Khrushchev’s Attempts at Modernisation Essay Sample

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In March 1953 Stalin died. He had ruled the Soviet Union for twenty-five years. A period of collective leadership followed until 1956 when Nikita Khrushchev appeared as the new Soviet leader. In that year Khrushchev gave his secret speech to the twentieth party conference. In this three hour speech he roundly condemned the terror of Stalin’s regime and the cult of personality which had grown up around him.

Stalin acted not through persuasion, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept was doomed to physical annihilation. Mass arrests and deportations of thousands of people, execution without trial, created conditions of insecurity, fear and even desperation. Stalin was a very distrustful man, sickly and suspicious. Possessing unlimited power he indulged in great wilfulness and choked a person morally and physically.

This speech began a policy of de-Stalinisation in which Stalin’s portraits and statues were taken down and history books were rewritten to show him in a truer light.

Inmates of the gulags were released and cities had their names changed. Thus Stalingrad became Volgogradthe powers of the KGB were greatly reduced. Censorship was also relaxed and Alexander Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish in the Soviet Union, ‘One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ that criticised the gulags. Novy Mir became a popular liberal newspaper making relatively daring comments on life in the Soviet Union. A new criminal code was also introduced that laid down that nobody could be imprisoned without due process of law.

There was also an economic side to deStalinisation too. In the past the government had concentrated too much on heavy industry or the ‘metal eaters’. Stalin’s fifth Five Year Plan was scrapped and Khrushchev embarked upon new industrial priorities such as consumer goods which for years the peoples of the Soviet Union had been starved of. As Khrushchev aptly put it, ‘what kind of communism is it that has no sausage?’

Khrushchev himself typified the differences between the new and the old. When he had eliminated all of his rivals for the leadership, there were no show trials and certainly no executions. Malenkov, Kaganovich and the others were sacked, but then given unimportant jobs to do. One went to be Ambassador to Mongolia, another became manager of a power station.

2000: Why did Khrushchev introduce a policy of de-Stalinisation? (5)

2001: Why did Khrushchev carry out a policy of de-Stalinisation after he became leader of the Soviet Union? (10)

In February 1956 Khrushchev attacked Stalin in the Secret Speech. He denounced Stalin’s methods and accused him of crimes against the Soviet people. The speech came as a great shock, but had been carefully planned.

Khrushchev introduced de-Stalinisation to protect his own position by getting rid of Stalin’s old supporters in the party. In order to secure his own position he thus needed to make a clean break with the past and he therefore removed old Stalinists in order to establish his own power base. Sooner or later the truth about Stalin would come out and Khrushchev did not want to be held responsible

Khrushchev also believed that many of Stalin’s policies, such as the Purges and Collectivisation, had been genuinely unacceptable and that there had to be a break with the Stalinist past. Khrushchev was well aware that the Soviet economy had stagnated under Stalin. He wanted to get rid of the command economy that Stalin had created. He also wanted to reduce Stalinist central planning and replace it with more freedom of expression and local initiative while concentrating more on production of consumer goods.

Khrushchev was also very conscious of the danger of nuclear war with President Eisenhower’s United States and was eager to rid the Soviet Union of its confrontational Stalinist legacy in order to improve relations with the west. Khrushchev adopted the policy of peaceful-coexistence, which meant accepting that the West had right to exist, while at the same time trying to prove that the Soviet system was better. This new policy could not be put into practice as long as Stalinist ideas prevailed.

2000: In what ways did Khrushchev try to improve industrial output in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and early 1960’s? (6)

2001: In what ways did Khrushchev try to modernise Soviet agriculture and industry in the years to 1964? (15)

Khrushchev’s aim was to achieve ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the west. At the same time he wanted to show that the communist way of life was superior to that of western capitalism but this would be achieved by the superiority of communist achievement. But Stalin’s command economy strangled initiative because everything was planned by Moscow. If Khrushchev was to achieve his goal, the command economy had to go.

