The Soviet Legacy

The Soviet period started in October 1917, with the victory of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's Bolshevik party over the bourgeois Provisional Government in the political revolt later referred to as the “October Revolution.” It ended with the Communist hardliners' coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Thus the period covers 74 years of Russia's recent history. The word “Soviet” means “council” in Russian, and as such refers to an idealistic concept of a government of peasants and workers ruling through local, regional, and national councils of people's representatives. Such a system was in fact put in place in 1917, before the Bolsheviks hijacked it for their own purposes. As the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (C.P.S.U.) matured, the lower-level Soviets became completely subordinate to one-party rule and in the later Soviet period they did little more than give a nod of approval to all of the party's decisions. Nevertheless, the entire country became known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), or the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not fully formed until 1922, because it took the Communists about 5 years to defeat the White Army in a civil war. Even after the Communist Red Army's victory over the Whites, there were still significant territorial losses in comparison with the former Russian Empire. Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia (in contemporary Moldova), and much of western Ukraine did not become part of the U.S.S.R. for about 20 years. Because of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union would regain most of these territories just before World War II. Finland fought back and successfully defended its independence in 1939, while Poland was allowed to regain its sovereignty (albeit under socialist rule) in 1945. Politically, the U.S.S.R. not only had a hierarchical one-party government, but permitted no freedom of political expression and held merely token single-candidate elections. Ordinary party members, numbering about 17 million in a country of 280 million, had only token membership and played almost no role in formal decision making, while a small group at the top made all political decisions. Nevertheless, the small group at the top (the so-called nomenklatura, discussed later) would recruit its new members from the large party base.

Economically, the Soviet Union was a socialist state running as a command economy on 5-year plans without the aid of the free market. Although making the transition to a communist economy was the nominal goal, Lenin and his followers quickly discovered that its implementation as envisioned by Marx, Engels, and their philosophical followers of the 19th century did not work in practice. Marx envisioned communism as an egalitarian society in which production is voluntary and abundant, while coercion (taxes, police, prisons, etc.) is unnecessary. Idealistic (usually religious) leaders over the course of human history have managed to create communes reflective of the Marxist ideal on a small scale. Creating a national-level communist economy, however, proved impossible in Russia or anywhere else.

The Communist regime of Lenin in Russia failed to create anything like a utopian social system. After 5 years of bloody civil war and the draconian measures of so-called war Communism, when even staple foods were forcibly taken from the peasants by bands of armed soldiers to feed hungry cities, Russia had to find an alternative. Lenin shrewdly replaced the dream of Marxist communism with the reality of Marxist–Leninist socialism. Socialism was supposedly a temporary fix—an economy not based on the Communist slogan of “from each one according to abilities, to each one according to need,” but rather on “from each one according to talent, to each one according to labor.” Thus money, courts, an army, prisons, and taxes could be retained, and people would still have a strong incentive to work. In return, many state benefits would be provided free of charge or at a nominal fee (e.g., housing, health care, education, and guaranteed employment). The early socialism retained some free-market elements under the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP) of Lenin, which was successful at producing surplus food. The NEP allowed small artisan cooperatives and private farms. Stalin later abolished the NEP and changed the system into a top-heavy state socialism, where even the remaining small pockets of coops and private owners completely disappeared.

When Lenin died in 1924 after a few years of illness, he left no designated successor. Instead, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Stalin, and other Communist leaders were pitted against each other in a vicious behind-the-scenes fight to control the party and the country. By the early 1930s, Stalin had emerged as the victor, having dispatched his enemies one by one through cleverly playing them off against each other. All his comrades of the 1920s were eventually either executed in the U.S.S.R. (Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev) or killed in exile by Stalin's agents (Trotsky). Stalin did not have any personal friends, only subordinates who lived in constant fear for their lives. Even the wives of some of his closest associates, such as Khrushchev and Kalinin, were arrested and imprisoned in GULAG camps to ensure the associates' loyalty. Joseph Stalin belongs to the group of infamous bloody dictators of the 20th century, along with Hitler of Germany, Mussolini of Italy, Mao of China, and Pol Pot of Cambodia. Tens of millions of lives were lost in the famines, executions, prisons, and labor camps of the Stalin period—so many from so many sectors of society that it is impossible to quantify the death toll accurately.

