General topics

How to Define Sovietisation?

Olaf Mertelsmann, historian, 08. May 2019

"Sovietisation is a very complex development of different processes influencing one another. Accounting for this complexity and for regional differences of Sovietisation requires a differentiated analysis that relies on a variety of perspectives."


It is not easy to define the term ‘Sovietisation’, because the actual imple- mentation of the process varied from country to country. In addition, over time the content of this term underwent slight changes. If we examine only one country, such as Latvia or Estonia, we risk overlooking the larger context.1 Thus this discussion of ‘Sovietisation’ starts by looking at the history of the term.

The word ‘soviet’ (sovet) means ‘council’ in Russian and was used in the Russian Empire as a politically neutral term, as in Council of Minis- ters (Sovet ministrov). In the context of the February Revolution in 1917, across the empire workers’ and soldiers’ councils were established, often elected, and played a role in the revolution. They turned into a parallel power structure vis-à-vis the institutions of the provisional government, especially because the remnants of the old administration began to dis- solve and lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the population. In most workers’ and soldiers’ councils, it was not the Bolsheviks who dominated but other socialist parties such as the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries.

The ‘trick’ used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks during their coup d’état, also known as the October Revolution, was to seize power in the name of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets under the slogan ‘all power to the soviets’. The long-term goal of the coup d’état, the establishment of a one- party dictatorship headed by Lenin, was hidden. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils played a certain role locally in developments, especially in the unfolding civil war.

But step by step, the Bolsheviks pushed aside all oth- er political groups, including the left-wing Social Revolutionaries, which whom they had initially formed a coalition. Likewise, workers’ control of factories survived only briefly after the putsch. Workers’ control was never completed, meaning the workers’ councils never really directed the enterprises, and they were pushed aside over time by appointed commis- sars, communist-dominated trade unions and state institutions such as agencies of planning and the war economy.

On closer examination, then, the terms ‘Soviet power’, ‘Soviet Russia’ and ‘the Soviet Union’ were misnomers, because soviets were usually not elected democratically, and their influence and authority declined rapidly. The meetings of those soviets increasingly turned into a staged performance for the acclamation of the regime, and they had nothing to do with democracy. Consequently, until the 1960s, a number of Western researchers spoke of ‘Bolshevik Russia’ when referring to Soviet Russia or the Soviet Union.2

After the Bolshevik coup d’état and during the civil war, the term ‘So- vietisation’ (sovetizatsiia) first appeared. It was used by the Bolsheviks to mean the application of the Bolshevik model of governance and organiza- tion in one region or country. Thus, for example, Lenin spoke in Septem- ber 1920 about the Sovietisation of Lithuania.3

The first Sovietised areas were those conquered by the Bolsheviks during the civil war. Initially the term possessed mainly a political meaning. Over time the meaning grew broader. Turning a non-Soviet society into a Soviet one meant not only taking political power but restructuring the economy, everyday life, society and culture. In the end, virtually everything could be ‘Sovietised’, including the music on a radio station, as one source states.4 In the 1940s the term ‘Sovietisation’ was still used, but in the 1950s it disappeared from Soviet sources, as a result of the word’s use in Western research and media since the early Cold War.


Before World War II, some Soviet publications even contained passages about the future Sovietisation of neighbouring countries. Soviet military theoretician Vladimir K. Triandafillov (1894–1931) published the classic textbook on the subject in 1929: The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies (Kharakter operatsii sovremennykh armii). It is quoted below ex- tensively, because the textbook was written for future officers, and it quite openly elaborates how Sovietisation should unfold in the framework of a military conquest.

The author used his background experience from the Russian Civil War, and there are striking similarities between the descrip- tion in the book and the events in the territories occupied and annexed  in 1939 and 1940. The smaller states mentioned were, of course, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania:

Enormous work involving Sovietisation of regions captured from the enemy will fall to the political apparatus. Major successive operations, given fa- vourable conditions, may over a period of three-four weeks lead to liberation of territory with frontage and depth of 200–250 kilometers. If small states are involved, this signifies that one must cope in a short time (two-three weeks) with Sovietisation of entire states.

This could mean three-four weeks of Sovietisation of extremely large areas if larger countries are involved. Of course, complete Sovietisation of such territories is a long-term concern, but deployment of a Soviet apparatus must take place within the aforementioned periods. Here, from the very outset, one must achieve a high-quality and reli- able apparatus dedicated to the ideals of Soviet power, people capable in dem- onstrating to the population of newly captured areas the difference between the Soviet and the capitalist system must be put in place.

It will be very hard to count on local assets when organising revolutionary committees because the enemy will undoubtedly destroy all local revolutionary organisations in the area of the front. Only part of the tech- nical apparatus and the most responsible workers will be found locally. All responsible workers and even some of the technical personnel must be brought in.

