Who Caused the Cold War?

The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension after World War II between powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states) and powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies and others). Historians do not fully agree on the dates, but a common timeframe is the period between 1947, the year the Truman Doctrine, a U.S. foreign policy pledging to aid nations threatened by Soviet expansionism, was announced, and either 1989, when communism fell in Eastern Europe, or 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The term “cold” is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, but they each supported major regional wars known as proxy wars.

The “Big Three” at the Yalta Conference: Winston ChurchillFranklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, 1945.

The Cold War split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany, leaving the Soviet Union and the United States as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.

The USSR was a Marxist–Leninist state led by its Communist Party, which in turn was dominated by a leader with different titles over time, and a small committee called the Politburo. The Party controlled the press, the military, the economy and many organizations. It also controlled the other states in the Eastern Bloc, and funded Communist parties around the world.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union’s primary goals were (in no particular order):

  1. The spread of socialism as a moral imperative.  A major tenet of communist ideology is that capitalism is unjust – it denies basic necessities like shelter, food, and healthcare to workers, concentrating a society’s wealth instead in the hands of an elite, wealthy group of business owners.  What is more, the United States, both in rhetoric and in action, took steps to bolster and spread this capitalist system (paired with democracy when convenient) around the world.  It is important to understand that many Soviets really, sincerely believed in this cause was one of good versus evil, and that they were on the right side of history.
  2. A geographic buffer of friendly, socialist nations, primarily in Eastern Europe, providing the USSR with military and economic security.  All of this was meant to promote stability and even prosperity for the Soviet people.  This goal included keeping a post-World War II Germany weak – Europe’s second largest economy had been a major driver behind two wars in as many generations, costing the Soviet Union nearly 30 million lives in World War II alone.  The Soviets doubted whether a strong Germany could be a peaceful one.
  3. Balance with the United States, which as the leading capitalist nation and the world’s sole nuclear power, was regarded as not only hostile, but as an active threat.  It is also important to remember that during the Russian Revolution, the United States had militarily opposed the communists, and for nearly twenty years, until the rise of the Nazi military threat, had refused to acknowledge their legitimacy as the government of the Soviet Union – in short, the U.S. had been opposed to the very existence of the USSR for most of its history.  In particular, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union during the initial years of the Cold War, was suspicious – some would say paranoid – about the hostility of the outside world toward the Soviet Union – and willing to take dramatic actions to secure its interests.
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Post-war territorial changes in Europe and the formation of the Eastern Bloc, the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’.

In opposition stood the capitalist West, led by the United States, a federal republic with a two-party presidential system. The First World nations of the Western Bloc were generally liberal democratic with a free press and independent organizations, but were economically and politically entwined with a network of banana republics and other authoritarian regimes throughout the Third World, most of which were the Western Bloc’s former colonies.

At the end of World War II, the United State’s primary goals were (in no particular order):

  1. Economic growth for the United States through free trade.  The U.S. sought to eliminate trade barriers to create markets for American agricultural and industrial products, as well as to ensure access to raw materials (such as oil) demanded by U.S. consumers.  The Great Depression (1929-1940) had really only ended with the coming of World War II, and American politicians and businessmen were determined that the end of the war not mean a reversal of American fortunes – what was good for business was good for the country.
  2. Supporting anti-communist governments abroad, whether democratic or not.  U.S. rhetoric emphasized the spread of democracy and the importance of individual freedoms such as the ones outlined in the U.S. Bill of Rights.  In reality, during the Cold War, the United States was typically far less concerned about the will of the citizens of foreign countries, and more interested in supporting anti-communist governments, coups, and rebels around the world, either through open military support, financial support, or covert action, regardless of their record on democracy or human rights.
  3. Balancing the strength of the Soviet Union in areas such as geographic influence, nuclear weapons, and general military power.  U.S. politicians frequently cited Soviet emphasis on collective management of the economy over individual rights and freedoms (such as in the U.S. system) as evidence of tyranny – and even evil.  The Soviet Union was perceived to be aggressive and expansionist, with immediate aims to take over the world.  U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt died in April, 1945, just months before the end of World War II, at a time before the wartime alliance was really tested by differing post-war goals.  However, his successor, Harry Truman, is widely considered to have believed in a tougher anti-Soviet position than Roosevelt.

