Less Than 500 Days to Live

By the time the 1990’s came about the Soviet Union’s days were numbered, though no one fully understood it yet. The signs had been there for several years, but they had merely been taken as the state being more lenient or that there were simply major problems that had to be addressed, but not a complete failure. Things such as the secession of many satellites in the late 1980’s that the old USSR would have crushed, were allowed to pass. The main issues that were compounding the problem were the increased defense spending with the US, the failing economy, and the radical changes that Gorbachev was making to try and bring the Soviet Union in new direction full of life.

The issue that was cause for most concern in 1990 was the economy because without funds the government could not accomplish anything else. During the 1980’s Gorbachev had tried to reform the command economy into something that could work. The attempt failed because party leadership did not fully embrace the change and did not think it was the right way to do things. This left the economy in a very bad place with all the negatives of a command economy and some of the negatives of a free market and the Soviet economy stagnated somewhere in the middle.

To combat this the Soviet needed a kick start to get the heart of the country back going. This resulted in a team of sophisticated economists led by Stanislav Shatalin to come up with a drastic plan for a drastic time known as the 500 Days plan because this was supposed to be the amount of time it would take. The plan was embraced by Western banks who’s money was needed to keep the Soviet Union solvent. However, this embrace only came at the rejections of many command economy tenets such as privatizing state assets like farmland and cutting many subsidies for agriculture and industry. In the end Gorbachev chose not to go through with the plan because he feared it would be too radical and would create havoc as well as him personally losing some power. A watered down form was later used that did not have the desired effect. It was designed by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov who had no formal economic training.

Ironically the 500 Days plan ended up with the Soviet Union collapsing around when the plan would have ended.  Due to the lumbering nature of the Soviet Union even if the 500 Days plan had gone into effect it very well might have still spelled the end for at this point it was really all over but the crying.

Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

von Geldern, James. “1991: 500 Days.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. soviethistory.org, n.d. Web. 9 Dec 2013.

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Warning: Doesn’t Play Well with Others

Hungarian demonstrators show their love for Josef Stalin.

For the majority of the 20th century the Soviet government did its very best to have the Western world believe that all was quiet on the Eastern front and that all of the Soviet satellites were happy.  Most Western governments were aware that this was not the case yet this did not stop the Soviet government from quelling anti-Soviet sentiment at every corner. The first prime example of this came in during the 1956 Hungarian Crisis.

The Hungarian crisis was preceded by the Polish crisis that came to a head in June 1956, but was reigned in by the local government and turned to support before the demonstrations became militant (Seventeen Moments). The Hungarian crisis really gained speed after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress. This seemingly ignited sparks that it was okay to disagree with the party establishment. It was the push that Hungary had needed after being rather restless since 1953 (Seventeen Moments). This was highlighted with messages that were sent by Soviet ambassador Iurii Andropov from April 1956 that warned Moscow of the impending danger. Rather than take a proactive stance and use negotiation to head off this problem or find some recourse the Soviet government did nothing.

Soviet tanks being greeted in Budapest.

When action finally came on October 23 the people were in the streets calling for democracy and the withdrawal of Soviet troops (Freeze 418).  On October 24 Imre Nagy was re-elected as president by the Hungarian party. Shortly after on November 4 Hungary declared itself neutral and free of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet government did not look kindly on this and promptly rolled in and crushed the popular with brute force as would become typical of similar insurrections later on (Freeze 418). The Soviet Union despised movements such as this because they raised the question “If Communism is so great why do these people want to leave so badly?” The final toll was a reported 3,773 detained “counter-revolutionaries” and 90,000 weapons seized by the KGB (Freeze 418).

Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lewis, Siegalbaum. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Hungarian Crisis.” Last modified 2013. Accessed November 3, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1956hungary&Year=1956&navi=byYear.

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No Cost Could be Too High

Russian soldiers charge into battle with the legendary T-34 tank.

To understand why Russia wanted so much land on its western front after World War II, one must look at the results of World War II. Russia wanted and needed land as a buffer between itself and western nations to prevent what had happened during WWII from ever happening again. What had happened you might ask? 24.6 million. That was the number of lives that the Soviet Union lost during WWII. In the face of a technologically superior military the Soviet Union could be counted to do one thing quite well and that was to hurl massive amounts of people at the enemy in the hopes that it would be enough to stop them. That and having General Winter on their side to freeze out their enemies.

