USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block

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The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, its relations with other countries and the factors that have determined its collapse.


URSS 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

1. USSR 101: The Fall of the Tsarist and the Raise of Bolshevism

2. USSR 101: The New Russia in Europe After the World War I

3. USSR 101: From Enemy to Ally of Nazi German

4. USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa: The Turning Point of the World War II

5. USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block

6. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR



USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block


The Great War had pulled the old Entente allies together on a common front to combat Nazi-Fascism. Such idyll lasted only until the end of the war, because the history of Europe would shift by the middle of the century.


Figure 1. The three representatives of capitalism gathered against the USSR [Image] - The red avant-garde.
Figure 1. The three representatives of capitalism gathered against the USSR [Image] - The red avant-garde.

Already in the final years of the war, the divergence in beliefs between East and West compelled the Allies to take opposing positions. While the USSR urged the formation of a second front in Europe to relieve the domestic struggle, the Anglo-Americans were more interested in fighting in Africa, where the Germans were gaining momentum. The first test was the Tehran Conference in 1943 (Sakwa, 1999), when the foreign ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union convened to discuss the course of the conflict. It was possibly the most important conference: Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt all met for the first time. In Tehran, it was discussed where to make the second landing as a diversion: Churchill recommended Yugoslavia, not to challenge the primacy of the communist forces, but because the British had contacts with Tito and thus thought it would be simpler to land there.


The idea was thrown out, and the American one won: the second landing would be on the French territory, in Normandy (Ibidem). The subject of Poland's rebirth was also questioned: the prevailing plan was Eden's idea to recreate Poland of the size it had in 1939, slipping it onto the European political map and assigning to it the regions taken from Germany. There was no opposition in Tehran to Stalin's goal of keeping the Republics he had annexed as a result of the secret protocol of the Molotov Pact Ribbentrop, nor was there any opposition to Stalin's demands that the USSR acquired from Finland the territories it had occupied during the Winter War (Kenez, 1999).


Another point of contention was the future international arrangement: Stalin had no great interest in establishing an international body to maintain peace, but neither did Churchill. Once again, American politics triumphed, resulting in the formation of the United Nations. Stalin saw international politics in a different light: he believed that the USSR's security would be achieved by reclaiming the borders established with Hitler in 1939 and by establishing a security band comprised of friendly countries and Soviet allies, who would act as a filter or buffer. In the case of Germany, Roosevelt advocated dividing its territory among the three great powers who were negotiating Europe's destiny. Stalin and Churchill met in Moscow in October 1944 (Ibidem), and reached an agreement on percentages. There was no dividing of the world into areas of influence under these accords, but it was a matter of anticipating future cooperation between the USSR and the West (Chamberlin, 1983).


Figure 2. Churchill and Stalin after the Moscow Conference in 1944 [Photo] - Storia in rete
Figure 2. Churchill and Stalin after the Moscow Conference in 1944 [Photo] - Storia in rete

The United Nations structure, which was discussed in Dumbarton Oaks earlier this year, was addressed during the next Yalta conference. The issue of the Security Council veto, as well as the participation of the 16 Soviet Republics as separate entities from the USSR, was extremely problematic. Stalin obtained the latter concession only for Ukraine and Belarus, which were considered autonomous entities in relation to Moscow (Kenez, 1999). The problem of Germany was further discussed: it was thought to establish a line of encounters between the Anglo-American armies from the West and the Red Army to the East on the Elbe. In this way, the division of Germany into Western and Soviet zones would be achieved in a natural way. As a result, Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states and East Germany, fell under the rule of the Soviet Union, becoming a satellite of the USSR (Chamberlin, 1983).


Despite the de facto separation, the Western and Soviet allies sought to aggravate their disagreements. Stalin's speech at the Bolshoi Theatre in February 1946 was the precipitating event that led to the start of the Cold War and the split of the world. This speech especially struck Kennan, an American envoy to the USSR, as it was perceived as hostile to the West: Stalin spoke of a world divided into two blocks and arrogated victory over Germany to the Red Army. The hypothesis of the USSR's containment arose from a cable Kennan wrote to America to describe what he heard (History, 2017). After bringing these issues to the attention of the public, the United States embarked on a vast economic reconstruction effort, first in Western Europe and subsequently in Japan (as well as South Korea and Taiwan) (Ibidem).


The Marshall Plan began with the transfer of $12 billion to Western Europe. The programme was framed as a financial exchange: by reconstructing these countries fast, the US could reduce their dependency on aid and reestablish them as trading partners. Germany, Europe's most industrialised and resource-rich country, played a critical role in such endeavour. Furthermore, economic reconstruction contributed to the creation of a clientelistic obligation on the part of the nations receiving American aid: this sense of owing commitment promoted the readiness to participate into a military alliance and, more critically, a political alliance (Britannia, 2022).

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Figure 3. Stalin during his speech at Bolshoi Theater in 1946 [Photo] - Sutori
Figure 3. Stalin during his speech at Bolshoi Theater in 1946 [Photo] - Sutori

Stalin, fearful of a rejuvenated Germany as a result of the Marshall Plan, responded by barring access to Berlin, which laid deep within the Soviet zone while being under the jurisdiction of the four powers: he thus hoped to gain concessions in exchange for the termination of the blockade. The crisis started on June 24, 1948, when the Soviet Union closed all road and rail connections to West Berlin (Ibidem). The military conflict loomed as Truman embarked on a risky move that also meant to embarrass the Soviet Union on a global scale: flying supplies during the Berlin blockade of 1948-1949 (Ibidem).


The blockade of Berlin effectively foreshadowed the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The city's embargo ended eleven months later, on May 11, 1949, when the Soviet Union stopped interfering with the American, British, and French humanitarian aircraft that were providing food rations for the Berlin people. The immediate result of the Berlin blockade was the formation, on 23 May 1949, of the Federal Republic of Germany in West Germany, with Bonn as its capital: Stalin responded by proclaiming on 7 October the German Democratic Republic, a formally independent state but hegemonized by the USSR, with Berlin as its capital. In this new scenario, Berlin was administratively part of the Federal Republic, but it was a Democratic Republic enclave on the ground (Ibidem).


The end of World War II also signalled the end of the collaboration between the old Entente allies, ushering in the long period of East-West rivalry known as the Cold War. Despite Stalin's faint attempt to cooperate with the West, the sources of conflict were so many that the partnership could not be sustained. The blockade of Berlin was the apex of the USSR's determination to assert its superiority and resist the capitalist West.


 

References

  • Chamberlin, W. H. (1983). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/125248

  • Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition

  • Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

  • Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press

  • Editors, History. com. (2001, February 22). George Kennan sends “long telegram” to State Department - HISTORY. HISTORY; www.history.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-kennan-sends-long-telegram-to-state-department

  • Berlin blockade | Overview, Significance, History, & Facts. (2022). Encyclopedia Britannica; www.britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/event/Berlin-blockade


Image references

Author Photo

Federica Panico

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