Of course, they will and, if the capability exists, must be taken from among the local workers, who fled from the Whites. The number of these workers required to carry out the Sovietisation of newly captured areas will be enormous. [...] The Sovietisation mission, of course, cannot be han- dled without wide use of local workers, local revolutionary organisations. Strengthening the Soviet system and the Soviet apparatus wholly depends on the rate of reestablishment of revolutionary social organisations such as trade unions, poor peasant committees in villages, and so forth. The Soviet system in captured areas will be finally strengthened only when their own peaceful Communist Party is created.5

After the October putsch, the Bolsheviks tried to ignite revolution in nearby states, most notably in Germany, Poland, and Hungary, but also in other countries. Weapons, ammunition and money were brought in and used to start local insurrections. After the failure of the last uprising – the December 1924 attempt to seize power in Estonia – the Bolshevik leaders finally understood that revolutions in the West would not succeed without the direct support of the Red Army.6 This meant a change in the Soviets’ policy towards their neighbours.

Tobias Privetelli has demonstrat- ed convincingly in his unpublished thesis that Stalin became a cautious expansionist. When the time was ripe, after the August 1939 signing of the German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression and its secret protocol, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in September and Sovietised the region according to a rough plan drawn up mainly by Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin’s lieutenants. The plan resembles Triandafillov’s ideas.

The Soviet army occupied eastern Poland, and special plenipotentiaries came in. Sham elections; incorporation into the USSR; and the restructuring of the administration, society, economy and culture started within weeks.7 Eastern Poland later served as a rough model for the events in the Baltic states, following a similar time frame.

The Bolsheviks felt the Sovietisation of other states was ideologically justified and did not constitute imperialist expansion. According to the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, socialism was superior to oth- er political systems, and its victory in the long run was historically inevi- table. The population of the Sovietised territories would be freed from the ills of capitalism and could look forward to a brighter future.

This explains why Triandafillov and others could write so openly about the Sovietisa- tion of neighbouring countries during a military occupation. Only after cooperating with the Western Allies during World War II and then in the Cold War did the Soviets conceal their plans for expanding their territory and sphere of influence and portray Sovietisation as a result of genuine local processes and the wishes of the local populations. To this end the Soviets created the myth of a revolution, which many socialist historians later echoed in books and articles.

In international media and the language of some foreign diplomats, the term ‘Sovietisation’ appears as early as the interwar period, but it spread more widely after the war. By then, the Western media and historians used the term to describe the changes in the Soviet-controlled territories of Central and Eastern Europe. Often the word was used by refugees from those regions.8 The restructuring of all aspects of everyday life, economy, politics, society and culture was called ‘Sovietisation’, and the term had a highly negative connotation. There were local varieties, such as the East German, Czechoslovak or Polish model. In the Federal Republic of Ger- many, the term was widely used to describe developments in the east- ern part of the divided country. The West German federal government sponsored an entire series of publications.9 Further works followed, often imbued with the spirit of the Cold War.10

The late 1950s saw the publica- tion of a groundbreaking overview, cited to this day, on developments in East-Central Europe.11 Outside the Federal Republic of Germany, the term was not as popular.12 With new developments in Soviet studies, especially in the English-speaking world—such as revisionism—the use of the term ‘Sovietisation’ declined. It conjured up the rhetoric of Cold War hawks. In addition, some Western experts were themselves Marxists and did not reject socialism per se. Only the collapse of socialism led to a revival of the term, and today it is used in a more neutral way.13


The first Sovietized territories, as mentioned above, formed part of Soviet Russia. At first, the Bolsheviks had to secure power in the territories they controlled militarily and politically, and afterwards they had to integrate the many areas conquered during the civil war.14 Right from the start, sovetizatsiia implied more than mere political takeover—it also meant social, economic and cultural restructuring according to the ideas of those in power.

The basic pattern would also be used later with different variations: oppression and terror against real or invented ‘enemies’, the nationalisation of private property, measures taken against the market and private enterprise, state control of prices, remoulding the social structure, strict censorship, political agitation and propaganda and the support of one particular way of culture. Parallel to this was the offer to integrate certain social strata of limited means, which encouraged their accommo- dation to the new regime. Often the offer of integration involved upward social mobility and privileges.

Tsarist Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, constituted a multiethnic and multicultural empire. This means that, in different regions, the process of Sovietisation happened in the framework of different cul- tures and even civilizations. Stalin initially worked out the basic concepts of the Soviet nationalities policy under the influence of Austrian Social Democrats. The policy was summed up in the slogan ‘national in form, socialist in content’. As a result, the young Soviet state had a very dif- ferent face from region to region.

As we know from studies on the Cau- casus and Central Asia,15 the Bolsheviks formed the strangest coalitions with religious or national minorities, with a clan or a tribe, playing one group against another. In one place they were modernisers or supported a national awakening and nation-building, while in other places they be- haved like colonisers or brutal oppressors. Thus there was not one uniform method of Sovietisation within the Soviet Union but many local varieties of one basic model.

