Author Topic: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?  (Read 108266 times)

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Offline Elisabeth

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The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« on: September 05, 2006, 12:42:16 PM »
I like reading thrillers. Right now I am reading Robert Harris' novel about Stalin's "lost notebook," Archangel. (I don't recommend it as highly as I do his first novel about Nazi Germany in the 1960s if Hitler had won the war, Fatherland - which is superb. But the action in this novel rather drags.) However, there's an interesting passage in which a character summarizes the demographic changes that took place under the Soviets:

"Professor I. A. Kaganov estimates that some 66 million people were killed in the USSR between 1917 and 1953 - shot, tortured, starved mostly, frozen or worked to death. Others say the true figure is a mere 45 million. Who knows?

"Neither estimate, by the way, includes the 30 million now known to have been killed in the Second World War.

"To put this loss in context: The Russian Federation today has a population of roughly 150 million. Assuming the ravages inflicted by Communism had never occurred and assuming normal demographic trends, the actual population should be about 300 million."

(p. 155, Archangel, Robert Harris, 1998)

Taking into account these horrific numerical figures, what do you think the history of the Soviet Union was? Obviously a major mistake, but what kind of mistake in the larger historical context? Necessary or unnecesary? Avoidable or unavoidable? Criminal or non-criminal? How does it compare to the history of the Russian empire under the tsars? Or is that an unfair comparison? What's your opinion and why?   
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Offline griffh

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #1 on: September 06, 2006, 07:01:08 AM »
I had always thought the death toll was about 50 million but I was usually laughed to scorn.  Now to know that it was 60 million, or the equivalent of 10 holocausts, is almost incomprehensible.  No wonder the 20th century is now referred to by some historians as the Century of Blood.   Given the tragic logic of events, the Soviet rule may have been inevitable, but I will never believe that it was necessary.   

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #2 on: September 06, 2006, 10:39:43 AM »
60 million seems far too high, and I don't think it's generally accepted by historians. In my opinion, 45 million also seems rather high for the entire Soviet period, since most historians agree that 20 million were killed under Stalin, and that would then leave another 25 million victims between 1917 and Stalinís rise to power (roughly 1928), and from Stalinís death (1953)  to 1991.

Orlando Figes says that from 1917 to 1922 the Revolution, the Civil War, the Red and White Terrors, famine and disease claimed the lives of roughly 10 million people (p. 772, A Peopleís Tragedy). The figure of 10 million does NOT include the numbers lost to emigration (2 million) and the demographic effects of a drastically reduced birth rate (an estimated 10 million children who should have been born but werenít).

But if you add these 10 million victims killed from 1917 to 1922 and the 20 million victims under Stalin, you arrive at a total of 30 million victims, which is surely horrific beyond any reckoning.

Granted, this total does not include the number of people who perished in Soviet concentration camps and prisons under Lenin, or under any of Stalinís heirs. I have never seen any estimates of these numbers, but it seems impossible to me that they could have amounted to anything even remotely approaching 15 million victims.

Therefore something in the region of 30 million victims for the entire Soviet period seems like the most reasonable number to me. (This number of course excludes the tens of millions who perished in World War II.)
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Offline Bev

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« Reply #3 on: September 06, 2006, 10:45:31 AM »
questions or offers contrary opinion regarding the murderous, evil Soviet pigs regime and any question or contrary opinion is taken as support or promotion of them ( and let me hasten to say I do neither) but you are saying in essence, that between 1917 and 1953, in 36 years 75 to 93 million people  (including WW II) were killed by the Soviets.  Is that correct?

If you take the figure of 66 mil (the higher figure) that means that on average the Soviets were murdering 5022.45 people per day over a 36 year period.  

Using the lower figure of 45 mil, it would mean that the Soviets were killing an average of 3424.40 per day over a 36 year period.

According to the Imperial census of the Russian Empire in 1911 the population stood at 167 mil.  The studies done by Androv, Maksudov and Anderson and Silvers whose studies include the years 1920 to 1991, (and who published their studies in 1993) the population of the Soviet Union went from 137 mil. in 1920 (which includes the loss of the 30 mil people in territories ceded) to 293 mil in 1991 considered the last year of the Soviet Union.

