The Soviet Union In The Cold War

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The Soviet Union In The Cold War

The Soviet Union In The Cold War

In its approach to post-war problems the Soviet government was motivated by an expansionist policy designed to enlarge the area ruled by Communists loyal to the USSR, to strengthen security against future aggression, and to utilize the world Communist movement as a means of subverting other countries and bringing them into the Soviet orbit.
The new Soviet policy was soon signalled by violations of various wartime agreements. At the Potsdam Conference, held after the victory in Europe, the Soviet government made demands manifestly in excess of the needs of its national security. The demands were rejected by the United States and Britain to prevent the establishment of a vast Soviet sphere of power. Despite growing acrimony among the Allies, agreement was reached at Potsdam on the general lines of the occupation policy, on various reparations policies, and on the temporary German-Polish and Polish-Soviet boundaries.

Utilizing the threat of its military force, the USSR violated these agreements and made a sustained assault on the political, economic, and social structures of the occupied Soviet borderlands. Implementation of Soviet foreign policy generated a globe-girdling political, diplomatic, and economic conflict with the United States and its allies, known as the Cold War.

Takeover Techniques

In the countries in which the influence of the Soviet Union was predominant, namely, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, and East Germany, the politicoeconomic structure was gradually reorganized. Opposing political groups were isolated and then destroyed, large landholdings were expropriated, and (with the exception of Poland) collectivization was instituted. Virtually all industry was nationalized.

In establishing political domination, the Soviet technique was first to cooperate in coalition governments, in which the Communists were a minority but controlled the ministries directing the police, the armed forces, and the economy. This was followed (beginning in 1947) by the establishment of regimes called People's Democracies, under which the Communists established authoritarian control of the state. In 1948 Czechoslovakia, a country not directly in the Soviet orbit, came under Communist control through subversion of a coalition government. In the same year, however, Yugoslavia, led by Marshal Tito, effectively resisted Soviet efforts to obtain control of the country.

Yugoslavia survived heavy pressure only because of the rejection of Soviet control by Marshal Tito and Western economic aid. As a result, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform and Tito became a leading exponent of non-alignment in the Cold War. These developments alarmed the United States and Western European powers and led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. To coordinate the economic activities of those states under Soviet control, the USSR in 1949 established the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or COMECON), with Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and East Germany as comembers.

Relations with China

Soviet relations with China during this period were conciliatory. In August 1945, the Chinese and Soviet governments concluded a treaty of friendship and alliance, granting the USSR economic concessions and defence facilities as previously agreed upon by the wartime Allies. Although the Soviet Union pledged to respect Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria, Soviet authorities stripped the region of nearly all of its industrial machinery and actively resisted efforts by the Chinese government to re-establish its authority there. Meanwhile, the arms taken from captured Japanese soldiers were given to the Chinese Communists. When the Soviet army eventually withdrew, all Manchuria fell to the Chinese Communists. Subsequently, the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949 altered the entire balance of power in Asia to the temporary advantage of the Soviet Union.

Struggle for Leadership

Stalin remained in absolute control until his death in March 1953, when a collective leadership took power. Georgy M. Malenkov, chosen party secretary, also became premier; Molotov, a former premier and foreign minister, became a first deputy premier and foreign minister, and Lavrenty Beria became minister of internal affairs; Voroshilov became president. Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Malenkov as party secretary later in the year. These men, along with two other first deputy premiers, Nikolay A. Bulganin and Lazar M. Kaganovich, were the leaders.

A struggle for power was immediately apparent, however. Beria was soon removed for "criminal and antiparty activities", and in December 1953 it was announced that he had been tried for conspiracy, found guilty, and shot. Several other important officials, friends of Beria, were executed in 1954.

(Since that time discredited officials have not been executed.) In 1955 Malenkov was forced to resign, and Marshal Bulganin was promptly elected to succeed him as premier.


Then, in a startling move at the 20th Party Congress, held in Moscow February 14-25, 1956, several Communist leaders denounced Stalin and repudiated much that he represented. The most violent attack was made by Khrushchev, who condemned Stalin for having replaced the collective leadership proper to Marxism with a cult of himself, which had generated disastrous consequences for the USSR. Khrushchev charged that Stalin had been guilty of "mass arrests and deportations of many thousands of people, execution without trial and without normal investigation…of honest and innocent Communists"; that he had not prepared adequate defences against the German invasion of June 1941, and that he had then mishandled the war effort, causing the needless deaths of "hundreds of thousands of our soldiers"; that he had been "sickly suspicious" of his colleagues and that he "evidently had plans to finish off the old members of the Politburo"; that he had been responsible for the break with Yugoslavia and had jeopardized "peaceful relations with other nations".

