I am the man who arranges the blocks that descend upon me from up above...
The history of the world's first Communist nation, in simple terms, with humour where appropriate.
Whites versus Reds - Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Civil War
After Red October overthrew the government that overthrew Tsarist Russia
, the Bolsheviks ended up being one of the major players in the world's largest country. They also ended up with the continuing problem of World War One
. They concluded a peace treaty with Imperial Germany, in the process giving up control of Finland
, which became German puppets and after Germany's defeat, which either became independent or were re-taken by the Reds. After concluding the war on highly unfavourable terms, there was also another problem: not everyone was happy with the new government. This was first demonstrated in the Constituent Assembly elections, where the Bolsheviks were defeated. The Assembly held one meeting before being dissolved.
This also led to a Civil War, in which the Allied powers, including the Americans joined in. It was mainly "Red" versus "White" and very nasty, with massacres everywhere; the one that shows up most often in fiction is the murder of the entire Romanov royal family, although that was an event of minor importance at the time. The civil war was hardly two-sided, as the nation was filled with dozens of small nationalist factions fighting for independence and a confusing rainbow of smaller armies such as the Blacks (anarchists), Blues (peasants rebelling against the Reds), and Greens (desperate peasants fighting everybody just for survival). If you want a glimpse of what happened at the time, Doctor Zhivago
is best at describing the whole situation. Western powers like the US, Britain and France sent some troops to help the Whites (because they were fighting against communism, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend
). This mostly served to make the Whites look like puppets of foreign capitalists and imperialists, which didn't help with their street cred. Thanks to Trotsky and the state seizing control of the entire Soviet economy to feed the Red Army (which became highly organised and disciplined —the commissars shooting people certainly helped), the Bolsheviks won. The Whites were disunited
, rather disorganised, and lacking an industrial base - not to mention that they had no idea what to do with Russia if they won, since they were a wide alliance of anti-communist forces (ranging from non-Bolshevik socialists over moderate liberals to ultra-nationalists who wanted to kill lots of Jews
The price was very high. Fifteen million Russians were dead, mostly via disease, famine and massacres (including White pogroms against the Jewish population). Another million, White supporters and much of the skilled class of Russia, left the country permanently to appear in many a Genteel Interbellum Setting
work of fiction. What was left of Imperial Russia's attempts at industrialization lay in shambles and agricultural production wasn't much better off either. As part of the whole "worker-socialist state" thing, all remaining traces and links to the old monarchy were purged as well.
On 29 December 1922, a new union of republics (Russia with Belarus, the Communist Ukrainian government, and the states of Central Asia) was created. Its name in Russian was Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. The rest of the world could come to know of it as the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or otherwise the Soviet Union. To help get things going, Lenin implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP). This kept industry and manufacturing (or what was left of it after the war) under state ownership, but allowed some private ownership of agricultural land, and encouraged farmers to sell surpluses. This increased agricultural production greatly, but there were also problems with consumer goods prices and something called "the Scissors Crisis", owing to the dilapidated state of Russia's industry.
In March 1923, Lenin suffered his third stroke and was left bedridden and speechless for the short remainder of his life. In 1924, he died and was buried in Red Square. Well, not buried. He was built his own creepy dark mausoleum, where his embalmed dead body is still visible to the public.
The Paranoid Priest Candidate - Josef Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was born in Gori, Georgia on 18 December 1878. He had an unpleasant childhood.
His father beat him.
When he went to school and later a seminary in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (seminary was one of a few ways to get a free education in Russia at the time), he was forced to use Russian and mocked for his Georgian accent. Joseph became a Georgian nationalist and a poet. He read a Georgian novel called The Patricide
, which starred a Robin Hood
style character called Koba. He adopted it as his first revolutionary pseudonym.
In 1899, he quit the seminary and became a revolutionary. The seminary says he failed to show up for his final exams. Official Soviet history says he was expelled for reading revolutionary literature. What really happened is up to your imagination.
After running as a criminal and bank robber, the-man-formerly-known-as-Dzhuga-later-Koba-but-now-Stalin ended up as one of the editors of Pravda (Da, pravda), a news sheet full of revolutionary truthiness that is still in much-reduced existence today. His role in the Red October Revolution was pretty minor, no matter how much he tried to puff it up later. Stalin ended up as General Secretary of the Bolsheviks. Perceived as a unimportant position (he was dubbed "Comrade Card-Index"), it actually allowed him to pack the party with his own supporters.
The big argument among the Commies was between "World Revolution" (promote revolution in other countries, particularly the more industrialized countries, because socialism and communism cannot be built in a single agricultural country like the 1920s USSR) or "Socialism in one country" (build up the USSR and put Soviet interests first, because socialism and communism can
be built in a single agricultural country and thus be a model for other revolutionaries). Stalin took the latter stance, Trotsky the former.
Before Lenin had become incapacitated, he dictated a Testament. While critical of the other senior Commies, its message to the party was very clear: get Stalin out, now. Some say Lenin thought he'd get better and criticized everyone to keep his leading role. Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev buried the Testament. Stalin pretended to be on the right and kicked out those who could stop him on the left (Kamenev and Zinoviev), then switched sides and did the same with those on the right (Bukarin and Rykov). Trotsky, who may well have been tricked by Stalin into missing Lenin's funeral, was eventually kicked out of the USSR in 1929. He eventually headed to Mexico, where The Stranglers now tell of how "he got an ice pick, that made his ears burn"
. Though it was actually an ice axe
, he ended up just as dead on account of it being embedded into his brain.
