The development of Communist rule in the Soviet Union
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did not result in an instant switch to a Communist State in Russia. The system of Communist government developed over a period of time, and changed for a number of reasons. The developments are closely related to economic changes that were introduced. These are outlined below.
1917 – 1921: War Communism
Following the seizure of power in 1917, the Bolsheviks were engaged in a Bloody Civil War. In areas that they controlled, the Bolsheviks introduced ‘War Communism’ to meet the needs of the Red Army. War Communism was a system of centralising ordering, purchasing and the deployment of workers. It also prohibited profiteering and meant that the government was in control of the economy. This was necessary in order to make sure that the troops could be supplied with weapons and food, and it also made sure that the new Bolshevik government was firmly in control of areas that it had seized in the revolution.
However War Communism had many faults. It was a massive change from the pre-revolutionary system and the economy struggled to meet the demands of the Bolshevik leaders. In 1921 the Bolshevik leader, Lenin, introduced a New Economic Policy. This was a move away from Communism in many ways, but was felt to be neccessary for several reasons.
1921 – 1928: New Economic Policy
In 1921 Lenin said that Russia was not civilised enough for socialism to work. Russia was very large, had a massive peasant population and War Communism had struggled. If Socialism was to gained in the medium term, some elements of capitalism were required in the short term to ensure that the country was in an economic position where socialsm was viable.
The NEP allowed some private enterprise, particularly in the agricultural markets. Instead of the government taking surplus crops, farmers were allowed to sell it. This greatly increased production of food in the early years of the NEP. Many elments of the industrial sector remained under the control of the government under the NEP. Industrial growth was nowhere near as impressive as the improvements in Agricultural productivity though, and this led to price rises.
The NEP was criticised by many Bolsheviks. It allowed private enterprises and meant that the state was reliant on indivuduals or compaies making profits. This was very much against the ideology of Socialism. The NEP did however result in productivity levels rising back to levels similar to pre-war figures, increased economic stability in the country and ensured that there was food on the tables of city dwellers.
1928 – 1941: Five Year Plans and Collectivisation
In 1928 the New Economic Policy was replaced with a Five Year Plan. Stalin argued that ‘either we do it, or we are crushed,’ as Soviet industry lagged well behind the Western European states in terms of productivity and qality. The Five Year Plans created targets for all sectors of Industry. These were set and monitored by central government with a view to improving the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union. The Industrial targets involved heavy investment in mining and the extraction of raw materials from Russia’s vast interior. It required massive movement of workers to sites designated as being primae areas for production of specific items and it meant an end to profit based prodction in factories and on farms. Farming also changed as part of this policy. From 1928 onwards farming was collectivised. This involved closing small holdings and combining them into massive, mechanised farms that were state controled. These should be more efficient, would lead to better education, training and use of technology and were intended to increase productivity and efficiency. Ideologicaly they were also more in line with socialism as the benefits of the new system would be felt by all.
1941 – 1945: Great Patriotic War
The invasion of the USSR by Nazi Germany led to a return of war communism. Everything was geared to the successful defence of the Soviet Union and the eventual defeat of the Nazi enemy. Factories were transformed in order to produce the tanks, aircraft and ammunition required to fight and defeat the enemy. The use of local, regional and national party structures at this time is a very clear indication of how far communist rule had developed. Almost everything could be coordinated through party structures, from the transfer of men and women from factories t fighting units through to the passing on of information, changes in production orders and the enforcement of law.
The Party, military and society were purged on several occasions. The reasons vary but in general terms the purges were designed to strengthen the party leaderships position. Some of the purges were very large. They went as high up as members of the Politburo, with several being imprisoned, exiled or murdered. The purges of the military are widely seen as one of the reasons why the Red Army was overrun so quickly when Operation Barbarossa was launched. Stalin was planning further purges right up until his death.
Post-Stalin: Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’
Stalinism had a mantra of Socialism in one country. When Khruschev became leader he reversed this. He argued that Leninism did not advocate that. He was quick to alter relations with other communist countries. Dissenters were freed from the gulags in their thousands. Communism under Khruschev was designed to be more open. An element of consumerism was brought into the economy. Trade with other nations developed. This did open a political rift between those who advocated the new approach (or old, if seen as a return to Leninism) and those who were supportive of Stalinism. Much of the collective ideal was abandoned. Housing was no longer constructed in a collective manner.
Khruschev was swept from power and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev was ‘old school’. He did away with many of the reforms introduced by Khruschev. Yet, in many ways, not a lot actually changed. The Soviet Union was struggling to keep up with other major powers economically at the time. Rule was firm, change was minimal.
Gorbachev. Perestroika, Glasnost and open dissent
Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to energise the Soviet Union. His politburo was younger. His ideas aimed at securing the future of the USSR by adopting some western methods. The state and party needed to catch up. Technologies were advancing rapidly elsewhere. Threats to the party came from new sources. Gorbachev’s ideas were to promote discussion and debate. Censorship would be reduced. The press could report more freely. Dissidents were released from their internal exile. Gorbachev wanted to make elections more democratic. The old guard did not. A compromise was reached: Any Communist Party member could stand in elections. It heralded a one party democracy. The idea was short-lived. The Soviet Union was rocked by dissent and moves to leave the union from several member states within months of Gorbachev’s appointment. His term of office was 1985 to 1991. He became highly popular in the west. At home, he oversaw the final days of the Soviet Union.
Marxist Internet Archive – A History of the Communist Party to 1939. From the JV Stalin Library.
AlphaHistory – Narrative History of Communist Russia. Ends with Stalin which is a little disappointing but otherwise a very useful write up.