De-Stalinization and Developed
[W]e still have a
lot to learn from the capitalists. There are many things we still don't do as
well as they do. It's been more than fifty years since the working class of
the Soviet Union carried out its Revolution under the leadership of the Great
Lenin, yet, to my great disappointment and irritation, we still haven't been
able to catch up with the capitalists.
Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament
In the wake of Joseph Stalin's death the Soviet Union confronted the problem of succession, just
as it had after Lenin's death in 1924. Stalin left no testament designating a
successor; more significantly, it was not even clear what position conferred
final executive authority. Stalin's power had evolved from his position as
General Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee, which gave him
control over personnel and administrative matters. By the end of his rule,
Stalin's offices and titles mattered little--he had amassed virtually
unlimited personal power. None of Stalin's heirs approached his stature, nor
were the Presidium members willing to grant any one of their peers the
arbitrary power Stalin had possessed.
The solution was to divide the top posts
among themselves, in a form of collective leadership. After Beria's arrest
and execution, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) was divided into two
organizations: a criminal policing agency which retained the MVD title; and a
separate secret police, the Committee for State Security (KGB), subordinate
to the Council of Ministers. Georgii Malenkov became Prime Minister, heading
the government's Council of Ministers, and for a time appeared to be the most
powerful of the top Soviet leaders. Nikita Khrushchev assumed the position of
General Secretary (renamed First Secretary) of the Communist Party Central
Committee. Khrushchev, a former Party Secretary from Ukraine, used his new position to
appoint supporters to important republic and regional levels of the Party
organization. Viacheslav Molotov, Stalin's confidant who had signed the
Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Once they had
disposed of Soviet secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, the main threat, each
began maneuvering against the others to consolidate and expand his power.
The Soviet leadership, aside from Molotov
and Lazar Kaganovich, agreed on the need for reform, in particular to address
the needs of Soviet consumers who had been asked to make heroic sacrifices
during the Stalin period. Domestically, there was some dispute over whether
to continue Stalin's focus on heavy industrial and military production or to
emphasize agricultural production and consumer goods to satisfy pentup
demands. Malenkov argued for lower prices on food and industrial goods to
curry favor with consumers, while reducing kolkhoz taxes. Costs would be covered
through reductions in the military and heavy industry budgets. Khrushchev
criticized Malenkov's plans to enact deep cuts in heavy industry and the
military, countering with a low-cost scheme to bring millions of acres of new
land in northern Kazakhstan,
Siberia, and southern Russia
under cultivation. This "Virgin Lands" project succeeded initially
in boosting the grain harvest, but the and land was soon depleted, and
massive dust storms eroded much of the once-fertile topsoil. Moreover, the
project enticed tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians to settle in
Turkic Kazakhstan, laying the groundwork for ethnic tensions in the
In the absence of open political debate and
competition among political parties, as occurs in democracies, political
infighting in communist systems took the form of policy discussions couched
in esoteric language. When a particular policy line was discredited, it also meant
the political decline of that policy's proponents. Malenkov's reform program
was vulnerable because it broke radically with Stalinist tradition,
threatened the interests of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and would
likely fuel inflation. Khrushchev was able to exploit these opportunities and
maneuvered Malenkov out of the premiership by the end of 1954, replacing him
with his own appointee, Nikolai Bulganin.
New approaches were also needed in foreign
policy. Confrontation in Europe had united the Western allies under NATO's
military umbrella (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in
1949), while in the east the stalemated Korean War led to an American
military buildup in Japan
and the western Pacific. The Soviet leadership moved quickly to end the
impasse in Korea;
an armistice was signed in July 1953. Khrushchev also mended fences with
Yugoslav leader Josip Tito, whom Stalin had excommunicated from the socialist
camp. A high-level delegation of the Presidium visited Belgrade
in May 1955, pledged not to interfere in Yugoslavia's domestic affairs,
and acknowledged that "different roads to socialism" were
acceptable. Harmony was restored in the communist world, as was Moscow's leading
position, but both would soon be challenged.
In a conciliatory move to the West, Soviet
troops were withdrawn from Austria
in 1955 in exchange for that country's declaration of neutrality. But the
Cold War, and the arms race it spawned, continued. The United States exploded its first
thermonuclear (fusion) device in 1952; the Soviets tested their own hydrogen
bomb the following year. Anti-communist paranoia had peaked in the United States
during the McCarthy era ( 1950-1953), but hysteria over the possibility of a
surprise nuclear attack continued to dominate American culture throughout the
1950s and well into the 1960s.
Joseph Stalin's death unleashed demands for
change that had been ruthlessly suppressed for years. Relatives of those
arrested and thrown in the camps by the MVD used the regime's admission that
Beria was a criminal to argue for the release of their loved ones. Camp
prisoners (zeks) began demanding better treatment, and major camp uprisings
were reported in Siberia and Kazakhstan.
In Eastern Europe, workers went out on strike in East Berlin and Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet Party leadership had to come to terms with the Stalin repressions,
and a commission was appointed to study the question.
First Secretary Khrushchev delivered the
results of this investigation at the Twentieth Party Congress, in 1956. Party
congresses had once been important expanded meetings of Party faithful, but
had lost much of their significance and were rarely held under Stalin.
Khrushchev restored the congress as a major forum for announcing new
directions in Party policy. In a closed session held after the congress had
completed its scheduled work, Khrushchev delivered his "Secret
Speech" criticizing Stalin's "cult of personality" and
detailing his crimes against loyal Party officials. Khrushchev was selective
in his criticism--Stalin's forced industrialization program, the early
repressions, and the horrors of collectivization were accepted as positive
contributions toward building socialism. Likewise, critics of the Stalinist
bureaucratic socialist system, most notably Leon Trotsky and Nikolai
Bukharin, were not rehabilitated.
Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev was very
different from his predecessor, Stalin. While Stalin was slim, with a dark
mustache and piercing eyes, Khrushchev was bald, stocky, and ebullient.
Khrushchev was born in the village
of Kalinovka near Kursk in 1894. He worked as a shepherd and
a locksmith, and was drafted to fight in World War I. Khrushchev joined the
Communist Party in 1918 and fought with the Red Army in the Civil War. Later,
he studied in Party schools and quickly worked his way up the ranks of the
Party bureaucracy. During World War II he served as Communist Party First
Secretary for Ukraine
when that republic was under German occupation. After the war he helped
reorganize Soviet agriculture, and always considered himself an expert on
farming. Khrushchev did not share his predecessor's paranoia, and he was
quite comfortable touring the countryside joking with peasants or observing
workers in the factories. In many respects he was a populist leader--coarse,
genial, and down to earth. However, his lack of culture and boorish manners,
particularly when traveling abroad, embarrassed many Russians.
By embarking on his de-Stalinization
program, Khrushchev planned to disassociate himself from Stalin's terror, and
sought to reassure Communist Party officials that the arbitrary abuses they
had suffered in the past would not be repeated. Soviet politics, he promised,
would return to Leninist practices of collective leadership. Principles of
socialist legality would be observed, as would Communist Party regulations
and the Soviet constitution. Tens of thousands of camp inmates, both
political prisoners and criminals, were released after the Twentieth Party
Congress speech; millions more were rehabilitated posthumously.
Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign
clearly tried to preserve the legitimacy of the political, social, and
economic system Stalin had created, while renouncing the more threatening
aspects of Stalinism. Although the speech was supposedly available only to
leading Party officials, the contents soon became readily available both
within the USSR
and abroad. It had a dramatic impact. Many older communists who had dedicated
their lives to the cause became disillusioned. Mem bers of the optimistic younger
generation interpreted the attack on Stalin as a sign of impending political
liberalization, raising their expectations for significant reform.
Khrushchev's revelations reverberated
through the communist world. In Eastern Europe,
intellectuals, workers, and students took to the streets demanding political
reforms and the dismissal of their Stalinist leaders. Eastern Europeans
naturally resented Soviet control over their foreign and defense policies,
and the mandatory study of eight years of Russian language in schools. In Poland, where Soviet imperialism and the
imposition of communism were bitterly resisted, the Party leadership ended Poland's
collectivization drive and allowed some 80 percent of the farms to revert to
private ownership. The Catholic Church, a repository of Polish national
identity, was allowed a greater degree of independence. Poland's leaders also dumped the
Stalinist Party Secretary Boleslaw Bierut and appointed Wladyslaw Gomulka, a
Polish nationalist, in his place. Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership were
furious that they had not been consulted on the matter, but Gomulka
maintained stability and, after several rounds of high-level shuttle
diplomacy, the Soviets acquiesced to the Poles' decision.
Hungary was a different
matter. Replacing the Stalinist Matyas Rakosi only encouraged popular demands
for greater democracy. In the fall of 1956 strike committees and independent
workers' councils were formed, censorship was relaxed, and political parties
began to form. Mobs attacked the secret police headquarters. American
broadcasts through Radio Free Europe hinted that the West would support Hungary's
bid for independence from the communist bloc. When the Hungarians announced
their intention to withdraw from the Soviet-led defense pact, the Warsaw
Treaty Organization (or Warsaw Pact), Soviet troops were sent into Budapest to crush the
Soviet ties to the Eastern European empire
were formalized through two institutions: the Council for Mutual Economic
Assistance, or CMEA, established in 1949; and the Warsaw Treaty Organization
(WTO), formed in 1955. The CMEA was designed as the communist equivalent of Western Europe's Coal and Steel Community, to
facilitate economic cooperation among member nations. Under Stalin it was used
mainly as a vehicle to funnel resources from Eastern Europe into the USSR.
His successors promoted a more equitable division of labor, with the USSR
supplying oil, natural gas, electricity, and other natural resources; the
more developed East European states ( Czechoslovakia and East Germany)
provided manufactured goods, and the less developed ( Bulgaria and Ro mania)
contributed agricultural products. CMEA never achieved a high degree of
integration, however, and most of the members (including the Soviet Union) believed that they were contributing more
than they received in benefits.
The Warsaw Pact, a military defense
alliance, was created at the same time Soviet forces left Austria and West Germany was admitted into
NATO. A Soviet general invariably commanded the WTO, and Soviet troops
constituted the bulk of WTO forces. Though supposedly a bulwark against
aggression from Western Europe and the United States, the Warsaw Pact
was not an alliance of equals, and it is questionable how well Polish,
Hungarian, or Czech troops would have carried out Soviet orders in the event
of a conflict with the West. Nicolai Ceausescu, Romania's dictator from 1965 to
1989, refused even to allow armed WTO forces to be stationed on Romanian
territory. The WTO's main function was to preserve the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Warsaw Pact troops exercised military
force on only two occasions--the invasion of Hungary
in November 1956, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. As
Poles liked to joke, when Soviet tourists visited Eastern
Europe they drove tanks instead of cars.
Challenges to communist rule in Eastern
Europe and scattered instances of domestic protest within the USSR
led some of the Soviet hierarchy to question the wisdom of de-Stalinization.
Khrushchev's administrative reforms also sparked considerable opposition from
Soviet officials. He had strongly condemned bureaucratic sclerosis at the
Twentieth Party Congress, and advocated greater participation by workers and
farmers in Soviet management. Oversight of industrial production was shifted
from the center to the republics or regions. In 1957 Khrushchev sought to
dismantle much of the central bureaucracy by creating 105 regional economic
councils (sovnarkhozy) to manage economic development. The sovnarkhozy reforms shifted power from the
central ministries in Moscow
to the regions, and were opposed by Party and government elites in the
Presidium and the Council of Ministers, who recognized them as a challenge to
Resistance to Khrushchev's experiments
culminated in a move by several members of the Presidium to oust him from his
position as General Secretary in June 1957. Claiming that the larger CPSU
Central Committee had elected him, Khrushchev insisted that the Presidium's
action must be ratified by this body. With the help of war hero Marshal
Georgii Zhukov, Central Committee members were flown in from the provincial
capitals at short notice. Since many owed their position to Khrushchev's
patronage, the wily leader managed to prevail over his rivals, whom he later
dubbed the "Anti-Party Group."
This incident reveals much about the changed
conditions in post- Stalin USSR.
First, open opposition to Khrushchev's reforms indicated a more relaxed
political climate. No single leader could exercise the absolute control over
the Party and the government formerly wielded by Stalin. Second, Khrushchev
triumphed by relying on formal Party procedures-the Presidium voted against
him (eight to four), while a majority of the Central Committee voted to keep
him in power. Arbitrary rule was being supplanted by more routinized and
predictable ways of conducting politics. Third, the consequences of losing in
Soviet politics were far less severe than under Stalin. Khrushchev's
opponents resigned from the Presidium and were given less prestigious
positions--Viacheslav Molotov became ambassador to Mongolia, Georgii Malenkov
director of a power station in Kazakhstan, Lazar Kaganovich director of a
cement plant in the Urals--but they kept their pensions, many of their
privileges, and, most important, their lives.
After dismissing his opponents, Khrushchev
appointed his supporters to the Presidium and further consolidated his power.
In March 1958 he eased Nikolai Bulganin out as Premier and assumed the top
government office himself. Khrushchev then pursued a new round of reforms.
Providing more meat, milk, and butter for the spartan Soviet diet was one of
his top priorities. This was to be accomplished, though, without any
fundamental changes in the collective farm system. Like many communist
leaders, Khrushchev believed that campaigns and exhortation were preferable
to material incentives in motivating people. In 1957 he had promised to
overtake the United States
in meat production within four years; enthusiastic local officials, tempted
by the opportunity to boost their careers, achieved impressive short-term
results that over the long term did more harm than good. Khrushchev also
developed a fixation with corn, reinforced by a visit to Iowa
in 1959, and ordered its planting throughout the USSR. Millions of rubles were
wasted on a crop unsuited to Soviet soil and climatic conditions, and by the
early 1960s the USSR
was forced to import grain on the world market. In private, Russians
ridiculed the First Secretary, calling him the "corn guy" (kukuruznik).
Great progress was made during Khrushchev's
tenure in providing housing for the Soviet consumer. A large portion of
Soviet housing had been destroyed by the Germans during World War II, and
Stalin had been slow to undertake reconstruction. Many families lived in kommunalki,
small communal apartments where they shared a kitchen and toilet with several other families. The truly poor lived in barraki (barracks),
long two-story buildings very similar to college dormitories. A family of
four might spend years in a room twelve feet square, cooking on a hot plate
and sharing toilet facilities with a dozen other families. Khrushchev ordered
the construction of thousands of high-rise apartments to deal with the
housing shortage. While the "Khrushchevki" were of poor quality,
and the elevators often broke down, the average family now had at least two
or three rooms with a kitchen and bath they could call their own.
