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7. The Soviet Union and Russia: Graded student essays
- Paper 3
- Option 4: History of Europe
- 16: The Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia (1924–2000)
- 7. The Soviet Union and Russia: Graded student essays
On this page you will find sample essays on this topic, written by students. There are also some suggested activities that you could do with the essays as well.
'He brought his country and his people nothing but harm’. To what extent do you agree with this assessment of Stalin’s domestic policies in the USSR between 1929 and 1953?
This essay was written by a final year IB student. It got into the top markband scoring 15/15.
Students could read this essay and do the following activity:
Read the essay below. As you read, identify and highlight examples where the candidate has done the following:
- Shown an understanding of the demands of the question
- Set out their argument
Structure of Paragraphs:
- Provided ‘signpost’ sentences linking to the question and setting out an argument
- Provided appropriate evidence which supports the argument/claim set out in opening sentence
- Given links between paragraphs
- Shown a sense of chronology
- Shown a detailed knowledge of the period
- Indicated an understanding of historical debate
- Used historians as evidence to support their augments
- Used appropriate historical terminology
- Linked back to the question and answered it
After emerging successful in the power struggle in 1929, Stalin, over the next 24 years, carried out several key policies which were to transform the Soviet Union; collectivisation, the five year plans, the great purges along with an expansion of the cult of personality, increased propaganda and censorship. These domestic policies caused extreme harm to both his people and his country. However, despite the immense human suffering, some aspects of these polices can also be seen as successful for the USSR as a whole. The economic policies turned USSR into an industrialised nation, allowing it to survive the German onslaught in the Second World War and laying the foundations for it becoming a superpower after 1945.
Stalin’s policy of collectivisation can be seen to have caused nothing but harm to his people and to the Soviet Union. Firstly, Stalin’s main push of collectivisation from 1929 to 1941 resulted in up to 14.5 million kulaks being killed, and caused a massive famine in the Ukraine from 1932-1933, causing 3 to 5 million people to starve. Grain output dropped from 73 million tons in 1928 to 68 million tons in 1933, while the number of farm animals also dropped dramatically due to the peasants burning crops and slaughtering their animals rather than handing them over to the collective farms. Even though less grain was produced, Stalin took more of it to give it to the cities, which contained only around 20% of the Soviet Unions population and this suggest Stalin allowed his people to starve, thus causing nothing but harm to his people.
Economically collectivisation was also a disaster for the Soviet Union. Grain harvests dropped dramatically in the early 1930s and did not recover to their 1928 level until the end of the 1930s. It also did not recover from its loss of animals until after the Second World War. Thus Stalin’s forced rapid collectivisation resulted in the stagnation of Russia’s agricultural economy, which would remain the Soviet Union’s weakest point until its collapse.
The Purges that Stalin carried out between 1936-1939 also brought nothing but harm to the Soviet people and the State. Around 3.5 million people were imprisoned or executed during these three years. Thus Stalin killed massive amounts of his own people often brutally, not because it helped the state or the people, but because of his paranoia that there were enemies everywhere. This suggests that Stalin was not acting in the best interests of the state or his people, but just to satisfy his paranoia and to maintain his despotic hold of the Soviet Union.
The purges weakened many areas of society, but one of the most important areas that was weakened was the military. Stalin killed most of the Soviet Union’s most educated and intelligent army officers and generals. Moshe Lewin describes the purges as destroying its ‘backbone and brain’. 80% of colonels, all admirals and their replacements were killed and 90% of all generals were killed. This left the Russian military exhausted and unable to fight. Thus in the Winter war of 1939 to 1940, when Russia invaded the tiny country of Finland, the Soviets lost 6 times as many troops as the Finns . It also left the Soviet Union weakened in the face of the Nazi invasion in 1941. This suggests that Stalin’s domestic policy of the purges was detrimental to the Soviet people and state, and did nothing but harm.
