History of the Soviet Union

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The Rise of Vladimir Putin

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There is no shortage of infamous characters in Russian history. Recently, one figure has appeared determined to insert his name, Vladimir Putin, to the list. Putin first came to power in 1999 when he was appointed Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin. Shortly after, Yeltsin resigned as President, appointing Putin as his successor. In a matter of months, Putin went from being basically unheard of to being the undisputed leader of Russia.

Putin was born in 1952 at Leningrad. Growing up during the 50’s and 60’s, Putin was raised during the golden age of the Soviet Union. The country was fresh off victory in WWII and competing with the West in areas such as space technology. Clearly this time had an impact upon young Vladimir as he has aspired to return Russia to the greatness of his childhood. However, at the time, one would probably never have guessed the young Putin would rise to become President. Interestingly, one source claims that during his childhood, Putin was an aggressive student who rebelled against authority and in at least one occasion, threw a chalkboard eraser at a fellow classmate.

Eventually, Putin managed to progress beyond heaving chalkboard erasers at Western sympathizers and graduated from Leningrad State University in 1975. Shortly afterward, Putin entered into service as a KGB intelligence officer in East Germany. Infinite rumors exist concerning what services Putin actually performed whilst in the KGB, but it is generally accepted that he dealt with and managed personnel who spied on the Western Europe, NATO, and the U.S.

He seems like he enjoys his job too much

He seems like he enjoys his job too much

For some reason, Boris Yeltsin thought it would be a grand idea to step down and hand Putin the reigns, which he has yet to give up. Putin won election in 2000 following Yeltsin’s resignation and won again in 2004. In 2008 he stepped down to allow his protege Dimitri Medvedev to temporarily keep his seat warm while he abided by a Russian law prohibiting three consecutive terms. Putin still held the role of prime minister during Medvedev’s presidency though so its questionable how much power he really ceded. In 2012, he was re-elected to President and this time for a new six-year term which has been amended from the previous four year period.

During his time in office, Putin has gone above and beyond in his efforts to create a personality cult akin to Joseph Stalin’s. He has put immense effort into building the image of an action hero/ man of the people. The internet is saturated with images of Putin partaking in all sorts of outdoor activities. Just to list a few of my personal favorites: In 2012 Putin flew a mechanical hang glider while leading a flock of Siberian Cranes during their yearly migration, in 2013 he posed bareback while riding a horse and fishing in a show of his manliness, and also in 2013 apparently stole the super bowl ring of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Only Putin would fly with Siberian Cranes

Only Putin would fly with Siberian Cranes

 

NATO hasn't seen guns like these since the Warsaw Pact

NATO hasn’t seen guns like these since the Warsaw Pact

There may not be a more fascinating character to study among world leaders today. Although Putin seems overtly opposed to NATO and the West, I personally believe he just wants to make Russia seem as strong as it was when he was growing up. Short of joining NATO, Putin would probably be willing to pull any type of move to increase Russian status and influence. Unfortunately, he seems more inclined to grow his influence via challenging the West than cooperating, but this may change as Russia’s rubble continues to plummet after his Crimean antics.

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“Mr. Gorbachev Tear Down This Wall”

President Reagan during his iconic speech

President Reagan during his iconic speech

On June 12th of 1987 Ronald Reagan delivered his now famous speech in front of a large West German crowd near the Berlin wall. Officially, President Reagan was commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin. In reality, his speech harshly mocked the increasingly contradictory nature of the Soviet Union during the 1980’s. Soviet policies under Gorbachev had gradually allowed for increasingly liberal attitudes to take root within Soviet Society. Reagan seized upon these reforms and portrayed them as self-realizations by the Politburo itself that their own system of government was doomed to fail.

Known as “Perestroika” and “Glasnost”, these policies probably contributed way more to the demise of the USSR than any piece of western propaganda or any of Reagan’s speeches. Perestroika basically opened the door to Western ideas of entrepreneurship and market-based economics to a Soviet populace that was eager for a change. During the mid and late 1980’s, perestroika allowed for certain institutions to determine their own production levels based upon consumer demand rather than the traditional system of centralized command of the economy. Individuals were also granted new rights and economic freedoms that would have been considered sacrilegious under Stalin’s regime. Specifically, the 1988 Law on Cooperatives allowed for the combination of personal enterprises with state enterprises, or so-called co-opts. This new system allowed for individuals to produce goods beyond those mandated by the state and allowed the person to keep the profits, legally.