One of the prime examples of this was the Battle of Kursk. This was a strategic victory for the Russians and was a key turning point in the war. It was the last offensive that the Germans were able to mount in the east and gave the Red Army a dose of confidence. Yet the cost that this victory came at beggars belief. To this day it remains the largest tank battle in world history with some 6,000 mechanized vehicles in use (Freeze 382). The newly invented Russian T-34 was crucial in this victory against the extremely advanced German tanks. The Germans suffered losses of around 500,000 casualties, but this massive number was far more than they could possible shrug off. The Russians, if it is possible to believe suffered over one million casualties in this engagement from July to August of 1943. To put that in perspective the US lost around 480,000 in the entirety of the war.  It is almost impossible for Americans to grasp the size of this number because we have never faced an imminent physical battle like this.

This battle represented a failure by the Germans to properly estimate the strength of their enemy and give them the respect that they deserved. Hitler had made no plans for anything other than a quick summer engagement. He could not have been more wrong. As Stalin said himself, “any other country that had lost as much as we have would have collapsed (Freeze 385.)” The Russians could conscript more soldiers than any other nation so they could suffer through losses that would cripple other countries. The Red Army maintained 11.2 million troops at its height, though how well armed or well trained they were is debatable (Freeze 386.) This mobilization for the war effort had a tremendous impact on the Russian home front as women occupied some 70% of duties that were held by men in peace time (Freeze 386.) The real tragedy is that mainstream history does not necessarily give Kursk the attention it deserves as one of the worst bloodbaths in history, even dwarfing Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a significant margin.


Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Russiapedia, “July 12.” Last modified 2011. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://russiapedia.rt.com/on-this-day/july-12/.

von Geldern, James. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “1943: Battle of Kursk.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1943kursk&Year=1943&navi=byYear.


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The Strength of Magnetism

A “New Soviet Man” working in Magnitogorsk in the 1930’s.

In Josef Stalin’s ever increasing vision to build an industrialist nation that could catch up to the West in only ten years the city of Magnitogorsk came forth in 1929. This massive steel and iron works was modeled after the great iron cities in the United States such as Gary, Indiana and Pittsburgh. These foundries in the US were already huge and Magnitogorsk was planned to be even bigger and it was, becoming the largest steel plant in the world.

Reference of where Magnitogorsk lies in relation to Moscow. 1500km = 937.5mi

So why was Magnitogorsk selected to be the master key for new Soviet industrialization? Well it was known since the mid 18th century that the mountains surrounding the area had some of the richest iron ore deposits in the world. Later with geological surveys they would be proven to be the densest and richest of anywhere in the world, hence where the Seventeen Moments article gets its title “Magnetic Mountain.” This proved as an excellent foundation for which to spur industry.

By 1932 the city’s population had risen to over 250,000 as Stalin called for “New Soviet Men” to flock to the area to work in the foundries. These early years  of rapid growth in the city featured appalling living conditions for the workers in tent cities that became known as “Shanghais.” Quarters were often so cramped that bed space was assigned in shifts (Freeze 353). These conditions would later stand in stark contrast to the many imposing structures in the city and even the foundry itself. Stalin’s vision of building an intimidating center to push forward Soviet industrialization was most definitely achieved. However, like many Soviet dreams the realization was not quite as wonderful. Although it was designed to have a linear layout of streets, by the time the steel mill and massive cooling lakes had been completed the design was a little more haphazard.

In the fine tradition of caring for its people the smoke stacks that towered over the city soon brought a lower quality of air and life to the citizens. This was eerily similar to what happened in Gary and Pittsburgh, though Russia has not made the attempts that the US has to reclaim the area and it remains one of the most polluted cities in the world. This was not discovered until the late 1980’s though because the city was closed to foreigners for much of the 20th century. As with many other Soviet projects the greater good took priority over the individual and it is hard to argue with the growth that was attained in the 5 Year Plans, but Stalin called and the people answered drawn like iron filings to a magnet.



Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Leah Bendavid-Val, editor: Propaganda & Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US. Zurich and New York: Stemmle Publishers GmbH. 1999.

Siegalbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Magnetic Mountain.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1929magnitogorsk&Year=1929.

