In this video, I will provide a few highlights of Russian and Soviet history, focusing on events with long-lasting impact on both Russia and the other countries of Eurasia.
Before getting into Soviet history, I wanted to mention two key legacies bestowed on the Soviet Union by the Russian Empire: a multi-ethnic population and a tradition of centralized rule. The Russian Empire expanded from its heartland centered on Moscow and St. Petersburg to Siberia in the 1600s, then expanded its European holdings under Peter and Catherine the Great in the 1700s. Most of Central Asia and the Caucasus was added to the empire in the 1800s.
The result of this expansion can be shown in the 1897 census of the Russian empire – the only one ever taken. That census found that only 45% of the population were Russian speakers, with Ukrainians and Muslims of various ethnicities forming sizable minorities (17% and 11% respectively).
Despite the dramatic break of the Russian revolution, many political traditions we see as typically “Soviet” – from the use of Siberian exile and the forced relocation of populations to the idea of “revolution from above” – date to tsarist times and attempts by tsars like Peter to maintain political control while modernizing a predominantly agricultural economy.
The Russian Revolution was complicated. The reason we refer to the “October revolution” of 1917 is that there were two revolutions that year. The February revolution – a series of mass protests – led to the abdication of the tsar. Factional politics ensued, with Lenin returning from exile and eventually leading his faction – the Bolsheviks – to power when they seized the institutions of government in St. Petersburg in November 1917.
One of the first tasks of the government was to get out of WWI, which it did to its disadvantage. The treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 gave the Central Powers (aka Germany and Austria-Hungary) control over the Baltics and territory from what is today Belarus and Ukraine.
Much of what came to define the politics of the Soviet Union was present at the beginning, including state control of the media and, after an assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, the “Red Terror,” which was a series of mass arrests and executions designed to consolidate political control. Economically, though, Lenin’s rule was defined by the “New Economic Policy,” which combined limited privatization and free trade in an attempt to help recover from WWI and the civil war that followed the revolution.
The system of central planning that we associate with Soviet economics came into being in the 1930s. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union forcibly collectivized 90% of its agricultural land and began to move its economy to an industrial base. This in part led to the great famine of 1932-33, which affected much of the Soviet Union but particularly Ukraine and Kazakhstan. An estimated 4-5 million people died in Ukraine and 2 million in Kazakhstan (that was 40% of Kazakhstan’s population).
Stalin also exerted totalitarian control over the political system. During the Great Purge, he used arbitrary arrest and execution to consolidate his personal power to an extent never seen before. For example, of the 2000-odd delegates in the 1934 Communist Party Congress, half had been arrested by 1939 while 100 of the 150 Central Committee members had been subjected to show trials and executed. Some estimate that 5% of the overall population of the Soviet Union was arrested in 1937-38. After the purge, he reinforced his rule through a cult of personality.
WWII was horrible for the Soviet Union. Around 25 million Soviet citizens died in the war – 2/3 of all military deaths and around 40% of all civilian deaths. Remembering WWII on Victory Day (May 9) has become an important patriotic holiday across Eurasia. It is marked both by military parades and civilian marches, where families carry photos of their relatives who fought in WWII to remember them.
The end of WWII gave us the Cold War and the final borders of the Soviet Union, which reclaimed the Baltic states and portions of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.
Nikolai Khrushchev came to power after Stalin’s death and liberalized the political and economic spheres somewhat. Aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev is probably most famous for delivering the Secret Speech, which criticized Stalin’s reign of terror and began a period of rehabilitation of political prisoners and eased censorship. He also sought to return to a more “Leninist” economic model. He also, FYI, made Crimea a part of the Ukrainian SSR – more on this later.
Khrushchev was fond of fiery speeches, but never consolidated his power and was eventually pushed out of power by a triumvirate led by Leonid Brezhnev. The next 20 years were marked by stable politics and economic stagnation.
Two conservative premiers followed Brezhnev before Mikhail Gorbachev was named First Secretary of the Central Committee in 1985. We’ll talk more about his reforms next week, but he pursued simultaneous political reforms (glasnost) and economic reforms (perestroika) that ultimately led to the demise of communism and the Soviet Union.
The legacies of the Soviet state are mixed. The legacy of state ownership of the means of production and authoritarian rule was problematic, as was the creation of ethnic-based republics that didn’t perfectly match ethnic populations. But the Soviet Union did experience significant economic growth and development. It does appear that Soviet economic growth outstripped European growth in the 1950s and while they never closed the gap with the West, quality of life did improve over time. And the Soviet economy became a fundamentally industrial one, finally moving beyond their agricultural base. The Soviet Union achieved military parity with the United States for a time and made significant scientific achievements in the space race. Women’s rights advanced more quickly than they did in the West – although this was not an enduring trend. The Soviet Union also left a legacy of relative economic equality. While inequality existed in the Soviet Union and is on the rise in Eurasia today, levels of inequality are on average lower than other regions of the world.