 

Historians still bitterly dispute just how and why this tense state of affairs persisted for more than four decades.  Was it inevitable?  Could certain choices by either side have deescalated or even avoided the conflict all together?

Read the following four situation summaries, which are written as objectively as possible.  For each scenario answer the following three questions:

  1. Summarize the scenario from the point of view of the Soviet Union, making them the “good guys” of the story, taking into consideration that country’s goals (as enumerated above).  Do the same for the United States.
  2. In your opinion, who was the primary aggressor in this situation – the United States, the Soviet Union, or are they both equally to blame?  Why?
  3. What lessons might the Soviet Union and the United States draw about each other from this experience?  Can the other side be trusted?  Is the other side being confrontational?  Expansionist?  

Situation A: Atomic Diplomacy, 1945

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)
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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, six miles from the epicenter.

During the Second World War, the United States, Britain, Germany and the U.S.S.R. were all engaged in scientific research to develop the atomic bomb. By mid-1945, however, only the United States had succeeded, and it used two atomic weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring a rapid and conclusive end to the war with Japan. U.S. officials did not debate at length whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan, but argued that it was a means to a faster end to the Pacific conflict that would ensure fewer conventional war casualties. They did, however, consider the role that the bomb’s impressive power could play in postwar U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.

A nuclear bomb victim lies in quarantine on the island of Ninoshima in Hiroshima, Japan, 9,000-meter (9,843-yard) from the epicenter on Aug. 7, 1945, one day after the bombing by the United States.

While presiding over the U.S. development of nuclear weapons, President Franklin Roosevelt made the decision not to inform the Soviet Union of the technological developments. After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry Truman had to decide whether to continue this policy of guarding nuclear information. Ultimately, Truman mentioned the existence of a particularly destructive bomb to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Allied meeting at Potsdam, but he did not provide specifics about the weapon or its uses. By mid-1945, it was clear the Soviet Union would enter into the war in the Pacific and thereby be in a position to influence the postwar balance of power in the region. U.S. officials recognized there was little chance of preventing this, although they preferred a U.S.-led occupation of Japan rather than a co-occupation as had been arranged for Germany. Some U.S. policymakers hoped that the U.S. monopoly on nuclear technology and the demonstration of its destructive power in Japan might influence the Soviets to make concessions, either in Asia or in Europe. Truman did not explicitly threaten Stalin with the bomb, recognizing instead that its existence alone would limit Soviet options and be considered a threat to Soviet security.

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Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman meeting, and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, 1945.

Scholars debate the extent to which Truman’s mention of the bomb at Potsdam and his use of the weapon in Japan represent atomic diplomacy. In 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz published a book which argued that the use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended to gain a stronger position for postwar diplomatic bargaining with the Soviet Union, as the weapons themselves were not needed to force the Japanese surrender. Other scholars disagree, and suggest that Truman thought the bomb necessary to achieve the unconditional surrender of recalcitrant Japanese military leaders determined to fight to the death. Even if Truman did not intend to use the implied threat of the weapon to gain the upper hand over Stalin, the fact of the U.S. atomic monopoly following the successful atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico in July of 1945 seemed to have bolstered his confidence at subsequent meetings, making him more determined to obtain compromises from the Soviet government. Even so, if U.S. officials hoped that the threat of the bomb would soften Soviet resistance to American proposals for free elections in Eastern Europe or reduced Soviet control over the Balkans, they were disappointed, as the security issues raised by the dawn of the atomic age likely made the Soviet Union even more anxious to protect its borders with a controlled buffer zone.

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In the years that immediately followed the Second World War, the U.S. confidence in its nuclear monopoly had ramifications for its diplomatic agenda. The fact of the bomb was useful in ensuring that Western Europe would rely on the United States to guarantee its security rather than seeking an outside accommodation with the Soviet Union, because even if the United States did not station large numbers of troops on the continent, it could protect the region by placing it under the American “nuclear umbrella” of areas that the United States professed to be willing to use the bomb to defend. The U.S. insistence on hegemony in the occupation and rehabilitation of Japan stemmed in part from the confidence of being the sole nuclear power and in part from what that nuclear power had gained: Japan’s total surrender to U.S. forces. Though it inspired greater confidence in the immediate postwar years, the U.S. nuclear monopoly was not of long duration; the Soviet Union successfully exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949.