S. V. Ivanov: The Leningrad School, 1930-1990. 1999.

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Passing of an Age

On August 7, 1921 a very sad moment occurred in Russian history as the great Russian poet, Aleksandr Blok (11/28/1880-8/7/1921)  passed away. He was the last of the Russian poets of the traditional genre, before the Soviet culture began to really set in. Blok was a very philosophical thinker during his time even though he his primary calling was poetry. He was a rather eccentric man and believed very peculiar things regarding his marriage and idolized his wife to the point that he would have extramarital affairs so as not to spoil her (Russiapedia).

Where Blok really was important regarding the revolution was with his death came the death of tradition in Russia (Seventeen Moments). By this I mean that he was a symbol of the old St. Petersburg and many of the nuances of the Imperial Age. St. Petersburg was on the decline as the capitol moved to Moscow and his death only seemed to seal this. He was greatly loved by many people in Russia especially many of the commoners because he was a great proponent and greeter of the 1917 Revolution. He saw it as a an expression of creative power which greatly influenced some of his later works such as The Twelve and The Scythians both of which were written in 1918.

However, his fondness of the Revolution and the Bolsheviks didn’t last and he soon stopped composing poetry because he felt that the creativity was gone. He had become jaded with how the Bolsheviks were handling rule and their lack of fulfillment on promise made. This was likely one of the primary causes for his possible depression. He did hold other jobs in the literary field between 1918 and his death in 1921, but the spark was all but extinguished for Alexsandr Blok. His last remarkable and moving public speech came in February 1921 entitled “On the Poet’s Calling” which called for a unification of the Bolsheviks and White Russians to come to peace and end the fighting.

Sadly, Blok died at the young age of 41. The causes of his death are mysterious and possibly involve deep depression, physical exhuastion, and possibly syphilis. His doctors pleaded to get him a visa to leave the country and seek medical attention elsewhere yet it was not granted until three days after his death. I find it ironic that this incident became emblematic of the the bureaucratic nightmare that caused the Soviet Union to collapse under its own weight. Even in the very early years of the government the problems were there.

There was an extremely moving tribute composed about him by Anna Akhmatova entitled Today is the Nameday of Our Lady of Smolensk only a few days after his death. The last lines of the poem due the most justice to one of Russia’s brightest stars:

Today is the nameday of Our Lady of Smolensk,
Dark blue incense drifts over the grass,
And the flowing of the Requiem
Is no longer sorrowful, but radiant.
And the rosy little widows lead
Their boys and girls to the cemetery
To visit father’s grave.
But the graveyard–a grove of nightingales,
Grows silent from the sun’s bright blaze.
We have brought to the Intercessor of Smolensk,
We have brought to the Holy Mother of God,
In our hands in a silver coffin
Our sun, extinguished in torment–
Alexander, pure swan.


Akhmatova, Anna. Today is the Nameday of Our Lady of Smolensk. St. Petersburg: 1921. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1921akhblok1&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921 (accessed September 22, 2013).

Russiapedia, “Prominent Russians: Alexsandr Blok.” Last modified 2011. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/aleksandr-blok/.

von Geldern, James. 1921: Death of a Poet. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921&navi=byYear (accessed September 22, 2013).

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Too Much Weight to Bear

General Lavr Kornilov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army

In looking through the events that led up to the October Revolution, it is almost impossible to single out one instance that was the ignition point for the final stages of the revolution. However, the Kornilov Affair was unquestionably one of the events that did significantly erode the already weak Provisional Government. The question is though what would drive a national hero to attempt a coup d’etat such as this one? The answer is simple enough though.

Kornilov had achieved his status as a national hero after escaping from a Hungarian prisoner of war camp in 1916, but this alone was not the reason that he chose to lead the coup. Many people in Russia simply longed for an end to the national chaos as well for an end to the war and Kornilov seemed to the man for the job. He was backed by many of the more conservative people of influence that longed for a return to stability and away from liberalism. The coup itself was attempted by Kornilov on August 27 after a confusing series of exchanges with Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government. It is unclear what was meant in the exchanges, but Kornilov interpreted the message to mean that a Bolshevik uprising was taking place in Petrograd. He was accused of attempting to gain full civil and military authority of the government. Outraged by this, Kornilov called for the people to assist in overthrowing the Provisional Government. Kerensky anticipated this move and mobilized the Red Guards to head off the Third Cavalry Corps and by August 31 the ‘counter-revolution’ was ended with very little bloodshed.

