Note: You can skip the history page if it bores you and go to St. Petersburg, Pass II.
I like to think of myself as reasonably well educated in the history department, but not overly so. I knew a little bit of Russian History before I got here since it ties in so closely to American history, but I've studied it more since I've been here. More study is not making all things become clear. It has however changed some of my perceptions of Russia, the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
I think I now have a good handle on the events of the last hundred years, but I'm having trouble making sense of why the Russian Character produced those events, or even if there is such a thing as Russian Character. Vladimir and I have discussed that for hours on end, but I'm no closer to an answer.
As usual, I'm going to fast-forward through the first couple thousand years, and concentrate on the things I happen to find interesting, which are somewhat random.
The founding of Novgorod around 1100 years ago is generally considered the start of the Russian state. Before that, what became European Russia was contested back and forth between several of the empires that rose and fell from time to time, and Asian Russia as similarly split between vast areas of very lightly populated steppes, and various empires or groups. To this day, Russia is a vast collection of different groups of people of nearly any religion or ethnic group you care to name, but the Russian government and the part of the Russian people that interact with the west is and has been the Slavs. Russia today is about 80% ethnic Russian, with the remaining 20% scattered all over the board. The Soviet Union was dominated politically by Russians, but had a broader ethnic mix overall.
The Slavs started emigrating to the region in the first few centuries AD, and they split up into three separate but culturally similar groups. These groupings are still apparent. The Eastern Slavs became the Russians and continued to spread eastward from the Moscow region. The Southern Slavs became the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bulgarians. The Western Slavs became the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others.
The founding of the Russian state is generally associated with Viking traders that set up various trading centers around the area of European Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. They weren't really united but a loosely confederated group that managed to hold some city-states together long enough to start building structure in the area. They founded Moscow, Kiev and a number of other places.
A watershed event in Russian as well as world history was the creation of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. It's difficult to overestimate just how big of an accomplishment the Mongol empire was, how much fear it instilled in the conquered people, and how much it changed the history of the entire world. I didn't know much about it until I thought about visiting Mongolia so I read the summary in Lonely Planet. I subsequently read another book on it and found the whole subject fascinating.
The Mongols were eventually overthrown and their once subjects have written every history book since, so the Mongols get both a better and worse rap than they deserve. They are generally considered by the west to be a savage, blood-thirsty bunch of vaguely Mongol looking people that knew nothing but rape, pillage and burn. They are generally regarded as a group that simply used large numbers and excessive brutality to overcome their opponents. That's a both an exaggeration and an understatement. They were in fact an exceedingly nasty bunch of people, but no worse than their contemporaries (or modern armies for that matter). In 30 years they built the biggest land empire the world has ever known. It was bigger than modern Russia, way bigger than Rome at it's biggest, and bigger than any of the other empires that have figured so prominently in history. Internal squabbling seems to be the only thing that stopped them from conquering all of Europe and the Middle East. They were never actually defeated by any Arab or European army until they weakened themselves through the usual bunch of squabbling that always comes with hereditary feudal systems.
If you read enough history, you'll see one pattern repeated over and over many times. Some group sets
down to farm, trade and build civilization. Other groups retain a nomadic lifestyle that involves moving
from place to place constantly, and usually a lot of fighting with rivals. The civilizers eventually get
fat and lazy, and the nomadic people that are better fighters decide they want what the farmers and civilizers
have. Sometimes the nomads succeed and sometimes they fail. If they do succeed, they end up in
charge and then say "What now coach?". The nomads seldom think beyond the initial victory.
Sometimes they just take their treasure and leave, and then repeat the cycle a generation or two later.
Sometimes they stay with the conquered territory and try to rule it. They then find that as rulers they
have the exact same problem set to deal with that the previous rulers had. They frequently end up having
the same people that served the last administration get on with doing the same thing they were doing before.
Within a couple of generations, you can't tell the conquerors from the conquered. Again, this repeats at
some time in the future. You can find examples of both patterns in any long history book.
latter example is how China has maintained a fairly constant culture and way of operating for thousands of
years, even though it's been either entirely or partially conquered lots of times. Correction:
A reader has pointed out that the last sentence isn't correct. In the case of China, the Mongols are the
only group to actually conquer the entire country on one shot. Parts of it have been conquered from time
to time, but never the entire place. It should also be obvious that this whole Mongol thing is a pretty
big distraction from a history of Russia, and doesn't really belong here. It's just what I was reading
and thinking about when I wrote this page and I'm easily distracted. To skip the superfluous Mongol
section go here.
The Mongol Empire was mostly the work of one Warlord named Temuchin who lived during the late 12th century. The Mongols were a bunch of nomadic horsemen that lived on the steppes around what is currently Eastern Siberia. In most respects, they weren't all that different from the usual bunch of nomadic horsemen, but in another respect they were quite different from any group that came before or after. The first was that a strong leader emerged that through various means managed to pull a large group of them together. The nomadic fighters usually spent most of their time fighting each other, and only periodically would one group or another turn their attention to the civilizations around them. In the case of Temuchin, he managed to pull a large group of these tribes together into one alliance. Once this was done, he gave himself the name of "Great Ruler", or Jenghis Khan.
The other big difference with these horsemen is that they made one of the periodic paradigm shifts in military weapons, strategy and tactics. A paradigm shift is a change so big it changes all the rules and how you look at things. These happen from time to time. One group invents something so far removed from any technique or tool used before that they get a huge advantage over everyone that they might fight. This is usually only temporary, as what works is copied, although sometimes not for a while. The Mongol's weren't effectively copied until the 19th century. You can find lots of good examples that everyone should be familiar with. The trench warfare of WWI was made obsolete by the invention of the tank. The dynamics and distances that a war could be fought over was completely shifted by the invention of the airplane. The invention of the gun changed all the rules, and the invention of the machine gun changed them all again. The Atomic Bomb was the biggest paradigm shift ever, and is probably the only thing that prevented another WWII style conflict from coming up.
Now how this applies to the Mongols is that they had a couple of secret weapons that nobody in Europe could match. They had reflex bows made from bone and sinew that were the best weapons anywhere in the world. They could shoot twice as far as an English Longbow, and a Mongol warrior could fire it from horseback in nearly any position at a full gallop. The Mongols also put kids on horses before they could walk, and the average Mongol was a superb horseman. Every Mongol fighter kept about a dozen horses that were trained to follow along without being lead, and could switch horses several times in a day to cover about twice as much ground as any European army could. The Mongols also had the best siege engines in the world which they got from the Chinese. Most importantly, they had a superb command, control and intelligence network. They had a whole network of highly effective communications methods, as well as a very well organized spy service. They also had a hierarchal organizational structure with performance based promotions that's indistinguishable from that of a modern day army, when all their opponents had control of the army diffused and based on wealth or patronage. So the Mongols had a very fast, fluid and aggressive striking force, with a lot of firepower, that could literally run circles around the mostly static defenses put up by their rivals. This was an early trial run of the Blitzkrieg that the German Vermacht used so effectively against Poland and France at the start of WWII. Nearly all of their conquests involved taking on forces that outnumbered them by at least two to one and frequently more than four to one. They were never beaten until they beat themselves.
In addition to that, the Mongols had some new tactics that had never been seen before. They invented several particularly nasty tactics, including the use of human shields. It was common for them to force women and children from the conquered areas in front of them into battle so anyone fighting them basically had to kill their own or their neighbors women and children to get to the Mongols. They would also make prisoners wear Mongol uniforms to increase the apparent size of their force. They didn't invent the Scorched Earth tactic, but they used it a lot. They would lay waste to an entire region and kill everyone they could find in it simply to cover their flanks.
Now before I start sounding like a Mongol apologist, I'd better make my point. The Mongols were in fact an exceedingly nasty and vicious enemy to face. They may have killed on average up to 1/4 of their newly conquered subjects (statistics wasn't their strong suit back then), and they laid waste to entire regions that never recovered. Some of the greatest cities and richest libraries in history were completely destroyed by the Mongols, and never came back. However, this was in no way unusual. Nobody that participated in the industrial slaughter of the 20th centuries wars has any room to call them barbarians. The Europeans routinely did things just as bad or worse. They just don't seem to like to be on the receiving end of it anywhere near as much as the sending end.
The Mongols did in fact conquer, rape, pillage and burn but they left enough of a structure in place in most places to maintain order and allow the population to rebuild. They generally left local princes to keep order, provide soldiers and collect taxes. They did a reasonably good job of running the empire for a while, but they fell apart internally in a very short period of time (about 100-200 years). They were by far the best of their era at the awful art of war, but unlike some of the other empires they didn't bring much besides the art of war to their domains. They openly tolerated and supported all religions which was a good sign, and in most cases they did try to build up the conquered regions, if nothing else to bring them more treasure. However, their empire didn't contribute much of anything to the arts or sciences or anything else that might have survived to this day. Both Patton and Rommel studied and used Mongol tactics in WWII, and found them just as effective 700 years later, but there's not much else they left behind as a legacy.
One other thing I should point out is that Russia at the time was a definable group of people, but they
were ruled over by a group of princes that spent more time fighting among each other than fighting the Golden
Horde. In fact, all of Europe and the Middle East fit this description. Russia by themselves had
plenty of horsepower to whip the Mongols even with their outmoded strategy and tactics if they had just fought
together. However, they could never get their act together to do it. Several other easily
definable groups could easily have defeated the Mongols if they quit infighting long enough to do it, but
never did. This is another very common historical pattern. Mexico was conquered with a few
thousand men. Vietnam was conquered with a few thousand others.
Something like 80 million
Chinese were ruled by a couple hundred thousand Mongols for close to 200 years. Correction:
A reader pointed out that these numbers are entirely incorrect. The Mongol stay in China was actually
about 80 years, half of which were spent conquering it. And a "couple of hundred thousand" is
way off base. That was the number in the initial campaign, but overall, they were in the couple of millions by
the time they actually ruled.
OK, enough diversion. This is supposed to be about Russia but I'm easily distracted.
The point is that the Golden Horde controlled Russia for a couple of hundred years during the formative years of the start of the empire. The Slavs that ultimately became the Russians had been spreading out from the Moscow region and converted to Christianity in the 9th to 10th centuries. They were completely overrun by the Golden Horde in the 13th century, and remained vassals of the Mongols until the 15th century, nearly 100 years after most of the Mongolians were defeated by the Turkish Empire. During this period, a lot of immigrants came and settled into Russia under Mongol rule. Some of these were Mongols, and others were people from other places in the empire. These people brought a lot of techniques and ways of life that persisted in Russia long after the last of the Golden Horde had been sent packing.
By the way, the term "horde" is a Mongol word that simply means a wandering group. You can see how it's used now as an interesting side note to the effect of Mongolian history.
After the eventual defeat of the Golden Horde, as the Tatars (Russian word for Mongols) were known, Russia went back on the track of normal feudal empires as most of Europe and in fact most of the world was going through during that period. Ivan the Terrible was the first crown prince to use the term "Czar of all the Russias". Czar is from the Latin Caesar, and it had previously been used only by the Great Khan and the Emperor of Constantinople. Ivan was an interesting and colorful character. He started out as a good leader with a good marriage and was well on track to becoming Ivan the Great. His wife died and he became convinced she had been poisoned. He went on a terror campaign so bad it earned him the nickname of Grozny, which means literally "awesome" but can also be translated as terrible. He spent most of the rest of his career terrorizing his own people and mostly undoing all of his good works from his early career. He even killed his eldest son and heir in a fit of rage. At the end of the day, he is looked at as sort of a bad guy that you're glad isn't on the other side. He did advance Russia's interests in a lot of ways, including wiping out what was left of the Golden Horde to opening up the way to the conquest of Siberia, and started toward taking over the west. He died without an heir, and his prime minister ruled in place of an heir for quite a while and undid a lot of his terrible deeds and resurrected a lot of his good deeds. However, Ivan had antagonized too many neighbors, and the next few generations of rulers were disastrous. This started the "Time of Troubles", which was a fairly long period of anarchy that lasted until the 18th century.
Early in the 17th century one of Russia's most dynamic leaders took over. Peter the First, or Peter
the Great as he is generally known lifted Russia out of the Time of Troubles, and turned it from a mostly
cultural backwater to a major world power (presuming you make the usual history book assumption that
World=Europe). Peter was the first Russian monarch to tour Europe, and he spent a few years doing it.
He was fascinated with Europe, and toured every kind of institution he could get to, while simultaneously
negotiating a bunch of treaties. At the time, Sweden was a major world power that the rest of Europe was
getting very nervous about. These days, Sweden seems like such a bastion of calm it's hard to imagine
them being a world power, but they were at the time. They held most of the Baltic Coast, and had
penetrated far into Europe. Peter negotiated an alliance with Poland and Denmark, and then his armies
soundly trashed the Swedes in the "Great Northern War".