The attacks on Stalin profoundly shocked many Communists in the USSR and throughout the world. In the de-Stalinization campaign, portraits were removed from public places, institutions and localities bearing his name were renamed, and textbooks were rewritten to deflate his reputation.

Khrushchev's Ascendancy

The struggle for power finally resulted in the triumph of Khrushchev in 1957. He succeeded in ousting Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich, and others. When Bulganin was forced to resign in 1958, Khrushchev stepped into the premiership, continuing his party secretaryship, and collective leadership appeared to have ended. By the time of the 21st Party Congress in 1961, Khrushchev was in complete ascendancy, the centre of a new personality cult. He repeated some of his earlier denunciations of the old dictator, had Stalin's body removed from the mausoleum where it had rested beside that of Lenin, and demanded that the Stalinists who had opposed him in 1957 be expelled from the party. In the following years some of the extreme anti-Stalinism was softened, and Stalin was allowed some credit for building the Communist party and for the victory in World War II.

Khrushchev's Fall

Leonid I. Brezhnev, who in 1960 had succeeded the 79-year-old Voroshilov as president, was also assigned to the party secretariat in 1963. In July 1964, at Khrushchev's proposal, Brezhnev was relieved of the presidency to give full time to party work. Anastas I. Mikoyan, a veteran party functionary, became president.

In the autumn of that year, Khrushchev was especially ebullient and full of plans after extensive travel in and beyond the USSR. Then, suddenly, in October, he was toppled-relieved both of his party secretaryship and the premiership. The reasons for his ousting may have included unsatisfactory progress in agriculture and industry, and such foreign policy disasters as the Cuban crisis in 1962 and the failure of Soviet efforts since 1959 to obtain West Berlin. Some discrediting of the deposed leader followed, but nothing comparable with de-Stalinization. Some of his closest colleagues were also removed from office.

Brezhnev Gains Power

Following the precedent for succession established when Stalin died, the power was divided. Brezhnev was appointed to the party secretaryship, and Aleksey N. Kosygin became premier. During the next five years these men apparently worked together as a team. Nikolay V. Podgorny was president from 1965 to 1977. By the 1970s, however, while the appearance of collective leadership was retained, Brezhnev had won pre-eminence. In 1976 he was reappointed Communist party general secretary, and after Podgorny was removed, he also became president in 1977. A new constitution was promulgated in 1977. Shortly after Brezhnev died, late in 1982, he was succeeded as general secretary of the party by Yuri Andropov, former head of the Soviet secret police (KGB).

Economic Developments

Soviet economic development after World War II followed lines worked out in 5-year plans and a 7-year plan (1959-1965), although the plans were sometimes not announced in full until they had been operating for a year or two.


Collectivized agriculture continued to engage much of the population. Khrushchev developed two major plans for increasing grain production: bringing marginal lands, especially in Kazakhstan, under cultivation, and raising corn. Neither proved completely successful. In 1958 most of the control was taken from central government agencies and given to 39 area councils. The collectives bought the machinery they had previously rented from tractor stations, and the government paid higher prices for compulsory grain deliveries. Unfavourable weather was largely responsible for poor grain crops in 1963, 1965, 1969, 1972, and 1975. Other causes were the apparent inefficiency of collective farming and the shortage of labour caused by migration of rural youth to towns.

The crop failures slowed down the economic growth rate and greatly increased the foreign debt because the government, to avert famine, bought large amounts of wheat from the United States and Canada. The government took steps to combat the problem by paying a monthly wage to farmers; offering new incentives for superior production; adopting more efficient management techniques; and increasing the use of fertilizer, labour-saving machinery, and irrigation. A long-term policy involved reactivating a plan originated by Khrushchev to evacuate the people of many small villages and resettle them in large farming centres. Such measures, combined with good weather, resulted in record harvests in 1973, 1974, and 1976. Irrigation and reforestation made even the marginal lands of Kazakhstan remarkably productive. Nevertheless, agriculture remained a serious problem.


Rapid industrialization had occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin's Five-year plans, eventually turning the country into the world's second industrial and military power. However, production of consumer goods had long lagged. Total industrial production in 1957 was reported as 33 times that of 1913, but the increase in consumer items was only 13 times higher, compared with an increase of 74 times in heavy industries. The Khrushchev regime promised an increase in consumer goods, but accomplished little. The regional industrial councils were consolidated in 1957 and again in 1962, and industrial enterprises were combined. By 1964 attention centred on the fertilizer, plastics, and rubber industries.


