The last two decades of the Soviet Union saw a corrupt and rotting government and society implode on itself from within. The control that the Soviet government had used on their country for decades was finally falling apart with the cultural and political undertakings of “glasnost” which saw the final opening up and liberalization of Soviet society. On its last legs, Soviet society was finally starting to experience an wide array of social and cultural groups that had previously been suppressed by the Soviet government such as punk rock bands and expanded cinema content. One of these groups was the Russian bikers, or “rockers”. Similar to the American biking phenomenon after the Vietnam War, their ranks were filled with disenchanted youths and veterans that weren’t able to connect with their government and were unable and unwilling to submit to a single authority like the government. Instead, they lived their lives a day at a time with reckless abandon opposing all attempts at restricting them and their escapades. What started as a bunch of individuals riding motorcycles soon resulted in “gangs” being formed where these rockers rode together in formation and rode around town. In Moscow especially, these rockers scoffed at all the laws and chose to rode their motorcycles primarily at night, breaking the curfew of the city. Although these motorcycle gangs “were supposed to be organized into registered motorcycle clubs which would rule out nocturnal escapades” (17 Moments) but this was one first of many rules they broke. In Moscow, motorcyclists weren’t even allowed to travel in groups but they almost immediately defied this law and no one took any action against them. When a bunch of “hooligans”, as they were referred to, rode together there was bound to be trouble. They often had run ins with the law and often fought militia and police members. When these run ins occurred, the rockers often portrayed themselves as the victims. For example, in Moscow one man “throws himself at the militia’s car windscreen and is taken to the hospital” (17 Moments) and later the gang signed a letter claiming that he was assaulted by the militia. These rockers also often broke the law and one out of every ten of them were in jail at some point for all manners of crimes. The anger and violence that was rampant in the rocker gangs was a direct result of these youths growing up in an era that was past the times and could not connect with the expanding interests and cultural modernization of the youth population.
The 1970s in the Soviet Union is often referred to as the “era of stagnation“. The country had just seen the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from power in 1965 and Leonid Brezhnev soon became the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. The era started with significant economic growth in the industrial sector but was lacking in the areas of agriculture and consumer goods. A famine in 1975 continued to cripple the agricultural economy and forced Brezhnev to get grain from international sellers. The ever increasing defense spending in order to keep up with the United States during the Cold War eventually contributed to the deterioration of the Russian economy. A costly war in Afghanistan also further crippled the economy and eventually helped lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. On the other hand, Brezhnev tightened control on Soviet society and people, which was reminiscent of the Stalinist era. He made meetings in large groups illegal and cracked down on all political dissidents. One of the many reasons the era was known as one of “stagnation” was the age of the men in power in the Government. They were all Soviet hardliners who had been around during Stalin’s era and were unable and unwilling to recognize the need for political and social reform within their country, highlighted by Brezhnev’s claims of the “stability of the cadre”, exemplified by “the fact that nearly half of the Central Committee members in 1981 were holdovers from fifteen years earlier” (Countrystudies.us). Although Brezhnev tried his best to tighten Soviet control of the country, foreign culture still slipped through the cracks and thrived, whether that be cinema or rock and roll. These years saw the slowing down of and arrival of a static nature of the Russian economy, politics, and culture but it also had its highlights. One such positive of the era was the continuation of exchange programs, academic exchanges, and bilateral scientific endeavors, which enabled foreigners, especially Americans to come into the country and for Russians to travel and see other parts of the world outside the Eastern Bloc and expand their cultures beyond their own borders.