The decade after Stalin died saw a
relaxation of political controls in the cultural sphere and the revival of
literature and the arts. Writers began to challenge the canon of socialist
realism, which had reached a repressive zenith under culture tsar Andrei
Zhdanov. Ilya Ehrenburg novelThe Thaw ( 1954), a critical look at life in
a factory town, marked the beginning of and provided the label for this
period. In 1956 Vladimir Dudintsev's Not
by Bread Alone portrayed an
individualist inventor, Lopatkin, who struggles heroically against the
stifling bureaucratism of his collective. Lopatkin eventually convinces his
skeptical bosses to adopt his innovations, but only after being harassed and
incarcerated in a labor camp. Although Dudintsev's book was published as one
component of Khrushchev's campaign against bureaucratism, the Soviet writers'
union and Khrushchev himself condemned Dudintsev's novel as unduly critical
of life under socialism. Dudintsev second major novel, Robed in White, a critique of
hack biologist Trofim Lysenko, was not published until 1987, under Gorbachev.
Khrushchev's attack on Stalin at the
Twentieth Party Congress encouraged even bolder efforts. The most explosive
work of the post-Stalin period was that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. An
artillery officer arrested late in World War II for making derogatory
comments about Stalin in his correspondence home, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced
to eight years in the camps and another three in internal exile. His first
novel was published in 1962 in the literary "thick journal" Novyi Mir (New
World). Titled One
Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it details an ordinary day through
the eyes of a concentration camp prisoner incarcerated simply for
surrendering to the Germans. Ivan Denisovich's life revolves around the
meager rations, bitter cold, and brutal guards of a strict regime camp.
Later, in his novels First
Circle and Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn depicted conditions in the elite
camps (for specialists and intellectuals who were engaged in scientific work)
and in exile, both of which he had experienced directly. By the late 1960s,
however, the Thaw was reversed. First
Circle, Cancer Ward,
and Solzhenitsyn's three-volume encyclopedia of the labor camp system, The Gulag Archipelago, were
all rejected by Soviet publishers, and copies of Ivan Denisovich were quietly removed from public
library shelves. Solzhenitsyn's powerful writing did much to discredit
communism among European intellectual circles.
Poetry was another popular vehicle of
expression. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was the most popular young poet of the times;
fans filled soccer stadiums to hear his readings. His poem "Stalin's
Heirs" appeared in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda in 1957; in it Yevtushenko warned
against the followers of Stalin who were biding their time in the hope of
returning to power. "Babi Yar" ( 1960) commemorated the massacre of
Jews by Nazi troops in Ukraine
during World War II. Acknowledging that the Jews had been singled out for
extermination was sensitive in the Soviet Union--the
regime preferred to assert that all Soviet peoples had suffered equally.
Yevtushenko's poetry was tolerated because he praised socialism, but his was
a humanist, tolerant international socialism that had little in common with
The Thaw clearly had its limits. Censorship
had not been abolished, and artists were still expected to follow the general
principles of socialist realism. Boris Pasternak's novel about the Revolution
and Civil War, Dr. Zhivago,
was condemned as a reactionary work glorifying the enemies of socialism, and Novyi Mir refused to publish it. In his
memoirs Khrushchev insists that he favored releasing the novel in the USSR.
Presumably, he could easily have ordered the manuscript published. When it
was released in the West, Soviet authorities were infuriated at the praise
heaped on the book. Pasternak was pressured into refusing the Nobel Prize for
literature, which was bestowed on him by the Swedish Academy
Artistic experiments were permitted during
the Thaw, and works by Picasso and Matisse reappeared in the galleries of Moscow and Leningrad.
But modern art encountered great resistance from the authorities, most
notably Khrushchev himself. At the 1962 Manezh exhibition in Moscow, Khrushchev
personally viewed the modernist abstract works. After he crudely belittled
some of the paintings, calling them "dog shit," Khrushchev
peremptorily declared that artists would have to paint differently or leave
the Soviet Union. Not one kopek of state
money would go to support such work, he asserted. The exhibit was closed, and
the Party launched a campaign to restore
ideological purity and eliminate bourgeois influences in Soviet art.
Soviet foreign policy in the Khrushchev era
was marked by several major setbacks, the biggest of which was the break with
the People's Republic of China.
The Chinese Communist Party claimed that Khrushchev's revelations at the
Twentieth Party Congress undermined communism's international prestige. China's
preeminent leader, Mao Zedong, personally resented de-Stalinization; he was
determined to wield unlimited power and to build his own personality cult.
Mao also bitterly opposed Khrushchev's promise at the Twentieth Party
Congress to pursue peaceful coexistence with the West. Khrushchev's new
doctrine rejected the Stalinist assertion that war between the socialist and
capitalist camps was inevitable. Nuclear weapons could destroy civilization;
in the atomic age peaceful competition, premised on the Marxist notion that
socialism would eventually triumph, was the only logical means of struggle
between the two systems. This victory of socialism through peaceful
competition is what Khrushchev meant when he startled the West by declaring,
"We will bury you."
By contrast, Mao was perfectly willing to
start a war; he wanted Soviet support to regain Taiwan,
which was then defended militarily by U.S. troops. In 1958 he proposed
to Andrei Gromyko ( Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1957 to 1985)
that in the event of a conflict between the United
States and China,
strategy would be to draw American forces deep into the interior, where they
could be annihilated by Soviet nuclear weapons. With its huge population, Mao
could absorb 300 million casualties and socialism would still triumph. In his Memoirs Gromyko writes, "I was
flabbergasted." He assured Mao that this proposal would never be
approved by his fellow leaders in the Kremlin.
Convinced the Chinese communists might draw
the Soviet Union into war, the Presidium
terminated the Soviet-Chinese nuclear cooperation program late in the 1950s.
In addition, Soviet technical advisors helping with some 330 Chinese
industrial projects were recalled. The Soviet leaders were appalled by Mao's
bizarre economic experiment, the Great Leap Forward ( 1958-1960), which was
supposed to transform China
into a major industrial power but instead resulted in a massive famine. For
their part, the Chinese strongly resented the conclusion of the limited Test
Ban Treaty negotiated by the United States,
the Soviet Union, and Great
Britain in 1963, limiting the yield and
venues of nuclear testing. The two largest communist powers also began
competing for allies among the newly independent Third
World nations. These factors, aggravated by the personal
animosity between Khrushchev and Mao, led to open estrangement by the
beginning of the 1960s.
Relations with the United States and Western
Europe improved somewhat from the late Stalin years, but the
Cold War continued to fester. When in 1957 the Soviet
Union launched the first spacecraft, Sputnik, Americans were
both surprised and intimidated by this accomplishment. Massive U.S.
resources were poured into scientific and technical education, military
hardware, and Soviet area studies. The downing of U.S. Captain Francis Gary
Powers' U-2 spy plane deep inside Soviet territory in 1960 resulted in the
cancellation of a summit meeting scheduled to be held in Paris. John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential
campaign included promises to overcome a "missile gap"; later
evidence that the missile gap was nonexistent, and that U.S. nuclear forces
were superior to those in the USSR, did little to stem the nuclear arms race.
