Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
The Soviet Union, officially known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (Russian: Союз Советских Социалистических Республик (СССР)), was a Marxist-Leninist federal state that existed in Eurasia from 1922 to 1991.
The USSR was born as a union of four Soviet socialist republics, formed after the October Revolution of 1917, and grew to 15 by 1956.
Over and above the errors that led to its disappearance, this country played an essential role in the defeat of fascism and in the advance of humanity towards new forms of social organization that were more cooperative and in solidarity.
The Soviet Union developed under conditions of extreme pressure, facing invasion from capitalist powers, the Nazi invasion, and espionage from the West. Given the difficulties that it faced, it is remarkable the USSR managed to provide a positive political role for the working people, especially in a time when workers in the capitalist world were still struggling for basic union rights.
During its socialist period, the Soviet Union made some of the most impressive achievements in modern history. The socialist system transformed a nation of illiterate and half-starved peasants into a superpower, with one of the fastest growing economies on Earth, one of the world's best-educated and healthiest populations, and some of the most impressive industrial and technological achievements to date. It provided a model for the oppressed people's of the world to follow, as was shown in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and many other nations.
The USSR was a legitimate workers' state, in which the proletariat held power in the workplace, and had significant influence on national policy decisions. Contrast this with the utter lack of popular influence in bourgeois states, and this is even easier to appreciate.
Achievements of Socialism in the Soviet Union
Revolution, War Communism and the NEP
When the 1917 revolution took place, Russia was a backwards, semi-capitalist feudal society. The manor system had only recently been abolished, and replaced by the most brutal and primitive form of capitalism. The nation was dreadfully under-developed, with no sign of improving in the future. Not only that, but what little growth did occur led to massive inequalities. According to Professor Robert Allen (formerly of Oxford University, now at NYU):
Not only were the bases of Imperial advance narrow, but the process of growth gave rise to such inequitable changes in income distribution that revolution was hardly a surprise. Real wages for urban workers were static in the late Imperial period despite a significant increase in output per worker... The revolution was also a peasant revolt, and the interests of the peasants were different... As in the cities, there was no gain in real wages.
Simon Clarke, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Warwick, supports these claims:
Agriculture had reached North American levels of productivity by 1913 and wheat prices collapsed after 1914. The expansion of the railroads had run its course and there was no prospect of protected light industry becoming internationally competitive. The appropriate comparators for the prospects for Russian capitalism in the twentieth century are not Japan but Argentina or even India. Moreover, Russian capitalist development had brought little if any benefit to the urban and rural working class, intensifying the class conflicts that erupted in Revolution.
With the 1917 revolution (and after the bloody civil war, with its policy of war communism), the Soviet economy began to grow rapidly. The New Economic Policy (which nationalized large-scale industry and redistributed land, while allowing for the private sale of agricultural surplus) succeeded in transforming Russia from a semi-capitalist society into a developing state capitalist society, laying the groundwork for socialism. Professor Clarke states:
Following War Communism, the New Economic Policy (NEP) sought to develop the Russian economy within a quasi-capitalist framework.
However, economic circumstances came to require the transition to a planned socialist economy:
However, the institutional and structural barriers to Russian economic development were now compounded by the unfavorable circumstances of the world economy, so that there was no prospect of export-led development, while low domestic incomes provided only a limited market for domestic industry. Without a state coordinated investment program, the Soviet economy would be caught in the low-income trap typical of the underdeveloped world.
Thus, the material conditions of the time made the transition to a socialist economy a necessity.
Economic Development and Living Standards
In 1928 (after Stalin came to power as head of the Communist Party), Soviet Russia instituted a fully planned economy, and the first Five Year Plan was enacted. This resulted in rapid economic growth. According to Robert Allen:
Soviet GDP increased rapidly with the start of the first Five Year Plan in 1928... The expansion of heavy industry and the use of output targets and soft-budgets to direct firms were appropriate to the conditions of the 1930's, they were adopted quickly, and they led to rapid growth of investment and consumption.
Bourgeois economists often alleged that this rapid growth came at the cost of per-capita consumption and living standards. However, more recent research has shown this to be false. Allen states:
There has been no debate that ‘collective consumption’ (principally education and health services) rose sharply, but the standard view was that private consumption declined. Recent research, however, calls that conclusion into question... While investment certainly increased rapidly, recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly.
Calorie consumption rose rapidly during this period:
Calories are the most basic dimension of the standard of living, and their consumption was higher in the late 1930's than in the 1920's... In 1895-1910, calorie availability was only 2100 per day, which is very low by modern standards. By the late 1920's, calorie availability advanced to 2500... By the late 1930's, the recovery of agriculture increased calorie availability to 2900 per day, a significant increase over the late 1920's. The food situation during the Second World War was severe, but by 1970 calorie consumption rose to 3400, which was on a par with western Europe.
Overall, the development of the Soviet economy during the socialist period was extremely impressive. According to Robert Allen:
The Soviet economy performed well... Planning led to high rates of capital accumulation, rapid GDP growth, and rising per capita consumption even in the 1930's.
The USSR's growth during the socialist period exceeded that of the capitalist nations:
The USSR led the non-OECD countries and, indeed, achieved a growth rate in this period that exceeded the OECD catch-up regression as well as the OECD average.
