Status of ‘USSR’ during the two world wars!
Most historians consider the Russian Revolution as one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.
Many people the world over, for a long time, viewed it as the beginning of a new era in human history.
They saw it as “an alternative and superior system to capitalism and one destined by history to triumph over it”. By all accounts, it was a major factor in the shaping of the twentieth century world.
No other revolution in human history had professed to bring about such fundamental transformation of society as the Russian Revolution of 1917. Since the beginning of civilisation over 5000 years ago, if we take the world as a whole, the common feature of all ‘civilised’ societies had been social and economic inequalities and exploitation of one class by another.
The state, whatever is its form, was used to maintain the system of inequality and exploitation. The Russian revolutionaries proclaimed as their objective the overthrow of the system of inequality and exploitation, and the creation of a society in which no one would live off the labour of another.
The immediate steps taken by the revolutionary government of Russia was the proclamation of two decrees—Decrees on Peace and Decree on Land. Soon after, all industries and banks were nationalised. A Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia was issued.
It announced the end of the oppression of the non-Russian nationalities of the Russian empire and proclaimed the right of all nationalities to self-determination, equality and sovereignty. All the secret treaties signed by the Czarist government were annulled and peoples of the East were called upon to overthrow colonial rule.
In January 1918, Russia was proclaimed as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). By the time the First World War ended, the Bolsheviks had established their control over the territories of the former Russian empire, except Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, which had emerged as independent states.
Poland also emerged as an independent nation and included all the Polish territories which had earlier been part of the Russian empire. In the meantime, civil war had broken out and foreign military intervention started.
The Soviet policy on land and non-Russian nationalities helped in the consolidation of the Soviet power. By 1920, both the civil war and foreign intervention came to an end.
War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP):
The First World War, the civil war and the foreign intervention which followed the revolution had totally ravaged the economy of Russia. These, along with the famine that followed, resulted in the death of millions of people. In 1921, industrial production was 13 per cent of what it had been before 1914.
The Soviet government had resorted to various stringent measures to prevent a total collapse. Landed estates had been confiscated and distributed to peasants but all that the peasants produced beyond their minimum essential requirements was appropriated by the government to feed the rest of the population. Almost nothing could be bought or sold.
Whatever was produced by industries was distributed to workers and other people to meet their minimum essential requirements in lieu of wages. The system which came into being as a result of these measures is known as War Communism. It created widespread discontent and in some places there were revolts.
In 1921, a new policy, called the New Economic Policy (NEP), was adopted and the system. War Communism was withdrawn. Peasant control over their produce was restored, salaries were paid in cash, trade in goods was reopened, and efforts were made to rehabilitate the economy.
In some industries, private management was introduced and many small industries were allowed to remain in private hands. A large number of cooperatives were set up. In 1921, there was a large-scale failure of crops in almost the entire country, creating conditions of mass starvation.
A massive nation-wide effort was launched to provide relief. People from many other countries also organised relief aid to the Soviet people. USA, though refusing to recognise the Soviet government, also sent food supplies.
Industrial Development and Collectivisation:
The NEP helped the economy to recover to the pre-war level and laid the foundation for further development. This policy remained in force till 1928 when a massive effort was launched to achieve a high level of economic development through successive Five Year Plans. The first Five Year Plan was launched in 1929 and the second in 1934.
By the time the Second World War started, USSR (for short Soviet Union), which had been set up in 1924 and of which Soviet Russia was a part had become a strong industrialised and military power. No other country had industrialised herself as fast as the USSR.
Also, the conditions under which her economy developed were totally different from those of other countries. This was achieved by mobilising own internal resources, entirely under the auspices of the state.
Whatever private enterprises existed during the period of the NEP were taken over by the state, and private ownership of and control over industry and trade became non-existent. It is notable that the only country to escape the effects of the Great Depression was the Soviet Union.
Vast changes took place in the agricultural sector. The changes introduced were supposed to facilitate the modernisation of agriculture with the help of machines and tractors. They had disastrous consequences in human terms. Vast state farms were set up and the rest of the farmlands were collectivised.
The individual holdings of the peasants were brought together and collective farms, called kolkhozes, were set up. By the end of the 1930s, almost all land was brought under collective farming.
The peasants worked on these farms collectively, without owning any piece of land. This was often done by adopting measures of extreme coercion. The class of rich peasants was eliminated. Many million peasants are believed to have perished during the period of collectivisation.