Geographically, Stalin's Soviet Union after World War II corresponded almost exactly to the boundaries of the Russian Empire, without Poland and Finland. The 15 constituent republics of the postwar U.S.S.R. had all been, at one time or another, parts of the Russian Empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, although it is technically incorrect to refer to the Soviet Union as “Soviet Russia,” it was a common name given to the country in the United States at the time. Russian political ?migr?s in Europe refused to call the country anything else but Russia, as a matter of principle.

Lenin strategically moved the capital of the country from the coastal and vulnerable St. Petersburg/Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1918) to the much more defensible inland Moscow. Lenin correctly felt the imminent threat posed by Germany and other Western countries to the new socialist state. When a socialist revolution in Germany failed in 1918, Lenin rightly concluded that sooner or later the two countries would be on a collision course again. His decision to move the capital proved critically important in the fall of 1941.

Territorial Administrative Structure

Each of the Soviet republics had its own flag, coat of arms, legislature, and ruling committee of the Communist Party. In theory, the republics were equal units joined into a voluntary federation, like the United States. The actual decision making, however, was very top-down and unitary in nature, not federal. Each of the republics got to send 32 delegates to the Council of Nationalities at the federal level, for example, but those delegates had no power over what would actually happen back home. Their role instead was to approve party decisions in a cheerful unanimous show of hands broadcast on state TV. Each republic was headed by a Communist leader who was a member of that republic's principal ethnic group, with a Russian vice-secretary as the second in command. Such a system ensured Moscow's control over the nationalist agenda in each republic.

Given the fact that the Soviet Union included close to 200 nationalities, you may ask why only these 15 republics were officially recognized. Three general criteria had to be met for a republic to be formed:

  1. The unit in question had to have over 1 million ethnically non-Russian people. Thus the smaller ethnic groups of the Caucasus or Siberia did not qualify, while Estonia just barely qualified.
  2. The unit had to have a border with the outside world, so that its constitutional right to secede could be exercised, albeit only in theory. Thus the large internal region of Tatarstan, with 3 million Tatars, did not qualify.
  3. Over 50% of the non-Russian population had to be of the main, or “titular,” ethnicity. Thus Armenia, with 90% ethnic Armenians, qualified easily. Kazakhstan, with only 40% Kazakhs, should not have qualified under this rule, but an exception was made because of its enormous territory and the importance of the Kazakh culture in the cultural life of Central Asia. Latvia and Kyrgyzstan had about 50% of ethnic Latvians and Kyrgyz, respectively, but exceptions were also made for them.

Note that Moldavia, Armenia, and the Central Asian states had no internal border with Russia. The capital of each republic was typically its largest city, in most republics including at least 10% of the republic's population and fitting the definition of the “primate city.” The best schools, universities, hospitals, museums, theaters, and research centers, and of course the republic's governmental structures, were located in the capital. The capital city was therefore the most desirable place to live in each republic.

The Russian Federation, then called the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.), was by far the largest and most complex unit. It had about half of the country's population. It also had the most diverse array of internal regions, including predominantly Russian oblasts and krays, as well as more ethnically diverse autonomous republics and autonomous oblasts and okrugs. The logic behind these various regions was that many ethnic groups that did not qualify for a full-fledged Soviet republic could at least have their own autonomous units within the R.S.F.S.R. Some of the most populous of these republics were Tatarstan (Tataria), Bashkortostan (Bashkiria), Yakutia, Karelia, Chuvashia, and Checheno-Ingushetiya. Most of these territorial units had an ethnic Russian majority (exceptions included Tataria, Checheno-Ingushetiya, and Tyva), but all had sizable ethnic minorities (e.g., the Komi Republic had 23% ethnic Komi people). In Dagestan, dozens of minorities were packed into one territorial unit. In other republics of the northern Caucasus, two unrelated ethnic groups were forced into one unit (e.g., Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessiya). This was done deliberately as a form of “divide-and-conquer” policy. Politically, each autonomous republic could send 11 delegates to the Council of Nationalities.

Autonomous republics and/or autonomous oblasts or okrugs also existed in Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetiya, Adjaria), Azerbaijan (Nagorny-Karabakh, Nakhichevan), Uzbekistan (Karakalpakia), and Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). In the Soviet Union as a whole, there were 20 autonomous republics, 8 autonomous oblasts, and 10 autonomous okrugs.

