Stalin was critical: he started off catastrophically by refusing to believe that Hitler would attack. It took him two years to learn mechanised warfare. He had killed Tukhachevsky who had foreseen how war would be waged. However his role was pivotal. Had he committed suicide after Hitler’s attack, possibly Zhukov would have taken over the defence of the country. He had proved his mettle in holding back the Japanese at Nomonhan in Mongolia in 1939. Stalin proved himself a great war leader. He possessed the ability to penetrate to the core of a problem, then find a solution and demand its implementation. He made many mistakes but then which war did not?

  1. The effectiveness of the Communist regime to enlist mass patriotism for the war effort.

The communist party played a minor role during the war. Patriotism and the iron will of Stalin and his troops to resist the German onslaught saved the day. The Soviets knew that defeat meant slavery. Russian patriotism was emphasised: going back to Alexander Nevsky’s defeat of the Teutonic Knights; Kutuzov’s and Suvorov’s defeats of Napoleon (Suvorov never lost a battle against Napoleon), etc. The Russian Orthodox Church was reinstated and blessed troops before battles. The communist party took a backseat.

  1. The extent to which Stalin’s regime was threatened by wartime opposition within the USSR.

Had the Germans promised to undo collectivisation and return the land to the peasants, the situation might have become critical for Stalin. However the Germans kept the collective farms because it was the easiest way to extract food from the peasants. They also failed to promise non-Russians a better future. They relied on military might – ‘hard’ power and neglected ‘soft’ power. Here they missed a great opportunity. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens fought on the German side but Hitler never trusted them.

  1. The extent to which the relationship between the Soviet people and Stalin's regime had changed by 1945.

Stalin celebrated victory in May 1945 as a Russian not a Soviet victory. His standing had never been higher. Many hoped for a revival of Marxism-Leninism and a freer future. Stalin chose to impose a harsh regime. Everyone had to sacrifice the present for a better future. The onset of the Cold War in 1947 forced greater military expenditure. Stalin dealt harshly with the Leningraders in 1948 (the Leningrad Affair). His power was greater than in the 1930s.

  1. How far economic recovery had been achieved by Stalin’s death in 1953.

Published Soviet statistics are not to be taken at face value. They were always exaggerated but by how much? Officially Soviet Gross National Product grew by 8.9 per cent annually between 1946 and 1950. Living standards in the countryside were lower in 1953 than in 1913. There was famine in 1947. Millions moved from the countryside to the towns. Taxes on a peasant’s private plot forced him to sell his produce in the kolkhoz market.

  1. The extent to which the USSR achieved economic growth under Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

This was the period of its maximum growth and the Soviet Union became an educated urban society. Growth reached its apogee in the mid-1970s and declined until 1991. Khrushchev’s reform mania angered the clans and he paid the price for it. The 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia stopped economic reforms which could have had a positive impact. Afterwards enterprises concluded that there was no use waiting for economic reform and began to expand the shadow capitalist economy (legal because it was between state enterprises). The black market (illegal because it was between individuals) grew as well especially under Brezhnev.

  1. The impact of Destalinisation within the USSR and on Soviet relations with the satellite states.

Destalinisation undermined the legitimacy of the communist party and its sister parties in Eastern Europe. It destroyed the myth of an omniscient Stalin and communist party. The events in Poland and Hungary were a direct result. Khrushchev told the east Europeans that there were several roads to full communism: they did not have to follow the Soviet model slavishly. This led the Czechs and Slovaks to believe that they could introduce a socialist market economy (a euphemism for capitalism) and argue that economic reform inevitably involved political reform. A big mistake. Destalinsation undermined Soviet propaganda. Propaganda serves two main purposes: rubbish the views of your enemies and create a new world view within your society. Stalin, previously a demi-god, was now cast as a criminal. The credibility of propaganda diminished.

  1. Reasons for the political stagnation in the Soviet Union 1956-1991.

Khrushchev tried to break up the clans and undermine patrimonial politics. The clan chiefs removed him. Brezhnev never took them on again as he feared being ousted. The party barons ran their bailiwicks as their own fiefdoms. Some of them (Rostov oblast, for example) worked the black market and earned large amount of hard currency. Central Asia was run by feudal princes who collected bribes as they perambulated around their republic. There were huge scams: eg the cotton scandal. The USSR Minister of the Interior was akin to a mafia boss. Brezhnev engaged in consensual decision making which meant that no hard decisions were taken. He was gaga from 1975 onwards.