In 1957 Khrushchev closed down most of the large planning ministries in Moscow and set up 150 regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy). These would run industry in their own area. This, it was hoped, would ensure greater commitment on the part of workers and managers. You would have a greater say over what you now did and this would increase your pride in your work and so production levels would be increased. In short Khrushchev was trying to modernise industry by trying to encourage local and regional managers to take decisions themselves and not just expect to be told what to do.

Early on Khrushchev had also hoped to improve faith in the economy by promising greater emphasis on consumer goods rather than by concentrating too much on heavy industry or as Khrushchev called them the metal eaters. Stalin’s Fifth Five Year Plan was scrapped and greater emphasis put on the production of food, clothing and household goods. However Khrushchev was worried by the lack of progress in the economy and the Sixth Five Year Plan (1956 – 1960) once again emphasised reaching targets in heavy industry. The Seventh Five Year Plan which was launched in 1959 tried to boost crucial secondary industries such as chemicals, fertilisers, and plastics which would be indispensable to making a success of the Virgin Lands scheme and the new industries.

In agriculture Khrushchev introduced the Virgin Lands scheme. This led to the cultivation of lands in previously uncultivated parts of the Soviet Union such as Siberia and Kazakhstan. Collective farms would also be amalgamated into gigantic farm cities which would be economically more efficient and would provide the peasants with new ‘urban amenities’ such as shops and cinemas that they would not be tempted to seek work in the cities. Agricultural productivity would also be encouraged by the government writing off debts, encouraging loans, allowing the sale of tractors and other such high cost machinery to peasants and even allowing peasants to sell a portion of their crops for their own profit.

Both policies were aimed at improving efficiency and modernising the economy by removing the Stalinist emphasis on central planning and encouraging both peasants and managers to do things on their own initiative and not expect to be always waiting around for orders. Such a new more enterprising culture, it was hoped, would dramatically boost the Soviet Union’s agricultural and industrial production levels.

1998: What were the effects of Khrushchev’s policies on Soviet agriculture and industry in the 1950’s and 1960’s? (11)

2000: What were the effects of Khrushchev’s policies on Soviet agriculture in the 1950’s and early 1960’s? (5)

The Soviet Union had always had a shortage of wheat and consequently had suffered from sever famines. Khrushchev wanted to end the shortages once and for all and make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in food. Khrushchev saw himself as something of an agricultural expert and imposed his ideas despite many objections.

Khrushchev’s main method of increasing agricultural production was to open up new Virgin Lands in remote regions which had never been farmed before. Millions of acres of uncultivated land, particularly in Siberia and Kazakhstan, were to be given over to the plough. Indeed the total amount of new land given over to cultivation was equal to all the cultivated land in Britain, France and Spain combined!

The collective farms were also amalgamated into gigantic farm cities so that peasants could enjoy some of the amenities of urban life. Peasants were encouraged to buy their tractors from the motor tractor stations giving them a greater sense of proprietorship in what they were doing. From 1958 onwards peasants were allowed to sell on private markets all the food they had produced on their private lots as a further attempt to improve their work ethic. End of year bonuses were also available to the most efficient peasant rather than the traditional share out of the profits of the collective farm. This, it was hoped, would also help to increase levels of productivity. This policy failed. After twenty-five years of being told what to do under Stalin, farmers were unable to use their initiative.

The first few years of Khrushchev’s agricultural policies were very successful. From 1953-1958 agricultural production increased by 50%. Even so, much produce was lost because it was impossible to transport it from the remote Virgin Lands to European Russia. More seriously, the topsoil of the Virgin Lands was soon eroded by over intensive farming and the dreadful drought of 1963 and a gigantic dust bowl was left behind.

Khrushchev also personally backed the introduction of maize. It was planted in many areas of the Soviet Union, but was unsuited to the climate. Khrushchev had been warned about this but had ignored experts because he claimed that he knew better. Such was the failure of his agricultural reforms that in 1963 and 1964 the Soviet Union was forced to import grain from the United States. It seems as though six million hectares of land were lost completely, with grain production in 1964 20% less than in 1962.