The autonomous okrugs and oblasts differed from the autonomous republics, in that they included only very small minorities of the mostly indigenous, tribal peoples of Siberia and the north. Many of the titular ethnicities in those only numbered a few thousands, living among much larger Russian populations. For example, in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, which had half a million people, the indigenous Nenets and Khanty made up only 5% of the population. The rest were ethnic Russian and Ukrainian settlers, mainly oil and gas workers from the European part of the country, who had moved to the okrug for work. Whereas autonomous oblasts could send five delegates to the Council of Nationalities, autonomous okrugs, given their small population size, could send only one.

Although no independence from the party's political line was allowed, many ethnic units of the U.S.S.R. enjoyed significant cultural autonomy with respect to using their local languages in education (especially at the primary level), in the arts, and in local administrative affairs.

Political Structure

Politically, it is helpful to think of the Soviet Union as a pyramid of power with one man (the Secretary General of the Communist Party) at the top. During the late Soviet period, the same man would also assume the title of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of People's Deputies of the U.S.S.R., thus making himself into the leader of both the party and the government. The top decisions were made by this person in consultation with a small circle of close allies, called the Politburo of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. This oligarchy had about 15 members, typically all men. The broader Central Committee would have slightly over 60 members, with maybe 5 or 6 women among them, and would be supplied with an apparatus of about 5,000 technical workers (apparatchiks) organized into 23 departments (Theen, 1980). The regional and local party committees would exist at every level—including republics, smaller regions (oblasts, okrugs, or krays), and districts or municipalities—as well as at every large state enterprise. Each party chapter was headed by a secretary, who was the real leader, not a clerk. This odd usage of the word was introduced by Stalin, who indeed was a secretary under Lenin, but later refused to change the familiar title when he became an absolute ruler.

Although the Communist Party was in charge of making all actual decisions, the rubber-stamping legislatures of the Soviets likewise existed at every level, from the Supreme Soviet to the republican, smaller regional, and local levels. These legislatures consisted of party-picked loyal representatives of workers and farmers, who would simply “sign on the dotted line” and raise their hands in unison without any debate. The lower-level Soviets met infrequently, usually when a new party program was announced and had to be formally approved. Typically, these Soviet members were card-carrying members of the Communist Party themselves, so of course they would not disobey their own leadership. Persons who were not party members (bespartijnye) could be theoretically elected as well, but in practice rarely were.

The third component of the system was the executive branch of the Soviets, called the ispolkomy. These would be put in charge of the government's actual daily operations; they would respond first to the party bosses, and then also to the Soviets at each level. Many of the actual economic decisions were made by national ministries—about 50 in all, each responsible for a sector of the economy (iron and steel, nonferrous metals, oil and gas, agriculture, railroads, etc.). Each ministry had regional branches and was run very much like a large state-owned corporation, with factories, construction bureaus, research institutes, schools, sanatoria, clinics, and even entire cities under its control. Nonindustrial sectors had ministries, too; the Ministry of Culture, for example, had directorates for theaters, music, art, and museums.

Missing from the diagram of Soviet governmental structure in Figure 7.1 is the all-pervasive secret police (KGB, literally translated as the “Committee on State Security”)—loyal to the party, but with an independent leadership in charge of spying on party members and the common people. At the national level, the KGB was a state committee, not a full ministry, but it actually had more power than any ministry. The KGB head was always a member of the Politburo. During the Stalin period, some of the worst atrocities were perpetrated by the KGB (then known as the NKVD or MGB), with the tacit approval of Stalin himself. Every factory and institute in the country had the infamous “First Department” unit, whose members (KGB plainclothes agents) would ensure that the leadership and workers did not get out of line. Intimidation was a common tactic, and of course during the Stalinist period (from about 1930 to 1953) millions were arrested, sent to prison, and sometimes tortured and shot for very minor offenses, or frequently for no offense at all. For example, a 15-minute unauthorized break from work could lead to an imprisonment. Many party members were arrested simply to scare others into complete submission.

Such a system ensured strict compliance out of fear. No true thoughts could be expressed in public (cf. the “doublespeak” of George Orwell's 1984). To be sure, the KGB attracted a lot of bright young people to its ranks with high pay, perks, and status. It is highly symbolic that the first president of free Russia (Boris Yeltsin) was mistrustful of the KGB during his tenure, but had no choice but to appoint a representative of this organization (Vladimir Putin) as his successor.