All three demographic studies published in peer review journals arrived at their figures independently, with variations in thousands.  Anderson and Silver put the loss 3.5 mil to 5 mil in "excess deaths" in the Soviet Union between the years 1926 - 1939.  Maksudov puts the loss at 3.5 mil and Androv at 4.5 mil to 5 mil.  All studies included Ukraine and Siberia.  All studies exclude WW II deaths.  

I am not doubting that the Soviets murdered millions, I am asking where the figures of 45 mil to 66 mil came from.

Offline Elisabeth

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #4 on: September 06, 2006, 11:51:26 AM »
Bev, once again you have leaped before you looked. Yes, I brought up the 60 million and 45 million figures, but in my next post I went into an extended explanation of why I dispute both numbers. By my own estimate the number of victims in the Soviet period must have been in the region of 30 million, excluding deaths in WWII (another 20 to 30 million, I've seen both numbers given).

I do wonder why there is so much confusion amongst historians about the number of unnatural deaths under the Soviet regime. It seems to be a product of 1) poorly kept Bolshevik records of the number of the politically repressed; 2) disputed and in some cases highly dubious Soviet census reports; 3) massive demographic dislocations in present-day Russia that cannot be accounted for by any other means (even leaving out the havoc wreaked by WWII; the successive large waves of emigration from the Soviet Union; and possibly even unborn children, not born because of democide and/or world war).

As far as the figure of 10 million goes for the period between 1917 and 1922, you may well argue that the Soviets weren't guilty of the White Terror, and you're right. Nor did they start the great famine of the early 1920s, although their policies certainly made it worse. However, I do blame the Bolsheviks for the Civil War that enabled the White (and Red) Terror and the famine to happen, since it was the Bolsheviks who forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, thereby ensuring that there would be a civil war, with all its attendant population dislocations, disease and starvation.

Robert, if you're tired of reading stuff written by old "windbags" like myself, then do yourself a favor and go to another thread. Personally I could do without your arrogant remarks, which have nothing to do with the questions I posed in my topic post. I mean, do you even have an opinion? Do you think that the Soviet period could have been avoided all together if, for example, Nicholas II had been a good or even brilliant ruler as opposed to a terrible one? Or do you think Bolshevik rule was inevitable and unavoidable, given the social conditions existing in Russia in the early twentieth century? Was it the best of all possible outcomes or the worst or somewhere in between? (And BTW, no, the Russian autocracy was not totalitarian, unless you want to redefine completely the term "totalitarian" as it is used by most political scientists.)

I'm just trying to provoke a dialogue here. My own views on these questions have evolved a great deal in the last year.
« Last Edit: September 06, 2006, 12:17:10 PM by Elisabeth »
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Offline Robert_Hall

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #5 on: September 06, 2006, 12:19:10 PM »
Elisabeth, I apologise unconditionally for the windbag remark. It was no means aimed at you.
 Actually, that post was meant as a PM tobBev.
 I agree with your assessment on the death totals and think you are indeed quite  objective in your conclusions.
 I do not know who is actually moderating this thread, but I ask him/her to remove my previous post. It indeed was uncalled for as a public opinion on my part.
 Sorry,
 Robert
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #6 on: September 06, 2006, 12:29:31 PM »
Robert, apology accepted and then some. Please - whoa! - don't leave the discussion over this misunderstanding (everybody says stuff like that in PMs). And despite my curtness in my last post, I do value your point of view (as I value Bev's, even though we disagree all the time), and I think it would be a pity if you didn't share it at this point... because as I said before you really haven't commented upon the questions I consider of most interest in this thread.

I guess I'm intensely curious about what other people think, because I'm rereading Orlando Figes' history of the revolution and he is so elusive on this question of whether or not the October Revolution was inevitable... at times I think he is leaning towards saying yes, it was, because of the peasant "problem" (insatiable hunger for land, and the revolution on the land that followed as a result in both 1905 and 1917); at other times, no, he seems to be saying that a strong and progressive ruler on the lines of Alexander II could have made a real difference to the outcome. In short, I'm trying to canvass everyone's views for my own selfish research purposes...

