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 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.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, the Finnish army was not exceptionally skilled in the defence of its territory. 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 succesfully pinned German forces down in a months worth of brutal fighting around Smolensk. Hitler decided that Moscow could not be taken immediately; instead, the grain and oil of the Ukraine would be seized first, and the bulging Soviet salient around Kiev eliminated. The resulting campaign led to millions more killed or captured on the Soviet side, but bought some time for the Red Army to reorganize.
The "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 followup attacks along the Don. The second was Operation Mars, an attack designed to collapse the Rzhev salient, destroy the German 9th Army, and then Army Group Center. The first attack was even more succesful than originally planned. The second failed utterly, with half a million losses. But only one victory was necessary.
Operation Uranus encircled the 6th Army inside the Stalingrad region, tearing apart the German southern front. Counterattacks were easily halted, and Stavka began to expand it's objectives to not only include the reduction of the 6th Army, but the utter annihilation of all German forces in southern Russia. But, as in the First Winter Counteroffensive, it overestimated the strength and relative skill of Soviet forces. Despite mauling several more German armies, they failed to achieve encirclements on the same scale as the Stalingrad Offensive, and by March were rapidly losing momentum. Capitalizing on overextended Soviet forces, the Germans launched a 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.
There was a power struggle and Nikita 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. Shortly after that, Nikita started getting shoe slapped.
Shoe slap 1 - The UN General Assembly
Every year, the United Nations General Assembly has a meeting and all the world leaders make a speech. This was where Idi Amin compared the British Prime Minister to Hitler (he meant to say Churchill), Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush "Satan" (an appellation he would later reuse for Barack Obama), and where Dubya in turn said that "the Cuban people will be ready for freedom" once Castro kicks the bucket (which made the entire Cuban delegation walk out of the room in protest). In 1960, Nikita was there and being pretty disruptive. He interrupted the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan twice, both in highly unorthodox ways:
On 12 October, the debate was on a Soviet motion attacking colonialism. Lorenzo Sumulong, the Filipino delegate, accused the USSR of double standards because of its domination of Eastern Europe. Khrushchev interrupted the speech with a point of order and denounced Sumulong as a toady of the United States. Accounts are conflicted regarding the actual use of the shoe. The 'traditional' source is that Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on his desk. Another source is that the shoes he was wearing were new and he had taken one off for comfort which he later banged on the table. Another source states his shoe had accidentally been removed when his foot popped out of it and the shoe was returned to him later which is why it was on his desk. Some records indicate he did not bang his shoe on his desk at all, but instead banged his fist on the desk to such an extent someone thought he was using his shoe which was already on the desk, and he may have mimed banging it without actually doing it. At any rate, there is no photograph or video of this incident, eyewitness reports are varied at best, and the fact that there were photographers who were watching the scene seem to indicate he did not actually use the shoe to bang his desk. (If you have seen a photo of Khrushchev holding a shoe, it is a popular fake.)
("We will bury you" was at another time and is somewhat ambiguous, in both languages, since Nikita said it in Russian, as to how and when the capitalists were supposed to die; according to full transcript, he meant that the Soviet Union will simply outlive rotting capitalist states).
Shoe slap 2- Not A Way To Woo Virgin Lands
Seeing a bunch of unused farm land in Kazakhstan, with Borat nowhere in sight, Nikita decided to move a load of ethnic Russians there and develop the land. This was pretty stupid and pretty disastrous, with the science behind it dodgier than a Del Boy product. The removal of the plants led to nothing holding the topsoil down. A dust bowl resulted in much of the area becoming unsuitable to grow anything.
Other agricultural and administrative reforms did very little. On the bright side, Khruschev started a Union-wide housing project, with the aim of providing every family in USSR with an apartment free of charge. He more or less did (to the extent that all the old, shaggy 5-stories apartment buildings are unanimously called "khruschoba", a portmanteau of "Khrushchev" and trushchoba - "Khrushchev's slum"). The administrative reforms in the industrial and agricultural field were full of holes and excess bravado that led to numerous catastrophes, but the industry itself grew enormously.
Let's not forget the other ecological disasters/problems the USSR suffered: ever hear of the Aral Sea? Well, in 1960, by all accounts it was quite lovely and the second-largest big inland sea-thing in the world. The Soviets wanted to turn Central Asia into some kind of cotton nexus (see above) and cotton needs lots of irrigation... anyway, they ended up diverting most of the water flowing into the Aral Sea for irrigation purposes. This didn't even work too well; a lot of these irrigation works were of poor quality. There was a lot of leakage and erosion. Inadequate drainage damaged the soil. The Soviets even knew, to some extent, the fact that they were going to get rid of the Aral Sea, but they thought it was justified... the Aral Sea was "nature's folly" and would evaporate anyway, so they might as well do some of nature's work. This had predictable consequences: dropping water levels, a lot of formerly coastal towns now kilometers away from the water... a real ecological disaster. Like, all of that newly-exposed lake-bed...not much in the way of plants to anchor the soil or anything. So, dust-bowl type problems... that kind of thing.