Situation B: The Truman Doctrine, 1947

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)

With the Truman Doctrine, President Harry S. Truman established that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces. The Truman Doctrine effectively reoriented U.S. foreign policy, away from its usual stance of withdrawal from regional conflicts not directly involving the United States, to one of possible intervention in far away conflicts.

The Truman Doctrine arose from a speech delivered by President Truman before a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. The immediate cause for the speech was a recent announcement by the British Government that, as of March 31, it would no longer provide military and economic assistance to the Greek Government in its civil war against the Greek Communist Party. Truman asked Congress to support the Greek Government against the Communists. He also asked Congress to provide assistance for Turkey, since that nation, too, had previously been dependent on British aid.

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At the time, the U.S. Government believed that the Soviet Union supported the Greek Communist war effort and worried that if the Communists prevailed in the Greek civil war, the Soviets would ultimately influence Greek policy. In fact, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had deliberately refrained from providing any support to the Greek Communists and had forced Yugoslav Prime Minister Josip Tito to follow suit, much to the detriment of Soviet-Yugoslav relations. However, a number of other foreign policy problems also influenced President Truman’s decision to actively aid Greece and Turkey. In 1946, four setbacks, in particular, had served to effectively torpedo any chance of achieving a durable post-war rapprochement with the Soviet Union: the Soviets’ failure to withdraw their troops from northern Iran in early 1946 (as per the terms of the Tehran Declaration of 1943); Soviet attempts to pressure the Iranian Government into granting them oil concessions while supposedly fomenting irredentism by Azerbaijani separatists in northern Iran; Soviet efforts to force the Turkish Government into granting them base and transit rights through the Turkish Straits; and, the Soviet Government’s rejection of the Baruch plan for international control over nuclear energy and weapons in June 1946.

cold warIn light of the deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union and the appearance of Soviet meddling in Greek and Turkish affairs, the withdrawal of British assistance to Greece provided the necessary catalyst for the Truman Administration to reorient American foreign policy. Accordingly, in his speech, President Truman requested that Congress provide $400,000,000 worth of aid to both the Greek and Turkish Governments and support the dispatch of American civilian and military personnel and equipment to the region.

Truman justified his request on two grounds. He argued that a Communist victory in the Greek Civil War would endanger the political stability of Turkey, which would undermine the political stability of the Middle East. This could not be allowed in light of the region’s immense strategic importance to U.S. national security. Truman also argued that the United States was compelled to assist “free peoples” in their struggles against “totalitarian regimes,” because the spread of authoritarianism would “undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.” In the words of the Truman Doctrine, it became “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

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Truman Doctrine Cartoon by Granger, 1947.

Truman argued that the United States could no longer stand by and allow the forcible expansion of Soviet totalitarianism into free, independent nations, because American national security now depended upon more than just the physical security of American territory. Rather, in a sharp break with its traditional avoidance of extensive foreign commitments beyond the Western Hemisphere during peacetime, the Truman Doctrine committed the United States to actively offering assistance to preserve the political integrity of democratic nations when such an offer was deemed to be in the best interest of the United States.

Situation C: The Marshall Plan

One of a number of posters created to promote the Marshall Plan in Europe. Note the pivotal position of the American flag.
(Adapted from “The Marshall Plan” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)

In the immediate post-World War II period, Europe remained ravaged by war and thus susceptible to exploitation by an internal and external Communist threat. In a June 5, 1947, speech to the graduating class at Harvard University, Secretary of State George C. Marshall issued a call for a comprehensive program to rebuild Europe.

