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I am the man who arranges the blocks that descend upon me from up above...

The history of the world's first Communist nation, in simple terms, with humour where appropriate.

Whites versus Reds - Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Civil War

After Red October overthrew the government that overthrew Tsarist Russia, the Bolsheviks ended up with the largest country in the world. They also ended up with the continuing problem of World War One. They concluded a peace treaty with Imperial Germany, in the process giving up control of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland, which became German puppets and after Germany's defeat, either independent or were re-taken by Communism.

There was also another problem. Not everyone was happy with the new government. This was first demonstrated in the Constituent Assembly elections resulted in the defeat of the Bolsheviks. The Assembly held one meeting before being dissolved.

This also led to a Civil War, in which the Allied powers, including the Americans joined in. It was "Red" versus "White" and very nasty, with massacres on both sides; the one that shows up most often in fiction is the killing of the Romanov dynasty (no, Anastasia probably did not survive), although that was an event of minor importance at the time. The civil war was hardly two-sided, as the nation was filled with dozens of small nationalist factions fighting for independence and a confusing rainbow of smaller armies such as the Blacks (anarchists), Blues (peasants rebelling against the Reds), and Greens (desperate peasants fighting everybody just for survival). Doctor Zhivago describes the sort of thing that went on. Western powers like the US, Britain and France sent some troops to help the Whites (because they were fighting against communism, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend). This mostly served to make the Whites look like puppets of foreign capitalists, which didn't help with their street cred. Thanks to Trotsky and the state seizing control of the entire Soviet economy to feed the Red Army (which became highly organised and disciplined- the commissars shooting people certainly helped), the Bolsheviks won. The Whites were disunited, rather disorganised, and lacking an industrial base - not to mention that they had no idea what to do with Russia if they won, since they were a wide alliance of anti-communist forces (ranging from non-Bolshevik socialists over moderate liberals to ultra-nationalists who wanted to kill lots of Jews).

The price was very high. Fifteen million Russians were dead, mostly via disease, famine and massacres (including White pogroms against the Jewish population). Another million, White supporters and much of the skilled class of Russia, left the country permanently to appear in many a Genteel Interbellum Setting work of fiction.

The industry of Russia was wrecked and the agriculture wasn't much better. Plus, there was a need to create a new "workers' and peasants' state." By that point, there wasn't anything left of the old Imperial Russian state anyway. On 29 December 1922, a new union of republics (Russia with Belarus, the Communist Ukrainian government, and the states of Central Asia) was created. It's name in Russian was Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. The rest of the world could come to know of it as the USSR, or the Soviet Union.

To help get things going, Lenin implemented the New Economic Policy (NEP). This kept industry and manufacturing (or what was left of it after the war) under state ownership, but allowed some private ownership of agricultural land, and encouraged farmers to sell surpluses. This increased agricultural production greatly, but there were also problems with consumer goods prices and something called "the Scissors Crisis", as the USSR had not yet industrialised. Perhaps they should have taken the hint and fixed that, rather than do what they later did...

In March 1923, Lenin suffered his third stroke and was left bedridden and speechless for the rest of his life. In 1924, he died and was buried in Red Square.

The Paranoid Priest Candidate - Joseph Stalin

Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili was born in Gori, Georgia on 18 December 1878. He had an unpleasant childhood. His father beat him. When he went to school and later a seminary in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, he was forced to use Russian and mocked for his Georgian accent. Joseph became a Georgian nationalist and a poet. He read a Georgian novel called The Patricide, which starred a Robin Hood style character called Koba. He adopted it as his first revolutionary pseudonym.

In 1899, he quit the seminary and became a revolutionary. Perhaps he should have stayed a priest...

After a while engaged in criminal activity, as a bank robber among other things, Stalin ("man of steel") ended up as one of the editors of Pravda (Da, pravda).

His role in Red October is pretty minor, no matter how much he tried to big it up later. Stalin ended up as General Secretary of the Bolsheviks. Perceived as a minor position (he was dubbed "Comrade Card-Index"), when combined with his other post and with an ally elsewhere, he was able to pack the party with his supporters.