With complete control of the party, Stalin abandoned the NEP and started two policies to turn the USSR into a great power. These were industrialisation and collectivisation.
"Fifty Years In Ten" - Industrialisation
To kickstart the Soviet economy, both industrial and agricultural, Stalin in 1928 started the first Piatiletka- Five-Year Plan (these would in fact be continued until the collapse of the USSR). In 1931, he stated that "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us". As events would go on to prove thirteen years later, he was right on the money about that.
Massive new industrial facilities were set up, such as the city of Magnitogorsk, where John Scott went Behind The Urals. Though it didn't make much sense at the time, the whole behind the Urals thing was done intentionally and would be very important later on. Oil, iron and coal mining operations were ramped up, as were steel production and electricity generation efforts. Ambitious production targets were set up that required an increase of 250% over current production rates.
In any enterprise, there's always a bit of minor account fiddling, while the more criminally-inclined may resort to cooking the books. What the Soviet people did in response to production targets amounted to throwing the books into the Magnitogorsk blast furnace and using the ashes to fill out the quota. Failure to meet production targets could mean sacking at best, a trip to The Gulag
or at worst, a bullet in the back of the head. As a result, everyone exaggerated their manufacturing performance and produced lots of very shoddy goods. While this was a bit of a problem early on, this sort of practice would become disastrous many years down the line.
Nevertheless, industrialization was generally successful. Though few production targets were ever truly reached, productivity was much improved and the state of the economy was certainly better than it had been for years. The First Plan was declared finished early, though the Third would be terminated early by the start of the Great Patriotic War.
Smert Kulak! Collectivisation
The other part of the Five-Year Plans was collectivisation. All that building of factories and machines that went along with industrialisation had to be financed somehow. Most of the USSR's population consisted of peasants, so perhaps they could be persuaded to join large collective farms, work more efficiently and give up their surpluses (instead of selling them for something in return) - all for the rapid development of the motherland, of course. However, it turned out this wasn't the most popular of ideas. So Stalin decided to be a little more persuasive, and take land from the peasants by force. Lots of force.
In the eyes of the CPSU there were four types of peasants:
- bednyaks, poor peasants
- seredniaks, mid-income peasants
- kulaks, rich land-owning peasants. The term was in use pre-Red October for independent farmers who hired labour and had large farms. It quickly become derogatory —the term literally means "tight-fisted".
- batraks, seasonal landless workers.
It was decided that only the first and the fourth were true allies of the proletariat. The second were unreliable. The third were considered "class enemies", which was a very bad designation to have in the USSR. Kulak became a term that was applied to a whole lot of people, often for purposes of revenge - naturally, some local peasants didn't hesitate before declaring their neighbours kulaks, no matter how rich they were. When the Soviets tried to take their land, many of the "kulaks" proceeded to destroy their tools, kill their livestock and consume their produce. That caused a massive famine and the Soviet livestock population would not recover until after World War II
Many people were either shot, sent to The Gulag
or deported internally. Precisely how many people died as a result of "dekulakisation" and the resulting famine is subject to historical debate
—the number could be as low as 3.5 million or as high as 30 million. The problem is that it's not as if anyone signed death warrants or shot every single person that died; the majority of deaths were caused by the conditions that resulted from the famine. Nutrition disorders were not as well understood as they are now, and anyone who died of such illnesses or starvation would be put down as having died of natural causes. So estimating the number of victims requires estimating how many deaths by natural causes can be blamed on the policies of Stalin's government. Good luck with that...
The Midnight Knock - The Purges
To say Stalin was a bit paranoid is a bit like saying Mount Everest is a bit tall or that space is really big
. He became rather concerned about a man named Sergey Kirov, who was actually becoming more popular than him. On 1 December 1934, Kirov was heading to his office in Leningrad when he was shot in the back of the neck and killed. Whether Stalin was involved was never proven. Kirov was publicly mourned by Stalin and got a lot of things named after him, both factual (the city formerly known as Vyatka, both "Kirov" classes of cruisers) and fictional (a space station in 2010
and a type of heavily armored zeppelin bomber
Determined to deal with his enemies (real or imagined) and with Kirov's death as an excuse, Stalin first set up a bunch of show trials. Senior Bolsheviks like Bukarin, Kamenev and Zinoviev were subjected to the Vanya Fermer Confession Obtaining Procedure
, of the psychological sort and the stuff that leaves no marks i.e. sleep deprivation. If they didn't agree to confess to completely false (sometimes even impossible) charges and appear in a show trial, they got a bullet in the back of the head. If they acquiesced (as they often did to save their families), they were placed on "trial" in front of cameras, accompanied by foreign observers and with the footage broadcast around the world. Then they were shot or hanged.