Beginning in the 1950s, even though the two countries were beginning the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union started to try to figure out ways to open their countries to the other, politically, economically, and socially. Beginning with the the Lacy-Zaroubin Agreement in 1958, which provided for cultural exchanges between the two countries in the areas of agriculture, science, medicine, and film, the two nations periodically started to send their students, professionals, historians, and scientists to each other, if only to insert CIA and KGB agents into these exchange groups to spy on each other. These exchanges were also utilized by the Soviet Union to learn as much as they possibly could about science and technology from the United States and the United States also attempted to decipher the enigma that many Americans saw the USSR to be. One such example of these cultural exchanges can be seen through the eyes of Galina Koltypina, who worked at the Lenin Library in Moscow. In 1956, she was tasked with taking visiting Swedish librarians on a tour of libraries around Russia and the city of Krasnodar on the coast of the Black Sea. When she arrived in Krasnodar, however, it was soon clear that the city was not ready for foreign guests and the entire hotel had to be completely cleaned, repainted, and a lock was placed on the bathroom door so that only the Swedes were allowed to use it (Russia Reader). This story reflects the want of the Soviets to expand and learn, but at the same time not wanting to submit to the eventual corruption of their people to foreign influences. It is also a perfect example of one such cultural exchange that allowed foreigners to come into the country and explore it for the first time. Even though the country was opening its arms to foreigners, it was still extremely cautious and protective of what these foreigners were able to see and do during the Khrushchev era. These programs of social exchange vastly increased and were more relaxed during the reign of Brezhnev during the 1960s through the early 1980s, as opposed to the trip described by Galina Koltypina. Although the decade was one of “stagnation” these cultural exchange programs and bilateral academic pursuits expanded, opening the world up to the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union up to the world. During the 1970s, NASA and their Soviet counterparts to research physics and share technology with each other. Russian ballets began touring the United States and American literature flew into Russia through various academic endeavors to Russian libraries and universities. The Ministry of Culture in the USSR invited the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra to come play all across Russia. As Russians spent more time in America and around Americans, the political dissent in the USSR grew louder and louder and these cultural and academic exchanges between the two countries contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union as a communist state.
With Stalin’s death on March 5th, 1953, the Soviet Union found itself at a crossroads unable to look back on the past, but also uncertain about the future. Gone was the man who had industrialized the nation, won the Great Patriotic War, and turned the Soviet Union into a legitimate world power. After the death of the man that had been ever present in their lives for almost thirty years , the people of Russia did not know what to expect next. He left no heir to take over for him or a plan to rule the country for the Politburo to follow. The next few years saw a power struggle that Nikita Khrushchev eventually won, becoming the new leader of the Soviet Union. With the arrival of Khrushchev, the “Thaw” hit the Soviet Union. The Thaw saw the renouncement of the era of Stalin. He brought many positive reforms to the Soviet Union, both politically and culturally. In a speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s cult of personality and denounced his mass killings, imprisonments, and the realm of fear that governed the land during his time. “This thaw initiated an irreversible transformation of the entire Soviet nation by opening up economic reforms and international trade, educational and cultural contacts, festivals, books by foreign authors, foreign movies, art shows, popular music, dances and new fashions, and massive involvement in international sports competition” (New World Encyclopedia).
An example of this Thaw on Soviet culture was the poem, “The Last Trolley”, written by Bulat Okudzhava. Okudzhava was one of the many poets who became famous during the Khrushchev era as “guitar poets” who used guitars and tape recorders to bring back the Russian musical tradition that had disappeared during Stalin’s time. Their poems resonated with millions of Russian people, due to the use of the guitar and also traditional Russian themes that were previously not included in music during the Stalin era. “The Last Trolley” is specifically written about the thaw and the release of the Soviet Union into more liberal times. This poem is about the late night trolley, which represents the thaw. His line “midnight trolleybus, sweep through the streets, make your circuits round the boulevards” (RR 567) describes the trolley (the thaw) making its way through the streets and boulevards (Russia) and picking up its passengers to free them from their trouble and despair (Stalin and his rule). Okudzhava makes use of words such as the night and despair to represent the oppressive regime of Stalin throughout the poem and uses the trolley bus to represent the good and free world the Soviets now live in, as seen by the stanza “midnight trolleybus, open your door for me! for I know that this freezing midnight, your passengers, your crew, will come to my aid” (RR 568). Okudzhava’s passengers and crew are the Russian people who were once divided by the paranoia and terror of the past thirty years, but have now healed the rift and are once more ready to become one people. Finally, the poem ends as the “midnight trolleybus sails through Moscow, the roadway flows away into dawn…and the pain the pecked like a starling in my temple grows quiet” (RR 568). Finally, the thaw has swept through Russia, releasing her people from the darkness of the night into the light of the dawn and new day.
When the Soviet Union emerged victorious from World War II, they entered an era completely different from the years before and during the war. During the war, the Russian people had been exposed to a liberalization of their country as well as the materialistic economy and society of the West. As a result, the Russian people expected rewards and concessions from the Soviet government for winning the war and being the victors. The main clamors for consumer goods came from the newly formed postwar Soviet middle class. Hearing this clamor for more material and consumer goods, Stalin had two options. He could give in to their demands and the Soviet Union could possibly become a capitalist nation, which he would not allow, or he could make minimal concessions to this new middle class while still maintaining his power over them. He chose the second option, which came to be known as the “Big Deal” a phrase coined by Vera Dunham. The Big Deal gave the Soviet people and middle class some of these material concessions, such as clothes, cars, and personal housing, but only from the state. Their materialistic gains depended solely on Stalin and the Party.
