What is the real legacy of the Soviet Union? An overview

Aug 12, 2013

The Russian Revolution united peasants, workers, soldiers and oppressed nationalities from every corner of the Czar's empire.

The first time the people had the power

The capitalist class and its well-paid intellectuals and pundits continue to argue that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 means that socialism and communism are impossible.

A stereotyped and negative image of the Soviet Union and socialism has been relentlessly fed to the people of the United States ever since the Russian Revolution, which took place in 1917.

It is extremely rare for the establishment to mention any of the truly remarkable achievements of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the full name of the Soviet federation of 15 republics, and the other countries that subsequently set out to build socialism.

The triumph of the Russian Revolution nearly a century ago was truly a world-historic event. It was the first time in history that the working class was able to seize and hold power, and to reorganize the economy and society on a socialist basis. It proved that the oppressed, with their own leadership and their own party, could create a new reality.

Challenges faced by revolution

First of all, they had to defend their new state against not only the internal counterrevolutionary armies— called the “White” armies of the old landlords and capitalists—but also against 14 invading imperialist armies, including that of the United States.

The Bolsheviks, led by V.I. Lenin, had to begin building a new economic system under conditions of a near total economic blockade imposed by the capitalist world.

The years of war and deprivation took an enormous toll on the Communist Party and the working class as a whole, a toll that severely weakened the revolutionary leadership, led to later problems and eventually the fall of the USSR.

But contrary to the bourgeois presentation of a failed economic system, the Soviet planned economy—the first time in history there ever was a planned economy—showed the immense potential of socialism.

Gains showed potential of socialism

From being the least developed of the big European countries at the time of the revolution, 40 years later the Soviet Union was the second largest economy in the world, trailing only the United States. It was the most rapid economic development ever, by any country.

This was accomplished despite the fact that after barely a decade of initial rapid development in the 1930s, two-thirds of its industry and much of its agriculture was destroyed by the Nazi invasion beginning in 1941. It was the Soviet Union that bore the brunt of the Nazi war machine and destroyed it—but at a cost of 27 million killed. The U.S. death toll in World War II was about 400,000—a huge toll itself but about 1.5 percent of Soviet deaths.

Before the revolution, most of the population went through life without ever seeing a doctor. In 1966, a leading U.S. medical journal, the American Journal of Public Health, wrote of “life expectancy doubling in the last 50 years. …At present time, the Soviet Union graduates annually about as many physicians as there were in whole Russian Empire before the First World War. Of all the physicians in the world today, more than one in five is Soviet … while only 1 person in 14 in the world today is a Soviet citizen.” Not only that, but none of those doctors—three-quarters of whom were women—paid a penny for their education, nor did anyone else in any field of work. Every person was guaranteed a job, housing, health care, childcare and education as well as the right to a one-month annual paid vacation, pensions and cultural pursuits.

Full equality for women was a basic principle of the Soviet state. Special measures were taken to ensure equal representation at various levels of the workforce, and discrimination on the basis of gender was constitutionally banned. Women received at least a year of paid maternity leave.

The Soviet Union showed the superiority of a socialist, planned economy by eliminating unemployment, something no capitalist country has been able to achieve. The key to ending unemployment was doing away with the capitalist system and its built-in boom-and-bust cycle.

The Soviet Union was organized on the basis of the right to self-determination, meaning that each nationality had the right to control the institutions that shaped its destiny, and the promotion of hatred on the basis of nationality was outlawed. The more than 100 nationalities in the USSR were each entitled to literature, newspapers and education in their language. Scores of languages that were not previously written were alphabetized. In the wake of the destruction of WWII, vast industrial, infrastructure and housing projects were undertaken to compensate for the legacy of underdevelopment.

The absence of capitalist competition between enterprises enabled very rapid scientific and engineering development.

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth and four years later sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

In addition to its remarkable internal development, Soviet aid was vital to national liberation movements and newly independent states around the world. The victories of the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other revolutions would have been much delayed or prevented without the Soviet Union. Without Soviet support, Cuba would have undoubtedly been invaded by the United States, and Soviet aid was vital to the Palestinians and many African revolutionary movements, such as those in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Angola.

There were many factors that contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union: the forestalling of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries; the imperialist military encirclement of the USSR that forced it to expend trillions on defense; the non-stop sanctions and blocking or sabotaging of trade goods by the capitalist world; and internal problems, particularly bureaucratism.

The decisive negative factor in its fall was the seizure of power inside the Communist Party by pro-capitalist forces, showing again that leadership is critical in the struggle for socialism, after the revolution as well as before.

The Soviet Union was the first state in history where the oppressed took and retained power. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles it faced, the USSR endured for seven decades and showed that a different world is indeed possible—a socialist world.

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