The Marshall Plan was an American initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $13 billion (nearly $110 billion in 2016 US dollars)[2] in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The plan was in operation for four years beginning on April 3, 1948.  The Marshall Plan’s official mission was to give a boost to the European economy: to promote European production, to bolster European currency, and to facilitate international trade, especially with the United States, whose economic interest required Europe to become wealthy enough to import US goods. Another unofficial goal of the Marshall Plan was the containment of growing Soviet influence in Europe, evident especially in the growing strength of communist parties in Czechoslovakia, France, and Italy.  The Marshall Plan required a lessening of interstate barriers, a dropping of many regulations, and encouraged an increase in productivitytrade union membership, as well as the adoption of modern business procedures.  

 

Countries that received Marshall Plan aid. The red columns show the relative amount of total aid received per nation.

The Marshall Plan aid was divided amongst the participant states roughly on a per capita basis. A larger amount was given to the major industrial powers, as the prevailing opinion was that their resuscitation was essential for general European revival. Somewhat more aid per capita was also directed towards the Allied nations, with less for those that had been part of the Axis or remained neutral. The largest recipient of Marshall Plan money was the United Kingdom (receiving about 26% of the total), followed by France (18%) and West Germany (11%). Some eighteen European countries received Plan benefits.

Although offered participation, the Soviet Union refused Plan benefits, and also blocked benefits to Eastern Bloc countries, such as Hungary and Poland. In a statement, the Soviet Union argued that through the Marshall Plan, “the bosses of Wall Street” were “tak[ing] the place of Germany, Japan and Italy […] the American plan for the enslavement of Europe.”  The Soviets further described the world now breaking down “into basically two camps—the imperialist and antidemocratic camp on the one hand, and the antiimperialist and democratic camp on the other.”

US aid to Greece under the Marshall Plan.

The years 1948 to 1952 saw the fastest period of growth in European history. Industrial production increased by 35%. Agricultural production substantially surpassed pre-war levels. The poverty and starvation of the immediate postwar years disappeared, and Western Europe embarked upon an unprecedented two decades of growth that saw standards of living increase dramatically. Additionally, the long-term effect of economic integration raised European income levels substantially, by nearly 20 percent by the mid-1970s. There is some debate among historians over how much this should be credited to the Marshall Plan. Most reject the idea that it alone miraculously revived Europe, as evidence shows that a general recovery was already underway.

 

The political effects of the Marshall Plan may have been just as important as the economic ones. Marshall Plan aid allowed the nations of Western Europe to relax austerity measures and rationing, reducing discontent and bringing political stability. The communist influence on Western Europe was greatly reduced, and throughout the region, communist parties faded in popularity in the years after the Marshall Plan. The trade relations fostered by the Marshall Plan helped forge the North Atlantic alliance that would persist throughout the Cold War in the form of NATO. At the same time, the nonparticipation of the states of the Eastern Bloc was one of the first clear signs that the continent was now divided.

Situation D: The Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949

(Adapted from “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations” by the Historian of the U.S. Department of State)
Post-war Allied occupation zones in Germany.

At the end of the Second World War, U.S., British, and Soviet military forces divided and occupied Germany. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located far inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. The United States, United Kingdom, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector. As the wartime alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended and friendly relations turned hostile, the question of whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether the city would be absorbed into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany led to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War. The crisis started on June 24, 1948, when Soviet forces blockaded rail, road, and water access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied airbases in western Germany. The crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin.

U.S. Navy and Air Force aircrafts unload at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

The crisis was a result of competing occupation policies and rising tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Union. After the end of the Second World War, the future of postwar Germany was plagued by the divisions within and between Allied powers. The only decision of significance that emerged from wartime planning was the agreement of zones of occupation. Even after the end of hostilities, the problem of what to do about Germany was not successfully addressed at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference. Not only was there a lack of consistency in the political leadership and policymaking among the British and the Americans, occupation policy on the ground also confronted unforeseen challenges. Two and a half million Berliners, spread between four zones of occupation, faced profound privations: Allied bombing had reduced the city to rubble, shelter and warmth were scarce, the black market dominated the city’s economic life, and starvation loomed. While mired in such conditions, Berlin emerged as a forward salient in the Western struggle against the Soviet Union.

