The Failed Coup

Eltsin addresses the People from the Tank (1991)
Eltsin addresses the People from the Tank (1991)

In 1991 the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. Economic stagnation crippled the economy. Centralized planning was no longer a viable economic option. The republics under Soviet domination began moving towards independence from the USSR. This state of emergency led to the final upheaval of power in the Soviet Union.

Fearful of the consequences of any dissolution or any change in the structure of the USSR, a band of conspirators from the highest levels of the Soviet government. On August 18th the deputy head of the security council, minister of defense, prime minister, head of the KGB, and a political unionist placed Gorbachev under house arrest. These five men formed the Committee on the State of Emergency. The Committee’s goal was to reinstate Soviet rule and law across the USSR. Gorbachev’s policies were used as the scapegoat for the diminished Soviet economy. Shortly after taking power, military and KGB units were sent to Moscow to keep order in the streets.

During the previous tumultuous years, Boris Yeltsin had risen to hold a considerable amount of power in Russia. His political agenda of ending the Soviet Union was viewed favorably by many of the Russian people. During the military occupation of Moscow, he gained considerable influence because of his leadership in the resistance against the government forces. The Committee was feeling their power disappear rapidly. When government forces were ordered to open fire on protestors, they refused. Without military support, the Committee was forced to admit defeat.

Gorbachev’s return to power was short. Yeltsin had grown so powerful during the coup that he was able to publicly humiliate Gorbachev and force him to disband the Communist party. Without a legitimate government, the declarations of independence from former satellite states, and continued economic woes, the Soviet Union soon collapsed.

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The Quagmire Of Afghanistan


At the height of the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union fervently worked towards expanding their influence over other countries. Afghanistan was a natural target for Soviet ambitions because of its relative location to that of the Soviet Union. Under monarchical rule, Afghanistan had not aligned itself with either the United States or the Soviet Union. In 1975 a military coup replaced the Afghani monarchy with a new government who aligned itself with the Soviet Union. The next few years proved unsteady for the Afghani government which ultimately resulted in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. The invasion proved to be one of the most costly errors committed in Soviet history.

At the time of the invasion Soviet justifications were murky. Even two days before the invasion Russian papers reported that reports of Russian military mobilization along were completely made up by the western media. Officially the invasion was undertaken to solidify the power of the socialist government in Afghanistan, and aid was requested by the government of Afghanistan.

Once in Afghanistan, Russian forces faced a plethora of challenges. Afghanistan’s terrain is counter intuitive to modern warfare, a large resistance movement, and even splintered factions within the local Soviet Party. The biggest enemy was the mujaheddin.

The mujaheddin began as a small unorganized resistance movement which quickly grew into a multinational resistance effort. Mujaheddin fighters came from neighboring nations for a defensive jihad against the invading Russian forces. Mujaheddin fighters were often educated and radicalized in madrassas, Islamic schools, just across the border in Pakistan. These fighters, from Afghanistan and abroad, fought the Red Army into a stalemate for a decade which cost which cost the lives of one million Afghans and thirteen thousand Russians.

Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan had disastrous consequences of the home-front. Resistance in the Soviet government to the status quo was growing. The war only gave the opposition more political ammunition. Western ideas permeated the Soviet Union in the late eighties further destabilizing the government. After the loss of thousands of soldiers, the Soviet people were war weary as well. As support for the war waned, so did support for the government.

The Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, a decade after its initial invasion. The economic burden placed on the already weak Soviet economy and the loss of thousands of lives crippled the Soviet government. Two years later, the entire system collapsed.

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Failure of Soviet Agriculture

Soloviev: Hybrid Seeds are the Rule for High Corn Harvests! (1956)
Soloviev: Hybrid Seeds are the Rule for High Corn Harvests! (1956)

From early in his career, Khrushchev was a strong proponent of expanding agriculture in the Soviet Union. He was absolutely convinced that improved agriculture capabilities, and as a byproduct of surplus, better living conditions, would help socialism defeat capitalism in the world economy. His quest for better agriculture even sent him to the United States where he toured American farms. His proposal of the Virgin Lands Campaign, an agricultural revival aimed at increasing the amount of feed for livestock, was a success within the party. It was not long after the implementation of the Virgin Lands Campaign that he began pushing for more agricultural reforms, this time as the Corn Campaign.

Just like the Virgin Lands Campaign, the Corn Campaign focused on increasing the amount of farm-able land in the Soviet Union for crops to be used as fodder for livestock. Soviet corn production barely existed in the Soviet Union prior to 1962. A contemporary writes that of a production goal of 1,000 tons of frozen corn, only 39 tons were produced in 1961. The Corn Campaign, like its predecessor, enjoyed early but short success.