While perestroika allowed for an increasingly liberal economy, Glasnost began chipping away at the monopoly of tyrannical censorship practiced by the Politburo. Russian media also increasingly distanced itself from the Politburo during this time. For the first time, Russians saw many of the more negative aspects of the Soviet Union that had long been censored. Russia’s satellite nations utilized Glasnost to stoke their own unique brands of nationalism, which further weakened the clout and legitimacy of the USSR.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president following the USSR collapse, embraced these new-found notions of nationalism and sought to promote similar nationalism among Russians. Aside from Gorbachev, Yeltsin served perhaps the most monumental role in the dissolution of the USSR. He famously challenged the August Coup by climbing atop a tank in Moscow to deliver a speech in open defiance of the coup.

Down with the Soviet Union...long live Mother Russia

Down with the Soviet Union…long live Mother Russia

Despite the mainstream media’s tendency to claim the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, powerful though it was, as the culprit behind the Soviet Union’s collapse; it was in fact the Soviets themselves who contributed to their own dissolution through embracing perestroika and glasnost.

 

 

 

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Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

Afghan mountains

These mountains have caused trouble for armies as far back as the hoplites of Alexander the Great.

On Christmas Eve 1979, four Soviet motor rifle divisions entered Afghanistan via two routes across the northern border, while another airborne division airlifted directly to Bagram airfield, near Kabul. Within days there were over 50,000 Soviet soldiers rampaging through Afghanistan. The objective: eliminate and replace the Amin government with one that was more loyal and sympathetic to Soviet demands.

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Looks like a solid plan….except for the mountains and feisty natives

The Soviets moved rapidly on the Capitol, Kabul. On December 27th, spetsnaz operatives unsuccessfully poisoned Afghanistan’s President Hazifullah Amin in a sad attempt to make the political transition seem like something other than a strong-armed, Soviet-backed coup. When this failed however, the Soviets were quick to abandon any sense of finesse and immediately employed more spetsnaz commandos to simply storm Amin’s holdout and execute him along with his two sons. Moscow masked this treachery under the guise of a legitimate response to requests from Afghanistan’s constitutional authorities to remove Amin for a more socialist-minded leader. Babrak Karmal fulfilled this role and endorsed Soviet actions as Amin’s replacement, thus offering a thinly veiled perception of legitimacy to the global community.

Already in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter turned even more attention to the Middle East and harshly condemned the Soviet Union’s actions in his 1980 State of the Union Address. He went so far as to demand a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The U.S. and NATO were convinced, and rightly so, that the move was nothing more than wanton Soviet aggression aimed at expanding their sphere of influence into the Middle East. In response, a February 8th Russian news publication firmly rebuked Carter’s accusations, claiming, “The American administration’s furious reaction to the recent events in Afghanistan is the result not at all of concern for an “independent Moslem people” but of the fact that plans for converting that country into an anti-Soviet military staging ground, into a stronghold of US policy in this region, have fallen through”. As was typical of most Soviet publications, such fabrications turned out to be far from the truth. The Soviets couldn’t have been more guilty in defying the independence of the “Moslem people” of Afghanistan.

Although American forces were held back from directly intervening, clandestine elements of the CIA trained and equipped the Afghan tribes hostile to the Soviet invasion, eventually known as the Mujahideen. Initial Mujahideen efforts against the invading Soviets were far from decisive but did manage to foil the Kremlin’s plans for a quick, low-cost campaign. Soviet forces were geared towards fighting a massive conventional war against their traditional adversary, NATO; as a result, they were ill prepared for a counter-insurgency effort against the many different Afghan tribes of the Mujahideen, which employed guerrilla-tactics to prey upon isolated Soviet units. Furthermore, Soviet tanks were ill suited for Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain, making them even more vulnerable to ambush. The one saving grace for the Soviets was their air-superiority; heavily armed Soviet helicopter gunships initially gave them the upper hand as the Mujahideen simply had few ways of effectively countering such technological dominance.

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Not a chill sight for early Mujahideen fighters

Soviet air-superiority didn’t hold up very long though. During the Reagan administration the CIA amplified its efforts, arming the Mujahideen with tons of portable, shoulder-launched anti-air missiles that spelled doom for Soviet pilots. Famously depicted in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, this was the decisive turning point of the conflict. Bogged down by the Mujahideen and unforgiving Hindu Kush Mountains, the Soviet campaign turned into a deadly quagmire. Losses of men and equipment continued to pile up, forcing the Kremlin to dump increasing amounts of money into an increasingly hopeless situation. For all intents and purposes, Afghanistan represented the Soviet Union’s version of the American nightmare in Vietnam.

