Welcome to my historical blog on 20th Century Russia. Hope you enjoy what you see and read!
One Meltdown Leads to Another
City of Chernobyl years after the meltdown.
The ideas of “Perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) were preached by Mikhail Gorbachev throughout his entire political career. However his preaching of Glasnost and his practicing of it were not equal. The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 in the Ukraine is a prime example of how Gorbachev did not practice what he preached.
A KGB report on the disaster states “…a test at 1:21 A.M., the No. 4 reactor exploded and released thirty to forty times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” (Revelations). Chernobyl is still known today as one of the most disastrous industrial accidents in history. Ironically in a interview prior to the accident, journalist Maksim Rylskii talked with Vitalii Skliarov, Minister of Power and Electrification of the Ukraine, on the probability of a meltdown, his answer was, “The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years,” (Soviet Life). The explosion instantly killed thirty people and is suspected to have killed 100,000’s more. The environmental degradation that happened after the accident destroyed some of the most fertile land in the Ukraine. The USSR’s response was not ready for a disaster of this magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes due to the radiation. Yet the USSR had no place for them to go, or the proper healthcare system to see that the victims of the meltdown were properly treated.
aThree weeks after the explosion on May 16, 1986, Gorbachev addressed the public about the disaster. All the while the explosion was already known about due to Sweden detecting radiation material near some of there nuclear plants (SMSH). His practicing of Glasnost was apparently not a top priority at the time of the disaster but only when Gorbachev was able to formulate a well written response. Gorbachev stated in his address, “I have every reason to say that, despite the gravity of what happened, the damage turned out to be limited, ” (Gorbachev) The damage was quite extensive contrary to Gorbachev’s statements. 14,400,000 acres of farmable land was destroyed because of this meltdown (Chernobyl Accident). A fact not present in Gorbachev’s address, however stabs at Western powers and praises for soviet workers were repeated throughout the speech. This shows that Gorbachev was not practicing his idea of “Glasnost” but was doing the exact opposite. He was trying to change the publics attention away from the fact that the worst industrial disaster in history happened under his leadership, and towards irrelevant facts like how the West was reacting. The Chernobyl disaster shed light on the entire soviet system and how fragile it actually was and pushed the whole system towards collapse.
Revelations from the Russian Archives: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/cher.html
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History: http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985&navi=byYear
Peace and Plenty in Pripyat: Soviet Life (Washington: Embassy of the Soviet Union in the USA, 1986), pp. 8-13
Mikhail Gorbachev, Address on Soviet television. May 14, 1986: http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1985chernobyltv1&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985
Information on Economic and Social Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident. July 24, 1990: http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1985cons1&SubjectID=1985chernobyl&Year=1985
Afghanistan is not a friendly place to outsiders. Especially the outsiders who execute their leader and place an unwanted one in his place. Ironically enough Afghanistan’s ally, the USSR did just that in 1980. Lets step back though to 1979 when the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (Hafizullah Amin) was asking the Soviet government for military aid. This plea for help was the result of attacks by the Islamic extremists (mujahideen) who wanted to oust Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammad Taraki and end the progressive reforms they wanted for Afghanistan. Some of these reforms included equal rights for women, secular education and new land laws. (SMSH) However these changes would never see the light of day, not because of the extremists but because of the USSR.
The USSR answered Afghanistan’s call for help on December 25, 1979. They sent a small contingent of Soviet troops to help out with the fight against the extremists. Yet this “invasion” as the Western powers perceived it was just the USSR helping out a friend in need. The USSR’s next move would be the move that would lead to the start of the downfall of communism. That move was the execution of Hafizullah Amin and implanting Babrak Karmal as the president. The reason for this execution as stated in SMSH was because of Amin’s execution of Taraki who was friends of Brezhnev and he felt betrayed by Taraki execution. Yet the blatant interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs was not seen as a justified action by the international community.
