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Failures of Nicholas II

Nicholas II arguably was crucial to the downfall of tsarism. Under his leadership there were two failures at war, as well as two large scale revolutions, calling an end to tsarism. His failure at a young age to grasp the full concepts of economics and politics did not bode well for his future in leadership, which he was not all too keen to inherit.  He had military experience however, which may explain his choice to head to the frontline in WWI, as the Commander in Chief but this decision was crucial to his downfall. The people blamed him directly for the major losses and defeats.

The reforms made after Bloody Sunday, created expectations but were not far reaching enough. Going back on these expectations, created by the Dumas, were important in furthering the discontent that was clearly present pre-1905. The long term cause of Nicholas II’s downfall can be attributed to this, or even as far back as the emancipation of the serfs, in 1861, which also did not improve the lives of the Russians substantially. The essential problem with tsarist Russia seemed to be that every reform introduced always created expectation but was never far reaching enough. The lid of liberation could not be opened a little and then shut. Once people acquired some freedoms, they naturally wanted more.

Nicholas II, as expected from a tsar, needed to produce an heir to the throne, after a long time of trying, eventually had a son, Alexei, but unfortunately he was a haemophiliac, which led to the introduction of Rasputin to the scene. This ‘mad monk’ was controversial to the core and led to much debate as the tsar’s reign continued towards wwi. The tsarina, Alexandria, of German descent, was increasingly dependent on Rasputin, which allowed him to heavily influence her political decisions in Nicholas II’s absence.

The role of Nicholas II in the success of the February Revolution. His inept leadership and mistakes certainly facilitated the revolution occurring. The protests had great popularity because Nicholas II had been crushed in two wars, incurred two attempted revolutions, had produced limited reforms and because he had proven himself to be a weak military and political leader, not up to the task of leading Russia. ii

No more Friendship and Cooperation

The Warsaw Pact, was established in 1955 by the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. It was a military and political alliance between nations of Eastern Europe and was led by the Soviet Union. The founding members were the GDR, the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Albania (Albania left the pact in 1968). The original purpose of the initiation of the pact was to counter NATO, ideally they wanted both organisations to disappear. The countries collaborated together for many years, using intimidation methods as well as force against anti-communist threats within Europe. As it continued to have activity in Eastern Europe, resent emerged over the USSR’s willingness to sacrifice the population of its allies to look after its own interests.

The anti-communist wave in the late 1980s, which managed to dissolve the Soviet bloc was effectively the ending of the Warsaw Pact between the Eastern European nations. The GDR left the Warsaw Pact, in 1990, as it prepared to reunite with the FRG. There was a strong aspiration for escape from the pact by the former communist satellite nations, once they had rid communism from rule. By March 1991 it was clear to the Soviet leaders that the Warsaw Pact was over, as was the collection of Eastern European nations they had rule over. The pact had at times struck fear into those it was opposing and there were misconceptions of its power by the Western nations. Yet in the end, the Warsaw Pact disappeared with a whimper rather than a bang, thus offering a cautionary tale about the fragility of any modern military machine.

The end of the Warsaw Pact was intrinsically linked to the ending of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc. Gorbachev ushered in a new Soviet form of communism, which it turned out was to be the downfall of the USSR. The nation was however crippled by severe stagnation and economic problems, one can argue there was little opportunity to keep the Soviet machine alive. Gorbachev attempted to resolve these problems by reform, in the shape of glasnost, freedom of speech, and perestroika, which was economic and political reform and restructure. The periphery of the Soviet ‘empire’ eroded first, the Baltic region left communism first and then the Eastern European nations followed suit, some smoothly, others with some violence. The opening of the ‘Pandroa’s box’ really left the USSR with little chance of holding on to dominance and power over its satellite states. This in turn meant that there was no real loyalty left and the nations had no enthusiasm to remain politically and militarily tied to the USSR in the Warsaw Pact, which had mainly worked to suppress the Eastern Bloc people from earning democracy sooner.

Polish Workers Unite

The end of the 1970s and the early 1980s marked a real negative period for the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. They ended the decade with an invasion of Afghanistan, which has often been compared to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Both of these wars were viewed negatively on the global scene. This context for the USSR was therefore still evident during the time of unrest in Poland.

