Soviet history


April 12th 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space

On this day in 1961, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space. Gagarin, a fighter pilot, was the successful candidate for the mission, being selected by Russian space programme director Sergei Korolev. Russia already had a lead in the Space Race, having launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, which was the first satellite in space. On April 12th 1961, Gagarin left Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, famously declaring ‘Poyekhali!’ (which means ‘Let’s go!’ in Russian). He spent 108 minutes completing an orbit of the planet. Upon re-entering the atmosphere, Gagarin executed a successful ejection and landed by parachute in rural Russia, to the consternation of locals. Yuri Gagarin became famous worldwide and a Russian hero, being awarded the nation’s highest honour - Hero of the Soviet Union. Gagarin died in 1968 when the training plane he was piloting crashed; his ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin.

“Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”
- Gagarin to some stunned farmers when he landed


February 2nd 1943: Battle of Stalingrad ends

On this day in 19423 during the Second World War, German troops surrendered to the Soviet Red Army in Stalingrad, thus ending five months of fighting. The battle began in August 1942 during the Nazi invasion of Russia - codenamed Operation Barbarossa - and Adolf Hitler ordered an attack on the major city of Stalingrad. Stalingrad became a major playing field of the war, as Soviet leader Stalin was determined to save the city which bore his name. Under the leadership of General Paulus, German bombing destroyed much of the city and troops captured areas through hand-to-hand urban warfare. In November, Marshal Zhukov assembled six Russian armies to surround Stalingrad and trap the Germans in the city, barring provisions and troops from reaching them. Many German soldiers died of starvation and frostbite following the onset of the harsh Russian winter, with temperatures down to -30°C, but Hitler insisted they fight until the last man. After five months, the Russian Red Army claimed victory when the remaining German troops surrendered in February 1943. 91,000 Germans were taken prisoner, including twenty-two generals; this was all that remained of the 330,000 strong German force who arrived at Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad is among the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, causing nearly two million casualties. The disaster depleted the German army’s supply of men and equipment, allowing the Allies to gain the advantage, which enabled them to invade Germany and win the war.

“The God of war has gone over to the other side”
- Adolf Hitler upon hearing of the German surrender at Stalingrad

Learning about the USSR, in Estonia vs. USA

I made a text post recently about an American that I spoke to who thought Estonian was a dialect of Russian. Did it make my blood boil in rage? Abso-fruitly. But… Americans don’t really know about Estonia. (I know, shocker. Next thing you know, I’ll be telling you that the sky is blue.) I think it has something to do with how we are taught about the Soviet Union in American schools. I’ve gone to an American public school and university, so I’ve learned about the USSR almost exclusively from an American perspective until I got to Estonia. I just want to address some differences between our education systems and how it can contribute to a general American ignorance.

First of all, Estonia and America both hate the fact that the Soviet Union existed. But at least the Estonians are realistic when they speak about history of the USSR. I went to a school in a pretty conservative area, and until I started dating a Russian, I was all but under the impression that people were just wallowing in misery and open sewage until Reagan said “tear down this wall!” and Gorbachev shook in his boots at the power of the almighty Republican Jesus and obliged. Yes, the Soviet Union was America’s rival. We learned about it as a monolith of evil. I was in advanced and honour’s classes, and we never learned about how the Soviet Union possessed smaller nations.  Never.  We never learned about the struggles of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, etc. people. We didn’t even learn about their day to day lives, or how their culture survived the Soviet Union.  Just that the entire enterprise was evil, and countries such as Estonia were lumped into this. It makes me shake with rage looking back.

Estonia on the other hand. I was absolutely blown away by the things I learned when I came here. I had no idea that there was society in the Soviet Union. Seriously, I was an honour’s student and thought it was pan-Russian anarchy. When my ex’s mom talked about going to university in 1989 I was floored because I had no idea they had university in the Soviet Union. In our classes, I never remember reading a text from anyone who lived in the Soviet Union, Russian or otherwise. Here in Estonia, I got to read literature from all different types of people who had to live under Soviet rule, go to museums, see Estonian art and other cultural pieces that were produced in this time period. For the first time, really got to learn about this, and it means the world to me that I got to have this opportunity.