The year 1947 saw major shifts in occupation policy in Germany. On January 1, the United States and United Kingdom unified their respective zones and formed Bizonia, which caused tensions between East and West to escalate. In March, the breakdown of the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers and the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine served to harden the lines of an increasingly bipolar international order. In June, Secretary of State George Marshall announced the European Recovery Program. The purpose of the Marshall Plan—as the program came to be called—was not only to support economic recovery in Western Europe, but also to create a bulwark against Communism by drawing participating states into the United States’ economic orbit.

In early 1948, the United States, United Kingdom, and France secretly began to plan the creation of a new German state made up of the Western Allies’ occupation zones. In March, when the Soviets discovered these designs, they withdrew from the Allied Control Council, which had met regularly since the end of the war in order to coordinate occupation policy between zones. In June, without informing the Soviets, U.S. and British policymakers introduced the new Deutschmark to Bizonia and West Berlin. The purpose of the currency reform was to wrest economic control of the city from the Soviets, enable the introduction of Marshall Plan aid, and curb the city’s black market. Soviet authorities responded with similar moves in their zone. Besides issuing their own currency, the Ostmark, the Soviets blocked all major road, rail, and canal links to West Berlin, thus starving it of electricity, as well as a steady supply of essential food and coal.

The United States and United Kingdom had few immediate options if hostilities broke out. Because of the draw down in U.S. and British combat forces since the end of the Second World War, the Red Army stationed in and around Berlin dwarfed the Western Allied military presence. On June 13, 1948, the administrator of U.S.-occupied Germany General Lucius Clay reported to Washington that “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis…. We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.” The Truman administration agreed. Based upon written agreements with the Soviet Union in 1945, the only connections to Berlin left to the Western Allies were air corridors from West Germany used to supply Berlin by air. The administration calculated that if the Soviets opposed the airlift with force, it would be an act of aggression against an unarmed humanitarian mission and the violation of an explicit agreement. Thus, the onus of igniting a conflict between the former allies would be on the aggressor.

The only three permissible air corridors to Berlin.
Berliners watching a C-54 land at Tempelhof Airport (1948).

The United States launched “Operation Vittles” on June 26, with the United Kingdom following suit two days later with “Operation Plainfare.” Despite the desire for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, the United States also sent to the United Kingdom B-29 bombers, which were capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The beginning of the airlift proved difficult and Western diplomats asked the Soviets to seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse. The Soviets offered to drop the blockade if the Western Allies withdrew the Deutschmark from West Berlin.

Loading milk on a West Berlin-bound aircraft.

Even though the Allies rebuffed the Soviet offer, West Berlin’s position remained precarious, and the standoff had political consequences on the ground. In September 1948, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the German Communist Party of the Soviet zone of occupation, marched on the Berlin City Council and forced it to adjourn. Fearing that the Western Allies might halt the airlift and cede West Berlin to the Soviets, 300,000 West Berliners gathered at the Reichstag to show their opposition to Soviet domination. The turnout convinced the West to keep the airlift and the Deutschmark.

In time, the airlift became ever more efficient and the number of aircraft increased. At the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport. By spring 1949, the Berlin Airlift proved successful. The Western Allies showed that they could sustain the operation indefinitely. At the same time, the Allied counter-blockade on eastern Germany was causing severe shortages, which, Moscow feared, might lead to political upheaval.

On May 11, 1949, Moscow lifted the blockade of West Berlin. The Berlin Crisis of 1948–1949 solidified the division of Europe. Shortly before the end of the blockade, the Western Allies created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Two weeks after the end of the blockade, the state of West Germany was established, soon followed by the creation of East Germany. The incident solidified the demarcation between East and West in Europe; it was one of the few places on earth that U.S. and Soviet armed forces stood face-to-face. It also transformed Berlin, once equated with Prussian militarism and Nazism, into a symbol of democracy and freedom in the fight against Communism.

 

Activities

  1. Identify a situation from later in the Cold War.  Explain how both the United States and the Soviet Union might have viewed their actions as justified in the grander scheme of their goals as identified in this article.

Further Reading

For the Soul of Mankind by Martin Leffler.

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz.

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The Material Culture of the Soviet Union

  1. What is material culture?
  2. Why did transition of socialism to capitalism have such a dramatic impact on the material culture of Russia?
  3. Consider the vending machines which utilize a communal glass instead of cans or bottles.  What does this suggest about Soviet culture?  About the Soviet use of resources?