At the end of that, Peter
managed to take a huge chunk of Sweden for Russia, and also forced them to give up modern day Finland to
become an independent country as a buffer zone. [Note: Since I wrote
this, a reader informed me it is incorrect. When Sweden lost "The Great Nordic War", it lost
its Baltic provinces. This comprised what is today's Estonia, the northern part of Latvia, and the
area surrounding St. Petersburg). Finland was lost in 1809 when it as the Grand-Duchery of
Finland, became a part of the Russian Empire. The Kola Peninsula was never a part of the Swedish realm.
Most of Russian history before Peter was directed East. Russia had been pretty well integrated with Europe before the Mongols came through, but during and after the Mongol invasion they remained isolated and somewhat backward. The first monarchs that emerged tended to focus internally or eastward. Peter was the first monarch to become interested in Europe, and the first to really engage Russia with Europe. He built a new capital in land taken from the Swedes with an open sea lane to Europe and named it after his patron saint. He hired mostly European designers to build it, and forced his entire court to move there. That's the reason that St. Petersburg looks so much different from Moscow. Moscow has been there for roughly 1000 years, although it's been burned to the ground at least twice during that time. It had very little European influence in the last round of construction. St. Petersburg was deliberately designed to look European. Peter called it his "Window to The West", and it signaled a shift in focus from Asia to Europe.
Peter is given credit for mobilizing Russia's resources to the point where it could compete on an equal footing with modern Europe. This cost an inordinate amount of money, and he taxed everything from coffins to beards. As usual, the serfs took the brunt of this taxation (a very common theme in Russian history). Serfs made up over 90% of the population at the time, so even though they were dirt poor they could cough up enough en-mass to make it all work. Peter also instituted a "Table of Ranks", which was a performance based ranking system. Aristocrats had to serve in the army or the civil service, or lose their lands. Some aristocrats lost all they had, while state employees of humble origins rose to become nobles. Peter died without naming a successor, but the bureaucracy he created based on the Table of Ranks had a vested interest in keeping the machine working, and Russia coasted without an executive for almost 50 years.
I should also point out that St. Petersburg and most of Peter's other "great" works were mostly accomplished through the use of forced serf labor working in horrible conditions with a short lifespan. Mass shootings, whips and other punishments were used on a regular basis, as well as other forms of terror establishing a pattern that lasted through the 20th century.
Catherine the Great was next in line, but I already mentioned her earlier. The next significant ruler was Alexander the First. He started out very promising, instituting educational and other reforms, but he ended up spending most of his career on the Napoleonic Wars, which were a good preview for WWII.
Napoleon is generally regarded as one of the best general-statesmen that ever lived. If you base that on the ability to conquer and control territory with limited resources, that is almost certainly true. Of course, as usual he was also a power-hungry wackbat that destroyed everything he ever built, but that seems to come with the territory. Napoleon defeated Alexander's forces around Vienna and they formed a treaty that was supposed to gang Russia and France up against Britain (if this is starting to sound familiar, it should). This lasted until 1812 when Alexander resumed trade with Britain.
As an interesting historical side-note, in 1812 Britain was trying to retake their recalcitrant colonies in North America. They burned down the capital in Washington DC in 1814. That was the last attack by a foreign power on American soil until September 11, 2001. America had a few wars in what would become American soil later, and of course we had the horror of the American Civil War, but no attacks by foreign powers. This may well explain the complacency of the American public.
Back to the story. Napoleon was furious, and decided to end this Russian problem once and for all. He grabbed an army of 700,000 which was the biggest force the world had ever seen for a single military operation. By comparison, the Mongols conquered all of Central Asia, most of Eastern Asia and a large chunk of Europe without ever building any single army of more than a hundred thousand men. The French army vastly outnumbered the Russians, and the Russians retreated across their territory using scorched earth tactics the whole way.
If you're unfamiliar with the term, Scorched Earth means you destroy everything you can find that might be useful to your enemies to deny their use to them. You kill all livestock, burn crops, poison or collapse wells, destroy housing, transportation, dams and industry. The objective is to leave nothing behind that your enemy can use. In many cases, scorched earth is offensive or punitive, and in some cases armies do it to their own territory as a defensive measure. Sherman's march to the sea in the American Civil War was an offensive bit of scorched earth. He was trying to starve the Confederate Army and reduce their ability to fight. In the Russian case, they were destroying their own countryside to deny it's use to the French that were coming. The really sad part of scorched earth tactics is that the people who are out there trying to grow the food in the first place generally have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the war, and usually couldn't care less who wins or loses since one ruler is generally indistinguishable from another to a farmer or rancher. As usual, the average person on the ground pays for the fights between the ruling elites.
Napoleons forces pursued the Russian army across European Russia. The Russians would occasionally stop to fight some rear-guard actions to slow the French down. I'm presuming the Russians had a calendar and some idea of what winter was like. Napoleon set his sites on Moscow. This is a common mistake for megalomaniac leaders. He wanted Moscow because it was the historic and symbolic "heart of Russia", but it's real strategic value was pretty limited. At the time, it wasn't even the capital, since it had been moved to St. Petersburg. Napoleon could easily have had a tremendously successful campaign if he just stopped halfway to Moscow and consolidated his gains. However, he wanted Moscow so the army went after it. The Russians decided to stand and fight about 150 km outside of Moscow (remember this). The fight lasted for a few days and was bloody but inconclusive. The Russians withdrew in good order. Napoleon continued and within a month entered a deserted Moscow just as it started to burn down. Nobody knows whether friend or foe started the fire, but by abandoning Moscow to the French the Russians robbed them of any real victory. The French were deep in hostile territory, with a harsh Russian winter coming on that they were in no way prepared to survive. The French army tried to destroy the Kremlin as is their usual style, but some fortuitous bad weather and the re-appearance of the Russian Army prevented it. The French had to retreat back across the scorched earth with the Russians pursuing them and attacking them all the way to Paris. Only 1 in 20 made it back to the relative safety of Poland, and Napoleonic France never really recovered from the debacle.
During the rest of the 19th century, Russia continued to make some advances and some declines. On the advance side, Alexander I and II finally freed the serfs. This made Russia the last country in Europe to do so. For several generations, the serfs had essentially been slaves, not allowed to leave their assigned plot of land without imperial blessing. Eliminating this freed a large number of them to move to cities, and Russia went through an industrial revolution. Foreign investment poured in, and in a lot of ways when viewed from the outside Russia was becoming a modern state. However, by 1914, over 85% of the population still lived in rural conditions and their lot hadn't been substantially improved in several generations.
Russia also engaged in a couple of wars with Japan and others, and generally got soundly thrashed for their effort. Some of the defeats were because of leadership of a level of ineptitude that's hard to imagine, although history shows it's not hard to repeat. The Russian military lost out to the Golden Horde, despite the fact that they had them outnumbered by over four to one. They were trashed by a German army less than 1/3 their size in WWI. In the first Chechnyan War in the early 1990s, the Mighty Russian Army lost to an army that almost never had more than 3,000 troops in the field at one time, something roughly equivalent to the Colorado National Guard beating the entire rest of the U.S. military.
Russia lumbered into the 20th century with the usual mixed bag of good and bad, sensible and crazy. Russia was the biggest land empire in the world, by a lot. You could comfortably fit the United States, China and India inside Russia's borders with room to spare. St. Petersburg was considered one of the most dynamic cities in the world. In science and the arts, Russia dominated several fields. Industry was a bit behind the rest of Europe but catching up fast. Foreign investment was flowing in. Russian government bonds were a favorite with foreign investors. Russia was a favorite posting for the diplomatic corps. Literacy was on the rise. There were lots of universities with very low fees which were waived entirely for people who couldn't afford them. From the outside, it really looked like it was going places.
On the other side of the coin, the vast majority of the population wasn't any better off than they were in the dark ages. While the Americas and Europe were moving toward more self determination, Russia was ruled by an autocratic and authoritarian Czar family that became less and less Russian with every generation. The last Czar was less than 1% Russian. Serfdom was gone, but the people that worked the land weren't much better off. Russia had a population of around 125 million, less than half of which were ethnic Russians. There were a couple of half-hearted efforts at revolution between the late 1890s and WWI, but none of them really amounted to anything except showing what a coward Lenin was. He had a bad habit of getting people wound up for revolution, sending a bunch off to get killed, and then bailing out to leave the country when things went predictably badly.
Like the rest of Europe, Russia stumbled into WWI because of greed, secret mutual defense treaties, stubbornness and some kind of disconnect from reality. One historical writer called pre-WWI Europe "Powder Keg Europe". Russia jumped into the fray just like the rest with absolutely no idea of what modern Industrial Age slaughter could be like. Germany is frequently given the blame for starting WWI, but that's not at all true. That's like taking 20 football fans from opposing teams, feeding them each a quart of Vodka, getting them wound up for a brawl, and blaming the first guy to hit back when someone punches him for the whole thing. France was the first country to actually attack anybody, but they did it so badly the Germans mowed them down like grass. The French advanced on Germany with their soldiers wearing silly-assed red uniforms and carrying single shot rifles. The Germans obliged them by mowing them down with machine guns. Germany was then caught in a strategic position where it had no real choice but to attack. Of course, they did it very badly and drug a few more countries into the fight on the other side that didn't need to be there. Everywhere in Europe governments and populations were just itching to fight over any provocation, with no idea of how badly things could turn. Absolutely nobody had absorbed the harsh lessons of the American Civil War.
As usual, the Russian army was exceedingly inept. Russia had easily the biggest army in the world. It's peacetime strength of 1.4 million was immediately bumped up with 3.1 million reservists. The army eventually reached a staggering 15 million in what was called the "Russian Steamroller". Unfortunately, the Russians hadn't learned a single thing from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century or the Napoleonic war. The soldiers were treated horribly and made to conform through harsh treatment and flogging. The officer ranks were populated based on rank and patronage, rather than skill, and the top ranks were filled with old timers that were kept on no matter what. The war minister had last fought 36 years earlier, and thought machine guns and artillery were new-fangled and cowardly. In other words, they weren't ready for the paradigm shift that the new technology brought... but the Germans were. Within a year 2 million Russians were dead, and another 2 million missing or wounded, and Germany had driven deep into Russian territory. Germany was fighting a two front war with two adversaries that were both bigger alone than Germany (sound familiar?). The Germans reached a point where they stopped advancing not because the Russians had stopped them, but because they were bogged down in France and had to concentrate resources there.
The last Czar, Nicolas Romanov was a weak ruler at the end of a weak dynasty. When things went badly, he dissolved the Duma and went to take "personal command" in the field. Of course, he didn't know any more about fighting than the incompetent generals he was going to supervise, and couldn't magically make new weapons, food and materiel appear so taking personal command didn't improve things any. Not only that, taking personal command in the field meant that he wasn't taking care of the political aspects that were even more important. He failed to implement rationing, so people started hoarding which lead to food shortages and the riots that always accompany them. He introduced prohibition which didn't reduce alcohol consumption at all, but dropped government revenue from alcohol drastically, which along with the war drove inflation through the roof. During this time of chaos, his weak government self-destructed. A small scale riot erupted in Petrograd (the new "Less German" name for St. Petersburg), and the local soldiers joined in instead of suppressing it. At the end of a few days time, the revolutionaries had killed a whopping 1,200 people, equivalent to a few hours casualties in the Great War, but they had seized power. Nicolas abdicated, and the deed was done. He and his family were kept prisoner for a few months, and eventually killed.
When I read about WWI, there's one anecdote I find particularly interesting. WWI was the worst meat grinder in history, putting the Mongol invasions to shame. WWII had more people killed, but as a percentage of combatants killed and a percentage of total population killed, WWI was the worst. The reason for this all boiled down to the evolution of strategy and tactics. The American Civil War was the first real Industrial war where the output of your factory system was the prime determinant of who won. It was also the first one where very large scale killing took place because of the efficacy of the new weapons. I can remember touring Gettysburg and being astounded at the number of people killed in battles in small enclosed spaces. WWI was the next big step up from that. Offensively, machine guns and artillery were the best tools in the toolbox. Defensively, the trench was the best defense. Trenches which could be dug by any soldier with an ordinary shovel could nearly cancel out any offensive advantage your opponent had.
On the offensive side, the best anyone could come up was a strategy consisting of "pound the enemy's defenses into rubble with heavy artillery, and then send a bunch of guys across no-man's-land with rifles to kill whoever is left". This worked admirably against an unprepared enemy, as the Russians found out to their dismay. The trouble is that defenses could be built that could take a huge pounding by artillery, and once you had figured out how to do this, the advantages of the artillery were offset. In addition, "softening up the target" by pounding them with artillery simply signaled to the enemy where you were going to attack so they could get ready. To add insult to injury, if your guys did manage to breach the enemy's defenses, they then wound up having to fight in the ground they had just pounded with their own artillery to the point where nobody could get supplies and reinforcements up to them. The enemy usually just moved back to their second or third line of defense, and came right back at you a few hours later.