Things only got worse for the Soviets as the Mujahideen moved into the mountains and began a fierce ten year guerrilla war that ultimately ended with the Soviets withdrawing. The USSR sent thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan and many returned in caskets. As the war dragged on its toll on the economy back in Russia worsened until their was no economy. This coupled with civilian opposition to the war started the Soviets toward their own destruction. On top of all that the Mujahideen got the help of the US by weapons and ammo which greatly increased their effectiveness against the Soviets.
Overall the decision to help out in Afghanistan was not a bad idea, it was the personal decision by Brezhnev to execute Amin and place Karmal at the head of an already very unstable government. As a result of this more men joined the ranks of the Mujahideen and bloody ten year guerrilla war took place resulting in terrible conditions back home in Russia that would ultimatelylead the USSR down the road of collapse.
As the Nuclear Arms race was in full swing, the USSR was looking for something new to show the world why they were the better than the US. Sergei Korolev, the lead scientist of the Soviet’s space program, had the answer. Having a lot of help from the ballistic research done by the military, and working in isolation as a prisoner in Sharashka throughout most of his research and work, Korolev finally gave the USSR what they needed.
On April 20th, 1961 the first manned mission to space, aboard the Vostok 1, was deemed successful by the USSR. The first man to go into space, Yuri Gagarin, returned safely (pictured right) to earth and instantly became a hero of the USSR. Funny enough, “Yuri’s triumphant walk through Red Square in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands made him more nervous and afraid than his historic flight,” (Russian Archives).
As the successful mission reached the rest of the worlds ears, the US frantically began their mission to best the USSR. However the damage was done. The USSR proved to the world that they had the technology to put a man in space, thus making them more feared and respected on the international stage. Before the decade was over two more cosmonauts would be launched into stardom; German Titov, and the first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova. It would be another 8 years until the US would best the USSR and make the historic landing on the moon.
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History- http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1961gagarin&Year=1961&navi=byYear
Picture- Matthew Cullerne, ed.: Soviet socialist realist painting 1930-1960s. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art. 1992.
Mines Bigger than Yours
Soviet nuclear bomb explosion
The Nuclear Arms race that dominated the Cold War era began with a bang. Get it? Bad pun I know nevertheless it was true. Immediately following the Korean War, on August 29, 1949, with help from soviet agents within the US nuclear program, the USSR detonated its first atomic bomb. Previously thought in the international community to only be a US technology the Soviets declared their strength and presence as a new world superpower. Igor Kurchatov was the lead scientist for the Soviets from the beginning. He however had bigger plans for the Soviet nuclear program.
Andrei Sakharov, a Russian scientist with Kurchatov, came up with his own theory a “cake layers” method of putting thermonuclear material in between uranium-238. (SMSH) Thus creating a much more potent reaction than the atom bomb, this method produced a fission reaction with hydrogen that yielded a 400 kiloton explosion. However the US was still first to detonate a Hydrogen bomb on November 1, 1952. Less than a year later the Soviets were able to complete their designs and test their first hydrogen bomb. Thus beginning the race for bigger yields and the most destructive nukes.
Even after the death of Stalin, his successors continued his nuclear program to the end of the Cold War. Yet even within the ranks of the USSR elite questions were raised about the intention of such weapons. Georgii Malenkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, publicly raised such questions, and said that weapons as destructive as these had the potential to end modern civilization thus asking why the pursuit nuclear capabilities was a soviet top priority. As you can imagine Khrushchev did not like these questions and the chairman later fell in line with Soviet thinking. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear war was a possible capability between the two superpowers.
This fountain left standing in the middle of Stalingrad came to symbolize the struggle and triumph of the city.
Now some historians might say that the Battle of Kursk is where the tide turned in favor of the Red Army in World War Two, however I have a different theory. The Battle of Stalingrad was the real turning point in the war for two reasons; one the Battle of Kursk was all but decided before the battle even started mainly due to the fact that the Russian armies had ample time to prepare their extensive defensive positions for the German offensive that they knew was coming in the summer of 1943, secondly the Battle of Stalingrad was a much more strategic loss for the German war machine because it was an all out offensive that needed to be successful for the Germans to have a shot at defeating the Russians in the long run. The main reason for this is that the Baku oil fields to the South were the main fuel suppliers to all of Soviet Russia and their armies and cutting this off would make them vulnerable to the famous Nazi Blitzkrieg which relied on tanks and aircraft but those could only be provided by capturing the oil fields.