The country had a planned command economy, as noted earlier: Every enterprise was stateowned, and everything from paper clips to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was produced according to a 5-year plan. Gosplan was the agency in charge of economic planning. No private enterprises of any sort were allowed, except that some traditional craftspeople, piano or language tutors, or domestic servants would work in the informal economy for cash. There was also, of course, a black market—a dangerous, illegal, and highly profitable enterprise.

All salaries were fixed on a countrywide schedule, and there was little difference in pay among various levels. For example, in the 1980s a lowly lab assistant at an institute had a salary of 80 rubles a month, while the director would be paid about 600 rubles, with the majority of workers making between 100 and 250 rubles almost regardless of qualifications. What did vary tremendously were the perks that came with various jobs. A really good state farm worker could hope to go on a free state-paid trip to a Black Sea resort once or twice in a lifetime; an advanced party member at a state committee enjoyed more than one such trip a year, plus free use of a large city flat, a nice summer cottage, access to a limousine with a chauffeur, weekly deliveries of delicatessen food not available from regular stores, and privileged seats at theaters and concerts, all paid for by the state. Some of the most trusted party members were even allowed to travel abroad (usually to the socialist states of Eastern Europe or to Cuba), and a selected few even to the capitalist countries. Some of the latter defected, and this was how the rest of the world learned how the system in fact worked (Voslensky, 1984).

Since few goods were available in regular state stores, money per se meant little, compared to the status that came with a job. The inner circle of the Communist Party (about 10% of its membership, or roughly 2 million people, according to Voslensky's estimates) would enjoy the most privileges. These people were called nomenklatura, a word derived from the card file that was kept by the party on each of these members. Although you did not have to be a Communist to work at a factory, you had to be one to get promoted to a manager, and you could not be a director of a large plant without being entered into the nomenklatura's ranks. The nomenklatura was the secret ruling class of the Soviet society, concealed in censuses under innocuous-sounding names such as “servants of the people” and “senior executive managers” (Voslensky, 1984).

The Impact of Collectivization and Industrialization

The Soviet period left a profound impact on the national geography. Let's consider the city of Moscow, for example. Prior to the revolution, it was the historical capital of the nation, with the Kremlin, famous churches, palaces, squares, museums, theaters, shops, and parks. It had some factories as well, but the overall character of the city was oriented toward consumption, not production. By contrast, in the 1980s Moscow had hundreds of factories, including a huge truck plant, a large automobile plant, and scores of secret military research labs. In addition, hundreds of new power plants, warehouses, railroad stations, and industrial complexes were built throughout the city during the Soviet period. Across the nation, numerous large-scale construction projects (dams, coal mines, oil fields, metallurgy plants, railroads, etc.) were initiated. Dozens of new cities were built in the Arctic, in Siberia, and in Central Asia (Hill & Gaddy, 2003).

In the late 1920s, Stalin sensed that a great leap forward was needed to protect the “socialist revolution” from the enemies around the Soviet Union. The traditional potential enemies at that time were the British and the Germans, and more distantly the United States. Although tsarist Russia had been the fifth largest economy in the world and had developed particularly fast in 1910–1914, World War I and the subsequent civil war greatly diminished the country's industrial strength over the next decade, and the period of small-scale cooperative development known as the NEP in the 1920s only allowed for limited development of large enterprises. Innovation was stymied as hundreds of the best scientists and engineers left the country during the civil war, mostly for the United States. Sikorsky (father of the U.S. helicopter industry) and Zworykin (inventor of modern TV and certain types of bombs) were both brilliant Russia-educated engineers, but ended up in America.

To turn things around, Stalin proposed three things in his ambitious program presented to the 15th Party Congress in 1927:

  • Industrialization. The goal was to create largescale mines and industrial factories in order to double the gross domestic product (GDP) in less than 8 years, so that the U.S.S.R. could compete against the German, British, and American military machines.
  • Collectivization. The primary goal was to create large state farms to supply food. As discussed later, another goal was to ensure that independent peasants would be destroyed, as their way of life posed a threat to Stalin.
  • Cultural revolution. The goal was to provide for rapid education and subsequent indoctrination of the masses, and eventually to forge one Soviet nation out of the many ethnicities of the Russian Empire.