The big argument among the Commies was between "World Revolution" (promote revolution in other countries, particularly the more industrialized countries, because socialism and communism cannot be built in a single agricultural country like the 1920s USSR) or "Socialism in one country" (build up the USSR and put Soviet interests first, because socialism and communism can be built in a single agricultural country). Stalin took the latter stance, Trotsky the former.

Before Lenin had become incapacitated, he dictated a Testament. While critical of the other senior Commies, its message to the party was very clear- get Stalin out, now. Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev buried it. Stalin pretended to be on the right and kicked out those who could stop him on the left (Kamenev and Zinoviev), then switched sides and did the same with those on the right (Bukarin and Rykov). Trotsky, who may well have been tricked by Stalin into missing Lenin's funeral, was eventually kicked out of the USSR in 1929. He eventually headed to Mexico, where "he got an ice pick, that made his ears burn" (OK, it was an ice axe, but he ended up just as dead).

With complete control of the party, Stalin abandoned the NEP and started two policies to turn the USSR into a great power. These were industrialisation and collectivisation.

"Fifty Years In Ten" - Industrialisation

To kickstart the Soviet economy, both industrial and agricultural, Stalin in 1928 started the first Piatiletka- Five-Year Plan (these would in fact be continued until the collapse of the USSR). In 1931, he stated that "We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us". He was actually right on the money there- in 1941, the Great Patriotic War began.

Massive new industrial facilities were set up, such as the city of Magnitogorsk, where John Scott went Behind The Urals. The behind the Urals thing was done intentionally and would be very important later.

There's minor account fiddling. There's cooking the books. Then there's throwing said books into the Magnitogorsk blast furnace. The Five-Year Plans involved number three. Failure to meet production targets could mean sacking at best, a trip to The Gulag or at worst, a bullet in the back of the head. As a result, everyone exaggerated their manufacturing performance and produced lots of very shoddy goods.

However, on the industrialisation front, the plan worked.

The First Plan was declared finished early. The Third was terminated early by the Great Patriotic War.

Smert Kulak! Collectivisation

The other part of the Five-Year Plans was collectivisation. All that building of factories and machines that went along with industrialisation had to be financed somehow. Most of the USSR's population consisted of peasants, so perhaps they could be persuaded to join large collective farms, work more efficiently and give up their surpluses (instead of selling them for something in return) - all for the rapid development of the motherland, of course. However, it turned out this wasn't the most popular of ideas. So Stalin decided to be a little more persuasive, and take land from the peasants by force. Lots of force.

In the eyes of the CPSU there were four types of peasants:

  • bednyaks, poor peasants
  • seredniaks, mid-income peasants
  • kulaks, rich peasants. The term was in use pre-Red October for independent farmers who hired labour and had large farms. It quickly become derogatory- the term literally means "tight-fisted".
  • batraks, seasonal landless workers.

It was decided that only the first and the fourth were true allies of the proletariat. The second were unreliable. The third were considered "class enemies". Which was a very bad designation to have in the USSR, where "kulak" got applied to a lot of people, often for revenge purposes.

When the Soviets tried to take their land, many of the "kulaks" proceeded to destroy their tools, kill their livestock and consume their produce. That caused a massive famine and the Soviet livestock population did not recover until after World War Two.

Many people were either shot, sent to The Gulag or deported internally. Precisely how many people died as a result of "dekulakisation" and the resulting famine is subject to historical debate- the number could be as low as 3.5 million or as high as 30 million. The problem is that it's not as if anyone signed death warrants or shot these people; they died of things that, under different conditions, would be considered natural causes (like disease). So estimating the number of victims requires estimating how many deaths by natural causes can be blamed on the policies of Stalin's government. Good luck with that...