Yevsey Liberman and other Soviet economists had advocated the introduction of some capitalist features into the framework of Marxism as a means of increasing industrial production, particularly recognizing the profit motive as a stimulus to plant efficiency. Kosygin, Brezhnev, and other officials accepted these ideas, admitting that management methods had fallen behind productive capacities. The correct principle, they stated, was combining centralized general direction with cost accounting, production based on orders, wage incentives, and other capitalist practices. In a pilot project begun in July 1965, 400 clothing and shoe factories based their production on orders received rather than on quotas set by the government. In October the Supreme Soviet adopted legislation applying this policy to industries, farms, transport, construction, and communications. Working capital was to be assigned to each enterprise, and local management was to determine its use.

A total payroll was also to be assigned to each enterprise, but the local management might pay by time or piecework and might pay bonuses based on profits. By mid-1969 enterprises producing one-third of the total industrial output were operating under the new system. Developments in the 1970s, however, brought about the gradual decline of the Liberman approach.


Some industries lagged considerably, particularly construction. The migration of rural population into cities that accompanied rapid industrialization resulted in a housing shortage. New methods for prefabricating walls and even whole rooms were borrowed from the West, but factories for making these products were not built as rapidly as projected, and housing goals were seldom met. Moreover, new housing was not well built and deteriorated rapidly.


Of great importance for the growth of the Soviet economy was the increased development of Siberia, utilizing forced labour. The opening of vast new fields of oil and natural gas in Tyumen' in western Siberia augmented the Soviet Union's supply of energy sources. Deposits of copper and coal have been discovered farther east. Construction is under way on the 3218-km (2000-mi) Baikal-Amur Railway, which runs north of the present Trans-Siberian Railway and thus at a safer distance from the Chinese border.

Cultural Developments

From the mid-20th century the Soviet government tried, within strict ideological confines, to enable all citizens of the Soviet Union's many nationalities to participate fully in the culture of a unified Communist society and at the same time to preserve the traditions of their regional homelands. Tuition-free education in the form of day schools, evening classes, volunteer "people's universities", and correspondence courses was available to all those who toed the party line. Special efforts were made to reach isolated areas where educational opportunities had been few. Instruction was in Russian or in one of the Soviet Union's many other languages. Non-literate peoples were provided with their own alphabets, dictionaries, and grammars. As a result, illiteracy (about 70 per cent in the Russian Empire) was eliminated, and a large part of the population acquired a narrow political awareness of Communism (but heavily biased interpretations of capitalism), and the technical skills needed to develop a modern industrialized state.

Cultural achievements in the natural sciences were outstanding: in some areas of chemistry and physics, for example, the Soviets outstripped all other countries.

Great attention was paid to nuclear energy (at the cost of safe disposal of nuclear waste) and to space exploration. The first earth satellites, Sputnik 1 and 2, were launched in 1957. The first circumnavigation of the earth in a spaceship was made by Yury A. Gagarin in 1961. By the early 1980s Soviet technology had produced more than 30 manned space vehicles, and the USSR had launched more than 1,100 spacecraft and numerous satellites.

Nor were the arts neglected. Unions were formed for communist writers, painters, and other creative people. Theatres and concert halls were built, and orchestras and theatre and dance companies sent on tour. Local clubs and palaces of culture brought politically didactic urban and folk arts to the general public, and the government encouraged thousands of amateur groups. Dissidents and their families, however, were harshly persecuted and often banished to Siberia or imprisoned in mental hospitals.

State Control

The state insisted that all aspects of Soviet culture foster Communist society. This requirement did relatively little damage to science, although the government's vacillating attitude towards biologist and agronomist Trofim D. Lysenko shows how political values can affect scientific views.

Communist influence tended to hamper the social sciences, which had to be placed in a Marxist context. The Communist attitude towards music is less clear: The composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were both alternately in and out of favour. After the mid-1960s even jazz and twelve-tone music were offered lipservice. The fine arts and literature suffered most from Communism, which required them to adhere to Socialist realism, a secular optimistic exaltation of the Soviet people in a style that satisfied popular taste. In the 1920s Russian modern art experienced a golden age, but at Stalin's instigation Avant Garde literature and the paintings of Marc Chagall, and Kasimir Malevich, and Wassily Kandinsky among others were banned. The government accepted religious toleration in theory but was itself atheistic and opposed organized religion in practice. Religious services were restricted and believers were denied educational and professional advancement and were subjected to antireligious propaganda and imprisonment.


A small but persistent current of dissident intellectuals, artists, religious believers, and nationalists wrote open letters, circulated clandestine literature (samizdat), and staged demonstrations in the cause of greater freedom.

