The Soviet Union was one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century but given the significant timescale of its existence and subsequent collapse, many details have faded from public memory. Moreover, terms like dictatorship are often used casually in political debate without full appreciation of what real tyranny actually looks like. This is why it is important to analyse the specifics of why the USSR is considered one of the darkest periods in human history.
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While Soviet socialism (typically referred to as communism) was viewed as scientific by its followers, science was unquestionably subject to ideology.
Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet scientist who backed an alternative theory to genetics which would become known as Lysenkoism. He was hostile to the idea of genetics which highlighted unchanging traits. This was at odds with his Marxist beliefs, which stated that with the right conditioning, society and ultimately humanity could be perfected.
The Soviet government eagerly embraced Lysenko’s ideas and his theory was installed as the only acceptable viewpoint within agricultural science. Any scientists who challenged this were removed from their positions and publicly smeared. Many were imprisoned and executed. Not only was science handicapped in the Soviet Union for decades, these bogus theories worsened the famines of the 1930s.
Political dissidents were imprisoned for years in mental asylums and forcibly given mind altering drugs for challenging Marxist doctrine. It was claimed that anyone who lived in a socialist system but was still opposed to socialism had to be insane.
The Soviet authorities even invented a new psychiatric term; ‘sluggish schizophrenia’. Its symptoms included obsessing over philosophy or religion, having ‘delusions of reform’ and having inflated self-esteem. But of course, the disorder was completely made up and deliberately vague so it could be attached to dissidents when useful.
What made this method particularly effective was that once someone’s sanity was called into question, they were not subject to the same due process compared with a criminal case. This gave the State even more power than it normally had as it wasn’t required to inform the accused of basic details of their case. Approximately 20 thousand people were institutionalized under such claims but the total is believed to be significantly higher.
Lavrentiy Beria was a Soviet politician and state security administrator under Stalin. He began his career as the chief of police in Georgia and eventually became the head of the secret police, overseer of the Gulag prison system and Central Committee member. Stalin warmly referred to him as “my Himmler”.
Aside from being responsible for the murder, torture and false imprisonment of millions of peoples, he was also a well-known sexual deviant. During his freetime he would prowl the streets of Moscow and identify young women for his henchmen to kidnap and transport to his private accommodation where he would sexually assault them. After his death Beria’s villa was turned into an embassy and during refurbishments the bones of dozens of young women and teenage girls were discovered buried on the property.
Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore notes that Beria’s depravity was well known amongst the Soviet leadership. While Stalin tolerated Beria due to his reliability, in one instance, when Stalin heard his daughter was at Beria’s house, he frantically called her and ordered her to leave immediately.
The labour camp system was originally created by Lenin but was at its worse under Stalin. These camps, which would become known as the Gulag, were used to imprison those accused of political crimes. The conditions in the camps were appalling. Abuse and mistreatment were commonplace, and it’s estimated up to 2 million people died within them.
These camps operated as a tool of political terror and also facilitated what was essentially slave labour. The Soviet authorities saw the Gulag as a way of helping the economy and believed it could produce a significant amount of income.
Gulag prisoners were frequently put to work in mines, forests, oil fields and large construction projects. Huge amounts of the resources were produced from the forced labour, creating an entire industry in itself. At Kolyma, a region in the far east of Russia, there were 80 Gulag facilities, all dedicated to mining its significant gold deposits.
However, the Gulag turned out to be an ineffective economic model because unsurprisingly slaves don’t make good workers. The labour camps ultimately became a massive drain on State finances.
Several famines occurred within the USSR as a result of farm collectivisation. This was largely due to the fact that this policy simply does not work, but what is also true is the Soviet authorities knew that access to food could be used to control the population.
This strategy was used in one of the most infamous man-made famines of the 20th century, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor. What was particularly cruel about this famine was that it wasn’t solely caused by incompetence, bad policy or denial. Rather it was deliberately manufactured and worsened by Stalin as a means of wiping out the Kulaks, peasant farmers who were economically more successful than the rest of the population and thus, class enemies.
Historians have also speculated that the famine was targeted at Ukraine in order to weaken its national identity. Ukrainian nationalists had put up fierce resistance to Bolshevik rule during the Russian civil war and Stalin was not willing to risk the region rising up. After seizing crops and livestock, Soviet forces closed off the borders and arrested- or just shot- anyone that tried to flee. It’s estimated that four million Ukrainians died as result of this famine but the true figure will never be known as there was a coordinated effort to cover up the death toll.
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While it is true that Nazism and Communism were bitter enemies, the two ideologies saw they had more in common with each other than their non-authoritarian rivals. After all, both are, fundamentally socialist systems.