I think this is why so many Americans are ignorant about the Soviet Union the states that used to be occupied by it. My uncle asked me if Russian is the official language in Estonia. My dad thought Russia was still communist until I gently explained this to him. I had to explain to other family members that yes, this is a first world country, and yes, they do have tampons here, no, you don’t have to ship them to me from America, I will be just fine. Another family member asked my Russian ex if he had ever tasted chicken or McDonald’s before (ex was and still is a serious KFC addict, by the way. Nikita if you’re reading this, you need help).

Our education system still lives in the cold war, and it has such a detrimental effect on our perception of states that were occupied by the USSR, most of them we have never gotten the opportunity to study. I do blame the American education system for the bulk of this ignorance, since our textbooks view the Soviet Union as one homogeneous boogeyman-entity. And instead of looking at the lives of people who lived in it, they’re glossed over to paint a narrative of American exceptionalism.

Here’s a message for my Estonian followers. Yes, you will hear a lot of Americans say really, really dumb things about the USSR. It’s an inevitability, like the sunrise. Please, if you are willing, take this opportunity to share with these people stories of the USSR so they can get a glimpse into Estonian history and start to understand.

What Was The Holodomor?

From late 1932 until mid-1933, the Soviet Union experienced a major famine largely due to the disastrous policy of forcing peasants to work in collective farms. In Soviet Ukraine, the situation was deliberately exacerbated by teams of activists who removed food from peasant homes. They would go from village to village, entering each house and demanding grain, corn, squash, roots, the seeds for the next year’s crop – everything edible. Then the state closed the borders of Ukraine. The policy was designed to quash Ukraininian separatism, but in reality took away both food and the ability to grow more food, while preventing Ukrainians from leaving their villages to find food elsewhere. Millions died. Today, the famine is known as the Holodomor.

Of course the Soviets tried to cover up how many Ukrainians died. They prevented journalists from visiting the region, forbade publication of the national census in 1937, and then altered the census for years afterward to hide the impact of the Holodomor.

Recently, though, Ukrainian demographers have gone back to look at birth and death records, which were largely unaltered by the Soviets. By estimating how many people should have died and should have been born, they can estimate how many Ukrainians went missing from late 1932 to mid-1933. Using this method, the number of “unnatural deaths” during the Holodomor is 3.9 million.


October 3rd 1990: German reunification

On this day in 1990, Germany was officially reunited when the German Democratic Republic was abolished and incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany. The country had been split into East and West Germany following its defeat in World War Two, and subsequent occupation by the victorious Allied powers. The United States, Britain and France controlled the Western Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet Union the Eastern German Democratic Republic. The Cold War era ‘iron curtain’ marking the Communist bloc began to falter in 1989, when East Germans used the removal of the Hungarian border fence to flee the oppression of Soviet rule for the safety of West Germany. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which had divided the Western and Eastern sections of the German capital, calls for total reunification rose. Conservative pro-reunification parties won in the first free elections in Soviet-controlled East Germany, and worked to secure closer ties with the West. Economic union occurred in July 1990, followed by total political reunification in October under the government of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. While rightly celebrated as a momentous event in German history, reunification came at the price of the economic collapse of the former East Germany, which plunged Germany into recession. The reunification of Germany was one the major events leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, October 3rd, is celebrated in Germany as German Unity Day.

A Linguistics Rant (TM)

you know what really, really fucking bugs me sometimes?..  

in russian, we have this amazing word.  it denotes a state of relationship that’s closer than “acquaintance” and not as powerful as “friend.”  basically, most relationships you will ever form.  amazing.  

english has this word too.  Which is great.  In theory.  

HOWEVER, because this word was used as a form of address by communists, the english version of it lost its original connotation completely.  it’s never used anymore.  left to rust on the pages of history books.  

And the result???  

THE RESULT IS THAT EVERYONE I KNOW CALLS EVERYONE THEY KNOW A FRIEND.  every friendly acquaintance they make.  and before you know it, they’re doing crazy favours for those “friends,” they’re hanging out with those “friends” all the time, sacrificing things for them, not because they like them all that much but because they’re Friends and That’s What Friends Do.  