The former German capital, Berlin, was a recurring source of tension.
The exodus of nearly 2 million East Germans into West Berlin, the sector
controlled by the French, British, and Americans, constituted a brain drain
from communist East
Germany. In 1961 the Soviets and East
Germans stemmed the flow by constructing a wall around the perimeter of West Berlin. The Berlin Wall remained as a testament to
oppression, and a major source of dispute between the United States and the USSR, until it was torn down in 1989 as
communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe.
A major forum for East-West confrontation
was the struggle for allies and influence in the newly independent Third
World nations of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Many of the former colonies rejected capitalism as inextricably linked to
colonialism. The socialist model offered an attractive
alternative--impressive Soviet economic and scientific achievements provided
convincing evidence that central planning and socialist ownership were more
effective in promoting development than the free market. Under Khrushchev the
Soviet Union established close ties with Indonesia,
India, Afghanistan, Burma,
Egypt, and Iran,
supplying generous loans, technical advisors, and military equipment. In
addition, students from developing nations were invited to study free of
charge at the best Soviet universities and institutes. Patrice
in Moscow, named after the socialist leader of
the Congo, catered
exclusively to a Third World clientele.
However, few of these countries became
"puppets" of the Soviet Union, although many foreign policy
analysts in the United
States believed this to be the case. Powerful
nationalist forces limited Soviet influence, as did frequent regime changes
which deposed leaders friendly to the USSR. For example, links to Indonesia
were severed in 1965 when President Sukarno was overthrown by General Suharto
amid a massacre of thousands of Indonesian Communist Party members.
Substantial investments in Egypt
came to naught when President Gamal Abdel Nasser died and his successor,
Anwar Sadat, expelled all Soviet advisors in 1972. The United States developed close
relations with both of these nations once the Soviets had departed.
By far the most critical point in East-West
relations during the Khrushchev era was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October
1962. After defeating Cuba's
corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista and taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro
declared Cuba socialist
and aligned his country with the Soviet Union.
In August 1962 U.S. spy planes flying over Cuban territory discovered Soviet
medium-range nuclear missile complexes in Cuba, ninety miles from Florida,
capable of hitting most cities in the eastern United States, together with
surface-to-air missile sites to protect the installations from air attack.
After contemplating various options, President Kennedy ordered a naval
quarantine, or blockade, of Cuba,
technically an act of war, and demanded that the USSR withdraw the missiles. After
nearly two weeks of confrontation and confusing diplomatic exchanges, the
Kremlin agreed to withdraw their weapons in exchange for American promises
not to invade Cuba and to
withdraw obsolete U.S.
missiles targeted at the Soviet Union from Turkey. Recently released
information suggests that the Soviet leadership did not intend to start a war
or provoke a crisis; rather, installing missiles in Cuba was a relatively quick and
cheap way to overcome Soviet strategic inferiority.
constantly emphasized Soviet accomplishments, and he bragged about plans to
"catch up and overtake" the West in agriculture, science, and
industry. At the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961 he made the rash
promise that the current generation would live under full communism, that is,
a society in which there would be no scarcity, no wages, and no
markets. He also introduced a new ideological concept, the All-People's
State, in which a congenial alliance of the three major social classes
(workers, peasants, and intelligentsia) replaced the dictatorship of the
proletariat. In practical terms, this meant that greater popular
participation was encouraged among the population, but still within strict
Communist Party supervision. Local governments (the councils, or soviets)
were to be reinvigorated. Comrades' courts, staffed by ordinary citizens and
empowered to deal with minor criminal cases, were promoted as an example of
democracy and socialist legality. Another innovation was the druzhina, a people's militia,
made up of young (often Komsomol) volunteers who wore armbands and patrolled
the streets looking for miscreants.
The aim of these programs was to socialize
citizens to more responsible behavior and a stronger commitment to socialism
through greater participation in the system. But Soviet politics remained, as
Russians frequently observed, like the weather--it came from on high, and
most people could do nothing about it. Khrushchev's modest attempts at
expanding participation were jettisoned by his successors toward the end of
the 1960s and, although they insisted that Soviet democracy was continuing to
expand under the rubric of "developed socialism," the Brezhnev era
( 1964-1982) was decidedly less liberal.
By 1964 Khrushchev had managed to antagonize
most powerful interests in the Soviet Union.
Regional and local Party officials resented frequent personnel changes and
the decision in 1962 to divide their responsibilities into separate
agricultural and industrial portfolios. Government ministers had been
alienated by the creation of the regional economic councils. By reducing the
standing army and shifting expenditures toward nuclear weapons while
neglecting conventional armaments, Khrushchev had earned the enmity of the USSR's
top military leaders. Other annoying traits included his frequent reversals
on policy matters, ill-considered experiments in agriculture, and boorish
behavior such as pounding his shoe on the lectern at the United Nations
during a speech by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain; Soviet
people particularly resented that they were forced to pay Khrushchev's fine
for this display of childishness by having their lottery proceeds frozen for
In October 1964 the Presidium demanded his
resignation. At a special emergency meeting of the Central Committee, Party
ideologist Mikhail Suslov charged the First Secretary with violating the
principle of collective leadership, mismanaging agriculture and industry, and
damaging t he Communist Party through his
frequent reorganization schemes. Leonid Brezhnev, a rather bland protégé of
Khrushchev's who would succeed him as Party leader, criticized his attempts
to restore a cult of personality. His enforced retirement approved by the
Central Committee, the seventy-year-old Khrushchev retreated to his dacha
outside Moscow, where he tended his garden and eventually taped two volumes
of memoirs. Aside from occasional references to the purveyor of
"harebrained schemes," the Soviet press did not again mention
Nikita Khrushchev until his death in 1971.
BREZHNEV AND COMPANY
The first order of business for the new
regime was to restore stability to Soviet politics. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev,
who assumed the position of General Secretary of the CPSU at age fifty-eight,
proclaimed renewed adherence to the principle of collective leadership and
assured Party officials that frequent personnel changes were a thing of the
past. Communist Party cadres were now allowed to hold their positions for
life, barring gross malfeasance. Brezhnev was a bureaucrat of limited
intelligence with an interest in agriculture. Born in 1906 in Kamenskoye
(renamed Dneprodzherzhinsk under Soviet rule), he attended a classical
gymnasium and dreamed of being an actor. Brezhnev joined the Komsomol in
1923, studied agriculture and land management, and graduated in the 1930s
from the Dneprodzherzhinsk metallurgical institute. During World War II he
served as a political commissar; later, his memoirs, entitled The Small Earth, became
required reading for all high school students. After the war he was appointed
CPSU First Secretary in Moldavia,
and then First Secretary of Kazakhstan.
Brezhnev was granted membership in the Central Committee Presidium in 1957
and became a Secretary of the Party Central Committee in 1963.
The new Soviet leaders divided the leading
Party and government positions between two individuals; Khrushchev had held
both positions since 1958. Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the Leningrad Party
organization during the war and former Minister of Light Industry, became
Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier. Most of Kosygin's
experience had been in textiles and consumer goods industries, and as Premier
he would assume much of the responsibility for industrial production. Nikolai
Podgornyi took over the less influential office of Chairman of the Supreme
Soviet, often described as the presidency of the USSR.