This success is also attributed specifically to the revolution and the socialist system. As Allen states:
This success would not have occurred without the 1917 revolution or the planned development of state owned industry.
The benefits of the socialist system are obvious upon closer study. As Simon Clarke puts it:
...a capitalist economy would not have created the industrial jobs required to employ the surplus labor, since capitalists would only employ labor so long as the marginal product of labor exceeded the wage. State-sponsored industrialization faced no such constraints, since enterprises were encouraged to expand employment in line with the demands of the plan.
Economic growth was also aided by the liberation of women, and the resulting control over the birth rate, as well as women's participation in the workforce. Allen states:
The rapid growth in per capita income was contingent not just on the rapid expansion of GDP but also on the slow growth of the population. This was primarily due to a rapid fertility transition rather than a rise in mortality from collectivization, political repression, or the Second World War. Falling birth rates were primarily due to the education and employment of women outside the home. These policies, in turn, were the results of enlightenment ideology in its communist variant.
Reviews of Allen's work have backed up his statements. According to Simon Clarke:
Allen shows that the Stalinist strategy worked, in strictly economic terms, until around 1970... Allen’s book convincingly establishes the superiority of a planned over a capitalist economy in conditions of labor surplus (which is the condition of most of the world most of the time).
Other studies have backed-up the findings that the USSR's living standards rose rapidly. According to economist Elizabeth Brainerd (formerly of Williams College, now at Brandeis University):
Remarkably large and rapid improvements in child height, adult stature and infant mortality were recorded from approximately 1945 to 1970... Both Western and Soviet estimates of GNP growth in the Soviet Union indicate that GNP per capita grew in every decade in the postwar era, at times far surpassing the growth rates of the developed western economies... The conventional measures of GNP growth and household consumption indicate a long, uninterrupted upward climb in the Soviet standard of living from 1928 to 1985; even Western estimates of these measures support this view, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the Soviet measures.
Unfortunately, after the introduction of market reforms and other revisionist policies, living standards began to deteriorate (although some measures continued to increase, albeit more slowly). Brainerd states:
Three different measures of population health show a consistent and large improvement between approximately 1945 and 1969: child height, adult height and infant mortality all improved significantly during this period. These three biological measures of the standard of living also corroborate the evidence of some deterioration in living conditions beginning around 1970, when infant and adult mortality were rising and child and adult height stopped increasing and in some regions began to decline.
Economic growth also began to slow around this time. According to Robert Allen:
After the Second World War, the Soviet economy resumed rapid growth. By 1970, the growth rate was sagging, and per capita output was static by 1985.
The Cold War was another factor which contributed to slowing growth rates:
The Cold War was an additional factor that lowered Soviet growth after 1968. The creation of high tech weaponry required a disproportionate allocation of R & D personnel and resources to the military. Innovation in civilian machinery and products declined accordingly. Half of the decreased in the growth rate of per capita GDP was due to the decline in productivity growth, and that decrease provides an upper bound to the impact of the arms race with the United States.
In short, the USSR achieved massively positive economic results until the 1970's, when revisionist policies and the Cold War began to cause a stagnation. Now, let us move on from economic development, and talk about the health standards of the Soviet population.
Health conditions in Czarist Russia had been deplorable; it was among the unhealthiest nations in Europe (arguably in the entire world). According to Professor Reiner Dinkel (University of Munich):
Without doubt the Soviet Union was one of the most underdeveloped European countries at the time of the October Revolution. In terms of life-expectancy it lagged behind the other industrialized countries of Europe by a gap of about 15 years.
However, after the socialist revolution, healthcare conditions began to increase rapidly. By the end of the socialist period, healthcare standards (measured by life expectancy and mortality rates) were superior to those of Western Europe and the USA. Professor Dinkel states:
One of the most striking advances of socialism has been and was generally seen to be the improvement in public health provision for the population as a whole. In accordance with this assumption mortality-rates in the Soviet Union declined rapidly in the first two decades after World War II. In 1965 life-expectancy for men and women in all parts of the Soviet Union, which still included vast underdeveloped regions with unfavorable living conditions, were as high or even higher than in the United States. Such a development fits perfectly into the picture of emerging industrial development and generally improving conditions of living.
Even reactionary intellectuals were forced to acknowledge these achievements; according to Nicholas Ebserstadt (a conservative think-tank adviser), healthcare standards in the Soviet Union during the socialist period surpassed those of the USA and Western Europe:
Over much of this century the nation in the vanguard of the revolution in health was the Soviet Union. In 1897 Imperial Russia offered its people a life expectancy of perhaps thirty years. In European Russia, from what we can make out, infant mortality (that is, death in the first year) claimed about one child in four, and in Russia’s Asian hinterlands the toll was probably closer to one in three. Yet by the late 1950's the average Soviet citizen could expect to live 68.7 years: longer than his American counterpart, who had begun the century with a seventeen-year lead. By 1960 the Soviet infant mortality rate, higher than any in Europe as late as the Twenties, was lower than that of Italy, Austria, or East Germany, and seemed sure to undercut such nations as Belgium and West Germany any year.
