5.9 The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Cold War

At the height of Soviet power in the late 1960s, one-third of the world’s population lived in communist countries. The great communist powers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China loomed over a vast swath of Eurasia, while smaller countries like Vietnam and North Korea occasionally erupted in revolution. Communist revolutions also broke out in Latin America, succeeding only in Cuba, and even non-aligned countries like India were often as sympathetic to the “Soviet Bloc” (i.e. countries allied with or under the control of the USSR) as they were to the United States and the other major capitalist countries. Even in the capitalist countries of the West, intellectuals, students, and workers often sympathized with communism as well, despite the apparent mismatch between the Utopian promise of Marxism and the reality of a police state in the USSR.

This global split between communist and capitalist was only possible because of the vast might of the USSR. The threat of world war terrified every sane person on the planet, but beyond that, the threat of conventional military intervention by the Soviets was almost as threatening. The USSR controlled the governments of every Eastern European country, with the strange exception of Yugoslavia, and it had considerable influence almost everywhere in the globe. Its factories churned out military hardware at an enormous rate, even as its scientists proved themselves the equal of anything the West could produce and its athletes often defeated all challengers at the Olympics every four years.

Behind the façade of strength and power, however, the USSR was one of the strangest historical paradoxes of all time. It was a country whose official political ideology, Marxism-Leninism, proclaimed an end to class warfare and the stated goal of achieving true communism, a worker’s state in which everyone enjoyed the fruits of science and industrialism and no one was left behind. In reality, the nation was in a perpetual state of economic stagnation, with its citizens enjoying dramatically lower standards of living than their contemporaries in the West and workers toiling harder and for fewer benefits than did many in the West. Marxism-Leninism was officially hostile to imperialism, and yet the USSR controlled the governments of most of its “allied” nations after World War II. Of all forms of government, communism was supposed to be the most genuinely democratic, responding to the will of the people instead of false representatives bought with the money of the rich, and yet decision-making rested in the hands of high-level member of the Communist Party. Finally, Marxism-Leninism was officially a political program of peace, yet nothing received so much attention or priority in the USSR as did military power.


The Bolshevik Party rose to power against the backdrop of the anarchy surrounding Russia’s disastrous military position in the latter part of World War I. Once the Bolsheviks were firmly in power by 1922, they embarked on a fascinating and almost unprecedented series of political and social experiments. After all, no country in the history of the planet to that point had undergone a successful communist revolution, so there was no precedent for how a socialist society was supposed to be organized. Facing a terrible economic crisis from the years of war, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin launched the New Economic Policy, which allowed limited market exchange of goods and foodstuffs, even as the state supported a renaissance in the arts and literature. For a few years, not only did standards of living rise, but there was a flowering of innovative creative energy as artists and intellectuals explored what it might mean to live in the country of the future.

Lenin had driven the revolution forward, and he oversaw the social and economic experiments that followed the war. He died in 1924, however, inaugurating a struggle within the Bolshevik leadership to succeed him. In 1927, Joseph Stalin politically defeated his enemies (most importantly the Bolshevik leaders Trotsky and Zinoviev, two of Lenin’s closest allies before his death) and consolidated total control of the state. Officially, Stalin was the “Premier” of the Communist Party – “the first” – overseeing its central decision-making committee, the Politburo. Unofficially, Stalin’s control of the top level of the party translated into pure autocracy, not hugely dissimilar in nature to the power of the Tsar before the revolution.

Before his rise to power, Stalin’s position in the Russian Communist Party had been relatively innocuous; he was its secretary, a position of little direct power but enormous potential influence. In order to achieve appointment to a given position within the party, other members of the party had to go through Stalin. He shrewdly used this fact to cement political relationships and influence, so that by Lenin’s death he was well-positioned to make a power grab himself. Lenin suffered a series of strokes in the early 1920s, giving Stalin the opportunity to build up his power base without opposition, even though Lenin himself was worried about Stalin’s dictatorial tendencies.

