A simple history of the world's first Communist country, with humour where appropriate. But first, a brief note on social historiography.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives, Social-Psychological Historians of the 1990s became baffled at just how contented — if not outright happy — most people seemed to have been living under Josef Stalin despite how incredibly difficult life was for them. By the late 2000s they recognised that they had made the mistake of assuming that the Soviet "man in the street" had always possessed the cynicism and disillusionment which he had demonstrated during the USSR's twilight years and ultimate suicide. Today it is accepted that in fact, the early years of the Soviet Experiment were marked by strong popular belief that they could create a man-made heaven on earth — and that they were willing to endure incredible hardships to bequeath it to their children.
Cynicism and disillusionment grew as it became increasingly clear that the Soviet system could not deliver its promise of a utopian future. Ultimately, this was why the Soviet peoples demanded and accepted its end.
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 I. They concluded a peace treaty with Imperial Germany, in the process giving up control of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland, 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 ended up the ultimate victors. The Whites were disunited, rather disorganised, and had difficulty mobilizing people to fight for their unclear vision, being forced to rely on Cossacks as soldiers who themselves wanted independence from Russia, Red or White — 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, including 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 the Soviet Union, for short. To help get things going, the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars Vladimir 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. He was left bedridden and speechless for the remainder of his life, which ended the next year, in 1924. After his death, he 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.
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 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 it was believed and communism cannot be built in a single agricultural country like Russia at the time) or "Socialism in one country" (build up the USSR and put Soviet interests first, because 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.
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.
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 or as high as 6 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...
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 or worse.
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.
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 would say:
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. Most photographs of him actually edited out the blemishes and pockmarks on his face.
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 — Nazis hated Communism and Slavs, so Communist Slavs were an obvious enemy. 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. (To say nobody expected this to last long is a bit of an understatement.)
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 Red Army managed to clean up the Japanese at the Battles 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, especially after their easy annexation of Poland, they quickly made preparations for war with Finland, which was expected to last no more than two weeks.
On November 30 1939, the USSR declared war on Finland, citing a supposed Finnish attack on an NKVD border post which was actually orchestrated by the NKVD itself. What was supposed a relatively quick conflict ended up lasting over three months, with disproportionately large losses in manpower and materiel for the Red Army.
The Finnish army was skilled in the defence of its territory, yet that was not the reason why they lasted against a superior power. The main problem was that the Red Army was not ready to go to war with Finland and was badly weakened by its purges. It did not prepare sufficient supplies for a sustained winter campaign, nor did it gather enough data about the local climate and terrain. When combat operations commenced, there were serious issues with information gathering and processing, as reconnaissance of enemy positions was rarely conducted and intelligence officers often failed to relay information to commanders in a timely manner. Lack of communication plagued their forces, with infantry, artillery, and armour failing to coordinate with each other. Deployment was also an issue, with tanks employed in swampy and forested areas unsuited for their use; similarly, combat engineers were expended as regular infantry, with actual engineering tasks carried out by unskilled labour.
As such, Soviet forces often went into combat blind, with little support. On occasions where artillery support was secured, lack of observation and delays in processing orders meant that shells went off-target, or otherwise allowed the Finns to relocate before they arrived.
After the Leningrad Military District's assaults on the Karelian Isthmus (the most direct path from Leningrad to Helsinki) faltered, the ineffectual General Meretskov was replaced by the utterly incompetent Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin's old Civil War buddy. Voroshilov decided that, rather than identifying or fixing any of the problems with organization and deployment, he'd simply have his forces flank the isthmus through 200km of dense and uncharted swamps and forests. This worked out about as well as one might expect, with his forces' isolated and overextended columns being cut to ribbons by Finnish hit-and-run raids. At this point even Stalin recognized that Voroshilov wasn't up to the task and allowed him to be replaced by Semyon Timoshenko — not an inspired commander, but a decent one who commanded the respect of both his peers and Stalin.
Timoshenko worked with the General Staff to identify and began to correct some problems, ordering increased observation and reconnaissance while improving artillery-infantry coordination. This didn't solve the processing issue, but it allowed his forces to finally make some headway, even if the going was slow. Soviet forces were poised to clear the Karelian Isthmus and break into the open country when the USSR struck a peace deal with the Finnish government, wanting to avoid open hostilities with the Allies — the invasion had provoked such widespread international condemnation that Britain and France were poised to dispatch an expeditionary force to assist the Finns, which would have meant open war and an end to the USSR's foreign trade.
The Winter War worked out badly in that was a costly failure which diplomatically isolated the Soviet Union and put the faults of the post-purge Red Army on display for all the world to see. This forced Stalin to recognize that the Red Army had to be reformed. Perhaps more importantly, it affected assessments of the Red Army's capabilities by the Fremde Heeres Ost (Foreign Armies East), a military intelligence office tasked with gathering information on Germany's eastern opponents. To their detriment, the German Army would assume that the entire Red Army would be just as incompetent in mid-1941 as it was in the winter of 1939-40 — so incompetent, in short, that it would be totally incapable of defending the USSR from a German invasion.
One of the few historical equivalents to the USA's Manifest Destiny, and Great Britain's proclamation of dominion over an entire continent (Australia), was 19th-20th century Germany's Drang Nach Osten (lit. "Drive to the East").
To German nationalist intellectuals like Alfred Rosenberg, eastern Europe was fated to be the birthplace of Greater Germany, just as the western parts of North America had been fated to be annexed by the USA. The ultimate destiny of the Slavic-Mongoloid-Caucasian people who lived in Germany's new territories was to become as the First Nations of Canada, the Iroquois of the USA's Midwest, or the Eora of Sydney: they were to be evicted to make room for a "real" civilisation. To Rosenberg and his fellows, the only difference between Anglo and Germanic ethnic cleansing and settlement was the time factor: if Germany was to catch up with the English-speaking peoples then she would have to accomplish a similar amount of killing and colonization in a much shorter timespan. Germany under the Kaiser had been wrong to attempt to colonize overseas, they had argued — Germany's colonies had only ever been mere scraps, economically dubious and geographically disparate and militarily vulnerable to Anglo-American seapower. Germany was a land power, they argued, and her destiny lay to the east.