He even notes that these achievements made socialism seem nearly unbeatable:
In the face of these and other equally impressive material accomplishments, Soviet claims about the superiority of their “socialist” system, its relevance to the poor countries, and the inevitability of its triumph over the capitalist order were not easily refuted.
While health conditions did start to decline after the introduction of revisionist policies in the mid-60's (this will be discussed in more detail in part three), the healthcare achievements of the socialist system remain unimpeachable.
In the Soviet Union in 1919 at the eighth congress of the Communist Party the fundamentals for socialist education were being laid down.
- All schools of general education were made public; private schools were outlawed
- Education was to become free of charge
- Common education for both sexes were to be implemented
- The church were to be separated from education and the state; religious ceremonies and
education in religious dogmas were outlawed
- Physical punishment was to be outlawed
- All nationalities were given the right to be educated in their own mother tongue (The Soviet
Union housed many peoples, cultures and languages that before were only educated in
- Admission requirements were changed so working people could also study
An enormous battle was fought against illiteracy, which led to all citizens of the Soviet Union being able to read and write in 1959. Education was free and accessible, where the interests of the working and poor peasant population counted the most. There was a demand for adult education where adults could keep on working next to studying. Because of this higher education, institutions were founded where people could study in the evening and where attending was less important.
Students were granted study allowances and housing if they had to move from another town/village. People that worked besides studying were given an adjusted work schedule with less working hours and more free time for studying.
In 1975, 856 higher education institutions existed, which consisted of 65 universities that educated 4,9 million students.
At higher education institutions sport clubs, theater groups, music bands etc. were founded. The Soviet students were actively involved with international youth and student movements.
In 1913, the Russian Empire housed 11.600 scientists; in 1975, this number was multiplied by a hundred. This year, 1⁄4 of all humankind’s scientists were from the Soviet Union.
All students, regardless of their study, were educated in philosophy, political economy, history. Study programs were made with the goal of a broad, general, scientific education in addition to deeper knowledge of the concrete study that was chosen.
One of the characteristics of Soviet education was the combination of education and productive labor.
Besides lectures and tutorials/seminars, practical experience at the workplace was embedded in the curriculum. The first two years of education were concentrated on general education with lectures, tutorials and papers. The final years would focus on the specialization of the student. From the third year on a big part, 30-40% was devoted to practical experience. These were internships at labs, hospitals, factories, scientific institutions and government institutions, depending on the study.
During the whole internship, there was educational coaching; theoretical questions were being discussed based on the practical labor of the student.
In the last year, there would be an internship that was compatible with the specific work field of the student. The internship would last to a year, depending on the specialization. In the whole period, the internees would receive the wage that normal workers would get in the same position.
In the making of study schedules free time of the students were taking into account so there would be enough time next to studying for other activities.
Studying was completely free of charge. The Soviet student did not have to pay anything for lectures, practicums, books or other materials they needed.
The vast majority (more than 80%) of students received a study allowance that would allow cover their needs so they would not burden their families. The allowance was 25% higher for students with high grades and 15% higher for students that were sent by companies and state farms. Not only didn’t the Soviet student have to pay to study, he or she was paid to study. All higher education institutions had their own student housing. The ones that studied outside of the town or village where their family’s lives were housed in these student houses. The price they paid for these houses was 7% of the allowance they received. In the Soviet Union it was forbidden that renting a house cost more than 10% of someone’s income. Even though the amount of students would rise, they would always be housed because of the social and economic planning.
Students receive discounts at restaurants or other food related places.
During their whole study, students were granted free health and dental care.
Students had free access to gyms, sports fields etc., and to cultural activities where they would receive the necessary good like musical instruments.
For example: Energy Technology Institute in Moscow that was more or less as big as a small town. In 1959, the institute housed 16 accommodations for 6.000 people, shops, dining areas, swimming pools, gyms, sport fields, a centre for preventive health care, a polyclinic and a healthcare centre with 250 beds.
Every university had leisure parks where students could take holidays. In the seventies, every student in the Soviet Union had the right to 12 days of vacation in such a leisure place, including food, for which they paid only 7 rubble.
There were special measures for young families: they would receive a higher allowance and mothers could study a year longer than normal students could. Free nurseries were available for children of students and for higher education institution workers.
Students did not have to have a job to pay for their studies. Everything they needed was provided by the state. However, thousands of workers and others could or wanted to study. Because of this, measures were taken to educate through evening studying or studying by distance. Their work hours were cut, without receiving less salary. The first years they would get a month of extra free time, and in the last years, they would receive an additional 10 days (40 in total). Depending on the expertise, they would be given free time for practical classes and exams. For writing their thesis, working people would receive four months of free time. During all this free time, they would get a salary. In the last 10 months of their thesis, they would get one day off per week, which would be paid half of the normal wage.
Graduates did not have to look for work after studying. Every education institution consisted of a special committee that was made up of representatives from the ministry that were responsible for the work field in which the institution would educate in. The committee also existed out of representatives of the institution itself and representatives of students. The ministries would collect information about the demand of workers in various companies. This information would be given to the education institutions. Most of the time there were more free job positions than the amount of graduates. The committee I mentioned earlier would examine the free job positions. They would check the specific needs of the position but also the interests and qualities of a student. Worth mentioning is that no student would be assigned to a job without his permission. Most of the time it was possible to choose from different positions that were available after information was shared about the work itself, the salary etc. Six months before graduating, students would know in which positions they would get a job, and were given the opportunity to prepare for the responsibilities that came with this position.