Stalin’s expansion of his cult of personality and censorship from 1929 to 1953 also caused harm to the Soviet Union and its people. The intense propaganda glorifying Stalin along with the control of all history and culture allowed no room for freedoms of any kind. Socialist Realism was the only art form allowed; literary progress which was stopped by Zhdanov, who imprisoned many “anti-state” cultural icons like Anna Akhmatova. Thus Stalin hurt Russia’s culture. Robert Service writes, for example, that ‘No great work of literature was published in the 1930s and artistic figures went in fear of their lives’.
However, despite the horrors and harm of collectivisation and the purges, there were some aspects of Stalin’s domestic policies between 1929 and 1953, that did in fact bring benefits to the Soviet people. Firstly, collectivisation did help the industrial development of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s agricultural policies created massive immigration to cities, whose urban population from 1928 to 1939 increased from 26 million to 38 million, with the number employed increasing from 11 million to 26 million in the same time frame. This contributed to the massive industrialisation of Russia which was to play a key part in its survival in World War Two. Secondly, agriculture was able to grow quickly after 1945, reaching 1941 levels by 1952, indicating that by this time the collective farms were working more efficiently.
The five years plans from 1929 to 1953, enacted by Stalin as part of his domestic policy, are possibly the best example of Stalin’s domestic policies helping the Soviet Union. The first five year plan, from 1929 to 1933, increased pig iron output from 3 million tons to 6 million tons, crude oil output from 11 million tons to 21 million tons, electricity supplied from 5 million gigavolts to 13.5 million gigavolts, and created around 50,000 new tractors for farmers to use by 1933. This meant that by 1937 the Soviet Union’s steel output almost reached that of Germany’s. The second and third Five Year plans concentrated more on the armaments industry and by 1940, the Soviet Union was in a position to create the weaponry needed to fight Germany. In the battle of Kursk in 1942, for example, the Soviet Union was able to field 3,400 tanks in the largest tank battle in history compared to Germany’s 2,400 tanks. Thus it could be argued that this industrialisation allowed the Soviet Union to survive during the Second World War.
Moreover, after the war, the fourth and fifth five year plans from 1946-1950 and 1951-1955 enriched the Soviet’s heavy industry, causing steel production in 1952 to be double that of 1941, and coal production in the Donets Basin in 1952 to exceed that of 1941. Therefore, Stalin’s five year plan helped to industrialize Soviet Union. This came at a cost to the Soviet people in terms of the working and living conditions, but it could be argued that the fact that it allowed the Soviet Union to survive the war and to rebuild after the war, was ultimately a key point, which did not harm the Soviet state or people, but rather helped them.
The weight of evidence is heavily against Stalin’s domestic policy being successful for his people or the State. The quality of life dropped, culture stagnated, millions died both through the purges and through a manmade famine. However, ultimately and despite the human suffering, the industrialisation aspect of his domestic policy had positive rather than negative results. The Soviet Union’s industry grew faster than any other country in the history of the world, and this contributed to the Soviets’ victory in the Second World War and its emergence as a superpower after 1945.
To what extent were Stalin's domestic policies successful up to 1941?
The following essay was written by a second year IB student and got into the top markband, 13/15. The examiner's comments were as follows:
The essay is clearly focused and shows a high degree of awareness of the demands and implications of the question. The essay is generally well structured and effectively organized. Knowledge of Stalin’s domestic policies and their relative success is accurate and relevant. Events are placed in their historical context, and there is a clear understanding of historical concepts such as significance and consequence. The examples are appropriate and relevant, and are used effectively to support the analysis. The essay includes clear and coherent critical analysis. Most of the main points are substantiated, and the essay argues to a consistent conclusion.
The essay should include more specific examples as evidence, it should include more historiography, and offer more evaluation of perspectives.
The essay can be read by clicking on the eye below or downloading the PDF which also has the examiner's comments.