Khrushchev main failing was that his reforms only went halfway. He wanted to remove the command economy, but was not ready to replace with a system in which farmers had real incentive to work hard and make a profit.

1999: Why did Khrushchev’s agricultural and industrial policies have so little success? (15)

Khrushchev was well aware of the failings of Soviet industry and agriculture when he became leader. He also had very firm ideas about how the problems could be put right. Unfortunately for him, he was frequently not ready to listen to advice from experts, especially in agriculture, and he was also not prepared to allow the creation of a genuinely free market in the Soviet Union.

A significant reason why Khrushchev did not achieve more was that he was not a planner. Instead he was a man who imperfectly thought out bright ideas! His Virgin Lands scheme was not well thought through. Too often crops were planted on lands with an unsuitable soil or a harsh climate leading to disastrous crop failures.

Another very significant problem was that not enough attention was paid to providing the necessary pesticides and fertilisers necessary if these new lands were to be successfully brought over to cultivation.

Khrushchev’s industrial policies fared fairly well especially in terms of consumer goods. The following statistics highlight the relative success of his policies. In 1955 per thousand households there were 66 radios, but by 1966 there were 171. In 1955 there was only one washing machine per thousand households, but by 1966 it was 77. Numbers of televisions rose from 4 to 82 and sewing machines from 31 to 151 per thousand households. Nevertheless, Khrushchev’s industrial reforms fell well below the level that he had promised.

The creation of the sovnarkhozy did not work because local managers were not used to using their initiative. In the end all that Khrushchev did was to create one more layer of bureaucracy, when he was really trying to remove central control altogether.

Old guard Stalinists who resented Khrushchev’s denunciation of their old leader went out of their way to sabotage his reforms. At the same time Khrushchev was unwilling to use force against the workers and his enemies in government. Naturally this meant that production levels failed to rise as spectacularly as Khrushchev had wished and certainly failed to outstrip the West as he had promised to do.

Khrushchev main failing was that his reforms only went halfway. He wanted to remove the command economy, but was not ready to replace with a system in which farmers and workers had real incentives to work hard and make a profit. After twenty-five years of central planning by Moscow, local areas needed real incentives to use their initiative.

Khrushchev: an assessment

Under Khrushchev there certainly was a relaxation of government repression following the frighteningly arbitrary ruthlessness of Stalin’s dictatorship. The inmates of the gulags were released and censorship was relaxed. Thus Alexander Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish his ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ which gave a harrowing insight into life in the gulags. However the relaxation was not total. Boris Pasternak, for example, was not allowed to publish ‘Dr Zhivago’ in the Soviet Union because he criticised the Revolution itself.

Under Khrushchev after some initial freedom the church suffered from government repression. Monasteries were closed and only 7500 churches were licensed to remain open. This was because religion provided an alternative source of loyalty to communism which Khrushchev was unwilling to allow. Those who set up their own house churches were often arrested.

In terms of working and living conditions Khrushchev did improve the lives of Soviet citizens. He relaxed Stalin’s persecution of Soviet minorities allowing them to speak their own languages so long as they learned fluent Russian at school. Pensions and other social benefits were improved and large scale building works were undertaken such as new blocks of flats and new and spectacular public buildings such as the Lenin stadium, at that time the largest sports stadium in the world! More schools were built and the numbers attending university tripled. It was the Soviets who put the first satellite in space in 1956 (Sputnik) and the first man in space in 1961 (Yuri Gagarin).

But Khrushchev had certainly failed to solve the Soviet Union’s shortage of grain and having to import American grain in 1963 and 1964 was a terrible admission of defeat. His attempts to improve industrial productivity also failed to come even close to outstripping the west, while many hard-line communists resented his criticisms of Stalin and blamed his leniency for provoking the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. They also criticised him for ‘backing down’ to Kennedy in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus in October 1964 he was called back from holiday to be told that the central committee had sacked him. Pravda soon after commented on his rule, ‘harebrained scheming, hasty conclusions, rash decisions based on wishful thinking, boasting and empty words . . . All these are defects alien to the party’.