So my apologies to everybody if I was too provocative in naming this thread but at the time it seemed like a good idea!
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Offline Tania+

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #7 on: September 06, 2006, 02:37:09 PM »
Robert,

When a family or family members, friends, community, and more than a handful of human beings have been repressed, tortured, killed, beyond understanding, used as slave labor, and left to die in the most terrible of conditions, should one not speak out ?

In civilized societies, where a person has committed terrible crimes, people will and do speak out and against such brutual repression. Why should condemnation of Soviet rule bring about protection that it was such an embracing one. It was totalitarian, and far greater in loss of life than Imperial rule. The numbers of crushed and broken bodies, mentally and physically remain as a hard fact. It was far more extensive in loss of life than the holocaust, and further there were not trials to catch these blood thirsty maniacs.

I am far from an 'old windbag', and am not closed minded. If you need to address me, and call me names, be man enough to write to me directly, and not hide behind a public posting ! If others feel the sameness, post to me directly. I don't know where the FA has or is on postings as this but it does not warm an average readers day to read this kind of address to any member, known or unknown...

I also believe I have a right to state my thoughts, being that my family did and family members still today live in Russia. They suffered directly before, duringg and after the years of Soviet rule. Many killed by the Soviet regieme !

If you want to cheer the rule of Soviet rule and be supportive of it that is your right, but as free people, from a free country, i would imagine even on this forum within the scope of being civil and without being attacked, we may offer our input. I hope that the forum administrator would concur ?

Tatiana+

« Last Edit: September 06, 2006, 02:40:09 PM by Tania »
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #8 on: September 06, 2006, 03:21:58 PM »
Tania, Robert has already apologized profusely for his post, as indeed I have apologized for my hasty response to same, so I think we should, in a manner of speaking, just let it go...

The topic itself might have been couched in terms that were too provocational. Nevertheless I am hoping that we can overcome this, in the interests of having a civilized discussion of the issues at hand.

Could we now return to those issues, please, everybody?
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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #9 on: September 06, 2006, 10:41:06 PM »
The topic is interesting.  However, with estimates of deaths ranging from 3.5 million to 60+ million -- and even the more "solid" numbers covering a range from 20 to 30 million -- it seems unlikely that the numbers will provide much of a clue.

Sources about 20th century population figures in Russia are all over the place.  Looking at one source that was careful to compare the reported populations of late tsarist Russia with the populations of the same territories during the Soviet era, one sees numbers that make no sense whatsoever.  According to that source, the population of Russia in 1910 was 160.7 million.  By 1917 it had grown to 184.6 million, despite World War I.  Then by 1926 it had dropped to 147.0 million . . . but shot up to 161.0 million by 1931.  Then it jumped over 20 million in a single year from 1939 to 1940 and grew another 25 million from 1940 to 1960 . . . a period covering the losses of World War II that some people claim topped 20 million.

In other words, the data are so unreliable as to be utterly useless for assessing the nature of Soviet rule.  If one still wants to look at population data as a proxy for measuring the nature of Soviet rule, the more reliable data are to be found in Russia's current demographics, including fertility and mortality rates.  (Check out http://www.census.gov/ipc/prod/ib96-2.pdf#search=%22population%20russia%22.)  We will probably never know how many people died due to what causes during the Soviet era.  However, we know for a certainty that today Russian deaths exceed births, that mortality rates are abyssmal, that fertility is in a prolonged decline.  To me, these incontestable numbers speak volumes about the Lebensanschau of Russians after three generations of Soviet rule.  It was a social and political order that sucked the desire to progress out of an entire nation.

I am of the view (expressed on other threads) that Russia's road to soviet rule was paved by the tsars, with Peter the Great, Nicholas I, and Alexander III being the heavy lifters.  But that buys the Soviets no forgiveness in my book for the depredations they exacted on their own people.  The tsars trained Russians to bow under the yoke of monsters.  But the monsters made their own choices.