The Midnight Knock - The Purges

To say Stalin was a bit paranoid is a bit like saying Mount Everest is a bit tall. He became rather concerned about a man named Sergey Kirov, who was actually becoming more popular than him. On 1 December 1934, Kirov was heading to his office in Leningrad, when he was shot in the back of the neck and died. Whether Stalin was involved was never proven. Kirov was publicly mourned by Stalin and got a lot of things named after him, both factual (the city formerly known as Vyatka, the "Kirov" class naval ships- although Kirov is now the Admiral Ushakov) and fictional (a space station in 2010 and a class of heavily armored zeppelin bombers).

Determined to deal with his enemies (real or imagined) and with Kirov's death as an excuse, Stalin first set up a bunch of show trials. Senior Bolsheviks like Bukarin, Kamenev and Zinoviev were subjected to the Vanya Fermer Confession Obtaining Technique, of the psychological sort and the stuff that leaves no marks i.e. sleep deprivation. If they didn't agree to confess to completely false (sometimes even impossible) charges and appear in a show trial, they got introduced to a Nagant M1895 revolver. If they did, often to save their families, they were placed on "trial" in front of cameras, with the footage broadcast around the world and with foreign observers, many of whom were rather left-wing. Then they were shot.

Under the NKVD leadership of Nikolai Yezhov (known as "The Poisoned Dwarf" on account of his shortness and sadism), a series of events was implemented that has been variously called "The Great Terror", "The Great Purge" or "The Yezhovschina". Whatever you call it, it was bloody. Soviet archives state that 681,692 were shot during 1937 and 1938, which might be an underestimate, and that 800,000 went to The Gulag.

Families informed on each other, often just for telling anti-Stalin jokes. "Ex-kulaks" and "kulak-helpers" (which pretty meant anyone the NKVD were inclined to purge) were arrested. The people of the USSR lived in fear of a knock on their door at midnight, which would only mean The Gulag or worse.

The CPSU itself was purged. Of the 1,966 delegates to the 1934 Party Congress, 1,108 were arrested and nearly all ended up dead. By the time the Second World War came to the USSR, Stalin had killed just about every single member of the original Bolshevik party (with the notable exception of his foreign minister, Molotov).

Most serious was the impact on the Reds with Rockets, in which pretty much the entire of the Soviet High Command ended up arrested or dead. This would have serious implications later.

In 1938, Stalin and his cohorts realised they'd gone too far. They purged Yezhov (a lot of the purgers ended up purged themselves), introduced him to a bullet and replaced him with Lavrentiy Beria, who may well have been a sexual sadist and multiple rapist. More on him later. The purges were toned down (with Yezhov being blamed for "excesses"), but repression continued.

Rewriting History - The Cult of Personality and the Art of Political Photoshopping

Stalin was, like many an autocrat both before and after him, determined to promote his image. He just took it to as yet unheard of levels. He wanted to seen as something as close to a god as he could get in the (officially) atheist Soviet Union.

So, he made sure his face was seen all over the USSR and his name was known. Hundreds of things were named (or renamed) after him. Statues of him were all over the USSR. People "wrote" poems praising him as the best thing since, well... sliced bread wasn't really around in the USSR then.

There was one problem. Stalin didn't play that big a role in Red October. It now becomes appropriate to quote the Fourth Doctor:

"The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering".

So, the other Bolshevik leaders were "erased" from history and removed, rather expertly, from photos. New textbooks were issued to Soviet school pupils. As yet more Bolsheviks were purged, new pages were given for pupils to paste over.

Stalin decided that since Germany and the Western Allies were going to fight, he could let them get on with it and signed a pact with Nazi Germany. This pact meant the USSR invaded Poland in 1939 and proceeded to annex what would become the states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova (then kept them). The USSR invaded Finland and won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. All Finland became was a democracy that bought Soviet in the military front and the problems of the Reds with Rockets were exposed to everyone- including Nazi Germany.

According to German excavations of 1943, in 1940, 25,000 Poles, mostly officers, policemen and office clerks in the new areas of Belarus and Ukraine were executed in the Katyn Massacre (see Enigma). Poles tend to be touchy about this. Despite recently declassified documents (of questionable authenticity) stating that it was done by the NKVD, most of the physical evidence, methods of executions and witness testimony points the finger at the Nazis. The current official position is the former; the Nuremberg trials considered the latter to be the truth.