Under the NKVD leadership of Nikolai Yezhov (known as "The Poisoned Dwarf" on account of his shortness and sadism), a series of events was implemented that has been variously called "The Great Terror", "The Great Purge" or "The Yezhovschina"Translation
. Whatever you call it, it was bloody. Soviet archives state that 681,692 were shot during 1937 and 1938 (which might be an understatement) and that 800,000 went to The Gulag
. Families informed on each other, often just for telling anti-Stalin jokes. "Ex-kulaks" and "kulak-helpers" (which pretty meant anyone the NKVD were inclined to purge) were arrested. Even children were manipulated into informing the nice strangers about whether or not their parents have said or done something that may be worth their attention. The people of the USSR lived in fear of a knock on their door at midnight, which would could mean a trip to The Gulag
The CPSU itself was purged. Of the 1,966 delegates to the 1934 Party Congress, 1,108 were arrested and nearly all ended up dead. By the time the Second World War came to the USSR, Stalin had killed just about every single member of the original Bolshevik party (with the notable exception of his foreign minister, Molotov). This had a serious impact on the state of the Soviet armed forces
, as almost the entire Soviet High Command ended up arrested or dead along with thousands of officers in between.
By 1938, Stalin and his cohorts realised they'd gone too far. They purged (read, shot) Yezhov along with many others of his ilk, and replaced him with Lavrentiy Beria, who may well have been a sexual sadist and multiple rapist. More on him later. The purges were toned down (with Yezhov being blamed for "excesses"), but repression continued.
Rewriting History - The Cult of Personality and the Art of Political Photoshopping
Stalin was, like many an autocrat both before and after him, eventually determined to clean up and promote his image. Verily he did, so much that he wanted to be seen as nothing less than a god-figure in the otherwise atheist Soviet Union.
To that end, he made sure that his face was seen all over the USSR and his name was known by all. Hundreds of things were named (or renamed) after him. Statues of him were all over the USSR. People "wrote" poems praising him as the best thing since, well... sliced bread wasn't really around in the USSR then, so let's just say "Pushkin". Paintings and other works of art were made to depict him as either strong and decisive, or paternal and wise.
There was a bit of a problem, though: Stalin didn't play that big a role in Red October. He wasn't even all that important of a leader back in the Bolshevik days or during the conflict with the Whites. As the Fourth Doctor
"The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering".
So the "facts" were altered. Other Bolshevik leaders were "erased" from history and removed, rather expertly, from photos. New textbooks were issued to schoolchildren. As his former cronies were still being purged as quickly as they fell out of favour, new pages were given for pupils to paste over. Conversely, he also had photos altered so that any particularly notable instance (such as a meeting with Lenin) would show him as being there when he really wasn't. Other photos that actually showed his face were sometimes retouched to show him in a more favourable light —for an example of what this entails, compare the famous image of Che Guevara
on a shirt to the original photograph.
Backroom Deals - Germany and the Soviet Union
Back in the Lenin-and-Trotsky days, the Soviets arranged secret military agreement with the Weimar Republic
of Germany. In a nutshell, the agreement called for the two to discreetly develop new weapons using Soviet facilities and German technical know-how. German troops were permitted to secretly train on Slavic soil, while Soviet officers and engineers were sent off to be educated in Teutonic military academies and factories.
It was a win-win situation: the Germans were allowed to keep up with current military trends in covert defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, while the Soviets benefited from the skills and expertise of the former industrial and military power. Although the agreement fell apart before Stalin took power, it laid the basis for further development and modernization of both armed forces. While Heinz Guderian was still formulating the Blitzkrieg
doctrine of mechanized warfare, Mikhail Tukhachevsky was actively pitching a similar proposal in the form of the deep battle
doctrine (and would ultimately end up being executed for his trouble).
Then in 1934, a little Austrian upstart named Adolf Hitler took centre stage. The Weimar Republic became the Third Reich, German rearmament intensified, and the Treaty of Versailles was publicly made null and void as German jackboots trod into the Rhineland, Austria, and most of Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet leadership wasn't all too thrilled at this turn of events, as the Nazis' rhetoric made it clear that the two wouldn't be bosom buddies. However, the USSR didn't get involved as they were a bit preoccupied by border clashes with Imperial Japan near the Mongolian border. It was probably around this time that Stalin probably began to realize that his purges might have removed too many competent military officers from their posts, and that there were a lot more wolves outside than there were in his house. Much like every other country at the time, the USSR wasn't really all that ready for war.
Stalin decided that he didn't want to get involved in Europe, at least not until he had his own house in order. An alliance with France and Great Britain was unattractive because they had isolated the USSR by not inviting them to the talks with Hitler over his demands on Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. Furthermore, in an imagined war between the USSR and Hitler, it was estimated the USSR would need about 300 divisions to safeguard their border with Germany, while the United Kingdom was prepared to offer only three or five divisions to the USSR if they were invaded. Additionally, USSR needed military access through Poland to deal with Germany, and Poles wisely didn't trust Russians and made France-Britain-Poland-USSR alliance impossible. This made Stalin more inclined to seek a diplomatic understanding with Nazi Germany.
Prior to the outbreak of World War II
, Stalin got his foreign minister Vyascheslav Molotov to sign a non-aggression pact with Joachim von Ribbentrop, his German counterpart. As per the terms of the pact, both countries would keep to their respective spheres of influence, which just happened to run adjacent through Poland. So when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st 1939, the Soviet Union followed up on the 17th by claiming the territory allotted to them. By that time, the Soviet Union managed to clean up the Japanese at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, and so were free to turn their attention back to Europe in earnest.