The emergence of Solidarity and its popularity was huge and arguably was crucial to aiding the end of the Cold War in 1989 with the collapse of the Eastern European Soviet satellite nations. The fall of communism in Poland certainly was crucial to the spread of rejection of communism around Eastern Europe.  Although the Solidarity group was officially formed in August 1980, it had its origins in 1976 when there was a Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). This group was formed by dissident intellectuals who organised strikes in many cities.

The creation of Solidarity was interestingly aided by religion. Pope John Paul II was, some would argue, very important to the creation of the group. He was the first Pope to be Polish and this no doubt had a big influence on the Polish people, especially when he visited them in June 1979. He called for his people to recapture their own destiny. Many thousands came to visit him in his papal visit and supposedly he broke down the barrier of fear, gave them belief. Many Polish people realised that by sticking together in Solidarity, the authorities would have less power. Some historians have gone on to use this Catholic influence to claim that the Pope was crucial to the ending of communism in Eastern Europe and the Cold War, which arguably is a little too farfetched and narrow of a view.

In 1980 Solidarity really began, with the economy in crisis, shortages everywhere and food prices rising, there was an illegal strike in the Gdansk shipyard. 17,000 workers barricaded themselves in and presented the Polish government with 21 demands based on workers’ rights. The government chose to negotiate with the strikers, and their leader Walesa, they gave way to the workers key demands. They agreed on self-governing trade unions, the right to strike, more political expression and religious freedoms. Once the lid of democracy had been lifted and eased open, the people would always want more, and this is what happened.

One Solidarity activist, Karol Modzelewski, claimed that they had a taste of being citizens, with civil liberties, which you don’t forget. Like a narcotic, like breathing fresh air for the first time.

This is a bold statement about how great this progression was for the people, especially for those in Solidarity in the early 1980s, who numbered about 10 million, about a third of the working age population. Interestingly, the USA provided covert aid to the group, met their requests of providing them with communication materials. The Solidarity movement had gained too much momentum for the Soviets, they were increasingly exerting pressure on Polish leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski. The USSR pressured him to fix the problem and placed Warsaw Pact forces around Poland but had no intention of following through with the threat. The opinion was that under no circumstance could they invade Poland, the USSR did not want another Afghanistan on its hands, the Polish government had to do it internally. Brezhnev sent this message in an ultimatum letter to Jaruzelski, the structure of the nation was not to be changed. Martial law was imposed, in December a nationwide strike was organised, the Polish government sent in the army, the Solidarity leaders were arrested and the group was banned. It did however remain active underground and re-emerged in the late 1980s.

Reaching Stardom! Yuri Gagarin


The projection of Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961 was a global presentation of the success and achievements that could be attained in the Soviet Union, and ultimately, communism. Although the image of communism was weakened somewhat, in terms of social success, by the Berlin Wall’s erection in August 1961, there were clearly technological and scientific positives for the nation. Gagarin was an ideal candidate to promote the cause of communism in the USSR. He grew up on a collective farm, rose up through the ranks of education to become a pilot and then was selected to be the first man to ascend to space, becoming a national hero, from humble beginnings. He was awarded the highest honour in Soviet society by being titled ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ after his accomplishment.

The image above shows the public reaction to his successful flight. It contains many red flags, promoting that this was a communist success. The large audience appears to be made up of all ages, suggesting the whole nation took great pride in this momentous event. The appearance of Yuri himself is of a man in prestigious uniform and of important stature. His physical wellbeing and the aircraft suggest that the return to Earth all went smoothly, which was not quite the case.

The ‘cosmonaut’, after the flight was eagerly involved in Soviet propaganda and promoting the nation which had facilitated him in being able to do something no man had ever done before. In an interview with Yuri Gagarin, May 1962, by Tass Correspondent, A. Romanov, Yuri reveals his appreciation for the Soviets. The title of the article is: ‘Mankind will discover the secrets of space – Meeting With Yu. A. Gagarin, and to the question ‘What is the most important thing that happened to you in the past year and what are your plans?’ Yuri in part of his answer stated:

I have visited many countries. The peoples have a high appreciation for the achievements of Soviet science and technology, and they warmly welcome the Soviet government’s fight for peace and freedom. I am proud to be a son of the Soviet people, the people capable of the enormous job of building communism.