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Good luck to the Kremlin in spinning this as a success

Eventually, the Soviets simply lost the will to fight. September 1989 marked the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan, ending nearly 10 years of fruitless, bloody conflict. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet Union collapsed. Without a doubt, this validated and refreshed Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires.

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Decades later, Soviet vehicles still litter the countryside

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Khrushchev’s not-so-secret Secret Speech

 

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When the 20th Party Congress convened in February of 1956, the future of Stalin’s legacy remained unclear. His successor, Khrushchev ended any doubt of how he viewed Stalin’s image when he unleashed a verbal attack upon the former leader during a secret gathering of the delegates.

Among Khrushchev’s most ominous critiques of Stalin was his utter brutality and disregard for Justice. Specifically, blame for the infamous Kirov affair, years earlier, was placed squarely upon Stalin’s shoulders. Such intolerance was unacceptable to Khrushchev and he pledged to move the party in a new direction, with more involvement from more members.

A new era of de-Stalinization, spelled out by some 26,000 words in Khrushchev’s speech, urged for a retreat from the cult that had developed around the former leader (Freeze, 418). Although Stalin had defeated the fascists and won the Great Patriotic War, he had killed and subjected many of his people to harsh imprisonment. These tragedies were bound to catch up with Stalin sooner or later; Khrushchev merely hastened the process by denouncing Stalin so openly by Soviet standards.

The really ironic aspect of Khrushchev’s speech is that although it was meant to be reflective of common sentiments, the speech was not intended for public ears. The masses needed to be confident in the integrity of the communist party itself and any attack on Stalin that went too far may raise questions about the party as a whole. Khrushchev knew this; thus, he took precautions to summon the congressional delegates at night and without attracting media attention.

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Unfortunately, the entire text of the speech quickly traveled from behind closed doors and into the hands of Israeli and US intelligence agencies. According to this US govt. source, President Eisenhower authorized the New York Times to run a story on the secret speech based off leaked information from the CIA. CIA involvement during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s should come as no surprise. This speech probably seemed like a gold mine to social and cultural intelligence analysts searching for evidence of Soviet weakness.

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Communism vs. Fascism…the Ali vs. Frazier heavyweight bout of WWII.

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Aside from catastrophes of the First World War such as Verdun and The Somme, few occurrences have come close to equaling the brutality and utter disregard for human life as displayed during the winter of 1942-43 at the city of Stalingrad.What transpired was, in all likelihood, the worst single instance of human slaughter in history. Historians have generally reached a consensus regarding the breakdown of German casualties; figures for the number of Soviet losses remain ambiguous with some sources citing 1-2 million while other more moderate estimates place Soviet losses around 500,000. The uncertain casualty count attests to the sheer magnitude of loss. This gruesome 5-month battle irreversibly altered the direction of the Second World War, though referring to Stalingrad as merely a battle seems wholly inadequate. Personified, it was truly a clash of the titans.

Showdown for the ages

Showdown for the ages

By the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany reigned supreme across all of continental Europe; the blitzkrieg had given Hitler a dangerously arrogant degree of confidence. Naivety from the Wehrmacht’s overpowering victories in Poland and France, however, undermined efforts in the East as plans for the conquest of Russia proved to be horribly unrealistic and turned into a frozen nightmare for Germany’s soldiers.

The invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941, when literally millions of German soldiers, pack animals, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and aircraft poured into Eastern Poland and Ukraine. Unsuspecting, ill-prepared Soviet border defenses were rapidly overrun. Advancing German units quickly penetrated far into the interior of Russia. Pockets of Soviet troops were captured en masse at places such as Smolensk.  Cut off by the blitzkrieg tactics of the German mechanized units and still rebounding from the leadership drain thanks to a recent round of Stalin’s purges, the Soviet military suffered horribly in the opening phases of the invasion. Ironically, these early defeats would ultimately serve the Soviet Union well, as they seemingly verified Hitler’s misconception regarding the invincibility of the Wehrmacht.  