On the 22nd of June 1941, Germany (population 60 million) embarked on a Grand Crusade to interbreed with up to 30 million, enslave at least 90 million, and kill at least 40 million people. This would give Germany the raw materials and workforce she needed to resist the Anglo-Americans (combined population c.200 million) in the short term and the territory she would need to outbreed them in the long term. It would also destroy an Asiatic power which condemned racism and nationalism, and a Judaic power which was helping the scions of Zion control the world from the shadows. In short, declaring war upon the Soviet Union met so many policy goals that Germany could never have resisted attempting if there was the slightest chance of victory. Hitler did not declare war in July 1940 because the Army believed that German supply and ammunition stockpiles in Poland were too small for them to make any headway. Ironically, Germany had to buy enough aviation fuel and rubber and other rare materials from the Soviet Union over the following 10 months in order for her to actually be capable of waging war upon the Soviet Union in May 1941. Whereupon in May 1941, a late spring thaw/melt and persistent showers forced the war to be pushed back until June, as they could make no headway through the oceans of mud.
Throughout this period Stalin mistakenly believed that the Nazis had a realistic appraisal of their odds in a war against the Soviet Union (optimistically poor, pessimistically suicidal). As we now know, Stalin was wrong for a number of reasons. First, the true strength of the Soviet Union was unknown by all. It was clear that at least one Front of the Red Army and one of its senior commanders (Leningrad, Voroshilov) were incompetent, but on the other hand another Front and another senior commander (Far East, Zhukov) were clearly competent. It was also clear that the Soviet Union had at least an equivalent population and industrial strength to Imperial Russia, but it wasn't clear how much of it they could use. Second and most importantly, the German Army and military intelligence lied to Hitler about the chances of victory in a Soviet-German War.note They told Hitler that a quick and easy victory was assured, when they themselves knew that there were too many unknowns for the outcome to be anything but uncertain.
Stalin's assumption that the Nazis knew the breaks, or at least wouldn't want to gamble on their chances, underpinned the USSR's rearmament and military reforms following the Winter War. These expanded the army and were designed to make its units capable of fighting a shooting war after 1942. Until then, it was embroiled in an extensive and highly disruptive reorganisation and retraining process and its units were incapable of effective combat. Thus despite extensive manpower mobilization in the western military districts, Soviet forces were ill-prepared for war in June 1941. Many tanks and planes lacked fuel and were still in storage, or required extensive maintenance and unavailable spare parts. Most mobile units (armour, mechanised and motorised infantry) lacked tank-recovery vehicles and repair units and had only part of their truck transport and supply pools. Most frontier raions were awaiting adequate numbers of machine guns and artillery (to be delivered in 1942). And finally, most frontier commanders at all levels — bar those of the Southern/Bessarabian Military District — believed that even attempting basic tactical or operational defensive planning or preparations would show a lack of faith in their forces' ability to launch the planned counter-offensive into Poland.
Stalin received a great deal of information both indicating that the Germans would and would not launch an invasion. On the "For" side:
- A source on the Imperial Japanese Army (Richard Sorge) indicated that Japan had been approached about the possibility of a German-Japanese declaration of war upon the Soviet Union, though the Japanese had refused.
- Sources within the Luftwaffe (Dora Spy Ring) passed on a strategic overview of its general plan for Operation Barbarossa, which was to commence on the 15th of May 1941.
- Winston Churchill had sent some information on some of the Germans' troops deployments to Poland together with a note saying that the Soviets might find this 'interesting'. note
On the "Against" side:
- A source within the Luftwaffe's Four Year Plan Organisation (Dora again) for armaments indicated that German industrial production was focused on expanding U-boot and Medium Bomber production. Small-arms and artillery production, and ammunition production, were being reduced.
- The same source indicated some hawkishness on the part of the Army and the Luftwaffe in particular, but indicated that the Navy and Hitler himself were cautious about war within the Soviet Union.
- Again, Dora confirmed that the Luftwaffe and German industry were still dependent upon purchases from the Soviet Union.
- Signals and human intelligence (i.e. defectors and leaks in German-allied countries) indicated that German forces were massing on the Soviet-German border and conducting reconnaissance overflights of Soviet territory, but the head of military intelligence (Ivan Golikov) opined that these were for a defensive counter-offensive if the Soviets attacked first — or perhaps to attack first if it appeared that the Soviets were about to attack.
- Operation Barbarossa did not occur on the 15th of May.
- Winston Churchill clearly hated both the Soviet Union and Germany, and at least wanted them to cease trading if not wipe one another out.
As You Know, the Army had told Hitler that the Soviet-German War would be over so quickly and easily that none of the 'Against' evidence available to Stalin actually meant anything. Insufficient Army production, Luftwaffe and industrial dependency upon Soviet imports, Ivan Golikov's opinion, the postponing of the Barbarossa start-date, Churchill's hatred of Nazism and Communism — none of it mattered.
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 by taking their food and shelter, or with bullets, or enslaved them to work in mines or factories. 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 successfully 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 "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, the Wehrmacht 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.
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 follow-up 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 successful 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 Stavka began to expand its 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 massive 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 in preparation for what they called Operation Citadel. Thus, the Battle of Kursk — the largest battle ever in numbers of armoured vehicles employed — was fought. A far cry from the brilliant strategic manoeuvres of the past, it was hugely wasteful: the Germans failed to achieve surprise and ended up smashing their forces against the heavily-layered Soviet defences, consisting of minefields and fortifications up to 300 km in depth, supported by artillery, anti-tank guns, and considerable reserve forces. Although the Germans inflicted far greater losses on Soviet forces, the already-depleted Wehrmacht had sustained irreplaceable casualties and lost too much of its best equipment in the offensive.