Stalin’s cultural revolution, the forced collectivisation of  agriculture and the start of the campaign of industrialisation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, together with the ‘Great Terror’ in 1937–1938, including the attack on ‘enemy nations’, brought a certain degree of unity to the Soviet empire. In addition, the number of languages accepted for instruction in the native tongue at ‘national’ schools sharply declined, which also led to more uniformity.16

The end of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the restructuring of the economy, everyday life, society and culture, together with repression and terror, might be seen as a continuation of the Sovieti- sation of the USSR. Only then did the Bolsheviks control the countryside, where the vast majority of citizens lived, and agriculture, where most of the population was employed. Other parts of the economy were placed under tighter state control than in the 1920s. For a long time, the Soviet economy was seen as a planned economy, but new research finds it to have been a command economy.17

The 1930s saw the establishment of the USSR’s main structures, which were to persist until the collapse of the state in 1991. The Soviet Union was a house built by Stalin on the foundation laid by Lenin. Stalin’s successors attempted to make some renovations to this house but tried not to touch the foundation. Certainly one of the most important reforms was the end of state terror and open oppression in the 1950s, not for humanitarian reasons but because mass terror was too costly in economic terms. The foundations of Stalin’s house were rocked by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, causing the structure to finally collapse.18

The Export of the Soviet Model

After the German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression in August 1939, the opportunity to export the Soviet model arose (the first attempts were made in Mongolia in the 1920s). Where did Sovietisation happen?19 We must distinguish among four groups of countries:

The territories occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 with a population of more than 20 million inhabitants:

- Eastern Poland was invaded in September 1939 and later incor- porated into the Belarussian and the Ukrainian SSR. 20 The Vil- nius region became part of Lithuania. The Kresy or border region was the least developed part of Poland. Soviet and German ter- ror, population transfer and ethnic cleansing during and after the war changed the area more profoundly than it did the Baltic states.21 The incorporation into existing Soviet republics involved a deeper restructuring, too.

- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been independent states and were turned into Soviet republics. This meant that measures of oppression and terror notwithstanding, there was more room for local decision-making and more continuity than in eastern Poland.22

- Bessarabia, the least developed province of Romania, was occu- pied and annexed and became, after ‘unification’ with the Mol- davian ASSR, a Soviet republic. Because Romania was among the poorest countries in Europe, some leftist circles viewed incorporation into the USSR as, in a sense, progressive. The re- public was placed under strict central control, and the first party secretary was often an ethnic Russian. A Moldavian nation was constructed.

- North Bukovina, formerly part of Romania, was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.

- The territories gained from Finland after the Winter War were already evacuated.

Territories newly acquired in 1945–46:

- In the northern part of East Prussia, some of the German popula- tion fled, died of famine or was killed or deported; the remainder were expelled. The population transfer was nearly complete, and the region—now inhabited by Soviet settlers—was transformed into the Russian province of Kaliningrad.23

- The population of the formerly Japanese Kuril Islands was de- ported or displaced.

- The eastern part of Slovakia, Carpathian Ruthenia, was incorpo- rated into the Ukrainian SSR, but large population transfers did not take place. Carpathian Ruthenia was a remote mountainous region and had been the least developed part of Czechoslovakia.

The people’s democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and the So- viet zones of occupation: in those countries and regions, the start of the Cold War and the division of Europe was an important turning point, as was the increasing political pressure.

- In the countries supposedly ‘liberated’ but, in fact, controlled by the Red Army, the first governments to be established were usually people’s fronts. Several political parties existed and some free elections were even held. Restructuring, such as land reform or nationalisation of private property, began slowly. By the end of the 1940s, socialist parties were in power. In some places, other parties were forbidden; in other countries they were tolerated but controlled. Developments were different from country to coun- try and were guided by local politicians who were dependent on Moscow and Soviet advisors. What initially seemed to be a ‘national path to socialism’ turned into Sovietisation with in- creasing centralising tendencies due to the Cold War.24 We might differentiate between Germany’s former allies, such as Hungary or Romania, and German-occupied countries. In Poland, for ex- ample, the Catholic Church was able to preserve its influential position, collectivisation of agriculture remained incomplete, and censorship was less strict. In all cases Sovietisation involved the use of violence, including party purges. Violence was later used later, as in 1956 and 1968, when a country threatened to leave the Soviet bloc.

- In Yugoslavia and Albania, communist partisan leaders estab- lished their own socialist dictatorship, which was initially sup- ported by the USSR. These regimes were inspired by the USSR and were initially fairly Stalinist. In the long run they broke with the Soviet Union and followed their own path to socialism, Yu- goslavia in 1948 and Albania in 1961.

- The Soviet occupation zone in Austria experienced some cau- tious measures of Sovietisation but was not turned into a socialist state. Given Austria’s geographic location, the USSR preferred a neutral and unified state. The Austrian State Treaty of 1955 defined the status of Austria, and thereafter, the occupation ended.26

- In the Soviet occupation zone in Germany, a satellite state—the German Democratic Republic—was established in 1949, deepen- ing the partition of the country.25

Other communist or socialist states and the Third World:


The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements and the estab- lishment of socialist dictatorships all around the world. Nevertheless, the Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, Angolan or Vietnamese path to socialism, not to mention that of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, was in many ways different from the Soviet model. In this context it seems difficult to speak of full-scale Sovietisation, even when there were a few similarities with the USSR.

For a time, the Soviet Union served as a model for a number of former colonies, such as India or Egypt, in their first years of in- dependence. Soviet advisors were invited in, and some elements of the Soviet model were adapted to local conditions. In particular, the command economy seemed an attractive way to overcome economic backwardness. This perception proved wrong. In those countries we might speak of a certain influence of the Soviet model. Afghanistan was a special case because of the Soviet occupation.

The list of states and regions that can be considered Sovietised, or thor- oughly influenced by the Soviet model, is long and diverse. Certain com- ponents such as one-party rule, purges or a nationalised economy were similar, while developments often turned out differently. Another factor seems important: there was no detailed master plan to follow. Instead, considerable improvisation occurred, and as a result, local solutions in- fluenced by cultural traditions were found.