For the Rodina! The Great Patriotic War

A relationship between Communists and Nazis was never going to last, especially since Adolf Hitler had stated in Mein Kampf his intention to destroy the Soviet Union and his belief that as soon as they attacked "the whole rotten structure" (to actually quote Hitler) would collapse straight away. On 22 June 1941, this was proven in highly dramatic style, when three and a half million Axis soldiers went into action in "Operation Barbarossa". As they entered the western USSR, the locals, sick of Soviet oppression, welcomed them with open arms. The Nazis responded with bullets or sent them to the concentration camps.

The Soviet Union weren't expecting to be attacked just then, but had some idea that the Wehrmacht were coming. Thus they fell back on a tactic called "scorched earth". Retreat and destroy anything the enemy can use as supplies or for transport. The other favourite tactic of the Reds with Rockets was the commissar approach- "advance and you might die, run away and you definitely will, since I'll shoot you myself". This was also known as the "not a single step backward" policy. This is also used by Imperial Commissars in Warhammer 40000, who are directly inspired by them.

During this time, Soviet propaganda slightly shifted. This was no longer about defending Socialism. This was about defending the Rodina - Russia.

The "behind the Urals" building came into handy here, since the USSR could continue with weapons production out of the range of the Luftwaffe, while Germany was having to deal with the USAAF and RAF. The Soviets also evacuated a great deal of their industrial base from European Russia when the Germans invaded. It went quite well and the new relocated industrial plants were soon churning out lots of material for the Soviet war effort; the fact that they'd been practicing for just this eventuality since the 1920s and were well-prepared when the time came was important. That's the thing about the Soviets; one thing they were good at was organizing massive physical movements of things.

"General Winter" struck and the Germans, who'd come dressed for a summer campaign, spent a lot of the time being very cold.

After the sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad (number one and number two on the bloodiest battle of all time list), plus stopping the Wehrmacht just outside Moscow, the tide started to turn. The Macross Missile Massacre capable M13 "Katyusha" system, dubbed "Stalin's Organ" by the Germans. 48 missiles landing on your position in a short space of time tends to put a person off very quickly, when it doesn't kill you.

The Soviets liberated Auschwitz and captured Berlin. It invaded Manchuria in the closing days of the Pacific War, occupying half of Korea, which became North Korea and later providing a base for Mao Zedong.

The Great Patriotic War is possibly the single bloodiest conflict in human history with about 10 million military deaths on the Axis side; 10.9 million military and 15,7 million civilian deaths on the Soviet side. That, as well as the utter devastation of much of the European USSR, was a major driving force in Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Belarus, for example, lost a quarter of its entire population in the fighting. If there is one thing to take away from the Great Patriotic War, it is: "Nobody is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten."

More Paranoia - Josef Stalin 1945-53

After the war, a whole bunch of Cossacks (usually estimated as 45,000-50,000), nearly all pro-Nazi, although that still doesn't justify it, were forcibly repatriated to the USSR, where most ended up dead in The Gulag. This process was aided by the British and the Americans. (This fact is the motivation for the villain in Goldeneye.)

The Soviets facilitated their economic recovery and general repair by looting the territories they had occupied; in many cases, much of the industrial stuff that had come into their possession, a real windfall, was put on railroad cars and shipped east. They justified this policy with the argument that they were taking stuff from countries which had supported the Nazis - technically true, but then again the Nazis hadn't exactly given those countries much choice. Anyway, the Soviet policy worked, to some extent. They also got a lot of reparations; some were a little on the strange side. For example, they received some elevators from the Germans, which were used in some Stalinist apartment complexes in Moscow.

A lot of other people were both kicked out of the new borders of Central and Eastern Europe, or were forcibly brought back. This particularly applied to the Soviet POWs and civilians forced to work for the Nazis. During the war, the Nazis put them in the death camps, where they weren't shot on the spot. 57% of Soviet POWs - that's 3.3 million - ended up being killed by the Nazis. Auschwitz II (the one with the infamous railway arch) was first built to exterminate 100,000 Soviet prisoners.