Most of WWI went just exactly as I've described it. Once the combatants settled down into fixed lines, they kept trying the exact same thing over and over and over. The generals would order a push. Supplies would be brought up, the artillery pounding would commence, the push would start and at the end of the day thousands would be dead on both sides, and the lines might have changed by a few yards, if any. It was an inordinately successful push that managed to net half a mile, and exceedingly rare. After that failure, the generals sitting comfortably in Paris or Berlin would sit down and calmly plan the next push. An entire generation was chewed up this way.
Now you may be wondering why I got off on this tangent on a story about Russia. Well, Russia introduced a novel new pattern into this game. While Britain, France and Germany were sitting in the middle of France committing mass suicide, Russia was sitting with German troops way inside Russian territory. They were in much worse shape than the British and the French because they had exceedingly poor and outdated weapons, even worse leadership, and no artillery at all to speak of. The Germans stopped advancing into Russia because they had to concentrate on France, but it seemed unlikely anyone was going to dislodge them from their well laid out defensive positions.
The Russians sat around and scratched their heads and looked for a solution, and finally came up with a plan. Since they didn't have any artillery, they obviously couldn't soften up the enemy position with artillery, so they didn't do it. They grabbed a bunch of shock troops, armed them with whatever weapons they could get, and just sent them by surprise at the enemy lines in places where they were least expected. The Germans had no idea how to react, and mostly they died in their tracks. Basically, the Russians very quickly overran the German's defensive positions and headed for their rear ranks. Once they got there, they went to work killing the lightly defended rear area and taking over their weapons. They then turned these weapons around, and started hitting the defensive positions from the back. More troops were pouring in from the front by then and they ground up the Germans by the thousand. They had re-invented mobility. Maybe someone read some of the old Mongol chronicles, or maybe they were just desperate.
Now that part of the story is interesting, but it gets better. Within weeks, the Russians had gathered hundreds of miles of territory, in a war where gains were measured in yards. They had captured hundreds of thousands of German prisoners, and killed a bunch of others, and got an inordinate amount of war materiel. In a matter of weeks, they increased their armaments dramatically, and that's where they went wrong. You see, as soon as they were successful with this tactic, they came into possession of the artillery they thought they were so sorely lacking. The generals were so steeped in their hidebound way of thinking, they quit using the tactic that had worked so successfully and went back to softening up their targets with artillery. This lead to yet another static line with the Russians in exactly the same position as the British and the French. There MUST be a lesson to be learned from this.
The Communist Party's precursors had been building up steam for a while before the war. Lenin set up the first communist cell in St. Petersburg and got three years in Siberia for his trouble. He left Russia and remained active in the party abroad. In the rest of Europe, the communists were generally working their way into the political system and making changes from within. In Russia, there was no parliament or other similar legal system for them to work with. The Russian communists wound up split into two camps. The Bolsheviks (majority party), lead by Lenin advocated a violent overthrow of the government by a small, committed and organized group of revolutionary elites. The Mensheviks (minority party) advocated a more peaceful gradual change involving mass membership at the grass roots level. Starting way before the revolution, and at least once after the revolution the two conflicting concepts were put to a vote. In both cases, the Bolsheviks were in a small minority (never more than 25%) but kept the name for obvious reasons, and continued along their path.
At the end of the revolution in 1917, Russia ended up with two different provisional governments competing for power. The Soviet was populated mostly by workers and soldier's deputies, and the Provisional Government was populated with middle class representatives from the Duma. The Soviet wanted an 8 hour work day, land handouts to the peasants, an army with voluntary discipline and elected officers, and an end to the war. The Provisional Government wanted to continue the war and keep social changes to a minimum, or in other words keep their power without the Czar.
The revolution caught everyone completely by surprise. Lenin had predicted that there would be no revolution within his lifetime. After he'd spent his entire life dedicated to sparking a revolution, when the rubber hit the road he had absolutely no part in it, and his Bolsheviks had no part in the two interim governments vying for power. The revolution had a tiny casualty count but it ended the monarchy. Lenin decided that now was the time to go back and seize power, but he couldn't figure out how to get there from his latest hiding hole in Switzerland. The answer presented itself in the form of the German Army. They believed Lenin would want to end the war with Germany at any cost, which would mean major territorial concessions. So they put him in a sealed train and shipped him to Petrograd. Churchill later wrote "It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia".
Lenin's calls for "peace, land and bread" were somewhat popular and re-ignited the Bolsheviks to some extent. He started yet another attempt at revolution that was easily put down and he fled once again, this time to Finland. The Provisional Government and the Soviet reached a compromise agreement involving keeping the war going and setting a general election for November to set up a new parliament. The new government set about constitutional reforms and foreign relations while Russia disintegrated before their eyes. Inflation hit 1000%, alcoholism and absenteeism skyrocketed, industry collapsed, the army began openly fraternizing with the Germans, and the interim government spent their time debating the fine points of constitutional structure. The government had the trappings of power, but no real power.
The Bolsheviks kept up an unrelenting stream or propaganda, and staged a walkout from the assembly. They turned out to be very good at propaganda, and started getting some support among the masses. Class hatred ran deep, and they exploited it well, neglecting to mention that they just wanted to be the upper class instead of someone else. A few other counter-revolutions took place during the year, and Lenin came back from Finland. The small but well organized and disciplined band of Bolsheviks took over government buildings and arrested the Provisional Government. It was too late to stop the elections, in which the Bolsheviks got less than 25% of the vote, and the Social Democrats got 55%. So on the first meeting of the new assembly, the Bolsheviks disbanded it. This set a pattern that would dominate the Soviet way of doing business for the rest of the era. The communists loudly advocated equality, democracy and all kinds of other ideals but in every case where it really mattered, the real decisions were made by a small and powerful elite and backed up by force. The communists didn't really care what anyone else thought. They convinced themselves that only they were educated and knowledgeable enough to make the big decisions. In essence, it was really not any different from Czarism with a different name.
On the other hand, compared to the Provisional Government, at least they could make a decision and implement it. They started doing that with a vengeance. They immediately negotiated an armistice with Germany, redistributed land to those that worked it, and set up the Cheka, or secret police. This ultimately became the NKVD and then the KGB and was to be one of the other major hallmarks of a Communist government. Within months, the Cheka began a systematic reign of murder, arbitrary arrests, deportations and other terrorist activities. Anyone that opposed the Bolsheviks was branded a traitor and just disappeared. The first of many communist purges had begun.
The Bolsheviks didn't control the whole country, and they were opposed by a bunch of other groups. The Bolsheviks were called Reds, and everyone opposing them were collectively called Whites. The Whites lacked unity though. They included members of the old guard that were unhappy with losing their power and prestige, people opposed to the reign of terror that was starting but not well known yet and a whole host of other ragtag groups. A full scale civil war started in 1918 just about the time the rest of WWI ended, and raged for 3 years. The British and other allies supported the Whites, but to a limited extent. The Reds eventually won the war, and let the Cheka go hog wild with executions, shipping people off to Siberia or other Gulags and other extreme measures. This continued and reinforced a basic communist principle of brutally putting down anyone that disagrees with you which not only continued but accelerated in later years. Lots of other patterns were established in this time frame. A young Stalin had 63 officers of his own command executed as an example, yet another prelude of things to come.
At the end of the day, the Bolsheviks had all the power and set about systematically eliminating anyone that could oppose them. This included political opponents, people that happened to know political opponents, anyone thought to be from the old ruling class, people that worked for the old ruling class, and anyone a Communist Party member just took a personal dislike to. People were encouraged to report each other, and the population fed itself into this horror with abandon. Everyone of any real substance who could leave did so. Just as in Vietnam, this included merchants, shopkeepers, intellectuals, artists, alternative leaders and anyone else that was either an obvious target of the communists or just wanted to go somewhere that had some real opportunities.
By 1921, the communists were firmly in control but they controlled a devastated country. They set about both political and economic reforms the likes of which had never been seen before. Immediately, Lenin set down two rules that shaped the whole communist experience. The first was that decisions had to be obeyed all the way down the line without argument. The second was the outlawing of debate within the party, which he labeled as "Factionalism". He also started the first concerted purge of the party itself, where all of those people that actually believed in the principles he spouted but opposed Lenin were purged (Note: Purged usually means sent to a short and hard life in a Gulag, or a fast execution). The secret police left the population alone to concentrate on Lenin's political rivals for a short time.
On the economic front, they basically committed mass suicide but didn't have the guts to inflict it on themselves so they had to settle for killing other Russians. Previously existing large farms which are generally more efficient were shut down and the land given to smaller groups. This occurred during a year of drought, and while the infrastructure was broken by war, political meddling and other factors. This resulted in an enormous famine that killed 4-5 million people.
Lenin died at a fairly young age (although not young enough), and that unleashed the usual power struggle you would expect. The two principles vying for control were Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin was considerably less popular, but he was an old party hack that had been working up to this for years. He controlled a lot of appointments to party posts, and had managed to pack the cabinet with supporters. As usual, once he had power he expelled both Trotsky and all of his supporters from the party.
Stalin started the policy of five year plans, and instituted a farm collectivization program that essentially ended peasantry as a way of life. The peasantry at this point included 80% of the population. These were forced into collective farms, or deported by the million to forced labor camps. Most farmers resisted this, particularly in Ukraine and the Volga region which was the bread basked of the Soviet Union. Farmers slaughtered their animals and destroyed their crops before handing them over. This coupled with a drought lead to another 6-14 million deaths. Some think Stalin did this deliberately to eliminate opposition. Collectivization was so patently a failure it was obvious for all to see... all except communist leaders that is. It was so bad the 1937 census was suppressed. Grain consumption was less in 1935 after the supposed triumph of collectivization than it was in the 1890s. Grain production on collective farms was only slightly better in the 1990s than it was in pre-mechanization 1913. Proof was readily available. A few small private plots were still allowed to the peasants outside of the collectives. These grew 1/5 of the total agricultural products, despite taking up less than 1/25 of the arable land.
If this sounds familiar, go back and read my history on Vietnam and you'll read almost identical words from an event 50 years later. People just don't learn. You should also note that I'm trying to keep this brief. The more I studied this particular part of history, the worse the communists and Stalin look. The document that started this collectivization binge wasn't designed to improve farming, but was specifically designed to wipe out an entire class of fellow human beings known as Kulaks. It hasn't received the historical attention of Hitler's "Final Solution" (his plan to exterminate all Jews), but it was every bit as bad in scope, intent and implementation. The only difference was that he was eliminating the Kulak class, instead of Jews. That didn't mean Jews were free and clear either. Stalin conducted pogroms just like Nazi Germany did, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to Gulags just for being Jewish.
Stalin expanded the Gulag System and Purges to an unprecedented degree. The Leninist regime was nothing but a harsh, brutal, ugly and inhuman dictatorial regime that makes the Taliban look like a Sunday School. Stalin's regime was worse by orders of magnitude. Stalin was obsessed with industrialization, and perfectly willing to burn people's lives by the millions to achieve it. The Gulag system was established for this purpose, and nearly exactly foreshadowed the labor camps the Nazis would later use. The first victims were the farmers caught up in the collectivization binge, and they numbered in the millions. After that, Stalin went after any party members that weren't enthusiastic enough about Stalin, or anyone that showed any signs of leadership that could challenge him, or anyone that seemed to have any kind of leadership of any kind. These could also be the usual artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs or anyone else that made Stalin nervous or happened to offend someone important enough to order it. One 70 year old teacher was executed for teaching with an old history book that had a photo of Trotsky in it. One woman was sent to the Gulag for shaking hands with Golda Mier. Over 100,000 such "enemies of the people" disappeared in St. Petersburg alone. This grisly business worked it's way all the way through Soviet society. 400 of the Red Army's 700 generals were shot. Nobody knows how many people disappeared this way, but it's been estimated at over 8.5 million. The Gulag population grew from 30,000 to 8 million between 1928 and 1938. Prisoners were underfed, brutally treated and literally worked to death. Average life expectancy was 2 years, and 90% of all prisoners didn't survive.
The Soviet Union entered WWII in a completely different manner than it entered WWI. Hitler and Stalin were both ruthless dictators so you would think they would get along famously, but the rhetoric each used to justify their rule were polar opposites, and they both hated everything the other stood for. However, both of them could remember WWI and at least temporarily didn't want to repeat it.
