Watching the video of Robert Wenzel’s recent Soviet Union-themed lecture I did not think what I was listening to was an unusual talk on the subject. In fact I felt it was fairly standard fare. And that, for me, was the surprising thing. Having come to expect piercing insight and unconventional wisdom from libertarians, it felt unusual to sit through a presentation on the USSR, 90 percent of which could have seemingly been given by a Buckleyite Cold Warrior.
The part of the talk that could not have come from a cheerleader for the Cold War is the introductory part where Wenzel dismisses the American nationalists’ idea that Reagan’s arms buildup spent the USSR into bankruptcy. It also turns out to be the only major point of Wenzel’s speech he can substantiate, albeit you could easily miss this in the disorganized introduction. After making the initial claim it takes him fully four minutes to finally come around to providing information on the size of the Soviet military spending in the 1980s to counter the Reaganite assumptions. In the mean time he gets bogged down on talking about the likes of corruption of capitalism in America which is perhaps a topic he is more familiar with.
The name of Wenzel’s talk is ‘An Examination of Key Factors in the Collapse the USSR’, but what he actually gives is a gallop through the entire Soviet period, from beginning to end. He justifies this with the claim the tale of the USSR is one of a 70-year long collapse. Since he devotes his hour to talking about the entire Soviet history this means, he can not go into depth on any aspect of it just on the account of the time constraints, however, it may also mask the objective inability to speak on anything in depth due to a lack of knowledge as such.
It is safe to say that 70 years is a long time for an entity to be collapsing. A story of such a “collapse” therefore is by necessity a though sell, which Wenzel fails to do. It is one thing to claim the Soviet economic system prevented Russia and most of the other constituent Soviet republics from developing, in the pertinent timeframe, to the level they could have attained otherwise. It is quite another to instead paint a caricature of “no good time all bad” from “start to finish” like Wenzel does. Surely in a country of 200 million with a 70 years long existence a few million people managed to experience a few relatively good years? In fact are there not in the former Soviet space, tens of millions of pensioners who insist they had not just a few good years in the USSR, but whole decades?
It is important to maintain perspective and to grasp that while the USSR was, in economic terms, quite the failure it was only such compared to the West. The country which may have looked shoddy to Western eyes, nonetheless appeared to visitors from the third world as advanced and as capable of offering comfortable lives. At the relative Soviet heyday in the 1970s RSFSR citizens could enjoy the purchasing power of up to 40% of that of Americans. Albeit far bellow the true potential of Russia, such a standard of living was nonetheless unattainable for the greater part of the world population.
It is a very strange 70-year long collapse indeed when the country is able to rebuild after the uniquely destructive disasters of the Russian Civil War and the Great Patriotic War, and when 1921-81 the wealth of the USSR is constantly rising. And then not just in absolute terms, but even in terms of actual convergence with the United States. The Russian GDP per capita went from 22.5% of the American one just after the Civil War to some 40% in the 1970s (or just above 35% for the entire Soviet Union, but from an even lower starting point). Fact is the story of Soviet economic development is more nuanced than the unlikely tale of continuous enfeeblement delivered by Wenzel.
Sticking to the 70-year collapse parable Wenzel insists the USSR lasted so long almost solely due to a ‘reserve fund’ in the form of expending the infrastructure laid by the Russian Empire and foreign assistance. Again, 70-years is a long time to live off nothing but Tsarist legacy and foreign aid. Especially when in the mean time you are able to field a peace time army with 15,000 domestically-produced battle tanks, offer huge aid to the developing world yourself, send a man into space, and defeat the Nazis.
Somewhere in there Wenzel asserts that while the Soviets may have extracted copious quantities of oil most of the exploration had already been done in the earlier, Imperial period, since the Soviet system was actually condiserably more inept at finding oil than had been tsarist Russia. The claim is instantly suspicious seeing that the Soviets were extremely proud of their scientific and engineering achievements and, given to excessive ambition and craving for prestige, arguably sunk far more resources into science than it made sense given their limited means. While the technological backwardness of Russia pre-1917 can easily be overstated it seems unlikely its scientific accolades would exceed those of an entity which launched Yuriy Gagarin into space.
