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11 Lesser-Known Facts about the Soviet Union

Facts About Soviet Union

The history of Russia is a very turbulent and bloody one. The First World War brought increasing discontent among the peasants and war-weary populace leading to the Russian Revolution in 1917. This was followed by the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) or the Soviet Union in 1922. But, what began as a diverse society and mixed economy in the 1920s soon became constrained and inflexible in Stalin’s time and descended into stagnation in the 1980s. The mid-1980s saw gradual dismantling of the Soviet Union following major reforms by Mikhail Gorbachev and finally its collapse in 1991. Here are some facts about the Soviet Union that you probably did not know about.

1. In 1897, only 33%t of men and 14% of women were literate. By 1929, it rose to 66.5% and 37.2%, and 90.8$ and 72.5% by 1939, reaching a total of 99.7% in the 1970s and 80s. 

Soviet Students in 1964, Moscow
Soviet Students in 1964, Moscow. Image Source: Thomas Taylor Hammond

Following the Russian revolution, the schools lost proper governance. Years later, when the Commissariat for Education was formed, propaganda teaching increased and religious teachings were forbidden.

Though by 1914, almost 91% of children were in school, during the Russian Civil War and War communism years there was a rapid decline in that percentage. On December 26, 1919, Lenin introduced compulsory education for children, a phase that lasted until 1939 and saw an increase in total literacy up to 75 percent.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the education was very suppressive and the social sciences were dominated by Marxist-Leninist ideology leading to the abolition of various disciplines like genetics.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, the abolished branches were reintroduced and, though the pressure to conform to the ideology continued, the government introduced more open policies in the 1980s. By that time literacy increased to near 100% and there was also a decrease in the pressure to conform to the ideology. (source)

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2. There is a propaganda tactic known as “whataboutism” used in the Soviet Union to discredit the critics by responding with “What about…” followed by an event from the Western world.

Whataboutism
Whataboutism. Image Source: wikimedia

One of the earliest uses of the tactic dates back to 1947 when William Averell Harriman, an American Democrat politician, criticized Soviet imperialism. In response, Ilya Ehrenburg, a Soviet revolutionary and journalist, wrote in Pravda that the laws and policies of US on race and minorities are considered an insult to human dignity in the Soviet Union.

The tactic was used throughout the Cold War period by media figures and also to accuse critics of hypocrisy to divert attention from the actual criticism. However, it also became a cliche in the Soviet Union, and by the end of Cold War it died out as the reforms in US civil rights began taking shape.

“Whataboutism” saw a resurgence during the post-Soviet Union era when issues of human rights violations by the Russian government arose. It is believed to have grown under the leadership of Vladimir Putin in Russian and also during the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine. (source)

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3. Between 1929 and 1940, the Soviet Union introduced a five- and six-day work week calendar in a deliberate attempt to eliminate religion. 

Five-Day Week Soviet Calendar
Five-Day Week Soviet Calendar. Image Source: Clive Foss

In 1918, Vladimir Lenin implemented the Gregorian calendar because of its worldwide acceptance, replacing the Julian calendar implemented by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1700 CE.

In June 1929, the Supreme Economic Council of RSFSR had its experts design a plan for continuous production to be introduced in the economic year 1929-1930. There were reportedly over 50 versions of the calendar, and the one with the longest work week had 37 days with 30 days of continuous work followed by seven days of rest.

Six-Day Week Soviet Calendar
Six-Day Week Soviet Calendar. Image Source: Clive Foss

Needless to say, the continuous-work-weeks plan failed as the machinery kept failing because there was no time for maintenance. By 1931, the Soviet factories began using six-day weeks with one common day of rest.

The usual Christian holidays were replaced by five national holidays. On June 26, 1940, a decree was passed again reintroducing the traditional seven-day week with Sundays as the common holiday. (source)

4. Two-thirds of males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.

Deaths During Famine in Bolshevist Russia
Deaths During Famine in Bolshevist Russia. Image Source: Library of Congress

The number of males born in 1923 in the Soviet Union was 3.4 million. Over 1.6 million of these males died as infants and children and also due to famine, disease, and other such causes, leaving 1.8 million males at the beginning of the Second World War. Wartime mortality was 700,000 which left 1.1 million surviving males in 1946, that is a 68%t mortality rate in total. (source)

5. It was the Soviet’s Red Army that liberated the concentration camp at Auschwitz and also captured Hitler’s headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, on the day the world celebrates as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day: January 27, 1945.

Soviet Soldiers Talking to Children at Auschwitz Just After Liberation
Soviet Soldiers Talking to Children at Auschwitz Just After Liberation. Image Source: wikimedia

By mid-1944, the SS soldiers began to move over half of the 130,000 prisoners at Auschwitz to other concentration camps. By the week before its liberation, they destroyed various buildings including the crematoria and warehouses at the camp along with written records. The fires lasted several days.

When the 322nd Rifle Division of Red Army liberated Auschwitz camp, they found 7,500 prisoners alive and more than 600 dead. Two days earlier, Hitler’s first Eastern Front military headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, was blown up and abandoned because of the Red Army’s rapid advance during the Baltic Offensive.

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The news of the camp’s liberation was pretty much subdued as, according to historian Laurence Rees, it could have been overshadowed by the news about Majdanek concentration camp or the Allied summit at Yalta. Another reason is believed to be because of the Soviet’s desire to minimize attention directed at the Jews for propaganda purposes. (1, 2)

6. During the Cold War, the USSR mapped the whole world to such precise detail that the US still uses them, among other sources, due to their accuracy. 

Soviet Maps
Soviet Map of Washington, Pentagon Visible to the Left, and Boston. Image Source: The Red Atlas

While the US and British military and intelligence agencies focused on specific areas of strategic interest when making their maps, the Soviets undertook a massive cartographic project creating maps with extreme detail.

The Soviet maps of US have cities mapped to great detail and also include great details about military buildings that were not shown on US-made maps from the same time.

The maps of US have notes on construction materials, the load-bearing capacity of various bridges, types of buildings in a particular area, whether streets have trees or not, and even the width and conditions of the roads.

According to John Davies, a British map enthusiast who spent decades studying Soviet maps and published The Red Atlas along with geographer Alexander Kent, the Soviets believed communism would win and the maps would help them take over the world.

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Soviet Maps
Soviet Maps of Copenhagen and Zurich. Image Source: The Red Atlas

Apart from the maps of US, the Soviets also made maps of other countries like Afghanistan, which included the times during a year when the mountain passes are free of snow, and China, which had details on local vegetation as well as the safety of drinking water in wells.

These maps were prized secrets of the Soviets and anyone who smuggles them are punished even now.

Soviet Map Vs US Map
Soviet Map Vs US Map of San Diego Image Source: The Red Atlas

In 2012, a retired Russian Defense Military official was sentenced to 12 years of prison for selling 7,000 maps which are believed to have ended up in the Pentagon.

According to the television network Russia-24, the maps helped the US invade Iraq in 2003 and support the former Soviet republic of Georgia during the war with Russia. (1, 2)

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