The U.S. and Britain tried to convince the Soviets to join them in an alliance against Germany if Germany invaded Poland. It made sense that having a hostile Germany in Poland with nothing but clear sailing to Moscow would be a bad idea for Russia. However, Stalin had other plans. Russia and Germany stunned the world with a non-aggression pact. What the rest of the world didn't know was that a secret part of this deal indicated that Poland would be divided between them. Russia would give Germany a free hand in Lithuania, and Russia would have a free hand in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Bessarabia. Stalin and Hitler apparently both knew that they would have a showdown sooner or later, but neither thought their armies ready to tackle the other at that point. Germany invaded Poland, the Soviets invaded a few other countries and did some horse trading with Germany. At the end of this, both Germany and the Soviet Union were bigger, and their gains were easily consolidated into the empires while the West watched and did nothing.
Stalin next went after the tiny little country of Finland. This would be roughly like the rest of the United States going to war with Maine. The Finns held out for quite a while against the Russians, but eventually had to sue for peace. The Red Army should have been able to take them out in a matter of weeks, but it didn't work that way and the Germans watching the debacle got much less intimidated by the size of the Red Army, considering how badly lead it obviously was (this should be starting to sound familiar).
When Hitler put his secret plan for invasion of the Soviet Union into effect, the Russians reacted with the usual frustrating and inexplicable mixture. On the one hand, they knew a showdown was coming sooner or later and Stalin had been building up the army very quickly. Military expenditures were expanded by over 40 times during that period, and conscription was reintroduced. However, Stalin's purges had wiped out the cream of the Red Army's leadership (if they ever had any) and Stalin in one of the biggest and stupidest blunders of all time refused to believe the intelligence about the invasion. Germany moved 2 million men up to the border of the Soviet Union, and put them all in motion without any reaction at all from the Red Army. From the outside, it appears to be the biggest successful sneak attack in history, and that was certainly the result. This result was way more the result of Stalin's thick-headedness than of any German sneakiness. There were plenty of reports of massed German troops on the borders (it's hard to hide 2 million soldiers), but Stalin ignored them. He even ignored the reports when the invasion started, including his own intelligence reports and desperate messages from Churchill. He did essentially nothing for a full month. Hitler is grudgingly given a lot of credit for orchestrating some fake intelligence that caused Stalin to purge his officer corps, and for his sneakiness in getting the troops up to the line undetected. Both of these are exaggerations. Hitler did in fact manage to get Stalin to do a purge of his officer corps through false intelligence, but that purge was tiny compared to the serious purge which presaged it. He didn't actually sneak his army up on the Russian either. They were spotted, but Stalin didn't believe it.
The Red Army was big, but essentially leaderless and no match for the German War Machine. In the first days, Stalin even forbade the army from fighting back. The Germans rolled over them faster than Napoleon had, and faster than they had in WWI. On the eighth day of the campaign, the Red army was caught up in two giant encirclements by the Nazis. The Soviets lost 440,000 men and 4,000 tanks which were more tanks than the Germans possessed. Two weeks later they were within 200 miles of Moscow and grabbed another 300,000 prisoners. Within 4 months they had overrun most important Soviet cities, taken most of Ukraine, laid siege to Leningrad (the new name for Petrograd... aka St. Petersburg), and were within striking distance of Moscow. Only an early and severe winter stopped them from grabbing the whole thing. They were not equipped for winter fighting, and their whole plan relied on early success. They came very close to succeeding.
In many cases the Germans were welcomed by the populations they were overrunning. The secret police had been doing their usual butchery before the war, and many of the people thought the Germans must be better than the Communists. That enthusiasm was short lived though. The Germans treated everyone in these zones as sub-humans, and actually turned out to be worse than the Communists, which was very bad indeed. The NKVD (the name for the Secret Police that became the KGB) killed every single prisoner they had before they left any city. The Germans took over some cities so fast the trains were still running, but the NKVD still had time to kill all their prisoners.
After the initial gains for the Germans, things got extremely ugly on both sides. Stalin finally started fighting back, eased the restrictions on the church and appealed to old fashioned patriotism. This managed to get everyone in the country actively opposing the Germans. They were still not an effective fighting force, but at least they were fighting. The Germans were not equipped to handle the Russian winters, which are pretty severe. Everything the Germans brought with them from their uniforms to the oil for their tanks and guns was the wrong stuff for the conditions they were fighting in. The treads of their tanks were too narrow for the muddy conditions prevalent in the spring and fall, where Russian tanks were made for that area. The list goes on and on. On the other hand, the Russians were poorly organized, poorly equipped and poorly lead while the Germans were a highly efficient and experienced killing machine.
As the Germans began what they thought would be the final push to Moscow, nearly 3 million men and untold numbers of civilian volunteers fought in the battle. The Red Army finally found a leader worthy of his salt in General Zhukov who both knew the territory, understood how to fight, and took no guff from Stalin. The Russians had chewed up men by the hundreds of thousands with human wave attacks, or simply refusing to react to events on the ground. The Germans captured 300,000 prisoners one day 100 miles from Moscow just because Stalin wouldn't believe his air reconnaissance reports. Zhukov put their affairs in order and started using the Russian's natural advantages. Their tanks were more lightly armored than the German tanks, but faster and more maneuverable. They could mine roads using horses where you couldn't do so with machines. They could also maneuver in places the German tanks couldn't go.
The real hinge factor though was a spy Stalin had planted in Japan. Stalin had ignored an earlier warning from this spy about the initial invasion which dumped him into the mess in the first place. At this point, the spy managed to get conclusive evidence that Japan would not under any conditions attack the Soviet Union from the east. They were getting ready for Pearl Harbor, and intensely focused on the Pacific. Japan had no intention of going head to head with Russia again. Hitler had not notified Japan of his intention to invade Russia, so the Japanese didn't notify Hitler about Pearl Harbor. The Germans were trying to convince Japan to attack Russia from the East, and it's through a German embassy employee that Stalin's spy got his information. Stalin finally believed this report, and in a huge gamble stripped Asian Russia of it's entire fighting force, leaving it completely undefended. They made the biggest rail movement movement in history, and brought enough troops to make the difference.
Within a few miles of Moscow, the Red Army finally stopped the Germans and started pushing them back. The German Army was at the end of it's endurance, deep in hostile territory with thin supply lines. They had suffered 750,000 casualties before the push on Moscow, and were out of nearly everything including luck. The Soviets had suffered many times that number of casualties, but they had a lot more to start with and they were fighting a defensive battle on their home turf.
At this point, the Germans had badly outclassed the Soviets militarily, but they were trying to hold out a 1,600 km (1,000 miles) front across thin supply lines and facing scorched earth and guerilla tactics. The Germans could easily have acquired allies in the newly conquered territory, but they did the same thing as the Mongols had 700 years earlier. They treated the newly conquered territories as war booty filled with sub-humans, and turned whole populations that might have been fed up with the Soviets into people that hated the Soviets but hated the Germans even more. They probably could have even toppled the Stalinist regime, which is what Hitler thought would happen if they had treated the conquered territories better.
The Russians stopped the Germans from advancing on Moscow, and the war turned into a bloody stalemate. This stalemate went on for 3 years and got worse and worse. In a couple of places, both sides ordered No Retreat Under Any Conditions, and the fighting achieved unimaginable levels of brutality. The worst example was Stalingrad, which the Guinness Book of World Records calls the bloodiest battle in history. Hitler wanted control of the oil rich Caucasus region (If the terms "oil rich" and "Caucasus" sound familiar, go find Chechnya on a map... it's about 300 miles south. Take a look at Afghanistan while you're at it.) Examples of how bad it got include:
Gradually, the Russians started getting their act together and the German war machine started collapsing. Eventually the Russians started chasing the Germans back through the conquered territory. What they found spurred them on faster. The Germans weren't satisfied with simple scorched earth tactics on their retreat, and actively tried to kill every living thing in the territories they abandoned. The Russians chased them back through the conquered territory, and then through Germany itself, until they got their revenge by turning what was left of Berlin into a big pile of rubble.
One of the things that made a huge difference for Russia was lend-lease. This was a trick President Roosevelt invented to give supplies and war materiel to England at the start of the war when the U.S. was officially neutral. It was just one of a dozen equally sneaky tricks he used to try to keep a few allies alive in a war that he knew the U.S. would ultimately be in. What most people don't know is that as soon as Russia was attacked by Germany, they became a lend-lease recipients too. The U.S. shipped millions of tons of all kinds of supplies to the Soviet Union during the war, including everything from food to boots to weapons. This was one of the very decisive factors during some of the darkest days on the Russian Front. At that point, the U.S. wasn't all that picky about who our allies were, and anyone killing Germans in large numbers was our friend by definition.
Another thing most people don't know is that the Soviets took a nearly unimaginable beating in WWII, and in fact were more responsible for the allies victory than anyone else. They engaged more of the German war machine, killed more Germans and took a lot higher death toll than anyone else. The death toll in St. Petersburg alone was more than the combined losses of the U.S. and Britain for the entire war in all theatres, and Stalingrad was worse. A Russian saying of the time was "You paid for victory in Spam. We paid in blood." The Russians could not have won without allied supplies and materiel, and the allies would have taken a substantially higher death toll if not for the Russians and it's quite possible the allies wouldn't have won at all. The West owes the Soviets a debt many people aren't even aware of.
At the end of the war, the disposition of Europe was decided by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at conferences in Tehran and Yalta. The onetime allies never did like each other all that much, and relationships between the Soviets and the west were very strained. It was obvious to everyone that Russia took the brunt of bringing down the Third Reich. They didn't choose that role, but they did fulfill it.
At the conferences, Churchill and Roosevelt weren't left with a whole lot of choice in the matter. Each of the three major powers that defeated Germany was left in control of the areas they liberated. They all agreed to administer the regions until proper elections could be run. In the Soviet held areas, the Red Army propped up local communist rulers and went ahead with the elections. If they liked the elections, that country became a new voluntary member of the Soviet Union. If the results weren't favorable, they just seized power anyway. The allies allowed free elections to happen in Europe, but blocked them anyplace that they went the wrong way and they thought they could get away with it (such as Vietnam). However, the Soviets could get away with it a lot more than the allies could, so at the end of the day the Soviet union was expanded by nearly all the territory in Eastern Europe that they had conquered, with the notable exception of Yugoslavia. The rest of Europe, got mostly free and fair elections and got on with their business of rebuilding.
The Russians took every bit of industrial equipment they could find in Germany as war booty, and hauled it back to the Soviet Union. While they were at it, they brought the German engineers that knew how it all worked along for the ride.
At that point, the Soviet Union was in desperate shape. It's difficult to exaggerate just how bad things were. If you want to put it in perspective, imagine the U.S. fighting. Now take out 1/4 of the population, with a disproportionate percentage of them being young men. Now wipe out most of the industry in say the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard, as well as the vast bulk of the agriculture in the Midwest and Western states. Add another 22 million injured soldiers, plus untold millions of widows and orphans and injured civilians. Now you are getting close. Add in the worst drought in recent history (these guys just can't win with the climate), and a massive shortage of housing, and the 1946-7 period had the Soviet Union right on the edge of mass starvation.
The Soviets kept every country they controlled in Eastern Europe because they needed the resources. They had always been expansionist, but no more so than most empires. At the end of the war, they were in desperate shape, without a whole lot of options. I hate to sound like a Stalinist apologist, but that's the way things looked at the time. The first industrial revolution had been financed by western money. The communist's first act after the Bolshevik revolution was to nationalize all externally owned industry and default on all loans, thus biting the hand that fed them. After that, the West wasn't all that keen on loaning them more money. Lend-lease ended in 1945, and a request for a large loan from the U.S. was "mislaid".
The recently captured parts of Eastern Europe were war damaged as well, but in general weren't as badly damaged as the Soviet Union. The Soviets decided on a plunder policy to try to use this for recovery. At first, the Soviets worked on the assumption that they would have to give up Eastern Europe sometime soon, so they started trying to dismantle all the industry they could and haul it east. The logistical difficulties proved insurmountable, and when the West didn't seem ready to throw them out they changed over to a policy of systematic exploitation of the countries and backed it up with the Red Army.
The U.S. was the first member of the new Nuclear Club after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for a while during the Truman administration there was talk of using our new status as the only member of this club to "roll back" the Soviet Union to it's pre-war borders. Whether this was a good idea or not, the opportunity was lost when the Russians detonated their own nuke. Stalin was an exceedingly paranoid man, and knew practically nothing about western politics. To him, the U.S. as the world's only superpower was a threat he just couldn't bear. Making an atomic bomb was given as the first priority of his science wing, and in the meantime he grabbed more land in Eastern Europe, and rang down the famous "Iron Curtain", forcing total isolation between East and West.