You'd have thought that after they'd been through the hell on earth that was The Holocaust, the USSR would have given these people very good treatment. No, they accused most of them of collaboration and sent about 42% (c.2 million) to The Gulag or to do forced labour.

The German POWs ended up doing forced labour (done by all the Allies), where many also died- the last (sometimes falsely accused) war criminals were not released until 1955.

Stalin proceeded to impose Soviet dominance over Central Europe and play a major part in the start of the Cold War.

At home, the repression continued, as did the Cult of Personality, due to Stalin being perceived as the man who saved Russia. With the (again fabricated) "Doctors' Plot", Jewish doctors were alleged to be trying to poison the Soviet leadership. Things turned purgy, anti-Semitic and ugly.

Before things could turn into another mass party purge (or even a full-blown pogrom against Jews), Stalin died. He appears to have been denied medical help for several hours after he was found unconscious- he may have been allowed to die by the others.

Getting Shoe Slapped - Nikita Khrushchev/Khrushchyov/Kruschev/Krushchev

A collection of people were now running the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was to stop the purges and then purge Beria, who was frankly starting to annoy them. They also sent in the tanks to East Germany.

There was a power struggle and the guy we'll just call "Nikita" ended up in charge. One of the first things he did surprised the world.

It was 25 February 1956. The CPSU was meeting for its 20th Congress in a closed session. The "cult of personality" was being denounced, a veiled reference to Stalin. Then Nikita delivered what is known as "The Secret Speech". Four hours long, Stalin and his crimes were denounced by name. The speech apparently caused heart attacks and even suicides. Leaked to the Western press (possibly deliberately), the whole world got an idea of the extent of the brutality of the Stalinist regime.

Things were somewhat liberalised and in 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched. Shortly after that, Nikita started getting shoe slapped.

Shoe slap 1 - The UN General Assembly

Every year, the United Nations General Assembly has a meeting and all the world leaders make a speech. This was where Hugo Chavez recently compared George W. Bush to Satan. In 1960, Nikita was there and was being pretty disruptive. He interrupted Harold Macmillan twice.

On 12 October, the debate was on a Soviet motion attacking colonialism. Lorenzo Sumulong, the Filipino delegate, accused the USSR of double standards because of its domination of Eastern Europe. Khrushchev interrupted the speech with a point of order and denounced Sumulong as a toady of the United States. Accounts are conflicted regarding the actual use of the shoe. The 'traditional' source is that Khrushchev took off his shoe and banged it on his desk. Another source is that the shoes he was wearing were new and he had taken one off for comfort which he later banged on the table. Another source states his shoe had accidentally been removed when his foot popped out of it and the shoe was returned to him later which is why it was on his desk. Some records indicate he did not bang his shoe on his desk at all, but instead banged his fist on the desk to such an extent someone thought he was using his shoe which was already on the desk, and he may have mimed banging it without actually doing it. At any rate, there is no photograph or video of this incident, eyewitness reports are varied at best, and the fact that there were photographers who were watching the scene seem to indicate he did not actually use the shoe to bang his desk. (If you have seen a photo of Khrushchev holding a shoe, it is a popular fake.)

("We will bury you" was at another time and is somewhat ambiguous, in both languages, since Nikita said it in Russian, as to how and when the capitalists were supposed to die; according to full transcript, he meant that the Soviet Union will simply outlive rotting capitalist states).

Shoe slap 2- Not A Way To Woo Virgin Lands

Seeing a bunch of unused farm land in Kazakhstan, with Borat nowhere in sight, Nikita decided to move a load of ethnic Russians there and develop the land. This was pretty stupid and pretty disastrous, with the science behind it dodgier than a Del Boy product. The removal of the plants led to nothing holding the topsoil down. A dust bowl resulted in much of the area becoming unsuitable to grow anything.