It was the Wehrmacht's last gasp — all it could really do from then on was try slow down the Soviets as it retreated from Russia and back to the Third Reich. As the Soviet offensives began in mid-1943, the Germans found that at first they could at least manage organized retreats even if they couldn't outright stop the Russians. But as the Germans grew progressively weaker and the Soviets progressively stronger, the ability to even retreat successfully fell away from the Wehrmacht. By the summer of 1944, the situation was completely inverted from that of 1941: it was the Germans who would lose multiple armies to each massive Soviet blow.
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 provided 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 its victory assured.
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.
They also sent in the tanks to East Germany in 1953, when German workers struck for better working conditions, and to rectify the many broken promises of the USSR. Something similar occurred in Hungary in 1956. More on that below.
There was a power struggle during the two years following Stalin's death. Despite nominally being the overall leader of the country during this period, Malenkov commanded very little respect from his peers — especially after the death of his main ally, Beria — leading to his responsibilities slowly being stripped away, before he was forced to resign altogether in early 1955, and Khrushchev (we'll just call him "Nikita" from now on) 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. That year, Nikita started getting shoe slapped.
Shoe slap 1 — The Anti-Party Group
The Secret Speech naturally generated consternation within the remaining pro-Stalinist elements of the party, most notably Molotov and Malenkov, who soon began scheming to remove Khrushchev from power. In June 1957 they finally made their move, and put forward a vote to dismiss Khrushchev from his position as First Secretary and replace him with Nikolai Bulganin, who had previously succeeded Malenkov as premier. The vote actually succeeded, with the Presidum voting 7-4 in favor of removing Khrushchev.
However, Khrushchev had no intention of giving up his power so easily. He managed to persuade his rivals to undertake another vote at the Central Committee, which they were sure would just be a repeat of the first. What they didn't see coming was Khrushchev taking advantage of his relationship with Zhukov, who showed up with the army on the day of the vote and made it clear that unless the Stalinists (subsequently dubbed the "Anti-Party Group") gave up their plans, there would be dire, bloody consequences.
Thus, Khrushchev remained in power, and quickly made sure that Molotov, Malenkov, and their co-conspirators were Reassigned to Antarctica. Thereafter, he also took over the role of premier on the implied reasoning that if the Anti-Party Group were happy for Bulganin to be both First Secretary and premier, naturally nobody should have any problem with him holding the same two positions. Khrushchev's handling of the incident solidified his position, but also received a distinctly mixed reaction over his use of the military to resolve the situation, especially after he rewarded Zhukov for his loyalty by dismissing him from the government.
Shoe slap 2 — The UN General Assembly
Every year, the United Nations General Assembly has a meeting and all the world leaders make a speech. 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 3 — 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. Let's just say that if you encounter a sign that tells you to roll up your windows while driving around Russia, you'd better do what it says.
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 4 — Berlin
Setting up the Berlin Wall did not improve Nikita's reputation in the West.
Shoe slap 5 — 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.
Shoe slap 6 — The Hungarian Revolution
In 1956, a group of students began protesting the dictatorial, Marxist-Leninist rule of Stalin appointee Mátyás Rákosi. State security forces shot and killed many of the students while arresting and beating the others. These brutal, repressive measures sparked a nationwide revolt against Rákosi, and by extension the USSR. Protesters turned into revolutionaries as they took up arms, seized the Hungarian Worker's Party (the main organ of government), and began lynching members of the much-hated state security force, the AVH. The revolutionaries put forth 16 demands, with the biggest being a demand for free and fair elections, for Soviet withdrawal from Hungary, for investigations to be launched into Rákosi's missrule, and for a "re-alignment" of Hungary's relation to the Eastern Bloc, with the implication that they would leave the Warsaw Pact. The revolutionaries chose Imre Nagy to implement these reforms. As with the Prague Spring later down the line, most of the revolutionaries were leftists, and Nagy himself was a communist, so the intent of the revolution was not the overthrow of communism, but the establishment of democracy and regaining Hungarian sovereignty.
At first. Khrushchev was open to negotiation and was willing to withdraw Soviet troops from Hungary. He was at least marginally sympathetic to the revolutionaries as he himself was an ambitious reformer, but he and Soviet leadership at large was terrified by populism and direct action, preferring a "top-down", state-guided approach to reform. However, Khrushchev leaned towards military intervention at the behest of Yuri Andropov, the Ambassador to Hungary at the time and a future leader of the USSR. He was also concerned that bourgeois interests could use democracy to destroy socialism in Hungary, and when Nagy withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian Revolution became a matter of national security in the eyes of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders. As such, the decision was made to roll in the tanks.
The brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution had diplomatic ramifications for Khrushchev. When Stalin died in 1953, internal US State Department memos expressed optimism that the new leaders of the Soviet Union were more reasonable and less belligerent, and thus they could be worked with to promote better Soviet-American relations. Hungary changed that, with the State Department now convinced that nothing had effectively changed from Stalin's time in regards to Soviet foreign policy, crushing the last great hope for normalized Soviet-American relations.
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. Khrushchev's support would never recover from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was already hated for his impulsive and dictatorial style of rule, as he rarely consulted the rest of the Soviet administration before making decisions. 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."
The Brezhnev Era is mostly known for the stagnation of the USSR politically, economically, and technologically, but it didn't start out that way. The Soviet space program continued to make incredible strides under Brezhnev's leadership, including launching the first space station, and the Soviet economy did surprisingly well in the 1960s and early 70s. In fact, at the height of OPEC's oil embargo against the US in 1973, it wasn't uncommon to hear political talking heads already proclaiming that the Soviet Union would "win" the Cold War because of its economic prosperity relative to the US at the time, at least outside of the USA. note However, this would not last, as Brezhnev failed to address the mounting problems in the Soviet economy, mainly the fact that nobody in the USSR had any idea what their actual GDP was or how much was being produced. Oh sure, the Central Committee thought it knew said numbers, but the books they got were most certainly cooked. The centrally planned economy placed production quotas on industries, and failure to meet said quotas could result in being reassigned to a much shittier job in a much shittier town, so when inevitable production shortfalls occurred from one of the innumerable and incalculable variables that go into a national economy, it caused a cascading effect as plant managers lied about their production numbers to avoid a sacking, causing managers further up the industry chain to also experience shortfalls, which they then lied about. This meant the Central Committee was making economic plans using numbers that could be off by incredible margins. The longer this problem remained unaddressed, the worse it became, and it was arguably one of the biggest contributing factors to the Soviet Union's decline and fall.
