Readers Write In #123: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 11 – The Autumn Intensifies

Posted on December 22, 2019


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

Chapter 6 is here.

Chapter 7 is here.

Chapter 8 is here.

Chapter 9 is here.

Chapter 10 is here.

In 1968, the government led by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia attempted to liberalise the economy through market oriented measures but strictly within the realm of socialism by encouraging worker cooperatives and market pricing guidelines. Freedom of expression was also encouraged which instigated the masses to demand better wages and working conditions. Alexander Dubcek, the then Head of the Czechoslovakian state initiated these reforms against the wishes of the Party orthodoxy. Dubcek was warned several times by Moscow to withdraw the reforms with immediate effect, while civilian protests began to spread all over the country rapidly. Dubcek refused to budge even when other nations of the Warsaw Pact pressurised him to retreat. After a few days, Leonid Brezhnev decided to send troops into Prague to put down the revolt. The reforms were rolled back and Czechoslovakia was shown its place in the East European camp. The Prague Spring of 1968, as it is famously called was instrumental in the formulation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, an agreement which empowered Moscow to interfere into the internal affairs of its satellites whenever a threat to socialist stability and peace was detected.

The Soviet Citizen:
The USSR had completed more than sixty years of socialism by the 1970s and almost a couple of generations of people had been born and brought up in the Soviet environment. The repressive nature of the State had during Brezhnev’s time been significantly altered and people could manage to lead peaceful lives as long as they did not mess with the government. The Russian citizens, a majority of them though poor by the standards of the West, were assured of free education and healthcare, jobs and employment benefits even if they had to queue up for hours to buy their daily essentials. There were no major famines or large scale shortages of food in the Union post- Khrushchev and most Russians ate sparingly if not better and hunger, it could safely be said was a thing of the Stalinist past. The working conditions of industrial and agricultural labour were far less oppressive than they were during the formative years of the Union and hence getting accustomed to them was not much of a stretch for most of the Russians. A considerable part of the workforce were survivors of the Stalinist order and hence they fared much better during the years of Brezhnev. The cultural life of the Russians under Brezhnev was characterized by huge cinema halls featuring old fashioned melodramas, propaganda movies, songs and audio plays broadcasted by the State owned radio. Since there was not much scope for variety entertainment in Russia and also because much of the populace was literate, the Russians had a specially cultivated reading habit that grew very much after Khrushchev’s era of Destalinisation. Russians could access literary classics from around the world and those novels from the West which narrated stories about luxurious people and freer societies were also allowed. From a variety of historical sources, it has been borne out that during Brezhnev’s era, Russia was the second largest economy in the world and also the largest producer of steel, pig iron, cement and tractors. The Union, in parallel was also subsidising a lot of younger nations ostracised by the rest of the world. In addition to these achievements, the fact that they had been the first ones to enter space was also a matter of great pride for the Russian commoners.

Though there have been a lot of contradictory reports on this, there is a lot of evidence that during Brezhnev’s time, the Russians, inspite of harbouring plenty of grudges against the administration were able to adapt themselves to live peacefully under the iron fisted socialist state and even lead contented lives. Even if the veracity of these evidences could be questioned, it has to be admitted that a lot of empires of the past, even if they were deemed large and unwieldy to control, had managed to survive longer than one would naturally assume, not wholly through efficient apparatuses of repression and propaganda, but also to a large measure, by deriving great strengths from the preternatural resilience of their subjects and their phenomenal instinct for survival. But Brezhnev’s Russia, unlike that of his predecessors was far less oppressive and more welfarist and hence it becomes easier to believe when one of the recent surveys held in today’s Russia concluded that Brezhnev was the most popular leader of the Soviet century.

Reagan’s masterstroke:
Leonid Brezhnev, after a prolonged illness died on November 10, 1982 after ruling the USSR for close to eighteen years. Post his demise, surprisingly there was no power struggle for the first time in the history of the state and another sexagenarian leader Yuri Andropov succeeded him. He soon was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko after being in power for close to fifteen months. Under Chernenko the USSR boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics held at Los Angeles in fitting response to the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. 73- year old Chernenko who spent most of his tenure in hospital receiving treatment died in February 1985. Chernenko’s demise gave Soviet Union its youngest Head of State in history, Mikhail Gorbachev who was part of the new reformist guard of the Party.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was elected as the President of the United States in 1981. Reagan, often considered an arch-conservative was not willing to continue his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s conciliatory attitude towards the Soviets. During the Oil Glut of 1981, he could observe that falling international oil prices had the potential to weaken the economic foundations of the USSR since a major portion of Soviet revenue was dependent on its oil exports. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was to a large extent financed by Russia’s massive oil fields and Reagan was of the opinion that if the international situation could be exacerbated by increased American spending on the Cold War, on the even of a sudden fall in international oil prices the Soviet economy would instantly collapse and come to a grinding halt. Not surprisingly, Reagan immediately ordered intensification of American involvement in various countries across the globe such as Yemen, Libya, Angola, Indonesia,etc by infusing billions of dollars into proxy wars backing right wing dictatorial regimes and pro-Western militant outfits against local Communists and liberation movements. Reagan’s move in 1986 to supply the Afghan Mujahideens with the latest Stinger Anti Aircraft missile marked a major watershed moment for the Islamists who were caught in a seemingly interminable war with the Soviet army.

In 1986, the Saudi Arabian leaders announced their decision to increase the production of oil in order to bring the prices down. There is some evidence that the CIA forced the Saudis to effect such a move as part of Reagan’s anti-Soviet strategy. As expected, international oil prices tumbled and the USSR within months, suffered a terrible resource crunch. Gorbachev had long been a silent critic of the Brezhnev Doctrine and right from his days of assuming office, he was contemplating ways to shelve it once and for all. His focus was on improving domestic industrial production by leveraging the latest available technology and bettering the living standards of the Russians. He realised that the Union was spending close to 25 percent of its GDP towards military expenses and was determined to put his foot down as soon as possible. The Oil Shock of 1986 hastened his decision to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan against the rejuvenated Mujahideens and by 1988, the Soviets began to retreat in phases leaving Kabul’s PDPA- led government to fend for itself.

Gorbachev had to accept that the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan had been a terrible humiliation for the great empire but he believed that there were far bigger embarassments to deal with. For the first time in Soviet history, the annual economic growth in the mid 1980s was approaching zero gravely threatening to go negative. Reagan’s ploy had worked and Gorbachev had to pull something out of his hat immediately to survive the moment.

In 1987 following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the USSR under a dynamic Gorbachev announced a new set of policies namely, ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’, which literally meant openness and reform. Unlike that of his predecessors, this time the term ‘reform’ was meant very seriously. Gorbachev went against the opinions of his colleagues to get them implemented on the ground as quickly as possible. As a result, within a couple of years, Gorbachev’s perestroika was able to produce not only tangible social results and measurable economic outcomes but also unforeseen and even perilous consequences that would eventually loom up to swallow the whole of the Soviet Empire itself.