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The Development Of Modern Russia History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

By 1964, Russia had evolved greatly into a global superpower; both militarily and industrially. It was no longer a Tsarist autocratic empire, but the world’s first Communist state, with a considerable ‘sphere of influence’. Russian society no longer took the form of a pyramid with the ‘sub-human’ serfs at the bottom, but one in which there was theoretical equality for all. In 1964 Russia was a leading industrial society, whereas in the early 20th century, its economy was still highly agrarian-based. These changes can be attributed to World War 1 and the consequent revolution in February 1917 as well as other events. The emancipation of the serfs, Stalin’s coming to power, his economic policies and the Second World War also contributed to the making of ‘modern’ Russia in 1964.

The war of 1914-17 was an important turning point as it led to the fall of the 300-year rule of the Romanovs. “The war catalysed the process of internal rot, leaving the ancient state unable to support the extra burdens placed upon it” [1] It was the war that brought to light the problems with autocracy, and hence led to the change in government. As the historian Peter Oxley said, “The first years of the war were a barren time for the would-be revolutionary.” [2] The war began as a popular decision, however, with the numerous Russian defeats; the morale began to drop as the war progressed. The Tsar had made his greatest mistake by personally being involved in the war, and leaving the untrustworthy Rasputin and the Tsarina in charge, this and the social and economic strife, led to the February revolution. The two events are inextricably linked, creating one turning point that changed Russia. The revolution led to the abdication of the Tsar in 1917, along with the change in the political structure. When the Provisional government took control, they had called for elections in November. However, the more important change came about with the October revolution and the subsequent rise of the Bolsheviks. The war alone did not bring about this change, without Lenin’s April Theses and his insistence that there be another revolution, it is possible that the Bolsheviks would not have come to power at all. The start of the war signalled a possible end to the 300-year dynasty, and also led, to the eventual accession of the Bolsheviks, making it a very important turning point. Without the Tsar being overthrown, there would have been no power vacuum for the Bolsheviks to fill.

The greatest turning point of 19th century Russia took place with the emancipation of the serfs. Serfdom was perhaps the most backward aspect of Russia in 1856; its existence was possibly the key to Russia’s defeat in the Crimean war. This pinpointed the problems of the Russian social pyramid, as well as marking the beginning of a century of change for the long stagnant empire. Alexander II saw the need for change in order to “preserve his autocratic system of government” [3] ; he was proven correct as the number of peasant disturbances declined in the period 1861-69 from 1859 to only 65 [4] . The granting of freedom to the serfs gave them greater power; “the guaranteed land was a major benefit that was not shared by the American slaves” [5] ; and also changed the social structure of the empire. Alexander had opened up the door to liberal thinking, however, he returned to a very reactionary rule. Therefore, serfdom brought with it the creation of stronger and more widely spread opposition groups, like the People’s Will. The growing tension throughout the period leading up to the fall of Nicholas II was due to the steady growth of political groups and the reduction in ‘liberal reforms’ by the ruling elite. In ways, this had begun to come about near the end of Alexander II’s rule, as he strove to maintain the status quo even after a change such as the liberation of the serfs. Had he not liberated the serfs with solely the aims of the nobility in mind, it may have been less likely for the violent opposition groups to have developed as such. This may have had the effect of Russia gradually becoming a liberal democracy rather than experiencing the radical change of March 1917. Either way, the reform was a major turning point in Russian history as it led to the possibility of further reforms and opened up the flow of other political ideals. This social change contributed further to the tensions within the middle class, which continued to build into the next century.

Stalin’s coming to power had altered the direction of Russia politically. He had adopted Leninism but also introduced more totalitarian aspects, thus creating Stalinism. Leninism loosely followed Marxist theory; it adjusted Marxism to fit with whatever would make Russia a ‘better place’ in Lenin’s mind. This had the largest impact on the political structure and the economy and must be seen as a key turning point in the development of Communism in the 20th Century. He had created a dictatorship, by creating a one-party state, through Sovnarkom, and more importantly, the Cheka. Economically, he had implemented the quasi-capitalist New Economic Policy (NEP). He had also become synonymous with Bolshevism; and thus had, unintentionally, created a cult of personality. These had become the foundations for Leninism. With Stalin’s ascension came another ideal – Stalinism; which was essentially Leninism writ large. Stalin had built upon the Cheka, by creating the NKVD that carried out the purges that highlighted the 1930s. The cult of personality was again taken up a level, by creating ‘Stalin’, “Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you [Vasily], no, not even me!” [6] It was this that changed Russia forever, with the purges; Stalin had created a Russia that was willing to do as he said, because they knew no better. This was essential in driving the country towards modernity in a fashion that would normally not have been possible; in Stalin’s Russia, there was none of the debate over policies as had been with Lenin. Economically, Lenin had steered Russia down a path of capitalism as he saw the need to please the people, who were suffering under War Communism. “We must try to satisfy the demands of the peasants who are dissatisfied, discontented and cannot be otherwise” [7] . This he did through the NEP; the policy itself was a topic of great debate at the time of Lenin’s death. With Stalin seizing power, the NEP was immediately abandoned, as was any hope of Russia becoming a capitalist country. Had Bukharin come to power instead, Russia would not have industrialised so rapidly. It would also have still been under the influence of the NEP. Stalin had created a totalitarian state, in which he was the state, and had complete control over everything. Despite attacks on Stalin’s regime after his death in 1953; the general structure of the USSR remained the same as what Stalin had introduced, both economically and politically.

