A Short History of the USSR: Part 1
It seems like I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about the Soviet Union, what it was, what was the nature of its existence, and its legacy. It seems like any time one starts talking about the successes of the USSR, some self righteous person will pop up, and tell you condescendingly how absolutely horrible the USSR really was. Sometimes it really seems that many people are incapable of taking a nuanced view of history, or to even escape the red scare propaganda they’ve had shoved down their throats their whole lives. So, let’s take a look at some facts about the USSR, it’s place in history, and what it meant for progress and socialism.
Before the Revolution: The Czar and the Serfs
To really understand the USSR, we have to start before it existed; just as we study colonial America to understand the foundations for the establishment of the US. History as we know, is a progression. The USSR didn’t just pop up out of nowhere for no reason. The Russian Empire was the predecessor to the USSR. The Czar ruled with a heavy hand, and much of the population lived in poverty and servitude. It was only in 1860s that serfdom was abolished, and even then not in a way that actually benefited the serfs. Conditions were absolutely horrible for the millions and millions of subjects of the autocratic Czar. Up until 1861, serfs were essentially slaves, needing permission even to marry. They made up over 80% of the population of the Russian empire, but existed as slaves without rights. When serfdom was abolished, the landlords had their debts paid for by the government, while the serfs had to pay outrageous sums, above market value for the land they had worked their whole lives. This time was characterized by extreme poverty, high suicide rates among the peasants, high disease and death rates and worse. For a huge majority of the country, life was nasty, brutish and short. Meanwhile the Czar in all his imperial hubris, fought needless wars with countries like Japan, draining valuable resources to try to feed his quest for power and imperialism. Then came the last straw, the one that broke the camel’s back. WW1 began with great fanfare for the Emperor, and ended quite badly. He poured the resources of the Russian Empire into the war on Germany. Food and fuel shortages mounted as the Germans blockaded trade routes. Inflation skyrocketed and the lives of low paid workers grew ever dimmer with each passing day. In 1917 things had reached their breaking point, the Army sided with the people, the Emperor abdicated and a people’s Soviet was established that started working with the weak provisional government. How did the empire break? Strikes by workers shut down the economy, further destroying any hope for a populace that would support the war effort. Cities came to a standstill as working people of all kinds simply refused to continue a system that exploited them for so long. These were the birth pangs of a revolution that would forever change the world, and would drastically improve the lives of the Russian people, as well as the peoples of oppressed groups and ethnicities within the Russian Empire. This, in short, was the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For the first time in their history, the Russian people would have the reigns of power in their own country.
This is only the first part of my historical discussion of the USSR, and more will come soon. The goal here is to illuminate the historical foundations, and material conditions of the USSR, and the historical and future implications of its existence.