Some of Khrushchev's experiments were undone
almost immediately. The regional economic councils were abolished in 1965,
and centralized ministries were restored under the Council of Ministers.
Kosygin, though, understood the need for reform in the Soviet economy. Growth
rates in the mid-1960s had declined to 4-5 percent per year from the 7-9
percent rates of the 1950s, and the quality of goods produced through central
planning was often shoddy. Soviet economist Yevsei Liberman in 1962 had first
proposed introducing some limited forms of profit making and greater
enterprise autonomy, while reducing the role of the State Planning Committee
(Gosplan) in Soviet industry.
The post- Khrushchev leadership agreed on
the need to improve the material well-being of the population and to dampen
consumer expectations (or at least avoid the wild promises voiced by their
predecessor). Kosygin linked his political reputation to the development of
consumer goods and light industry, using a modified version of Liberman's
ideas. Brezhnev, who had helped implement the Virgin Lands project in Kazakhstan,
stressed massive investment and expanded use of fertilizer and scientific
methods in agriculture. The defense establishment, a powerful vested
interest, also received a large share of the budgetary pie. Since state
investment favored agriculture, the consumer, and the military, long-term
capital investment in heavy industry was slighted. By the 1980s these
priorities had caused economic growth to slow to a crawl.
Structural weaknesses in the Soviet economy
paralleled similar problems in Eastern Europe.
The more highly industrialized Eastern European countries-East Germany, Czechoslovakia,
and Hungary-experienced a slowdown in growth rates first. These countries
struggled to meet the growing aspirations of their people. Hungary under Janos Kadar had been
gradually reforming since the 1956 revolution; a New Economic Mechanism
introduced in 1968 broadened these reforms. East
Germany relied on technology and, after 1972, subsidies
from West Germany
to maintain a relatively high standard of living. Poland's leadership borrowed
technology and money from the West throughout the 1970s, and then had to
resort to price increases to cover their massive debts. When the Polish
government raised prices on basic food items, workers and students took to
the streets in protest. Major public disturbances occurred in Poland
in 1968, 1970, and 1976. Massive strikes originating in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980-1981 led to the
formation of the labor organization Solidarity and forced Soviet officials to
recognize that socialism had major structural flaws.
Czechoslovakia under Anton Novotny
had combined rigid central planning with neo-Stalinist repression. When
Alexander Dubcek replaced Novotny as General Secretary in January 1968, the
Czechoslovak Communist Party quickly adopted market reforms, relaxed
censorship, permitted the formation of independent political parties and
interest groups, and severed links to the Soviet KGB. Soviet leaders watched
these developments with growing unease through the spring and summer; Eastern Europe's Communist leaders fretted about the
possible spill-over of democratic ideas into their domains. After several
attempts at negotiation, the Kremlin ordered Warsaw Pact forces to invade Prague and restore
order. Dubcek was bundled off to Moscow,
pressured to capitulate, and then forced to retire. His successor, Gustav
Husak, steered the country back to the Leninist model of rigid Party control.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia
was watched with dismay by the more reform-minded intellectuals in the USSR and Eastern Europe.
A tiny demonstration of eight took place in Moscow's
Red Square, but it was quickly disbanded by
the police. Pavel Litvinov, grandson of Stalin's Minister of Foreign Affairs
Maksim Litvinov ( 1930-1938), was one of the participants. An authoritative
article published in Pravda articulated what came to be known as
the Brezhnev Doctrine--an open declaration of the Soviet
Union's right and duty to intervene with force in countries
where socialism was in danger. The Brezhnev Doctrine preserved Soviet control
over the East European empire; it remained in effect until Mikhail Gorbachev
renounced it early in 1989.
Premier Alexei Kosygin's identification with
economic reform proved a liability when the Czechoslovak experience
demonstrated the political dangers associated with reform. After 1968 his
influence in the Soviet hierarchy waned, and the conservative Brezhnev
emerged as first among equals. In 1969 he contemplated rehabilitating Stalin,
but opposition from the Polish and Hungarian Communist Parties quashed this
idea. However, this setback did not deter Brezhnev from creating his own
personality cult. By the time of his death this General Secretary of modest
accomplishments had received over 200 medals, including four Hero of the
Soviet Union awards and the rank of Marshal of the USSR for his "outstanding
contributions" to building socialism. The 1977 Constitution marked his
crowning achievement, the new stage of "developed socialism," and
was generally known as the Brezhnev Constitution.
Brezhnev, like many chief executives, soon
discovered the advantages of being a world statesman. Starting in 1969 the
Soviet Union and the United
States began discussions on limiting
long-range nuclear missiles, the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT).
President Richard Nixon, who had built his political career bashing
communism, now was willing to deal with Soviet leaders as equals and even
partners. Brezhnev in turn basked in the publicity of summit negotiations:
Nixon visited Moscow in May 1972; Brezhnev went
to the United States in
June 1973; Brezhnev and Nixon's successor Gerald Ford met in the Russian Far
East port of Vladivostok in December 1974. Besides
the welcome media attention, summit meetings provided opportunities for
Brezhnev to add to his collection of foreign limousines and sports cars,
given to him as gifts by fellow statesmen.
This relaxation of tensions, détente, was
formalized in the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT I), the
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the Basic Principles agreement
between the United States and the Soviet Union, all signed in 1972.
Ostensibly an attempt to cap the arms race, the SALT I negotiations merely
established numerical limits on missile launchers, which were then raised in
the second round of talks. The Soviet side was unwilling to permit
inspections on the ground, so both sides verified the limits through spy
satellites. And SALT failed to constrain technology. Both sides quickly
developed multiple-warhead, independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs),
putting more nuclear weapons on the same number of missiles and further
accelerating the arms race. The ABM Treaty limited each side's ability to
construct missile defense systems, premised on Mutual Assured Destruction
(MAD). The MAD doctrine reasoned that if Soviet and American cities remained
undefended, neither power would risk initiating nuclear war since the result
would be mutual annihilation.
The Basic Principles agreement, a political
document, provided for various economic, environmental, cultural, and
technological exchanges, such as the joint Apollo-Soyuz space mission in
1975. Trade expanded, as the Soviet Union purchased grain from farmers in the
Midwest and in turn exported oil products and Stolichnaya vodka to the United States.
Dozens of joint projects on air and water pollution, soil erosion,
agricultural runoff, and noise pollution were operating by the mid-1970s.
Soviet-American rapprochement was very much
driven by events in Asia. Since 1964 the U.S. presence in Indochina had been expanding,
as Washington supported the anti-communist
regime in South Vietnam.
Soviet support for the communist regime in North Vietnam also grew, from $50
million in 1964 to nearly $1 billion per year from 1967 to 1972. Soviet
support for North Vietnam paid
major dividends by forcing the United States to commit troops
and money to an increasingly unpopular cause. Moscow's
support for North Vietnam
was also a component of its rivalry
with China. Through the 1960s Beijing had portrayed the Chinese model as better suited
to the lesser developed countries, and during the tumultuous Cultural
Revolution (1966-1969) invective against the "revisionist" Soviet Union escalated. When armed forces of the two
nations engaged in border clashes along the Amur River in 1969, the Kremlin
sounded out Washington
about its possible reaction to a preemptive strike on Chinese nuclear
Détente was vitally important to the Soviet Union. First, cordial relations with the United States raised the stakes for China of any potential aggression against the USSR.