The USSR proceeded to annex what would later become the states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, all of which were formerly part of the Russian Empire. These states would then become buffer states against a potential invasion from the West, whether it came from Germany or some place else. Part of their plan to expand their defensive buffer involved taking control of some Finnish territory. After being rebuffed in negotiations, the Soviet high command decided to take want they wanted by force. Thinking that conquering a small country with almost no tanks or aircraft to speak of would be easy, they quickly made preparations for war with Finland.
On November 30 1939, the USSR invaded Finland under a flimsy pretense. A few weeks later, Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leadership quickly discovered that:
- The Finnish army was most definitely not a push-over: what they lacked in equipment was made up for by their training, leadership and dedication towards defending their homeland.
- General Winter does not only fight for Russia. The Finns knew their territory and climate far better than the Soviets did, and took full advantage of this knowledge to outmaneuver the Soviet military and choose their battles in circumstances most favourable to them.
- The Soviet armed forces were badly organized, poorly led, and completely unmotivated to fight under freezing cold conditions for a cause that they didn't fully understand or agree with.
Though the USSR eventually started gaining ground and managed to squeeze a favourable surrender out of Finland, it was a Pyrrhic victory
that cost them thousands of casualties and many losses in equipment. It put the military in even worse shape than before and dropped morale to new lows. The invasion provoked such widespread international condemnation that Britain and France even contemplated assembling an expeditionary force to assist the Finns. Simply put, the Winter War was a boneheaded move that diplomatically isolated the Soviet Union and was very much responsible for what happened next.
For the Rodina! The Great Patriotic War
A relationship between Communists and Nazis was never going to last, as Adolf Hitler
had stated in Mein Kampf
his intention to destroy the Soviet Union and his belief that as soon as they attacked "the whole rotten structure" (to actually quote Hitler) would collapse straight away. Soviet-German relations began to deteriorate as Stalin became increasingly anxious about expanding his sphere of influence in Turkey and Bulgaria, and finishing off Finland. At the same time however Stalin still felt that war could be avoided and Hitler placated with a series of commercial agreements which gave Nazi Germany access to vital Soviet resources. But in late 1940 Hitler officially decided to invade in late spring or early summer of 1941.
German preparations for invasion were enormous and impossible to hide; recon flights and violations of the Soviet-German border on the ground were frequent. Intelligence provided by the British and the Soviet Union's spies reported that an invasion was inevitable. One GRU agent by the name of Richard Sorge had managed to collect detailed information on the operation, right down to anticipating the exact date on which it was to occur.
However, Stalin ignored these warnings, due to a variety of reasons:
- First, he believed that Germany would not go to war without some sort of ultimatum, giving the Soviet Union several weeks to mobilize. He also felt that making preparations would unnecessarily antagonize them.
- Moreover, he suspected that the British were attempting to provoke a war by feeding him false information, despite being corroborated by Soviet intelligence.
- And finally, he completely dismissed the information he received from his own agents for no reason other than doubting that their reports could be so accurate.
Thus despite extensive mobilization in the western military districts, Soviet forces were ill-prepared for war. Many tanks and planes lacked fuel and were still in storage, or required extensive maintenance before they could be considered operational. The frontier raions lacked machine guns or artillery. To put the final nail in the coffin, frontier commanders were threatened with imprisonment and execution for even attempting basic defensive preparations.
On 22 June 1941, the Axis threat was proven in dramatic style when three and a half million soldiers went into action in "Operation Barbarossa". Within weeks the frontier military districts were overwhelmed and millions of Soviet soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. As they entered the western USSR, the locals, sick of Soviet oppression, welcomed them with open arms. The Nazis responded with bullets, nooses, or sent them to the concentration camps.
By July 9th Riga, Pskov, and Minsk had all been captured. But Soviet resistance was already stiffening. In the south a series of failed and uncoordinated counterattacks still managed to stall the Germans. In the center, despite losing millions more to encirclement, the Soviets succesfully pinned German forces down in a months worth of brutal fighting around Smolensk. Hitler decided that Moscow could not be taken immediately; instead, the grain and oil of the Ukraine would be seized first, and the bulging Soviet salient around Kiev eliminated. The resulting campaign led to millions more killed or captured on the Soviet side, but bought some time for the Red Army to reorganize.
The Soviet Union didn't expect to be attacked so soon. Even as reports came in of the invasion, Stalin refused to believe that the Germans would attack the Soviet Union before their business was concluded with the United Kingdom. When it became blatantly obvious that the reports were true, the Red Army fell back on the age-old tactic of "scorched earth": retreat and destroy anything the enemy can use as supplies or for transport. The other favourite tactic of the Reds with Rockets
was the commissar approach- "advance and you might die, run away and you definitely will, since I'll shoot you myself". This was also known as the "not a single step backward" policy. This is also used by Imperial Commissars in Warhammer 40,000
, who are directly inspired by them. During this time, Soviet propaganda slightly shifted to better appeal to its citizenry. The war was no longer about defending Socialism against the imperialist ambitions of Nazism, but rather about defending the Rodina - Russia.