After victory in the power struggle and his assumption of the role of dictator of the USSR in 1929, Joseph Stalin went on to pursue a wide range of policies that dramatically transformed Soviet society. Some of the most important of these policies were the purges of 1934 to 1938, the collectivization of agriculture from 1928, and the three five year plans between 1928 to 1941 in industry. All of Stalin’s methods and policies were pursued to with specific political, ideological, and economic aims. Stalin set out to consolidate his personal political dictatorship, gain control over the countryside and increase agricultural productivity and to ‘catch up’ with the west industrially. He also wanted to Sovietize society. Stalin achieved many of these aims, however, others met with failure.
The large scale purges of the party that Stalin undertook between 1934 and 1938 had the political goal of consolidating the personal power of Stalin and removing his potential rivals and enemies from the party. Stalin had faced increasing opposition by 1933 to the extreme nature of his collectivization policies and of elements of his industrialization programs. The political purges began in 1934 non-violently as 22% of Communist Party members were removed from party rolls for ‘inactivity’. However, after the assassination of Kirov in December 1934 , and the purges became increasingly violent. Stalin used the murder of his potential rival to unleash a full-scale and bloody political purge. Between 1936 and 1938 hundreds of thousands of individuals deemed "enemies of the people" were arrested, and there were show trials of former leading part member. Stalin managed to eliminate his critics within the party such as Ryukin, who had circulated a 200-page manifesto against Stalin as well as old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamanev who Stalin had later taken out of prison to be executed. Stalin's aim of eliminating his political rivals was achieved by the end of the purges as everyone he even suspected of being hostile to him was imprisoned or killed and this consolidating his personal dictatorship.
The policy of collectivization of agriculture, primarily in the western regions of the USSR such as Ukraine, between 1929 and 1936 was carried out with the ideological aim of Sovietizing the peasants by forcing them to live communally, under states control, and abandon their private plots and property. This would re-mold them into a more "soviet mentality". Stalin saw the peasants as conservative and traditional and were a class in society that was not revolutionary in Marxist terms. Stalin also had economic aims for collectivization, he wanted to increase agricultural output per peasant so that the increasing number of industrial workers [created by the 5-year plans] of the cities could be better fed. He also needed to control and produce surplus grain for export to pay for his industrialization and infrastructure programs. Stalin's policy of collectivization was successful in bringing peasants into collective farms. In 1930, at the start of the program only 5% of peasants lived on collective farms, and however this number dramatically increased to 90% by 1936. Collectivization also saw the end of land holding peasants [Kulaks] who were deemed "class enemies" by the communist party and who were likely to resist state orders and the seizure of land and property. Overall, Stalin achieved his ideological aim of collectivizing the peasantry and he succeeded in gaining control over the countryside.
The policy of implementing Five- year plans, which started with the First 5-year plan in 1928, aimed economically to fully industrialize the Soviet Union so it could compete with the west, become self-sufficient, and could develop its own significant arms industry for homeland security. It also intended to ‘transform’ society and together with Stalin’s collectivization program has been called the ‘Great Turn’. The five year plans involved a vast apparatus of centrally planned organization which set quotas for specific production targets with a focus on increasing the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union. The first 5-year plan was successful as it led to a tripling in the production of electricity in the USSR, and a doubling in the production of coal and iron ore. It also moved the USSR from 5th place to 2nd place in global industrial production. The second 5-year plan, launched in 1933 focused on heavy industry and succeeded in making the USSR self sufficient in machine production, and was on a par with Germany in steel production. The first and second 5 year plans were deemed to have met targets ahead of deadline, in just over 4 years for the first and within four years for the second. The third 5-year plan focused more on armaments productions, including tanks and in the establishment of arms factories in the east of the Ural mountains. Overall, the five year plans resulted in a significant increase in industrial capacity and production, and represented a considerable modernization of the soviet economy from its foundation in 1928.
