Over the previous two centuries, we have seen the rise of three superpowers and two of them have already fallen today. What made them rise and fall? The British Empire has been discussed in Part One. Let’s now turn to the Soviet Union in Part Two.
The Soviet Union had all the pre-conditions of becoming a superpower: a huge continental country and a large population, which meant plenty of resources to project power overseas, especially to neighboring states. The rise of the Soviet Union coincided with the end of both world wars. In February 1917 toward the end of World War One, the Russian Imperial Parliament (the Duma) took over control and deposed Emperor Nicholas II. The tired Russian army failed to intervene due to setbacks in the war that saw no end in sight. Later in October of that year, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks supported by peasants, workers and soldiers in an armed resurrection that overthrew the government. This was known as the world’s first communist revolution because of the ideology of the Bolsheviks that pledged, among other things, redistribution of land to the peasants. A period of civil war ensued until the Bolsheviks and their “red” supporters finally subdued the “counter-revolutionaries”. In 1922, the Soviet Union (USSR) was established and the Bolsheviks monopolized control as the ruling Communist Party.
Although under the new communist rule, the Soviet Union remained a less-developed state compared with the West due to endless power struggles within the Communist Party, in particular, the political purges initiated by Joseph Stalin after he took over in 1924. Hitler noticed the Soviet weakness and thought that Germany could swallow the whole Soviet Union in a decisive blow. In June 1941, Germany invaded the USSR in the biggest battle of World War Two. The German invasion did not work out because the defeated Soviets withdrew thousands of miles inland and burned their crops and properties, making it very difficult for the occupiers to sustain in the conquered barren land. The particularly harsh winter of 1941 aggravated things even further for the occupiers. This bought precious time for the Soviet army to regroup and launch a counter attack. By May 1945, Soviet troops marched all the way to Berlin and occupied almost half of Germany, which later became communist East Germany (GDR). After victory in World War Two, the Soviet Union had a large army installed in each of the countries liberated from German control, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They formed a collection of Soviet satellite states known as communist Eastern Europe. That was the Soviet Union at its peak.
The fact that countries called themselves communists in the Soviet camp did not mean that they were united. They had their own national interests to look after. Hungary revolted in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Both necessitated Soviet troops to quell the rebellion. The biggest split occurred with communist China in the mid 1960’s which almost led to an all-out war sparked by small border conflicts. Only a few countries depended on Soviet aids such as Egypt (the Aswan Dam), Syria (military hardware), Cuba (missiles and everything else), and communist insurgency groups in Africa and South America.
At the military level, the Soviet Union was able to project significant power overseas: stationing a large number of troops in Eastern Europe, attempting to install missiles in Cuba until being blockaded by the US Navy, supplying North Vietnam with war materials, and its nuclear submarines silently plying the world’s oceans. In addition, it possessed thousands of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles in an arms race with the US. Obviously, Soviet power was basically military-nature and not much else. It was a military superpower with an empty shell because it had no viable economy to back it up. All the Soviet satellite states remained in economic stagnation and required Soviet aids to pop up their communist governments.
If one looks at other areas such as people’s standard of living, consumer goods production, and non-military technology, the Soviet Union fell behind all the developed countries of the world. You will be hard pressed to name a significant non-military product exported by the Soviet Union. While Soviet citizens lined up in the streets to buy consumer necessities, the country kept on producing large quantities of military hardware as dictated by the Communist Party. The Soviet economy remained in stagnation for a long time under communist rule because its enormous resources were being misdirected for military use. Finally in 1989, the Soviet Union imploded without a bullet being fired by its enemies. It was a system based on military force that could not sustain. The Soviet case was different from that of the British Empire. The former must spend its resources to maintain its empire by military force, while the latter managed to create a stream of revenues flowing in despite limited resources at home.