The USSR also began to fall behind technologically when compared to the capitalist West. While the average Soviet citizen in the 60s had electronics and consumer goods that were, for the most part, on par with those manufactured in the West (not counting deluxe models/luxury goods), the 1970s saw sharp declines in quality as the aforementioned production shortfalls caused them to scrape by with whatever they had. The end result is that every Lada ends up a lemon before it even leaves the factory floor, and the waiting list for these sub-par cars could be 3 years or even longer. The same went for most consumer goods in the USSR, which were made to be manufactured cheaply and efficiently, with sacrifices made to quality and uniqueness. This is reflected in nearly every aspect of Soviet public life, especially the samey "Commie Block" apartment complexes that fill the former Soviet Union. This was partly justified, at least ideologically, by pointing out that places like America had a "head start" on industrialization, while the USSR had to transform Russia from draconian medieval kingdom into a modern nation state, so the importance was on quantity rather than quality I.E. "make sure every Soviet citizen has a roof over their heads first before we can start talking about luxury apartments." Of course, the reality is that the Central Committee simply cared less about providing consumer goods than they did about national prestige, the military, and the heavy industries that supplied said military. The Soviet "siege mentality" incurred by 3 successive and brutal invasions in the span of just a couple of decades made Soviet leadership dedicated to the idea of a massive standing army, so the Soviet Army note ended up being unsustainably huge. This problem continues to Russia today, with it attempting to support the world's 2nd largest military on a GDP comparable to Australia. Supporting this vast military-industrial complex meant diverting resources away from civilian purposes. On top of all of this, technological development in the Soviet Union was, like all other things, managed by the state, with official design bureaus, universities, and technical schools being given orders to design things, as opposed to the innovation happening organically in order to sell more shit, as it does under capitalism. While this is workable if the state has its priorities straight, it failed in the USSR, again because of the over-emphasis on military tech over civilian developments. The Soviet economy actually went so wrong that the quite agricultural country of the USSR was forced to import grain. From America.
However, while Brezhnev's rule resulted in domestic stagnation, internationally he oversaw considerable gains for the USSR. Decolonization left Africa and Southeast Asia full of countries that would more or less be forced to choose between the Soviets or their former colonial overlords for support, and logically, a great deal many nations chose the Soviets. The USSR gained considerable amounts of street cred among revolutionaries by supporting communist rebels in colonial territories such as Portuguese Africa (modern day Angola and Mozambique) or the Viet Cong. Soviet involvement in the Vietnam War is explained in more detail its own page. Simultaneously while arming these rebels, Brezhnev also pursued a policy of detente with the West, and it was under his leadership that SALTnote would begin and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would be signed. However, not all of his foreign policy decisions were victories. The Chinese continued to drift further and further from the Soviets as disagreements over ideology mounted and the two would fight a small border skirmish in 1969. China would gradually drift towards the US over the rest of the course of the Cold War, starting with President Nixon's visit to the country. Of more pressing concern was the situation in Afghanistan, which is covered more in the History of the Cold War page and also in The War on Terror page, but in short: the Shah of Afghanistan was overthrown by his cousin and prime minister, who himself ends up couped by communists. The various communist groups in Afghanistan begin to fracture and anti-communist rebellions begin breaking out, aided by the Pakistani ISI and the American CIA, who covertly supplied them with weapons and funding. The Gulf States, too, would get involved in the whole shebang, quickly turning the anti-communist uprisings into pro-Islamic puritanism uprisings instead. The USSR intervenes to take out both the communist government under Hafizullah Amin (who is viewed as a crazed liability to the Soviets) and replace them with something more pliable, and to defeat the rebels. Needless to say, the war ends terribly, but it would drag on long after Brezhnev's death and contribute significantly to the decline of the USSR.
Speaking of his death, Brezhnev kicked the can in 1982, but his health had been failing since 1975 and he'd become withdrawn from public and political life, leaving the Central Committee to its own devices for the most part. As with one of his contemporaries, Ronald Reagan, he had shown signs of mental decline by the end of his tenure as well. This was emblematic of a major problem facing the USSR, and one that would come to a head after Brezhnev's death: the leadership of the USSR was increasingly old. Brezhnev had been of the same generation as Khrushchev and most other Soviet political leaders, who had held on to power long past their prime as a sort of "Old Boys Club." Most of them were veterans of World War II, and quite a large few were veterans of the Russian Civil War, as many a child soldier had fought over the course of 1917-1921. This gave them political clout that allowed them to deny any ascension to higher office by the newer generations. This became known as a "gerontocracy;" rule by the old.
Brezhnev had also overseen some of the most brutal and repressive measures by the Soviet state yet. Domestically, the culturally liberal reforms of Khrushchev were rolled back as media became tightly controlled once more, and a light revival of Stalin-era repression policies was rolled out. If you protested the government, rather than sending you to a Siberian Gulag with only a vague pretext of some criminal act or a Kangaroo Court, the Brezhnev regime would simply prefer to declare you "mentally unfit" and put you in a Psikhushka instead. Their justification was that only an insane person would be opposed to socialism. However, the worst treatment was reserved for Eastern Europe, where rather infamously the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, its ally, because it sought to democratize. It wasn't even that they were declaring themselves bourgeois traitors either, as they were still socialist, just less authoritarian. In 1968, a the reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary. He laid out a program for reform called, well, the Programme, that would see Czechia and Slovakia be separated into two autonomous states united by a federation, open up freedom of the press, freedom of travel, and even establish multiparty democracy. It was beyond ambitious. Dubček had stated that he wanted to create "socialism with a human face," to essentially dismantle the Marxist-Leninist State and rebuild it into a Democratic Socialist one, to make a state that was more fair and equitable to citizens. Not only did it have to be better than Marxism-Leninism was, it specifically had to be better than capitalism, to prove that the socialist experiment could work. After all, that was the point of all this, right? To create a truly egalitarian, classless utopia?