Industrialization and collectivization are considered in this section; the cultural revolution is discussed in the next section.

The most important geographic legacy of industrialization lies in the creation of large state-funded enterprises, often in very distant areas of Siberia and the north. These projects were accomplished with much heroic effort by all involved, but especially with the aid of political prisoners. Entire new cities would be built to accommodate the new coal mines, metal smelters, steel combines, wood and pulp mills, tractor and textile factories, and of course the GULAG camps themselves. Figure 7.2 is a map showing the locations of the main projects undertaken during this period.

  • DneproGES was built on the Dnieper in Ukraine in 1932. It was the first large hydropower installation in the U.S.S.R., with a capacity of about 650 megawatts (MW) (Hoover Dam, built on the Colorado River at about that time, has a capacity of about 2,000 MW). After World War II, numerous large dams were built on the Volga and in Siberia.
  • The Belomorcanal, a canal 227 km long, was built in less than 2 years and connected the White Sea to the Baltic Sea and to the Moscow–Volga canal systems.
  • Development of the Donbass, Vorkuta, Kuzbass, and Karaganda coal-mining basins allowed production of the coke necessary for making steel, and provided fuel for other factories and power plants.
  • The central Urals (Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk) and southern Urals (Magnitogorsk) saw the creation of some of the largest steel-making combines in the world.
  • Norilsk and Kola were tapped for deposits of copper, molybdenum, nickel, and rare metals (e.g., platinum and palladium).
  • The encircled areas in Figure 7.2 are areas where GULAG labor camps were located: the Karelian and Komi camps in the north; the Mordovia camps east of Moscow; the West Siberian, Norilsk, and Karaganda camps east of the Urals; and the Far Eastern and Kolyma camps on the Russian Pacific side. Of these, the most infamous and deadly were the extremely cold and remote Kolyma camps, where between 500,000 and 2 million people perished.

The results of industrialization were profound. In 1929, for example, the country made only 1,800 tractors; in 1937 it made over 66,500. In 1929 only 35 million metric tonnes (mmt) of coal were produced; by 1937 over 128 mmt were mined. The Soviet economy grew between 10% and 15% per year in the mid-1930s. Some Western journalists were flown in and shown the new great spectacle of Communism—usually only the best examples, of course. In reality, the feverish growth was partially fueled by constant fear of long prison sentences and partially by many workers' genuine enthusiasm about building something big and new.

Collectivization involved the forcible creation of huge farms called kolkhozy (i.e., collective farms). By creating these huge factory-like farms, the state accomplished two things: (1) Independent farmers lost their private land holdings and therefore could not possibly ever stage a revolt; and (2) a more efficient system of mass food production and distribution was supposedly created. Effectively, the system not only did away with private farming, but returned the country to the period of serfdom, when peasants could not own any land themselves. The main targets of collectivization were the so-called kulaks (“fists”)—basically, any peasants with means, such as a few horses or cows. Massive expropriations of the kulaks' property started in 1932. By the end of 1935, over 2 million kulak families were sent into exile to Siberia or to Kazakhstan, to languish under unbearable conditions in the cold, merciless taiga or empty steppe. Those who attempted to resist were promptly shot. Because the most productive peasants were the first victims, enormous hunger (golodomor) ensued, especially in the breadbasket regions of Ukraine and the lower Volga. Unknown numbers simply died of hunger in one of the darkest chapters of Stalinist history.

In less than 5 years, however, the entire agricultural sector was moved to the new system of collective farm production. A typical Soviet collective farm (kolkhoz) consisted of a few thousand agricultural workers who lived in a few villages within a radius of perhaps 20 km around a central town. The fields, barns, seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, tractors, and harvesting equipment were all farm-owned and shared. Each kolkhoz would usually have a school, a club, a common cafeteria, and a medical clinic, which were available at no charge to the workers. Much production shifted from diverse local crops to monocultures. The most emphasized were staple grains: wheat, rye, barley, and (since the 1950s) corn. Regional versions included farms specializing in orchard crops, vegetables, milk farming, or beef ranching, depending on the region. Fish and forestry farms also existed. Despite the collective farms' large size and supposedly efficient planning and management, Soviet agricultural productivity lagged far behind North American or European yields. In 1990, one U.S. farmer fed about 80 people, one in Canada fed 55, one in Spain fed 25, and one in the U.S.S.R. only fed about 13. About half of the difference could be attributed to the harsher climate of Russia: Even with the best techniques, a field of potatoes in France will produce double the yield of the samesize field in Russia, because of the much longer and warmer season in Western Europe. However, the other half of the effect was entirely due to the inefficiency of Soviet production.