Despite achieving political success in terms of consolidating Stalin’s control, the purges had key negatives results. The purges removed Stalin's political opponents from the party however, they also dealt massive damage to the soviet society. The party was obedient, but its leaders were not necessarily in positions of power due to merit. It also meant that there was no toleration of debate or criticism. Stalin also engaged in a deep purge of the Soviet military from 1937 and this removed most of the Red Army's top commanders and all eleven of its war commissars. This significantly weakened its ability to fight effectively and be prepared for a general war. This was evidenced when the USSR went to war with Finland in November 1940, and found itself in engaged in a difficult stalemate despite its much larger army. The purges also removed many top managers, scientists, and technicians and this that weakened the performance of the USSR's centrally planned economy. The human cost of the purges was also catastrophic as over 1 million people were killed in the great terror of 1936 to 1938, a great many of whom were completely innocent of any crime. Therefore, the failures of the purges were that they damaged soviet society at all levels.
The policy of collectivization also resulted in many key failures. Peasants actively resisted attempts to forcefully collectivize them as the party employed terror tactic to coerce peasants to join collective farms. Many destroyed their grain and livestock in the process, and this meant that productivity actually declined, and it was not until 1936 that grain production reached 1928 levels; only much later did livestock production reach pre-collectivization levels. Furthermore, the human cost of collectivization was immense as even though food production fell, the food that was produced was confiscated by Soviet authorities to be transported to workers in the cities. The Ukraine was especially targeted and some 7 million Ukrainians died in the famine of 1932 to 1934. Historian Christopher Read has described collectivization as "a civil war by the party against the peasants.". Thus, although the political aim was achieved in the countryside, the immense human and economic cost must be seen as a damning failure.
In addition, the implementation of the 5-year plans was a failure in many respects. The quotas set for each of the plans were impossibly high and the official economic data produced by the Soviet government were unreliable. Furthermore, the centrally planned nature of the process was ridden with corruption as managers and directors were purged for political purposes and party officials diverted resources to their own "pet projects". The infrastructure was not sufficiently developed, and railways clogged up with the movement of more material than they could handle. Also, the focus on heavy industries meant other areas such as textiles and consumer goods were left undeveloped. There was also significant human cost to the seemingly impressive industrial growth as prisoners from gulags were used as slave labour, thousands perished on construction projects such as the Moscow Metro and hydroelectric dams. Furthermore, peasants expelled from their land during collectivization came to make up a large portion of the workforce, however, it has been estimated that only 7% possessed the skills needed to work in a factory. Thus, although the 5- year plans led to some increase in industrial output living conditions did not improve for workers or peasants improve and the processes of the command system was ridden with inefficiency/
In conclusion, Stalin's main domestic policies were largely successful in achieving their aims by 1941. He had consolidated his dictatorship, gained control of the countryside and gain production, and he had industrialized the USSR. However, each of his policies brought about immense human suffering and terrorized all aspects of soviet society.
Examine the political and economic developments in the USSR between 1945 and 1953.
This essay was also written by an IB final year student. It got into the top mark band.
The essay can be read by clicking on the eye below.
An annotated essay with examiner comments is attached as a PDF.
In the immediate aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, the USSR was left in a destitute state, over 25 million soviet citizens had been killed and the economy was in shambles with large parts of the Soviet industry having been destroyed in the war. Between the end of the war in 1945 and his death in 53, Soviet leader Stalin pursued economic and political policies designed to consolidate his power and re-construct the devastated USSR. These economic and political policies had a large influence on Soviet society and the social policies of the government which aimed to eradicate western influence from all spheres of soviet life.
Soviet leader Stalin’s primary political goal in the aftermath of the war was to secure his role as supreme leader and suppress any possible political dissent . Historian Robert Service notes that Stalin was “disquieted” by the calls for reform in the aftermath of the war by broad sections of society. Stalin was especially weary of the praise accorded to the Soviet generals who had helped to win the war, fearing they posed a threat to his rule. In 1948 Stalin demoted the praised general Zhukov to a commander and sent him to Odessa where he was far away from the centres of Soviet power. The same fate also awaited the general Antonov . Due to enthusiasm for the regime that had been generated during the war, party membership had increased from 4 to 6 million and Stalin used this as an opportunity to purge potential rivals from the party. When Stalin’s right hand man Zhdanov died in 1948, the newly created MVD under Beria and Malenkov arrested and tortured his deputies and purged the entire Leningrad party, which Stalin suspected of plotting against him. Stalin achieved his political aims by removing the generals of the war from positions of influence and purging potential rivals and maintaining his role as supreme leader until his death in 1953 .