This was particularly true of states that remained sovereign and were not annexed to the USSR. A cou- ple of states even managed to leave the Soviet camp and to declare that they were taking their own path to socialism. The first, violent phase of Sovietisation under military protection was usually followed by a second, less violent phase.

As part of the Soviet Union, the affected states were in a permanent metamorphosis; the regime accommodated to changing conditions but stood firm on certain basic issues. Whenever the very foun- dations of the Sovietised state were touched, the regime would break apart, as in 1989 and 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe.


Attempt to Define Sovietisation

In the introduction to a volume on the early history of the German Dem- ocratic Republic, Michael Lemke defines Sovietisation thus: ‘The term Sovietisation [...] stands for structural, institutional, spiritual-cultural processes of transfer and adoption of the Soviet model with the aim of adjustment of non-Soviet societies to the social and political conditions in the USSR.’27 Gerhard Simon writes that Sovietisation included instru- ments of annexation and integration of newly acquired territories used by the Soviets.28 In his case study on the Sovietisation of East German, Czech and Polish universities, John Connelly concludes that essential ideas of transfer of the Soviet model were developed on the spot.29

In the author’s opinion, the term ‘Sovietisation’ refers to a complex network of processes of adoption, transfer and imposition of elements of the Soviet model of power and social structure. These processes included the institutional and structural change of society, economy and state, and the restructuring of culture and education and of everyday life. Aside from enforcement measures and direct pressure, incentives were used to integrate part of society into the new project.

The precise course of those processes of transfer and adoption was dictated by the local political, eco- nomic and cultural conditions, the policies of those in power, the attitude of advisors and direct interventions by the center. While institutional re- structuring took only a couple of years, the restructuring of society and culture took much more time. The population had to be ‘re-educated’. The long-term goal was an adjustment to conditions in the Soviet Union. A violent phase was followed by a second phase fortifying the already reached and continuing changes.

The author thinks that ‘Sovietisation’ is the term best suited to describe

socio-political restructuring in those territories directly incorporated into the USSR. Nevertheless, the Soviet model was not static and changed in the framework of its possibilities. In research the term ‘Stalinisation’ is sometimes used to characterize the first, violent phase of Sovietisation.30

Sometimes the Americanisation of Western Europe and the Sovietisa- tion of Eastern Europe is dealt with in a rather similar way.31 But Ameri- canisation happened mostly voluntarily and not under the pressure of a dictatorship. In addition, Americanisation is often seen as a cultural or economic phenomenon, and many issues mentioned in this context are actually the results of globalisation, modernisation or democratisation. Some people see Sovietisation as equivalent to Russification.32

Particularly in the territories incorporated into the USSR, a certain degree of Rus- sification was one aspect of Sovietisation, stressing Russian language and Russian culture. Nevertheless, this tendency toward Russification was re- stricted by another element of Sovietisation, the Soviet nationalities policy or korenizatsiia (taking root). To take root, the Soviet system needed the help of national cadres, languages and cultures.


Sketching a ‘Typical’ Sovietisation

The first step of Sovietisation is securing political and military control. In a country occupied by the Soviet army, the army possesses a near- monopoly of force. Other armed units such as the local military, police or border guards have to be brought under control and often have to hand over their weapons. Because of this, communists or their puppets take over the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. It makes sense to act under the cover of legitimacy; sham parliaments or puppet governments are helpful. For the new authorities to secure power, they must arrest or eliminate potential rivals and parts of the country’s former elite.33 The new regime’s next aim is to control justice.

To maintain the façade and prevent resistance from going public, cen- sorship and propaganda soon begins. This allows the regime to take over the media, control published expressions of opinion and influence the population. Propaganda provides the backdrop for restructuring. The re- construction of the existing state apparatus is the next step; key positions are assigned to trustworthy personnel while, in less important fields, the old civil servants remain in office.


Education and culture require control and long-term restructuring and must be forced to take the official line. This happens in stages and might include consideration of local circumstances. It helps to use a compromise tactic acknowledging the population’s national feelings or to present the new regime as the best guardian of national values, as was done in Poland or Hungary.34 In the economic sphere the new regime first seizes control and then begins nationalisation. In the beginning, industry and large en- terprises are the main target of change; later small enterprises and agri- culture are also targeted. The formal establishment of a planned economy rounds out the takeover of the economy.35

Because the social order in the affected country is different from that in the Soviet Union, social engineering and the ‘cleansing’ of society from real or potential ‘social alien’ or ‘enemy elements’ are necessary.36 In the event of resistance or uprisings, those measures might be repeated. One problem is that ‘cleansing’ and terror often lead to resistance or increase opposition. A spiral of violence might result.

This is the repressive side of Sovietisation, but if a society puts up ac- tive and passive resistance, power cannot be established sustainably or be consolidated without the use of large-scale violence. Thus the regime must reach out to certain strata of society. The destructive aspects of Stalinism are well-known, but Stalinism was also able to integrate. How can parts of society be encouraged to participate or collaborate?

