History of the Soviet Union

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The Russian Revolution

Main article: Russian Revolution

During World War I, Tsarist Russia experienced famine and economic collapse. The demoralized Russian Army suffered severe military setbacks, and many soldiers deserted the front lines. Dissatisfaction with the monarchy and its policy of continuing the war grew. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in February of 1917.

A provisional government was installed, led first by Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov, then by Aleksandr Kerensky, but it maintained its commitment to the war. The provisional government failed to enact land reforms demanded by the peasantry, who accounted for over eighty percent of the population.

Within the military, mutiny and desertion were pervasive among conscripts; the intelligentsia was disaffected over the slow pace of reforms; poverty was worsening; and income disparities and inequality were growing while the provisional government grew more and more autocratic and appeared on the verge of succumbing to a military junta. Deserting soldiers returned to the cities and gave their weapons to angry socialist factory workers. Conditions in urban areas were fertile ground for revolution.

During the revolution, the Bolsheviks had adopted the popular slogans "all power to the Soviets!" and "land, peace, and bread!" Soviets were councils assembled locally within a city with delegates elected from the workers of the various factories and other businesses. Soviets were the bodies of direct popular democracy; although they held no official position of power in the provisional government, they exerted considerable influence over the hearts and minds of the working classes.

After the revolution, the party leadership devised a constitution that appeared to recognize the authority of the local Soviets. The highest legislative body was the Supreme Soviet. The highest executive body was the Politburo (see Organization of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

The first leader of the Soviet Union was Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolshevik faction of Communists. Popular pressure induced Lenin to proclaim the Bolshevik seizure of power in October of 1917. One of the first acts of the Communist government was to withdraw from World War I. Following the peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Soviet Union turned over most of the area of Ukraine and Belarus to Germany.

The Russian Civil War

Main article: Russian Civil War

Immediately, however, supporters of the Tsarist regime broke out in revolt, resulting in years of all-out civil war, which lasted until 1922. Known as the "whites," these forces were aided by Western intervention. Allied armies led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, seeking to prevent the spread of Communism or Russia's exit from the war effort, attempted to invade the Soviet Union and support forces hostile to the Bolsheviks with the intention of overthrowing the Soviet regime.

Missing image
Vladimir Lenin

The Bolsheviks, later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), initially enjoyed only a tenuous, precarious hold on power. They were also divided among their own party rank and file on tactics and some policy issues. Despite these problems, they quickly consolidated their hold on state power over progressively larger portions of the country, and enacted laws prohibiting any effective rival political party under the banner of "democratic centralism."

Prior to the revolution, the Bolshevik doctrine of democratic centralism argued that only a tightly-knit and secretive organization could successfully overthrow the government; after the revolution, they argued that only such an organization could prevail against foreign and domestic enemies. Fighting the civil war would actually force the party to put these principles into practice.

Arguing that the revolution needed not a mere parliamentary organization but a party of action which would function as a scientific body of direction, a vanguard of activists, and a central control organ, Lenin banned factions within party. He also argued that the party should be an elite body of professional revolutionists dedicating their lives to the cause and carrying out their decisions with iron discipline, thus moving toward putting loyal party activists in charge of new and old political institutions, army units, factories, hospitals, universities, and food suppliers. Against this backdrop, the nomenklatura system would evolve and become standard practice.

In theory, this system was to be democratic since all leading party organs would be elected from below, but also centralized since lower bodies would be accountable to higher organizations. In practice, "democratic centralism" was more centralist, with decisions of higher organs binding on lower ones. Over time, party cadres would grow increasingly careerist and professional. Party membership required exams, special courses, special camps, schools, and nominations by three existing members.

In December 1917, the Cheka was founded as the Bolshevik's first internal security force. Later it changed names to GPU, OGPU, MVD, NKVD and finally KGB. These "secret police" were responsible for finding those viewed by the party as counter-revolutionary and expelling them from the party or bringing them to trial. On September 5, 1918 the Cheka was given responsibility for targeting remnants of the Tsarist regime, opposing parties of the left such as the Social Revolutionaries and other anti-Bolshevik groups such as the Cossacks, the policy of Red Terror. Said Felix Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, June, 1918 in the newspaper, New Life: "We represent in ourselves organized terror - this must be said very clearly - such terror is now very necessary in the conditions we are living through in a time of revolution,"

The Polish-Soviet War

Main article: Polish-Soviet War

The frontiers between Poland, which had established a shaky independent government following World War I, and the former Tsarist empire, were rendered chaotic by the repercussions of the Russian revolutions and civil war. Poland's Jzef Pilsudski envisioned a new federation (Miedzymorze), forming a Polish-led East European bloc to form a bulwark against Russia and Germany, while the RSFSR attempted to carry the revolution westward. When Pilsudski carried out a military thrust into Ukraine in 1920, he was met by a Red Army offensive that drove into Polish territory almost to Warsaw. However, Pilsudski halted the Soviet advance at the battle of Warsaw and resumed the offensive. The "Peace of Riga" signed in early 1921 that split the territory of Belarus and Ukraine between Poland and Soviet Russia.

Creation of the USSR

On December 29 1922 the RSFSR, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, and the Byelorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics signed a Treaty of Creation of the USSR forming the Soviet Union by a conference of the representatives, which was confirmed on December 30, 1922 by the 1st Congress of Soviets of the USSR.