The main economic goal of the soviet state in the post-war years was re-construction. The war had destroyed over half of soviet industrial capacity and crippled the economy. Whilst some markets had been allowed to operate during the war, in 1946 Stalin announced the beginning of a five year re-construction plan that returned the economy to its pre-war state of centralised control. The plan mobilised the workforce of the USSR towards re-construction as workers were required to perform an additional 30 hours work a week above their 8 hour work days. Important re-construction efforts like the re-building of the Dnieper dam in 1946 were successful. Industrial re-construction was aided by reparations from Germany in the form of transported German industrial goods and slave labour from POWs and civilians . The plan was focused 85% on heavy industry and according to historian Alec Nove, was “largely a success” as coal production in the Donetsk region surpassed pre war levels by 1946 and other areas such as capital goods also re-bounded.
Whilst Stalin achieved his aim of consolidating political control in the aftermath of the war, his actions came at a massive human cost and were often influenced more by paranoia than any legitimate threat to his rule. In 1946, the NKVD was re-named the MVD and Beria was installed as its head, the MVD engaged in intense political suppression and purging and in the post-war years the population of soviet concentration camps grew exponentially to 2.5 million. Furthermore, Stalin became increasingly suspicious of the Jews of the USSR, who held many influential positions in the party and made up a large portion of the professional class. Stalin suspected the Jews of having loyalty to the newly created Israel and their families in the USA over the USSR and began to suppress the Jewish community. In 1948 the Jewish anti-fascist committee was shut down and many Jewish scientists and party members were purged, synagogues and Jewish schools were also closed and foreign minister Molotov’s wife was arrested in December 1948 for speaking Hebrew to the Israeli ambassador. In 1953 prominent Jewish doctors were implicated in a plot to poison soviet leaders and made to confess under torture. Stalin’s paranoia became so great that when he was found unresponsive and in need of medical help on the morning of March 3 1953 no doctor would treat him for fear of being implicated in a conspiracy were he to die, which he did.
Similarly to the political developments in the USSR, the economic policies enacted after the war came at a great human cost and in many areas were ineffective. Whilst industry re-covered to pre-war levels, the focus on capital goods meant that few consumer goods were available to the population to buy producing subpar living standards. The immense industrial output also created bottlenecks in production that were not easily resolved. The most damage was done to agriculture, during the war over 100,000 collective farms had been destroyed and millions of farmers sent to the frontlines or otherwise killed or wounded, whilst some privatisation had kept the farms afloat during the war period, the re-collectivisation after the war decreased the incentive of farmers to produce goods. . In 1946 over 40 million tonnes of grain were produced, half that of the 1940 level. This problem was compounded by a shortage of willing farmers as many had joined the army and did not which to return to farming, and the policies of the government which procured 70% of grain, raised taxes and diverted electricity and building materials to the industrial sector. In areas of Ukraine famine like conditions emerged during the drought of 1946. In regards to agriculture, the economic aims of the soviet state were not in the post-war years and the human cost was huge.
The economic and political developments in the USSR also impacted the social policy of the state and vice-versa. . Stalin’s desire to consolidate control was expressed in campaigns of Zhdanov to completely wipe western influences from Soviet society. Zhdanov purged writers and musicians and promoted only soviet approved “socialist realism” as acceptable artistic expressions. Furthermore, returning POWs who spent time in western camps found themselves in a desperate situation upon arriving back in the USSR, to prevent them from “corrupting” soviet society with western influence over half were sent to the gulag. Soviet citizens were banned from leaving the USSR and nearly no foreigners were allowed in. The policy of removing western influence heavily damaged science, as Darwinian natural selection was condemned as a capitalist invention and the theories of the scientist Lysenko were promoted who believed exposing seeds to cold weather would allow them to grow in winter. This contributed to the failure of soviet economic policy in the agricultural sphere.