The "behind the Urals" building came into handy here, since the USSR could continue with weapons production out of the range of the Luftwaffe, while Germany was having to deal with the USAAF and RAF. The Soviets also evacuated a great deal of their industrial base from European Russia when the Germans invaded. It went quite well and the new relocated industrial plants were soon churning out lots of material for the Soviet war effort; the fact that they'd been practicing for just this eventuality since the 1920s and were well-prepared when the time came was important. That's the thing about the Soviets; one thing they were good at was organizing massive physical movements of things.note
Moreover, Stalin finally started replacing his incompetent cronies with officers that he had previously condemned to the gulag. He also started listening to intelligence reports from the British and his own agencies, which allowed the military leadership to have some idea of what the Germans and their allies were planning. Richard Sorge's report that the Germans' Japanese allies would not attack the Soviet Union was particularly crucial: this allowed for the redeployment of thousands of combat-tested veterans and dozens of armoured units to spearhead an upcoming counterattack.
The Battles of Moscow, Rostov, and Tikhvin in the center, south, and north respectively resulted in crippling German defeat. The followup Soviet counteroffensives tore apart the front and left the Wehrmacht in disarray. But due to a variety of factors German was not defeated in the winter of 1941-1942 and survived, if barely, to fight another day. The Soviet Winter Counteroffensive, despite many initial successes, failed. STAVKA, the Soviet high command, refused to accept this and continued to batter German defenses along a broad front in early 1942. While these offensives drained German manpower they failed to achieve decisive results. Hitler, believing that the war could be ended by the seizure of oil fields in the Caucasus, ordered the south reinforced at the expense of the north and center, in preparation for a new summer offensive. This alone represented how quickly the Wehrmacht had declined; it could only launch an offensive on one front rather than three as in 1941. Stalin on the other hand believed at offensive would again be launched at Moscow, and reinforced the center at the expense of other fronts. meanwhile he only worsened the situation by launch a series of offensives at Kerch, Kharkov, and Lyuban, all of which ended in disaster.
The initial Gerrman advance was swift, reaching Voronezh and Rostov within a few weeks. Contrary to official Russian accounts the southern armies were annihilated in the fighting and failed to make an organized retreat. With these initial victories Army Group South divided itself into two forces; one would swing south of the Don to seize the oil fields, while the other would advance into the bend of the Don, to Stalingrad. In the end the Wehrmacht never had the strength or supplies to take either objective. Trying to take both only compounded the problem. The advance into the Don resulted in a massive meeting engagement as the Red Army's 5th, 4th, and 1st tank armies counterattacked. The ensuing battle damaged the 6th Army and left in understrength even before it's final push. By the time 6th and 4th Panzer Armies reached Stalingrad they were already exhausted and unprepared for the brutal urban war that followed. Leaving most of it's strength in the north to fend off Soviet counterattacks, 6th Army pushed into the city in a series of short leaps and bounds, with 4th Panzer Army assisting in the southern districts of the city. The Soviet high command fed Chuikov, the commander of the city's defense, just enough men, food, and ammunition to allow them to continue fighting. At the same time it launched diversionary attacks north of the city in order to test and weaken 6th Army. By mid November, despite seizing much of the city, the Germans were exhausted and unprepared for a massive Soviet counteroffensive.
However Stalingrad was not the only battle taking place. In the center Soviet and German forces struggled for months over the Rzhev salient. In the Caucasus German attempts to seize the oil fields were held back, due to Soviet resistance and poor German logistics. Around Voronezh constant Soviet counterattacks hammered the German 2nd army. By the time Stalingrad reached its climax German forces across the front were already weak, not even close to ready for the Red Army's main blows. STAVKA's plan for the 2nd winter counteroffensive had two parts. The first was Operation Uranus, a massive attack which would encircle most of 6th army around Stalingrad and set the stage for a series of followup attacks along the Don. The second was Operation Mars, an attack designed to collapse the Rzhev salient, destroy the German 9th Army, and then Army Group Center. The first attack was even more succesful than originally planned. The second failed utterly, with half a million losses. But only one victory was necessary.
Operation Uranus encircled the 6th Army inside the Stalingrad region, tearing apart the German southern front. Counterattacks were easily halted, and STVAKA began to expand it's objectives to not only include the reduction of the 6th Army, but the utter annihilation of all German forces in southern Russia. But, as in the First Winter Counteroffensive, it overestimated the strength and relative skill of Soviet forces. Despite mauling several more German armies, they failed to achieve encirclements on the same scale as the Stalingrad Offensive, and by March were rapidly losing momentum. Capitalizing on overextended Soviet forces, the Germans launched a masterful counteroffensive which thwarted Soviet plans to collapse the entire front line, and earned them a short respite.
Emphasis on 'short'; it wouldn't be long before the two sides fought one last massive engagement in the salient created by the ebb and flow of war- the 'Belorussian Balcony'. Determined to close it, the Germans gathered their strength and launched another great offensive into the heart of Soviet strength -coincidentally creating the largest battle in terms of armoured vehicles ever- but failed to achieve surprise or their adjective. It was the Wehrmacht's last gasp- all it could really do from then on was try slow down the Soviets as they rolled all the way back over their borders and into the Third Reich.
The Soviets liberated Auschwitz and captured Berlin. It also invaded Manchuria in the closing days of the Pacific War, occupying half of Korea, which became North Korea and later providing a base for Mao Zedong.