TL; DR – 

If you’ve got a ton of these shitty fake friends?..  Blame the Cold War.  I mean, sure, you know these people better than plain acquaintances, but like…  they’re not your friends.  And you won’t ever admit it to them OR to yourself.  

Because there’s no way you will ever call them “comrades.”  

I would like
to be born
in every country,
have a passport
for them all
to throw
all foreign offices
into panic,
be every fish
in every ocean
and every dog
in the streets of the world.
I don’t want to bow down
before any idols
or play at being
a Russian Orthodox church hippie,
but I would like to plunge
deep into Lake Baikal
and surface snorting
why not in the Mississippi?
In my damned beloved universe
I would like
to be a lonely weed,
but not a delicate Narcissus
kissing his own mug
in the mirror.
I would like to be
any of God’s creatures
right down to the last mangy hyena-
but never a tyrant
or even the cat of a tyrant.
I would like to be
reincarnated as a man
in any image:
a victim of prison tortures,
a homeless child in the slums of Hong Kong,
a living skeleton in Bangladesh,
a holy beggar in Tibet,
a black in Cape Town,
but never
in the image of Rambo.
The only people whom I hate
are the hypocrites-
pickled hyenas
in heavy syrup.
I would like to lie
under the knives of all the surgeons in the world,
be hunchbacked, blind,
suffer all kinds of diseases,
wounds and scars,
be a victim of war,
or a sweeper of cigarette butts,
just so a filthy microbe of superiority
doesn’t creep inside.
I would not like to be in the elite,
nor, of course,
in the cowardly herd,
nor be a guard dog of that herd,
nor a shepherd,
sheltered by that herd.
And I would like happiness,
but not at the expense of the unhappy,
and I would like freedom,
but not at the expense of the unfree.
I would like to love
all the women in the world,
and I would like to be a woman, too-
just once…
Men have been diminished
by Mother Nature.
Why couldn’t we give motherhood
to men?
If an innocent child
below his heart,
man would probably
not be so cruel.
I would like to be man’s daily bread-
a cup of rice
for a Vietnamese woman in mourning,
cheap wine
in a Neapolitan workers’ trattoria,
or a tiny tube of cheese
in orbit round the moon.
Let them eat me,
let them drink me,
only let my death
be of some use.
I would like to belong to all times,
shock all history so much
that it would be amazed
what a smart aleck I was.
I would like to bring Nefertiti
to Pushkin in a troika.
I would like to increase
the space of a moment
a hundredfold,
so that in the same moment
I could drink vodka with fishermen in Siberia
and sit together with Homer,
and Tolstoy,
drinking anything,
except, of course,
-dance to the tom-toms in the Congo,
-strike at Renault,
-chase a ball with Brazilian boys
at Copacabana Beach.
I would like to know every language,
like the secret waters under the earth,
and do all kinds of work at once.
I would make sure
that one Yevtushenko was merely a poet,
the second-an underground fighter
I couldn’t say where
for security reasons,
the third-a student at Berkeley,
the fourth-a jolly Georgian drinker,
and the fifth-
maybe a teacher of Eskimo children in Alaska,
the sixth-
a young president,
somewhere, say, modestly speaking, in Sierra Leone,
the seventh-
would still be shaking a rattle in his stroller,
and the tenth…
the hundredth…
the millionth…
For me it’s not enough to be myself,
let me be everyone!
Every creature
usually has a double,
but God was stingy
with the carbon paper,
and in his Paradise Publishing Corporation
made a unique copy of me.
But I shall muddle up
all God’s cards-
I shall confound God!
I shall be in a thousand copies to the end of my days,
so that the earth buzzes with me,
and computers go berserk
in the world census of me.
I would like to fight on all your barricades,
dying each night
like an exhausted moon,
and resurrecting each morning
like a newborn sun,
with an immortal soft spot-fontanel-
on my head.
And when I die,
a smart-aleck Siberian Francois Villon,
do not lay me in the earth
of France
or Italy,
but in our Russian, Siberian earth,
on a still-green hill,
where I first felt
that I was
—  Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “I Would Like”