In conclusion, the soviet state under Stalin during the post-war years pursued political and economic policies that consolidated Stalin’s dictatorial rule and re-built soviet industry. However, these policies resulted in immense human losses and were not always effective as Stalin became increasingly paranoid towards the end of his life and the soviet agricultural sphere was damaged by collectivisation. The social polices of the state, which were geared towards removing all western influence from Soviet society, were influenced by the political and economic aims of the state and also influence them.
Overall grade: 13/15
Clear focus with high level understanding of material and implication
Generally, well-structured and balanced. Paragraph openers could be more clearly focused.
Knowledge is detailed, relevant and accurate. Clear contextual understanding. Clear and coherent arguments. Some attempt to consider different perspectives.
To what extent did Khrushchev follow a policy of de-Stalinisation?
This essay got into the 10 - 12 band
Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 seemed to indicate that Khrushchev would be following a very different set of policies than those pursued by Stalin. In this speech, he acknowledged and openly criticised many of Stalin’s polices, much to the surprise of many of the delegates there. Khrushchev’s rule would indeed get rid of some of the worst excesses of Stalinisation which had come to mean terror, strong personal rule and a cult of personality, strong central control of industry and agriculture. However, it would also become clear that there were limits as to how far Khrushchev would go in the policy of de-Stalinisation.
Perhaps the most important aspect of de-Stalinisation was the ending of the terror. Thousands were let out of the gulags and the atmosphere of fear in which no-one could consider themselves to be safe, the denunciations and the system by which people were randomly arrested to fill the quotas for the gulag labour camps all came to an end. There was increased tolerance and greater freedom which was also extended to artists and writers who were now able to criticise the excesses of Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn managed to write ‘A day in the life of Ivan Dunseith’. The ‘cult’ of leadership that Stalin had created was ended; Stalin’s body was even moved from Lenin’s mausoleum.
Another key area in which Khrushchev followed a policy of de-Stalinisation was in the democratisation of the Communist Party. Between 1954 and 1964, Party membership grew from 6.9 million to 11 million and these new members included peasants and workers. In addition, Khrushchev revived ‘comrades’ courts’. These were led by ordinary members and they dealt with minor offences. As P Kenez writes, during his tenure the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian; his rule can better be explained as authoritarian’
Khrushchev also moved away from the central planning of the economy under Stalinism by transferring authority for economic planning to regional councils – he also narrowed the differences in pay between rich and poor and he decriminalised absenteeism from work. Linked to these changes were reforms in housing and education policy with a rapid housing programme which doubled the amount of homes in the USSR; this was a change of priorities from the days of Stalin.
However, there were definite limits to destalinization. When Boris Pasternak published Dr. Zhivago, Khrushchev was outraged and Pasternak was forbidden from traveling to Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize for literature that he had been awarded. There was still surveillance and no easing of pressure on religious groups. In fact, Orthodox churches were demolished in great numbers.
Perhaps the clearest sign that there were limits to de-Stalinisation came when other Communist States demanded greater independence and self-determination.
Khrushchev’s speech had created expectations of change; in Poland, riots led to a change in leadership and this encouraged the Hungarians to push for independence. However Hungarian demands went further than those of the Poles and when the Hungarian leader Imre Nagy announced his intention to leave the Warsaw pact, Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary resulting in the deaths of about 200 000 with another 150 000 fleeing abroad. Thus it was clear that de-Stalinisation did not mean any greater independence for Communist states than might threaten the security of the USSR. In addition, de-Stalinisation did not bring any greater self-government for the nationalities within the USSR.