The Great Patriotic War is possibly the single bloodiest conflict in human history with about 5 million military deaths on the Axis side; 10.9 million military and 15,7 million civilian deaths on the Soviet side. That, as well as the utter devastation of much of the European USSR, was a major driving force in Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Belarus, for example, lost a quarter of its entire population in the fighting. If there is one thing to take away from the Great Patriotic War, it is: "Nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten."
The war can be divided into three periods based on the strategic situation; the first extending from June 22nd 1941 to November 18th 1941, the second until December 1943, and the third until the end of the war in May 1945. In the first period the Wehrmacht held the strategic initiative. In the second the Red Army began to seize the initiative, but continued to suffer numerous setbacks. In the third period the Red Army's advances were constant, interrupted only by short pauses to replenish men and material, and it's victory assured.
More Paranoia - Josef Stalin 1945-53
After the war, a whole bunch of Cossacks (usually estimated as 45,000-50,000), nearly all pro-Nazi, although that still doesn't justify it, were forcibly repatriated to the USSR, where most ended up dead in The Gulag
. This process was aided by the British and the Americans, who lied to them about granting them asylum and brought them into the waiting arms of the Russians. This became the villain
's motivating factor of revenge in Golden Eye
The Soviets facilitated their economic recovery and general repair by looting the territories they had occupied; in many cases, much of the industrial stuff that had come into their possession, a real windfall, were put on railroad cars and shipped east. They justified this policy with the argument that they were taking stuff from countries which had supported the Nazis - technically true, but then again the Nazis hadn't exactly given those countries much choice. Anyway, the Soviet policy worked, to some extent. They also got a lot of reparations; some were a little on the strange side. For example, they received some elevators from the Germans, which were used in some Stalinist apartment complexes in Moscow.
It goes without saying that Nazi Germany is well known for carrying out massacres and forced deportations of undesirables in its captured territories, although it's worth noting that the USSR also had more than a few such skeletons in its closet.
Sometime after the Soviet invasion of Poland, about 22,000 Polish prisoners from both military and civilian backgrounds disappeared in Russian hands. In 1943, local rumours of a massacre in the Katyn Forest eventually led the Nazis to dig up the remains as leverage to drive the Allies apart. The Soviets then retorted that it was done by the Nazis after the latter had overrun the territory during Operation Barbarossa. Not until after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of some Soviet-era archives that the Russian government admitted responsibility for the deed, and added that many other Polish victims were killed and buried in mass graves at other locations as well.
After the tide of war turned and the Germans were gradually forced out of Eastern Europe, the Soviets started cracking down on potential political opposition in their captured territories and put their own hand-picked leaders in charge. Atrocities among the civilian population intensified once Soviet forces entered German territory, although such occurrences were understandably the product of war and revenge for German incivilities, and tapered off once some sort of order got established.
A lot of other people were both kicked out of the new borders of Central and Eastern Europe, or were forcibly brought back. This particularly applied to the Soviet POWs and civilians forced to work for the Nazis. During the war, the Nazis put them in the death camps, where they weren't shot on the spot. 57% of Soviet POWs - that's 3.3 million
- ended up being killed by the Nazis. Auschwitz II (the one with the infamous railway arch) was first built to exterminate 100,000 Soviet prisoners. You'd have thought that after they'd been through the hell on earth that was the Holocaust
, the USSR would have at least treated them decently. Instead, the Soviets accused most of them of collaboration and sent about 42% (c.2 million) to The Gulag
. The German POWs ended up in forced labour camps, where many of them died. The last prisoners were not released until 1955.
Stalin proceeded to impose Soviet dominance over Central Europe and play a major part in the start of the Cold War
At home, the repression continued, as did the Cult of Personality, due to Stalin being perceived as the man who saved Russia. With the (again fabricated) "Doctors' Plot", Jewish doctors were alleged to be trying to poison the Soviet leadership. Things turned purgy, anti-Semitic and ugly. Before things could turn into another mass party purge (or even a full-blown pogrom against Jews), Stalin died. In the early morning hours, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and rendered him unable to speak, let alone get out of bed. Stalin's own strict orders to his guards not to disturb him led to him being denied medical treatment for over 12 hours before someone decided to check up on him.
Getting Shoe Slapped - Nikita Khrushchev/Khrushchyov/Kruschev/Krushchev
A collection of people were now running the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was to stop the purges and then purge Beria, who was frankly starting to annoy them. They also sent in the tanks to East Germany.
There was a power struggle and the guy we'll just call "Nikita" ended up in charge. One of the first things he did surprised the world.
It was 25 February 1956. The CPSU was meeting for its 20th Congress in a closed session. The "cult of personality" was being denounced, a veiled reference to Stalin. Then Nikita delivered what is known as "The Secret Speech". Four hours long, Stalin and his crimes were denounced by name. The speech apparently caused heart attacks and even suicides. Leaked to the Western press (possibly deliberately), the whole world got an idea of the extent of the brutality of the Stalinist regime.
Things were somewhat liberalised and in 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched. Shortly after that, Nikita started getting shoe slapped.