1964 – 1985: The old guard takes charge

You will not be directly examined on these years in the exam however it is important that you appreciate that these years saw the triumph of old style and rather unimaginative communism.

Khrushchev was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev (1964 – 1982) who had no interest in reform. There was no return to Stalinist terror but there was a renewed censorship of literature (Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union ) and national minorities were once again forced to abandon their ancient traditions and learn Russian language and culture.

When Brezhnev (who had been ailing for some years) died in 1982 he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov. However in 1984 Andropov died and was succeeded by the desperately ill Konstantin Chernenko who was dead by 1985.

5: The decline and fall of the communist state: the role of Gorbachev

1999: Why were many Soviet citizens dissatisfied with Soviet government policies in the early 1980’s? (5)

2001: Why did President Gorbachev face many problems when he became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985? (10)

The Soviet people felt by the early 1980’s that standards of living in the Soviet Union were unsatisfactory. The situation was made worse when in 1979 Brezhnev had ordered the invasion of Afghanistan embroiling the Soviet Union in an ongoing bloody war with the afghan guerrillas (the Mujahideen ). Soviet military losses were immense and deeply unpopular with the Soviet people who were now seeing their country pulled into its own Vietnam!

Soviet repression and censorship was also increasingly unpopular. After the relative freedom of the Khrushchev years under Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko censorship increased and the number of dissidents (such as Andrei Sakharov) being persecuted for their beliefs remained high.

The Soviet Union was also falling behind in the nuclear arms race with the United States. Quite simply the Soviet economy was not strong enough to keep up with Reagan’s massive acceleration of the arms race, especially as the Soviet Union was way behind in computer technology.

The Soviet economy was also suffering. There were high levels of corruption, while in order to keep pace with the acceleration of the arms race by Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s (especially the Star Wars programme) the government spent even more money on defence than consumer products. Soviet life in the 1980’s was therefore becoming ever drabber and if you wanted anything it made most sense to try to get it on the thriving black market. As one American visitor to the Soviet Union discovered in 1976.

Russian friends tipped me off that it was not money that really mattered, but access or blat. Almost everyone can give the benefits of blat to someone else – a doorman, a cleaning lady in a food store, a sales clerk, a car mechanic or a professor – because each has access to things or services that are hard to get’.

The Soviet economy was therefore extremely weak. There was almost no investment, exports were down and it was by no means certain how much longer the peoples of the Soviet Union would accept such a dreary lifestyle. 40% of factories were running at a loss and 30% of the state budget went on subsidies to keep down prices.

Overall then Gorbachev faced many problems when he became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. The economy was stagnating, the Americans were pulling ahead dramatically in the arms race and his three immediate predecessors (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko) had been too frail to do anything to revive Soviet prestige. President Reagan had not yet met with a Soviet leader making the tensions of the cold war even worse, while there was growing discontent with the drabness of Soviet life and a yearning for western goods from Levis to fast food and an increasing desire for freedom of speech. The war in Afghanistan was also proving a disaster and something would have to be done to stop this as well. Gorbachev’s priorities were thus to try to regain the confidence of the Soviet people, pull out of Afghanistan and, most importantly, get a deal with the Americans so that he could divert some of the money being used to compete with the Americans into rebuilding the Soviet economy.

1999: Why did Gorbachev introduce the policy of ‘Glasnost’? (4)

Gorbachev introduced Glasnost (openness) in order to encourage Soviet citizens to discuss the problems and challenges facing the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. At one level he hoped this would make his government more popular since people were desperate for a relaxation in censorship but more importantly Glasnost would encourage people to see just how much the system really did need reforming. Glasnost would also ensure that people became more involved in the running of their country and hence more committed to seeing it succeed. In short, once there was Glasnost there would be an immediate demand for Perestroika.