To understand why, imagine that you were the director of a kolkhoz in about the year 1980. Your payment from the government would not be determined by how much food you could grow; it would be pretty much fixed. You would also have to meet rather arbitrary annual targets of production (e.g., “Produce 1,000 tons of apples by October 1”). Although these targets were not completely unfounded, the unpredictable weather patterns or local demand on workers to do other tasks could interfere with meeting them. If you missed the target or were late with the harvest, you might be chastised by the local party officials, or the kolkhoz (not yourself) would have to pay a nominal fine. In the worst-case scenario, you could be put in prison, although this was unlikely after 1960. Even if you grossly missed the target, you could usually still explain it away as something due to bad weather, pests, or lax workers' discipline, which you could not improve despite your best efforts. Now if you met your target ahead of schedule, you would be patted on the back, given a token prize, sent for a nice vacation, or maybe even promoted in the party ranks. Thus the incentives were largely nonmonetary, and not really worth much. The majority of farms simply grossly overstated their real harvests—lied to their bosses, in other words— and got away with it. Many would choose to have prizes in the office over a good harvest in the barn. The resulting chronic shortage of even basic food staples in the state stores became so widespread by the 1980s that even the notoriously senile Brezhnev's government had to tackle it with the so-called national food program, which did little to change the situation.

The 1950s saw widespread irrigation projects in Central Asia and in southern parts of European Russia and Ukraine. A very ambitious program of land development called Virgin Lands was launched in northern Kazakhstan by Nikita Khrushchev in 1953. Over 330,000 km? of virgin semi-arid steppe were plowed under and planted with wheat there. Many farmers needed to be brought in from all over the U.S.S.R. to work this new agricultural land, but the time of the GULAG was almost over, so the Komsomol (the Soviet organization for youth) was charged with recruiting them. Over 300,000 people,
mostly Russians and Ukrainians, arrived in the Virgin Lands to begin working on large state farms. Perhaps an additional million came as soldiers, students, mechanics, and other service workers, as well as members of their families. By the end of the mass immigration to the Virgin Lands, Slavs outnumbered Kazakhs in many areas in the north—a trend that is now reversing itself. The main town was renamed Tselinograd, or “Virgin Lands City.” It is the capital of today's Kazakhstan, renamed Astana. Although production per hectare in this marginal habitat was only one-quarter to one-half of the American yields in comparable areas in North Dakota, the scale was completely unprecedented for Central Asia. After Khrushchev's visit to the United States in 1959 (the first such visit by a Soviet leader), he was so impressed with American achievements in farming that he decided to greatly increase cotton, corn, soy, and hog production. Some progress was made, although overzealous party officials tried promoting the growing of corn even in the far north of Russia, where it failed miserably for climatic reasons. By the 1970s, however, the chronic inefficiency of the agricultural sector forced the country to begin massive imports of grain from the United States and Canada, sugar from Cuba, and some processed food from Europe, in exchange for Soviet petroleum and natural gas. Today this is happening all over again: Post-Soviet Russia needs to import over 40% of all its food, despite some recent improvements in private farms and food processing.

Cultural Sovietization

One of the great Soviet myths was that the diversity of cultures in Northern Eurasia could eventually be fused into one great Soviet nation. Thus, it was argued, there would be no more Russians, Kazakhs, Jews, or Estonians; instead a new nation would be made. There was a problem with this myth: Culture is stubbornly resistant to change, and governments, even very repressive ones, can do little to change it. Although Soviet society was unquestionably founded on the idea of the internationalism of all workers, Russians, Ukrainians, and a few other large groups had an undeniable edge in getting promoted to the top jobs. Some of the early Politburo leaders were Jewish (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev) or Georgian (Stalin, Ordzhonikidze) by nationality. However, the late Soviet Politburo included mainly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. To be sure, each Soviet republic was always headed by a Communist secretary of local ethnicity, as noted earlier—but the second in charge was a native Russian vice-secretary, whose job was primarily to spy on the secretary and to ensure local compliance with Moscow's decisions.