Ideology might be one factor: local communists or socialists might work for the regime out of conviction, while others have to be persuad- ed. Younger people might be recruited through youth organizations like Komsomol. Still, this author thinks that ideology played only a minor role. More important seems to be the prospect of upward social mobility and privilege. Because the socialist economy is an economy of shortages and the regime distributes the scarce resources, the communists can win some support by distributing material benefits, such as through land reform.

The regime can ask for loyalty in exchange for education and career op- portunities. Sometimes, those with stains on their record cleave to the new regime in order to stay employed. In a shortage economy, when the state is the most important source of goods, nearly everyone depends to some extent on the state’s benevolence. Sovietisation included carrots and sticks. In the long run, the population might accommodate to Sovietisation after a phase of resistance, especially when there are temporary hopes for political change.

People attempt to arrange their lives within the new socio-political framework. Propaganda, education, cultural policy and the realities of life lead to partial acceptance of the values of the regime. The passing of time inevitably leads to greater acceptance. Even when the new order is rejected and there are alternative sources of information such as foreign radio broadcasting and an idealized memory of the pre-Soviet

period, the Sovietisation process continues.

This outline focuses on developments in Central and Eastern Europe, but it should be made clear that there were huge differences within the re- gion. Local conditions differed, regional peculiarities were acknowledged in some way, and the new elites possessed some room for manoeuver. Nevertheless, the centre, Moscow, always had the possibility to interfere and to replace the local power elite, as happened in the late 1940s (to a limited extent) in Central Europe, in 1950 in the Estonian SSR and in 1959 in the Latvian SSR.

The ‘typical’ chain of events of Sovietisation presented here is, of course, simplified and ignores a couple of problems accompanying the complex process. For this reason, the author presents some hypotheses concerning Sovietisation.


Hypotheses on Sovietisation37

  • Sovietisation was characterized not by a complete break with the past overnight but by continuous change and a certain degree of continu- ity. There was personal continuity as the integration of a small part of the former elite and the cultural framework persisted.
  • While external restructuring and institutional change happened comparatively quickly, internal restructuring and social change oc- curred much more slowly. Because most of the affected societies later freed themselves of socialism, Sovietisation was never completed, not even in Russia.
  • Sovietisation in the initial phase went hand in hand with mass vio- lence: arrests, deportations, executions, and cleansing of society. The new regime deemed those measures necessary to intensify the grip on society and to reconstruct it thoroughly through cleansing.38 Never- theless, the regime was also able to offer a certain compromise policy towards certain groups.39
  • The socialist system lacked legitimacy because it was obviously intro- duced from the outside; initially there was a lack of local cadres; for a long time, the economic situation was worse than in pre-socialist times, and in the beginning Sovietisation was accompanied by fierce oppression and terror.
  • The population might initially take a wait-and-see approach. Later the prevailing attitude might be passive resistance or silent non-consent, or in individual cases even active resistance. Only when hopes for regime change or liberation from the outside were finally quelled did the majority come to terms with the socialist system. In Central and Eastern Europe this occurred in the late 1950s after the unsuccessful uprisings in the GDR, Poland and Hungary.
  • In contrast with the difficult socialist reality, there was often an ideal- ised picture of the pre-socialist period, which only slowly faded from collective memory. This image, as well as listening to foreign radio broadcasts, reading forbidden books, hearing rumours, and the ex- istence of resistance and later of dissidents, led to questioning of the Soviet model.
  • The gap between the level of development of the Sovietised countries and the ‘old republics’ of the USSR was sometimes huge. For example, Estonia and Latvia remained for decades the most developed union republics of the USSR. In addition, cultural differences necessitated different strategies of adaptation.
  • Social change and the implementation of a new set of values also led to unintended consequences. For instance, austerity and mis- management in the command economy led to the decline of work discipline and the increase of corruption, blat’ (mutual favours) and petty theft.40 Discontent with the new conditions led to an increase in alcohol consumption41 and other socially destructive patterns of behaviour, which represented an erosion of moral values.
  • One important method of stabilizing the new order was the expan- sion of education starting in the 1950s, allowing for upward social mobility and the professionalisation of state institutions.42
  • Even in ‘extraordinary times’ (Sheila Fitzpatrick) there was a ‘normal’ cultural life and traditional leisure activities with sport clubs, choirs or voluntary fire brigades, which were an element of continuity but could be instrumentalized by the regime. Despite all measures to level and homogenise the formerly non-Soviet societies, many structures and social networks remained intact.43
  • In the newly acquired territories of the USSR, the process of Sovietisa- tion was accompanied by large-scale immigration, raising the national question. One unintended consequence might have been the construc- tion of a new ‘image of a national enemy’, the Russians or the Soviets.44
  • Secularisation, expansion of education, urbanisation and a rise in industrial employment accompanied Sovietisation. Thus many pro- cesses of change were influenced by ‘socialist modernisation’.
  • Ideology offered those in power a worldview and a framework for decision-making. Still, many decisions were pragmatic and designed to fulfill short-term aims.
  • The affected societies were indeed Sovietised but were able to retain their own character. The term ‘unfinished penetration of society’ seems appropriate.
  • The new, Sovietised national elites identified themselves increasingly with the particular interest of their state or Soviet republic, which made it easier for them to opt for democracy or nationalism during the collapse of socialism.45 This also explains, to a certain degree, the continuity of elites in the post-socialist states.