Formation of the USSR:
According to a new constitution proclaimed in 1924, all the Soviet republics such as the Russian (RSFSR), Georgian, Armenian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Azerbaijan, Caucasian, etc., were brought under one union—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
In 1936, when another constitution came into force, there were eleven republics constituting the USSR. These republics were formed on the basis of the principle of nationality and the equality of all nationalities. According to the constitution, they were given the right to secede from the Union. The constitution gave each nationality of the former Russian empire the right to promote its own language and culture.
The cultural and economic development of the Asian republics of the USSR was very impressive, particularly to the peoples of other countries of Asia who were struggling to liberate themselves from colonial rule, and for them the USSR became an ideal model to be imitated.
From One Party Rule to Dictatorship:
The political development of the Soviet Union was accompanied by gross violation of individual liberty and the principles of democracy. The Soviets, which had been formed during the struggle for revolution, had been acclaimed as the true and authentic form of democracy.
They involved vast masses of people in the process of decision-making, which affected their lives and brought millions of common people into direct political activity. A number of political parties and groups—such as the Mensheviks, the Socialist
Revolutionaries—had their members in the Soviets. During the civil war and later, when there were attempts to organise uprisings, they were eliminated from the political life of the country.
Most of the leaders of these parties either left the country or were exiled to Siberia. Even after the revolution had consolidated itself and there was no longer any possibility of a counter-revolutionary movement succeeding, they were not allowed to play any role in the political life of the country.
The Bolshevik Party, later known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, became the sole political party in the country. Even within this party, there was a gradually elimination of all democratic decision making processes.
The Bolshevik Party had earlier developed under Czarist autocracy which had made it impossible for the Bolsheviks to function legally in the open. As a party which was working to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order, it developed a certain system of functioning that allowed debates and controversies, sometimes very fierce ones, within the party, but obliged the members to follow the decisions once they had been taken by the majority.
This way of functioning of the party continued as long as Lenin, the greatest leader of the Russian Revolution, was alive. There were occasions when other communist leaders openly opposed Lenin’s views and there are instances when Lenin was left isolated within the party.
However, the expression of these differences did not lead to suppression of the people who differed with the views of the majority or of the leadership. Thus, democracy within the party was maintained. After the death of Lenin in 1924, there was a fierce struggle for power within the party.
There were serious differences over the means and methods to be adopted for building socialism and also on whether it was at all possible to build socialism in one country or whether the primary task of the Soviet government should be the promotion of world revolution.
There were differences on the question of collectivisation and the methods to be adopted for industrialisation. The method which was later adopted in resolving these differences was not just taking a decision by the majority and going ahead with implementing it but also treating those who had opposed the decision as enemies of the party and the country.
The first major struggle inside the party took place between Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin had become the general secretary of the party. Trotsky’s role in the revolution and subsequently as foreign minister and still later as war minister is considered to be second only to Lenin’s. In 1927, however, Stalin emerged victorious, and Trotsky was expelled from the Party and, in 1929, he was exiled.
In 1940, Stalin, got him assassinated in Mexico where he had been living for some years. Later, many other leaders were accused of being Trotskyites and they were arrested and executed. Two other leaders of the party—Zinoviev and Bukharin—who disagreed with Stalin’s policies on different occasions, were eliminated.
Gradually, in the 1930s, in a country which professed building a new type of society and a higher type of civilisation, dictatorship of one man took shape. All power was concentrated in the hands of Stalin, who was supposed to be the source of all wisdom. His decision could not be questioned.
In the writings of some socialist thinkers and leaders, “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was envisaged as a stage in the building up of socialism. All capitalist countries were viewed as having dictatorships of the bourgeoisie, even when they had democratic political institutions, because the state in these countries was seen as the instrument for the maintenance of bourgeois predominance.
The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, in the same way, was viewed as a state which would use its power to maintain the domination of the working class. This “Dictatorship” did not mean the abolition of political freedom, elimination of all other political parties, and rule by one single party.
However, the way the Soviet Union’s political system developed, it came to mean, first, the dictatorship of the party and, by virtue of Stalin’s domination of the party, the dictatorship of Stalin. After Stalin’s death in 1953, this phenomenon was described by the Soviet communist leaders as Stalin’s “cult of personality”.