One great example of the Big Deal in action was the creation of a Soviet car industry centered in Nizhni Novgorod, later renamed Gor’kii. The Gor’kii Automobile Factory (GAZ) was built in 1929 but throughout the late 1930s and during the war, it produced trucks primarily for the Red Army and war effort. After the war, Stalin authorized the creation and distribution of two new car models as part of his Big Deal, the Pobeda and the Moskvich. Although they were licensed for production, this production was limited and demand went through the roof. The GAZ’s production of these new cars represented one of the material concessions that Stalin was willing to give the Soviet people but it came directly from a Soviet factory. The people depended solely on the State to receive their car instead of being able to go out and buy their own from an independent seller like in the West. Providing the Russian people, and especially the middle class and the Soviet elite, with the opportunity to have a personal car was one step Stalin took in placating his people after the war. It wasn’t economic independence, but the opportunity to have their own cars was too valuable for the Soviet people to pass up, which allowed Stalin to retain all the power in Russia.
In Russia, World War II was known as the Great Patriotic War. Their war compared to the United States’ war or Britain’s war was vastly different. Rather than waging a war against evil or German domination, the Russian people waged a war for survival. On the Eastern front, the Soviet and Nazi armies fought on urban battlefields such as Stalingrad, Moscow, and Leningrad. Operation Barbarossa started in the summer of 1941 to overwhelming success, seeing the Germans push all the way to the Moscow city limits. With the Soviet military in disarray and unprepared for a modern war against a German army, victory was almost imminent for Hitler. With the Soviet armies bogged down defending major cities and strategic objectives, a partisan war was fought out in the countryside against the Germans. Their resistance was so fierce than any captured often faced torture and death. Pavel Lidov’s “Tanya” depicts the dangers of being a partisan and the desperation and ultimate destruction that faced the Soviet people and kept them fighting.
In this story, Tanya is a young female partisan who sabotages German buildings and communication lines outside of Moscow during the winter of 1941. Tanya is soon captured in a German military base trying to burn it to the ground. Once captured, Tanya is tortured for military intel by her German captors. Beat over and over again, she was thrown into a Russian family’s house for the night, bloodied and bruised. The family takes care of her and seeks to ask her questions about her background and who she is. When questioned about her parents, Tanya did not reply and spent the rest of the night in silence. The next day, the Germans returned and continued their interrogation as well as built gallows for her eventual death. When questioned about Stalin, Tanya simply replied “Stalin is at his post” (MC 343). When finally brought to the gallows, Tanya yelled out to the villagers “Hey comrades. Why are you looking so sad? be brave, continue the struggle, beat the Germans, burn them, poison them!…I’m not afraid to die comrades. It’s a great joy to die for your country” (MC 343-344). “Tanya” was used as a propaganda piece by the Soviets to raise the level of nationalism within the Soviet people and get them to commit their entire selves to the cause. Tanya’s lack of parents made her fight against the Germans personal and because of the brutality the Soviet people experienced at the hands of the Germans, the war became a personal war. They fought not just for Stalin and their country, but also their families, friends, and the loved ones tortured and killed by the Germans. Tanya’s quote at the end of the story also emphasizes the nationalist pride and the threat of Russian extinction that faced the Russian people. She claimed that it was a joy to die for one’s country and the German invasion contributed to a rise in Russian nationalism and Russian spirit. The Eastern front was not just a war for good, as the American war was, it was fought by the Russians for survival and their iron will and perseverance contributed to their eventual victory and secured Russia from the clutches of Hitler and Nazi Germany.