The graduated student had to work at least three years at the position he was assigned to after graduating. This was an obligation towards the state that provided free education.
Workers' Control and Democracy in the Soviet Union
One of the most common allegations leveled against the USSR (and socialist states in general) by left-anticommunists is that it was not "real socialism," because the workers did not have direct control over production. This claim may be found in the writings of Noam Chomsky, Murray Bookchin, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and numerous other anti-Soviet leftists. It is claimed that the indisputable gains made by the working class in socialist states (such as vast improvements to their health and welfare) are irrelevant, because these revolutions were "bureaucratic," and therefore, illegitimate.
The goal of this post is to demonstrate that, in point of fact, the Soviet working class did have a degree of workers' control, which successfully gave Soviet workers far more rights and influence than their capitalist counterparts.
Workers' Control in the Soviet Workplace
When discussing this topic, it is helpful to start at the level of the individual workplace. Professor Robert Thurston (Miami University at Ohio) states that "at the lower levels of society, in day-to-day affairs and the implementation of policy, [the Soviet system] was participatory." He notes that workers were frequently encouraged to take part in decision making:
The regime regularly urged its people to criticize local conditions and their leaders, at least below a certain exalted level. For example, in March 1937 Stalin emphasized the importance of the party's 'ties to the masses'. To maintain them, it was necessary 'to listen carefully to the voice of the masses, to the voice of rank and file members of the party, to the voice of so-called "little people," to the voice of ordinary folk.'
These were not empty words or cheap propaganda; while there were limits to criticism, Professor Thurston notes that "such bounds allowed a great deal that was deeply significant to workers, including some aspects of production norms, pay rates and classifications, safety on the job, housing, and treatment by managers." The workers had a voice in various official bodies, and they generally had their demands met:
The Commissariat of Justice also heard and responded to workers' appeals. In August 1935 the Saratov city prosecutor reported that of 118 cases regarding pay recently handled by his office, 90, or 73.6 percent, had been resolved in favor of workers.
Workers also took part in direct oversight of managers:
Workers participated by the hundreds of thousands in special inspectorates, commissions, and brigades which checked the work of managers and institutions. These agencies sometimes wielded significant power.
The rights of Soviet workers were often noted in later accounts of the socialist era:
One emigre recalled that his stepmother, a factory worker, 'often scolded the boss,' and also complained about living conditions, but was never arrested. John Scott, an American employed for years in the late 1930's as a welder in Magnitogorsk, attended a meeting at a Moscow factory in 1940 where workers were able to 'criticize the plant director, make suggestions as to how to increase production, increase quality, and lower costs.'
These facts are all the more impressive when we recall the dismal state of workers' rights in the capitalist nations at this time:
This occurred at a time when American workers in particular were struggling for basic union recognition, which even when won did not provide much formal influence at the work place.
Thurston makes the following observation:
Far from basing its rule on the negative means of coercion, the Soviet regime in the late 1930's fostered a limited but positive political role for the populace... Earlier concepts of the Soviet state require rethinking: the workers who ousted managers, achieved the imprisonment of their targets, and won reinstatement at factories did so through organizations which constituted part of the state apparatus and wielded state powers.
He also notes that "no sharp division between state and society existed," though different levels of the state wielded different powers.
In short, while the Soviet Union did have authoritarian elements (as was inevitable given the conditions; the USSR had been ravaged by civil war, and invaded by multiple capitalist nations), there was also a strong element of workers' control, giving the USSR a legitimate claim to being a workers' state.
Political Participation of the Workers
Working people did not only have the right to take part in decision-making at the workplace; they also had a voice in national policy decisions. Professor Kazuko Kawamoto (Hitotsubashi University) states that the USSR had "a more democratic face than what is usually imagined, especially among Western people." As they put it:
The Soviet regime was democratic in its own sense of the word... participation through sending letters and attending discussions gave self-government a certain reality and helped to legitimize the Soviet regime. Therefore, listening to the people was an important obligation for the authorities... the government encouraged people to send letters to the authorities and actively used the all-people’s discussions.
These all-people's discussions existed from the early days of the Soviet Union, and they had great significance (contrary to the assumptions of Western scholars):
Although the first all-people’s discussion was conducted with the approval of the 1936 Stalin constitution on the grounds that the former ruling classes no longer existed, publication and public discussion of bills had been common before the constitution in the name of participation of the masses. Western scholars usually took this as an attempt to put a face of legitimacy on the process, understanding the discussions to be a mere formality. However, that is not the case with the Principles argued here. The discussions were neither a disguise nor a mere formality.
Legislators took direct part in these meetings, altering proposed bills in accordance with popular opinion. Professor Kawamoto states that " it is worth pointing out that members of the subcommittee actively participated in the discussion, rewriting the draft at the same time." It is also noted that Soviet citizens "believed that they were entitled to demand policy changes, and the draft writers, including specialists, officials, and deputies, felt obliged to respond to those demands." The process of gathering public opinion was intensive enough that it often slowed down the process of legislation:
Regarding the process of creating the Principles, direct participation worked largely as expected in the ideology of Soviet democracy, although it took many years.
