The USSR in 1945 – A Book Review

by Ellen Isaacs

June 3, 2021

Edgar Snow, widely known for his portrayal of the Chinese Communist Revolution, Red Star Over China, also chronicled conditions in the Soviet Union in late 1944 to early 1945.  Although not a communist, Snow looked at the struggles to create a communist society with an honest and appreciative eye. In The Pattern of Soviet Power completed in April, 1945, Snow described conditions in the USSR and policies and plans of the Communist Party.

Snow marveled, as must we all, at the huge sacrifice of 30 million lives that the USSR made to insure the defeat of Nazism. Additionally, much Soviet industry and materiel was destroyed or stolen by the Germans and would require years to rebuild. As Hitler advanced, Stalin promoted a policy of destroying factories and machinery, including that used in agriculture, if it could not be moved out of the way of advancing Nazis. It was the widespread dedication to Marxism and collectivity that made these massive sacrifices possible. After the Nazi defeat, bountiful harvests were reaped in Ukraine by women and children as towns and villages lay in ruins. Millions of unskilled workers were trained to run machines and factories that were rebuilt in the East to enable production for war and other industries to continue (p73).

Snow also describes the political thinking and expectations of Stalin and other leaders at this time. The primary aim of the USSR was to defeat Nazism and preserve peace in the future in order to rebuild. Although great leaps had been made since the 1930s in the production of heavy equipment for war, industry, and agricultural, there had also been great help from Western aid, especially from the US. As well as weapons of war, the US had provided food, engineers and bought products such as furs. Stalin hoped that Western assistance would continue after the war and thus it was decided not to antagonize the Allies. In the hope of maintaining peace, there would not be an effort to foment revolution in Europe or overtly build communism in Eastern Europe (p24).

            From 1933 on, under the guidance of the USSR, European communists had generally abandoned their earlier slogans of proletarian revolution. Instead they sought to unite with liberals and democrats everywhere, first to form popular-front and later united-front governments (p71).  Even in Eastern Europe, the chain of nations along Russia’s western border, to which Snow accompanied the victorious Red Army, there was no attempt to impose communism. In fact, neither that word nor Marxism-Leninism was ever mentioned. In the nations of Eastern Europe that were liberated – Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary – deNazification was completed, racism was banned, large estates were liquidated, taxes decreased, and unions were reinstated. Large liberated factories were be run by the state and managed by workers, while small ones were to remain in private hands. However, political parties and property laws remained intact. It was assumed that a gradual transition to socialism would occur as the influence of the Soviet Union increased. Snow quotes a communist official who told him, ”Russia above all wants stability in this part of the world and where the Red Army goes there will be no revolution”(p59).

Russia did act in a more political way than West with regard to prisoners of war. The 1.5 million interred Germans were used to rebuild the devastated USSR, but were also taught about the crimes of Nazism and about cooperation with the Soviet Union, rather than about communism per se. It was hoped that when they returned to Germany they would be a bulwark against fascism (p91-6).

The USSR expected to go to war with Japan after the defeat of the Nazis as an ally of the US and Britain and hoped to regain territory which had been lost to Japan in the early 1900s (p109). The Soviets and the US both wanted a strong China as a bulwark against Japan, which had occupied China since 1937, although the US hoped for victory of the nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. The Soviets supported the Communists, who were clearly the stronger party by 1944.

During WWII there was also a decrease in communist education within the Soviet Union. Many of the customs and practices associated with Russian nationalism, formerly denigrated as petit bourgeois, were revived in order to increase patriotic zeal. The church was given increased freedom and privileges and a sterner moral tone prevailed. Divorce was made more difficult, individual parental responsibility stressed, and dignity and manners were emphasized (p182), although Marxism and atheism were still taught in school.

Snow spends sometime discussing Stalin himself. He notes that Stalin was elected by party and government bodies and listened carefully to the opinions of the eight-member Politburo. He was well read on many topics, listened carefully to the opinions of experts in many areas, and usually took their advice. Although many Party leaders thought that the hero worship of Stalin was useful, Stalin’s own description of himself was, “The task to which I have devoted my life is to elevate the working class…to strengthen a socialist state….” (p149). Despite the fact that there was only one political party, there was room for criticism and change. Local organizations were free to voice criticisms and give advice, the press was also free to comment, and commissions were established to express critical opinions (p204).

Lessons to Be Learned

This book is very enlightening in many ways. Perhaps most importantly it illustrates many of the ideas and practices that we can now see in hindsight led back to capitalism instead of forward to a communist society. The Soviet idea that communism was a distant goal that would be attained after a period of socialism, a mixture of capitalist and communist practices, has clearly been shown to be incorrect. The retention of privileges based on expertise and some degree of private property has only led back to a fully capitalist system. Not only did the Soviet Union itself not progress far on the road to communism after World War II, but the neighboring nations it hoped to influence by example of course did not either. The practice of uniting with the more “progressive” or liberal capitalists in order to create a more just society that would lead towards socialism has never happened. The concept that nationalism is a progressive idea as long as the enemy is imperialism has led to many national liberation struggles that have only replaced colonial bourgeoisies with local ones. Such consequences were not obvious at the time, but it is from them that we must learn how better to achieve an egalitarian and collective society in the future.

It is interesting that his book was published a few months before atomic bombs were dropped on Japan by the US. Clearly the US had no intention of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, whose policies were aimed towards that goal. The communists understood less well than the capitalists that the struggle for communism, the ultimate overthrow of their ruling class, was a life and death conflict. What we can see more clearly now is that the cooperation with liberals did not halt the progression of fascism and that the hesitation to build communism from the dawn of revolution only led to its destruction. Let us not make these errors again.

One thought on “The USSR in 1945 – A Book Review”

  1. While Soviet intentions relative to the war against Japan is not the main point of this post, it might be interesting for readers to expand on your note that, “The USSR expected to go to war with Japan after the defeat of the Nazis…”

    The Soviets’ entry into that war had a huge political impact on when the U.S. dropped the A-Bomb on Japan. On May, 8, 1945, Stalin told Truman at the Yalta Conference that the Red Army would enter the war against Japan within three months. Sure enough, on Aug. 8, millions of Red Army troops swept into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and were preparing the invasion of the Japanese homeland islands of Sakhalin and Kuril. So two days earlier, on Aug. 6, the U.S. rushed to drop the A-Bomb on Hiroshima, which Truman’s Secy. of State James Byrnes said “quite plainly [was] used primarily to prevent the Soviets from sharing in the occupation of Japan.” (L.A. Times, 8/5/05) Truman’s Secy. of War Stimson referred to it as a “master card,” Byrnes saying, “The atomic bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war,” (Truman: Year of Decision”)
    Added Byrnes, “demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.” (Szilard: “A Personal History of the Atomic Bomb”)

    Interestingly, U.S. ruling circles may very well have been aiming construction of the atomic bomb not at the Axis powers but at the Soviet Union, for General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb later testified, “There was never any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was conducted on that basis.”

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