  1. The extent of political and social change under Brezhnev and the impact of Brezhnev’s policies upon this.

There was very little political change but great social change. The middle class grew and an educated elite emerged. The slowdown in the economy from the mid-1970s onwards saw the rise of nationalism. Brezhnev was enamoured of the scientific technological revolution but quickly realised that computers were a threat to the rule of the party. Youth was taken by western pop music and this led to an expansion of the black market in videos and records. Komsomol leaders were among those who benefited most. The Beatles were a sensation as were some western films. Soviet communist culture could not compete. Some party officials took to wearing jeans! They had to be seen as cool!

  1. The nature of and threat posed by dissidents in the USSR after 1956.

Dissidents never posed a real threat to communist power. What they did was to provide an alternative culture and Weltanschauung. They undermined the cultural legitimacy of the Soviet model. Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia developed a counter-culture which grew in importance. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act permitted western nations to enquire about human and religious rights in the Soviet Union. Helsinki committees were set up in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

  1. The motives for, and impacts of, Gorbachev's reforms.

Gorbachev was aware that the Soviet Union had slowed down economically and was falling behind the US. Living standards were stagnating. He needed to raise them and introduced perestroika. This term was not a reform agenda merely an aspiration to change things for the better. Gorby was economically illiterate and this led to economic reforms which undermined the country. He believed that glasnost would put pressure on the party barons from below and force them to become more responsive to public pressure. He concluded that political reform was also necessary. This culminated in the USSR Supreme Soviet elections in 1989. Deputies laid into Gorbachev and the Soviet system. They had power and no responsibility. They voted large increases in pensions, etc without considering how to finance this and other expenditure. The result was rising inflation and a shortage of everyday goods. Gorbachev took the party out of the economy in 1988 and this, of course, really annoyed the party barons. It was an unwise move as the barons had been the glue which kept the economy together. Gorby put no mechanism in its place to compensate for this reform. Co-ops became legal and they were used to launder black market money. His anti-alcohol campaign was a disaster financially (booze had contributed most to the state budget) and it saw a rapid rise in the black market for vodka.

  1. The main reasons for the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

There were two great loss making sectors of the Soviet economy: agriculture and defence. The rest of the economy had to subsidise them. By 1975 this compact was breaking down. Defence expenditure (especially nuclear submarines) was increasing while the economy was stagnating. The Soviet Union imported grain, foodstuffs, chemicals and machinery increasingly from the early 1970s. It sold gold and exported oil to pay for them. Technologically the country was falling behind the west. The exception was the military which as early as 1973 had more nuclear subs than the US and Britain together. By 1982 the Soviets were capable of destroying all major cities in North America and western Europe by launching nuclear missiles from their subs. The Americans conceded they could neither win a conventional nor nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe was also a drain on Soviet finances. The collapse of the Soviet Union was mainly due to inept political and economic decision making by Gorbachev and his clan. There was no need for the country to disappear from the map of Europe. Nationalism, the rise of the Russian Federation (RSFSR) and Yeltsin were other reasons.

  1. The impact on the USSR of the collapse of Communist regimes in the satellite states at the end of 1989.

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was a terrible shock to Gorbachev. He had envisaged reform communism not its demolition. The Soviet liberals and democrats were emboldened by these events and the conservatives and military angered. The party barons faced oblivion. Privatisation in Eastern Europe was also mirrored in the Soviet Union and capitalism appeared the way ahead for many. The Soviet military in eastern Europe make a lot of money selling its equipment and working the black market in the Soviet Union by selling cigarettes, liquor, computers, etc. acquired in East Germany and elsewhere. The ideas of socialist democracy and a socialist market economy (capitalism) were very attractive to many Soviets. A major problem was the myth of the golden West. Copy the West and become rich was the goal. Unfortunately Russians and others had no understanding of a how a market economy worked. It involves losers as well as winners.

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