Sovietisation is a very complex development of different processes influencing one another. Accounting for this complexity and for regional differences of Sovietisation requires a differentiated analysis that relies on a variety of perspectives.

Historical memory, economic problems and the use of violence were crucial factors curbing the acceptance of the Soviet model and of Sovietisation. We have to differentiate between intended consequences, such as the restructuring of the state, economy, culture and society, and the results, which might have been partly unintended. Because the Soviet model was based on a utopian ideology and could never have been realised,46 one does not wonder about unintended consequenc- es. Among historians the debate over the importance of ideology in the politics of socialist states has not yet ended. This author tends to think that pragmatism was more important than ideology.

The Sovietisation of one state should not be seen in isolation from developments in other Sovietised countries, and we should not ignore the international framework. For example, Elena Zubkova sees a clear relation between the outbreak of the Cold War and the course of Sovietisation in the Baltic republics.47

Finally, ‘Sovietisation’ seems to be the best way to conceive of the multifaceted processes of restructuring and remoulding in the countries under consideration. This author has not found a more suitable term.

Source: published in the Proceedings of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory 1 (2018).


*   An earlier version of this paper was published under the following title: ‘What is Sovietization?’ – Olaf Mertelsmann, Everyday Life in Stalinist Estonia (Frank- furt: Peter Lang, 2012), 9–25.

1 After the 1989–1991 collapse of socialism, many studies based on extensive archival research were published concerning Sovietisation in individual coun- tries. By covering only one country, these studies neglected often the broader perspective. In this context, broader cooperation across the borders of national historiography is necessary to enable comparisons and combat the assumption that developments in one’s own country were unique.


2 For example, Georg von Rauch, Geschichte des bolschewistischen Rußland (Wiesbaden: Rheinische Verlagsanstalt, 1955).

3 Lenin’s speech from September 20, 1920, cited in The Unknown Lenin, ed. Richard Pipes (New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1996), 95–115.


4 Meeting of the Bureau of the Central Committee of the ECP(B), 20 June 1946, RA, ERAF.1.4.360, 151–152.

5 V. K. Triandafillov, The Nature of the Operations of Modern Armies (Ilford- Portland: Frank Cass, 1994), 164–165.

6 Tobias Privetelli, ‘Irredentism, Expansion and the Liberation of the European Proletariat: Stalin’s Considerations on How to Bring Communism to the West- ern Neighbors of the Soviet Union, 1920–1941’ (PhD thesis, University of Berne, 2008), 68–72.

7 Ibid., 318–326.


8 For example, Endel Kareda, Technique of Economic Sovietisation: A Baltic Experience (London: Boreas Publishing Company, 1947).

9 The West German Ministry for All-German Questions published, for ex- ample, the following volumes: Die Sowjetisierung der deutschen Länder Branden- burg, Mecklenburg, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Thüringen (Bonn: Bundesministe- rium für gesamtdeutsche Fragen, 1950); Die Sowjetisierung der Landwirtschaft in der Sowjetzone (Hamburg: Bundesministerium für gesamtdeutsche Fragen, 1951); Bibliotheken als Opfer und Werkzeug der Sowjetisierung (Bonn: Bundes- ministerium für gesamtdeutsche Fragen, 1952); Das Erziehungswesen der Sow- jetzone: Eine Sammlung von Zeugnissen der Sowjetisierung und Russifizierung des mitteldeutschen Schulwesens (Bonn: Bundesministerium für gesamtdeutsche Fragen, 1952).


10 Marianne Müller and Egon Erwin Müller, ‘... stürmt die Festung Wissen- schaft!’ Die Sowjetisierung der mitteldeutschen Universitäten seit 1945 (Berlin: Colloquium-Verlag, 1953); Bartho Plönies and Otto Schönwalder, Die Sowje- tisierung des mitteldeutschen Handwerks (Bonn: Bundesministerium für gesa- mtdeutsche Fragen, 1953); Robert von Benda, Die betriebswirtschaftlichen Aus- wirkungen der Sowjetisierung auf die Landwirtschaft Nordosteuropas (Hamburg: Agricola-Verlag, 1955); Helmut König, Rote Sterne glühn: Lieder im Dienste der Sowjetisierung (Bad Godesberg: Voggenreiter, 1955); Andrivs Namsons, ‘Die kulturgeographischen, wirtschaftlichen und soziologischen Auswirkungen der Sowjetisierung Lettlands’ (PhD-thesis, Technische Hochschule Stuttgart, 1958); Anthony Adamovich, Opposition to Sovietization in Belorussian Literature, 1917–1957 (Munich: Institut zur Erforschung der UdSSR, 1958); Ādolfs Silde, Die Sowjetisierung Lettlands (Bonn: Bundesinstitut für Ostwissenschaften und Internationale Studien, 1967).

11 Die Sowjetisierung Ost-Mitteleuropas, eds. Ernst Birke and Rudolf Neumann (Frankfurt: Metzner, 1959).

12 The number of books using the term in the title was definitely smaller: The Sovietization of Culture in Poland, ed. Mid-European Research and Planning Centre (Paris: Mid-European Research and Planning Centre, 1953); Jurij Bo- rys, The Sovietization of Ukraine 1917–1923 (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1980); Janis Labvirs, The Sovietization of the Baltic states: Collectivization of Latvian Agriculture, 1944–1956 (Gladstone: Taurus, 1989).