As Professor Kawamoto says, "the reason why it took so long was deeply rooted in the ideas of Soviet democracy." Contrast this with bourgeois democracy, where legislators typically disregard the opinion of the masses. This may speed up the legislative process, but it results in extremely high levels of popular discontent. In addition to the aforementioned means of popular participation, Soviet officials also traveled throughout the nation to gather information on popular opinion. Using the development of Soviet family law as an example, Professor Kawamoto states:
The draft makers were not only passive recipients of letters but also traveled throughout the Soviet Union to listen to the people. When the work in the Commissions of Legislative Proposals was reaching its end, members of the subcommittee and officials working for them visited several union republics from April to June 1962 to research the practice of family law and collect opinions on important standards in the draft of the Principles... After these research trips, the commission finished the draft and presented it to the Central Committee of the Party in July.
While Soviet democracy was not without its flaws (as mentioned, the process was often rather slow, and there were limits to the extent of criticism), it would be highly inaccurate to describe the USSR as a "totalitarian" society, with no democratic structures; on the contrary, the USSR did practice its own form of democracy, and it did so rather effectively.
The Question of Stalin
Joseph Stalin was the principal architect of the socialist period in the USSR. As a result, he has been the victim of perhaps the most extensive smear campaign in modern history. Claims that he killed tens of millions of people, jailed victims without cause, and deliberately starved Ukrainian peasants are only some of the propaganda charges leveled against him. As such, it is the duty of any informed socialist to combat this propaganda.
Firstly, we must remember the extensive achievements discussed above, which vastly improved life for hundreds of millions of people. These achievements were the result of the socialist system, built primarily under Joseph Stalin. This section will deal with Stalin's successes and failures, correct various misconceptions and falsehoods surrounding him, and place the man in his proper historical context.
It should also be said, this discussion will not gloss over and/or ignore Stalin's various flaws and misdoings; "Stalin did nothing wrong" is a good meme, but it's a bad analysis.
The Soviet Economy Under Stalin
It is commonly alleged that Stalin presided over a period of economic failure in the USSR, due to his insistence upon industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. However, more recent research has painted a far more positive picture.
According to Professor Robert Allen:
The Soviet economy performed well... Planning led to high rates of capital accumulation, rapid GDP growth, and rising per capita consumption even in the 1930's. [...] The expansion of heavy industry and the use of output targets and soft-budgets to direct firms were appropriate to the conditions of the 1930's, they were adopted quickly, and they led to rapid growth of investment and consumption.
Professor Elizabeth Brainerd refers to Soviet growth rates as "impressive," noting that they "promoted the rapid industrialization of the USSR, particularly in the decades from the 1930's to the 1960's." She also states:
Both Western and Soviet estimates of GNP growth in the Soviet Union indicate that GNP per capita grew in every decade in the postwar era, at times far surpassing the growth rates of the developed western economies.
Even still, it is often claimed that this growth did not improve the standard of living for the Soviet people. However, more recent research has also shown this to be false. According to Professor Allen:
While investment certainly increased rapidly, recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly. [...] Calories are the most basic dimension of the standard of living, and their consumption was higher in the late 1930's than in the 1920's. [...] There has been no debate that ‘collective consumption’ (principally education and health services) rose sharply, but the standard view was that private consumption declined. Recent research, however, calls that conclusion into question... Consumption per head rose about one quarter between 1928 and the late 1930's.
According to Professor Brainerd:
The conventional measures of GNP growth and household consumption indicate a long, uninterrupted upward climb in the Soviet standard of living from 1928 to 1985; even Western estimates of these measures support this view, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the Soviet measures.
While the economy is not the main purpose of this discussion, it should be acknowledged that under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union experienced rapid economic growth, and a significant increase in the population's standard of living.
The Great Purge
The purges of the late-1930's are a definite black mark on the legacy of Soviet socialism; this much cannot be denied. That being said, they have been the subject of decades-worth of unjustified and intolerable distortions and exaggerations by bourgeois academics, necessitating a thorough reply.
Firstly, let us establish the facts of how many people actually died in the purges. While Westerners are often treated to numbers ranging from 20 to 50 million, the true figures (while bad enough in their own right) are nowhere near that high. According to Professor J. Arch Getty:
From 1921 to Stalin's death, in 1953, around 800,000 people were sentenced to death and shot, 85 percent of them in the years of the Great Terror of 1937-1938. From 1934 to Stalin's death, more than a million perished in the gulag camps.
To these figures must be added an important qualification: contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of gulag inmates were not innocent political prisoners. Professor Getty notes that those convicted of "counterrevolutionary crimes" made up between 12 and 33 percent (depending on the year) of the gulag population, with the rest having been convicted of ordinary crimes. He also rejects the common claim that non-Russian nationalities were disproportionately targeted. To quote from his article in the American Historical Review:
The long-awaited archival evidence on repression in the period of the Great Purges shows that the levels of arrests, political prisoners, executions, and general camp populations tend to confirm the orders of magnitude indicated by those labeled as "revisionists" and mocked by those proposing high estimates... inferences that the terror fell particularly hard on non-Russian nationalities are not borne out by the camp population data from the 1930's. The frequent assertion that most of the camp prisoners were 'political' also seems not to be true.