This attitude is very propagandist, it suggests that the Soviets are fighting for peace and freedom, while others are fighting against it, most likely meaning the USA. It was right however in the sense that it was far better the nation strived for success in its space program, rather than its nuclear one.

It was celebrated worldwide as a success for mankind as well as for the USSR. This all occurred in the context of the arms race in the Cold War, which had led to the space race between the USSR and the USA. The competitive nature which had emerged for superpower supremacy meant that the Americans were shocked and embarrassed by the Soviets gaining an advantage in this highly sophisticated field. The USA’s goal became to outdo the Soviets in space technology by being the first nation to successfully send a man to the moon, which was completed by 1969. This nevertheless did not belittle the success and superiority the USSR had gained for several years in between.

As was the nature of the Cold War relations, the Soviets felt there was a need to hide some of the details of the flight which may have discredited the achievement. In the official Soviet documents, the parachute ejection system included for Gagarin was not mentioned. The international rules for aviation records required the pilot to also land the aircraft, which Gagarin did not fulfill since he parachuted out of it in order to get back to Earth safely. The rubric stated that “The pilot remains in his craft from launch to landing”. Had the Soviets not hidden this fact, Gagarin’s space-flight would have been disqualified and it is likely that the USA would have tried to discredit the USSR in any way that it could since their superiority was slipping away.

The Soviets also ensured the global success of the trip by not giving Gagarin control of his craft during the flight of Vostok 1. This was because of the insecurity regarding reactions of the mind and physics in weightlessness. The Russians didn’t want to risk the cosmonaut losing control over himself while in space, and thus endangering the mission. The success of the mission was of great importance to their worldwide reputation arguably more so than internally, because of the Cold War context.


Out with the Old in with the New

stalin funeral


Stalin’s power was absolute, he had for just under three decades made his position effectively unquestionable, especially after having won WWII, considering how backwards Russia was in the previous world war, was an awe inspiring feat. Stalin had allowed no clear successor to emerge as he had become paranoid about his inferiors plotting a takeover of power. These rivals had been dealt with in many brutal purges. When he died in March 1953 a very clear power struggle emerged as it had done after Lenin’s death. Back in 1924, the candidates were seven politburo members, Bukharin, Kamenev, Rykov, Stalin, Tomsky, Trotsky and Zinoviev. As after Lenin’s death, only a few of these became serious options. Post-Stalin, there were four key men running for the acceptance of power, Malenkov, the Chairman of Councils of Ministers, Beria, the Minister of the Interior, which included state security, Molotov, the Foreign Minister and lastly, the least likely person to take over at the time, Khrushchev.

The struggle for power lasted for around 5 years and Khrushchev never managed to achieve the same level of supreme power as Stalin, which arguably he did not particularly desire. Khrushchev seemed to have more of a focus on collective power and did denounce Stalin’s style of leadership in his infamous secret speech of 1956 at the 20th Party Congress.

The image above is particularly interesting because of how important a funeral can be regarding the hierarchical role the candidates took at this event. Similar to Lenin’s funeral, there was a good reason to be a key spokesman at the funeral of a Soviet leader. Stalin for Lenin’s funeral had cleverly worked a way for Trotsky to miss the funeral in order to gain an advantage in the pecking order for Soviet leadership. The three honoured speakers at Stalin’s funeral were Malenkov, Molotov and Beria. Interestingly, Khrushchev, out of the 10 people involved in the Presidium was the bottom of the rankings. Khrushchev, as Stalin had done after Lenin, had to be calculating and emphatic when asserting his way to the top of the cluster. Khrushchev had the right mix of the more influential friends in high places, with the more popular ideas for the USSR’s progression after Stalin, especially in the agricultural reforms. He also tactically, like Stalin, was able to eliminate the competition by pitting some off against each other, especially Beria, who many feared was getting to much power and planning a military coup. Khrushchev’s final piece of the puzzle to rise to leadership involved him getting the military under his control. He had the support of Zhukov, Minister of Defence, at a crucial time when Bulgnanin, Malenkov and Molotov were getting support against Khrushchev. He skilfully ousted Zhukov from power and took the head of Minister of Defence title for himself. He became the Commander in Chief, his position was secure.

