Soviet Realism: Looking Back at the USSR

Some solemn historical facts help make sense of the responses of the Russians and their former enemies alike.

By Bruce Dodds | 1988-04-01 12:00:00

The Niemczyk and Landy letters (PEACE, February/ March 1988) offer contrasting views of American diplomacy and the context in which we confront the USSR. Still, this exchange is notable more for the authors' agreements than for their disagreements. Niemczyk and Landy seem to share three assumptions which bear further scrutiny: (1) the USSR is bad; (2) Communism is bad; (3) the problems of the Polish state are the work of the USSR. The world is more complex than these premises imply. What are the implications for the peace movement of anti-Sovietism, anti-communism and ill-considered short-cuts to greater Polish autonomy?


The history of the USSR is neither an unbroken rise to greatness nor the warrant of deceit and failure. The Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 with the slogan "Bread and Peace." Rejecting the First World War as an imperialist struggle, they established an egalitarian state that promoted the interests of ordinary workers and peasants.

The USSR bore the brunt of Nazi expansion in Second World War. Soviet forces liberated half of Europe. A tenth of her citizens perished. We must never forget those terrible sacrifices.

The Soviets also suffered greatly by their own hand, especially in the Stalin period (1925-1953). To refer today to the USSR as a totalitarian state is to fail to honor those who were killed or incarcerated in those years. Nikita Khrushchev (in power from 1956 to 1964) is remembered in the West for the Cuban missile crisis and for removing his footwear at the United Nations. In the Soviet Union, however, he is remembered as a great reformer who let 10,000,000 people out of prison. In the late Brezhnev period (1964-1982), Amnesty International cited some 20,000 political prisoners in the USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev, heir to the Khrushchev mantle of reform, is further erasing the Stalinist legacy. Most Soviet citizens believe that errors in political and moral judgment, not the socialist system, were at the root of the Stalinist tragedy. The Western peace movement must acknowledge this evolution in Soviet society.

The USSR comprises over a hundred nationalities which live together in a remarkably successful, if imperfect, multinational union. Russians predominate and a measure of Russian coerciveness is a fact of life. Even so, we ought to judge more kindly this unique effort to reconcile the diverse peoples of Eastern Europe and northern Asia.

The USSR dominates a number of smaller countries and its central Asian and European periphery. Some attempts to resolve the "elephant and mouse" dilemma-- Finland, Bulgaria and Mongolia -- are interesting successes. In Central Europe and Afghanistan the experience has been traumatic. Only Finland and Czechoslovakia among this band of states have a successful democratic background. Of the Warsaw Pact members, only the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia were industrialized at the close of the Second World War. The others have industrialized on the Soviet model, from which their political and social systems are derived. Tension between Soviet policy and popular sentiment is palpable in parts of Central Europe, dramatic and tragic in Afghanistan. Soviet disputes with these neighbors have historical roots that resist simple prescription. The evolution of Soviet thought is important in resolving these differences. So too are developing bilateral relations between Communist Parties in Central Europe and Afghanistan's transition from kingdom to nation.


Far-reaching changes are altering the Soviet view of itself and other countries. China's continuing development would surely confound Mao's stalwarts of the Long March. While both countries remain Marxist, differences between them and among Communist Parties elsewhere preclude any world communist consensus. Even so, Marxist ideology and indigenous communist activity have played a vital role in reducing colonialism and class exploitation in the Third World. Often these gains have been made at harrowing cost. Communism posits the unity of humankind, through the building of a modern earthly paradise in which all may share equally. Do we wish wholly to oppose the utopian core of this vision?

Communism has altered the correlation of forces in the world. For countries that resist capitalist penetration, this presence affords room for manoeuvre. Indeed, without the power and prestige of the great communist nations there could be no nonaligned movement. Developing countries may reject communist policies but few can ignore communism's check on Western interests. For nations without a functional political past (whether because of foreign domination or irreconciliable ethnic or religious differences), a single political party committed to national unity through egalitarian national and economic policies can be very attractive. Often in such countries, dissent has been ruthlessly suppressed or has led to civil war. To accommodate all groups requires a single political instrument that is the creature of none. Here, properly, democracy means broader discussion of issues within a single party framework, not the creation of contending political movements that rekindle ancient rivalries.

The Marxist critique has challenged the shortcomings of our economic system and made us wrestle with its consequences: concentration of wealth, unemployment, and alienation. Our economic system is out of control. We ought not to despise the most potent factor limiting its sway.


The frontiers of modern Poland were established by France and Britain at German and Russian expense after the First World War. Interwar Polish policy under the semi-fascist government of Marshal Pilsudski sought to balance these great neighbors, avoiding subservience to either.

Polish policy in the thirties was gravely short-sighted in failing to see German intentions. Rather than supporting Czechoslovakian resistance to German claims in 1938, Poland sought to annex part of Czech territory. By 1939, only Franco-British alliance with the USSR offered a hope of balancing German power and preventing war. The Soviets wanted such an alliance. France and Britain were ambivalent about it, but it was Poland's refusal to let the Red Army fight on Polish soil in the event of a German invasion that led the negotiations to collapse.

Convinced of the imminence of a German war by way of Poland, the USSR partitioned Poland with Hitler. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France went to war on Poland's behalf without Soviet assistance. So did Canada. This alliance failed to save the Poles. Indeed, France failed to save herself.

The consequences of Polish miscalculation were grievous and profound. In 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR from staging areas in Poland. By the war's end in 1945 over 6,000,000 Poles, one in four, had been killed. Over 20,000,000 Soviets perished. Almost 90 percent of the Europeans who died in the Second World War were Germans, Poles, or Soviets. It took the USSR almost a year to expel Nazi Germany from Poland at the cost of over a million casualties. Six hundred thousand Soviet soldiers lost their lives in Poland.

Postwar Soviet policy sought a permanent remedy for the problems of Germany and an independent Poland. Pre-war Franco-British resistance to German expansion had been unreliable. In post-war settlement, the USSR avoided foreign dependence, seeking instead a weakened and, after 1949, a divided Germany. To this end large portions of Pomerania and Silesia were given to Poland. Though in large part ethnically Polish, these areas had long been under German control. In turn, the USSR absorbed much of pre-war eastern Poland, where Ukrainians and Byelorussians predominated. The result was a Polish state territorially reconciled with the USSR, but recreated wholly at German expense. Soviet annexation of East Prussia permanently sealed the common anti-German nature of Polish-Soviet security.

By any modern standard, Poland's frontiers are ethnically legitimate. Poland's dilemma is that the secret of its integrity lies in German weakness and Soviet strength. For this the Poles pay a price in Soviet dominance. It could hardly be otherwise. Only an overall European settlement, abolishing the military blocs and guaranteeing all frontiers, can solve the Polish problem. But such a settlement, in the absence of countervailing Soviet and American power, poses the problem of a resurgent, reunified Germany. This is unappealing even to many Germans. Meantime, East German communism and Soviet policy remain the best guarantees of German division.


Canadians are history's favored children. By geography and abundance we have been sheltered from the terrible choices that religious and ethnic differences, backwardness, and war can impose. Our ancestors came here just to avoid these things. But their solution -- emigration -- is no longer open. The USSR and the world-wide development of communism are both responses to these problems in lands where withdrawal is not an option. The collision of interests in Poland illustrates just how intractable these problems can be. Coming to terms with the Soviet Union is the challenge which continues to confront Poland. Coming to terms with Poland is a challenge to the patience and maturity of the Western peace movement. p

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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