In addition, the gulags were not death camps like those of the Nazis; they were prisons, albeit harsh ones. Even noted anti-communist scholars (such as those who worked on the infamous Black Book of Communism) have admitted this. To quote again from Professor Getty:
Stalin's camps were different from Hitler's. Tens of thousands of prisoners were released every year upon completion of their sentences. We now know that before World War II more inmates escaped annually from the Soviet camps than died there. [...] Werth, a well-regarded French specialist on the Soviet Union whose sections in the Black Book on the Soviet Communists are sober and damning, told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union."
It must also be noted that, contrary to the popular conception of Stalin's USSR as a place of "total terror" (to quote Hannah Arendt), the majority of the population did not feel threatened by the purges. Referring to the time of the Great Purge, Professor Robert Thurston notes that "my evidence suggests that widespread fear did not exist in the case at hand." He also notes that the Great Purge was an exceptional occurrence, which cannot be used to characterize the Stalinist-era as a whole:
I will not simply imply but will state outright that the Ezhovshchina [Great Purge] was an aberration. Torture was uncommon until August 1937, when it became the norm; it ended abruptly with Beria's rise to head of the NKVD in late 1938. Mass arrests followed the same pattern... A campaign for more regular, fair, and systemic judicial procedures that began in 1933-1934 was interrupted and overwhelmed by the Terror in 1937. It resumed in the spring of 1938, more strongly and effectively than before. Thus more than one trend was broken by the Ezhovshchina, only to reappear after it.
He also points out that some arrests which took place during the Great Purge were based on previously-ignored (yet arguably still legitimate) crimes against the Soviet state, such as fighting with the reactionary forces during the Civil War:
People were suddenly arrested in 1937 for things that had happened many years earlier but had been ignored since, for example, serving in a White army.
The question arises: why arrest former White Army soldiers, among others? The answer lies in the general fear of counterrevolution which pervaded the party at this time. According to Professor James Harris:
By the mid-1930's, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the militarists in Japan, both stridently anti-communist, posed a very real threat to the USSR. War was then on the horizon, and Stalin felt he had no choice but to take preemptive action against what he saw as a potential fifth column – a group that would undermine the larger collective.
Remember that since the moment of its founding (still a recent event, at this time), the Soviet Union had been invaded by multiple capitalist powers (including the United States) in the early-1920's, and had also been subject to espionage and internal sabotage. Combined with the looming threat of war with an increasingly powerful Nazi Germany, it is hardly surprising that these factors came together to form an atmosphere of paranoia, which lent itself to the sort of violent excess seen during the Purge. This coincides with Professor Thurston's interpretation of the events, from his book Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia:
...between 1934 and 1936 police and court practice relaxed significantly. Then a series of events, together with the tense international situation and memories of real enemy activity during the savage Russian Civil War, combined to push leaders and people into a hysterical hunt for perceived 'wreckers.' After late 1938, however, the police and courts became dramatically milder.
This general atmosphere of fear (not of the purges, but of external and internal enemies) is most likely why the majority of the Soviet people seemed to support the government's actions during the Purge period. According to Professor Thurston:
The various reactions to arrest cataloged above suggest that general fear did not exist in the USSR at any time in the late 1930's... People who remained at liberty often felt that some event in the backgrounds of the detained individuals justified their arrests. The sense that anyone could be next, the underpinning of theoretical systems of terror, rarely appears.
Overall, perhaps the most succinct summary of this issue is the one provided in Professor Thurston's book, in which he states:
There was never a long period of Stalinism without a serious foreign threat, major internal dislocation, or both, which makes identifying its true nature impossible.
As Marxists, we should be well aware that material conditions shape ideological and political structures. The savagery of the Russian Civil War, the multiple invasions from capitalist powers, and the increasing threat of a war against fascism make the paranoid atmosphere of the late-1930's understandable, if not condonable; yet even while we discuss the genuine causes of the Purge, and reject the hysterical anti-communist mud-throwing of the Cold Warriors, we must still acknowledge the black mark that the Purge leaves on Stalin's legacy.
The Ukrainian Famine ("Holodomor")
Perhaps the most pernicious accusation against Stalin is that he orchestrated the dreadful famine of the early-1930's in order to squash a Ukrainian nationalist revolt. This despicable slander (which is peddled largely by Ukrainian nationalist and neo-fascist groups) is easily refuted by examining the historical consensus.
Walter Duranty, a journalist who served as Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times from 1922 to 1936 wrote:
I have just completed a 200-mile auto trip through the heart of the Ukraine and can say positively that the harvest is splendid and all talk of famine now is ridiculous.
Everywhere one goes and from everyone with whom one talks — from communists and officials to local peasants — it is the same story: “Now we will be all right, now we are assured for the winter, now we have more grain than can easily be harvested.” (...)
The populace, from the babies to the old folks, looks healthy and well nourished.
Alexander Dallin of Stanford University writes:
There is no evidence it was intentionally directed against Ukrainians... that would be totally out of keeping with what we know -- it makes no sense.
Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania stated:
This is crap, rubbish... I am an anti-Stalinist, but I don't see how this [genocide] campaign adds to our knowledge. It's adding horrors, adding horrors, until it becomes a pathology.