1998: Why did President Gorbachev introduce Perestroika after 1985? (6)

When Gorbachev became general secretary of the communist party in 1985 it was clear that something would have to be done to reform the Soviet economic system. Too much state planning and the obvious falsifying of official statistics of production had led to stagnation and a lack of initiative amongst workers and managers. Perestroika would allow an element of competition into the work place and it was hoped that this would stimulate recovery and so lead to an improvement in the living and working conditions of the Soviet people.

Gorbachev also needed to reinvigorate the Soviet economy if it was to have any chance of competing with Ronald Reagan’s United States of America. After all Reagan had decided to escalate the arms race and if Gorbachev failed to improve the economy it was clear that the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War!

1998: Describe the key features of Glasnost (8)

2000: Describe the key features of Glasnost and Perestroika (10)

Glasnost basically means openness. This meant that Gorbachev allowed more freedom of expression in the Soviet Union. Newspapers were given more freedom to print what they wanted, while the practise of locking dissidents away in mental hospitals or sending them into internal exile was stopped. Andrei Sakharov, for example, was released from internal exile and allowed to return to normal life. Protest meetings were also allowed, while eventually in 1989 elections to a new congress of peoples’ deputies were allowed in which candidates other than those from the communist party could stand! Western politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, were even interviewed on Soviet Russian television!

1999: Describe the key features of ‘Perestroika’ (5)

Perestroika (restructuring) was an attempt to reform the slow moving and cumbersome Soviet economy before it collapsed. It encouraged a measure of free enterprise and small private firms were allowed to compete with those run by the state. Gorbachev hoped that such competition would encourage an increase in efficiency and productivity throughout the economy and so reinvigorate Soviet society. It was a clear reaction against the centralised planning of the Stalin years. As Gorbachev himself put it,

Perestroika is the development of democracy, socialist self-government, encouragement of initiative and creative endeavour, improved order and discipline, more criticism and self criticism.

2001: What were the successes and failures within the Soviet Union of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ under President Gorbachev? (15)

When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985 the country was bankrupt. Gorbachev soon realised that he had to act very quickly and with the support of the West. Glasnost and Perestroika were intended to save the Soviet Union and communism by convincing the West that the Soviet Union was capable of change. They were also intended to provide the Soviet people with the incentive to work and save their country.

The reforms that Gorbachev introduced, in particular Glasnost and Perestroika, did not have the effect that Gorbachev had wanted! For one thing, Gorbachev himself had little idea of any overall plan. He only discovered the real state of the Soviet economy when he became leader. His only real principle was that he had to work as quickly as possible.

Glasnost certainly did allow people a greater freedom to discuss the problems of the system. However as a result of this Soviet citizens tended to complain ever more loudly about the system rather than, as it had been hoped, knuckling down and trying to reform the system themselves!

At the same time Perestroika did encourage the introduction of competition in industry, however the reforms proceeded very slowly and certainly not quickly enough to pacify the Soviet people who wanted change fast. The economy was also harmed by the Armenian earthquake and the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl which led to vast amounts of money having to be used in clean up operations rather than being used to get the economy going again.

Quite simply Perestroika and Glasnost had raised the expectations of the Soviet people, but these expectations were not being realised. A Macdonalds might be opened in Moscow and US pop CDs might for the first time be available to Soviet citizens, but such new consumer goods were not available in large enough numbers to satisfy public demand and discontent accordingly rose.

However as well as not going far enough for some Soviet citizens, others felt these reforms were much too radical. Glasnost had led to grumbling, youth protest and the questioning of authority, while Gorbachev’s free market reforms had not done anything to reinvigorate the economy. His foreign policy had also allowed the old satellite countries, like Poland and Hungary, to get their independence and by 1990 the old Soviet empire had crumbled into almost nothing. Soon after the constituent parts of the Soviet Union such as Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine were allowed their own measure of self-government. Some old military and KGB figures saw Gorbachev’s policies as the root of all the Soviet Union’s problems and in August 1991 tried to overthrow him in a coup. He had introduced dangerous new reforms which had led to the destruction of the old Soviet empire and would have to be stopped! Clearly Gorbachev’s reforms had annoyed everybody. For some Gorbachev had gone too far, for others he had not gone far enough!