President Nixon and National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State)
Henry Kissinger realized this, and adroitly played the "China
card" to extract concessions from the Soviets. In addition, America was now treating the USSR as an equal, militarily and
diplomatically. The Soviet Union had in fact achieved nuclear parity with the
by the end of the 1960s as a result of its rapid nuclear buildup. In Europe, Warsaw Pact conventional forces greatly outnumbered
NATO in tanks, troops, and aircraft. In 1972 the two alliances entered into
the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions Talks in Vienna, but there was no real progress in
conventional arms negotiations until late in the Gorbachev era.
The détente process, coupled with the Soviet
military buildup and America's
precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam
in 1975, gave the impression that the USSR was an ascendant superpower.
In 1972 Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Gromyko proudly proclaimed that no
international problem of significance anywhere in the world could be resolved
without Soviet participation. In the wake of Vietnam
the U.S. Congress limited American involvement in Africa; Moscow
responded by expanding its presence in Yemen,
Angola, and Mozambique.
Conservatives in the United
States quickly became disillusioned with
détente, which seemed merely to encourage Soviet adventurism around the
world. The December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces
marked détente's collapse and the beginning of the second Cold War.
Life for the average Soviet citizen improved
considerably during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras. For example, the output
of consumer goods increased by 60 percent just from 1959 to 1965, and meat
consumption rose by over 50 percent. Real wages increased 50 percent from
1967 to 1977. Millions of units of new housing, consisting of high-rise
apartments, were constructed in the cities. The quality was poor by Western
standards, but these small units were a great improvement over the collective
apartments (kommunalki) of earlier years, when several families had to
share a kitchen and toilet. Families began purchasing refrigerators,
televisions, and other durable consumer goods. However, there were long
waiting lists for such items, and many households lacked goods commonplace in
the West. When Vice President Richard Nixon hosted an exhibit of U.S. kitchen appliances in Moscow in 1959, Khrushchev challenged the
display as an exercise in American propaganda. The press, which reveled in
this clash of systems, dubbed their exchange the "kitchen debate."
Stalin's policies had greatly changed the
social composition of the USSR.
On the eve of collectivization, about 80 percent of the population lived in
rural villages, and only a fifth lived in cities. By the time Brezhnev died
in 1982 nearly 70 percent of the population was classified as urban, and only
30 percent rural. Behind these figures lies a major social transformation.
Millions of peasants had either left the countryside for jobs and a better
life in the cities, or had starved to death during collectivization. Cities,
with their cultural attractions and educational opportunities, lured many
young people away from the collective farms. Moving to the city and gaining
an education were the two keys to social mobility in the Soviet
Union; there were no business opportunities under socialism.
Becoming a member of the Communist Party was not critical to a better life,
but it helped. Party membership was required for many of the more prestigious
and higher paying positions, those listed on the Nomenklatura.
Officially, Soviet society was classified
into two social classes--the workers and peasants--and an overarching
stratum, the intelligentsia, drawn from both. Peasants worked on the kolkhozyand generally were
the poorest of the three groups. They were the least educated, lived in the
most primitive conditions (many peasant homes to this day do not have running
water or indoor plumbing), and were bound to the kolkhoz by the lack of an internal passport.
An unusually large proportion of the rural population was female; older men
had been killed in the war, and ambitious younger men left for the cities.
One distinct advantage of life in the countryside was easy access to food.
Peasants supplemented their diets by raising vegetables and livestock on
small private plots, and any surplus could be sold in the marketplace for
Industrial workers, including state farmers
(those who worked on the sovkhoz were classified as workers--they received
a set wage and were granted internal passports), were supposedly the backbone
of the Soviet system, and indeed, they lived better than the peasants.
Blue-collar wages in 1960 were on average 73 percent higher than peasant
wages, and about 22 percent higher than those of routine service workers.
Wages of the scientific and technical intelligentsia, however, were 50
percent higher than the average worker's wages.
Under Brezhnev wages became more nearly
equal. By 1973 the average intelligentsia wage was only 34 percent above that
of a manual worker, and workers' wages were now only 31 percent above those
of the peasantry. Highly skilled workers, those in dangerous occupations
(coal miners, for example), and those living in Siberia or the Far East might earn incomes well above those of
professionals. The more prosperous workers and intelligentsia might have a
small dacha (summer home) with a garden plot outside the city. Usually they
were entitled to vacation once a year with their work group at a resort or
sanatorium on the Black or the Baltic Sea.
But incomes were a very poor indicator of how well an individual lived.
Bonuses, access to special shops, subsidized canteens, and other perquisites
were far more important than salaries; holding a job where bribes could be
extorted was even more important. The expanding opportunities for graft and
corruption under Brezhnev made Soviet society highly stratified, although
differences in wealth were much smaller than those in American society.
Soviet workers were neither very productive
nor very satisfied with their jobs. Labor turnover was high, industrial
accidents were frequent, and price increases might come unexpectedly. When
the government raised food prices overnight in May 1962, workers took to the
streets in protest in several cities. Some 200 were killed when troops opened
fire on a large demonstration organized by disgruntled locomotive workers in
the southern Russian town of Novocherkassk.
Worker protests continued sporadically through the Brezhnev period over
prices and working conditions. Usually, the regime responded by removing the
immediate source of discontent, arresting the ringleaders, and covering up
Official ideology glorified the manual
worker, but in reality it was the intelligentsia--engineers, scientists,
professors, writers, and other cultural figures--who received the highest
status and extra privileges. Most professionals and skilled workers needed
more than their salaries to live well. For example, positions in law schools
were greatly in demand, since lawyers could obtain choice bribes. Doctors
were severely underpaid, but they often received food or other rewards from
grateful patients. Medi cine was not a prestigious occupation, and the fact
that about 70 percent of Soviet medical doctors were women was more an
indication of the low priority accorded health care than of a commitment to
women's equality. Prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers (advokaty),
like doctors, were employed by the state, and attorneys' legal fees were set
by the state until 1988.
Getting anything or getting anything done in
the Soviet Union was usually complicated,
bureaucratic, and tiring. Many goods were in short supply or, if there was no
demand, items simply piled up on the shelves. To live well one had to cut
corners, bend or often break the law. One's position, connections (blat),
privileges, and opportunities for graft were critical in obtaining defitsit (scarce) goods. For example, a clerk
in a meat store could set aside choice cuts for her family and friends, or
exchange them for other defitsit items. Dentists might do some
quality drilling in exchange for ballet tickets or French cognac. Hotel maids
collected tips in foreign money and, at some risk, could purchase Western
goods in the hard currency stores. Those with foreign connections could
obtain Italian shoes, American blue jeans, or Japanese electronic equipment
and sell them on the black market for huge profits, although
"speculation" was a crime and could be severely punished.
Of course, Party and government officials on
the Nomenklatura were best positioned to use their influence to enrich
themselves. Top Soviet leaders lived a secretive existence protected from
public scrutiny. Those on the "Kremlin ration" automatically had
access to the best food, consumer goods, and medical care. They lived
rent-free in huge apartments, had luxurious dachas in the country, and were
permitted to travel outside the country. Benefits were pegged to one's level
in the Nomenklatura: the privileges accorded to an oblast (regional) Party first secretary
would be greater than those of a raion (district) first secretary; Moscow ministers lived
better than union republic officials. Huge bribes were paid for appointments
to these positions.