It's probably best they weren't invincible

The Nazi’s really enjoyed their Swastikas

After barely failing to capture Moscow during the initial 1941 offensive, Hitler decided to pursue the vast Soviet oil resources in the Caucuses to the South. For this task he chose the venerable battle-hardened VI army; numbering over 400,000 men, it was the crème of the crop of the Wehrmacht and upheld a proud reputation of success, from the pre-war Czechoslovakian occupation to its entry into Paris to its recently concluded invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Among the finest, best-equipped units in the Wehrmacht, the VI army was primed for achieving success through rapid, overwhelming maneuvers. Had it been employed in this fashion and allowed to race south towards the oil fields, there is no telling how the rest of the war may have played out. Fortunately for the Soviets, Hitler’s irrational stubbornness quickly shifted the focus from the oil fields to the industrial center of Stalingrad, far north of any oil reserves and far removed from any sense of logical strategy. Apparently having a city named Stalingrad on the map was just too much for Hitler to bear and it had to be destroyed, even if it meant the destruction of his own army in the process.

Urban warfare and fighting house-to-house mitigated nearly every advantage the Wehrmacht possessed as their expertise in mobile warfare had no application within the confinements of Stalingrad. More than eager to utilize the city’s terrain, Soviet troops dug in and prepared for the Germans. This was the ideal focal point for Stalin to frustrate Hitler’s efforts. 

German infantry in the streets of Stalingrad

“Dude, I don’t do this whole urban warfare thing”

Stalin received crucial help from General Vasily Chuikov, a Soviet commander who knew just how to capitalize upon Stalingrad’s terrain. Having arrived at the city with reinforcements rushed from Moscow just in time to stunt the initial German assaults, Chuikov bravely set up his Headquarters on the Western banks of the Volga. Soviet defenses were centered around a series of factories near the river and Chuikov’s HQ frequently became perilously close to the fighting. By late September, the Soviet defenders occupied only a 25 kilometer line along the Volga’s West bank, ranging from half a kilometer to two  kilometers into the city (Maule, 277). Soviet units laid all sorts of mines, launched ambushes from the ruins created by the Luftwaffe’s on-going bombardment, took shelter in the sewers and industrial pipes, and struggled against the Germans for every room. Chuikov proved to be a master of urban warfare as he constantly frustrated the VI army’s attempts to execute attacks aimed at driving the Russians from the West Bank.

General Chuikov (center) at Stalingrad

General Chuikov (center) – Boss

Germany poured hordes of men and all sorts of military hardware into the fray while Russia continued to sustain their defense with scantly populated units; neither side permitted their troops to relinquish ground. Stalin had issued order #227 earlier in 1942 and Hitler had instituted a similar policy of absolutely no retreating, under any circumstances. Neither Hitler nor Stalin entertained even the faintest idea of conceding to defeat at Stalingrad. The following excerpt of a November 11th German assault upon a Soviet-held area of the city gives a sense of the level of desperation:

“On both sides every soldier knew that prisoners were no longer taken. The soldiers, both German and Russian, locked in this furious combat were more like beasts of prey than men. Inflamed with alcohol and benzedrene – for no sane, sober man, however vicious, could bring himself to fight with such animal ferocity – filthy, red-eyed, bearded and stinking, these wolfmen shot and stabbed, hacked and kicked and battered each other. The fighting went on for four days and nights until only soldiers of the Red Army were still alive” (Maule, 281).

Similar episodes of brutality were more the norm than the exception at Stalingrad.There would be no quarter, no mercy, and certainly no end to the fighting until one side had been totally defeated.Single buildings even remained contested with Germans and Soviets fighting each other from alternate floors. 

This blown out building seems inviting

This blown out building seems inviting

As if the fighting wasn’t harsh enough, each side had to contend with the sub-zero temperatures of a freezing Russian winter as well. Freezing weather proved to be as deadly to the Germans as combat as tens of thousands of soldiers suffered from frostbite and died from exposure in their wholly inadequate summer uniforms. Beyond sapping the German manpower, freezing temperatures also rendered Germany’s tanks and vehicles unserviceable as engines froze and repairs made impossible without access to spare parts. The same armored vehicles that had once conquered Western Europe were now of little use beyond serving as wind-shelters for the freezing infantry.

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Real stoked to be at Stalingrad….not

The situation became increasingly dire after a gargantuan Russian counterattack with approximately 500,000 infantry backed by 2,000 pieces of artillery successfully broke through Germany’s perimeter to the North and South of Stalingrad on November 23. Ironically, the Soviets employed the same infamous pincer movement that the nazi’s had once perfected at Smolensk against them now at Stalingrad,  trapping the remaining 250,000 or so soldiers of the VI Army inside the city (Maule 282). Little more than a labyrinth of rubble at this point,  there was virtually no food for the German occupiers. Strategically, the value of Stalingrad had depreciated so much that its value had become purely nominal, with the name Stalingrad constituting the only reason hundreds of thousands of men were still engaged in a fight to the death. 