During this period, Stalin embarked on a much broader and more vicious campaign of industrialization and terror. Relations between East and West hardened, and the beginnings of the Cold War started appearing. The Gulags had never wound down, but the system was expanded again. The first people to go were the 2 million Soviet citizens repatriated by the Allies. Some were prisoners of war, or forced laborers that the Germans took. Others were refugees or people that took advantage of the war to get out of the USSR. All went straight to the Gulag in case their stay abroad had contaminated them. All the other usual suspects were sent as well, but at an accelerated pace. The existing Gulags were expanded, and new ones were created. Some were established in places so inhospitable that the entire camp disappeared including guards and dogs. Some were places every bit as bad as the worst of the German concentration camps. To add insult to injury, some were off in Siberia trying to accomplish something Stalin dreamed up that was impossible to accomplish, and not worth doing if you could accomplish it. In addition to this, Stalin started making five year plans projecting growth rates more than double that ever achieved by any industrialized country in history. To do this, he needed foreign equipment and other things. The equipment was purchased by extracting anything of value that anyone had left, and by exporting grain during a period of mass starvation. The workers in the factories went back to being slave laborers, even the ones that didn't get shipped off to the Gulag. They were worked nearly to death whether they went to the Gulags or not.
The Soviets also started a mass program of copying technology. They would clone American or European equipment rather than developing their own. For military technology they preferred to steal rather than develop independently. This coupled with the crippling effect of shipping the most vigorous members of society off to the Gulag put an end to all innovation in the Soviet Union on any front, social, political, artistic or industrial. You can't steal something until someone else makes it first, so they were always a step behind the West in nearly everything. This pattern continued through the entire Soviet period.
Stalin died in 1953. Around 20 million people had died in his purges, forced famines and labor camps. Add his fair share of the losses in WWII, and he comes out as one of the biggest butchers in history; at least as bad as Hitler and maybe worse. He achieved some kind of cult status among some of his peers which completely mystifies me. Churchill said "when he took Russia on they only had a wooden plough, but he left it with nuclear weapons". This may be true on some levels, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what they could have achieved in the same time period. He also systematically destroyed a lot of the economy, so by the 1990s they had nuclear weapons but couldn't farm any more efficiently than in 1890. Many correctly credit them with the destruction of the Third Reich which Russia unquestionably did, but Stalin's meddling made the cost of that victory very high when it need not have been. The Soviets did achieve a remarkable unassisted comeback from the utter devastation of WWII, but at a price that was both excessive and unnecessary. In the end, some historians want to give credit where credit is due but I'm inclined to write the entire Stalin era off as a bad experience. Lenin generally skates off pretty lightly as far as his historical reputation, but he was just as bad as Stalin in nearly every way.
Stalin was followed by Khrushchev. The immediate successor was a committee of a few men, but as usual Khrushchev manipulated the deal to end up at the top of the heap. He had been a stalwart Stalin man, and earned the nickname the "Butcher of Ukraine" for his handling of their attempts at escaping the Soviet anchor. In a very Stalinesque move, he had Beria, the second most prominent part of the committee, branded a traitor and shot. In the ultimate of ironies, both Khrushchev and Beria were guilty of sending millions off to death using sham trials with fake evidence. Khrushchev used the exact same laws and techniques on Beria that Beria had visited on thousands of others. Legend has it that Beria was gagged before being shot so he wouldn't blab any incriminating evidence to the firing squad.
After that, in a completely surprising move, Khrushchev embarked on a massive program of de-Stalinization. He made a "Secret Speech" to the Duma branding the Stalin regime as what it was, admitting his part in it and openly advocating change. This appears to have been just a quest for power, since he was as bad as any other Stalin underling earlier and later. However, with this campaign, the political climate thawed noticeably, debate was again allowed in the party and he started making efforts to back the confrontational tone with the West down a few notches. A few political prisoners were freed and official dogma was changed to allow for the possible coexistence of communism and capitalism. Up until that point, official Communist dogma had it that the entire world would eventually have to be communist, and that was the stated goal of all communist doctrine.
Khrushchev was a very schizophrenic ruler. He bounced back and forth between being more Stalinesque than Stalin to being the big reformer and back again until nobody knew what to think. He allowed the Soviet Union to voluntarily leave one of the joint occupation zones to create the independent country of Austria, thus making it appear that the Soviets might voluntarily give up some territory, a thought inconceivable just a year before. That coupled with the new de-Stalinization effort convinced some of the countries that they could get out of the Soviet circle. Hungary was the first to try it and he crushed them in typical style thus reverting back to the old model and making it clear and certain that Austria was a one-time shot that would not be repeated.
Khrushchev's most notable event came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Opinions differ on whether it was a real crisis or not. It is 100% certain it was a crisis for the prestige of the Kennedy administration which had just allowed the exceedingly inept Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to fail so miserably (yet another bad idea poorly implemented by the CIA). Another failure in Cuba would be too much for him to stand, and would most likely have resulted in him losing the next election, which was fairly likely even without the "crisis". His first remark on seeing the photos of the missiles was about the next election, not any real threat. Militarily, opinions differ on whether it was a real crisis or not. Military leaders at the time didn't really think it changed the calculus all that much, but they're the same ones that predicted a win in Vietnam in a matter of months. The missiles in Cuba were no closer to American targets than the missiles the U.S. had in Turkey were from Moscow, and the Soviets already had submarine launchable missiles at about the same distance from American cities. Except for a small reduction in first strike time to cities in the center of the country, it didn't really change the military calculus much at all. On the other side of the coin, there's a difference between nukes under firm control of the Soviets and nukes under the control of Fidel Castro. From that standpoint, it probably did increase the danger somewhat. In either case, Kennedy decided to make an issue of it, and it came very close to a shooting war. Kennedy cranked the military up to DefCon 2, which is just one step short of actual war. Khrushchev was in no way ready to start WWIII over it, and backed down. Politically it was seen as a great victory for Kennedy and a big defeat for Khrushchev. Today some think Kennedy did the right thing in standing tall and eliminating a real and present threat. Others think it was a hotheaded move that put the word on the brink of nuclear war just to save his ego and his administration. Take whichever opinion you want and you will be able to find an expert to agree with you.
My favorite Cuban Missile Crisis story concerns how it ultimately ended. Legend has it that Khrushchev knew he'd overstepped the line and sent Kennedy a letter offering pretty reasonable terms for removal of the missiles. While that was in transit and being considered, the Politburo met and forced him to recant that offer and send a much more hard-line offer. When Kennedy got the second letter, he just ignored it and sent the first one back with a letter accepting the terms, and Khrushchev accepted it.
Khrushchev tinkered endlessly with agriculture. He was apparently aware of how bad an idea collectivization was, and took several steps to decentralize agricultural decision making. He also started the "virgin lands" project that had thousands of volunteers bringing areas of Siberia and other areas under cultivation. Most of these were poorly planned and poorly executed, but still a huge amount of new land was harvested. He became known as the "Maize Freak" because he was obsessed with corn. He forced huge swaths of land to be planted in areas that were climatically unsuited for it, using methods guaranteed to fail. He ignored all the advice of his agronomists, and even went so far as to take apart some of the collectives that were marginally successful. We're talking over 100 million acres tinkered with in this manner. That's about the size of California or Vietnam. Less than 20% of the corn was harvested in a useful state, and hay production went through the floor because it had been replaced with corn. In the end, they had a predictably disastrous harvest that couldn't be blamed on drought this time. When the Soviets had to buy wheat from Canada, that was the last straw and Khrushchev was removed from power. He had at least reduced the level of terror enough to survive being removed from power, but just barely.
The Soviets continued to stay several jumps ahead of the U.S. in a few technological areas, particularly the conquest of space. The men that made the biggest contributions to this are not given any of the historical credit they deserve because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding them. This is quite common, particularly in the Cold War world. Sergei Korolev designed the first ICBM. V.P. Glushko Designed the first liquid-propellant engine. A lot of these pioneers were actually Gulag prisoners transferred to a place where they worked on the space program under force instead of breaking rocks or whatever else they might have been doing. This is probably the best example of what kind of talent the Russians were wasting with the Gulag system. The best and the brightest ended up there, and one can make a good case that Russia never recovered from removing the most vigorous members of society for multiple generations.
Sputnik in 1957 was the world's first satellite, and it sent the West into a panic as the Soviets now had nuclear weapons, and a potentially deadly delivery vehicle. A month later, the Soviets put a dog into space and monitored it until it's air supply ran out. When Kennedy talked about putting a man on the moon, the Russians boasted that he would be met by a short fat man that would tell them how to grow maize there. In 1959, Lunik succeeded in landing on the moon, and Lunik III soon took the first pictures of the dark side of the moon. In 1960, a Soviet spacecraft weighing 4.5 tons was circling the earth. By that time frame, the Soviets had ICBMs that could reach the continental U.S. The U.S. was confidently spying using U2 spy planes that flew at 15,000 feet where no other aircraft could reach it. However in 1960, one was brought down by a Soviet Surface to Air Missile (SAM). This was the first of it's kind, and would figure prominently in Israel and Vietnam. In 1960 the Soviets sent two dogs into space and recovered them successfully, and in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
All of these achievements were good for stroking Khrushchev's ego, but all they really did was force the U.S. into diverting it's considerably greater resources to yet another race. Both sides already had an arms race going, and this added a space race to the mix. Both siphoned off huge amounts of resources to these high tech realms, and diverted much needed resources from the basic economic necessities of the Soviet Union. On the U.S. side, the space race didn't actually cost anything, and still doesn't. It created new technologies that very quickly went into civilian production, such as microelectronics and computer technology. This generated far more profits than were ever spent on the space program, which at it's height was only a tiny part of the overall budget. So on the U.S. side, the space program has always generated a net profit. On the Soviet Side, all of the technology developed for space was kept in the military system, so never generated any economic benefits at all but siphoned much needed money out of other programs that desperately needed it.
The Cold War started at a low level with the 1917 revolution, but it heated up in earnest when both sides achieved nuclear capability. In WWII, the U.S. suffered relatively little in terms of physical damage and suffered a tolerable level of human casualties; but gained tremendously in terms of both economic and strategic importance (note: "tolerable level of human casualties" was still half a million men). One way of looking at this is that the U.S. registered a net profit from the war in the game of global geopolitics. Before the war, it was just one of the great powers, and after the war it was the only one that still had all of its industry intact, lots of money, and its population in good shape. To put that in perspective, the U.S. lost about 400,000 people in WWII between 1942 and 1945. It lost about 100,000 to ordinary traffic fatalities during the same period. The British, French and others lost their empires (the only good result of the war), and also suffered very heavy damage. The Soviet Union suffered tremendous physical and human damage, offset by very modest economic and strategic advantages, thereby registering a huge net loss for the war. Stalin and by association the rest of the Soviet Union was obsessed by this, and they saw a widening and maybe irreversible gap forming between them and the west. The regime saw it as a matter of survival to get their industry back on track and to get into the nuclear club, and was willing to burn any number of people's lives to do that.
Truman's 1947 policy of "Containment", or containing the communist world in general, and the Soviet Union in particular within it's 1947 borders seems like a good place to mark the start of the Cold War. That basic strategy dictated policy for 40 years. Eisenhower's follow-on "Domino Theory" was a corollary that was used to justify the war in Vietnam. The Domino theory said that if Vietnam fell, then Laos and Cambodia would be next, followed by Thailand and Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia. This theory was used to justify a 30 year failed involvement in the region that killed over 4 million people.
During the Cold War, the U.S. was willing to do nearly anything to oppose communism. It would quite happily support ruthless dictators, hereditary monarchies with bad human rights records, military juntas or anyone else that appeared to be willing to not be communist. They saw no problem with toppling democratically elected communist governments and replacing them with anything else as long as it wasn't communist.
Immediately after the war, the communists were both self assured and cocky; and paranoid at the same time. The Soviet Union knew it couldn't survive as a bastion of communism in a world of capitalism, and always advanced the position that they were sort of an ice-breaker paving the way for a worldwide communist revolution they were sure would happen real soon now. They projected a cocky self-assurance that this would happen because from a propaganda position this was necessary to try to foster communism, and also because they knew it was expand or die in this new game.
The communists were very heavy on rhetoric and very light on firepower in the early years. The hawks in the pentagon talked openly of using the short term advantage of nuclear weapons to roll back the communists to their pre-war borders. They were pretty much on the ropes militarily, but on the other hand they had been on the ropes twice in the previous 50 years and emerged the victors. The very best case scenario the hawks could advance would be very costly in terms of lives to accomplish, and the results would be dubious at best. On top of that, the U.S. was war weary and feeling tired of the whole mess by then. Even with the rampant anti-communism of the 50s, nobody was willing to try to roll them back militarily. Instead, they concentrated on persecuting any American they thought was a communist, thus borrowing a play from the communist playbook. None of the participants appreciated the irony of the situation at all.