Funny enough the call to lay siege to Stalingrad was not General Friedrich von Paulus’s, who commanded the German Sixth Army which was the primary attacker on Stalingrad. In fact it was Hitler’s magnificent idea to attack Stalingrad mainly because he thought it would be nice to take the city who is named after the Soviet leader. I can also think of another time, (D-Day), when Hitler opted not to send his Panzer divisions to reinforce the Normandy coast because there was no way the Allies would be so daring to invade from the sea. Look how that turned out.
The German army did have the advantage going into the siege, “The Sixth Army commenced its advance on August 21 and, after over two months of withering bombardment gained control of nine-tenths of the nearly totally destroyed city,” (SMSH). Now most Generals throughout military history would look at this situation and see a lost cause, not General Georgii Zhukov though he was more afraid of Stalin than Hitler, and also his orders were to hold the city at all cost. These orders came down from Stalin himself in the famous, “Not One Step Back,” (Stalin Order No. 227) memo. Taken straight from the memo, “From now on the iron law of discipline for every officer, soldier, political officer should be – not a single step back without order from higher command. Company, battalion, regiment and division commanders, as well as the commissars and political officers of corresponding ranks who retreat without order from above, are traitors of the Motherland. They should be treated as traitors of the Motherland. This is the call of our Motherland,” (Stalin Order No. 227).
Fortunately the Russian Army was able to hold out long enough for a Russian counterattack to take place on the flanks of the German army. The Russians numbered around a million soldiers and were able to surround the German army now trapped inside the city of Stalingrad. Trapped inside and no where to go the remaining German soldiers suffered horrible fates as the miserable russian winter wore on. Out of the 400,000 German Soldiers at the beginning of the assault only 112,000 made it out alive after newly promoted Field Marshall Paulus surrendered on February 2, 1943. Thus halting the entire German advance in its tracks and turning the tide of the entire war.
My mom always told me to use my words and not my fists to settle fights and arguments… apparently Stalin’s mom did not teach him this lesson. The Great Purge is the darkest point in Russian history, “Its goal was to sweep away all of Stalin’s real and imaginary enemies and to infuse all levels of Soviet society, especially upper echelons, with a sense of insecurity and abject dependence on and obedience to the “Great Leader,” (Orest).There was no loyalty or citizenship in Russia during the bleak years of 1936 through 1938. Survival of the most well connected/I hope stalin likes me, was the name of the game. Now to be fair to the Russian historians who like to think of these crimes as prudent action, the Politburo stated that these “purges” were in response to terror threats and attacks against the state. Now anyone that can read and has read a bit of history around this time knows that Stalin was not a sane man in the slightest degree. Terror and more terror were his weapons against his own people to crush any opposition that might challenge him for power.
Stalin however did not oversee the entire operation he just told, Genrikh Iagoda the first People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs to oversee the first of three waves of “trials.” In the first wave of show trials, “July-August 1936 Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, and fourteen others were convicted of having organized a Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center that allegedly had been formed in 1932 and was held responsible for the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934,” (SMSH) however these were just a few men in comparison to the thousands who also were executed. Soon after the first rials Stalin replaces Iagoda due to lack of “numbers” in the trials and in his place appointed Nikolai Ezhov. He would oversee the remaining two sets of “trials.” These next two trials would be focused on the leaders of the industrial sector, and members of the reigning party’s Central Committee who were supposedly connected to the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center. Even the Red Army was hit my these purges and the upper levels of the army were riddled with summary arrests and executions. Soon enough Ezhov set up quotas for each tribunal of judges to meet. Now that basically means they were just looking for people to call traitors and execute them without any form of fair trail. Ezhov, “projected totals of 177,500 exiled and 72,950 executed were eventually exceeded,” (SMSH). These trails decimated the entire political structure of the state and the command structure of the Red Army, all because Stalin was afraid of opposition. The country tore itself apart and only due to the Nazi invasion was it able to put itself back together.