Other agricultural and administrative reforms did very little. On the bright side, Khruschev started a Union-wide housing project, with the aim of providing every family in USSR with an apartment free of charge. He more or less did (to the extent that all the old, shaggy 5-stories apartment buildings are unanimously called "khruschoba", a portmanteau of "Khrushchev" and trushchoba - "Khrushchev's slum"). The administrative reforms in the industrial and agricultural field were full of holes and excess bravado that led to numerous catastrophes, but the industry itself grew enormously.

Let's not forget the other ecological disasters/problems the USSR suffered: ever hear of the Aral Sea? Well, in 1960, by all accounts it was quite lovely and the second-largest big inland sea-thing in the world. The Soviets wanted to turn Central Asia into some kind of cotton nexus (see above) and cotton needs lots of irrigation... anyway, they ended up diverting most of the water flowing into the Aral Sea for irrigation purposes. This didn't even work too well; a lot of these irrigation works were of poor quality. There was a lot of leakage and erosion. Inadequate drainage damaged the soil. The Soviets even knew, to some extent, the fact that they were going to get rid of the Aral Sea, but they thought it was justified... the Aral Sea was "nature's folly" and would evaporate anyway, so they might as well do some of nature's work. This had predictable consequences: dropping water levels, a lot of formerly coastal towns now kilometers away from the water... a real ecological disaster. Like, all of that newly-exposed lake-bed...not much in the way of plants to anchor the soil or anything. So, dust-bowl type problems... that kind of thing.

Preceding Chernobyl, there was the Mayak disaster; an accident at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in 1957. Dreary and nasty, but funny in a sick way, especially the ethnically Tatar village that they didn't evacuate for the purpose of using the residents of the village as human guinea pigs in some sick experiment. This troper has seen pictures of monstrosities in formaldehyde at a clinic, there; well, quite a few such monstrosities, and there's no other way to describe them. Following the disaster, around 1957-58, they used teenage schoolchildren, generally without adequate protection from radiation or inhalation of nasty crap, as liquidators. Quite dramatic and nasty, needless to say.

Or how about Dzerzhinsk? Yes, named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and it still has that name. The one in Russia, of course, not the one in Poland or wherever. It was a center of the Soviet chemical industry and a Closed City, because a lot of chemical-weapons related work was done there. Today, it's one of the most badly-polluted cities in the world and so toxic and nasty, it's funny to read about. And unlike many badly-polluted, toxic places, Dzerzhinsk looks just as nasty as it actually is. Much of the water there is contaminated with millions of times the maximum acceptable levels of various toxins, and there are big pond-type things full of toxic sludge.

Shoe slap 3 - Berlin

When the Berlin Wall was set up, Nikita's reputation in the West wasn't improved as a result.

Shoe slap 4 - Cuba

The history of the Cuban Missile Crisis is located in History of the Cold War (not yet finished), but needless to say that the results were humiliating for Nikita because he was perceived to have got nothing out of it. Ironically, he did get something out of it: The Americans agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey. But part of the agreement was that they wouldn't tell anyone about it.

In 1964, the other Commies had had enough of the guy. Possibly just because he was planning to set fixed limits to the office terms of higher party officials. Nikita ended up being thrown out. In the words of the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities, "If he had given any utterance to his thoughts, and they were prophetic, they would have been these: Before I came around, these things were settled with a bullet in the back of the head. I, and everyone after me will get to spend some time with their families on a nice Dacha."


More Medals Than Results - Leonid Brezhnev

Brezhnev took over. No more of that pancy liberal stuff. No more talk about Stalin, good or bad. The Prague Spring was crushed, the Vietnam War was covertly supported, Afghanistan was invaded and the economy went stagnant. He tried to set up his own cult of personality, awarding himself the Hero of the Soviet Union medal four times. It didn't work at all. The privilege of the upper echelons went silly (flying to Paris - the city in France - for a haircut for his daughter). He became increasingly ill, but no-one plotted against him.

Afghanistan deserves more mention. In order to prop up communist government there against American-supported rebels and a guy who'd couped the previous guy, was making himself unpopular via repression, the Reds with Rockets invaded, put a puppet government in place. Then the whole thing turned into a quagmire and will be discussed in the History of the Cold War.