13 Wladimir Berelowitch, La soviétisation de l’école russe 1917–1931 (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1990); Sowjetisches Modell und nationale Prägung: Kontinuität und Wandel in Ostmitteleuropa nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, ed. Hans Lem- berg (Marburg: Herder-Institut, 1991); Amerikanisierung und Sowjetisierung in Deutschland 1945–1970, eds. Konrad Jarausch and Hannes Siegrist (Frankfurt: Campus-Verlag, 1995); Rüdiger Kühr, Die Reparationspolitik der UdSSR und die Sowjetisierung des Verkehrswesens der SBZ (Bochum: Universitätsverlag Brock- meyer, 1996); Donald O’Sullivan, ‘Die Sowjetisierung Osteuropas’, Forum für osteuropäische Ideen- und Zeitgeschichte 2 (1998): 109–160; Sowjetisierung und Eigenständigkeit in der SBZ/DDR (1945–1953), ed. Michael Lemke (Cologne: Böhlau, 1999); John Connelly, Captive University: The Sovietization of East Ger- man, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945–1956 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Ruth Büttner, Sowjetisierung oder Selbständigkeit? Die sowjetische Finnlandpolitik 1943–1948 (Hamburg: Dr. Kovač, 2001); Elena Zubkova, ‘Fenomen “mestnogo natsionalizma”: “estonskoe delo” 1949–1952 go- dov v kontekste sovetizatsii Baltii’, Otechestvennaia istoriia no. 3 (2001): 89–102; Erwin Oberländer, ‘Instruments of Sovietization in 1939/40 and after  1944/45’,


The Soviet Occupation Regime in the Baltic states 1944–1959 (Riga: Institute of the History of Latvia Publishers, 2003), 50–58; The Sovietization of the Baltic states, 1940–1956, ed. Olaf Mertelsmann (Tartu: Kleio, 2003); Sovietization in Ro- mania and Czechoslovakia: History, Analogies, Consequences, eds. Flavius Solo- mon and Al Zub (Bucharest: Polirom, 2003); Sowjetisierung oder Neutralität? Op- tionen sowjetischer Besatzungspolitik in Deutschland und Österreich 1945–1955, ed. Andreas Hilger (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006); Katrin Boeckh, Stalinismus in der Ukraine: Die Rekonstruktion des sowjetischen Systems nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007); David Feest, Zwangs- kollektivierung im Baltikum: Die Sowjetisierung des estnischen Dorfes 1944–1953 (Cologne-Weimar: Böhlau, 2007); Eesti NSV aastatel 1940–1953. Sovetiseerimise mehhanismid ja tagajärjed Nõukogude Liidu ja Ida-Euroopa arengute kontekstis [Soviet Estonia 1944–1953: Mechanisms and consequences of Sovietization in Estonia in the context of of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe], ed. Tõnu Tan- nberg (Tartu: Eesti Ajalooarhiiv, 2007); Juliette Denis, ‘Identifies les ‘elements ennemis’ en Lettonie: Une prioriteé dans le processus de resoviétisation’, Ca- hiers du Monde russe 49 (2008): 297–318; Elena Zubkova, Pribaltika i Kreml’ 1940–1953 (Moscow: Rosspen, 2008); The Sovietization of Eastern Europe: New Perspectives on the Postwar Period, eds. Balázs Apor, Péter Apor and E. A. Rees (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2008); Indrek Paavle, Kohaliku hal- duse sovetiseerimine Eestis: 1940–1950 [Sovetisation of local administration in Estonia 1940–1950] (Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2009); Felix Ackermann, Palimpsest Grodno: Nationalisierung, Nivellierung und Sowjetisierung einer mit- teleuropäischen Stadt 1919–1991 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010); Olaf Mertels- mann, Die Sowjetisierung Estlands und seiner Gesellschaft (Hamburg: Dr. Kovač, 2012); Małgorzata Ruchniewicz, Das Ende der Bauernwelt: Die Sowjetisierung des westweißrussischen Dorfes 1944–1953 (Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag, 2015); Meelis Saueauk, Propaganda ja terror: Nõukogude julgeolekuorganid ja Eestimaa Kommunistlik Partei Eesti sovetiseerimisel 1944–1953 [Propaganda and Terror: Soviet Security Organs and the Communist Party of Estonia in the Sovietisa- tion of Estonia in 1944–1953] (Tallinn: SE&JS, 2015); Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 64:3 (2016): special issue ‘Reframing Postwar Sovietization: Power, Conflict, and Accommodation’; Jamil Hasanli, The Sovietization of Azerbaijan: The South Caucasus in the Triangle of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, 1920–1922 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2018).

14 On the revolution and the civil war, see Richard Pipes, The Russian Rev- olution, 3 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1990–1993); Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996); Helmut Altrichter, Russland 1917: Ein Land auf der Suche nach sich selbst (Pader- born: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1997); Geoffrey Swain, Russia’s Civil War (London: The History Press, 2000).


15 Oliver Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (London-New York: Tauris, 2000); Jörg Baberowski, Der Feind ist überall: Stalinismus im Kaukasus (Munich: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 2003).