In the days and months after the dismal failure of the coup, the only real winners were the Bolsheviks who enjoyed renewed support and fervor for their cause. Kornilov was arrested, but escaped to continue his fight against the Bolsheviks with the Volunteer Army until he was killed in 1918. He was a true patriot in that he only desired a stronger government with the will to do what needed to be done. Whether he was betrayed by Kerensky or merely under misinformation is not clear in records. Under the pressure to win the war and end the chaos at home Kornilov acted as he believed necessary. In his attempt to restore order though he only succeeded in bringing more instability to the government.


Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “1917: Kornilov Affair.” Last modified 2013. Accessed September 15, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1917kornilov&Year=1917.


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An End to a Year of Tumultousness

1905 and 1917 stand as two years that were the worst in the downfall of the Russian Empire and the Romanov Regime. 1905 was crucial to the causation of the 1917 Revolution because it planted the seed for rebellion. Bloody Sunday ( January 9, 1905) is hailed as the day which kicked off the rebellion, but the end was a little less definitive. Certainly, the beginning of the end can be pinned on December 29, 1905 though. This was the day which put an end to the week of uprisings in Moscow. Prior to this there had been a week of rioting and protesting around Moscow, even interrupting electrical service for the city. The demonstrators stated that a lack of arms was the reason for the voluntary abandonment of the cause. The Russian army was primarily responsible for restoring order and the brutality that was used was incredible. The New York Times article specifically noted a case where a boy had been beheaded for possibly carrying weapons and another situation where two surgeons were shot for assisting rebels.

Dramatized protestors in Moscow.

Even after the protests were put down in Moscow it took about a year and a half to get the Empire back totally under control of the Czar. However, this was only possible with severe methods by the army and martial law instituted in many places. The continued shock waves were mostly due to the ripples from ethnic minorities in further reaching provinces.

Change is often dramatic and in the case of the 1905 Russian Revolution it was too little change and late. The protests and riots in Moscow in the week of December 29 were due to the October Manifesto which was just tantalizing enough to the people to get their hopes up and then dash them away with no action. It was divisive to the rebels because the moderates thought it an appropriate stop gap, but the radicals demanded an end to the oppressive autocratic regime which was not granted in the October Manifesto. These moderates even formed into the “Octoberists” who promised to cooperate with the government as long as they held to the Manifesto. This was also in part because the moderates feared the violent masses that had been unleashed by the radicals.

Protestors in Moscow.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all though is that this revolution could have been the end of the struggle in Russia if the October Manifesto had not been left by the wayside by the government. People could have met a common ground and the 1917 Revolution may not have even happened and Tsar Nikolas and his family could have survived with limited autocratic powers. Alas this was not to be and bloodshed would continue and would eventually be much, much worse by the time of the 1917 Revolution.


Freeze, Gregory. Russia: A History. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

LONDON TIMES — NEW,YORK TIMES. (1905, Dec 30). MOSCOW REVOLT ENDED; RISINGS IN MANY CITIES. New York Times (1857-1922). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/96499820?accountid=14826




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Could Sergei have known?


As I was looking through the collection of photographs in the Library of Congress site I c0uld not help but be amazed by the detail that was apparent at one hundred years old! The color and definition would not be out of place taken from a modern camera. After viewing these amazing pictures my next question was could Sergei  Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorsky have known that these pictures would be such a great historical record? Taken just a few years before the Russian Empire was thrust into a tumultuous civil war they provide a window into a very different Russia than what was apparent under the Soviet regime. I realized after looking through dozens of photos though that Prokudin-Gorsky could not have known what would be important in history so he simply tried to capture it all, and he actually did a great job of that. Because there is so much it is easy to see what life in Russia was like around the turn of the twentieth century and historians everywhere owe him a huge thank you.

This particular image caught my attention because although it was a village, named Kolchedin, it featured a prominent church in the background. This village of Kolchedin was already over two hundred years old at the time of the photo and had become a central point for sandstone mining in the Ural Mountains. But even though it was village in one of the further parts of the empire it still featured rich Russian architecture that was evident in the design of the church. This depth of culture is something that we don’t really get to see in the United States because we are a much younger country, but also because we have more diversity than even such a large nation like Russia. It is immediately evident that Russia had not industrialized yet because many of the residents seem to have a fenced in vegetable plot of some sort. The roads are unpaved which was typical for the time, but there is a well maintained bridge in the foreground. Once again it is doubtful that Prokudin-Gorsky could have know how great a resource this picture would make for a typical Russian town in this time period, but that did not stop him snapping a picture of it.



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