Indeed, just a brief search of the internet (1, 2) reveals most of Russia’s oil and gas reserves are to be found in the Western Siberian oil basin, the exploration of which did not begin until the 1940s — well after the end of the era of tsars. It turns out the idea most of the work on oil exploration of the Russian expanses had already been done by Imperial Russia has as much merit as would be the claim the tsars had already done most of the work needed for Sputnik.
Wenzel claims another factor, which helped prolong the existence of the Soviet Union was the “deaths of tens of millions”, because it resulted in “fewer people to house” and “fewer people to quell”. That is a strange claim just on the face of it. Is it not the case regimes generally regard their population as an asset and want more people, rather than less? And would not this go doubly for the Soviet Union which was very sparsely populated, and which aspired to military might?
Indeed it would seem this was exactly the thinking of the reigning elite in the USSR. The Soviet Union had a social security scheme which tried to incentivise people to have more children, it handed out medals to mothers who bore more than a certain number of children, and had, in the Stalin years, re-banned abortion. It reacted to the results of the 1937 population census, which revealed what it regarded a disappointingly low total population figure, with such incredulity that it kept the results confidential and ordered a recount for 1939. Later on it would severely hinder Jewish emigration, and even as it persecuted select nationalities under Stalin it never contemplated expelling them, but instead deported them to its remote and under-populated regions as forced colonists.
In fact the Soviet Union after WWII kidnapped two hundred thousand foreign citizens (mainly Germans from Romania and Poland) for forced labor in the USSR. Also it held on to the last of its German and Japanese POWs until 1956. In other words it was quite eager to take on the problem of policing and housing of additional hundreds of thousands of people if they could be made to work for it. Also there is the little matter of territorial annexations in 1939-40 which brought into the Soviet Union an additional 17 million people.
Fact is that the millions of unnatural deaths among Soviet citizens in the 20th century occurred overwhelmingly as a result of wars, occupation, famine, deportations, purges and mass imprisonment in the gulag. Which is to say in events which are normally thought of as disasters with pronouncedly negative repercussions for economic activity. Most people would see these events and policies in Soviet history as enormous setbacks for the USSR. Wenzel on the other hand seems to believe there was an aspect to them that had a positive effect on the longevity of the Soviet state, specifically in that they reduced the number of people that needed to be housed and policed. Apparently it does not occur to him to ask just how many policemen vanished in the purges, or how many residences were never built because 18 million people, spent productive years of their lives in the deadly and inefficient forced labor colonies of the gulag.
Since Wenzel’s narrative for the Soviet Union is one of a continuous 70-year long collapse there is no room for any achievement in this time-frame. The Soviet victory over the Nazis is, according to Wenzel, therefore the achievement of American Lend-Lease. It was actually with American equipment that otherwise “poorly-equipt” Soviet soldiers beat the “well-armed” Germans on the Eastern Front. Actually the Soviet Union during the war outproduced Germany in every mayor category of land weapon. Its soldiers were poorly provisioned with food and too often poorly trained and led, but excluding many of the hastily raised formations in late ’41 and ’42, they were nearly always at least as well-armed as the opposition. Wenzel highlights as the Soviet weak point precisely the one area, the ability to supply their troops with weapons, where they were the equal of anyone else in the world.
It is accurate to say Lend-Lease did a lot of good, and was probably far from the worst thing the American government had ever spent money on. In Russia itself it has been recognized the casual Soviet-era dismissal of its importance as having amounted to no more than 4% of the Soviet military production had been unfair since its impact went beyond raw numbers. It is one thing, however, to deem it very helpful, but another entirely to credit it with being the cause of Soviet victory in the Second World War. More conventional explanations as to why the Soviets prevailed usually involve references to Red Army military effectiveness, immense Soviet production capacities and manpower reserves, and the Nazis’ characteristic lack of pragmatism. Actually given the the considerable comparative advantages of the USSR, it could be said the more pertinent question is not why the Soviets won, but instead how come it was ever such a hard-fought and costly win. Wenzel, however, credits Lend-Lease specifically at the expense of any Soviet strength (other than having Soviet soldiers to put it to use).