Shoe slap 1 - The UN General Assembly
Every year, the United Nations General Assembly has a meeting and all the world leaders make a speech. This was where Idi Amin compared the British Prime Minister to Hitler (he meant to say Churchill), Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush
" (an appellation he would later reuse for Barack Obama
), and where Dubya
in turn said that "the Cuban people will be ready for freedom" once Castro
kicks the bucket (which made the entire Cuban delegation walk out of the room in protest). In 1960, Nikita was there and being pretty disruptive. He interrupted the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
twice, both in highly unorthodox ways:
On 12 October, the debate was on a Soviet motion attacking colonialism. Lorenzo Sumulong, the Filipino delegate, accused the USSR of double standards because of its domination of Eastern Europe. Khrushchev interrupted the speech with a point of order and denounced Sumulong as a toady of the United States. Accounts are conflicted regarding the actual use of the shoe. The 'traditional' source is that Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on his desk. Another source is that the shoes he was wearing were new and he had taken one off for comfort which he later banged on the table. Another source states his shoe had accidentally been removed when his foot popped out of it and the shoe was returned to him later which is why it was on his desk. Some records indicate he did not bang his shoe on his desk at all, but instead banged his fist on the desk to such an extent someone thought he was using his shoe which was already on the desk, and he may have mimed banging it without actually doing it. At any rate, there is no photograph or video of this incident, eyewitness reports are varied at best, and the fact that there were photographers who were watching the scene seem to indicate he did not actually use the shoe to bang his desk. (If you have seen a photo of Khrushchev holding a shoe, it is a popular fake.)
("We will bury you" was at another time and is somewhat ambiguous, in both languages, since Nikita said it in Russian, as to how and when the capitalists were supposed to die; according to full transcript, he meant that the Soviet Union will simply outlive rotting capitalist states).
Shoe slap 2- Not A Way To Woo Virgin Lands
Seeing a bunch of unused farm land in Kazakhstan, with Borat
nowhere in sight, Nikita decided to move a load of ethnic Russians there and develop the land. This was pretty stupid and pretty disastrous, with the science behind it dodgier than a Del Boy
product. The removal of the plants led to nothing holding the topsoil down. A dust bowl resulted in much of the area becoming unsuitable to grow anything.
Other agricultural and administrative reforms did very little. On the bright side, Khruschev started a Union-wide housing project, with the aim of providing every
family in USSR with an apartment free of charge. He more or less did (to the extent that all the old, shaggy 5-stories apartment buildings are unanimously called "khruschoba", a portmanteau of "Khrushchev" and trushchoba
- "Khrushchev's slum"). The administrative reforms in the industrial and agricultural field were full of holes and excess bravado that led to numerous catastrophes, but the industry itself grew enormously.
Let's not forget the other ecological disasters/problems the USSR suffered: ever hear of the Aral Sea? Well, in 1960, by all accounts it was quite lovely and the second-largest big inland sea-thing in the world. The Soviets wanted to turn Central Asia into some kind of cotton nexus (see above) and cotton needs lots of irrigation... anyway, they ended up diverting most of the water flowing into the Aral Sea for irrigation purposes. This didn't even work too well; a lot of these irrigation works were of poor quality. There was a lot of leakage and erosion. Inadequate drainage damaged the soil. The Soviets even knew, to some extent, the fact that they were going to get rid of the Aral Sea, but they thought it was justified... the Aral Sea was "nature's folly" and would evaporate anyway, so they might as well do some of nature's work. This had predictable consequences: dropping water levels, a lot of formerly coastal towns now kilometers away from the water... a real ecological disaster. Like, all of that newly-exposed lake-bed...not much in the way of plants to anchor the soil or anything. So, dust-bowl type problems... that kind of thing.
Preceding Chernobyl, there was the Mayak disaster; an accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in 1957. Dreary and nasty, but funny in a sick way, especially the ethnically Tatar village that they didn't evacuate for the purpose of using the residents of the village as human guinea pigs in some sick experiment. This troper has seen pictures of monstrosities in formaldehyde at a clinic, there; well, quite a few such monstrosities, and there's no other way to describe them. Following the disaster, around 1957-58, they used teenage schoolchildren, generally without adequate protection from radiation or inhalation of nasty crap, as liquidators. Quite dramatic and nasty, needless to say.
Or how about Dzerzhinsk? Yes, named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and it still has that name. The one in Russia, of course, not the one in Poland or wherever. It was a center of the Soviet chemical industry and a Closed City
, because a lot of chemical-weapons related work was done there. Today, it's one of the most badly-polluted cities in the world and so toxic and nasty, it's funny to read about. And unlike many badly-polluted, toxic places, Dzerzhinsk looks just as nasty as it actually is. Much of the water there is contaminated with millions of times the maximum acceptable levels of various toxins, and there are big pond-type things full of toxic sludge.
Shoe slap 3 - Berlin
When the Berlin Wall
was set up, Nikita's reputation in the West wasn't improved as a result.
Shoe slap 4 - Cuba
The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis is located in History Of The Cold War
(not yet finished), but needless to say that the results were humiliating for Nikita because he was perceived to have got nothing out of it. Ironically, he did get something out of it: The Americans agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey. But part of the agreement was that they wouldn't tell anyone about it.