Offline Belochka

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #10 on: September 06, 2006, 11:21:10 PM »
I am of the view (expressed on other threads) that Russia's road to soviet rule was paved by the tsars, with Peter the Great, Nicholas I, and Alexander III being the heavy lifters.  But that buys the Soviets no forgiveness in my book for the depredations they exacted on their own people.  The tsars trained Russians to bow under the yoke of monsters.  But the monsters made their own choices.

The Emperors, not unlike other Royal Houses, accepted and sought respect from the nation, it was not a matter of training.

The Soviet Union was the yoke that subjugated the Russian people, who had few choices.


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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #11 on: September 07, 2006, 07:00:43 AM »
The Emperors, not unlike other Royal Houses, accepted and sought respect from the nation, it was not a matter of training.

The Soviet Union was the yoke that subjugated the Russian people, who had few choices.


This question has been debated at length on another thread, and we're already veering off topic.  But, with an apology, I cannot resist a retort.

The tsars demanded obedience from their subjects.  Ask anyone who objected to Peter's westernization campaign.  Ask anyone who wanted to publish opposing political views under Nicholas I.  Ask anyone who wanted to be taught in the native language of their locale under Alexander's russification program.

There have been some very interesting debates on this board recently about the psychology of Lenin, Stalin, and others of their ilk.  However, revolutions against royal authority often bring unrestrained zealots to the fore.  Consider Cromwell's attempt to impose a Puritan theocracy in England.  Consider the French Terror.  And, although the causal line from the overthrow of the Hohenzollerns to the rise of Hitler is meandering, it is still there.

The reach and the longevity of the zealotry in each case was roughly inversely proportional to each nation's political heritage of individual freedom.  England had the most-developed sense of the balance between individual initiative and central power.  And Cromwell was the most limited in how far he could impose his views and how much horror he could wreak on the population in doing so.  France had a heritage of absolutist political theory that was watered down in practice by an intricate web of feudal rights that seriously attenuated the reach of central authority into local affairs.  Hence the Terror was largely an urban affair that waxed and waned with the mood of the Paris mob.  Germany (or, more exactly, Prussia) was a highly militarized state that was smart enough to realize that allowing private enterprise to develop freely was the most efficient way to build a strong economic base to support an outsized military machine.  Hence Hitler's need for a sophisticated propaganda effort to seize and consolidate power and the constant pressure on Speer and others to maintain the production of butter alongside the guns.  And hence Hitler's circumspection in taking on the regular army and the industrial magnates.

Only in Russia could zealots seize power by a small urban coup and within a few years impose collectivization on the entire nation's agriculture and impose central planning on all industrial and scientific activity -- with precious little need to worry about first preparing the soil with propaganda or with bribing the populace into complacency with a steady supply of butter.

None of the tsars -- not even Peter, a sadist who personally took part in torture and executions and who was willing to murder his own son to consolidate his political aspirations -- approached the monstrosity of Stalin, at least in scale of depredation.  But all of the tsars tilled the soil of unquestioned central authority vested in a single person and a single ideology (be it Orthodox Autocracy or Communism) that gave the soviets their singular 70-year run.

There is a reason that Lenin and Stalin succeeded in reordering the entire political, social, and economic structure of their nation with a speed and to an extent realized nowhere else in the West.  Their ideological zeal, their personal savvy, their extreme goals, their murderous determination were not unique to them.  Those traits are stocks in trade among totalitarian maniacs.

The reason they succeeded where others failed was the legacy of autocracy bequethed them by the tsars.  To argue otherwise is to say that the legions of Russians who implemented the orders of Lenin and Stalin were making their own choices in forcing their compatriots into collectives and gulags, in reordering the notion of personal property . . . and in killing their compatriots by the millions or the tens of millions.  That's much scarier than the thought of an autocratic legacy that unintentionally provided a few individuals the means of imposing their demonic will.

Offline RichC

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #12 on: September 07, 2006, 11:43:45 AM »
In regard to how it compares to the Russian Empire under the Tsars:

I always thought the Tsars believed they were answerable only to God; I think they expected the subjects to respect them no matter what they did. 

On the other hand, it's hard to think that any of the Tsars could have done what Stalin did and gotten away with it.  In practice, crazy or unwanted Tsars could be replaced -- as happend a number of times.  There doesn't seem to have been any break on Stalin, however.