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

What were the origins of the Cold War?

oenny head

The origins of the Cold War can be detected as early as the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 in Russia. The new political ideology was a complete contrast to the USA’s capitalism and certainly created a fear factor among many Americans. The Bolsheviks were following an ideology which guaranteed a socialist takeover of capitalism, this undoubtedly meant some form of tension was likely to emerge. The primary reason no real form of conflict occurred between the superpowers pre-WWII, except for the Russian Civil War, was because the US had adopted an isolationist approach to the world and the Communists had to work on modernising and solidifying their position in Russia. The focus of both of the superpowers back on Europe allowed the potential for tension to collide and thus led to many disagreements and issues post-war. The war’s importance in the origins of the Cold War was to act as a catalyst for negative encounters to happen.

With the climax of WWII came the ascension of a new world order. The globe had become bi-polar in terms of political power. The devastation of war had left Europe weak, both USA and USSR had proven themselves to be the ultimate powers of the future. The main themes for why the Cold War originated are simple, aggression from the USA, from the USSR and their mutual misconceptions and suspicions of one another. The superpower aggression exerted was often out of fear of the other one.

During war there were indications that hostility was close by, regarding the superpower relations. The whole premise of their alliance was based on a common enemy and after this enemy was no more, there was no realistic way in which the two could retain a close bond, since they were both so fundamentally opposed to one another. Stalin was particularly worried by the Allies slow attempts to open up a Western Front during the war. One potentially fatal decision regarding relationship was the USA’s use of the atomic bombs in Japan. Stalin was alienated by this because Truman had failed to inform the Soviets of this plan to use these weapons and Stalin no longer knew what the USA was capable of. This action by Truman arguably led to the arms race emerging.

Many developments post-war really cemented the initiation of a Cold War emerging between the two nations. The USSR were particularly swift in adopting the Eastern European nations under their influence. This was an aggressive measure to the USA as it showed active Soviet expansion and Stalin acting against the Allied agreement that the Soviets would allow democratic voting take place in each nation. Arguably the USSR however were moving defensively as they knew that the USA had Western Europe under their influence and wanted buffer states as a form of protection. The USA then introduced the Truman Doctrine, in 1947, arguably aggressive, to contain Communist expansion and later, in 1949, NATO was introduced and actively intended to intervene in communist expansion. Although this organisation was not officially aimed at the USSR, in reality it clearly was.

The issue of what to do with Germany caused several concerns for East and West relations. The Berlin Blockade, initiated after the Allies tried to enforce a new currency on Germany, was a clear display of tension and was only averted by clever judgement from the allies who occupied the rest of Germany. The US after this decided to station permanent troops in West Germany and this marked a real change in their attitudes and position towards post-war Europe.

The image above: Capitalist Europe on the Upswing (1947), represents how Europe was effectively having to kowtow to USA for the Americans to aid them in their post-war recovery. They were desperate, and the only options for assistance at that time were the USA and the Soviet Union. The USSR refused Marshall Aid for the countries it had in its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Western Europe however relied on the USA. This image may have been more correct at the time but the Marshall Plan undeniably saved many of the Western European nations from years of distress and economic difficulty. West Germany, for example, gained a lot from the plan and it was arguably a catalyst for their economic miracle, which occurred for over a decade.

Judt, Tony. 2006. Postwar A History of Europe since 1945 London Penguin Books.

Freeze, Gregory L., 2009. Russia A History. Oxford University Press.

