In April of 1986, the people of Chernobyl, Ukraine begun an era irreversible suffering. On the 26th of the month, the local nuclear power reactor experienced an extreme explosion as a result of a power surge. The event, to this day, is considered the worst nuclear accident to ever occur worldwide.
As radioactive dust quickly spread throughout the neighboring territories, the Kremlin offered no official announcement or warning of the accident. It wasn’t until 3 weeks after that Gorbachev addressed the public (Siegelbaum). “Authorities evacuated some forty thousand people from the town of Pripyat closest to the accident. Thirty-eight people were killed instantly as a result of the accident, and it has been claimed — though not confirmed — that as many as 100,000 subsequently died or suffered severe harms to their health from radiation” (Siegelbaum).
The nuclear science of the time may not have been what it is today, but the ignorance with which even the press “informed” the public is astonishing. In May of 1986, the Russian press had released an article claiming that, “the nuclear reaction as such ended immediately, and there has been no resumption of it. Now it’s only a matter of a residual and extremely insignificant heat release from the nuclear fuel.”
For them to be making such bold statements only 1 month after the accident truly shows how desperate Gorbachev was to grab on to any sort of order/control of the people as he could. Especially considering it is now roughly 30 years since the incident and the few people that still live in the area are documenting radiation and the accompanying symptoms. The communist regime was falling and this extreme accident only assisted the momentum with which it fell.
During the Krushchev era, there were many multifaceted concepts spreading throughout the Soviet Union as part of the De-Stalinization movement. Many of these theories and ideals penetrated not only political life, but economic and cultural life as well for the peoples of the USSR. One of these concepts was brought about by the “Moral Code of the Builder of Communism,” which is outlined by Deborah A. Field.
Latching onto the basis of what the Soviets intended Communism to represent, this declaration of preferred behavior outlined the ways in which its’ people would be expected to live.
“Professionals and moralists in a variety of fields determined what attitudes and behaviors constituted a correct Communist private life, putting forth specific instructions about sex, love, marriage and child rearing. Trade union, party, Komsomol, and a host of new voluntary organizations were supposed to help enforce these standards. These groups included parent-school associations; apartment house committees; druzhiny, teams that patrolled the streets to arrest hooligans, drunks, and other disturbers of public order; and comrades’ courts, which were empowered to reprimand, fine, and shame people who neglected their children, disrespected their parents, damaged their apartments, or failed to get along with their neighbors.” (Field)
Although the intentions of this code appear to be well-intentioned (although admittedly invasive and strict) various loopholes were accessible to these “rules” as a result of the Krushchev reforms taking place simultaneously (Field). Many people simply ignored this code of morality, made fun of it, selectively chose to follow some of its’ rules, and even used some of its standards as a way to achieve personal gains (Field).
This caught my attention because of the image/ideas of Soviet Communism that has culminated in the last few decades. I have always thought of communism to be this strict invasive concept, but it never occurred to me that the people who lived under this kind of regime didn’t always stand by it loyally. The fact that there were so many people throughout the state rebelling against its’ guidelines really shows how Krushchev was counterproductively trying to gain control while enabling his people to go their own way.
According to the subject essay by Lewis Siegelbaum,three years before the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, work on the “super-bomb” began. Differing from the recent atomic bomb the world had been experimenting with at the time, the hydrogen bomb was a nuclear weapon which used fusion in a 2-step chain reaction rather than fission. The hydrogen bomb was first tested on November 22, 1955.
The testing of nuclear weapons and continued pursuit of a larger nuclear arsenal after Stalin’s death is what interests me. In the midst of De-Stalinization movements, this was one of the few policies that his successors carried on with throughout the years following the death of the leader. While the rest of the country was focused on relaxing many of the policies and societal norms of the time, the military chose to strengthen this one.
The difference between the Soviet’s nuclear policy and certain others that were moving in the opposite direction as part of “The Thaw” is that nuclear capability was becoming a true sign of power on the international stage, the US and the UK being the competition. So, as the Soviet Union was taking subtle, baby steps towards a freer, democratic society, they were also taking giant leaps towards their goal of remaining a strong power in the world.
In addition, the state used this as an opportunity to give suggestions to other nations regarding their own nuclear arsenals. In an announcement of the hydrogen bomb test, the government states that, “In accordance with the Soviet Union’s unchanging policy, aimed at strengthening peace and the security of nations, the Soviet government has repeatedly proposed to the governments of other countries a substantial reduction in armaments and prohibition of the use of atomic and other weapons of mass destructiveness, establishing strict international control, within the framework of the United Nations, over this prohibition.”
As the main focus for this post, I’d like to look at a subject essay by James von Geldern on the aftermath of the Holocaust in causing division among minorities who were targeted by the Nazi Party throughout World War II. Even though the post-war climate in the Soviet Union was generally upbeat as a result of the victory, those who had been directly effected by the “Final Solution” were in the midst of an uphill battle getting steeper.
Coming to terms with all they had lost – their families, homes, identities, religion, individuality – was a never-ending struggle. Adding to this, much like other minority groups who have suffered at the hands of the state, Holocaust survivors wanted redemption; they wanted back their unity. Something that I had never considered about this process was how the various minorities targeted didn’t see themselves as equal to the survivors of other groups (von Geldern). Each nation/minority group wanted the memory of their own lost lives to be put at a higher standard of grief than others. In fact, a horrifying video shot at a camp in Klooga, Estonia was titled, “Concentration Camp for Soviet People outside Tallinn,” which didn’t even acknowledge the victim’s being Jewish (von Geldern).
