Culture and Civilization Matters

June 24, 2010

RUSSIA BACKGROUND: A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF A LONG HISTORY

Filed under: Term 5 St. Petersburg — Tags: , , — wadatripp @ 4:47 am

INTRODUCTION

Though Russia’s history may be shorter than China’s it could be argued that it has been at least as tumultuous as that of its neighbor to the East.

In this summary Alexi Pankin provides a brief historical perspective on the challenges that his country has had to endure.




View Pankin’s complete talk on Fora.tv here.


For our purposes the CCL course we will focus more directly on the period from the beginning of the World War I (1914) onwards where Russia has experienced a number of transitions.

What follows is a brief overview of that history drawn from an excellent PBS Documentary and Website entitled Commanding Heights

The site can be accessed here.

  • 1910-1913: Imperial Russia is the largest state territory on earth, with the largest population in Europe and the world’s biggest army. It is Europe’s chief source of agricultural exports, and with rich mineral resources, the chief recipient of foreign investment.
  • 1914-1916: During World War I, Germany invades Russia. Six million men are mobilized, and Russia’s factories converted to a war footing. Nicholas II takes personal command of the army at the front, leaving his new government leaderless in the capital. Conscription, heavy loss of life, and hyperinflation lead to terrible social distress. By 1916 Russia has lost 3.5 million men.
  • 1917: Military incompetence, inflation, low wages, and food shortages add to growing dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Demonstrations in the capital lead to a general strike and Nicholas II’s abdication. A provisional government fails to restore order. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks seize power and establish an emergency dictatorship that aims to abolish private property and socialize the state.
  • 1918-1920: Lenin unilaterally ends the war with Germany. Russia descends into a three-year civil war between the “red” Bolsheviks and the “white” counterrevolutionary armies for control of the former empire. The capital is moved to Moscow, and the Communist Party machine emerges from Bolshevik ranks. The siege economy and state monopoly leaves production at a virtual standstill and the cities without food. Russia’s postwar industrial output is less than 20 percent of the prewar level, with whole sectors of the economy destroyed. Traditional Russian society is virtually destroyed, providing a blank slate on which the new institutions of a new Soviet state are created.
  • 1921-1928: The triumphant Bolsheviks set about transforming the tsarist empire into a quasi-federation of states, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), established in 1922. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) restores certain aspects of a market economy and brings about a dramatic economic improvement. In 1922 Joseph Stalin is appointed general secretary, and Lenin dies two years later.
  • 1929-1940: Stalin overturns the NEP and begins the collectivization of agriculture. Confiscation of private farms sparks widespread protests. The First Five-Year Plan is passed in a program to modernize the USSR through forced industrialization. Stalin uses terror backed by purges, show trials, executions, and mass deportations to the Gulag to secure his rule. Victims of Stalin’s mass arrests, forced to work as prisoner employees in prison camps, form a core of the Soviet economy. By 1939 the Gulag is the largest employer in Europe. As the Depression hits the rest of the world, the Soviet economy powers ahead. But as Soviet agriculture is forcibly collectivized, at significant human cost, production drops by 30 percent.
  • 1941-1945: During World War II, the Red Army successfully repulses Germany’s invasion and itself marches west, annexing Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Eastern Germany. The USSR suffers an estimated 20 million deaths, but its part in the Allied victory helps consolidate the Communist Party’s grip on power. After the war, the USSR emerges as Europe’s greatest military power, and one of two global superpowers.
  • 1946-1952: The loss of some 25 million people, especially young men, during the war, has profound social implications. In 1946 Stalin launches a policy of Zhdanovschina, a cultural war against innovation, modernism, and Western sympathies. Stalin sets about reconstructing the Soviet economy. The Fourth Five-Year Plan aims to rebuild the industrial base and exceed prewar production levels. With the Red Army’s blockade of occupied West Berlin, the Cold War begins. In 1949 the Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb.
  • 1953-1963: Nikita Khrushchev, named first secretary upon Stalin’s death, begins a period of cultural thaw and de-Stalinization in an effort to decentralize the Soviet system of repression and secrecy, and to realize the “dream of socialism with a human face.” The Virgin Lands Campaign aims to boost agricultural yields. The Warsaw Pact is created in 1955 to counter NATO, and in 1961 the Berlin Wall is erected.
  • 1964-1975: Khrushchev is ousted, and Leonid Brezhnev is made first secretary. His regime focuses on recentralizing power and control. A timid reform of industry fails to alter the economic system’s declining efficiency and productivity. But when world oil prices skyrocket during the 1973 oil crisis, Soviet coffers fill up with hard currency that will help to prop up the Soviet economy for more than a decade. Brezhnev’s rule is a time of relative plenty. The minimum wage is raised, and the standard of living improves significantly. The five-day work week is introduced and basic holiday entitlement raised. The 1977 constitution enshrines the right to a private land plot.
  • 1976-1985: Several strokes leave Brezhnev critically ill and he dies in 1982. The economy buckles under the burden of a renewed arms race with the U.S. and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Stability turns into virtual paralysis as Brezhnev’s successors, themselves ailing, argue the merits of reform and inaction. Yuri Andropov dies in 1984, Konstantin Chernenko a year later.
  • 1986-1988: Following his appointment as leader, Mikhail Gorbachev begins a campaign of openness in public life (Glasnost) and political and economic restructuring (Perestroika), while committed to socialist ideals. Managers of state enterprises are given some independence, certain private businesses legalized. But an oil-price collapse and an anti-alcoholism campaign deprive the state of major revenues.
  • 1989-1991: Gorbachev’s relaxation of controls creates an economic halfway house. As output plummets, shortages, rationing, and queues grow increasingly severe. A desperate attempt to restore centralized planning proves unworkable. Boris Yeltsin becomes president of the Russian Republic in the first-ever election for a Russian leader. After a political struggle, Gorbachev resigns as general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR (CPSU), and the CPSU is subsequently made illegal. The Berlin Wall falls, and Eastern Europe breaks free from communism and Soviet control. A loose Commonwealth of Independent States replaced the USSR, which is fragmenting along nationalist and ethnic lines.
  • 1992-1995: Yeltsin tries to transform Russia’s economic system and social structure into a democratic market economy via Shock Therapy. The abolishment of state subsidies results in huge price rises. Hyperinflation hits, reaching 2,323 percent. State industry is sold through voucher privatization. Corruption and profiteering run rampant. Yeltsin suppresses an armed uprising by the Supreme Soviet and reimposes rule by decree.
  • 1996-1999: A second wave of privatization dubbed Loans for Shares sees strategic state assets sold to a few magnates, nicknamed “oligarchs.” Their support helps Yeltsin overcome a resurgent Communist Party to be reelected president. His bankrupt government sells bonds at high interest rates to raise money, but the Asian financial crisis forces Russia to default on its debts, and in 1999 Yeltsin resigns.
  • 2000-2003: With promises to reverse Russia’s decline, Vladimir Putin is elected president. Maintaining market reforms and instituting a tax overhaul to boost revenue and business, he attempts to steer Russia toward World Trade Organization membership. The oil industry booms. Putin consolidates his grip on power, delivering stability but raising fears of authoritarianism. Russia opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
  • 2008:Dmitry Medvedev is elected the third President of the Russian Federation. Putin is named Prime Minister for Life.



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