Their uneasy but mutually beneficial association peaked in August 1939 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Officially, this was a neutrality pact but in reality it was also an agreement on which areas of Eastern Europe the two regimes would take over. Poland was the main target of this deal, and within two weeks of each other, the two powers occupied the nation in September 1939. As the Nazis rounded up Jews in their half of the country, the Soviets systematically murdered Polish intellectuals and military officers in their sector.
Even years prior to this agreement, the secret police of both regimes, the Gestapo and NKVD, had been cooperating by exchanging political dissidents who had fled their respective countries. More bizarrely, the NKVD handed over numerous German communists to their Nazi counterparts. Many of those who were traded between the two agencies would meet their end in either the Gulag or SS concentration camps.
When the atrocities of the Soviet Union are discussed, much of the focus is put on Stalin. However this means the crimes of other earlier revolutionary figures are overlooked, in particular with the USSR’s founder, Vladimir Lenin.
Lenin strongly believed that there could be no peaceful transition from capitalism to communism. The wealthy elites could only be removed from power by force, not to mention they had to be punished for their crime of exploiting the people. Even after the Bolsheviks had achieved control of the government violence and specifically terror were used to control the population and eliminate any perceived threat to its power.
Hundreds of thousands, potentially millions of people, were executed and imprisoned during the ‘Red Terror’, a campaign of violence against those labelled as class enemies. Additionally, during the early years of the Bolshevik government, numerous uprisings were brutally put down.
All of this was organised and endorsed by Lenin. It was under his leadership that the secret police, initially called the Cheka, and the Gulag were established. Moreover, he explicitly stated that the goal was to terrify the population into submission.
The KGB was the institutional successor of the Cheka and NKVD, operating from 1954 to 1991 and was responsible for state security. Abroad, its primary goals were to foster political unrest and promote Marxist ideology.
One of the KGB’s most well-known activities was planting false stories in Western media and spreading conspiracy theories with the intent of destroying trust in institutions and inciting conflict. Today this is widely known as ‘fake news’ but its origin can be traced back to the Communist intelligence agency who referred to it as ‘disinformation’.
One of the most famous cases of a successful disinformation campaign was in 1984 when the US media covered the supposed scandal of the AIDs virus being created by the American government. This was in fact a lie that had been carefully crafted and strategically inserted into foreign news sources by Soviet intelligence until it reached Western journalists.
Within Russia, while the KGB was officially disbanded, its influence and tactics can still be observed today and have undoubtedly been boosted by the emergence of the internet.
Historian Stephen Kotkin describes the Great Terror as “an episode that seems to defy rational explanation.” Between 1936 to 1938 Stalin carried out a sweeping political purge of his administrative, military and diplomatic ranks. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and in many cases summarily executed based on imaginary political offences.
Again, there was no rational reason to inflict this chaos on the country. Historians have been baffled for decades over Stalin’s actions in this period as his position as leader was arguably stronger than it had ever been and there were no obvious internal threats to the Soviet Union. While several theories have been put forward, Kotkin suggests that the most creditable explanation is that Stalin wanted to psychologically destroy his inner circle so they would never try to undermine him. Alongside this twisted motivation was Stalin’s paranoia towards the influence of his exiled rival, Leon Trotsky, especially after Trotsky published books severely criticizing Stalin.
Not only was the Terror completely unnecessary, it was also damaging to the regime. With many of the Red Army’s most experienced and competent officers purged during the Terror, Soviet forces were severely weakened in their ability to fight back when the Nazis invaded in 1941. This resulted in extraordinarily high casualties for the Soviets.
Soviet anti-Semitism was inherited to a large degree from the Tsarist era, and arguably communist anti-Semitism can be traced back to Karl Marx himself, who firmly associated Judaism with greed and exploitation.
Bigotry towards Jews was also closely tied to the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign. It even had an official organisation called the Anti-Zionist Committee of The Soviet Public which explicitly stated that Zionists had been collaborators with the Nazis, enabled the genocides in Eastern Europe and had deliberately exaggerated Jewish victimhood during the war.
Though publicly the government claimed to make a distinction between Zionism and Jews, in reality there was institutional discrimination. Jews were prevented from holding certain jobs and were often scapegoated in political witch-hunts. Additionally, as part of the Soviet’s anti-religion campaign, the Jewish faith was subject to, alongside other religious faiths, State oppression in various forms.
Following the Six Day War in 1967, any Jewish-Soviet citizens who applied to immigrate to Israel were denied permission and considered enemies of the people. These individuals, the ‘Refuseniks’, faced severe social and legal consequences, with many being imprisoned for years.
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About The Author: Sam is a freelance writer living in London. His interests include history, science and MMA. You’ll likely find him at the gym or at a cafe reading a book.