Under Brezhnev, the "Brezhnev Doctrine" was announced, which essentially said that if a Warsaw Pact state tried to break away, the tanks were going in.

The Soviet economy actually went so wrong that the quite agricultural country of the USSR was forced to import grain. From America. But industry was doing just fine... especially industry of the military kind.

There were a *lot* of hilarious jokes about Leonid Brezhnev. He made a hobby of collecting them; he had several hard labor camps' worth, at least.

Despite all these faults, Brezhnev's time is still kindly remembered by older Russians as the time when life in Russia was not miserable, when it was safe to walk down the streets at night, when everything was cheap, when the free education and medical care was good, when the people were kind and not corrupted by the later crapsackery... and when the fear of State Sec was already (mostly) gone.

Eventually, Brezhnev died and was replaced with...

Secret Policeman's Rule - Yuri Andropov

Andropov had been head of the KGB. The only notable things in his two year rule were the KAL-007 incident, the US deployment of Pershing and Cruise Missiles and inviting an American girl who wrote a letter to him to visit the USSR.

...From the outside. From inside, the country looked in surprise at his hardline sobriety campaign (which led to a surge in moonshining), stringent work ethics revival and other really old-school moves that could be expected from a (seriously) dedicated, order-loving ex-KGB director.

Then he died too.

Welcome to our new... He's dead - Konstantin Chernenko

Ill at the start, he lasted just 13 months and did nothing to calm down the Cold War.

The streak of insta-dead senile leaders (caused by lack of rotation in Politburo) spawned its own set of jokes. No wonder the next Secretary was a refreshing change.

Killing The Patient By Trying To Save It, Or Was He? Mikhail Gorbachev

The dude with the great big birthmark. He was much younger than the rest of the Politburo when he was elected and still remains alive. Realizing the USSR was in deep trouble, he instituted two major policies at home:

Perestroika

"Restructuring". The Soviet economy was liberalised, allowing private (and even foreign) investment and in 1990, you could get a Big Mac in Moscow. However, this caused prices to rocket and the economy to deteriorate (the Russian economy still hasn't fully recovered). The USSR's living standards went even lower. This made people annoyed.

Glasnost

"Openness". Restrictions on freedom of speech were reduced, with Gorby hoping that this would lead to reform of the system. People just wanted more freedom.

The first major test of this policy was Chernobyl. A reactor meltdown caused by an experiment that ignored dozens of safety rules, the initial response was the usual Soviet one - cover it up. Radioactive sheep in Wales meant that policy could not really work.

(Although Chernobyl was in the Ukrainian SSR, the wind blew most of the fallout north into the Byelorussian SSR. Belarus still has a lot of problems as a result)

Abroad, Gorbachev essentially ended the Cold War. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, concluded two arms treaties and then announced the "Sinatra Doctrine" ("I did it my way"), allowing the Warsaw Pact countries to determine their own internal polices. The 1989 Revolutions duly followed.

In the USSR itself, the republics started to break away. When Lithuania did so, rogue elements sent in the tanks.

Tanks for the Communism - the August 1991 coup attempt and the end of the USSR

On 18 August 1991, Gorbachev was in his Dacha, when he was essentially taken prisoner by hardliners, who declared a "state of emergency" and proceeded to shut down anti-communist newspapers. The people of Moscow rose up against this coup and blockaded the White House (the location of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's parliament). Much of the military refused to obey orders, Yeltsin stood on a tank and the coup failed.

With Gorbachev's reputation ruined, the CPSU had its property nationalised and was later closed down. The RSFSR declared that Russia had a new flag and most of the republics declared independence.

It's an interesting question as to whether Gorbachev wanted to save communism - he would later declare he would have preferred it if Red October had not happened. In the end, his attempts to save it brought the system crashing down.

On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation as President. The hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin and the Soviet Union was finished. The Russian Federation had begun.

See Glorious Mother Russia for how fiction often portrays this.

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