In 1938, the Soviet Union reached out to Finland’s government to inform them that Stalin believed war to be inevitable with Germany and that the Soviet Union wanted Finish lands and islands in order to advance and fight the Germans. A previous Russian territory, Finland refused all Soviet advances to take their lands and remained hostile to Soviet involvement in their country. After the Non-Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was signed, eastern Europe was divided between spheres of influence between the two nations. Finland, alongside most other Baltic countries, were incorporated in the Soviet sphere of influence. As the Soviet Union began to set up bases throughout the Baltic nations, Finland refused and started mobilizing its military. Final negotiations between the two nations failed and the Soviet Union prepared for war. In a speech delivered through radio to the entire country, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet people were informed of the failed negotiations and that “the Finnish government has adopted an uncompromising and hostile attitude towards our country.” Molotov continued to explain that as a result of this hostility the non-aggression pact between the two countries had been broken. He stated in this speech that the goal of the Soviet Union was to protect its people in Leningrad, which Molotov said was extremely vulnerable to a hostile Finland. Molotov finished his speech by denying that the USSR was seeking to annex all of Finland and instead reiterated that the Soviet Union was just trying to protect its own interests and people by gaining limited Finnish territory.
Once it was clear that Finland would not give any territory to the Soviet Union, an incident occurred near Mainila in November of 1939 when a Soviet border post was bombed and several soldiers were killed. Although it was never confirmed who did the actual shelling at the time the Soviet Union blamed it on the Fins but it has since been revealed that the Soviet Union bombed its own post to give it reason to invade Finland. Stalin then ordered 450,000 Soviet solders into Finland and bombed the capital of Helsinki. They also tried unsuccessfully to gain the support of the people and working class by establishing the Finnish Democratic Republic, a communist puppet government. The Soviet military had just emerged from Stalin’s purges and its leadership structure was extremely diminished and inexperienced. Their soldiers were not equipped with cold weather gear and they were not issued white uniforms to camouflage themselves from the Fins. The Finish military made their defenses at the Mannerheim Line around the Karelian Isthmus with around 150,000 men. The winter of 1939-1940 was the coldest in years and the Soviet military was completely unprepared for the cold and the amount of snow, which the Fins used against them by skiiing around the Russian soldiers and then attacking. The war lasted throughout the winter and the Soviets were repelled at every turn until the Russian military regrouped and broke through Finnish defenses in some parts of the Karelian Isthmus. After it was clear that the Finnish military could not continue a prolongued war against the Soviet military and a peace treaty was ratified in March of 1940.
Although this war was a war of protecting Soviet interests, according to Molotov in his speech, this was a failed war to conquer all of Finland. The Soviets were able to gain around 11% of Finland from the Fins but Finland was allowed to remain an independent nation and the war humiliated the USSR in the eyes of the world. Over 300,000 Soviet soldiers were recorded as casualties and the war made it clear that the Soviet military lacked effective leadership, structure, and tactics. Already planning a war against the Soviet Union, Hitler believed that he would have an easy time conquering Russia due to their military blunders and lack of preparation. He used this logic a year later when he did follow through with an invasion of Russia and almost conquered Moscow. Stalin and the new military leadership realized they needed new logistical and leadership infrastructures and they needed new tactics for winter warfare. However, none of these reforms were complete by the time of Operation Barbarossa. Overall, the Winter War revealed the damages done by Stalin’s purges, the need for modernization and reform within the Soviet military, and the assumption that the USSR would be easily conquered by Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The 1930s were a time of great growth and advancement in the Soviet Union. The goals of the First Five Year Plan had been achieved and the Soviet Union was finally industrialized and considered a world power. The pain, suffering, and hunger that was widespread in the late 1920s was starting to go away and the USSR was entering a new era of prosperity. The industrialization of the economy meant more food and a higher standard of living for the people. Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s had yet to happen and life was looking pretty good to the majority of Soviet citizens.
In 1936, two Soviet composers, Vasily Lebedev-Kumach and Aleksandr Aleksandrov, came up with the song Life’s Getting Better which was inspired by Stalin at the 1936 Constitution signing. The song came to represent the era of the early 1930s under Stalin: an era of prosperity, modernization, and more opportunities for the Soviet people. The song touches on a wide variety of Soviet improvements, from “the happy refrain of the cities and fields: life’s getting better and happier too” to “wherever you go you’ll find you have friends”, representing the comradery of the new Soviet philosophy. The song finishes off by owing all of this success to Stalin by stating “let’s let the whole gigantic country should to Stalin: thank you, our man, live long, prosper, and never fall ill.” The propaganda Stalin was able to use to credit himself with this success only made him seem like more of a savior to the Russian people. Before the purges and reign of terror Stalin would soon adopt, he was the savior of the Russian people, bringing their country into a new era of wealth, success, and modernization.