Somewhere out beyond Moscow’s Third Ring Road, a group of enthusiastic amateur archivists has undertaken a truly heroic project – to collect all of the loose odds and ends of Russia’s Twentieth Century material culture.  They have rented an old warehouse complex south of Kuzminki Park, packed it beyond capacity with everything from kitchen appliances to Soviet-era arcade games, and called it the Museum of Industrial Culture.

IMG_1608.jpgThe men behind the project seem to be gregarious old putterers – fix-it men with eye for design and detail.  They greeted me warmly and charge nothing for entry, though they will gladly accept donations.  During my visit, they were engaged in various restoration and conservation projects – getting that old Soviet dirt bike running, feeding the guard dogs some kind of ad hoc mash, sorting some new addition to the collection.

What appears to be a mess on first glance is actually carefully organized by a logic that becomes mostly apparent to any visitor careful enough to notice.  All of the old Soviet cars, trucks, and buses are out back – along with several partial jet fuselages, one passenger, one fighter.  There is a case full of old food packaging and another with toys.  Some of the arcade games turn on, and visitors are encouraged to play.

I did not have the touch for the shooting game, much to the curator’s amusement.  You can learn more about Soviet-era arcade games here.

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Lined up in the shade outside is a row of Soviet-style vending machines – which dispense beverages into the buyer’s own personal cup.  If you’re thirsty and you didn’t bring a cup, you can use the communal one that is chained to the machine.

There’s nothing too obscure for these guys – there are various styles of the metal grating that guard windows on the Soviet apartment buildings throughout the city.  They’ve got 1980s computer equipment and old maps showing train routes throughout the USSR.  They even have those coin operated mechanical animals that sit outside supermarkets.  Whole bins of screws and fasteners.

Nothing here is sorted chronologically, and there is almost no signage.  I bet these men could tell me stories about every item in their collection, but I don’t speak Russian and they don’t seem to speak English.  All of that context would be fascinating – it is a conversation I’d love to be a part of and a book I’d die to read… But just handling these things – getting right up beside them, squinting to recognize that weird decide as a 1960s vacuum cleaner or is it a men’s electric razor?  Smelling the leaky oil from that motorcycle’s crankcase or hearing that old arcade game roar to life – these men are engaged in something bigger than a hobby…

They are archaeologists working in the recent past, collecting the things that the rest off the world has called obsolete.  What most Russians have discarded and replaced, they have rescued and preserved.

This is a barely living history, full of the granular details that no one bothers to note – because they’re so mundane, so omnipresent that no one in the future will find them interesting, right?  I mean everyone uses a typewriter for important papers, and we all consult the phone book from time to time, when we’re not too busy reading the newspaper…

Those things once seemed like they were so obvious, so unimprovable that they would just be around forever – like your smartphone or your car do today…  But one day, your great-grandkids or some future archaeologist will be confounded by the material traces of your life, too.

The old saying is, “The clothes make the man.”

You could also say, “All of the clothes, all of the cars, the toys, the tools – these make the society.”

This is the Museum of Industrial Culture in Moscow, Russia.

It is the work of a few impassioned collectors – men working to preserve the material culture of the Soviet Union.

Material culture is a term used to describe the physical objects that make up everyday life.  Material culture is what packs this unassuming warehouse.

IMG_1614.jpgThe Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and with it all of the state-run industries that held a monopoly on the ordinary consumer products that make up this museum’s collection.

In the new, post-Soviet 90s, those state-run industries suddenly faced competition with the capitalist companies of the West.  In an effort to shift Russia’s economy from socialism to capitalism, these industries were quickly auctioned off, making certain insiders quite wealthy.  This process was painful for many average Russians, however, who lost jobs, benefits, and their lifestyle during this dramatic period.  Practically overnight, the government got out of manufacturing.

In terms of these products that feel these shelves: who wanted a Lada when suddenly you could buy a VW? Or that crummy arcade game when there was Nintendo?  There was no longer a large demand for goods largely considered to be inferior to their Western counterparts.