However Glasnost and Perestroika did have some successes. They made Soviet citizens less willing to accept centralised planning and government censorship and it was these qualities that made it so difficult for the august 1991 plotters to succeed. In short five years of Gorbachev’s reforms had made Soviet citizens much less likely to accept repression and so they rose up in support of Boris Yeltsin, the plotters failed and on December 31st 1991 the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Perhaps this was the lasting achievement of Glasnost and Perestroika?

1998: Why did the Soviet Union collapse in 1991? (11)

1999: Explain why the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 (8)

2000: Why did Gorbachev resign as leader of the USSR in 1991? (15)

Gorbachev came to power in 1985 determined to save the bankrupt Soviet Union and communism. He realised that that would only be possible if he made sweeping changes and won support from the West. He, therefore, promised reforms, in the hope of winning over the Soviet people and almost immediately began arms limitation talks in the hope of gaining financial aid from the West.

Gorbachev promised a very great deal and yet his reforms did not deliver as much as he had promised. In fact there was very little improvement in the economy or in the living conditions of ordinary Soviet citizens. There was still a shortage of basic commodities like soap and toothpaste made worse by the fact that factory owners, free to produce what they wanted, neglected low profit products. The economy was also not helped by a slump in oil prices and the devastating impact of Chernobyl and the Armenian earthquake. The fact that Soviet military spending was too high (even after the arms control agreements with President Reagan) also helped to discredit Gorbachev.

Glasnost was also to prove Gorbachev’s undoing. He had hoped that it would encourage freedom of expression and that this would then rally support around his government. Instead it led to grumbling about Gorbachev himself and demands for yet further reform especially the ending of one party rule by the communist party.

In 1988 Gorbachev made clear that he would not stand by the Brezhnev Doctrine. This had laid down that Soviet troops had the right to intervene in any eastern bloc country in order to restore order. As Gorbachev informed the United Nations in December 1988, ‘the use or threat of force can no longer and must no longer be an instrument of Soviet foreign policy’.

As a result of this the people of eastern Europe began to overthrow their communist governments. First there was Hungary and then Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. However it was not only the countries of the eastern bloc that wanted independence. The Soviet Union was made of fifteen different states of which Russia was only the greatest, and in 1990 they began to up their demands for independence. Russification had long been hated and they now saw the opportunity to also win their independence in much the same way as the satellite states of eastern Europe were able to do!

As part of his reform strategy Gorbachev had allowed the constituent parts of the Soviet Union a measure of self government and so now they demanded he allow them total independence. The first to demand that Soviet troops withdraw were Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia (the Baltic states), while elsewhere in the Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia calls for independence reached a peak. Even Russia, under its new president, Boris Yeltsin, urged the dismantling of the Soviet Union and independence for its constituent parts.

Gorbachev was now faced with opposition from all sides. Communist hard-liners believed that he had been responsible for the breakdown of the Soviet empire, while radicals blamed him for not granting full independence to the constituent parts of the Soviet Union. Indeed they pointed out that 14 people had been killed when Gorbachev had ordered Soviet troops to attack the television tower in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

The trigger for the collapse of the Soviet Union was the August 1991 coup. In August 1991 hard-line communists seized control of Gorbachev, whilst he was holidaying at his country dacha. They immediately announced that they would restore order and halt Gorbachev’s reforms. However the new Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, was having none of this and utterly condemned the coup. Standing on a tank he called on the Soviet military to mutiny and for the workers to overthrow the coup. His brave stance worked and the coup collapsed. Gorbachev was reinstated but he had clearly been upstaged by Yeltsin.

In the following months the fifteen member states of the Soviet Union all declared their independence and in December 1991 Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the communist party. In its place the commonwealth of independent states, with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia by far the biggest and most influential nation. The nationalities had won!

The Soviet Union collapsed because Gorbachev failed to keep his promises of reform and in the end did not receive any financial aid from the West. All of his policies angered some element of soviet society and none pleased everyone. His attempts to preserve the Soviet Union and the Communist Party proved to be his downfall.

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