The U.S. set up an entire defensive system assuming the communists would expand by force if necessary. In the early days, this seemed as likely as any other scenario based on how they were treating their own people. In reality, the Soviet Union in the years immediately after the war is barely able to hang onto what they had, let alone expand. However, to assume that this meant they were out of the game permanently would be suicidal. Germany, which is about the size of Wisconsin, went from a bankrupt pile of rubble at the end of WWI to near dominance of Europe in less than 20 years. To assume Russia couldn't do so would be pure folly, so the U.S. made the assumption that they would recover and continue trying to expand, and the commitment to disallow that. That commitment formed the basis of the Cold War.
Once we decided we were going to have a war, it became difficult to figure out how the war would be fought or won. The Atomic Bomb changed all the rules of war, and nobody really knew what the new rules were. I don't think anyone that grew up in the Nuclear Age can really appreciate how thorny the problem was. This was the paradigm shift to end all paradigm shifts. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that another World War would leave the Earth a big pile of radioactive slag. Nobody knew what the full extent of the damage from a Nuclear War would be, and nobody can really agree on it even today. The one thing that everyone was and is sure about is that it would be very very bad. Even a small scale war would devastate the involved countries worse than WWII did, and the damage would extend thousands of years into the future. Once the nuclear club was formed, the next imperative order of business settled down to trying to figure out how to make sure they were never used. Think tanks studied the problem extensively. Scenarios were run. Different theories were advanced. Furious debate ensued. At the end of the day, the doctrine that dictated both the Soviet and American responses to the Nuclear Age was called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. This amounted to arming each side in the struggle with so many nuclear devices that they could destroy their opponent and everyone else happening to live in that hemisphere completely, totally and utterly. For it to work, the opponent had to also be similarly armed. It had to get to the point where nobody was willing to fire the first shot, because they knew that would spell the end of their country and probably civilization as well.
Once you have a doctrine, the next thing that any government does is give it to a bunch of bureaucrats and militarists to manage. Nobody ever bothered to ask or answer the question "How much is enough?", and bureaucrats and militarists only understand one thing: more is better. One universal trait of all organizations above a certain size, and bureaucracies in particular, is that survival and growth of the organization becomes the prime motivator instead of the original purpose of that organization. Both sides took the MAD doctrine to the most ridiculous extreme. First we had to have enough firepower to destroy the opposition completely and utterly. Then it became enough firepower to do that twice. In the hazy world of superpower status maneuvering and bureaucratic fights over budget and power, the ante kept getting bumped up. Last time I checked it was enough to do the job at least 100 times over, and maybe 1000 times. This is so patently ridiculous it's hard to see how we got to that point, but get to it we did. For example, around 1978 President Carter observed that "Just one of our relatively invulnerable Trident submarines has enough missiles to destroy every large or medium sized city in the Soviet Union. There are always at least 20 of these at sea." This meant that we had more then 20 times enough firepower JUST with submarines, not even counting land based or airplane fired missiles. The Soviets never had the technology to reliably knock out even one of those submarines, let alone all 20. Yet the start of the Reagan administration just a couple of years later lead to a huge move of billions of dollars in social programs to yet more missiles and "defense " spending, which raised the ante yet again.
The cold war ended 10 years ago, but the vast majority of those weapons are still out there. Many are even more dangerous now than they were then, because the Russians don't have the funds to maintain them or properly decommission them. There's even talk that the Russians are more likely to use them in a first strike basis, because their conventional forces are reduced hugely from the Cold War days, and they just got bloodied badly in the war in Chechnya. Nukes are the only real advantage they have. For example, the entire military budget for 1999 was only 4 Billion USD compared to 262 Billion for the U.S. In addition to the chance of the Russians using nuclear weapons in a relatively minor conflict, the chance of an accidental explosion or other form of contamination goes up every year. For example, around Murmansk there are over 100 nuclear submarines sitting rotting away. Two are reputed to be very close to explosion, and each of those could produce an environmental disaster of about half the intensity of Chernobyl.
So on the military side of things, both sides built up a ridiculous amount of armaments, and way more arms than were required for the job at hand. Once that was achieved, the Cold War militarily became a sham war, where the hostility was used to increase military funding on both sides of the fence and played into the military establishment's thirst for money and power. There was virtually no real chance of a nuke war after rough parity had been achieved, and double and redoubling the armaments didn't change the equation at all, but it kept going on. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
There's one thing about the Cold War that I'd like everyone to think about. The Cold War divided the world into the "for us" and "against us" categories neatly. If this sounds familiar, it should. Nearly anything would be excused of a government, as long as it was "fighting communism", and it was a great propaganda tool to be used to increase the power of big military, big government and any other elite branch you care to name. The current "War on Terrorism" has a lot of the same attributes. Governments that were correctly called international pariahs a few months ago because of bad human rights records or other problems are now our trusted allies. Russia has killed somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 Chechens in the last five years, and by some definitions the Chechens could be considered freedom fighters. The U.S. was very critical of that just 3 months ago, but now says nothing at all. The sacrificing of principles for military objectives has started already.
Another thing to keep in mind is that once the elites start on other people's principles, they aren't averse to going after our own principles either. The U.S. Congress passed a sweeping law enforcement bill a few months ago with broad bipartisan support, despite the fact that it has serious constitutional problems, and not a single member of congress was likely to have had time to even read the entire bill. It was never debated at all, in committee or on the floor of either house. The citizenry has become so paranoid that this is taken as OK for some reason, but in my book it's not much different from the interment of Japanese people in prison camps just for being Japanese in WWII.
Think about it! You didn't actually think I'd let you through a history page without some politics did you?
Back to the story. With the demise of Khrushchev, yet another "collective" leadership was set up between Leonid Brezhnev and Alexey Kosygin. As usual, it quickly devolved into a one-man show under Brezhnev, but the Khrushchev regime had at least reduced the terror level enough for Kosygin to survive. Brezhnev quickly reversed all of the Khrushchev reforms, and Stalin was once again portrayed as a hero. Khrushchev had hurt agriculture with his obsession with corn, but had helped it by decentralizing power. Brezhnev moved all of the power back to the party hacks, and the economy predictably suffered.
The Khrushchev administration had allowed some forms of debate to start, and had started people thinking about reform. Brezhnev tried to put the genie back in the bottle, but was unsuccessful at it. He increased the repression considerably, giving broad new powers to the KGB and increasing the use of psychiatric institutions and the like, but it didn't work as well as it had earlier. Khrushchev's ideas had actually made a few of the satellite republics think they might be able to reform somewhat. The test case was in Czechoslovakia, where the party leader Dubcek promised "Socialism with a human face". This wasn't all that popular of an idea back at the Kremlin, and the Red Army crushed the reformers decisively in 1968.
During this period, the size of the party elite increased dramatically. The elite was defined as the "list of nominees", which basically amounts to the members of the Communist Party that were eligible for government positions. This elite group enjoyed lavish lifestyles where their real income was orders of magnitude better than the average citizen's, and they not only had money to burn but also had access to goods and services that weren't available to the rest at any price. This pattern remained throughout the rest of the Soviet period. One interesting fact remains. The total membership in the Communist Party, from which the elites were drawn was never more than 4% of the general population. This means that the Soviet citizens as a group were willing to allow 4% of their population to rule them completely. This phenomena is not unique to the Soviet Union (it exists now in well over half of the world's population), but I've never been able to really understand it. You would think that the 96% would be able to get their act together and make things happen, but it seldom seems to work that way.
Economically, the Brezhnev era was interesting. During the Stalin era, the Eastern Europe satellites were ruthlessly exploited economically. Sooner or later though, someone figured out that there were limits to how many people the Red Army could control, particularly considering how badly managed it always was. The Red Army almost never won any campaign in its history unless it had the enemy outnumbered by something like fifty to one. The Eastern European countries managed to secure huge loans from the West somehow, and used these loans to gradually raise the standard of living through the 50s and 60s, without paying much attention to what they would do when the loans became due. The loans came due mostly during the Brezhnev administration, and the Soviet Union couldn't stand the loss of prestige that defaulting on them would entail, so huge amounts of money started flowing from Moscow back to the satellite republics. This was one more example of an old rule of thumb that states "colonies start out as profit centers, but end up as cost centers". This allowed the standard of living to continue to increase slowly, although nowhere near at the rate seen in Western Europe.
In the 70s, the Soviets started making money hand over fist by exploiting huge oil reserves. The Arab oil embargo of the late 70s more than doubled the price of oil, and that is pretty much the only thing that kept the Soviet Union afloat economically. The economy was in the toilet due to the over-centralized and inefficient bureaucracy, but nobody fixed it because for a while the revenue from the oil kept them alive.
During the late 60s, relations with China got very bad as well. The two communist superpowers always hated each other, primarily because Russia and China have been at each others throats for years before communism came into the picture (both want to control Central Asia). The two countries had very different ideas of what communism could be, and both wanted to be the biggest player in the communist world. Ho Chi Minh used this admirably to get material from both. In 1969 the two countries actually had some border clashes, and the heat didn't really go down until the mid 80s.
In 1979, Brezhnev sent the Red Army into Afghanistan to prop up a failing communist government. The U.S. protested by boycotting the Moscow Olympics, which interestingly enough punished U.S. athletes for Soviet aggression. As usual, the Red Army was no real match for any determined opponent, and the war drug on for ten years. It killed a million Afghans, and 15,000 Russians. The Afghans were supported by the U.S. in yet another proxy war, and the Red Army was thoroughly thrashed and defeated. This is generally considered to be the Soviet Union's "Vietnam".
The most interesting part of this conflict is that the CIA was very active in the Afghan side of the war, much like the Soviets were in the Vietnam war. The CIA supplied the Afghans with all kinds of advanced weapons, which were paradoxically mostly hauled in by mule trains. It was a weird contrast to see photos of million dollar anti-aircraft missiles being hauled on mules and camels. The CIA also actively encouraged Usama Bin Laden to build up the radical Muslim groups as a weapon against the Russians. The Al Quida network the U.S. is at war with now was initially armed, trained and financed with U.S. taxpayer dollars, and the CIA didn't think terrorism was a bad idea as long as it was being aimed at Russians.
Ironically, despite being a real Stalin wannabe, the Brezhnev administration saw the first real thawing of relations between the Soviet Union and the west. While the CIA was actively supporting the Afghans, the first of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) were signed by Brezhnev and President Carter.
Brezhnev's health went bust in 1979, and he was rarely seen in public until his death in 1982, about 2 years into the first Reagan administration. By this time, the average age of Politburo members was 69. The geriatric generation of Stalin compadres was on it's last legs. Andropov & Chernenko between the two of them only lasted a couple of years, and did nothing of any significance whatsoever.
Mikhail Gorbachev blew into the General Secretary position like a breath of fresh air. At 54 he was a relative young buck and a welcome relief from his predecessors. Like a half dozen of his predecessors he tried to clamp down on alcohol abuse with mostly bad results. It didn't reduce alcohol consumption at all, but just moved the production to illegal sources. He knew the Russian economy was in serious trouble, and made a real attempt to fix it. He replaced a lot of the old guard with his younger supporters, and made a real attempt to open up the power mechanism and move decision making down the chain. His buzzword was Glasnost, meaning "openness" or "transparency". The idea was to make the workings of the party and the economy more visible, to root out corruption and inefficiency, encourage initiative (all but dead at the time) and spur the economy which was teetering toward collapse. For example, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station accident was the worst nuclear disaster in history. The Soviets said nothing about it for 18 days, and then when they were finally pushed into it because it was detected outside of the Soviet Union, they said very nearly nothing. The Soviet citizens and the rest of the world were understandably cynical about things going back a long ways, and Glasnost was meant to help alleviate that under the theory that you can only correct problems after you identify them.
Gorbachev's Glasnost extended to foreign relations as well. He made a real effort to ratchet down the dangerous, expensive and confrontational tone the Soviets had maintained with the West since WWII. He toured the U.S. and Gorby-Mania took over. Americans were so happy to see someone apparently alive, kicking and active at the head of the Soviet Union. I can remember David Letterman doing Gorby skits, which would have been unthinkable with any of the previous leaders (they weren't funny). At Gorbachev's first meeting with President Reagan he proposed a 50% cut in long range nuclear weapons. Since each side had 100 or 1000 times what they needed this wouldn't change the MAD calculus at all, but would reduce costs hugely on both sides, and in my opinion getting rid of any nuclear weapons is a good thing.