The First Five Year Plan and Stalin’s move to Collectivise

smite the kulaks

The First Five Year Plan seemed to represent a time of increased repression as the Soviet leaders attempted to force through their transformation from capitalism to socialism, whilst desperately trying to modernise and catch up with the advanced Western world. The collectivisation process was an attempt to socialise agriculture in USSR as well as modernise and improve the efficiency of the farming. The people were to work on shared land, the poor peasants mostly gained from it and the rich peasants, the kulaks, mostly lost out. In theory, the people were becoming more equal, by force. Politically this made sense to the ethos of the Bolshevik party but it was arguably done at this time to help the industrialisation drive, to improve the economic position of the nation. There was noticeable move away in the Five Year Plan from the market based economy before, the NEP. The agricultural part of the USSR needed to be able to support the efforts the proletariats were making in the cities, especially in the heavy industries.

The social dynamic of the USSR in the 1930s was transforming. This was a stage of much repression, the changing of classes, and the elimination of kulaks. Class divides in the peasantry were in parts intensified, the rich peasants were angered by the removal of their prosperity to support poor peasants who arguably had not worked hard, or earned, their improved status. The idea behind the collectivisation drive in social terms was that the kulaks were acting as a counter power to the Soviets in the rural areas of the USSR and the collective farms would win over the support of the middle peasants. The appeal to this class was through mechanical equipment as well as coercive measures. Those who weren’t particularly won over by these Soviet appeals were defined as kulaks, without having the credentials to really warrant the name. As with the industrialisation plan, the collectivisation also received intensified demands as it progressed. The original plan was to collective 20% of the arable land.

The ‘Smite the Kulak’ poster from 1930 shows how the Russian people, in particular the peasants, were being encouraged to oppose the kulaks and welcome collectivisation. The written message within the poster says ‘We will smite the kulak who agitates for reducing cultivated acreage.’ This suggests the Bolsheviks will enforce their will upon the kulaks to stop them from restricting the USSR’s agricultural capabilities. It claims the kulaks are the ones holding the nation back in this respect and must be stopped by the patriarchal Soviet powers. The kulaks certainly were the thorn in Stalin’s side during the collectivisation process, due to their unwillingness to lose their earned prosperity and status. He managed to deal with the problem, they were eliminated as a class and by 1933, 850000 to 900000 were imprisoned and sent to labour camps.


Freeze, Gregory L., Russia A History (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2009)

Father Gapon’s role in Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday, 9th January 1905, seemed to have been one of the most crucial mistakes Nicholas II made during his whole reign. In one day, he dealt a devastating blow to Tsarism and the belief that they were chosen by God. The order, to allow peaceful protestors in St.Petersburg, holding images of Nicholas II and religious crosses, to be shot, did a lot to sour the opinion of the masses against him. The peasants largely up until that point were devoutly loyal to Tsarism, since the Romanov’s were supposedly appointed by God.

There had been a build up of revolutionary activity pre-1905. Primarily Marxist and Populist sentiments were increasing as well as just plain dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime. Enter Father Gapon, the charismatic Orthadox priest. He was greatly influential and organised thousands of workers to join the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. Civil rights and constitutional order became a bone of contention for the members. These members had been organised in an event a month earlier, the Putilov factory dismissal of four workers. This incident could not be solved by simply rehiring these men. Gapon had a vital role, Freeze suggests that he was a major component in giving the workers unity and direction. The Putilov incident led to a city-wide general strike and a peaceful mass march to Nicholas II at the Winter Palace. The main demands were not surprising: higher wages, shorter hours, a liberal programme with a constitution and free elections. Nicholas II failed to appear at the palace and authorised military units to shoot the petitioners, who included women and children. Public opinion drastically changed as soon as the people heard of those dead.

The article, published in the New York Times in 1909, titled: ‘How Father Gapon was led to his death: Vidid story of the Russian Priest whose fate was mixed with treachery’, discusses the role Gapon had in creating what became known as Bloody Sunday. This piece was written from the perspective of a man named Rutenburg, who, according to this account, was directly involved in saving Father Gapon after the petition took a dark turn at the Winter Palace. It was on January 5th when Gapon delivered his famous speech, inspiring people to take action. He had previously gone to other mediums of authorities but had gotten nowhere so he decided they needed to go directly to the Czar. Father Gapon beforehand had anticipated some form of governmental resistance as he claimed that during their rally, they would be willing to lay down their lives to achieve their aims. It did however seem unlikely that violence of that scale would occur. This is arguably a key reason as to why he managed to have much support for the movement.

