Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Head, Contemporary History Branch
Naval Historical Center
Disintegrating before the astonished eyes of the world are the armed forces of the recently interred Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Last year the nightly news was filled with images of Soviet generals delivering brief, insincere parting remarks as their forces headed home, ending the 45-year occupation of Eastern Europe, of junior officers and their families huddling in cramped, unheated Moscow flats, of soldiers living in tents on the wind-swept Ukrainian steppe. This year we were again incredulous bystanders as insurgents in Armenia, Georgia, and even tiny Chengchen-Ingush seized military arsenals, as armed and bewildered troops faced off in front of the Russian parliament, and as a Marshal of the Soviet Union committed suicide over the recent course of events. Even now the newly independent states of the old union are staking claims to Soviet fleets, air forces, and land armies. Its anyone's guess who controls the Strategic Rocket Forces.
For those of us who have grown to maturity in the second half of the 20th century, this phenomenon truly represents a "world turned upside down." We would have been much less surprised if CNN had reported in the last two years that flotillas of Typhoon submarines were surging into the North Atlantic, that hordes of T-72 tanks were racing across the North German Plain, or that Soviet troops were gunning down protesters in the streets of Warsaw.
This latter perception of probable Soviet actions and military strengths was born in the period from 1945 to 1953, when Joseph Stalin was the undisputed ruler of the world's first Communist superpower. The dictator created and sustained a peacetime defense establishment with over 4 milliom men under arms and turned the Soviet state into a military-industrial juggernaut that produced an array of lethal weapons of war, from hydrogen bombs and long-range bombers to advanced design submarines and modern armored fighting vehicles. Throughout this period, the Soviet armed forces served as the guarantor not only of the Bolshevik Revolution but of the Communist movements that seized power in Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea.
As many here will remember, during this same period the United States and her Western allies mobilized large standing armies and devoted considerable national treasure to the global struggle with the Soviet Bloc. This international militarization significantly influenced the nature of the Berlin and Czechoslovakian crises of 1948, the civil war in China, the Korean War, and the Cold War in general.
Since 1945, scholars have hotly debated Stalin's intentions for the massive Soviet military machine and its ability to accomplish his objectives, whatever they were. Arguments have run the gamut, from those who have said he planned to use his military arm to conquer world, to those who believe he kept the goliath in place because he feared encirclement and attack by a hostile Western world. Because many have felt the very survival of the global community at stake in this struggle, the debate has been charged with passion, as we know, the enemy of reason and logic. However, the Cold War is now over and a monolithic Soviet armed force is being tossed onto the "ash heap" of history even as we speak. With the fear of invasion by Russian hordes, the subversion of Western civilization, and the nuclear annihilation of the world diminishing daily, it should now be possible to study the post-World War II Soviet military establishment from a new, more objective perspective.