Brezhnev and Soviet leadership largely agreed on military action. They made a half-assed show of diplomatic gestures, trying to get Dubček to rein in the reforms, but the Soviet Union was never going to react any other way. The brutish mentality of Soviet foreign policy had seemingly solved all its problems with violence, after all: defeating the bourgeois and monarchist reactionaries in the Civil War, bludgeoning Nazi Germany to death, "compelling" the workers in East Germany in 1953 and the revolutionaries in Hungary in 1956 to stand down. When all you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail, so when all you have is a giant ass military, everything looks like a battlefield. This would be one of the rare occasions that a protest occurred in the Soviet Union before glasnost, as 7 demonstrators unfurled pro-Czechoslovak banners in Red Square and were immediately and brutally beaten by state security forces, given Kangaroo Court trials, and the whole thing was quietly dismissed as a freak incident of "anti-socialist dissent." Dubček was arrested and flown to Moscow, but Brezhnev decided to negotiate instead, making the big show of force ultimately just that: the invasion at the end of the "Prague Spring" was simply a reminder to the Czech and Slovak peoples of the might of the military titan next door. Dubček was put back in power, but was forced to limit his reforms. The whole invasion had brought serious shocks through the Comintern, effectively causing its final disintegration. It was the final nail in the coffin for Soviet-Chinese relations, as Mao reacted harshly to the invasion because he viewed the "Brezhnev Doctrine" as the Soviets essentially deciding who is communist and who is not, and to give the man some credit, that is exactly what the intent of the Brezhnev Doctrine was. Gone are the days of proletarian internationalism: now communism was defined by its use to the Soviet state. If they didn't like your communism, you weren't getting any aid. To say it was a destructive, belligerent decision that forever buried what little ties the socialist world were still bound together by... would sum it up quite nice actually. The Soviets held onto Eastern Europe under the threat of employing this "doctrine" for quite a long time, but their influence abroad had already began to fade. Any Western communist parties that were still keeping ties with the Soviets pretty much abandoned them completely, seeing the crushing of the Prague Spring as a betrayal of socialism, and of just general human decency. Other nations in the Warsaw Pact were quick to criticize the Soviets, especially Nicolae Ceaușescu.
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. 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.
Eventually, Brezhnev died and was replaced with...
...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. Under Andropov, the oppression of the Brezhnev Era (which he had largely masterminded, as the head of the KGB) grew even harsher. It was Andropov who had urged Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 , in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Afghanistan in 1979, as well as constructing the "psychiatric healthcare" system that was used to imprison tens of thousands of dissidents. It was Andropov who proved instrumental to send the tanks into Poland in 1981, which Brezhnev had initially (and uncharacteristically) decided against.
Andropov had one of the shortest terms as General Secretary, but he was incredibly influential in Soviet politics under Brezhnev, and after Brezhnev took ill in 1975, it was Andropov who de facto took up Brezhnev's leadership role. After formally succeeding to the post of General Secretary, Andropov would implement arguably his most influential policy by launching an anti-corruption campaign. He used it largely as a guise to dismantle the gerontocracy, as most of the Old Heads were indeed corrupt and could be forced to resign. This paved the way for a new generation of Soviet politicos, and enabled Gorbechav's rise to power.
Andropov failed to address the USSR's mounting economic malaise, having no real skills or knowledge relating to economics. By this point, the supply chain issues had grown to be nigh-insurmountable anyways, as they had snowballed into a veritable avalanche of economic decline. The 80s would see the Soviet economy tumble and fall, and its decline was already evident by the time Andropov took up the office of General Secretary. Andropov's solution, rather than addressing the issue caused by the Soviet state's unreasonable production quotas and misplaced attention on a vast standing army, instead opted for the childlike mentality of "make them work harder." The already impossible-to-meet quotas became even more impossible and punishments for failing to meet them became harsher, only perpetuating the problem of factory managers inflating their production numbers to avoid punishment. The aforementioned sobriety campaign was done partly because Andropov believed that drunkenness was making Soviet workers slothful. While these policies did result in some economic growth, said growth was hiding an economic bubble that was going to pop, and soon.
Andropov didn't live to see it, as he died too, in 1984.
Ill at the start, Andropov's successor Konstantin Chernenko lasted just 13 months. He was more or less Andropov's designated heir, and was confirmed as General Secretary without much fuss. After all, he was Andropov's right hand man, and he had run the domestic affairs of the USSR while Andropov was in-power, effectively taking up the role of Head of Government while Andropov was head of state (before them, the line between the two positions was blurry at best, and non-existent under Khrushchev and Stalin).
Chernenko, despite his illness and obvious shoe-in as a "transitional" leader —only chosen so the Old Heads had time to plan out their retirements as the next generation of Soviets began to take office — actually had a number of effective policies. His domestic reforms tackled corruption, lack of education, and a lack of rights for organized labor, something that was particularly egregious for a socialist country. He fired his Chief of Staff, appointing a new one to finally solve the USSR's bloated military-industrial issue by redirecting production towards consumer goods. Internationally, he promoted a stance of detente, but it was rendered ineffectual as he maintained the Brezhnev Doctrine of holding Eastern Europe under a Soviet boot, even denying Erich Honecker's attempt to normalize relations between the two Germanies.
None of these policies really panned out, as Chernenko died early in his tenure, to the surprise of absolutely no one. The streak of insta-dead senile leaders, caused by lack of rotation in Politburo not only meant there were three transitions in less than three years, but also spawned its own set of jokes. No wonder the next Secretary was a refreshing change.