Gapon became synonymous with the uprising but according to Rutenberg, the priest did not have a structured plan when it came to the day, at that point it became a real people’s movement, they just needed someone’s idea to rally around. These workers were marching for a cause that everyone believed in, going to the Czar primarily for work and bread. At the point of the march, knowing that the soldiers in support of Nicholas II had been preparing ammunition, Father Gapon still presumed that the people would not be shot. On the day, Gapon became a weak figure, he lost his charisma and leadership skills but the people were determined. The soldiers were brutal in their dealings with the crowd and unleashed volleys of shots until there was no more movement in front of them. The priest’s disillusion with Tsarism and the whole event is highlighted by him being quoted as saying ‘There is no God any longer! There is no Czar any longer!’. A very bold statement for a priest to claim, given his status at this point it is likely that he influenced many people against support of the Romanovs. Having had such a negative response from the Tsar, Father Gapon took it upon himself to flee, this is where Rutenberg became especially helpful to the priest. This even ,in Januay 1905, was the prelude to the 1905 revolution, which coincided with the Russo-Japanese War. It does seem likely that the Russian workers needed a figure like Gapon to lead them, without him and his Assemblym the Putilov affair could well have just been another of many incidents. The pressure of the Russo-Japanese war however no doubt was mounting the pressure on the proletariat to react against the Romanovs.

TRANSLATED BY, H.B., 1909, Nov 07. HOW FATHER GAPON WAS LED TO HIS DEATH. New York Times (1857-1922), 2. ISSN 03624331.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 199-233. Print.

Transportation during war


Hello and welcome to my first ever blog! I am Matt and I’m effectively a junior but this is my first year at Virginia Tech. I’m an International Exchange student from London, here to study for one year. My major is History and I chose African American Studies for my minor. Being that I am from England, please excuse my occasional spelling mistakes, I will have to get used to spelling words like labour without the ‘u’.

Now on to the assignment, I chose this photo, taken by Prokudin-Gorskii, as I wanted to focus on the troubles that Imperial Russia had with locomotion and transportation, which was particularly evident when the nation was at war. The gentleman in this photograph seems to be holding a shovel, indicating that he may be involved in the construction of this railway line, as well as being a switch operator, which may suggest some inefficiency in the railway system, if he was involved in multiple roles. It does look like a particularly basic railway line, considering this was a mainline and the photo is from 1910.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Russia at war only had negative connotations. Russia lost the Crimean War, which took place between 1853-1856,  they opposed the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. This defeat was especially poignant as it dissolved the great myth of Russian might, shattering the legacy of 1812. A big cause of their defeat was the limited transportation system, which was particularly ineffective at efficiently mobilising Russian troops and supplies across the huge nation. The opposing empires were far better than Russian when utilising their railways. My native news website, the BBC, nicely summarises the implications of the war defeat by saying that ‘the shock of defeat forced Russia to adopt a programme of sweeping internal reforms and industrialisation under Tsar Alexander II. Although this is a rather simplistic view it is arguably the most common line of argument for this period and does seem to be mostly accurate. The historian Freeze talks of Russia’s transportation backwardness when stating that their military forces were supplied by ox cart because of Russia’s late start into railway building. The overarching theme of this period is Russia’s failure to compete with the West’s modernisation which was highlighted by the war. Russia also established a passion to industrialise and catch up with the west.  Interestingly this was the war which made Florence Nightingale’s work famous.

The Trans-Siberian was a direct response to Russia’s industrial backwardness. The construction began in 1891 and it was completed by 1904. The poor railway system also was an important factor in the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. This war developed out of the rivalry between Russia and Japan for dominance in Korea and Manchuria. An article on reveals that although the Trans-Siberian railway had been built, Russia still lacked an efficient transportation infrastructure to appropriately reinforce its limited army in Manchuria, with soldiers and supplies. This defeat to a supposedly weak nation reinforced the notion that reform and modernisation was vital. Both wars were met with social unrest, more so after the war in Japan as it led to the 1905 revolution.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia A History. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009. 199-233. Print.