Wenzel spends considerable time talking up the size of the American aid to the Soviet Union, but never places it in context. He never compares its size to anything else, either the USSR’s own production capacity, or American aid to its other allies. Actually, in the course of the war Great Britain received 31 billion of US dollars worth of Lend-Lease compared to 11 billion rendered to the USSR. This raises a question, if Lend-Lease was the cause of German defeat in the war as Wenzel claims, how come it did not come primarily at the hands of the British, rather than the Soviets, when the former received three times as much of it? Perhaps then it was not primarily Lend-Lease which enabled the Soviets to in the end prevail in the Soviet-German War?
The numbers that Wenzel does throw around to try to illustrate the significance of Lend-Lease do no such thing. He gives his figures in absolutes without stating also how much of what the US sent the Soviets already had on hand before the war, or churned out in the course of the struggle from their own factories. Thus we learn that the US sent the Soviet Union ten thousand tanks, but are left unaware the USSR started the war with 20,000 pieces of armor (more than the entire rest of the world combined), and built another 100,00 in the course of the war. A hint as to the impact of American weapons shipments to a battlefield on the scale of the Eastern Front may be found in the fact that the Red Army 1941-45 sustained the loss of close to 100 thousand pieces of armor. Had the Soviets actually relied primarily on American shipments of tanks they would have actually had no armor force to speak of.
Actually the weapon shipments were the least important aspect of Lend-Lease. A better argument for Lend-Lease, by a more informed speaker, would have centered instead on the deliveries which had the most impact since they covered the most serious Soviet deficiencies. The biggest meaning of Lend-Lease was actually in terms of trucks, aviation fuel, communication equipment, cloth and boots, some food supplements and copper and aluminum. Such aid in select crucial materials was extremely helpful. It considerably decreased the time the Soviets needed to bear to bring defeat to Nazi Germany, the losses which they had to sustain to do so, and the hardships they needed to bear in doing so. But that is not to say it was why the Soviets won rather than lost.
It must be understood the single most decisive battle of WWII is the battle of Moscow, particularly its first stage that falls in the final part of the Barbarossa campaign. After Barbarossa fails to defeat the USSR as the Germans had counted on, they are in a war they had wanted to avoid, had not prepared for, and have no real idea how to win. The Germans had planned for an 11-week long campaign that would destroy the bulk of the Soviet army as close to the Soviet western frontier as possible.* The assumption was that after this was accomplished the Soviet authority would collapse just like that of Imperial Russia had in 1917. As the Soviet state disintegrated organized resistance would vanish, allowing the German army to occupy the vast territory west of the line running from Arkhangelsk to the Volga river at will. The assumption on the part of the German war planners was that a crushing victory against the Red Army west of the Dvina and the Dnepr rivers, would prove crushing also to the fabric of the entire USSR and would be enough to make them the masters of the entire European Russia by the end of September 1941.
The reality was different. The series of disastrous defeats the Germans are able to inflict on the Soviet army, which is also far larger than their foes had estimated, nonetheless do not cause anything like a collapse of the Soviet regime. On the contrary the USSR is able to mobilize the populace for war on a massive scale and to quickly raise up replacement units for those which are lost. As a result, even as the Germans are advancing at a great pace, they are soon doing so against the level of resistance they had never foreseen, and taking the level of casualties they had never anticipated, and can not sustain. In mid-November the German army is estimating that given their losses in material and personnel, and their state of supply its 136 divisions in the east have the fighting strength of only 83.**
By this point the Germans already realize their exhausted forces will fail to defeat the USSR in one campaign as they had intended. The war will continue in 1942, but before the winter pause they collect the last of their supply and energy for a push to surrounded, quarantine and starve out Moscow. They fail against determined resistance, which given the momentary state of the German forces is less than surprising. Their plans shot to bit, their energy expended and their future uncertain their only consolation at this point is that at least what is ahead of them are quiet weeks of rebuilding and replenishing their strength. Instead in the severe weather of the early morning hours of December 5th the Soviets launch the Winter Counter-Offensive involving one million men. It takes the Germans, who can not fathom how the Soviets still have the means to pull this off, completely by surprise and, but for some desperate defending and an uncharacteristically apt intervention by Hitler, comes close to causing a collapse and flight of much of their front.