Gorbachev also ended the war in Afghanistan pretty much the same way the U.S. finally ended the war in Vietnam. They just packed up and left. Unfortunately, this left Afghanistan with no viable power structure at all and it's been racked by civil war ever since.
With Glasnost, Gorbachev tried to resurrect the Soviet Union within the existing system. In other words, he tried to get the people in power to actually do their jobs, and replace the most incompetent of those without changing the basic power structure. Glasnost did a good job of allowing the average Soviet citizen see just how bad the system was, but the entrenched power structure had a lot of incentives for keeping things the same, and none for improving things. It proved very resilient to change.
Gorbachev's next attempt at reform was Peristroika, or "Restructuring". Glasnost hadn't really had much of an effect because Gorbachev didn't have enough power to combat the existing power structure, and also because it really didn't go far enough to tackle the fundamental systemic problems. With Peristroika Gorbachev added a Congress of People's Deputies, of which 2/3 were elected directly by the people. The party opened to furious debate. Even though it was still dominated by party people (they had all the tools necessary to campaign, buy votes, etc), it was still at least a little bit representative and much more representative than anything the Russians had for the past 800 years. The congress was dominated by old party hacks, but it also had some strongly dissenting voices which was a very new thing. For 80 years, the people had no political power at all and couldn't even debate the issue publicly. Now public debate was happening on television, and it was a very new thing for the Russians.
Gorbachev kept trying to shake things up with repeated surprise purges and other tricks, but his whole program had a fatal flaw. Gorbachev is usually though of by the West as the chief architect of the demise of Soviet Communism. While this was the actual result, it was not what he had in mind. Gorbachev was a committed communist. This meant that he believed in the communist system, not necessarily that he believed in actual communist principles. Actual communist principles have never been tried any more than actual capitalist principles have, so it's hard to say if anybody really believes in them. Gorbachev wasn't trying to destroy communism. He was trying to save it. He knew that the Soviet Union was headed for economic collapse. The only reason it didn't collapse in the 80s was because of the huge jump in the price of oil at the end of the 70s. The economy wasn't working at all, but the Soviets managed to keep it lumbering along by selling off huge amounts of oil for 20 years.
Gorbachev's efforts to save the Soviet Union can best be described as too little, too late. He made enough changes to cripple the old command economy, but not enough to build something new. The old guard was unhappy because he was trying to curtail their privileges, while the bulk of the population was unhappy because the system didn't work even as well as it had before.
Meanwhile the new relative freedom of information plus the chance to elect at least semi-representative governments started the satellites clamoring for independence. Oddly enough, all of the Soviet satellites could easily have gotten independence years before if they worked together. The Red Army never had enough power to take on more than one of the satellites at a time, but since all previous rebellions were one country at a time they could handle them. In 1989, the satellite countries that were ruled by Soviet regimes but not part of the Soviet Union started throwing out their puppet governments one at a time. The Berlin wall came down in November. Germany started talking about reunification, and the formal reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 is generally regarded as the end of the Cold War.
In 1990, the three Baltic republics declared independence from the USSR. Most of the rest either declared independence or declared 'sovereignty', meaning precedence of their laws over Soviet laws. Gorbachev tried to create some new kind of loosely tied new federation, but it went nowhere.
Gorbachev first appointed Boris Yeltsin to the head of the Communist Party cell in Moscow, but Yeltsin was much more of a reformer than Gorbachev had in mind. Under opposition to Yeltsin's ideas from the old guard, Gorbachev sacked him a in 1987. They spent the next several years jockeying for power, and constantly at each others throats.
In 1990, Yeltsin won the chairmanship of the parliament of Russia, which had three quarters of the Soviet Union's area and over half the population. He had already denounced Peristroika as a failure, and resigned from the Communist Party. Yeltsin's parliament proclaimed sovereignty of the Russian Republic, and that was pretty much the last straw for the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, still trying to pump blood into a dead man got the Communist Party to vote away its own constitutional monopoly on power. They did a few other things trying to resurrect the beast, but it was all too late.
At this point, the Soviet Union was in serious trouble. There was a huge controversy between reformers that wanted to privatize everything and jump into a market economy now, people that wanted to eventually get there but not at such a breakneck pace, and those that wanted to go back to the suddenly rosy old days. Gorbachev's changes had crippled the old system to where it wasn't even achieving Brezhnev levels of efficiency, but had nothing to replace it. The breakoff of all the republics left a bewildering mix of people vying for power, and a morass of conflicting laws and treaties. Gorbachev had crippled the old terror based security apparatus, but nothing replaced it. Organized crime flourished, and found easy pickings among the people trying to start businesses with the new market reforms. They got into the traditional protection rackets, as well as the usual illicit activities as well. Prices were going up while supplies were going down reminiscent of the early days of communism. The record 1990 harvest mostly sat in the fields and warehouses rotting because they couldn't muster the resources to harvest and distribute it. Talk came up of a radical '500 day' plan to change over to a fully market based economy in 500 days. When Gorbachev nixed that plan without offering up his own, most people saw the beginning of the end.
Yeltsin continued to ascend in power when he was elected as president of the Russian Republic in the first ever presidential election. At that point, he was arguably more powerful than Gorbachev. He was concerned with Russia alone, and didn't much care what the other satellite countries did. He was also certain that communism was dead, and he pounded a few nails in the coffin by banning communist cells from government offices and workplaces in Russia. Gorbachev managed to fashion a new union treaty with lots more local power for each of the republics, but it was never signed.
Matters were taken out of Gorbachev's hands in late 1991. He was relaxing at his dacha when a group of old guard communist officials declared a coup. They demanded he turn over power to his vice-president to "save the union". It can be assumed they wanted to put the genie back in the bottle and use force to pull things back together. Gorbachev refused, so they put him under house arrest and brought out the tanks into Moscow.
Yeltsin managed to evade the people sent to put him under house arrest, and making use of some new technology (fax machines and the like), he organized a large protest very quickly. The next day, he showed up at the site of the tanks with a large crowd. In his moment of glory he jumped up on a tank with a megaphone and got the crowd wound up. Some of the tank crews switched sides, and the momentum went out of the coup. One by one, the leaders started taking sick and disappearing. Within days it was over.
Gorbachev flew back to Moscow, but his day was over and Yeltsin was the man of the hour. One by one, those republics that had declared sovereignty declared full independence. Yeltsin first declared that all state property in Russia belonged to Russia and not the Soviet Union, and then finally outright banned the Communist Party. Gorbachev went on a last ditch effort to form a loose confederation out of the states of the former Soviet Union, but it went nowhere. Everyone else kept bailing on the Soviet Union, and finally in December he became a president without a country and resigned. Yeltsin kicked the Soviets out of the Kremlin, and the deed was done.
In Boris Yeltsin, Russia got a hard-core serious reformer. As the first-ever elected head of state in Russia, Yeltsin had an unprecedented level of popularity after the collapse of the USSR. He was committed to moving Russia to a fully market based economy as fast as possible. It was sort of the shock treatment theory. He was committed to phasing out state subsidies quickly, reducing government spending and most importantly privatizing the old state run dinosaurs. By the end of 1991, Yeltsin had appointed a government to try to carry this out. As an "emergency measure", he appointed himself prime minister and defense minister as well as president.
Things got tough right off. The old Soviet food distribution system was in chaos, so the 1991 harvest was the lowest in years. This caused people in some local regions to either start hoarding food or declaring autonomy and control over their own economic resources. A lot of the regions and republics scattered across Russia started declaring independence, and for a while it looked like the Russian federation would break up just like the Soviet Union had. For forty years, these regions had to bend to Moscow and they were tired of it. To add insult to injury, in some of the regions Russians were a small minority but they still had all the control. Now the problem with autonomy is that it's not quite as easy to leave the old apron strings as it would seem. Try to imagine New Mexico deciding to go off on its own. They would immediately find themselves missing a lot of critical resources that they currently get from other states without a second thought. They would have to negotiate treaties for a lot of basic necessities, with no guarantee that they could get a good deal on them. In addition to that, they would have to start taking care of their own defenses instead of relying on the U.S. military. Make it even worse by saying they might have to fight the U.S. military, and you have the situation. It gets even tougher if the region that wants to succeed has something built with federal resources that other states need. In this example, picture all of the western states getting all of their oil through a pipeline that goes through New Mexico. Are these other states going to be happy about that being put in jeopardy? In reality, none of the republics had anywhere near the resources they needed to go it alone, particularly when a lot of them are in the middle of hostile regions (look at Afghanistan on a map). At the end of the day, Yeltsin negotiated a new federative treaty that bound them back together with significant changes in regional rights and taxation in 1992. Even that left room for future problems though, because in some regions you could make a good case that the people that signed the treaty with Yeltsin weren't legitimate representatives of the population (more on this later).
Things got very tough for the Yeltsin administration after that. The parliament supported Yeltsin in the coup in 1991, but most of the parliament was elected under the hodgepodge rules Gorbachev set up in the last days of the USSR. As such, the voting rules were rigged heavily in favor of communists and old party hacks. The restructuring of the economy was no small task, and the process was painful. Try to picture it. All over the country you have thousands of organizations that do essentially nothing useful, or they do something so inefficiently that they aren't economically viable. One day, they get the new "sink or swim" policy, and a lot of them sink because they shouldn't have been there in the first place. That puts people out of work and onto the welfare roles because there are entire regions affected. The federal budget is in chaos so the welfare checks don't appear reliably. On top of that, lifting price controls allows prices to rise dramatically, particularly for food and other essentials. That was the situation. If you want to go through a transition from a command economy to a market economy, it's a painful process. On top of that, the structure had been so badly damaged that Russia was (and still is) receiving huge amounts of foreign aid from the West. We give them money because an economic collapse in a nuclear armed and very big country would be very bad for everyone, not just the Russians. Quite a few Russians, and especially the old guard that had privileged positions in the old order started thinking back to the old days with some nostalgia.
In addition to those problems, there was and still is a huge increase in organized crime. Part of that is because of the dismantling of the old terror based security apparatus, part was because of privatization creating an entirely new class of potential victims in the cities, and part is because certain sectors of the government had been engaged in selling off oil and other assets for years, and privatization gave them entirely new levels of access to national resources. Couple that with the common view that Yeltsin was responsible for the destruction of the USSR, and the old guard just wasn't all that happy with the outcome.
Unfortunately, the Russian constitution had been cobbled together through the communist years, and then radically changed during the Gorbachev years. It was consciously designed to be ineffective (or the framers were just too stupid to know better). The parliament and the president could and frequently did make laws that directly contradicted each other. They didn't have any court system to try to resolve the differences so they ended up both vying for power. Yeltsin made some compromises to try to keep things moving forward, such as sacrificing some key ministers and compromising on the pace of reform. A key compromise was cutting loose Yegor Gaidar, who was the architect of the economic reforms. Parliament replaced him with Viktor Chernomyrdin, an oil and gas industry apparatchik.
A 1993 referendum gave both Yeltsin's presidency and his economic program a big vote of confidence, but the old guard in the form of the National Salvation Front continued to stir trouble including inciting riots that got a fair number of people injured. Yeltsin started work on a new constitution to hopefully lay out the balance of power in a more rational manner. Of course, to Yeltsin "more rational" usually meant "more power to the president".
With neither side having clear constitution right on it's side the sniping continued. It came to a head in 1993 when the parliament convened to try to remove some of the president's powers. Yeltsin 'dissolved' the parliament and the parliament in turn 'stripped' Yeltsin of his powers. Yeltsin sent troops to blockade the White House and told the members to vacate the premises. The National Salvation Front staged an insurrection, going around the troops and taking over a television station, where 62 people were killed. Yeltsin had patchy support from the Armed Forces at the time, but apparently they weren't happy with having their operation thwarted. The next morning they stormed the White House and another 70 people were killed. Yeltsin's use of force didn't win him any friends.
At the end of 1993, new elections were held both to vote in a new constitution that created a two house legislature; and to elect the members. The new constitution clearly gave the president a lot of power, but not an unlimited amount. Some worrisome groups ended up with a lot of support, such as some neo-nazi groups that were way out there in the right wing, but none of them got enough votes to have a lot of power. The new constitution also guaranteed rights to free trade and competition, private ownership of land and property, freedom of conscience and free movement in and out of Russia, banned censorship, torture and the establishment of any official ideology. In other words, it was all about NOT communism.
