To this day, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union, remains the world’s largest and longest experiment with socialism on a mass scale. From 1922 to 1991, the Soviet Union was a world menace, referred to as the “Evil Empire” by President Ronald Reagan. Like most totalitarian states, the Soviet Union relied on terror and coercion to maintain its iron grip on power. Below are just a handful of the many ways Soviet leaders preyed on their population and ruthlessly preserved their power.
1. Soviet Leaders Imposed the ‘Great Famine,’ Killing Millions
In 1932, Joseph Stalin ordered the collectivization of farms in the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, namely the Ukraine. Stalin waged a brutal campaign against landowners in the so-called “breadbasket” region, killing families and taking their land. Unsurprisingly, the collectivization of agriculture resulted in a giant drop in production, causing up to 10 million people to die of starvation.
2. The USSR Used Forced Labor Camps for Political Oppression
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin built an extensive network of concentration camps for political prisoners. It is estimated that 18 million people were sent to these camps, until they were mostly abandoned after the death of Stalin. Historians believe nearly two million people were worked or starved to death in the camps. Most of the people sent to the camps were political dissidents, petty criminals, or simply family members and friends of those authorities deemed enemies to the state.
3. The USSR Used a Series of Political Purges to Ensure Strict Loyalty to the Communist Party
Like most authoritarian governments, the USSR routinely used political purges, especially in its early years, to ensure strict loyalty to the Communist Party. Stalin, who ruled the USSR from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, enacted several mass purges during his reign of terror. Historians believe that about 10 percent of Communist Party members were murdered during the Stalin-ordered purges. Most notably among the victims of these purges was Leon Trotsky, who was murdered in Mexico after he fled the Soviet Union.
4. The USSR’s Planned Economy Resulted in Massive Environmental Destruction
Throughout its history, the Soviet Union put little focus on the environment, although it often claimed it was a champion of the environment. Because the USSR sought to become an industrial powerhouse on par with the West, it ignored the impact of its vast industrialization efforts. Studies repeatedly show that the best way to improve the environment is prosperity. The more prosperous a society is, the more easily it can improve environmental standards. Because socialism is closely associated with lower amounts of prosperity, due mainly to the fact that government ends up controlling most economic activity in a socialistic society, the environment ends up suffering. Notably, the Soviet Union’s predilection to cut corners, as governments often do, also led to one of the worst environmental disasters in world history, the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. To this day, countless acres of land around Chernobyl remain uninhabitable because of the Soviet Union’s incompetency and reliance on bureaucrats.
5. All Citizens of the USSR Lived in Fear of the KGB Secret Police
From 1954 to 1991, the KGB was the Communist Party’s secret police force, which was used for a variety of purposes, such as domestic security, foreign intelligence, and counterintelligence operations. The KGB (Committee for State Security) was notorious for its brutality and total disregard for citizens’ basic rights. According to a declassified CIA report titled “Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping,” the KGB routinely used “abduction and murder to combat what are considered to be actual or potential threats to the Soviet regime.” As the CIA report notes, the KGB often used difficult-to-detect poisons to murder its political opponents. Although disbanded when the USSR collapsed in 1991, some of the secretive agency’s tactics have reemerged under Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was an officer in the KGB.
6. In the Soviet Union, the Government, Not God, Was the Supreme Authority
Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union was not a place where freedom of religion was respected. In communist nations, including the USSR, the state views religion as a threat to its total hold on power. As such, the Soviet Union was an atheist society, in which government, not God, was the highest power in the land. Although religion was not completely outlawed across the USSR, it was viewed as suspect by the state and many who vocally advocated for religious freedom ended up in a gulag.
7. Citizens Were Forced to Resort to Black Markets for Basic Goods
The Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy was, simply put, a total disaster. Bread lines were frequent. Shortages of all types of goods and services were also a mainstay during the entire duration of the Soviet Union’s existence, mostly due to the lack of the market forces and the inefficiencies of government. Because of this, underground markets for goods and services flourished.