Seventeen Moments in Soviets History (SMSH) -http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1936terror&Year=1936&navi=byYear
Picture: Isaac Deutscher: The Great Purges. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1984.
On the Brink
Soviet railway workers and officials who were seized during the Chinese raids.
Only a year after the historic Five Year Plan was accepted and implemented in 1928, there was a conflict that had the potential to disrupt everything. This event is known as the Chinese Railway Incident however it was far from an “incident.”
During the time when the Communist governments in Russia were coming to power there was a civil war raging in China between, the Kuomintang (Nationalists) lead by Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Ze Dong. During the reign of Chiang, he felt that his people were rightfully entitled to rule Manchuria. This provided friction between the Communist Russians and the Kuomintang because years earlier after the Bolshevik took power they secured the ownership of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. This interfered with the notion that the Kuomintang had rights over Manchuria.
So you can probably guess what happens next right? Beginning on May 27, 1929 Chinese militants raided several Soviets railway offices and stations. “Some eighty Soviet citizens, officials of the consular service and the railroad, were arrested and documents were seized,” (SMSH) this caused an outrage in Moscow but the protests were not recognized by the Chinese and further raids were carried out into July, which eventually led to their full control over the CER. This triggered the Russians to mobilize planes and tanks that were deployed to Manchuria. This move by the Soviets forced the Chinese to retreat back and returned the CER back to the Soviets.
While this was going on the FYP was being carried out in the main part of Russia. Luckily for the Soviets the deployments and success of their military saved them from further action. However unlikely it would be that the Chinese would start a war with Russia the consequences of such a conflict could have been detrimental to the Five Year Plan.
Loyalist soldiers from Petrograd assault across the frozen sea to Kronstadt.
One would think that looking at Russia in the early twentieth century would think that by 1921 they would be tired of revolutions and riots and would want to take a break for a while. However that was not the case at Kronstadt, a naval base off the mainland of Russia near Petrograd. This base was taken by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century and basically turned into an impenetrable island that was used as a deterrent to countries who would try to invade Russia from the sea. The sailors that were stationed there were loyal soviets and were committed to the Bolsheviks cause up until they realized that the Bolsheviks were no better than the Romanovs when they were in power. On February 28 upon realizing that they were supporting another dictatorship party they went into open rebellion and established marshal law on the island. “Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win.” (SMSH) Loyal Bolsheviks such as a sailor named Petrichenko who separated from the main party led the Kronstadt Soviet and drafted fifteen articles that would be unanimously passed. This uprising was a serious problem for Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power in Moscow. Upon realizing how bad this could be on the newly formed communist regime reputation, a “media blackout” was ordered by Lenin and the island was quickly surrounded by the Red Army.
The water froze solid around the island and created access point for infantry soldiers to attack the island. This uprising needed to be crushed quickly and relatively silently because the civil war was the main concern for the men in power in Moscow. Therefore using the classic Russian strategy, Lenin denounced these freedom fighters as traitors and conspirers against the communist regime and branded them enemies of the state. On March 7 Petrograd opened up fire on the island and began a ten day bloodbath against the fortified base. Troops from Petrograd crossed the frozen sea and attempted to take the base by force. However this was a idiotic attempt due to the fact that they were crossing open, coverless ground and were slaughtered by the sailors in the base. However this proved effective in the long run because supplies started to dwindle and eventually the Red Army was able to surround the base from three sides and commence their final assault on the base on March 16. The base was overrun and taken back by the communist forces. This small uprising hindered the Lenin led Bolsheviks reputation but inspired them to make the New Economic Plan and essentially change the way they were to run the country.
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History (SMSH) – http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1921tenth&Year=1921
Photo- Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk. 2000. – http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&show=images&SubjectID=1921kronshtadt&Year=1921&navi=byYear
Incompetancy at its Finest
While their officers enjoyed the ritual pleasures of tea drinking, Russian soldiers turned to the communal soup pot for sustenance.