In conclusion, there were definite changes to the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Stalinism was challenged in many areas – from the running of the economy to the ending of terror. As John Keen writes, ‘his greatest accomplishment was to end the reign of fear’ and it is perhaps indicative of the changed atmosphere that when the Politburo decided that Khrushchev had to go, this was done by a vote rather than a bullet in the head. However, although the terrible repression had ended, there were limits to de-Stalinisation. Censorship remained and de-Stalinisation certainly was not extended to Eastern Europe where Russia’s grip on events remained as strong as ever.
Evaluate the success of Khrushchev’s domestic policies
This essay was also written by an IB final year student. It got into the top mark band. The examiner's comments were as follows:
Overall - 13/15
- Question understood and addressed. Well structured.
- Knowledge is relevant and examples appropriate and usually effectively used to support analysis
- Clear context and understanding of key concepts.
- Clear and generally coherent arguments. Some critical analysis. Points are mostly justified. There is a reasoned conclusion.
- Some attempt / awareness and evaluation of different perspective.
The essay can be read by clicking on the eye below or printed off on the PDF.
Nikita Khrushchev was the leader of the USSR between 1958 and 1964. His domestic policies saw a radical departure from those of his predecessor Joseph Stalin. Politically and socially, Khrushchev desired to extend to a limited degree civil liberties for Soviet citizens, de-centralise power, and create ‘socialism with a human face’, he also sought to drive religion out of soviet public life. Economically, Khrushchev’s aims were to increase the production of consumer goods to boost Soviet living standards, to increase agricultural production and improve the lives of peasants and to invest in space technology to make the Soviet Union the leading country in space technology.
Khrushchev’s political and social policy aims centred on extend to a degree civil liberties and creating ‘socialism with a human face’ in the USSR, he achieved many successes in this area. His desire to expand civil liberties in the USSR and end the days of Stalinist repression began when he gave a secret speech to the politburo of the Communist Party on the 25 of February 1956 in which he denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and his reign of terror on the party. The speech was well received by the wider public, to whom it was leaked. Khrushchev’s leadership of the USSR begging in 1958 saw the end of severe repression as thousands of political prisoners were released and previously banned artists such the author Babel and composer Shostakovich were rehabilitated. Furthermore, Soviet citizens were given for the first time the right, albeit limited; to travel abroad and tourists were allowed to enter the USSR. Foreign music and books such as those by Ernest Hemingway were permitted to be published. Even dissident works by Russian authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich were allowed to be published. This period of relaxation of censorship has been referred to as ‘the thaw’ after the 1954 play by Ilya Ehrenberg. Under Khrushchev, thousands of political prisoners were released from the Gulag. In addition, Khrushchev focused on improving education particularly with regards to science, mathematics and engineering. Furthermore, Khrushchev sought to limit the power of the party, de-centralising political control to the local level. Historian L.Now notes Khrushchev success in ending the terror of the Stalin years, stating that unlike under Stalin, enemies in the Kremlin “were imprisoned rather than shot”.
However, Khrushchev’s goal to create a more liberal society in the USSR was not completely accomplished. Censorship of artists and dissents continued at a lower level, for example the Jewish author Pasternak was not allowed to publish his work ‘Dr.Zhivago’, and was denounced in the state paper Pravda following its publication in the West in 1957. Furthermore, Khrushchev’s Stalin speech was met with hostile reaction by many in the part, and in Stalin’s home country of Georgia was met with demonstrations that were only put down with force. In the gulags many rioted. Khrushchev’s atheist policies, such as closing down Churches, of which the number fell from 20,000 in 1960 to 8000 in 1964, and teaching atheism in schools, had a high human cost as hundreds of novices and nuns were violently arrested and thrown in labour camps by the secret police. Furthermore, Khrushchev’s angering of the party leadership, his attempts to decentralize, and the final straw was the suggestion that the ‘hammer and sickle’ would be separated, led to his disposal in October 1964, and a reversal of many of his policies followed and thus it could be said he ultimately failed to reform the USSR.