In 1964, the other Commies had had enough of the guy. Possibly just because he was planning to set fixed limits to the office terms of higher party officials. Nikita ended up being thrown out. In the words of the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities
, "If he had given any utterance to his thoughts, and they were prophetic, they would have been these: Before I came around, these things were settled with a bullet in the back of the head. I, and everyone after me will get to spend some time with their families on a nice Dacha
More Medals Than Results - Leonid Brezhnev
Brezhnev took over. No more of that pancy liberal stuff. No more talk about Stalin, good or bad. The Prague Spring was crushed, the Vietnam War
was covertly supported, Afghanistan was invaded and the economy went stagnant. He tried to set up his own cult of personality, awarding himself the Hero of the Soviet Union medal four times. It didn't work at all. The privilege of the upper echelons went silly (flying to Paris - the city in France - for a haircut for his daughter). He became increasingly ill, but no-one plotted against him.
Afghanistan deserves more mention. In order to prop up communist government there against American-supported rebels and a guy who'd couped the previous guy, was making himself unpopular via repression, the Reds with Rockets
invaded, put a puppet government in place. Then the whole thing turned into a quagmire and will be discussed in the History Of The Cold War
Under Brezhnev, the "Brezhnev Doctrine" was announced, which essentially said that if a Warsaw Pact state tried to break away, the tanks were going in.
The Soviet economy actually went so wrong that the quite agricultural country of the USSR was forced to import grain. From America
. But industry was doing just fine... especially industry of the military kind.
There were a *lot* of hilarious jokes about Leonid Brezhnev. He made a hobby of collecting them; he had several hard labor camps' worth, at least.
Despite all these faults, Brezhnev's time is still kindly remembered by older Russians as the time when life in Russia was not
miserable, when it was safe to walk down the streets at night, when everything was cheap, when the free education and medical care was good, when the people were kind and not corrupted by the later crapsackery... and when the fear of State Sec
was already (mostly) gone.
Eventually, Brezhnev died and was replaced with...
Secret Policeman's Rule - Yuri Andropov
Andropov had been head of the KGB. The only notable things in his two year rule were the KAL-007 incident, the US deployment of Pershing and Cruise Missiles and inviting an American girl
who wrote a letter to him to visit the USSR.
...From the outside. From inside, the country looked in surprise at his hardline sobriety campaign (which led to a surge in moonshining), stringent work ethics revival and other really old-school moves that could be expected from a (seriously) dedicated, order-loving ex-KGB director.
Then he died too.
Welcome to our new... He's dead - Konstantin Chernenko
Ill at the start, he lasted just 13 months and did nothing to calm down the Cold War.
The streak of insta-dead senile leaders (caused by lack of rotation in Politburo) spawned its own set of jokes. No wonder the next Secretary was a refreshing change.
Killing The Patient By Trying To Save It, Or Was He? - Mikhail Gorbachev
The dude with the great big birthmark. He was much younger than the rest of the Politburo when he was elected and still remains alive. Realizing the USSR was in deep trouble, he instituted two major policies at home:
"Restructuring". The Soviet economy was liberalised, allowing private (and even foreign) investment and in 1990, you could get a Big Mac in Moscow. However, this caused prices to rocket and the economy to deteriorate (the Russian economy still hasn't fully recovered). The USSR's living standards went even lower. This made people annoyed.
"Openness". Restrictions on freedom of speech were reduced, with Gorby hoping that this would lead to reform of the system. People just wanted more freedom.
The first major test of this policy was Chernobyl. A reactor meltdown caused by an experiment that ignored dozens of safety rules, the initial response was the usual Soviet one - cover it up. Radioactive sheep in Wales meant that policy could not really work.
(Although Chernobyl was in the Ukrainian SSR, the wind blew most of the fallout north into the Byelorussian SSR. Belarus still has a lot of problems as a result)
There were other policies, as well, all with one-word Russian names, including uskoreniye
("acceleration," a sort of proto-perestroika
) and gospriyomka
("state approval," i.e. quality control). This led to a famous joke:
At a restaurant
Diner: Why are my meatballs cube-shaped?
Diner: And why are they undercooked?
Diner: And why do they all have bites taken out of them?
Diner: And why are you telling me all this so brazenly?
Abroad, Gorbachev essentially ended the Cold War. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, concluded two arms treaties and then announced the "Sinatra Doctrine" ("I did it my way"), allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to determine their own internal polices. The 1989 Revolutions duly followed.
In the USSR itself, the republics started to break away. When Lithuania did so, rogue elements sent in the tanks.
Tanks for the Communism - the August 1991 coup attempt and the end of the USSR
On 18 August 1991, Gorbachev was in his Dacha, when he was essentially taken prisoner by hardliners, who declared a "state of emergency" and proceeded to shut down anti-communist newspapers. The people of Moscow rose up against this coup and blockaded the White House (the location of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's parliament). Much of the military refused to obey orders, Yeltsin stood on a tank and the coup failed.
With Gorbachev's reputation ruined, the CPSU had its property nationalised and was later closed down. The RSFSR declared that Russia had a new flag and most of the republics declared independence.
It's an interesting question as to whether Gorbachev wanted to save communism - he would later declare he would have preferred it if Red October had not happened. In the end, his attempts to save it brought the system crashing down.
On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation as President. The hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin and the Soviet Union was finished. The Russian Federation
had begun, with Yeltsin's first act to declare Russia to be the successor state to the USSR, thus allowing it to assume the USSR's place on the UN Security Council.
See Glorious Mother Russia
for how fiction often portrays this.