One would think that having over six million soldiers in an army would be a great advantage in a ground war. That would probably be true for most countries but apparently not for Russia. I am talking about how this army seemed unbeatable on paper but when sent out into the field hardly stood a chance. Now history has shown that a nation specifically its leaders cannot maintain power if they cannot defend themselves in hard times. That is exactly what happened here in 1914. With the losses “at Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, in 1914, Russia lost two entire armies (over 250,000 men).”(Smele) These demoralizing losses, in a war that was supposed to be over fairly quickly, expedited the revolution by showing the people of Russia that their military commanders had no idea what they were doing. “Ineptitude began at the very top of the Russian general staff, where the minister of war insisted that the armed forces had mobilized efficiently and had adequate supplies, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.” (DHR Module 3) The retreat that resulted in the losses cost the russian military two million men. For a country that has been famous for its military prowess this may have been their darkest hour. The war itself did not solely contribute to the revolutions of 1917, for there were other factors that contributed to the fall of the Tsar and the Romanov’s.
Order No. 1 was one of those factors. Authorized by the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on March 1, 1917, this order authorized “soldier committees” which they placed all military authority under. Now these committees were elected ones but lets be real this is Russia we are talking about, fair election is not in their vocabulary. “The first few weeks of the revolution witnessed the desertion of between 100,000 and 150,000 soldiers, most of whom were peasants anxious to return to their villages,” (Siegelbaum) this shows that no matter what the Russia government tried to do they could not get their military under control. Maybe its because they were all workers and farmers and did not have any military discipline. Incompetence is the general term I would use to describe the men in charge at this time because of their belief that they could revamp an entire military structure and then somehow get back up and start fighting without any problems. Maybe the 1917 revolution was the best thing to happen to Russia at the time.
Here is a link to Order No. 1 in english if you wish to read more: http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod03_1917/evidence_detail_22.html
Digital History Reader Module 3: 1917 Did the War Cause a Revolution?
Izvestiia, No. 3, March 2/15, 1917. Frank Alfred Golder, ed.,Documents of Russian History, 1914-1917, translated by Emanuel Aronsberg (New York: The Century Co., 1927): 386-87.
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History . Accessed September 15, 2013. http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1917armyrevolt&Year=19
Smele, Jonathan. BBC. Accessed September 15, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml#one.
Who is to Blame?
Bloody Sunday marked the beginning of the end for the autocracy that ruled Russia. This pimple on the face of history marked the beginning of the 1905 Russian Revolution that was to take place immediately after the events on that Sunday in January of 1905. The procession of workmen who were marching towards the Winter Palace in Petrograd were unarmed and only wanted to ask the Czar for more food, specifically bread, but were only met with rifles and bullets. The strike was actually scheduled ahead of time and the Russian army knew that they were coming. The police in Petrograd told Father George Gapon, the leader of the movement, that the most they would be charge with was breach of the peace. So there was no indication that the army was going to open fire at first sight. However the army saw the workmen coming and did not hesitate to fire. The ironic thing is that at the front of the procession the men were carrying a picture of the Czar to symbolize their wanting of peace throughout this strike.
I guess nothing was going to stop these “soldiers” from firing on unarmed civilians. “Even the police, it seems believed that the military would not fire, for at the first shots one of them shouted, ‘ What are you doing? How dare you fire upon the portrait of the Czar!’ but this had no effect and both he and the other officer were both killed,” (Hero of “Bloody Sunday”). Once the shooting began the procession scattered and history was made. However who’s is really to blame here for this atrocity. Clearly the Czar is responsible for his armies actions however did he give the order to shoot on site or was it the officer in charge of that unit who, idiotically ordered his men to fire. An article from the London Times reported in October of 1905 that Russian barristers (lawyers) actually found the military authorities in charge on that day guilty of the actions that took place and not the Czar himself. I completely agree with the barristers decision to accuse the military leaders because in the end the officer in charge had the final say.
1. Gapon, the hero of “bloody sunday”. (1906, Feb 18). New York Times (1857-1922). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/96601455?accountid=14826
2. From The, L. T. (1905, Oct 13). BLAME FOR “BLOODY SUNDAY.”. New York Times (1857-1922). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/96534550?accountid=14826