In 1980, Mikhail Gorbachev left the Central Committee for the Politburo, as the latter increasingly took over the former's role in Soviet politics. He was the youngest member of the Politburo at 49 years old. When Chernenko passed, the Soviet foreign minister and close Andropov ally, Andrei Gromyko, proposed Gorbechav's appointment to General Secretary. Gorbechav expected it to be ugly, as his reformist intentions were now becoming publicly known, but to his surprise the Politburo unanimously confirmed him. They did this less out of a desire for reform, and more because they didn't want another elderly dedushka to take over and die right after assuming office.
Gorbechav's approach to leadership was a radical departure from past Soviet leaders. He was highly casual when interacting with other politicians and Soviet citizens, giving him a genial and down-to-earth character that only Khrushchev had come close to emulating. He forbade a cult of personality and encouraged those around him to speak freely, without fear of reprisal. He also forced many Soviet officials to resign, filling the ranks with some badly needed new blood while ridding him of the most stifling conservative ministers. With this, his power was secure, and he began to roll out a three-pronged reform program. The three keys to this program were uskoreniye (Acceleration), perestroika (Restructuring), and glasnost (Openness).
Uskoreniye and Perestroika
"Restructuring" was a process of fixing the Soviet economy. The first part of the process was uskorenie, and ambitious 5-year plan meant to accelerate Soviet industrial growth, hence the name. Gorbachev began borrowing element's of Lenin's New Economic Policy to stimulate the Soviet economy: workers were given greater say in the management of their industries, farmers would be able to sell a portion of their harvest at market, wages were increased across the board, and he introduced quality control measures called gospriyomka. This led to a famous joke:
Agricultural reform was his cornerstone, as the inefficiently organized agricultural sector was resulting in poor harvests and food shortages, and having to import grain from America to make up for it hurt Soviet prestige. To this end, he merged all the agricultural ministries into one, Agroprom, but the issues of collectivized agriculture were too deep for this change alone to correct, and overall his agrarian reforms underdelivered.
"Openness" was a policy of earning the public's trust by making more of the government's internal affairs public, loosening restrictions on media and the press, and encouraging more free and critical arts. Foreign radio and TV stations were no longer jammed, ending the policy of cultural isolation that had been enforced since Stalin took over. It also brought a wave of legal reform intended to turn the Soviet Kangaroo Court system into something that actually tried to uphold a concept of justice. Gorbachev was openly critical of the Soviet Union in his public addresses, creating an atmosphere of freedom and critical thought that had been absent in the Soviet Union up until now. Finally, he would move to establish a limited form of democracy with the Congress of the People's Deputies, which was a freely elected body that had the authority to choose the members of the Supreme Soviet, and the Soviet legislatures were given more power, dismantling the technocratic rule of the Politburo. For the first time in nearly 60 years, Soviet citizens could now vote and have a say in their government. However, the Soviet Union remained a one-party state, with the choices being for competing CPSU candidates and independents rather than a multi-party democracy.
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, and Gorbachev himself had been a victim of the cover-up, being fed misinformation by his underlings that downplayed its seriousness. When he discovered this, he went on national television to give a speech acknowledging the disaster, using it to demonstrate the corruption and inefficiency in the Soviet system, and thus a need for reform.
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.
Abroad, Gorbachev essentially ended the Cold War. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan (although the process took 4 years) 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, with the beleaguered peoples of Eastern Europe finally seeing a way out from under the Bolshevik Boot. In Poland, the Catholic trade union Solidarity, which was founded in 1980 and made its first bid to free Poland the following year, has repeatedly paralyzed the communist regime with mass, direct action, causing them to be utterly dysfunctional throughout the 1980s. In 1989, with it clear that they'd get no support from Moscow this time, the communist regime agreed to Soldarity's demands for free elections, which the trade union handedly won the following year. In Romania, the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown after an ill-fated attempt to crush nationwide protests resulted in his own military turning on him. Hungary had a largely peaceful transition where the communist regime met with the opposition and gradually rolled out democratization and freedom of travel, resulting in citizens from other Bloc states (particularly East Germany) to use it as a transit hub to escape to the West. This resulted in mounting pressure on Erich Honecker, leader of East Germany, to implement similar liberal reforms. Gorbachev himself urged this course of action, but Honecker refused, instead ordering the military to massacre pro-democracy demonstrators in Leipzig. When the military refused, Honecker knew he had lost control, and in his haphazard attempt to regain it, he accidentally gave orders to open travel with West Germany. He intended it to be tightly controlled by the state, but when Germans heard the news, they flocked to both sides of the Berlin Wall, and Honecker was too slow to act — not that the military had any intention of enforcing his decision. On the night of November 9th, 1989, thousands of Germans gathered in Berlin, taking hammers and chisels to the Berlin Wall: a symbolic end to the Eastern Bloc, if not its complete demise. Czechslovakia followed a similar path as Poland, while in Bulgaria the regime instituted top-down reforms themselves that democratized the country (coincidentally, their communist party is the only one in the Eastern Bloc that survives in some form today while still enjoying high popularity, or high "popularity" depending on who you ask)
In the USSR itself, the republics started to break away. While most Soviet republics had no significant nationalist dissent, the Baltic states and the Caucuses did. The former disliked the Soviet repression of their Catholic and Protestant faiths, didn't feel "in tune" with the Soviet people culturally, and had been fiercely independent before their absorption into the USSR in the 1930s. The latter were torn by ethnic strife, with the USSR not helping matters by openly favoring some groups to others. While Eastern Europe were free to choose their own destiny, Moscow had no intention of giving up Soviet territory, so they cracked down harshly when these regions attempted secession.
