The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union emerge as one of the world's two great military powers. Its battle-tested forces occupied most of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had won island holdings from Japan and further concessions from Finland (which had joined Germany in invading the Soviet Union in 1941) in addition to the territories seized as a consequence of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. But these achievements came at a high cost. An estimated 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, the heaviest loss of life of any of the combatant countries. The war also inflicted severe material losses throughout the vast territory that had been included in the war zone. The suffering and losses resulting from the war made a lasting impression on the Soviet people and leaders that influenced their behavior in the postwar era. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Events that marked the end of World War II have traditionally been observed with much more seriousness and solemnity in Russia than the holidays like Memorial day and Veterans Day in the United States.

The Soviet Union took an estimated $65 billion worth of booty in World War II. In April 2000, Russia announced it would return the first of some of the trophy art it took: a cache of old master drawings hidden for 50 year under the bed of a Red Army officer. Russians also worked hard to restore damaged treasures at home. One Russian soldier collected 1.2 million fragments from destroyed frescoes at a church in Novgorod and tried to reassemble them.

From time to time children are killed or maimed by World War II artillery shells.

Soviet Union Takes Over Eastern Europe After World War II

After World War II, the Soviet Union extended its control into Eastern Europe. It took over the governments in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. Only Greece and occupied Austria remained free. The Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were made into republics. Even Finland was partly controlled by the Soviets. The Communist Party was also strong in Italy and France.

After World War II, Russia took a large portion of Poland and Poland in return was given a large portion of Germany. It was if the entire country of Poland was slid across the earth to the west. Only since reunification has Germany renounced their claim on the land that was formerly theirs. The Allies allowed the Soviet Union to annex Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in a process that took place mostly at the outset of the war.

The Soviet Union also began exerting its influence in Asia. Outer Mongolia became the first Communist regime outside of the Soviet Union in 1945 when it taken over by a Soviet puppet government. China became Communist in 1949.

Soviet Union After World War II

The war was followed by drought, famine, typhus epidemics and purges. In the famine after the war, people ate grass to keep themselves from starving. In 1959, for the ages of 35 and over, there were only 54 men for very 100 women, with a total deficiency of 12.2 million men.

During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy, with control always exerted exclusively from Moscow. The Soviet Union consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe, supplied aid to the eventually victorious communists in China, and sought to expand its influence elsewhere in the world. This active foreign policy helped bring about the Cold War, which turned the Soviet Union's wartime allies, Britain and the United States, into foes. Within the Soviet Union, repressive measures continued in force; Stalin apparently was about to launch a new purge when he died in 1953. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1946 Andrey Zhdanov, a close associate of Stalin, helped launch an ideological campaign designed to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism in all fields. This campaign, colloquially known as the Zhdanovshchina ("era of Zhdanov"), attacked writers, composers, economists, historians, and scientists whose work allegedly manifested Western influence. Although Zhdanov died in 1948, the cultural purge continued for several years afterward, stifling Soviet intellectual development. *

Another campaign, related to the Zhdanovshchina, lauded the real or purported achievements of past and present Russian inventors and scientists. In this intellectual climate, the genetic theories of biologist Trofim Lysenko, which were supposedly derived from Marxist principles but lacked a scientific foundation, were imposed upon Soviet science to the detriment of research and agricultural development. The anticosmopolitan trends of these years adversely affected Jewish cultural and scientific figures in particular. In general, a pronounced sense of Russian nationalism, as opposed to socialist consciousness, pervaded Soviet society. *

Reconstruction After World War II

Russia rebuilt quickly after World War II and rose to be one of the world's two superpowers through its moves in Eastern Europe, postwar modernization of industry and the seizure of German factories and engineers as booty. The postwar Five-Year plans focused on the arms industry and heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods and agriculture.

Although the Soviet Union was victorious in World War II, its economy had been devastated in the struggle. Roughly a quarter of the country's capital resources had been destroyed, and industrial and agricultural output in 1945 fell far short of prewar levels. To help rebuild the country, the Soviet government obtained limited credits from Britain and Sweden but refused assistance proposed by the United States under the economic aid program known as the Marshall Plan. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Instead, the Soviet Union compelled Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe to supply machinery and raw materials. Germany and former Nazi satellites (including Finland) made reparations to the Soviet Union. The Soviet people bore much of the cost of rebuilding because the reconstruction program emphasized heavy industry while neglecting agriculture and consumer goods. By the time of Stalin's death in 1953, steel production was twice its 1940 level, but the production of many consumer goods and foodstuffs was lower than it had been in the late 1920s. *

During the postwar reconstruction period, Stalin tightened domestic controls, justifying the repression by playing up the threat of war with the West. Many repatriated Soviet citizens who had lived abroad during the war, whether as prisoners of war, forced laborers, or defectors, were executed or sent to prison camps. The limited freedoms granted in wartime to the church and to collective farmers were revoked. The party tightened its admission standards and purged many who had become party members during the war. *

Stalingrad After World War II

Describing Stalingrad in 1949, John Steinbeck wrote, "Our windows looked out on acres of rubble, broken brick and concrete and pulverized plaster and in the wreckage the strange dark weeds that always seem to grow in destroyed places. During the time we were in Stalingrad we grew more and more fascinated with this expanse of ruin, for it was deserted. Underneath the rubble were cellars and holes, and in these holes people lived. Stalingrad was a large city, and it had apartment houses and many flats, and now there was none except for new ones on the outskirts, and its population his to live some place. It lives in the cellars of the buildings where the buildings once stood."

"We would watch out of the window of our room, and from behind a slightly larger pile of rubble would suddenly appear a girl, going to work in the mourning, putting the last little touches to he hair with a comb. She would be dressed neatly, in clean clothes, and would swing out through the weeds on her way to work. How they could do it we have no idea. How they could live underground and still keep clean, and proud, and feminine.

"A few yards farther on, there was a little hummock, like the entrance to a gopher hole. And every morning, early, out of this hole a young girl crawled. She had long legs and bare feet, and her arms were thin and stringy, and her hair was matted and filthy...her eyes were crafty, like the eyes of a fox, but they were not human...She squatted on her hams and ate watermelon rinds and sucked the bones of other people's soups.

"The other people who lived in the cellars of the lot rarely spoke to her. But one morning I saw a woman come out of another hole and give her a half a loaf of bread. And the girl clutched it almost snarlingly and held it against her chest. She looked like a half-wild dog...she looked over the bread, her eyes twitching back and forth. And as she gnawed at the bread, one side of her ragged filthy shawls slipped away from her dirty young breast, and her hand automatically brought the shawl back and covered here breast and patted it in place with a heart-breaking feminine gesture...We wondered how many more were like this."

Soviet Military After World War II

The Soviet military earned society's gratitude by its performance in the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly called in Russia), a costly but unified and heroic defense of the homeland against invading Nazi armies. In the postwar era, the Soviet military maintained its positive image and budgetary support in good part because of incessant government propaganda about the need to defend the country against the capitalist West.[Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By the end of World War II, the Soviet armed forces had swelled to about 11.4 million officers and soldiers, and the military had suffered about 7 million deaths. At that point, this force was recognized as the most powerful military in the world. In 1946 the Red Army was redesignated as the Soviet army, and by 1950 demobilization had reduced the total active armed forces to about 3 million troops. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the Soviet armed forces focused on adapting to the changed nature of warfare in the era of nuclear arms and on achieving parity with the United States in strategic nuclear weapons. Conventional military power showed its continued importance, however, when the Soviet Union used its troops to invade Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to keep those countries within the Soviet alliance system. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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