Stalin is a much more enigmatic figure than Hitler, to whom he is often compared thanks to their respective legacies of mass murder. Stalin did not write manifestos about his beliefs, nor did he leave behind many documents or letters that might help historians reconstruct his motivations. Biographers have had to rely on the accounts of people who knew Stalin rather than having access to troves of personal records. He also changed his mind frequently and did not stick to consistent patterns of behavior or decision-making, making it difficult to pin down his essential beliefs or goals. His only overarching personality trait was tremendous paranoia: he almost always felt himself surrounded by potential traitors and enemies. He once informed his underlings that “every communist is a possible hidden enemy. And because it is not easy to recognize the enemy, the goal is achieved even if only five percent of those killed are truly enemies.”3

Photograph of "Josef Stalin." c. 1942.
“Josef Stalin.” c. 1942. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. June 9, 2008.

Stalin’s paranoia was reflected in his ruthless policies. The 1930s in the USSR were a terrible time, representing the decade of Stalin’s “purges.” Stalin forced through massive change to the Soviet economy and society while periodically killing off anyone he could imagine being a threat or enemy. Communism was “supposed” to spread around the world after an initial revolutionary outburst, but instead it was stuck in one place, “socialism in one country,” in Stalin’s words, which he believed necessitated a massive industrial buildup. The only thing that benefited from Stalin’s oversight was the military, which grew dramatically and, for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, achieved a level of parity with the West.

Of his many destructive policies, Stalin is perhaps best remembered for the purges. “Purging” consisted of rounding up and executing members of the Communist Party, the army, or even the police forces themselves. Normally, Stalin’s agents would use torture to force the hapless victims to confess to outlandish charges like conspiring with Germany or (later) the United States to bring down the Soviet Union from within. His secret police force, the NKVD (its Russian acronym – it was later changed to KGB) often following direct orders from Stalin himself, eliminated uncounted thousands more. Thus, even at the highest levels of power in the USSR, no one was safe from Stalin’s paranoia.

Stalin relied on the NKVD to carry out the purges, targeting better-off peasants known as kulaks, then the Old Bolsheviks (who had taken part in the revolution itself), army officers, middle-ranking Communist Party members, and finally, tens of thousands of regular citizens caught in the grotesque machinery of accusation and punishment that plagued the country in the second half of the 1930s. Every purge was designed to, at least in part, purge the past purgers, blaming them for “excesses” that had killed innocent people – this of course simply led to the murder of more innocents. So many people disappeared that most Soviets came to believe that the NKVD was everywhere, that everyone was an informer, and that everything was bugged. In addition to outright murder, thousands more were imprisoned in labor camps known as gulags, almost all of which were located in the frigid northern regions of Siberia. The total number of victims is estimated conservatively at 700,000, which does not count the hundreds of thousands deported to the gulags.

While emblematic of Stalin’s tyranny, the purges did not result in nearly as many deaths as did his other policies. Earlier in the 1930s, Stalin imposed the collectivization of agriculture, forcing millions of peasants to abandon their farms and villages and move to gigantic new “collective” farms. Collectivization required peasants to meet state-imposed quotas, which were immediately set at unachievable levels. In the winter of 1932 – 1933 in particular, peasants across the USSR (and especially in the Ukraine) starved to death – probably around 3 million people died of starvation, and the collectivization process resulted in another 6 – 10 million deaths including those who were executed for resisting. Thus, the total deaths were probably over 10 million. Despite falling abysmally short of its production goals, where collectivization “succeeded” was in destroying the age-old bonds between the peasants and the land; in the future, Soviet peasants would be a resentful and inefficient class of farm workers rather than peasants rooted in the land who identified with traditional values.

Acknowledging the vast gap between the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity and that of the West, Stalin also introduced the Five-Year Plans, in which sky-high production quotas were set for heavy industry. While those quotas were never actually met and thousands died in the frenzy of industrial buildup, the Five-Year Plans were (perhaps surprisingly) successful as a whole in achieving near parity with the western powers in terms of industrial capacity. One of the only aspects of communist ideology that was reflected in reality in the USSR was that industrial workers, while obliged to toil in conditions far from a “worker’s paradise,” were at least spared the worst depredations of the purges and did not face outright starvation.

Guminer, Yakov. "Five Year Plan Propaganda Poster." 1931.
Guminer, Yakov. “Five Year Plan Propaganda Poster.” 1931. Wikimedia. January 11, 2017.