The new cabinet picked by Chernomyrdin didn't have any prominent reformers, but Chernomyrdin himself turned out to be much more of a reformer than anyone expected. The reforms started actually having some effect, particularly in the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The thing on everyone's mind back in 1994 and that's still on their minds is what is called 'The Mafia'. This is a generic term for a pervasive form of organized crime that sprang up with Peristroika and is still there. The first years of privatization saw a binge of sell offs of old state run businesses, whether they had been effective or not. This created an entirely new class of crooked politicians and ministers which could be added to the extensive collection that had always been there. Add to that the new entrepreneurial class emerging in the cities which supplied a whole new set of potential victims. By 1994, one in every 5000 citizens was being murdered. This is about double the rate of the U.S. and about ten times the rate of Britain (Note the corollary: This means the American rate is five times Britain's rate. Think about that!!). Nearly everyone in any business of any kind was paying some kind of 'protection' money to some kind of extortionist. This problem still exists in Russia today, and it's one of the most serious problems the Russians have to solve. Note that some people read about this and worry that this means it's dangerous to visit Russia. That is not the case. The Mafia is busy picking on Russians, and doesn't bother with tourists. Russia is quite safe to visit.
By the mid 90s, Russian foreign policy was reflecting a growing mood of conservative nationalism. This is pretty understandable considering that within five years Russia went from the world's second superpower to something like a third world country. The influential old days all of a sudden seemed like they weren't so bad, and Russia started trying to consolidate it's power and influence in the region. Independence wasn't quite as rosy in the old Soviet Republics as they though it might be, particularly since the net flow of money had been from Moscow to the republics for some time. The republics had their own problems, and Russia felt like it had some stake in insuring the outcome was favorable to Russia. By 1995, Russian troops had intervened in conflicts in three of the old Soviet republics, and Russian troops were stationed in all of the former Soviet Republics except Estonia and Lithuania.
Chechnya is one of the "autonomous" republics I mentioned earlier like Karelia, meaning a region of the Russian Federation and not one of the other Soviet Republics. The Chechens are legendary fighters, and were the last group to be conquered by Russia. Czarist Russia spent 300 years trying to control the region starting in the 16th century. They failed early on, when the Ottoman Empire controlled the area, and introduced Islam. The Russians finally managed to take over the region around 1850 and deported hundreds of thousands of the residents for the first time (they would repeat this later). The Chechens tried unsuccessful rebellions quite a few times, but considering that's about like Maine rebelling against the rest of the U.S., they were never successful. Despite the fact that most males ended up fighting against Germany in WWII, Stalin ordered the entire population obliterated because of the statements of a few leaders that they would welcome Germany if they promised autonomy. At the end of the war, after Stalin didn't need the fighters any more, the entire population of around 800,000 was deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Their villages were destroyed, and their land was given to Russians. The survivors were allowed back in 1957, minus the 100,000 or so that died during the ordeal. They had essentially no control over their lives for the rest of the Soviet period. This understandably makes them dislike Russians intensely.
Dzhokhar Dudayev was a Soviet Air Force general that became famous for refusing to order an attack on Estonia when it first declared independence during the collapse of the USSR. In 1991, he resigned from the Air Force and seized power in Chechnya. In what appears to have been a reasonably democratic election, he was elected president by a huge margin and declared independence from the Soviet Union just a month before its collapse, and maintained that independence from Russia afterword.
Between 1991 and 1994, Yeltsin attempted to negotiate a new treaty with the Chechen leaders, but the negotiations went nowhere. Part of the problem is that the Chechens were fighting among themselves for power, and the region split up into factions several times. Dudayev was holding power, but barely survived several assassination attempts as well as a lot of constitutional shenanigans. Moscow was adamant about keeping them in the Russian federation for a lot of reasons, but most of them boil down to oil. The Caspian Sea is the biggest untapped reserve of oil in the world, and a lot of the maneuvering you see going on over the last ten years is all about oil. Chechnya is a lot like Afghanistan in this respect.
In 1994 Yeltsin did the time-honored Russian action... he sent the Army in to bring them to heel by force. Now after all this time, you should be able to predict the result. The Russian army went in for a "quick strike" and the Chechens thrashed them badly, despite the fact that the Chechens never had more than about 3,000 troops in the field at a time. By mid 1995, the Russians had killed well over 25,000 people (mostly civilians - there were never 25,000 soldiers to kill in the first place), made another 300,000 homeless (that's 1/3 of the population), and had just barely managed to capture the capital of Grozny, unless you count destroying most of the oil facilities as an accomplishment. Nearly everyone from members of the Duma and the Russian Human Rights commissioner to outsiders including England, France and the U.S. expressed concern over the brutality of the attack. The Russians routinely used indiscriminate bombing, looting, rape and other acts of terror. The attack as usual was also poorly planned and executed, and failed to accomplish much of anything other than capturing Grozny. The Chechens faded into the hills and continued to wage a guerilla war with no end in site. The Russians continued to destroy other towns around Grozny.
By the 1996 elections, Yeltsin seemed a mere shadow of the man that jumped up on the tank in 1991 to bring down the Soviet Union. He was frequently struck with bouts of "illness", most of which looked an awful lot like the advanced stages of alcoholism. The war in Chechnya was turning into the usual embarrassment that the Russians always seem so surprised to find their army in. It even started to look like the communists might come back from the dead, but Yeltsin happened to have applied the right grease to the machinery. The privatization binge of the early Yeltsin years created a new super-rich class that still exists today. These included several media moguls that had a huge vested interest in the status quo, and they made sure that Yeltsin's message was the only one that got any air time. Communists were kept off of television, and Yeltsin got some quick instruction in campaigning. The communists general Zyuganov and a tough talking ex-general Alexander Lebed split the opposition vote, and Yeltsin easily won a runoff election a month later, after which he disappeared from view again for weeks. Then Lebed had the bad sense to accept an offer from Yeltsin to negotiate an end to the war in Chechnya. Yeltsin wouldn't give him any leeway to negotiate, so he ended up just being Yeltsin's fall guy for the whole mess and his political fortunes were pretty much gone by the time a settlement was negotiated in 1996. When the Russians pulled out in 1997, under an agreement where Chechnya was given autonomy. It was established as a "free economic zone" with its final status to be determined before the end of 2000. The Russians also promised to never use force or the threat of force in relations with Chechnya. It was clearly a serious beating for the Russian Army.
Following the withdrawal of the Russians, the situation in Chechnya remained fairly bad. From all appearances, the Chechens are good fighters but lousy administrators. Lawlessness and banditry were on the rise, and their economy was pretty bleak due to the effects of the earlier war and the general inability of the government to control the population. The entire region around Chechnya is a boiling hotbed of the same kinds of sentiments, and some Chechen fighters became involved in other incidents in neighboring Dagestan. Chechens are widely believed by Russians to be heavily involved in the mafia (probably true), and they were accused of some terrorist attacks in Moscow, the worst of which destroyed an apartment block killing 300 people, but this was never proven.
Moscow used this and a few other terrorist acts on aid workers in Chechnya to start another round of attacks in 1999. They never actually offered up any proof, just went in fighting (this should sound familiar). During this phase, the new prime minister Vladimir Putin was put in charge, and he escalated the war to a whole new level of brutality. The Russian army has correctly been accused of human rights abuses on a massive scale by every human rights organization I can think of, as well as ordinary news organizations and others. Estimates of the casualties vary wildly, but somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 killed seems to be about right. The Russian army routinely aims aerial bombardment, artillery, large scale attacks and outright terrorism at the civilian population. Arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, forced relocations, denial of aid or food and other terrorist acts are routine and well documented.
By mid 2000, the Russians had control of most of the main regions of the country, and have what appears to be a permanent occupying force in the region. The U.S. was a little bit critical of this before September 11, then became very quiet about it, but now seems to be starting to talk about it again. The Russian perception is that Vladimir Putin is a no-nonsense guy, and that the war is effectively won. Others disagree. From what I can tell, it looks like a conflict that can go on at a guerilla level for a very long time.
There are a couple of interesting things about this war:
For most of 1997, Yeltsin suffered from a series of 'colds', one of which took a team of American heart surgeons to cure. A lot of backroom jockeying for power was taking place between his cabinet and the new class of super-super-rich that made their fortunes by taking over the best of the old state run businesses. Yeltsin came back to life momentarily in 1998 to sack his government for bad economic performance, but by then it was obvious that things weren't going all that well.
1998 was not a good year for Russia. The Asian Economic Crisis laid waste to the economies of quite a few countries that were in much stronger positions than Russia, and it seriously hurt Russia. Coal miners went on strike over unpaid wages that were part of the 300 billion USD that was owed to workers across the country. Remember I said above that the entire U.S. defense budget is only 260 billion, and in Russia the average wage is very low. This meant absolutely staggering numbers of people were going unpaid, but kept going to their jobs assuming things would turn around sooner or later. Lots of people are still doing that today. Russia had well over 100 billion USD in foreign debt, and was essentially bankrupt. Things started looking like scenes of the depression of 1929. Banks started closing in huge numbers, leaving their depositors with nothing. To make matters worse, most of these depositors were the middle class that the West was hoping would bring some political stability to the place.
Foreign investors that had been propping up the economy also started leaving in droves. This was part of the same bailing out I mentioned back on my page on Vietnam. Foreign investors were there to make money, not to prop up the economy. When crunch time came, the benefits of doing business there didn't outweigh the risks. Remote towns that had never received any real economic benefit from privatization all of a sudden lost the government subsidies they were living on. Entire towns just closed up and blew away for lack of food and fuel.
Keep in mind that while I beat up the U.S. over funding the Chechen war above, that doesn't mean I think it was or is a bad idea to keep "loaning" Russia money. The cost to the entire world of a total economic collapse in Russia would be beyond anything I think we can even imagine. It is extremely important to both the West and the rest of the world to keep Russia from descending into anarchy.
In late 1998, Yeltsin made the inevitable step of devaluing the Ruble. This meant that instantly everyone's money was worth a whole lot less. This was absolutely essential to prevent a complete economic collapse, but you can imagine that it wasn't all that popular. Picture waking up tomorrow to find that your savings are worth less than half of today's value.
Yeltsin did the traditional cabinet shuffle, finger pointing, and other voodoo that was popular, but by then it wasn't fooling anyone. In mid 1999, Yeltsin appointed veteran KGB officer Vladimir Putin as prime minister, making him the fifth in 17 months. This is generally not considered a good sign.
Nationalism started becoming more popular as the economy collapsed. In 1999, the vast majority of Russians were leading worse lives than they had before the market economy. When NATO started bombing the Serbs in Kosovo, lots of Russians took exception to that and favorable feelings for the West plummeted. Remember above how I said that the Serbs are basically the same ethnic group as the Russians. Many Russians took this as an attack on their kin. The other thing fueling the nationalism was the big increase in organized crime, and terrorism. A series of explosions in Moscow killing around 200 people was blamed on the Chechens (right or wrong, I don't know. Vladimir doesn't either). A fair number of people started looking for some new direction, and the Communists expected to pick up major headway in the 1999 elections.
As I mentioned above, Vladimir Putin was put in charge of operations in Chechnya, and the Russian Army launched a brutal attack on Grozny. Very large numbers of Chechen civilians were killed and are still being killed today, although the rate has slowed way down. This gave Putin a lot of exposure. He was a virtually unheard of party hack before going to Chechnya, and emerged as a serious political contender.
Going into the 2000 elections, uncertainty was in abundant supply. Close associates of Yeltsin confided that he as lucid maybe 10% of the time, and nobody thought he was likely to pull it together to be reelected in mid 2000. On New Years Eve 1999, Yeltsin surprised everyone by announcing his resignation. He appointed the prime minister Vladimir Putin as the caretaker President, and moved the elections up to April. Putin's "strong" handling of the situation in Chechnya moved him from an unheard of politico to a major public figure overnight, and with Yeltsin's strong endorsement he easily won the election and has been president ever since.
Today, Russia and the U.S. are doing a bit of a strange dance. Russia is hugely integrated with the West, but is still trying to regain dominance of its region. Russia would collapse economically without Western aid at the moment so we have become allies in a way, but both Russia and the U.S. are maneuvering to try to control Central Asia. The Caspian Sea area is the biggest untapped reserve of oil in the world, and everyone wants a piece of it. The amount of oil available is huge, and it could seriously effect the world oil price if Russia can pull it together enough in Central Asia to bring peace to the region. Today, the price of oil is basically controlled by OPEC, and Russia and other Central Asian countries have enough reserves to change that. The U.S. is also trying hard to control the oil supply in the region, which is why the U.S. installed the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first place.
Russia has quite a few areas that are not all that stable at the moment. I mentioned Chechnya, but there are several other areas as well. There are also hotspots in the former Soviet Republics in the region, and Russia is the only regional power big enough to maybe do something about it. Russia is hugely dependant on the West, but that's obviously not sustainable.
Russia has a huge supply of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological weapons left over from the cold war. Any collapse of the region could have disastrous consequences. For these and other reasons, the West and Russia are and will remain closely connected, but there will always be a bit of competition between them.
The next century should be interesting indeed.
Next - Backtracking