The dictatorship or the “cult of personality” of Stalin led to grave distortions in the building of socialism in the Soviet Union. In 1934, Kirov, the leader of the Communist Party in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) was assassinated. It is now generally believed that Stalin got him assassinated.
The assassination was, however, utilised by Stalin to launch repression against everyone who was suspected of the slightest disloyalty. It soon developed into what has come to be known as the Great Purge.
The number of people who perished in the Great Purge is only now beginning to be fully estimated. Their number was enormous. They included some of the most prominent communist leaders, veterans of the revolution, writers, artists, and scientists, military and civil officers as well as some leaders of the communist parties of other countries.
For a long time, the people outside the Soviet Union, who were sympathetic to socialism and in their own countries, were involved in the struggle against colonial rule or capitalist exploitation did not realise the enormity of the crimes that were being committed in the name of socialism.
One reason for this was that the Soviet Union was surrounded by countries which were hostile to her and to socialism. Some of these countries made no secret of their aggressive designs against the Soviet Union and declared that they would destroy communism. Many of these countries held many other people under colonial subjugation.
The economic system of these countries bred inequality, and resulted in mass unemployment, misery and poverty. Repression inside the Soviet Union came to be seen in the context of the Soviet Union’s efforts at preserving her independence as well as the socialist system in an extremely hostile world.
Foreign Policy of the Soviet State:
The international role of the Soviet Union demarcated her from all other great powers of the time. She had been kept out of the peace conference held in Paris after the war to prepare treaties of peace with the Central Powers. In 1921, she entered into treaties with Iran and Afghanistan which strengthened the independence and sovereignty of these countries.
A treaty was signed in the same year with the government of Mustafa Kemal, which was engaged in a war to restore the territorial integrity of Turkey. She participated in various disarmament conferences and made proposals for general and complete disarmament.
In the 1930s, she took a forthright stand against the fascist countries’ acts of aggression and strove for united action with other countries to check fascist aggression. Most Western countries, however, chose to appease fascism in the hope that fascism would destroy communism.
In 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations and made efforts in the direction of making the League take resolute action for the maintenance of peace and for the liberation and independence of subjugated nations.
The Soviet Union was also the only major power at that time which opposed the continuance of colonialism and imperialism. She came to be looked upon as a friend of the people who were fighting for their independence.
It may be appropriate to mention here the formation of the Communist International. With the outbreak of the war, the Second International had collapsed. During the war, some efforts were made to bring together some sections of the socialist parties of various countries.
After the revolution in Russia, the left-wing sections of socialist parties in many countries were formed into one communist party. A move to bring all communist parties into one international organisation was initiated.
In March 1919, a conference was held in Moscow, which was attended by representatives of the communist parties of thirty countries. The Communist International (Comintern, for short), or the Third International, was formed at this conference.
By the mid-1930s, there were communist parties in more than sixty countries. Some of these were very strong, such as the Communist Party of Germany before Hitler captured power and launched a systematic campaign to exterminate it, and the Communist Party of France. The Communist Party of China had also emerged as a powerful party.
The communist parties built a strong support for themselves among the workers of the capitalist countries as well as in the colonies. In almost all countries, they played a leading role in organising the workers against their miserable condition, particularly during the period of the Great Depression.
In some countries that were under colonial rule, they became the leading force in the struggle for independence. Formed under the impact of the Russian Revolution, most communist parties looked upon the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as their model and as the leading force of the world communist movement.
The Russian Revolution was also looked upon as the model of a socialist revolution. Because of their close association with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, all communist parties were often viewed by others with suspicion. The Comintern with its headquarters in Moscow was often seen by others as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy.
While the formation of the communist parties on the pattern of the Soviet Communist Party and the Comintern were claimed to strengthen the revolutionary movement for socialism, it, in fact, led to a permanent division of the socialist movement.
The communist parties and the various socialist and social democratic parties had many differences and they began to view each other as enemies, instead of trying to find common points of agreement or evolving a common agenda.
The opponents of socialism took advantage from these internal differences. For example the cleavage between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany made it easier for the Nazis to capture power, which proved disastrous not only for socialism and democracy but also for the peace of the world.
In 1935, the Comintern, at its seventh congress, held under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov, a communist leader from Bulgaria, called for a united popular front against fascism and a united anti- imperialist front in the colonies.
This was a significant development which helped unite vast masses of people—communists, socialists and others—for the achievement of common aims. The popular fronts that came up as a result of this policy prevented fascists from taking over power in some countries.