Preceding Chernobyl, there was the Mayak disaster; an accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in 1957. Dreary and nasty, but funny in a sick way. 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 3 - Berlin
Setting up the Berlin Wall did not improve Nikita's reputation in the West.
Shoe slap 4 - Cuba
The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis is located in History of the Cold War (not yet finished), but needless to say that the results were humiliating for Nikita because he was perceived to have got nothing out of it. Ironically, he did get something out of it: The Americans agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey. But part of the agreement was that they wouldn't tell anyone about it.
In 1964, the other Commies had had enough of the guy. Possibly just because he was planning to set fixed limits to the office terms of higher party officials. Nikita ended up being thrown out. In the words of the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities, "If he had given any utterance to his thoughts, and they were prophetic, they would have been these: Before I came around, these things were settled with a bullet in the back of the head. I, and everyone after me will get to spend some time with their families on a nice dacha."
Afghanistan deserves more mention. In order to prop up a communist government there against American-supported rebels and a guy who'd couped the previous guy, who was making himself unpopular via repression, the Reds with Rockets invaded and put a puppet government in place. Then the whole thing turned into a quagmire and will be discussed in the History of the Cold War.
Under Brezhnev, the "Brezhnev Doctrine" was announced, which essentially said that if a Warsaw Pact state tried to break away, the tanks were going in.
The Soviet economy actually went so wrong that the quite agricultural country of the USSR was forced to import grain. From America. But industry was doing just fine... especially industry of the military kind.
There were a *lot* of hilarious jokes about Leonid Brezhnev. He made a hobby of collecting them; he had several hard labor camps' worth, at least.
Despite all these faults, Brezhnev's time is still kindly remembered by older Russians as the time when life in Russia was not miserable, when it was safe to walk down the streets at night, when everything was cheap, when the free education and medical care was good, when the people were kind and not corrupted by the later crapsackery... and when the fear of State Sec was already (mostly) gone.
Eventually, Brezhnev died and was replaced with...
...From the outside. From inside, the country looked in surprise at his hardline sobriety campaign (which led to a surge in moonshining), stringent work ethics revival and other really old-school moves that could be expected from a (seriously) dedicated, order-loving ex-KGB director.
Then he died too.
Ill at the start, Andropov's successor Konstantin Chernenko lasted just 13 months and did nothing to calm down the Cold War.
The streak of insta-dead senile leaders (caused by lack of rotation in Politburo) 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.
"Restructuring". The Soviet economy was liberalized, allowing private (and even foreign) investment and in 1990, you could get a Big Mac in Moscow. However, this caused prices to skyrocket and the tottering economy to deteriorate (the Russian economy still hasn't fully recovered to this day). The USSR's living standards went even lower. This made people annoyed.
"Openness". Restrictions on freedom of speech were reduced, with Gorby hoping that this would lead to reform of the system. People just wanted more freedom.
The first major test of this policy was Chernobyl. A reactor meltdown caused by an experiment that ignored dozens of safety rules, the initial response was the usual Soviet one - cover it up. Radioactive sheep in Wales meant that policy could not really work.
(Although Chernobyl was in the Ukrainian SSR, the wind blew most of the fallout north into the Byelorussian SSR. Belarus still has a lot of problems as a result.)
There were other policies, as well, all with one-word Russian names, including uskoreniye ("acceleration," a sort of proto-perestroika) and gospriyomka ("state approval," i.e. quality control). This led to a famous joke:
Abroad, Gorbachev essentially ended the Cold War. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, concluded two arms treaties and then announced the "Sinatra Doctrine" ("I did it my way"), allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to determine their own internal polices. The 1989 Revolutions duly followed.
In the USSR itself, the republics started to break away. When Lithuania did so, rogue elements sent in the tanks.
With Gorbachev's reputation ruined, the CPSU had its property nationalised and was later closed down. 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. Russia had a new flag now, and most of the republics declared independence.
It's an interesting question as to whether Gorbachev wanted to save communism - he would later declare he would have preferred it if Red October had not happened. In the end, his attempts to save it brought the system crashing down.
On Christmas Day, 1991, with no country left to rule, Gorbachev announced his resignation as President. The hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin, 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.
See Glorious Mother Russia for how fiction often portrays this.