In relation to the West, Gorbachev attempted a policy of detente, but he found US President Ronald Reagan difficult to work with. None-the-less, the two managed to hammer out arms control treaties that, when combined with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, resulted in a considerable warming of relations between the two countries. Gorbachev himself became quite popular among the US public, at least for a Soviet leader, and to this day he enjoys far more approval from the American public than the Russian one, basically for the exact same reason (he is seen as dismantling the USSR: a good thing in America but a bad thing in Russia). He re-established ties with China, then under the leadership of its own reformer Deng Xiaoping. This relationship continues into the present, with Russia and China being close economic and military partners. In the rest of the world, Gorbachev withdrew the USSR's commitment to establishing communism internationally, and many a Moscow-backed regime was toppled (sometimes at the behest of the CIA, and sometimes organically). Despite the hawkish Reagan administration's attempts to portray the USSR as still an "evil empire," the days of Soviet interventionism were gone.
Gorbachev had an incredibly high level of domestic support (initially), as you'd imagine, but he had two sources of consternation: communist hardliners and liberal radicals. The former were politically sidelined by Gorbachev but gradually gained political clout, as the "My Way" policy had resulted in the Warsaw Pact's disintegration. This was viewed by hardliners as a national security threat, as the Pact had been established with the intent of keeping the West away from Soviet borders. The hardliners viewed World War III as inevitable, as the capitalists would not tolerate the existence of a socialist state, so they wanted to ensure that the fighting would happen anywhere but Russia this time. Fears of NATO encroachment drove a resurgence in support for the hardliners at the end of the 1980s, but ironically it'd be the hardliners themselves who'd finally bring down the Soviet system. The liberals were broadly aligned with Boris Yeltsin, former Gorbachev protege-turned-enemy and future president of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin viewed Gorbechav's reforms as not being ambitious enough, and his supporters believed — sometimes accurately and sometimes inaccurately — that the reforms weren't really being carried out and were simply for PR.
Gorbachev, contrary to the beliefs of many a Russian or American, was not a secret liberal but a dedicated socialist. His reforms were not intended to dismantle the USSR, but to save it. Unfortunately, this was not to be, as regardless of how effective perestroika and glasnost were, the political machinations going on behind the scenes were about to sink Gorbechav's proverbial ship.
The USSR had already started to dissolve in 1987, when mass demonstrations acknowledging Stalin's crimes in the Baltic SSRs went largely unopposed. The next 4 years would result in an unraveling of the USSR that was very gradual... right up until the day that it wasn't.
Demonstrations continued in the Baltic throughout the late 80s, with the most notable being the "Chain of Freedom," when 2 million Baltic citizens locked arms and formed a chain spanning 370 miles across all 3 of the Baltic SSRs. Some of these protests were violently suppressed by Soviet police and soldiers, but others were not, demonstrating just how uneven and indecisive the rollout of glasnost had been.
Meanwhile, the Caucuses and Central Asia were being torn apart by ethnic conflicts and banditry. In the Azerbaijani SSR, the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join the Armenian SSR, as a large chunk of the Oblast's population was Armenian. This was in defiance of Baku and Moscow, and it sparked and on-again off-again war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that continues to this day.
In 1990, elections were held across the USSR. The elections, being a relatively new thing for the USSR, were disorganized and left a lot up to the SSRs themselves, resulting in many including ballot measures to decide whether they should be independent or not. Most of the SSRs voted "nyet", but the Baltic states, Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova voted "da". This proved to be a lengthy process that would play out in Soviet courts and committee chambers over the course of the next year, and in Moldova, a break-away republic called Transnistria that was still loyal to the USSR rose up. It still exists today as an unrecognized nation, mired in Soviet imagery. Azerbaijan also had a popular uprising as well. This one prompted Soviet military intervention partly because of the strategic necessity of Baku's oil fields.
Other SSRs saw protests and uprisings as well. Ukraine saw significant ones, particularly in West Ukrainian cities like Kyiv and Lviv, but the eastern portion of Ukraine largely remained loyal to the USSR. This is primarily because the east was settled by ethnic Russians under Stalin's "Russification" policy. Ukraine did not initially vote for independence, however.
Russia itself saw dramatic change. With glasnost allowing the formation of non-communist organizations, new ones appeared, such as the nationalist group Pamyat. In the 1990 elections, Boris Yeltsin was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He had previously been First Secretary of the CPSU before resigning/being fired in 1987. Yeltsin gave no initial indication that he intended to liberalize Russia and thus end Soviet socialism, but his affiliation with groups like Pamyat made it clear that he was a communist in name only. He then got elected as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR, the highest position in Russian (not Soviet!) government at the time. He rapidly began agitating for independence, and the Congress of the People's Deputies of the RSFSR declared Russia's independence in July of 1990, but as with the other SSRs, this was stonewalled by the Soviet government.
Gorbie decides to settle this with a nationwide vote in 1991, with the very Soviet nation on the line. The 6 that had already declared independence boycotted it, but in the remaining SSRs, the majority vote in favor of keeping the Soviet Union around. Meanwhile, the Soviet Army invaded Lithuania, causing protesters to start blockading streets. The unrest continues, and Gorbachev decides on a compromise that he believes can save the USSR: the New Union Treaty. It is to give the SSRs de facto independence, with them sharing only a common military and foreign policy. Like many a compromise before it, it only succeeds in pissing off both sides of the opposition. The hardliners viewed it as the end of the Soviet Union, while nationalists and liberals viewed it as "too little, too late." The hardliners make their move.
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. Military forces loyal to the plotters besieged the White House (no, not that one!), the seat of the Soviet Legislature. The people of Moscow rose up against this coup and blockaded the building. Much of the military refused to obey orders, and the coup simply fizzled out. Boris Yeltsin, whom the coup plotters tried to arrest, saw the time was right and stood on a tank, making inspiring speeches to the people of Moscow.
Gorbachev briefly returns to power at the head of a country that, in reality, has ceased to exist. He resigns from his leadership position in the communist party and orders it dissolved. He makes an attempt to preserve what's left, but the jig is up: the Baltic states are already internationally recognized as sovereign nations, Ukraine has just declared independence, Armenia and Azerbaijan are at open war with each other, and even in Russia itself, Yeltsin has already usurped power, with the Russian SFSR taking control of Soviet assets and responsibilities.