For those interested in public affairs,
participation was either through official channels supervised by the
Communist Party--the Komsomol, trade unions, conservation clubs, and women's
groups--or it was suppressed as a threat to socialist order. Nonetheless, a
small unofficial dissident movement did emerge during the Brezhnev era,
consisting of several factions. One tendency was social democratic in nature,
represented by intellectuals like Andrei Sakharov and Roy Medvedev, who
advocated a more benign socialism. A second group of dissidents were
religious believers, including Baptists, Catholics, and Jehovah's Wit nesses.
Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Crimean Tatar, and other non-Russian nationalist
activists comprised yet a third group, Jews petitioning to leave for Israel
a fourth. Russian nationalists comprised a fifth dissident strain, albeit one
with powerful supporters in the Soviet establishment.
Soviet censorship made it difficult for
dissidents to communicate their ideas to a broader audience. One means was
through self-published, or samizdat,
material. Writers would laboriously type copies of their manuscripts using
carbon paper, and copies would be passed from hand to hand. Samizdat consisted of a few regular
underground journals, like the Chronicle
of Current Events, copies of Solzhenitsyn's and Pasternak's work,
religious tracts, and occasional Western novels or political writings banned
from the public. Students and intellectuals in the larger cities read samizdat, but the average
person did not have access to, and was not interested in, such writings. Most
Soviet citizens were well educated but not particularly critical in their
thinking; many seemed to agree with the authorities that anyone who
criticized the Soviet system was psychologically unstable. Indeed, the Russian
word for dissident is "otherthinker" (inakomyslyashchie).
Under Iurii Andropov's tenure as head of the KGB ( 1967- 1982), the regime
often silenced dissidents by incarcerating them in psychiatric hospitals and
keeping them drugged.
Ethnically, the Soviet
Union was one of the most diverse countries in the world. Soviet
census figures for 1989 listed over one hundred separate national groups with
distinct languages, cultures, and religions; Russians, however, made up
barely 51 percent of the population (see Table 7.1 ).
In keeping with Lenin's idea of a national-territorial federalism, the USSR
was divided into fifteen Union Republics for large ethnic groups located on
the border, twenty Autonomous Republics, eight Autonomous Regions, and ten
National Areas for progressively smaller groups. However, Lenin had argued
that socialist federalism would be transitional. Centralization and the
eventual disappearance of national distinctions was the ultimate
goal--communist leaders clearly did not believe in multiculturalism, nor were
they willing to have Moscow
share power with the regions.
Major Nationalities of the Soviet Union,
(those in excess of
*Percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding.
Source: Figures are from the 1989 national census, in Narodnoe khoziaistvo SSSR v. 1990
( Moscow: Finansy i Statistika, 1991), 77.
By creating distinct territorial homelands
for the minorities, Soviet nationality policy unintentionally reinforced
separate ethnic identities. Wide variations existed in economic development,
education, and urbanization among the republics. The Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia,
and Lithuania--were the smallest republics (1 to 3 million in
population), the most Westernized, and had the highest standard of living.
These peoples had historically been linked to Germany,
Finland, and Poland,
and were Lutheran (Estonians and Latvians) or Catholic (Lithuanians) in
religious persuasion. Forcibly incorporated into the USSR by Stalin during World War
II, the Baltic peoples remained fiercely nationalistic and resentful of Soviet
domination; armed resistance against Soviet occupation by guerrilla
groups continued well into the 1950s. Furthermore, Estonians and Latvians
resented the large numbers of Russians who moved into their republics in the
postwar period to assume leading political and economic posts and to man the
army units stationed there. By 1989 Estonia's
population was 30 percent Russian, Latvia's 34 percent.
Ukrainians were the second largest
nationality in the Soviet Union, at over 40
million. Ukraine, with its
rich black-earth region, was the breadbasket of the USSR. It also contained important
steel, iron ore, and coal industries and about half the Soviet Union's
nuclear power stations, and was home to the Black Sea fleet ( Khrushchev, in
a fit of international generosity, unilaterally transferred the Crimea to
Ukraine in 1954. After the Soviet breakup Russia
both claimed ownership of the fleet.) Ukraine was the historical center
of eastern Slavic culture, and Ukrainians were proud of their traditional costumes
and folk dances and their ourstanding nineteenth-century poet, Taras
Shevchenko. Ukrainian nationalist dissidents were active from the 1960s to
the early 1970s; central authorities, however, cracked down in the wake of
disturbances in neighboring Czechoslovakia.
First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party Petro Shelest was demoted in
1972 for tolerating nationalist tendencies in his republic. Russians, who
made up over a fifth of Ukraine's
population, occupied prominent positions in the republic's government and
Nationalism was also strong in the three
republics of the Caucasus Mountains--Georgia,
Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Georgians and Armenians were both ancient peoples with distinct languages,
Orthodox Christian since the fifth century. Before the Revolution they looked
to the Russians for protection against the Moslem Turks. Armenia's strong nationalism derives from the
death of over a million Armenians at the hands of Turkey in 1915, resulting from
forced marches and internment in concentration camps. Georgian nationalism is
equally powerful--under Soviet rule nationalist demonstrations occurred there
in 1924, 1956, and 1978. Azeris too were nationalistic, but unlike their
Caucasian neighbors they are a Shi'ite Moslem, Turkic people. Azerbaijan,
though rich in oil, was one of the poorest Soviet republics. Relatively few
Russians had settled in these republics--only about 6 percent of Georgia's and Azerbaijan's
population was Russian; in Armenia
it was under 2 percent.
The Moldavians had also been incorporated
during the war; their republic had once been the Romanian province of Bessarabia.
Ethnically Romanian, and Orthodox in religious background, Moldavia was poor and heavily
agricultural, with a large peasant population. Belorussia,
ituated north of Ukraine,
was also largely an agricultural region. Most Belorussians did not have a
strong sense of nationalism. Russians tended to regard them as a rather
backward peasant people, a Slavic "little brother" but lacking the
historical distinction of Ukrainians. In the late Soviet era about 13 percent
of the population in both republics was ethnic Russian.
Central Asians ranked lowest among the
republics on education, level of economic development, and representation in
Soviet politics. Central Asians were Turkic peoples, with mostly Sunnite
Moslem religious traditions, but beyond these commonalities they were
extremely diverse. Uzbeks were a sedentary people who had built great cities
filled with grand mosques--Bukhara, Tashkent, and Samarkand.
Kazakhs, like their relatives the Mongols, had been a nomadic people, living
in circular tents (yurts) and driving their horses and cattle from the
steppes to the mountains in semiannual treks until forced onto collective
farms during collectivization. Tajikistan, the very poorest of
Soviet republics, was divided into a number of tribal societies, most of whom
were Persian rather than Turkish in origin. Three of the five Central Asian
republics--Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan--had
relatively small colonies of Russians, between 5 and 10 percent, while over a
fifth of Kyrgyzstan's
population was ethnic Russian.
Kazakhstan was a special case.