In industry, Khrushchev’s goal was to increase the production of consumer goods, de-centralise production, and invest in space technology to bring the USSR to the forefront of scientific achievement; he also sought an increase in industrial production. Towards this end, the sixth five-year plan was abandoned in 1959 and replaced with a new seven-year plan for the years 59-66 to focus on the production of plastics and natural gasses. Khrushchev was successful in removing management of industry from Moscow to more localised Sovnarkhozes, of which there were 105 across the USSR. Khrushchev remarked that more consumer goods were needed for living standards in the USSR to catch up with the west, stating that one ‘can’t put theory in a soup, or wear Marxism’. In 1955 to 1966, the number of refrigerators per person in the USSR increased from 4 to 44, and the number of washing machines from 1 to 77. The USSR also sustained an average GDP growth rate of 5.2% under Khrushchev. Perhaps the greatest success of Khrushchev was the USSR’s space technology, using captured German scientists, and investing heavily in science education, the USSR became a world leader in space technology, with over 4700 establishments dedicated to science in 1961. In October 1957, the USSR put the first satellite in space, Sputnik 1, and on April 16 1961, put the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin. These achievements massively increased the prestige of the USSR around the world as a scientific leader.
Despite successes in space and production of consumer goods, Khrushchev’s policies were not entirely successful. Many cosmonauts died violently in rocket tests and upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in the course of the Soviet space program. Furthermore, the USSR lagged behind the west in consumer goods considerably. In 1966, the number of cars per thousand people in the USSR was 5, whilst in the US it was 400. Of the consumer goods that were available many were costly and of poor quality, cars for example were largely reserved for leading party officials. Further failure came in Khrushchev’s attempt to improve housing by ordering the construction of some 15 million pre-fabricated apartment buildings. These buildings were of poor quality and did not meet the needs of the people, many of whom ended up living in overcrowded conditions. This constituted a large failure on Khrushchev’s part to combat both corruption and low living standards.
Khrushchev’s agricultural policy was focused on improving the conditions of peasants and farmers and boosting agricultural production, the weakest area of the soviet economy. The troubled Soviet agriculture sector enjoyed some of its best years under Khrushchev. Prior to becoming the leader of the USSR, in 1954 Khrushchev led the virgin land scheme, which sought to boost agricultural production by cultivating vast unused swathes of land in Siberia and Kazakhstan, with over 20,000 young volunteers, mostly party cadres, the scheme was successful in its first years, between 54 and 58 the production of wheat increased from 80 million tonnes to over 140 million. Furthermore, Khrushchev merged the collective farms into state farms, giving large benefits to state farmers such a higher wages and a pension, improving living conditions for workers who saw their wages double. He further stopped the confiscation of grain from private plots, increasing production. Overall Khrushchev saw a wholesale improvement in Soviet agriculture.
However, Khrushchev’s agricultural policies also saw large failures, although the virgin land scheme was initially successful in boosting agricultural output the gains decreased after 1958 as much of the newly cultivated land was not given the right amount of fertilisers and the wrong grains were used. Furthermore, many of the formerly enthusiastic party cadres who joined the programme as volunteers became disenfranchised by the living conditions of farmers and returned to the cities leaving the scheme without anyone doing the work. In addition, by 1964, the USSR was suffering from such acute grain shortages that it had to import gain from the West.
Khrushchev’s aims of creating a more open soviet society, boosting production of consumer goods and agriculture, de-centralising power as well as leading the Soviet Union in becoming the foremost world technological power were largely met. However, it should not be discounted that improvements in living standards were marginal, agricultural gains were eventually lost, and the US would overtake the USSR in space technology by the mid 1960s. Ultimately, Khrushchev was the most dynamic of the Soviet Union’s post war leaders who fought to improve the lives of ordinary people and fight against the party elite, the eventual cause of his downfall. In the words of historian Philip Whitestead, Khrushchev was a “courageous leader” and his greatest success had been to begin the process of transforming a state that had been founded and developed by Stalin’s terror.