Stalin’s overriding goals were twofold: secure allies abroad against the growing power of Germany (and, to an extent, Japan), and drag the USSR into the industrial age. Despite the turmoil of his murderous campaigns, he succeeded on both counts. While remaining deeply hostile to the western powers, the Soviet state under Stalin did end the Soviet Union’s pariah status, receiving official diplomatic recognition from the US and France in 1933. The Five-Year Plans were part of the USSR’s new “command economy,” one in which every conceivable commodity was produced based on quotas imposed within the vast party bureaucracy in Moscow. That approach to economic planning was disastrous in the long run, but in the short run it did succeed in industrializing the USSR. On the eve of World War II, the USSR had become the third-largest industrial power in the world after the United States and Germany, and was counted among the major political powers of not just Europe, but the world.

World War II and its Aftermath

Thus, at a terrible human cost, Stalin’s policies did transform the USSR into a semblance of a modern state by the eve of World War II – “just in time” as it turned out. As noted previously, the USSR bore the brunt of the German war machine. More than 25 million Soviets died on the Eastern Front, soldiers and civilians alike, and it was through the incredible sacrifice of the Soviet people that the German army was finally broken and driven back. In the aftermath of World War II, Stalin’s power was unshakable. During the war, he had played the role of the powerful, protective “uncle” of the Soviet people, and after victory was achieved he enjoyed a period of genuine popularity, especially as returning Soviet soldiers were given good positions in the bureaucracy.

During the war, the one thing that tied Britain, the US, and the USSR together in alliance was their shared enemy, Germany, not shared perspectives on a desirable postwar outcome besides German defeat. The war required them to work together, however, and that included making compromises that would in some cases haunt the postwar period. In 1943, after the tide of the war had shifted against Germany but well before the end was in sight, the “Big Three” leaders of Britain, the US, and the USSR met in Tehran to discuss the war and what would be done afterwards. There, Stalin insisted that the territory seized from Poland by the USSR in 1939 would remain in Soviet hands: Poland would thus shrink enormously. Roosevelt and Churchill, well aware of the critical role then being played by Soviet troops, were not in a position to insist otherwise.

US Signal Corps photographer. "The Big Three at Tehran." November 28, 1943.
US Signal Corps photographer. “The Big Three at Tehran.” November 28, 1943. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. March 30, 2019.

In 1944, British and American economists met in New Hampshire and devised the basis of the postwar economic order, the Bretton Woods Agreement. That agreement fixed the dollar as the monetary reserve of the western world, created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to stabilize the international economy, and fixed currency exchange rates. This plan initially included the Soviets, who would thus be eligible for financial support in addressing the devastation wrought by Germany (as noted below, however, the USSR pulled out in 1948, thereby driving home an economic as well as political divide between East and West).

In January of 1945, when the end was finally in sight and Soviet forces already occupied most of Eastern Europe, Stalin stipulated that the postwar governments in Eastern Europe would need to be “friendly” to the Soviet Union, an ambiguous term whose practical meaning suggested dominance by communist parties. Churchill and Roosevelt agreed on the condition that Stalin promised to support free elections, something he never intended to allow. The leaders also agreed to divide Germany into different zones until such time as they could determine how to allow the Germans, purged of Nazism they hoped, to have self-government again.

In part, Britain and the US gave in to Soviet demands because of the incredible sacrifice of the Soviet people in the war; 90% of the casualties on the Allied side up to 1944 were Soviets (mostly Russians, but including millions of Ukrainians and Central Asians as well). Until 1945, Roosevelt assumed the United States would need Soviet help in bringing about the final defeat of Japan as well. Each side tried to avoid antagonizing the other, especially while the war continued, even though they privately recognized that there were incompatible visions of postwar European reorganization at stake.

Despite those incompatible ideas, many political leaders (and regular citizens) across the globe hoped that the postwar order would be fundamentally different than its prewar analog. Fundamental to that vision was the creation of an official international body whose purpose was the prevention of armed conflict and the pursuit of peaceful and productive policies around the world: the United Nations. The UN was founded in 1945 as a body of arbitration and, when necessary, enforcement of internationally-agreed upon policies, seeing its first major role in the Nuremberg Trials of the surviving Nazi leaders. Its Security Council was authorized to deploy military force when necessary, but its very reason to be was to prevent war from being used as a tool of political aggrandizement. The Soviet Union joined the western powers as a founding member of the UN, and there were at least some hopes that it would oversaw a just and equitable postwar political order.


  1. Josef Stalin, as quoted in Paul R. Gregory, Terror By Quota: State Security From Lenin to Stalin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 196. image


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book