The Soviet system of government was gone, for better or worse, and so too was the material culture that had defined Russian life for generations.

Most every item in this museum was discontinued – a mass extinction of mass  production.

In the 21st century, the economy has gradually recovered. With prosperity, Russians have cast off their aging Soviet possessions, consigning them to landfills, to memory…

And to this museum – a work-in-progress which seeks to turn that material culture into a proper history of the Soviet experience.

Listen to a 99% Invisible podcast – Unsung Icons of Soviet Design – discussing some of the items featured in this museum.

Actvities

  1. What do your shoes say about you?  What about your car?  Your cell phone?  Create a virtual Museum of Industrial Culture documenting the material culture of your classroom, bedroom, or home.  Write informational signs describing the items featured in your museum – including the brands, marketing campaigns, and social meaning each item confers on its owner.
  2. Create a students’ paradise in your own classroom.  When you walked in today, your classroom was likely organized according to a capitalist model, in which each individual student controls his or her own school supplies. Create an inventory of all of the supplies brought to class today – the sum total of all of the pencils, pens, erasers, calculators, notebooks, etc…  If these supplies were divided evenly between all classmates, how many of each would an individual student receive?  Which classmates are better off under this new distribution of supplies?  Which are worse off?  Which system is more fair?  Which system would lead to a more productive classroom?
  3. Imagine that you have been commissioned by the Museum of Industrial Culture to write English-language signs explaining the function and history of the items in their collection.  Use the Internet to research Soviet products that might be found in the Museum of Industrial Culture.  Find pictures to accompany the text and create a virtual traveling exhibition in your classroom.

What is Communism?

  1. Describe the two groups that make up society as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels see it.
  2. According to Marx and Engels, how would communism arise from capitalism?
  3. Taken as a whole, no society in the world today practices either pure capitalism or pure communism.  Consider your own society – what elements are more capitalist, and what elements more closely resemble communism?
  4. The philosopher John Locke wrote that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”  How do you think Marx would respond to this idea?
  5. Evaluate the pros and cons of communism – who would be better off?  Who would be worse off? 
  6. What are some potential problems that might arise under a communist system?
  7. How does Leninism differ from Marx’s theory of communism?
The hammer and sickle symbol of communism came into being during the Russian Revolution.  It symbolized the alliance between industrial workers and rural peasants who together make up the working class.

Communism a movement whose ultimate goal is a society structured upon the common ownership of the means of production (factories, technology, farms) and the absence of social classesmoney, and the state.  More simply put, communism is the idea that basic needs – food, shelter, healthcare – should be shared evenly between every member of society, and that common people should look past artificial divisions like nationality, race, or personal wealth in pursuit of the common betterment of all mankind.  

Communism stands most directly in contrast to capitalism, a system which arose in the early 1800s alongside the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism is a form of social and economic organization that assigns access to basic needs according to an individual’s ability to pay for them, which ultimately divides people into categories of haves and have-nots – those that can pay for food, and those who cannot; those who can afford to buy a house, and those who cannot; those who can afford to go to the doctor, and those who cannot.

According to communist theory, capitalism is a system that unfairly rewards a small, greedy group of wealthy business owners, usually referred to as the bourgeoisie. This capitalist class is a minority who derives its unfair share of society’s wealth by exploiting the poverty of the working class, or proletariat – the class of urban factory workers who labor for subsistence-level wages under often-hazardous conditions and who make up the majority within society.  Think of the CEO worth billions of dollars while his lowest level employs work for minimum wage and don’t receive adequate healthcare.

The core philosophies of communism were developed and popularized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who published their famous pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, in 1848 as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing throughout much of Europe.  Marx and Engels saw history as a continuous conflict between the capitalist and working classes.

A monument to Karl Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels in Berlin, Germany.  The park was created by the authorities of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1986.

Marx predicted that this situation would ultimately be resolved through a social revolution in which the majority working class would overthrow the minority capitalist class – and the capitalist system itself.  The triumphant workers, he believed, would redistribute wealth and the means of production equally among themselves – and all human beings would be entitled to an equal share of what they collectively produced.

As Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

There would be no more rich or poor, no more upper or lower class – even nations and racial distinctions would melt away – and all would receive an equal share, while hard work and selflessness would become the most exalted virtues to which anyone could strive.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite! – Karl Marx

It should be noted that Marx was only a theorist, not an active revolutionary himself.  Aside from writing and publishing, he never took any concrete steps to enact these ideas, which he believed would happen when the majority of the working class recognized just how unfair capitalism was…  That no matter how many extra hours they worked, no matter how many 2% cost-of-living raises they secured, they would always be denied a fair share of the wealth that they produced through their labor.

This condition has never really been met.

Image result for communist poster
“Smash the Old World. Establish the New World” (People’s Republic of China, 1967)

In the real world, every large-scale communist revolution that has come to pass has been led by a minority within a society still largely committed to capitalism.  Too often, communist revolutions the world over have been carried out without the consent of a country’s working class – they have not been true popular revolutions. In Russia, China, and Cuba, communist reforms have typically been enacted from the top of society down, instead of from the bottom up, by popular demand, as Marx predicted.

A bust of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, the first communist nation on earth. (Moscow, 2017)

This has led to a great deal of violence, oppression, famine, and hardship as communist leaders have attempted to force a communist revolution upon a society that was not ready for it, a philosophy known as Leninism, after the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who brought communism to a largely unprepared Russia in 1917.

Leninism’s willingness to force communism upon a society “for its own good and by any means necessary” has tarnished the legacy of Marxism, a philosophy that at its heart aspired to elevate humanity beyond its selfish tenancies toward greed, poverty, war, and conflict.

(Click to enlarge)

Activities

  1. Create a students’ paradise in your own classroom.  When you walked in today, your classroom was likely organized according to a capitalist model, in which each individual student controls his or her own school supplies. Create an inventory of all of the supplies brought to class today – the sum total of all of the pencils, pens, erasers, calculators, notebooks, etc…  If these supplies were divided evenly between all classmates, how many of each would an individual student receive?  Which classmates are better off under this new distribution of supplies?  Which are worse off?  Which system is more fair?  Which system would lead to a more productive classroom?
  2. Marx once famously wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”  Unpack this metaphor and explain why Marx would be critical of religion’s role in the lives of the working class.  What else might serve a similar role in the modern day?  Create a communist-style propaganda poster warning your peers about the dangers of this other opium of the people.
  3. Marx was moved to develop his theories after witnessing the vast gulf between the rich and the poor during the Industrial Revolution.  He was appalled at the way the working class suffered – working long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay that often failed to provide them with a stable or dignified quality of life.  Research the ways that poverty manifests itself in your community and report back to your class.  Possible starting questions include:
    • How many people are homeless in my community?  What kind of options do they have for shelter, food, and medical care?
    • What does the phrase “working poor” mean?  How many people in my community fit this definition?  Who are their employers?
    • How does my government work to meet the needs of the poor?  What are the conditions in my state to qualify for medical, food, or unemployment assistance?
    • What charities are at work in my community, filling the roles that capitalism and the government don’t?

Bulgaria: National Identity in a Globalized World

Lesson Plans

Ms. Rita Ulrich, a Fulbright-Hays fellow, traveled to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017 to better understand the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.  She recently contributed her lessons – detailed text appropriate for the middle or high school classroom, complete with creative activities and guided reading questions.  It’s everything you need to humanize this unfolding human tragedy for your students.Learn how you can submit your own work to Openendedsocialstudies.org.

  • The Dangers of Brain Drain (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):  What is brain drain, who wins and loses because this phenomenon, and how does it affect a nation like Bulgaria?
  • The Eastern Orthodox Faith (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):  What is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and how did it become such an integral part of Bulgaria’s national identity?
  • The History of Communism in Bulgaria (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities):  Understanding the difference between communism and capitalism, with Bulgaria as a lens.  What is communism, and how has it shaped Bulgaria’s past and present?
  • Refugees and Human Rights in Bulgaria (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): What are refugees, why are they in European countries like Bulgaria, and how is the United Nations involved?
  • The Psychology of a Refugee Crisis (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities): What psychological dangers do refugees face throughout their journey and during their time searching for safety and a new home?