Encompassing a territory the size of all Western Europe, Kazakhstan
was home to a population of just under 17 million in 1989. It was by far the
most diverse of the republics: ethnic Kazakhs made up only about 40 percent
of the republic's population, and Russians 38 percent; the remainder was a
mosaic of Koreans, Germans, Chechens, Greeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, and others.
Some had migrated there to take jobs; others (the Germans, Koreans, and
Chechens) had been deported to this huge region under Stalin for real or
imagined political crimes. In addition to agriculture (grain, cotton, and
had huge oil reserves. Kazakhstan
also had the distinction of hosting the Soviet nuclear testing range at Semipalatinsk and the
Baikonur launching facility for the space program. Soil erosion from the
Virgin Lands project, the disaster of the disappearing Aral Sea (drained
under Brezhnev to irrigate the Central Asian cotton crop), and years of
nuclear tests ruined much of Kazakhstan's
Russians dominated Soviet society,
government, and the economy, partly by virtue of their numbers, and partly because
of a Russian imperial mentality fostered by the state. During the 1960s a
nationalist genre of Russian literature, the "village prose"
school, became popular.
Village school authors such as the Siberian
Valentin Rasputin sympathetically portrayed Russian peasant life and
implicitly criticized the dehumanizing aspects of modern industrial society.
Other nationalists sought to preserve Russian traditions through the
All-Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments.
This organization, which had high-level supporters in the Party, tried to
stem the destruction of Russian Orthodox churches promoted by Khrushchev.
More chauvinistic and anti-Semitic currents existed in the Communist Party
and the armed forces; these coalesced into national-patriotic movements after
the Soviet collapse.
The Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes both
maintained the fiction that ethnic relations were constantly improving; their
long-term goal was for national identities to be submerged into a general
Soviet consciousness. In most cases, surface relations among the various
nationalities were at least cordial. Open displays of racism were infrequent,
and intermarriage was common among some groups. But the strong Russification
trend underlying Soviet nationalities policy antagonized those with strong
national feelings, especially the Baltic and Caucasian groups, and generated
resentment even among the two smaller Slavic nationalities, who were
condescendingly referred to as the "younger brothers" of Russians.
Russian nationalists chafed at the limits Soviet ideology imposed on their
Language is central to any ethnic identity.
The Soviet 1959 Education Law allowed parents of minority children to choose
their preferred language of instruction in primary and occasionally secondary
school, but in reality there was considerable pressure to enroll children in
Russianlanguage schools. All students in minority-language schools were
required to complete at least eight years of instruction in Russian. Education
at a Russian-language school was more prestigious, and a Russian high school
education was necessary to matriculate at the best universities and to secure
a good job after graduation.
Russification was also promoted by the
influx of ethnic Russians into the republics mentioned above. Russians often
occupied the most important posts in industry, government, and the military.
For example, while the top Party and government offices in the republics were
usually staffed by a representative of the titular nationality, more
"reliable" Slavs were given such key positions in the republics as
second secretary of the Party or head of the KGB. In this way, Moscow was able to
monitor nationalism among the minorities. Russians also dominated sensitive
industries. For example, less than 10 percent of Lithuania's population was Russian, but they comprised 90 percent of personnel in
that republic's Ignalina nuclear power station. Likewise, Soviet defense
industries and the officer corps of the Soviet army were largely the preserve
of ethnic Russians.
Soviet politics in the late Brezhnev period
were no longer as totalitarian as under Stalin, but the country was still one
of the most repressive authoritarian systems in the world. Political control
over the population was far more pervasive than in non-communist
authoritarian regimes. However, the chief instrument of control now was
bureaucratic regulation rather than police terror. The Communist Party
remained the nerve center of the system, supervising all government offices
and schools, army units and newspapers, factories and farms. Article 6 of the
1977 Constitution had enshrined the Party as the "leading and guiding
force" in Soviet society. By 1982 the Party had grown to some 18 million
members out of a total population of 285 million. About 250,000 of these were
Party officials at various levels--they were the ones who exercised power.
The top Party leaders, thanks to Brezhnev's promises of stability in
personnel matters, often stayed in office until they died. Moscow's rulers grew so old and infirm that
Western Sovietologists began to refer to the regime as a gerontocracy--rule
by the elderly.
Under Brezhnev the already large state
bureaucracy became even more bloated and sclerotic. The USSR Council of
Ministers, roughly equivalent to a Western cabinet but with several dozen
production ministries included, reached 110 members by the late 1970s. Soviet
planners struggled to keep pace with rapidly advancing technology by using
consumer surveys and computer models, but central planning proved to be no
substitute for market mechanisms. Although Soviet scientists were among the
best in the world, bureaucracy and ideology stifled innovation and
productivity, leaving Soviet consumers with shoddy merchandise, poor health
care, pervasive shortages, and widespread environmental disasters.
Governments have a tendency to be
unresponsive when there is no chance that leaders will be voted out of
office. Soviet citizens did vote, but the electoral system was used only for
the least powerful of the three "branches" of the system--the
soviets (the other two were the Party and the government bureaucracy).
Despite Khrushchev's rhetoric about the All-People's State and Brezhnev's
claims for developed socialism, there was little
genuine political participation through these institutions. Candidates for
positions on the councils were vetted at each level by the appropriate Party
secretariats, and there was only one candidate on the ballot for each
position. On election day voters would receive their ballot, fold it in half,
and drop it in the ballot box in full view of officials. Voters had the
option of stepping into a booth and crossing the single name off the
ballot, but this was regarded as uncooperative behavior and was frowned on.
Local Party secretaries were tasked with getting out the vote as a show of
support for the regime, and they were very effective-turnout was usually
about 99.9 percent!
These three "branches" of the
Soviet system are depicted in Figures 7.1 and 7.2. The Communist Party's primary function
was decision making and oversight, the government ministries carried out
policies, and the soviets provided a patina of democracy. Offices frequently
overlapped--important bureaucrats like the Minister of Defense, Minister of
Foreign Affairs, and head of the KGB were also members of the Politburo, and
would routinely be "elected" to the Supreme Soviet. Local Party
secretaries were represented on the executive committees of local soviets.
Virtually all members of the USSR Council of Ministers were also on the Party
Central Committee. Unlike in the United States, the various
institutions did not provide for checks and balances. Instead, the
interlocking system of appointments contributed to a highly centralized
framework of political power in the Soviet Union.
General Secretary Brezhnev died in November
1982, leaving a legacy of economic stagnation, cultural mediocrity, and
political repression. His rule had been more benign than that of Stalin and
more stable than that of Khrushchev. But stability led to stagnation.
Problems were mounting that Brezhnev either could not or would not acknowledge.
One popular joke of the time has Brezhnev, Khrushchev, and Stalin riding
together in a railway car. When the train grinds to a halt, Stalin declares,
"I'll fix this," and promptly has the entire crew shot and
replaced. The train moves along for a bit, but then stops again. Khrushchev
promises to get it going, and immediately reorganizes the entire management.
The train starts up, rolls along the tracks for a while, but soon stops yet
again. "I know what to do," says Brezhnev. He pulls down the blinds
in the car and suggests to the others, "Let's just pretend we're
moving." Within three years the Soviet Union
would be taken over by a generation of leaders who would succeed in derailing
the train of state.
E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly
articles and book chapters.