Lynne Viola of the University of Toronto writes:
I absolutely reject it... Why in God's name would this paranoid government consciously produce a famine when they were terrified of war [with Germany]?
Mark Tauger, Professor of History at West Virginia University (reviewing work by Stephen Wheatcroft and R.W. Davies) has this to say:
Popular media and most historians for decades have described the great famine that struck most of the USSR in the early 1930s as “man-made,” very often even a “genocide” that Stalin perpetrated intentionally against Ukrainians and sometimes other national groups to destroy them as nations... This perspective, however, is wrong. The famine that took place was not limited to Ukraine or even to rural areas of the USSR, it was not fundamentally or exclusively man-made, and it was far from the intention of Stalin and others in the Soviet leadership to create such as disaster. A small but growing literature relying on new archival documents and a critical approach to other sources has shown the flaws in the “genocide” or “intentionalist” interpretation of the famine and has developed an alternative interpretation.
More recent research has discovered natural causes for the Ukrainian famine. Tauger notes:
...the USSR experienced an unusual environmental disaster in 1932: extremely wet and humid weather that gave rise to severe plant disease infestations, especially rust. Ukraine had double or triple the normal rainfall in 1932. Both the weather conditions and the rust spread from Eastern Europe, as plant pathologists at the time documented. Soviet plant pathologists in particular estimated that rust and other fungal diseases reduced the potential harvest in 1932 by almost nine million tons, which is the largest documented harvest loss from any single cause in Soviet history.
It should be noted that this does not excuse the Soviet state from any and all responsibility for the suffering that took place; one could accuse the government of insufficiently rapid response, and note that initial reports were often downplayed to avoid rocking the boat. But it is clear that the famine was not deliberate, was not a genocide, and (to quote Tauger) "was not fundamentally or exclusively man-made."
In short, Stalin was an extraordinarily complex man. His legacy is far too nuanced to be summed-up in catchphrases like "Stalin was worse than Hitler," or "Stalin did nothing wrong." He was a flawed leader, who managed some enormous achievements (rapid industrial and economic growth, improvements to the standard of living, leading the USSR to victory over Nazism), while also making some enormous mistakes (the paranoia of the purges, the errors of the famine, the rolling-back of progressive social policies).
We should not respond to bourgeois propaganda by insisting (as some well-meaning yet mistaken comrades have done) that every single misdeed of Stalin is a lie; rather, we should place them into proper historical context, along with his various achievements. This is the correct way for Marxists to analyze the world: with a firm, well-grounded materialist critique, yielding no ground to hero worship, or to a fictitious "great man" theory of history. Recall what Fidel Castro said on the matter:
I believe Stalin made big mistakes but also showed great wisdom. In my opinion, blaming Stalin for everything that occurred in the Soviet Union would be historical simplism, because no man by himself could have created certain conditions. It would be the same as giving Stalin all the credit for what the USSR once was. That is impossible! I believe that the efforts of millions and millions of heroic people contributed to the USSR's development and to its relevant role in the world in favor of hundreds of millions of people. [...] I think there should be an impartial analysis of Stalin. Blaming him for everything that happened would be historical simplism.
Stalin was a great proletarian revolutionary, and yet he was also a highly flawed leader. Do not be ashamed of this legacy, comrades; rather, recall that in all things, there is contradiction.
Consequences of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Russia/Russian Soviet Socialist Republic
- 30,000 Medium to large scale factories in 1990 (before the collapse). That number is reduced down to 5000.
- GDP of 1996 was 63.1% of the 1991 GDP keep in mind that the economy of the USSR in 1991 was worse off than before the Perestroika period, thus the GDP of 1996 would be even smaller compared to the pre-collapse era GDP of the USSR.
- Number of hospitals has halved from 10700 to 5400.
- Similarly, the number of schools has dropped from almost 70,000 to 42,600.
- In just 17 years, from 2000-2017 26700,000,000,000 rubles have been illegally stolen from the people outside of Russia.
- At least Russia is number one at some things like first at the number of Millionaires.
- In terms of billionaires they are in 4th place.
- 22,000,000 Russians are in poverty
- 86% of Russians struggle to buy the most basic things
- 23,000 towns, villages and cities have been abandoned in the last 20 years
- Because of Capitalism and the massive hit we took after the collapse of the USSR including the horrible living conditions and poverty that broke out the Russian population lost 30 Million in terms of demographics(More than in ww2)
Kazakhstan/Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic
- only from 1981-1986 - 400 enterprises/factories were built, in 1983 we had more than 9 million cattle, 36 million sheep and supplied meat to almost all Soviet Republics.
- engineering and metalworking enterprises/factories fell from 2000 to 100
- machine building in the total industrial production fell from 16% to 3% (mostly oil and gas now)
- light industry - 15% fell to 0.6%, from 1990-2006 (all products are imported)
- refined 18 million tons of oil, this number fell to 13.7 million tons (+ imported from Russia)
- meat exports 184.5 thousand tons fell to 0.3 thousand tons(we import meat now)
- compound feed production 4 million tons fell to 400 thousand tons
- 2006 → 2009, 540 rural settlements liquidated/abandoned
- education expenditure 8% fell to 3% = shortage of qualified personnel + it's not always free.
