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The Fall of the Soviet Union: December 25, 1991

on Sat, 12/24/2011 - 14:22

If in 1919 the question arose regarding which of the Great European Powers stood destined to drive Europe’s twentieth century fortunes, few candidates would have stood out as more unlikely than the Soviet Union. Russia had not only been forced into the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, but had been occupied by a foreign power from 1917-1921, was in the throes of a Civil War that would kill between three and five million Russian citizens, and had foreign armies again fighting on its soil far beyond the First World War’s end. Then, in 1922 Josef Stalin. Stalin, Josef Dzhugashvili was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party. After Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s death Stalin seized power. Even early in the Soviet Union’s existence Stalin, the realist, knew Russia, with four-fifths of its population rural, needed to modernize to survive.

Though foreign assistance helped fuel a Soviet economic revival that proved critical to its survival, Stalin relentlessly followed his vision for the Soviet economy by implementing a series of five-year plans. These plans brought tremendous industrial successes; by 1937 a Soviet Union with only 10 percent of the global population lagged only the United States and Germany in terms of its rank as an industrial great power. However this was done at only a painful and horrific cost to the Soviet people. Beginning in 1929, Stalin had collectivized agricultural work and brought under state control two thirds of all small businesses in the Soviet Union and 93 percent of rural households. Small property owning farmers classified as wealthy and known as the kulaks were killed, exiled to Siberian Gulags, concentration camps, or forced to work in the factories. The countryside emptied – during the winter of 1932-1933 alone 7 million people starved to death. Estimates for the numbers of peasants forced into the factories approach 10 million. Stalin’s programs forced population movement’s epic in scope. Between 1928 and 1937 the Soviet economy grew by more than 70 percent, but at a tremendous individual and agricultural cost.

Following a brief partnership with Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich the resurgent industrial and military colossus that was the Soviet Union faced its greatest test when Hitler ordered the June 1941 invasion of his ostensible ally. Though the Soviet Union would ultimately survive this test, and play the lead role in defeating the Third Reich, the cost of the 1941-1945 war was horrific. The Soviet military suffered 29 million casualties during the Second World War including 11,444,100 killed, missing, or captured with 8,668,400 killed in action. Capture had often meant death, of the 5.7 million Soviet soldiers who surrendered to the Axis 3.3 million were either murdered outright or died in captivity. Including civilians, most estimates indicate as many as 27-29 million people from the former Soviet Union lost their lives in the War. Of course, not all died as a result of the Axis.

Of the 1,833,567 prisoners of war returned to the Soviet Union, Stalin sent 1.5 million to forced labor and the Gulags. Within the regular Red Army Stalin resurrected the purges, in 1945 alone 135,056 Red Army men and officers were convicted of “counter-revolutionary crimes”. During the War, 158,000 Soviet soldiers received death sentences. In addition death was a common occurrence following the War. A poor harvest arising from the devastation in the Soviet Union’s best agricultural regions helped cause an estimated one million civilian deaths to starvation in 1946. It is now estimated by some that the Soviet Union’s 1950 population fell 50 million human beings short of what it should have been had the 1941-45 war not happened. Most historians agree that the Soviet Union never really overcame the damage done by Hitler’s invasion.

Perhaps it is thus no surprise that twenty years ago, on December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union, under enormous internal pressure caused by long-standing social and economic tensions, ultimately had collapsed. Then President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on December 25th and dissolved the 70 year old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); with Russian president Boris Yeltsin taking power.

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