Because a break-out was strictly forbidden under Hitler’s no retreat policy, the encircled Germans somehow survived more than two months off air dropped supplies. As in most military operations, complications inevitably arose and the Luftwaffe’s fleet of 225 transport planes rarely had more than 80 serviceable aircraft at one time (Maule 288).  Pressure from the Soviet forces on the ground further restricted Luftwaffe operations by re-taking airfields and forcing German aircraft to operate only at night in fear of Soviet air defenses. Limited supply drops paid a heavy toll upon the defenders’ nourishment as some resorted to eating the 10,000 horses of the entrapped Romanian cavalry division.

German Junker Ju 52 supply plane -

German Junker Ju 52 – She’s seen better days

By January 20th, Defeat was all but certain for the over 100,000 remaining Germans inside Stalingrad when the final German-controlled airfield was overrun and captured. This eliminated the VI army’s only avenue for resupply and with it any hope of surviving through the winter. Knowing full well the consequences facing the besieged Germans, Hitler attempted to dissuade their commander, General Friedrich Von Paulus, from surrendering by promoting him to the rank of Field Marshall on January 30th. This was done in the vain hope that Von Paulus would rather commit suicide than go down as the first German Field Marshal to surrender his command to the enemy. 

Paulus (#5) with other captured officers

Paulus (#5) with other captured officers – already assimilating to Russian culture with the headgear

Regardless of precedent, Von Paulus recognized the folly of any future resistance as his men were freezing, starving, out of ammunition, and totally reliant upon melting snow for drinking water. Without supplies or a way of procuring any, Von Paulus surrendered on January 31, 1943, one day after being promoted by Hitler. By February 2nd, aside from a few stubborn pockets of those fighting till the death, the entire German VI army had capitulated. Approximately 91,000 German prisoners, slightly less than 25% of VI army’s original contingent were thought to be captured at Stalingrad (Maule, 290). Of these, only 6,000 ever returned back to Germany alive. 

Stalingrad prisoners

German POWs…it’s a long march from Stalingrad to Siberia

Following the crushing defeat at Stalingrad, Germany would never quite recover from such a total loss. This was the first time the German propaganda network was compelled to admit Germany had actually suffered a set back because there was no hiding the destruction of an entire army group. Furthermore, it was a loss Germany could ill afford against a Soviet enemy that was quickly eclipsing Germany’s reserves of manpower and materiel. Although the war would endure for over two more grueling years, the Soviets had seized the initiative and delivered an irrecoverable blow to Nazi Germany. 

Stalin performing his best Muhammad Ali impression

 

Works Cited:

Maule, H. (1972). Stalingrad. In The Great Battles of World War II (pp. 258-290). London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

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Chapaev: revolutionary leader turned cinema icon

Chapaev movie poster

Chapaev movie poster

When it comes to Soviet cinema, few films eclipse Chapaev in both popularity and quality for its time. Upon release in 1934, Chapaev became an instant classic. Such widespread appeal across Russian society was due to the sheer patriotism and pride in the revolution elicited from the characters and scenes.

To give a brief synopsis without spoiling much, the film basically follows the main character Vasily Chapaev, a red army commander, during the Russian Civil War. The action-scenes may be outdated by todays standards but were quite awe-inspiring at the time. The film isn’t just limited to action scenes either as drawn-out dialogue develops Chapaev’s character throughout the film.

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The iconic status developed by Chapaev really had more to do with the personality of his character than his on-screen action exploits. Coming from humble peasant origins, Vasily Chapaev originally fought for the Russian Tsar in World War One as a non commissioned officer. When the civil war broke out, Chapaev joined the Bolsheviks and was elected commander of an infantry regiment; eventually he would be promoted and lead even more men as a divisional commander, which is when the film takes place.

Chapaev makes for an ideal symbol of the revolution because he is untainted by his power of command and acts more like a peasant than any bourgeoise officer-type personality. In fact, the movie culminates with Chapaev and company duking it out with an entire unit of white-aligned troops. Hundreds of wealthy bourgeoise getting owned by a bunch of peasants being led by a peasant, what could possibly scream Russian revolution any louder? The masses simply couldn’t get enough of this movie.