The process of Sovietization promoted the Russian language as a common form of communication, or Soviet lingua franca. Starting in preschool and continuing throughout life, Russian was taught along with, or in place of, the local language. Although primary and middle schools would use both the local language and Russian for instruction, in high school and especially in college almost all instruction would be done in Russian, and virtually all textbooks were available only in Russian (some Ukrainian texts were available in Ukraine). One needs to bear in mind that for some languages, especially in the Caucasus and in parts of Asia, no written form existed even in the early 20th century. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Russian had to be used. A firm command of Russian was required to enter the Communist Party ranks and to have a good career. Newspapers, radio, TV programs, and books were available in the native languages, however.

Another powerful tool of Sovietization was mandatory military service. Starting at age 18, every man had to serve for 2 years (or 3 in the navy). Exemptions from the draft were made for those enrolled full-time at a few dozen of the most prestigious universities, and also for medical reasons. Once in the military, a young man was typically sent very far away from home—from Moscow to the trans-Baikal region of Chita, or from Azerbaijan to the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia, for example. This was done deliberately, for several reasons: to prevent soldiers from running back home, to homogenize the military, and to instill a common culture. Ethnic groups would still naturally form supportive communities (zemlyachestva) based on their shared home region or language. However, all military instruction was conducted in the Russian language. Furthermore, in an effort to destroy all non-Soviet nationalism, the commanders instilled a view of the Soviet Union as the Motherland. Upon returning home at 20 or 21, a young man would no longer fit in with his familiar domestic environment. He would become in a sense orphaned, because for 2 or 3 years his life had been among a very different set of people. Whatever he had learned in high school or college often had to be learned anew.

Yet another form of Sovietization was shared interest in and support of arts and sports. The arts were heavily promoted by the Soviet government. Some art forms of distinct ethnic heritage were supported (e.g., embroidery or the production of carved wooden toys). At the same time, many artists, actors, writers, and sculptors from the ethnic regions of the U.S.S.R. would study and work in the best central locations—most importantly Moscow and Leningrad, but also in the republican capitals, where their works would become known to many.

Sports were also heavily promoted by the state. In fact, all the “amateur” teams in hockey, soccer, volleyball, and other team sports were actually heavily subsidized professional clubs, whose members were on the state payroll. The successes of the Soviet Olympic teams are legendary. The Soviet Union first participated in the 1952 games. In 1972 in Munich, Germany, the U.S.S.R. won 50 gold medals, 27 silver, and 22 bronze; the United States ran a distant second, with 33 gold, 31 silver, and 30 bronze medals. The U.S.S.R. was the foremost winner of medals seven out of nine times in both the Summer and the Winter Olympics. Of the summer sports represented, the highest gold medal counts for the Soviet team over its history were earned in gymnastics, athletics (i.e., track and field events), wrestling, weightlifting, canoeing, fencing, shooting, boxing, and swimming (in descending order). In winter sports, the most Soviet medals were won in cross-country skiing, speed skating, figure skating, biathlon, and ice hockey. Table 7.2 lists all Soviet gold medal holders from the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. This is the best example from the late Soviet period, because the American team boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, and the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984 (both citing political reasons), thus skewing the picture for those two sets of games. Since typical Russian names end only with “-ov” or “-in,” it is clear that other ethnicities besides Russian are represented (the list includes at least one Armenian, one Georgian, one Korean, one Pole, and one German—all raised in the U.S.S.R.).

Achievements and Problems of the Late Soviet Period

Although it is reasonable to expect that without a Communist government Russia could have achieved similar or even better development over the course of the 20th century, it is undeniable that by the end of World War II the U.S.S.R. emerged as the world's second-largest superpower, able to openly challenge the United States. The fact that the Allies won World War II at all, despite the extremely heavy human toll (officially, over 20 million Soviet people died in the conflict, as compared to about 9 million Germans and slightly over 500,000 Americans), is a testimony to the tremendous resilience and sacrifice of the Soviet people.