The New Economic Policy

Main article: New Economic Policy

During the Civil War (1917-1921), Lenin adopted War Communism, which entailed the breakup of the landed estates and the forcible seizure of agricultural surpluses. The Kronstadt rebellion signaled the growing unpopularity of War Communism in the countryside: in March 1921, at the end of the civil war, disillusioned sailors, primarily peasants who initially had been stalwart supporters of the Bolsheviks under the provisional government, revolted against the new regime. Although the Red Army, commanded by Leon Trotsky, crossed the ice over the frozen Baltic Sea and quickly crushed the rebellion, this sign of growing discontent forced the party under Lenin's direction to foster a broad alliance of the working class and peasantry (eighty percent of the population), although left factions of the party favored a regime solely representative of the interests of the revolutionary proletariat. Lenin consequently ended War Communism and instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), in which the state allowed a limited market to exist. Small private businesses were allowed and restrictions on political activity were somewhat eased.

However, the key shift involved the status of agricultural surpluses. Rather than simply requisitioning agricultural surpluses in order to feed the urban population (the hallmark of War Communism), the NEP allowed peasants to sell their surplus yields on the open market. Meanwhile, the state still maintained state ownership of what Lenin deemed the "commanding heights" of the economy: heavy industry such as the coal, iron, and metallurgical sectors along with the banking and financial components of the economy. The "commanding heights" employed the majority of the workers in the urban areas. Under the NEP, such state industries would be largely free to make their own economic decisions.

The Soviet NEP (1921-29) was essentially a period of "market socialism" similar to the Dengist reforms in Communist China after 1978 in that both foresaw a role for private entrepreneurs and limited markets based on trade and pricing rather than fully centralized planning. As an interesting aside, during the first meeting in the early 1980s between Deng Xiaoping and Armand Hammer, a U.S. industrialist and prominent investor in Lenin's Soviet Union, Deng pressed Hammer for as much information on the NEP as possible.

During the NEP period, agricultural yields not only recovered to the levels attained before the Bolshevik Revolution, but greatly improved. The break-up of the quasi-feudal landed estates of the Tsarist-era countryside gave peasants their greatest incentives ever to maximize production. Now able to sell their surpluses on the open market, peasant spending gave a boost to the manufacturing sectors in the urban areas. As a result of the NEP, and the breakup of the landed estates while the Communist Party was consolidating power between 1917-1921, the Soviet Union became the world's greatest producer of grain.

Agriculture, however, would recover from civil war more rapidly than heavy industry. Factories, badly damaged by civil war and capital depreciation, were far less productive. In addition, the organization of enterprises into trusts or syndicates representing one particular sector of the economy would contribute to imbalances between supply and demand associated with monopolies. Due to the lack of incentives brought by market competition, and with little or no state controls on their internal policies, trusts were likely to sell their products at higher prices.

The slower recovery of industry would pose some problems for the peasantry, who accounted for eighty percent of the population. Since agriculture was relatively more productive, relative price indexes for industrial goods were higher than those of agricultural products. The outcome of this was what Trotsky deemed the "scissors crisis" because of the scissors-like shape of the graph representing shifts in relative price indexes. Simply put, peasants would have to produce more grain to purchase consumer goods from the urban areas. As a result, some peasants withheld agricultural surpluses in anticipation of higher prices, thus contributing to mild shortages in the cities. This, of course, is speculative market behavior, which was frowned upon by many Communist Party cadres, who considered it to be exploitative of urban consumers.

In the meantime the party took constructive steps to offset the crisis, attempting to bring down prices for manufactured goods and stabilize inflation, by imposing price controls on key industrial goods and breaking-up the trusts in order to increase economic efficiency.

The death of Lenin and the fate of the NEP

Party factionalization

Since succession mechanisms had not been established in party procedure, Lenin's death in 1924 heightened fierce factional fighting in the party over the fate of the NEP.

The Left Opposition within the Party, led by Trotsky, had long opposed the NEP for various ideological and practical reasons (the market system was beginning to create negative results typical of capitalism: inflation, unemployment, and the rise of a wealthy class). They used the "Scissors Crisis" to gain ideological capital over the moderate wing of the party (supportive of the NEP), led by Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. Initially, Stalin united with the Bukharinite faction of the Party to defeat Trotsky. But he eventually turned against the moderates who favored the NEP once Trotsky was exiled, in order to consolidate his control over the party and the state.

Stalin's consolidation of power

For more on the succession battle within the party, see Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In order to devise a pretext for abandoning the NEP, Stalin moved to exploit the problems associated with the "Scissors Crisis." Moreover, he pointed to the rise of the Nepmen (small retailers profiting off the growing urban-rural trade) and Kulaks (the emerging upper-middle class of wealthy peasant farmers) under the NEP as new capitalistic classes. He also brought up the arguments used by his enemies in the Left Opposition, such as inflation and unemployment, as the evils of the market.

Stalin shifted from side to side and eventually rid the party of both factions by forging a path of development that integrated the ideas of both camps. He adapted the "leftist" stance that opposed market agriculture because they wanted to produce the material basis for communism quickly, through a planned economy, despite unfavorable conditions. But he also endorsed the "rightist" faction's notion of "socialism in one country" which favored concentrating on internal development rather than exporting revolution. In that respect, he also favored extensive exports of grain and raw materials; the revenues from foreign exchange allowing the Soviet Union to import foreign technologies needed for industrial development.

Stalin first formed a troika with Zinoviev and Kamenev against Trotsky. Then, with Trotsky marginalised and removed from his position as People's Commissar of War and a member of the Politburo, Stalin joined with Bukharin against his former allies. Then, finally, he turned against the NEP, forcing Bukharin, its main proponent, into opposition and leaving Stalin as the dominant figure in the party and the country.

By then, Stalin had a reputation as a revolutionary, "devoted Bolshevik," and Lenin's "right hand man." However, in reality Lenin had distrusted Stalin, and before his death had written a letter, often referred to as Lenin's Testament, warning against giving power to Stalin, calling him "rude," "intolerant," and "capricious." Stalin and his supporters had covered this letter up. Parts of it were leaked to members of the party but the full contents were not published until after Stalin's death in 1953.



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