As one source put it, “the whole country is watching Chapaev. It is being reproduced in hundreds of copies for the sound screen. Silent versions will also be made so that Chapaev will be shown in every corner of our immense country: in the towns and villages, the collective farms and settlements, in barracks, clubs and squares.”

Personally, this movie is actually pretty cool. Although it may not be as awe-inspiring for those of us who didn’t get to participate in the revolution back in the day, but it’s worth checking out to get a sense of how the revolution was portrayed by contemporaries.

 

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Communism’s Traumatic Transition: foreshadow of the Soviet Union?

The predictions of both Marx and Lenin of a violent and oppressive transitional period that a society must endure while changing from an imperial capitalist society towards a fully-realized communist society seem to be an appropriate prediction for what the Soviet Union would become during the 20th Century. Just as the two most famous socialists predicted, the proletariat revolution would eventually turn into a dictatorship of the proletariat to oppress the wealthy minority of capitalists. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union’s scope of oppression was dramatically widened to include more than just the owners of the means of production.

As seen in his work, the transition from Capitalism to Communism, Lenin knew there would be some violence and oppression if the proletariat’s rise did occur. Much like his predecessor Karl Marx, Lenin saw this unpleasant stage through a very Machiavellian type perspective; it was nothing more than an unfortunate but necessary means to the desirable end of a fully-realized communist society. The transition was also prescribed to be a temporary period during which the true democracy of the proletariat would be achieved. While Lenin probably didn’t imagine anything nearly as deadly and oppressive as the Soviet Union, he knew there would be some inevitable turbulence along the proletariat’s rise to power.

Thanks to the tyrannical nature of Joseph Stalin’s reign, what was supposed to be a mere transitional period of state oppression became the status-quo for a  consistent oppression of personal liberties for over half a century by the Soviet Union. Unlike the originally imagined transitional period of Lenin and Marx, the Soviet Union oppressed anybody thought to be the slightest enemy to the communist party, not just the wealthy elites.

Instead of strengthening the proletariat against the oppression of the state, the proletariat suffered the restrictions of state-sponsored purges from paranoid leaders fixated on rooting out any opposition. What was supposed to be a means to an end became an end in itself as the proletariat surrendered their own rights by allowing the rights of the wealthy minority to be sacrificed. Once state sponsored oppression was allowed against the former wealthy elites, it was continually expanded to include nearly any type of dissent until nobody was free from the potential incarceration by the state.

 

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A famous vacation spot for criminals in Bukhara

Photo from the early 20th century displaying a guard at Zindan, a Russian prison in central Asia, and several inmates looking out from inside the cell.

Photo from the early 20th century displaying a guard at Zindan, a Russian prison in central Asia, and several inmates looking out from inside the cell.

Although the Soviet Union traditionally claims superiority when it comes to jailing and exiling people in deplorable conditions, this photo places the Emirate of Bukhara as a notable competitor. Perhaps only a mere footnote compared to the notorious purges of Joseph Stalin, the prison at Zindan certainly doesn’t seem any more appealing than a Soviet gulag in the Siberian wilderness.

 

Also unlike the massive scale of Stalin’s purges, the prison at Zindan was only built to incarcerate a maximum of 40 inmates at once. It was literally built underground into the dirt and required a ladder to enter inside the earthen walls. The most common crimes were outstanding debt or religious in nature. As a semi-independent protectorate of Imperial Russia, Bukhara’s culture was heavily Persian-based and thus the Islamic religion was much more prevalent than in the rest of Russia. That being said, such a draconian, dungeon-style confinement system for religious infractions indicates that the people in Bukhara took their religion really seriously.

An interesting point about Zindan is the relatively small number of inmates it was designed to accommodate. It seems that either the crime rate was very low in Bukhara, or Zindan was reserved for only the worst offenders. Considering the commonality of crimes such as debt, it seems there would have been a different, much worse place for offenses such as murder. Many would-be offenders were probably deterred by the dreaded aspect of having to live at a place such as Zindan. This would explain why it was only built to hold 40 people because the population was likely in no hurry to do anything that may land them inside.

Even though Zindan was no Siberian Gulag, the effects upon the population were probably very similar. Some may call these methods overly excessive and tyrannical, while others may consider them necessary instruments for a stable society. We all know which observation Stalin would have sided with, what about you comrads?