- Free medical care will soon be abolished too
- GDP of 1996 was only 69.3% of the 1991 Soviet GDP, keep in mind that the economy of the USSR in 1991 was worse off than before the Perestroika period, thus the GDP of 1996 would be even smaller compared to the pre-collapse era GDP of the USSR.
Ukraine/Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
Ukraine seemed like it would become the next European power. It had 3 military districts left over from the USSR with the best weaponry in the world including 700,000 troops as well as a nuclear arsenal of 3000 that made it the 3rd strongest country in the whole world after the US and Russia. By the time of the war in the Donbass the number of military personnel dropped down to 168,000 while selling huge quantities of Soviet weaponry.
- Scientists within the country reduced from 313 079(1990) down to 94,274 in (2017).
- Doctors within the country reduced from 227 thousand (1991) down to 187 thousand in (2016).
- nursing staff halved since the collapse of the USSR
- Electricity generation, billion kWh per year fell from 238 (1980) down to 167 (2000)
- Stone mining(Coal thousand tons per year) 197 100 (1980) down to 81 100 (2000)
- Steel production (thousand tons per year) around 48 000 (1980) down to 31 767 (2000)
- Production of tractors (thousand pieces) around 130, 000 (1980) down to 4000 (2000)
- Production of mineral fertilizers (thousand tons per year) around 4 850 (1991) down to 1 554 (2000)
- Grain Harvest (million tons per year) dropped from 51 (1990) down to 25,7 (2000)
- Around 250 planes a year were being built, that number dropped to 1-2 a year after Capitalism.
- The Ukranian GDP of 1996 was only 47.2% of the 1991 Ukranian SSR GDP, keep in mind that the economy of the USSR in 1991 was worse off than before the Perestroika period, thus the GDP of 1996 would be even smaller compared to the pre-collapse era GDP of the USSR.
The destruction of democracy
- The 1991 referendum of keeping the USSR in one way or the other gained a 78% positive vote. However, this was thrown out of the window and the USSR was torn apart nonetheless.
- In 1993 when the Parliament ie (Supreme Soveit) tried to remove Yeltsin, he ordered tanks to drive into Moscow and shoot the Parliament building. Crowds of Soviet Citizens tried to stop the attack, but were unsuccessful. Over 100 of comrades died that day. https://images.app.goo.gl/eqRAJBrvyDRBRFUR9 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjBmtkW3Tl8&t=423s (live footage from the day). This allowed Yeltsin to change the constitution and increase his own power while selling Russia off to Western capital.
Consequences for the Soviet people
According to the UN Human Development Index—which measures levels of life expectancy. Commenting on the situation in the former Soviet Union after capitalist restoration, Fabre stated, “We have catastrophic falls in several countries, which often are republics of the former Soviet Union, where poverty is actually increasing. In fact poverty has tripled in the whole region”.
To sum it up for the Soviet people - “98 Russian billionaires hold more wealth than Russians combined savings” or 200 Russian oligarchs have 485 billion USD most of which come from post Soviet factories that used to be owned by the workers but were sold off at extremely low prices.
Effects on the rest of the world
- The USSR had connections with China, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Eastern Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Birma, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia, Congo, Angola, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar. As the USSR was collapsing/collapsed Socialism and Socialist organisations in all of these countries would fall apart too leaving them at the grasp of the capitalists.
- Cuba had huge economic problems as it was dependant on the USSR.
- DPRK had a huge famine in the 90’s due to the collapse of the USSR.
- Many Socialist nations around the world reverted back to the first stage of Socialism.
Civil wars within the USSR
Many love to claim that the USSR’s collapse was bloodless. This is a list of all the civil wars between Soviet countries and peoples:
- Tajikistan Civil War - 50,000 dead
- 2010 South Kyrgyzstan ethnic riots - 2000 dead
- Tajikistan Insurgency - 200 dead
- East Prigorodny Conflict - 550 dead
- First Chechen War - around 60,000 dead
- War of Dagestan - 300 dead
- Second Chechen War - around 80,000 dead
- War in Ingushetia - 900 dead
- insurgency in the North Caucasus - 4200 dead
- Nagorno-Karabakh War - 33,000 dead
- 1991–1992 South Ossetian War - 1000 dead
- Georgian Civil War - 20,000 deaths
- Russo-Georgian War - 500 dead
- Transnistria War - 1500 dead
- Euromaidan - 200 dead
- Russo-Ukrainian War - 15,000 dead
Overall - roughly 270,000 Soviet citizens have died from direct causes of the war.
- Walter Duranty, Duranty reports Russia, p. 318
- Jeff Coplon, In search of a Soviet Holocaust
- Mark Tauger, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933
- American Expeditionary Force, Siberia - Wikipedia
- Eastern Front (World War II) - Wikipedia
- A Reassessment of the Soviet Industrial Revolution by Robert C. Allen
- Reviewed Work: Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Reviewed by Simon Clarke
- Declining Life Expectancy in a Highly Developed Nation: Paradox or Statistical Artifact? by Professor Reiner Dinkel
- Rethinking Soviet Democracy by Kazuko Kawamoto
- Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
- Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence by J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov
- Yale University: Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia by Robert W. Thurston
- History News Network: Historian James Harris says Russian Archives show we've misunderstood Stalin