The Corn Campaign, just like the Virgin Lands Campaign, was a short lived success. Ultimately, both campaigns devastated the land on which they took place. The Soviets did not use any modern agricultural techniques, like crop rotation. This led to destructive results that eventually only hurt Russia’s initiatives to improve its agricultural output.

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A Revival of Agriculture

L. Dorenskii: Nighttime Grain Harvest (1955) Nighttime Grain Harvest on the Virgin Lands of Kazakhstan Source: Sergei Morozov: Sovetskaia khudozhestvennaia fotografiia. Moscow: Iskusstvo. 1958.
L. Dorenskii: Nighttime Grain Harvest (1955)
Nighttime Grain Harvest on the Virgin Lands of Kazakhstan
Source: Sergei Morozov: Sovetskaia khudozhestvennaia fotografiia. Moscow: Iskusstvo. 1958.

Stalin’s single minded focus on the development of industry in Soviet Russia had left the agricultural sectors in disarray. Russia had been, and was unable to meet its food needs for the entire nation.  As Khrushchev solidified his power, he began to take steps to become agriculturally self-sustained. His radical plan for increasing agricultural output was called the “Virgin Lands Campaign.”

The Virgin Lands Campaign had lofty goals. When implemented the campaign aimed at providing an extra thirty million hectares of cultivated land in the southern sections of Kazakhstan and Siberia (1). During the first few years after its implementation, the lands cultivated under the Virgin Lands Campaign produced some the highest yields that Soviet Russia had ever seen. Agricultural development was also joined by new industrial development as well as infrastructure. Railroads were built to connect the new farmlands to the rest of Russia. However, by 1960 the newly cultivated lands were already stripped of any nutrients. No crop rotation had been implemented to revitalize the land. Dust and erosion also became major problems.

Despite these draw backs, Khrushchev had already solidified himself in power. The early successes of the Virgin Lands campaign played an important role in Khrushchev’s rise to power. With a new leader in power Russia was well on its way to a society not ruled by Stalinist policies.


1. William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism,” in Russia: A History, by Gregory L. Freeze. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 412.



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The Partisan Movement

"The teenage partisan Zoya Kosmodemianskaia is marched off to her execution by German soldiers, whose comrades proudly photographed the event. Around her neck is a sign branding her a 'House Burner.'"
“The teenage partisan Zoya Kosmodemianskaia is marched off to her execution by German soldiers, whose comrades proudly photographed the event. Around her neck is a sign branding her a ‘House Burner.'”

As the German military over extended itself on the Eastern front, its supply lines and logistical support structure became prime targets for groups of guerrilla fighters. According to William C. Fuller, these resistance fighters, known as partisans, numbered as many as 200,000 individuals in 1943. The presence of such a large fighting force behind German lines proved to be extremely beneficial to Russian military operations as well as exposing failures of German occupation.

Partisan groups were composed of officers, soldiers, as well as local people trained to fight. At the beginning of the war, large numbers of Soviet personnel were trapped behind enemy lines. These groups were some of the first partisan fighters. Despite some military training, partisan groups during the early war period struggled to survive due to a lack of supplies, training, and casualties sustained in military operations. In a move to inspire nationalistic pride, Soviet propaganda circulated the story of Zoya Kosmodemianskaia. Zoya was a partisan teenager who’s story and execution (pictured above) were used as a way to inspire the Soviet people.

Partisan tactics focused on hitting key strategic points such as railways and communication junctions as well as supply lines. Guerrilla warfare suited the forested regions of German occupation. Hit and run attacks were common. Constant strain behind the lines forced German commanders to allocate front-line troops to fight behind the lines against partisans. The continual drain on supplies and men reduced the overall combat effectiveness of German forces fighting the Russian military.

Russian partisans were a diverse group of people. Partisans units consisted of professional soldiers, locals, varying religious faiths, and varying degrees of loyalty to the Soviet government. One of the most famous groups of partisans were the Bielski Partisans. These partisans were responsible for the most successful rescue operation of Jews from Nazi tyranny. Few things could cause such a diverse group of peoples to come together. German treatment of occupied territories was extremely cruel. Starvation was common as well as forced relocation of workers back to Germany for work in German factories. Despite aversion to the Soviet government, peasants took the fight to the greater of two evils, fascism.

Partisans played a critical role in the war. Soviet military blunders cost Russia dearly in the early months of the war, and partisan operations helped slow the seemingly unstoppable German advance.


Other Sources:


William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism,” in Russia: A History, by Gregory L. Freeze. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 385.

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No God but the State?

On Easter Day Nobody Skips Work! (1929)
On Easter Day Nobody Skips Work! (1929)

Religious persecution reached new levels in the 1920s culminating with the passage of the Law on Religious Organizations in 1929. The goal of the Soviet government was the removal of religious influences from society. These influences were seen as a leftover from tsarist rule and as a threat to the authority of the new regime. It was the government’s goal to undermine the importance of religion as well as create a state focused on scientific development and advancement, but the anti-religious movement did not completely suppress religion.