A "thaw" in government control during the de-Stalinization years from 1955 through 1964 was followed by a return to a more repressive policy, especially after the radical attempts at liberalization in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Hundreds of dissidents were dismissed, imprisoned, or sent to mental institutions or hard-labour camps, usually for actions considered subversive to the regime. The most distinguished among these dissidents were the writer Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn and the nuclear physicist Andrey D. Sakharov.

Solzhenitsyn, who was forbidden to publish in the Soviet Union in 1968, was forcibly expelled from the country in 1974. Sakharov, because of his distinguished scientific reputation, for a long time escaped punishment, but having denounced the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, he was isolated the following month by banishment in Gorky, a city "out of limits" to foreigners, where he was kept under police surveillance bordering on house arrest. Sakharov was permitted to return to Moscow in December 1986. Many intellectual dissidents were Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel, but were refused by the government, which did not want to lose expensively trained citizens. Thousands of other Jews, however, were allowed to leave. Religious dissidents also included Jehovah's Witnesses, Lithuanian Catholics, and Baptists. Prominent among nationalist dissidents were Crimean Tatars and Soviet Germans, moved to Siberia in World War II, who wanted to return home.

Affairs Abroad

After World War II the Soviet Union had the closest relations with the Eastern European nations that bordered it, often referred to as "satellite" countries. The CMEA after 1949 attempted to work out Soviet plans for the economic integration of its member nations in the Eastern bloc. Under the plans, each country would produce what it was best prepared for and purchase other products from the other countries. Opposition to this supranational system under Soviet domination developed, notably in Romania, which rejected its assignment as a basically agricultural and oil- producing country. Despite such dissatisfaction, additional economic links were later established, including an International Bank of Economic Collaboration. Pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Volga-Urals region to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany created further dependency by the economies of these nations on that of the USSR.

Relations with Satellites

Yugoslavia, which immediately after World War II seemed interested in cooperation with the Soviet Union, soon broke sharply with it, refusing to accept Moscow's direction.

In the other satellites Soviet domination increased until 1955: in 1952, 80 per cent of Soviet trade was with the satellites. In 1954 the USSR granted a degree of economic independence to East Germany, which was freed from further reparations payments but retained a large contingent of Soviet troops. Formation of the Warsaw Pact for military assistance in 1955 was a countermeasure to NATO and served to tighten Soviet control. After the death of Stalin, relations with Yugoslavia improved, only to decline again, especially after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After 1961 the Soviet Union completely lost control of Albania, which until 1978 remained closely allied with China.

Polish and Hungarian Crises

Soviet control of the satellites was most seriously threatened in 1956, during the relaxation following de-Stalinization. Popular discontent and demonstrations in Poland in 1956 were followed by an enforced change of government in Poland and a "temporary" continuance of Soviet troops in Poland, cancellation of some Polish debts, and the granting of additional credits.

The Hungarian uprising later in the year was more serious. Demonstrations by workers and students for national independence led to the intervention of Soviet troops, which brutally subdued the independence movement, killing thousands and imprisoning many more, and the formation of a new puppet government under János Kádár. The USSR was condemned by the Western countries and by the United Nations, but for a long time afterwards it maintained a great degree of control in Hungary.

Prague Spring

The next crisis, in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968, reflected the more relaxed Soviet system of review after 1960 and the pressure for economic change within the Czechoslovak Communist party, which was dismayed by the stagnant economy and sought to create "socialism with a human face". Dissatisfaction and clamour for reform led peacefully and gradually to the replacement of Antonín Novotnýas head of the party and of the state by Alexander Dubcek and Ludvík Svoboda, both Communists long loyal to the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders were alarmed by the "Prague Spring"-particularly by the ending of censorship and talk of closer economic relations with the West. Pressure was brought to bear in various ways, but when all other means failed, approximately 600,000 Soviet and other Warsaw Pact (except Romanian) troops were airlifted into Prague and occupied Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20, 1968. Passive resistance was united and most impressive, but the Soviet forces gradually won the day.

Dubcek was removed in April 1969, and the hated controls were reimposed.

The destruction of the dramatic reform movement in Czechoslovakia was reflected in tightened controls in the USSR and served to reassert Soviet control over all of Eastern Europe except Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania. It weakened Communist parties outside the Soviet bloc, split the international Communist movement apart, alarmed the West, and delayed all negotiations on disarmament. From the Soviet point of view, it improved the Soviet position in the contest for Europe. By endorsing the territorial status quo in Europe, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki, Finland, 1975, apparently sanctioned Soviet authority in Eastern Europe. The USSR played a major behind-the-scenes role in halting a drive towards free trade unions and increased democracy in Poland in the early 1980s.

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