This division among groups who all endured a variation of the same suffering is something that comes as a shock to me. In all the documentaries I’ve watched it has emphasized been emphasized that survivors find solace in meeting with and sharing the stories of fellow survivors.
Side note: As an American, it is very interesting learning about the allied victory of World War II from the perspective of the Soviets. Hearing the outcome referred to as a “Soviet victory” definitely puts a spin on things in regards to the way I have heard the story told throughout my life. Although it was evidently a victory (considering the defeat of Nazi Germany) and the Soviets were party to the allied forces who caused this victory, throughout much of the war, Soviet soldiers were deeply feared by the minorities that were targeted by the Nazi regime due to their ruthlessness and violent nature.
Kronstadt was a small island turned naval fortress, which had originally been allies of the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution of 1917. On the island, the sailors considered themselves to be loyal to the Soviet cause. Eventually though, anger arose as a result of the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building. They began to deprive the citizens on the island from materials and food. The communists also began to foster slave labor and started acting aggressively toward workers and peasants. The sailors felt this violated the spirit of the rebellion that they had helped win. Thus began a rebellion that festered over time, with the battle cry of, “Victory or Death!”
As protest became full-scale rebellion, the situation in Kronstadt escalated to a state of mutiny on February 26th. A delegation lead by Stepan Petrichenko drafted a list of 15 demands, and presented them to the Kronstadt Soviet on Frebruary 28th. The Kronstadt Soviet called a meeting in response to the demands on March 1st. The rebels then created a Revolutionary Committee chaired by Petrichenko. When Pavel Vasiliev (chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet) and Nikolai Kuzmin (Political Commissar of the Baltic Fleet) threatened the committee with retribution the next day, they were arrested and imprisoned. Squads of sailors took control of Kronstadt, under the slogan “All Power to the Soviets”, and not the parties.
Between March 1-5th, the uprising had further escalated in violence. On March 5th, Lenin and Zinoviev issued an ultimatum that branded the insurgents ‘puppets of the White Army’. Lev Trotsky assembled troops in Petrograd under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevskii and began to attack Kronstadt on March 7th. Three violent assaults were carried out over the next 10 days across the ice of the Bay of Finland. Government forces slowly depleted the force of the rebels by March 16th, when the final assault was launched. The Tenth Party Congress accompanied by a lot of volunteers attacked by night from three directions and forced their way into the city. Fighting continued to break out throughout the city, and by March 18, the revolt was crushed. Many rebels escaped across the ice into Finland but many were killed in the fighting, and many who survived were executed or sent to prison camps.
The uprising had a deep impact on Soviet rule – more specifically, on the economic policy of the time. During the uprising, the government announced the abolition of grain requisitions, replacing them with a kind of tax. It is also very widely assumed that the rebellion inspired Lenin and the regime to announce the New Economic Policy, which answered some of the Kronstadt demands. Further, the taxes created by the NEP were set at levels much lower than preceding requisition quotas, which allowed peasants to get rid of their food excess on the open market. “This concession to market forces soon led to the denationalization of small-scale industry and services; the establishment of trusts for supplying, financing, and marketing the products of large-scale industry; the stabilization of the currency; and other measures, including the granting of concessions to foreign investors, all of which were designed to reestablish the link (smychka) between town and country” (Siegalbaum, 1).
Although the economy was liberalizing, the political sphere was not. The Tenth Congress condemned the Workers’ Opposition and ordered them to disperse, which many thought was an early indication of Stalin’s dictatorship.
The New Economic Policy Subject Essay by Lewis Siegalbaum at soviethistory.msu.edu
Kronstadt Uprising Subject Essay by James Von Geldern at soviethistory.msu.edu
Pictures: Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Kragnogorsk, 2000 àmsu.edu
According to the World Digital Library (WDL), this image was taken by Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in the fall of 1909. The original caption did not disclose the exact location, but it is suggested that the photo was taken north of Ekaterinburg while Prokudin-Gorskii visited certain mining territories. In the early 20th century, this was just one of many stops on his trip around Russia in pursuit of creating a visual archive of the Russian Empire.
The photograph portrays two resting dogs on somewhat of a camp site, including two log structures with a bit of a dirt clearing in the middle, as well as grass, trees, and a bit of sky in the background. The WDL shares that the animals pictured are Laika guard dogs, a breed mostly favored by hunters. Prokudin-Gorskii was said to be a hunter himself, so I imagine he took the photo because they were a familiar breed as well as something he personally connected with during his travels. Farther into the picture we see a hut that seems to contain explosive materials such as dynamite. On the left, we see a more disheveled hut, which may have been used to shelter the dogs.
This photo stood out to me for a few reasons. First, historical images of people and other living things have always fascinated me – we have learned about how different the past has been since we were young, but it is only in these pictures that we see for ourselves how drastically different it really was. It intrigues me to see regular people and animals in these photos because it forces us to imagine how different their realities must have been than what we consider our realities to be today. In this case, we are seeing a breed of dog that still exists today, but the Russian Empire they existed in in this image no longer exists.
Further, this image caught my attention because for some reason when I think about Russia I have always immediately pictured the wealthy elites of the upper class and their large houses and vast lands. But in this photo we are reminded of the middle and lower working classes who are responsible for the railroads, factories, and mining areas such as the one pictured. The moment captured in this image is in my opinion a great representation of the realities of those who lived in 20th century Russia.
Prokudin-Gorskii, Sergei Mikhailovich 1863-1944. “Guard Dogs.” WDL RSS. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
“Hunting Laika Breeds of Russia » West-Siberian Laika.” Hunting Laika Breeds of Russia. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.