The greatest economic turning point in the period studied was Stalin’s economic policies.

Despite having a growing proletariat class, Russia still had, in 1926, a majorly agrarian economy. It was with Stalin’s Five Year Plans that it really emerged as an industrial nation. This, along with collectivisation, was a turning point that made Russian economy one of the largest and fastest growing in the world at the time. As the abolition of the NEP meant a move towards Socialism, it would make sense that the agricultural policy would also change. Collectivisation was therefore pursued; it was the combining of all the farms in a region into one, state-controlled farm. This had the effect of pushing Russia forward in the ‘Communist’ direction as well as the more important consequence of increasing agricultural output in order to support the industrial growth. Generally, the agriculture production in this period saw a rise from the 74.5 million tonnes of grain harvested in 1913 (while Russia still operated under the Tsarist regime) to 97.1 million in 1940 [8] . This then had the effect of increasing industrial growth as there was more food to support the workers with. A lot of this grain was used for export purposes; this portrayed communist Russia as a rich and prosperous country. These figures, though, cannot be relied on completely as they are government figures and do not portray the picture in an unbiased manner. Collectivisation, although highly unpopular amongst the peasantry helped to shape the Russian economy to the end of Stalin’s era. ‘By 1939, 95% of Russia was collectivised’ [9] ; this meant that Stalin had effectively achieved one of his aims. Stalin had transformed a society that had contained land-owning kulaks to one once again controlled completely by the state; again Stalin had dictated the future of the Communist state.

The five year plans had an even greater impact on the Russian economy; Stalin had managed to “close the gap in ten years” [10] between his Communist nation and the Capitalist West. Without Stalin and his five year plans, the growth in that short amount of time would never have been achieved. Each plan was concentrated on building upon a certain industry, thus, by 1940; all of the industries had faced certain changes. The industrialisation in itself was revolutionary as it created industrial centres such as Magnitogorsk in the Urals, an area of land previously unprofitable. Each project was on a large-scale and publicised greatly, with each achievement even more so. Stakhanov’s rise had led to a competitive situation; this greatly aided the industrial movement. Stalin had therefore made sure that he would be able to industrialise quickly – in time for the war that he had predicted. Without Stalin’s five year plans and collectivisation, Russia would have been unable to win the Second World War and the Communist state may not have survived.

While the First World War was highly important in bringing about the change of the Russian political system, it wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that it really became a global nation. Through it, the USSR proved its militaristic worth as well as its economic capabilities. It is highly probable that without the victory at the war that the Communist Russia would have fallen long before 1964. The war had shown that the Stalinist system worked, it was due to this that the resources were mobilised so freely. With the state controlling everything, Stalin was able to provide what was needed at the point of need, rather than waiting for it to be sent voluntarily. This greatly enhanced the Russian war-effort, as it had all become a unified effort to defeat Germany and became known as the Great Patriotic War. This, coupled with the general Russian anti-German sentiment meant that the people fought vigorously for their cause. The war also ingrained a different image of Stalin to that he had acquired at the time of the purges; he was now seen as a saviour of the people and had regained any lost popularity, “No body of men could now dispute his leadership” [11] . The war was a vital turning point for the success and continuation of the Soviet Union, by 1945; it “was now recognised as a major power” [12] .

While the war of 1914-17 was important in ending the Tsarist regime and hence moving towards the Russia of 1964, it was not the most important turning point. Prior to 1914, the Emancipation of the Serfs was seen as immensely vital in ‘setting the ball rolling’ for change, it was with this reform that the political groups really began to develop, it is highly unlikely, though, that this alone would have hence led to the Communist Russia of 1964. Stalin’s economic policies of collectivisation made the economy more state-controlled, but also helped to further advancement. World war two helped to put Russia on the map as well as put Russian faith in the Soviet system. However, without Stalin’s ascension to power, Russia would not have become half of the country it was in 1964. His economic and political rulings completely changed the country, building upon Leninism; he had created Stalinism, a policy that seemed to have worked for Russia, making it the world’s second most powerful nation in only 29 years. “He had galvanised the forces that build a new form of society, presided over an ultimately triumphant war, and by careful diplomacy had made Russia the second greatest power on earth.” [13] Thus, it was the regime of Stalin that was the key turning point in Russian history during this period.

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