Saturday, August 30, 2014

(Since 1929) The Development of Soviet Union and Russia - World History

In 1929 Stalin led the drive to modernize the Soviet Union in a ten-year programme of forced industrialization and agrarian reform, generating a “second revolution” and a wave of state terror. After the defeat of the German invasion, the Communist Party consolidated its grip on power, but demands for reform led in 1991 to the break up of the Union.

DECADE AFTER THE Russian revolution, the new Soviet Union had progressed little beyond the economic achievements of the pre-war Tsarist regime. Under Stalin’s leadership the decision was taken to launch a “second revolution” to modernize society and economic structure. The renewed modernization drive was necessary, Stalin believed, in order to reduce the size and economic preponderance of the peasantry – still 80 per cent of the population – and to strengthen the country against the threat of international conflict. It was also seen as the key to cementing the power of the Communist Party. The social upheaval that followed completed the social-revolution only partially achieved in 1917.

The First Five-Year Plan for economic development was launched in 1928, and was followed by two more, each one setting extravagant targets for the expansion of heavy industry. The whole enterprise rested on the ability to extract a grain surplus from the countryside to feed the cities. In the second half of 1929 the Party began a programme of collectivizing peasant landholdings, and by 1935, 90 per cent of land previously owned by the peasant had been taken, often by force, into large state-owned farms (kolkhozy). Peasant resistance resulted in the slaughter of millions of animals and the mass deportation of millions of farmers to work in the cities or to labour camps.

The consequences were mixed. Even allowing for Soviet exaggeration, industrial output expanded remarkably in the 1930s - the armed forces became the largest in the world, armed by 1941 with over 20,000 tanks and 10,000 aircraft. The social goal, too, was achieved, with the urban population expanding by 30 million between 1926 and 1939, and the peasantry falling to 52 per cent of the population.

The cost of modernization 

Yet the cost was high. To cope with modernization the state increased its policing of society. The regimes fomented popular hatred against spies and saboteurs which turned into a nationwide witch-hunt as brutal as the Terror of the French revolution. In 1937-8 the terror reached a ghastly crescendo with the slaughter of more than 600,00 by the state security apparatus, including most of the senior officers corps (though only about one-fifth of all officers were purged, and most of these were dismissed rather than shot).

Modernization and terror also served to strengthen Stalin’s personal grip on the Soviet Union. Victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5 showed how far Soviet society had come from the more feeble war effort of the Tsarist regime, and bolstered Stalin’s domestic reputation even more. The war also saw Stalin order the shipment of million from the country’s smaller nationalities – including Germans, Poles, Chechens and Tatars – to the labour camps of the north and east.

After 1945 economic development continued with priority for heavy industry and armaments to compete in the Cold War arms race. The death of Stalin in 1953 was followed by a partial relaxation of the terror under Nikita Khrushchev. In the 1960s under Leonid Brezhnev greater efforts were made to help agriculture and the consumer industries. The Party, meanwhile, continued to dominate politics and dissent was relentlessly penalized. But by the 1980s the Soviet system was under pressure. Economic growth slowed, while the population became restless about the gap between the living standards of the West and those of the Communist bloc. Calls for more political openness followed, and when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985 he initiated a through programme of economic and political reform (perestroika). In 1988 he launched a limited democratization, and was elected President in 1989.

Protest and reform

Popular demands for reform could not now be stemmed. A freer economic market and greater political and cultural freedoms (glasnost) opened the floodgates of popular protest. In August 1991 hard – line Communists staged a coup against Gorbachev, which was suppressed by Boris Yeltsin, head of the Russian Republic. By December the Soviet Union was fragmenting along nationalist and ethnic lines, and Gorbachev bowed to reality. On 31 December 1991 the Soviet Union was wound up and replaced by a loose Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia itself became a presidential democracy with Yeltsin as its first head of state.

Since the collapse of communism, the new Russian Federation has been plagued by crisis. The economy declined and poverty widespread again. The new capitalism was dominated by an elite of violent and corrupt businessmen and many of the welfare and educational achievements of the Soviet age were eroded. Violent repression in Chechnya provoked a wave of terrorism, first under Boris Yeltsin, then under his successor, a former security officer, Vladimir Putin, elected in 2000. Under his presidency the government has had to challenge internal corruption and the threat of terrorism, but during the process Russia has became once again a more authoritarian state, though very different from communism.

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