Perhaps Anatoli Golovkov, a Soviet economist, summed up the black market system best. According to Golovkov, “There is nothing to buy through ordinary channels, but you can get anything you need if you are willing to play the game and pay big money. The whole process makes all of us cynical about the law and ourselves. It degrades us. But what’s the choice? For example, say I have guests coming, and I need a cut of meat, a couple of bottles of booze and a carton of good cigarettes. There’s really just one option. With a fistful of money, you go to one of the city markets. The state-run stalls are nearly empty. But you explain what you need to someone. He nods, and never saying a word, he writes down a price on a slip of paper and says, `Come back in an hour.’ When you come back, the package is all wrapped up in a copy of Pravda and off you go.”
8. Political Corruption Ran Rampant in the Soviet Union
Due to the centrally controlled economy, political corruption was widespread throughout the Soviet Union. Bribery of political officials was a routine practice across all aspects of the USSR. Because Communist Party leaders held total power over economic and social activities, citizens constantly used bribes as a means to gain favor with those in charge. In the Soviet Union, bribery of public officials was so prevalent that it simply became a social custom and economic necessity for survival.
In 1990, a young Soviet citizen named Irina described the many bribes it took to simply bury her mother. “Mother died, and I knew immediately this was going to run into big money for us. Soviet law guarantees that we all get a free funeral and burial. But that is a joke. The first stop was the bank. First, Mother’s body had to be taken to the morgue. We were told that the morgues were all filled up, and they wouldn’t take her. But when we paid 200 rubles to the attendants, they took her. Then there was the 50 rubles for her shroud.
“Then the funeral agent said he had no coffins my mother’s size and that we could only buy something eight feet long. My mother was 5 feet tall. For 80 rubles he came up with the right size. Then the gravediggers said they could not dig the grave until 2 p.m. even though the funeral was at 10 a.m. So that took two bottles of vodka each and 25 rubles each. The driver of the funeral bus said he had another funeral that day, he couldn’t take care of us. But for 30 rubles and a bottle of vodka, we could solve the problem. We did. And so on with the grave site and the flowers and all the rest. In the end, it took 2,000 rubles to bury my mother. Three months’ income for the family.
“Is that what ordinary life is supposed to be? To me, it’s like living by the law of the jungle.”
9. There Was Astronomical Wealth Inequality in the USSR
One of the most hypocritical aspects of the Soviet Union was the huge gap in wealth between party officials and average citizens. As is the case with almost all socialist/communist regimes, those in political power lived in the lap of luxury while the vast majority of the people lived in poverty. In the Soviet Union, high-ranking government officials lived in mansions, rode in high-end European cars, and generally engaged in wanton consumerism, the polar opposite of the classless, utopian society they purportedly supported.
Additionally, unlike ordinary Soviets, party officials were allowed to shop in their own grocery stores, which carried all the best foods. In 1985, a Soviet citizen named N. Nikolaev had had enough, writing to Pravda, “Let the boss go the ordinary store with everybody else, and let him stand in line for hours like everybody else!” Party officials were also granted special privileges, such as access to their own health centers. As Korney Chukovsky, a Soviet poet and dissident wrote in 1965, “the families of the Central Committee built for themselves a paradise, all while people in other hospital beds were starving, dirty, and without the right drugs.”
10. Widespread Soviet Propaganda
Soviet leaders knew the power of propaganda, which is why they wielded it as a tool to placate and indoctrinate the masses. The Communist Party used propaganda in schools to brainwash the young and vulnerable. Propaganda extolling the virtues of the ruling class and the Communist Party was ever-present and inescapable. In the times before the internet, the USSR was able to completely control the dissemination of information, which the party used to keep the population in the dark as much as possible. The USSR’s propaganda arm, known as the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press, was ubiquitous. Its mission was to “ensure that the correct ideological spin was put on every published item.” Throughout the USSR, any and all printed materials extolling freedom and criticizing the Communist Party were eliminated. Those in possession of such materials were treated as traitors.
BASE PHOTO: Church near the Kremlin. Photo by Belkis Gaeta. CC0 Public Domain. Design edits made by Donald Kendal.