On December 8th, the heads of the SSRs of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine drafted and signed a document declaring the USSR dissolved in a 24-Hour period. Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush were informed over the phone simultaneously. The Belavezha Accords formally dissolve the USSR, replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States. It ends up being more anemic than Gorbechav's New Union proposal, being little more than an economic bloc-cum-alliance.
The rest of December is spent formally transitioning to this new state of affairs. On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigns and the Soviet flag is lowered in front of the Kremlin for (probably) the last time. The Supreme Soviet voted itself out of existence, and the Soviet Union was officially 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 and other global responsibilities.
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.
As for the USSR, its legacy is still visible throughout Eastern Europe. The New Russia is essentially living in the shadow of the Union, with Soviet art, architecture, and infrastructure still dominating the country, as it does in the rest of the former USSR. Communism remains popular in the former USSR, with the majority of Russians agreeing that the collapse of the Union was "a bad thing," at least in hindsight. After all, modern Russia is more or less run the same way, with all the corruption, totalitarianism, and Byzantine backstabbing of the USSR with none of its social services nor notions of proletarian equality. The only "gain" Russia derived from the fall of the USSR was economic liberalization, which inarguably only hurt Russia. Yeltsin's market liberalization "shock therapy" did not mesh well with the centrally planned economy, as many Soviet industries proved unviable in a market system. The result was a horrific economic crash that left millions jobless and the Russian economy in the gutter. Most of the industries would be bought up by the few people who actually had foreign capitalnote , almost all of whom were high-ranking ex-Soviet officials. These people became the modern Russian oligarchs. The USSR's collapse also left millions of ex-Soviet employees without pay and social services, resulting in even more corruption as Soviet officials sold anything that wasn't nailed down to try and make ends meet, often for absurdly low prices. Furniture, books, machining equipment, natural resources, electronics, guns, tanks, helicopters, state secrets, and entire ships would be sold, and it still wasn't enough. It'd be two decades before the Russian economy stabilized near pre-dissolution levels.
Russia and its former subjects also disintegrated into violence, with The Mafiya filling the void left by the Soviet state. Violent crime and outright banditry became common, and the illegal drug trade boomed as Russians used booze, meth, or heroin to numb the pain of having their entire world dissappear out from beneath them. Wars erupted: Moldova and Tajikistan broke out in civil war, Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to fight each other, and Chechnya seceded. The military was sent in, but the new Russian Armed Forces were in miserable shape. They were, as they had been in Soviet times, a poorly trained, poorly paid, poorly organized, poorly equipped conscript force that's main use was clogging up enemy tank treads with their bodies while the Soviet Air Force and artillery were relied on to do most of the killing. In the tight urban environment of Grozny, Russian soldiers fared badly against Chechen urban guerrilla tactics. Soldiers refused to leave their BMPs out of fear of getting shot, only to realize too late that the BMPs were too unarmoured to withstand RPG-7V grenades, causing many a Russian soldier to be cooked inside his APC like it was a giant flaming crock-pot. The war ended indecisively, with the Chechens bloody but the Russians being forced to withdraw. In 2000, newly elected ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin made it his first priority to retake Chechnya, and he did so by leveling Grozny with mass artillery bombardment.
Some have accused Vladimir Putin of wishing to reform the USSR, but this is not likely to happen. Russia has gradually lost its influence over much of the former Soviet Union: The Baltic States already heavily disliked them for innumerable past crimes the Russians wrought on them, and 2 decades of misrule by a Kremlin coolie burned through whatever goodwill Ukraine had left for them, and that was before Russia invaded them. Turkmenistan has pursued a policy of "neutrality," which is not hard to enforce given not even Russia is interested in them. Belarus and Kazakhstan are facing near annual protests, mostly in favor of joining "the West" and establishing liberal democracy, and Azerbaijan has drifted more and more towards Turkey. Armenia has also drifted away, as they felt the Russians had abandoned them during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2021note . Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have made overtures towards the US, and the latter recently did away with the Cyrillic alphabet in favor of a Latin one.note Furthermore, there are fewer and fewer former Soviet citizens that remember the "good times" of the late 60s/early 70s. Most younger Russians only remember the disastrous 80s, if they are old enough to remember the USSR at all, so their view towards it tends to be apathetic at best or disdainful at worst. Despite the fact that the communists are still Russia's second largest party by vote share, they are considered "cringe" by Russian youths, and they lag behind Putin's United Russia, which is so thoroughly dictatorial that the communists have no chance of winning an election.note The notion of reforming the Soviet Union grows more distant by the day, as the Union fades from memory and into history.
The most visible legacy of the USSR internationally, at least today, is its gobsmackingly large weapons market, which saw Kalashnikovs, BMPs, T-55s, and Hind helicopters be ubiquitous stables of every third world military. The Soviets were incredibly fond of handing out mass weapons shipments to fellow communists, something the capitalist bloc was way more hesitant to do (at least until you offered to buy them for a huge sum). As such, Soviet weaponry can be found across the globe, especially in the global south, where weapons dating back to World War II continue to play important roles in conflicts and insurgencies. The Cold War may be over, but Soviet weaponry is still killing Americans, and many others, the world over.
Russia also declassified a massive portion of the Soviet archives throughout the 90s. They've revealed a considerable amount of state secrets: the gulag system was exposed, as was the Katyn Massacre and many other Soviet crimes. They revealed the extent of their nuclear weapons program, and for the first time Americans realized just how wrong their assumptions were about Soviet nuclear capabilities (they had dramatically overestimated them). They also verified the long-standing rumor about the Soviet "Dead Hand" system: an automated system of Over-the-Horizon radar installations that can automatically transmit nuclear launch codes without human input. This system is still in use today. What, malfunction? No, Soviet technology is the most reliable in the world! However, many state secrets — such as the existence of Moscow's "Metro-2" or the purpose of the gigantic military installation build under Mount Yamantau — remain classified. Most of these documents remain untranslated.
See Glorious Mother Russia for how fiction often portrays this.