Many Soviet achievements of the 1950s and 1960s were in the social and economic spheres, as well as in military might:

  • Universal education was achieved, with a corresponding 100% literacy rate among adults. School attendance was made compulsory through the 8th grade (later the 10th grade). In addition, free education was available at the university level for a selection of the best students; many new universities were founded, and existing ones were expanded (Vignette 7.1).
  • Free, comprehensive health care was available, including access to world-class surgery procedures, pioneering diagnostic techniques, and domestically developed and produced medical drugs.
  • Maternity benefits were among the best in the world (3 years' leave of absence at close to full pay!), and free child care was available for preschoolers.
  • Mortality rates were low (though slightly above those in Western Europe or North America), and birth rates were moderately high.
  •  The Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and put the first man in space in 1961. An ambitious program of permanent orbital space stations (Salyut and Mir) was developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Nuclear parity with the United States was achieved, with over 10,000 nuclear warheads on each side. Soviet-built ICBMs were capable of carrying multiple warheads and reaching anywhere in the world in less than 20 minutes.
  • Many new and superior conventional weapons were developed (e.g., the MIG and Su-series jet fighters; T-70, -80, and -90 tanks; and S-200, -300, and -400 antiaircraft mobile missile launchers).
  • Large-scale production of passenger jets included the Tu-144 supersonic jet and the Iland Tu-series long-range passenger jets of domestic design.
  • Large-scale production of certain types of consumer goods began, although these were rarely comparable to Western goods in quality; TVs, stereos, washing machines, and refrigerators were all domestically made.
  • Excellent transit systems, including subways, were built in about 10 cities (including Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk, and the biggest republican capitals).
  • Several Nobel Prizes were won in physics, chemistry, medicine, and literature.
  • World-class resorts were built on the Black and Baltic Seas.

By the late 1970s, however, despite continuing homage to Lenin and other Soviet heroes, it was becoming clear that the system was showing signs of major problems.

Much has been written about the political and economic challenges of the late Soviet period. Rosefielde (2007) provides a robust theoretical framework for economic analysis of the failure of the Soviet system, based on the application of the Pareto–Arrow–Bergson (PAB) model. The PAB model allows analysts to directly compare and contrast the outputs of two very different systems: command and market economies. The challenge, among other things, is to compare the amounts of products and services, or the prices, produced by two different mechanisms. The Soviet system had fixed prices that did not reflect actual supply or demand, and the ruble was not directly exchangeable with any foreign currency, so year-to-year comparisons with the West are not immediately possible. Moreover, the official Soviet statistics were notoriously and deliberately misleading. Among the other main inefficiencies of the period, Rosefielde (2007, p.136) cites these: (1) State demand controlled all aspects of production, so that there were no free agents available to counterbalance the state's monopoly; (2) coercion was substituted for monetary incentives for workers, so that the supply of workers was not reflective of what was actually needed, resulting in oversupply of some items and chronic undersupply of others; and (3) no market equilibration was possible because of the state-fixed prices.

According to the best CIA estimates and other common studies of the late Soviet period, the growth of the Soviet GDP slowed from a robust 4.5–6% per year (1961–1965) to an anemic 0.5–2% two decades later (1981–1985). The only branch of the economy that kept growing in the late 1970s was the military. This was paid for in part by hidden inflation and in part by oil and gas sales from the newly developed fields in the West Siberia economic region. On a per capita basis, the Soviet GDP as measured by the CIA in 1990 was about 30% of the U.S. GDP, whereas the Soviet estimates put it at 60%. In an independent assessment with the PAB model, Rosefielde puts the per capita GDP at only 20%.

Anyone who visited the late Soviet Union from the West was uniformly struck by how poorly the people lived, in comparison either to what was imaginable from the official Soviet propaganda, or to the lives of their counterparts in the West—all the free services notwithstanding. The area where the contrast was most apparent was housing: The average Soviet citizen had less than 20% of the square footage available to the average American, and perhaps about 40% of the level available to the average European. In addition, over half of the country's population had no access to indoor plumbing.

The U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s still seemed to be a superpower, but increasingly this was only a facade. It could not feed itself without imported food; workers' productivity lagged far behind that in the West; stealing from employers was commonplace; there were long lines to buy anything of value (such buying was essentially a form of hidden inflation); and the growing international military competition with the West was not easing up. A new paradigm was urgently needed to allow the country to respond to the increased internal and external challenges. To do this would require changing the system, but who could do that?