In other words, even at their lowest point, with the enemy on the outskirts of their capital, with one third of their compatriots under enemy occupation, and after just having sustained the loss of 4 million men captured, wounded or killed, the Soviets are showing no sign of collapse, but are instead able to realize an absolutely massive counter-offensive, which at this point is beyond even the capabilities of the Germans. In retrospective this is a turning point of the war which shows the Germans can no longer hope to defeat the Soviet Union.*** It takes place before the US even enters the war. Lend-Lease material shipped to the Soviet Union in 1941 amounted to 360,000 tons, or just 2% of the 17.5 million tons of the total material the United States delivered the Soviet Union in the course of the war. It is therefore accurate to say the Soviets averted the defeat of the USSR almost completely by themselves with only minimal assistance from the the United States.
Of the entire Lend-Lease aid, 14% was shipped in 1942, 27% in 1943, 36% in 1944, and 21% in 1945. That is to say more than 80% of Lend-Lease material was shipped (rather than delivered) to the Soviet Union only after the Soviets had already turned the tide of war at Stalingrad. Lend-Lease was extremely helpful to the Soviets on their march to victory after Stalingrad. It may have spared them hundreds of thousands of additional casualties as bringing about the German defeat would have likely taken longer without it, but they did not need it to actually win. It was not the difference between a Soviet triumph and collapse, much less the vital cause of Soviet victory.
In conclusion a far more likely story of the Soviet Union, is not one of a 70-year long collapse, but instead one of a mixed record of achievement and failure. The pertinent question for someone wanting to understand the legacy of the Soviet Union is not if all of its accomplishments were owed to tsarist legacy and foreign aid (they were not). The burning question is how much did the lauded accomplishments of the Soviet era cost the Soviet people? It is very much the case, for example, that from the 1930s on to the end of its existence the USSR proved easily able to churn out vast quantities of war material for its armed forces. Throughout this time its weapons systems were not only technologically advanced, but, it also seemed, very cheap. But was it really so? In fact upon a closer look the Soviet people were paying a very high price for the apparent ability of the Soviet system to be able to churn out military hardware seemingly on the cheap.
Both the cost of Soviet failures and the cost of Soviet achievements were borne by the Soviet people. And because the Soviet system went about doing everything in the most difficult way possible the costs of accomplishments could be just as high as the consequences of failure. Soviet industrialization is a case in point. What elsewhere was accomplished painlessly by letting in capital from abroad, the Soviets instead went about by transforming their countryside into a vast internal colony, to be ruthlessly exploited by the mechanism of collective farms — thus precipitating millions upon millions of personal tragedies. Soviet industrial growth in the 1930s is easily astonishing, but the question is how come only in the USSR did electrification first presuppose the unleashing of a veritable war against its countryside?
The story of Soviet Union is not one of a continuous 70-year long decline, but of 70 years where every advance came at a cruel and needless price, either in forsaken standard of living or the physical destruction of lives. It is not accurate to say the USSR was not capable of realizing advances, nor it would be accurate to claim all its accomplishments came at the expense of its people. But it is accurate to say that every of its achievements the Soviet people overpaid handsomely. This realization caused its end, as the people opted for a system that promised to deliver progress without artificial and needless sacrifice in forsaken comforts and worse.
PS, it has been pointed out parts of Wenzel’s speech correspond closely to passages from Wikipedia. Learning about Soviet history from an encyclopedia, however, is no guarantee that what you are learning is factual. In one such part of the speech Wenzel explains that kulaks were divided into three categories, where those in the first category were to be killed, those in the second imprisoned, and those in the third deported to Asian Russia. In fact this is erroneous. Category one kulaks were to be imprisoned, or executed, category two kulaks were to be deported, while third category kulaks were subject to expropriation and resettlement within their own district.
* Geoffrey P. Megargee, Inside Hitler’s High Command (University Press of Kansas, 2002), 104, 124.
** ibid, 136
*** David M. Glantz, The Soviet-German War 1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay (Clemson, SC: 2001), 11