Even before 1920, the Bolsheviks took action to remove religious influences from the home. Bolsheviks saw the “patriarchal, religiously sanctioned family as tsarist society in microcosm” (331). Abortions were legalized, women were given equal rights under the law, and restrictions on divorce were relaxed.

By 1929, religious buildings, lands, and other assets were nationalized without compensation and the Law on Religious Organizations required congregations to register with the state in order to legally worship. The state established the Commission on Religious Questions to advocate “the eradication of religion only through agitation and education” (335). The state did not sponsor violence against religion. Instead, the Commission on Religious Questions sponsored anti-religious propaganda in publications such as Bezbozhnik. 

The Law on Religious Organizations only restricted the practice of religion and never fully banned it. Religion was still tolerated in the early Soviet Russia only if it was beneath the state.



Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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The First World War and an Abdication of Power

Refugees from Brest-Litovsk
Refugees from Brest-Litovsk

Russia’s involvement in the First World War was the tipping point for the February Revolution. It was believed that joining the Great War would cause an uprising of popular and patriotic support for Russia and the Tsar. For a brief moment, this goal was accomplished. However, support for the war and the government quickly dissipated leading to the February Revolution.

Russia’s military involvement in WWI was lackluster. Ineffective leadership led to disastrous blunders for the Russian military. Casualties were high, and to stop the German advances, Russian units resorted to a policy of scorched earth. Scorched earth tactics forced thousands of Russian peasants off their land, and caused a massive refugee crisis in Russia. On top of a refugee problem, supplies were running low for Russian military units and at home. The inability for Russian leadership to produce supplies reflected “the decline in its moral authority or sheer capacity to coerce” (Freeze 272). The Tsar’s problems continued to worsen. On March 3, 1917 Nicholas II abdicated his authority and designated his brother as the heir to the throne.

The lead up to the transition of power in Russia was dominated by the struggles of war, both on the home front and the battlefront.

Permalink for picture:

Works Cited:

“Nikolai II, Abdication Manifesto. March 2, 1917 .” Seventeen Moments. (accessed September 15, 2013).
“Evidence Detail :: European History.” Digital History Reader. (accessed September 15, 2013).
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Effects of the Russo-Japanese War in Russia

“Illustration of a Fierce Russo-Japanese War Battle” by Kyōkatsu, May 1904 [2000.458] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Illustration of a Fierce Russo-Japanese War Battle” by Kyōkatsu, May 1904
[2000.458] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Russia’s imperial interests in East Asia led it into direct confrontation with a rising Japanese empire. The following war not only had disastrous consequences for Russian imperial ambitions in the region, but it destabilized the Russian regime at home.

The war began on February 8, 1904 with a Japanese attack on the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur, China. The attack was a sign of the war to come. The Russian fleet was completely decimated, and it was unable to recover during the course of the war. The Trans-Siberian railroad also proved a to be a bottleneck on the Russian war effort. A contemporary reporter questioned Russia’s ability to move troops and supplies to the front as quickly as Japan. Japan proved too much for Russia to handle at sea and on land.

Russian losses in the war were high. An estimated 90,000 Russians lost their lives in the war. In Russia, support for the war and the tsar was low from the beginning. Defeat only lowered popular support for the status quo. Leftist political thinkers were gaining more support and influence in Russia. The lack of soldiers available to the Tsar also helped give the peasants and workers more freedom to establish themselves in the political structure of Russia. It was through a combination of events and circumstances that the Russo-Japanese war precipitated the following social instability in 1905 Russia.



Permanent Link (Illustration):


Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

THE CRISIS OF THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR. (1904, Dec 24). Scientific American (1845-1908), XCI., 458. Retrieved from


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Ethnic Diversity and the Centralization of Power in Early 20th Century Russia

Tipy Dagestana

Russia was and still is a land of incredible ethnic diversity. I find it amazing that imperial Russia was able to assert dominance and control over such a large expanse of land and the multitudes of different cultures it contained. I chose this picture to illustrate this diversity. The description of the picture states that pictures is a Sunni Muslim man of undetermined nationality wearing traditional dress and headgear, with a sheathed dagger at his side. He also wears a what appears to be a military medal on his chest. He presents himself as a warrior. For the Tsars to assert and keep power over such a diverse and possibly warlike populace had to require incredible influence that could not last forever. Freeze talks about how the minorities throughout the Russian controlled lands were already becoming restless as early as 1863 (256). Coerced assimilation by Alexander III was partially to blame. By undermining the ethnic minorities imperial Russia was slowly destabilizing its power structure and maybe leaving it vulnerable to the revolutions of the early 20th century.

Permanent Record:

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