Offline Tsarfan

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #13 on: September 07, 2006, 12:22:00 PM »
I think it cuts both ways and was largely a function of the indivdual despot, not of the political system.

Ivan the Terrible, despite descending into a murderous madness, died a natural death.  The same for Peter the Great, whose policies alienated large and influential segments of his subjects.  On the other hand, Nikita Kruschev was removed by a quiet coup and lived the last few years of his life under house arrest.  Neither system proved capable of removing their most brutal despots, and both proved capable of removing their more restrained leaders.

Certainly the tsars considered themselves answerable only to God . . . which was not terribly inconvenient, at least after Peter I subordinated the Church to state control.  Lenin and Stalin held themselves as answerable solely to their Marxist ideology which, taking a cue from the tsars, they claimed the sole right to interpret.


Offline Elisabeth

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Re: The Soviet Union: What Kind of Mistake Was It?
« Reply #14 on: September 07, 2006, 01:05:26 PM »
I think it cuts both ways and was largely a function of the indivdual despot, not of the political system.

Ivan the Terrible, despite descending into a murderous madness, died a natural death.  The same for Peter the Great, whose policies alienated large and influential segments of his subjects.  On the other hand, Nikita Kruschev was removed by a quiet coup and lived the last few years of his life under house arrest.  Neither system proved capable of removing their most brutal despots, and both proved capable of removing their more restrained leaders.

However, both Peter III and Paul were removed by palace coups, supported by the Russian nobility. And there was that very awkward episode of the succession to the throne of Anna, when the nobility tried and failed to assert its civil rights as a class. I guess my point is that in modern times at least, under the Romanovs (as opposed to the Rurikovichi like Ivan the Terrible), the throne was always answerable to its most powerful interest group, i.e., the nobility. Even Peter the Great, for all his Westernizing measures, didn't impinge on their landowning privileges and their so-called rights over their serfs.

As for the Soviets, by the time Stalin died, his lesser minions were exhausted and demoralized by the Great Man's ongoing party purges, and only too eager to see an end to it all. They just wanted to lie back on their laurels, relax, and enjoy the fruits of their success. So after Stalin's death (which they speeded along considerably by not seeking medical advice for some days after his stroke!), they made quick work of Beria and his secret files (since he had files on all of them, as they all well knew). And years later, when they wanted to get rid of Stalin's successor, Khrushchev, they did so in a "civilized" manner, thus reassuring themselves (and any future leaders) that if they should ever fall from grace, they would not end their days in the Gulag, but rather, as Khrushchev did, in a relatively luxurious apartment in the center of Moscow, surrounded by family and friends. 

So: whereas the Romanovs always had to answer to the nobility, if not immediately, then within the next reign or two, the Soviet leadership only ever answered to itself, and then only when those "other," lesser leaders got up the nerve to make a stand (as it happened, they never got up the nerve with Stalin until he was on his deathbed and beyond punishing them for it). 

Certainly the tsars considered themselves answerable only to God . . . which was not terribly inconvenient, at least after Peter I subordinated the Church to state control.  Lenin and Stalin held themselves as answerable solely to their Marxist ideology which, taking a cue from the tsars, they claimed the sole right to interpret.

I agree that both approaches to power are more than convenient, but Orthodoxy, whatever its flaws, was never as theoretically all-encompassing and intense a lifestyle ideology as Marxism-Leninism. Orthodoxy seeks to regulate human souls; while, how does that famous saying go, Marxism-Leninism seeks to engineer the human soul. Orthodoxy recognizes the imperfection in humankind; whereas Marxism-Leninism seeks to eradicate that imperfection, and build man in its own idealized image, by any means at its disposal.

That said, I don't disagree with the main argument of your first post. Don't fall off your chair in surprise, Tsarfan, but I do now see a linkage between autocracy and the Soviets. A linkage - not an equivalency. But as I said, my views have evolved a lot in the last several months, in no small part thanks to your own contributions to this forum.
« Last Edit: September 07, 2006, 01:14:28 PM by Elisabeth »
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