16 On the Soviet nationalities policy, see Gerhard Simon, Nationalism and Policy toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991); Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the So- viet Union, 1923–1938 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Daniel Müller, Sowjetische Nationali- tatenpolitik in Transkaukasien 1920–1953 (Berlin: Köster, 2008); Friedrich Dön- ninghaus, Minderheiten in Bedrängnis: Sowjetische Politik gegenüber Deutschen, Polen und anderen Diaspora-Nationalitäten 1917–1938 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2009); Grigol Ubiria, Soviet Nation-Building in Central Asia: The Making of the Kazakh and Uzbek Nations (London: Routledge, 2016).

17 Paul R. Gregory, Behind the Façade of Stalin’s Command Economy: Evidence from the Soviet State and Party Archives (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2001); idem, The Political Economy of Stalinism: Evidence from the Soviet Secret Archives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

18 See Robert Service, ‘Stalinism and the Soviet State Order’, Totalitarian Move- ments and Political Religions 4, (2003): 7–22.


19 There is not enough space to list the vast literature on Sovietisation for each separate country. Thus only a few titles are mentioned.

20 See Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Krystina Kersten, The Establishment of Communist Rule in Poland, 1943– 1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

21 See also Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

22 The Sovietization of the Baltic states; The Baltic Countries under Occupation: Soviet and Nazi Rule 1939–1991, ed. Anu Mai Kõll (Stockholm: Department of History, 2003); The Baltic states under Stalinist Rule, ed. Olaf Mertelsmann (Co- logne-Weimar: Böhlau, 2016).


23 Als Russe in Ostpreußen: Sowjetische Umsiedler über ihren Neubeginn in Königsberg/Kaliningrad nach 1945, ed. Eckhard Matthes (Ostfildern: Edition Tertium, 1999); Ruth Kibelka, Ostpreußens Schicksalsjahre 1944–1948 (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2000).


24 T. V. Volokitina, ‘Stalin i smena strategicheskogo kursa Kremlia v kontse 1940–kh godov’, – Stalinskoe desiatiletie kholodnoe voiny: fakty i gipotezy (Mos- cow: Nauka, 1999), 10–22.

25 On the Soviet policy towards East Germany, see, for example, Wilfried Loth, Stalins ungeliebtes Kind: Warum Moskau die DDR nicht wollte (Berlin: Ro- wohlt, 1994); Gerhard Wettig, Bereitschaft zu Einheit in Freiheit? Die sowjetische Deutschland-Politik 1945–1955 (Munich: Olzog, 1999); Stalins großer Bluff: Die Geschichte der Stalin-Note in Dokumenten der sowjetischen Führung, ed. Peter Ruggenthaler (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007).

26 See Die Rote Armee in Österreich: Sowjetische Besatzung 1945–1955: Beiträge, eds. Stefan Karner and Barbara Stelz-Marx (Graz-Vienna-Munich: Verein zur Förderung der Forschung von Folgen nach Konflikten und Kriegen, 2005).


27 Michael Lemke, ‘Einleitung’, Sowjetisierung und Eigenständigkeit, 11–30, here 13–14.

28 Gerhard Simon, ‘Instrumente der Sowjetisierung in den annektierten westli- chen Gebieten der Sowjetunion’, Sowjetisches Modell, 13–20, here 13.

29 Connelly, Captive University, 21.


30 Andreas Malycha, Die SED: Geschichte ihrer Stalinisierung 1946–1953 (Pad- erborn: Schöningh, 2000); Hua-Yu Li, Mao and the Economic Stalinization of China, 1948–1953 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

31 Amerikanisierung und Sowjetisierung.

32 The author composed a questionnaire for the Estonian National Museum in which he asked among many other things for a definition of Sovietisation. Many people replied that this simply meant Russification.

33 According to Zhdanov’s outlines from 1939, the Sovietisation of a territory was to be led by three Soviet plenipotentiaries: one responsible for politics, one for the military and one for security (or cleansing). Privetelli, ‘Irredentism, Ex- pansion and the Liberation’, 319–320.


34 On the context of communism and nationalism, see David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Rus- sian National Identy, 1931–1956 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Martin Mevius, Agents of Moscow: The Hungarian Communist Party and the Origins of Socialist Patriotism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

35 André Steiner, Von Plan zu Plan: Eine Wirtschaftsgeschichte der DDR (Mu- nich: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 2004).

36 Gerd Koenen, Utopie der Säuberung: Was war der Kommunismus? (Berlin: Fest, 1998); Peter Holquist, ‘State Violence as Technique: The Logic of Violence in Soviet Totalitarianism’, – Stalinism: The Essential Readings, ed. David L. Hoff- mann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 133–156.


37 Most of those hypotheses are from my earlier project, supported by the Ger- man Research Foundation in 2004–2006: ‘The Sovietization of Estonian Society’. Some of these hypotheses I have already presented in individual articles men- tioned here.

38 Olaf Mertelsmann, Aigi Rahi-Tamm, ‘Soviet Mass Violence in Estonia Revis- ited’, Journal of Genocide Research, no. 11 (2009): 307–322; Olaf Mertelsmann, Aigi Rahi Tamm, ‘Estland während des Stalinismus 1940–1953: Gewalt und Säu- berungen im Namen der Umgestaltung einer Gesellschaft’, Jahrbuch für Histo- rische Kommunismusforschung (2012), 99–112.

39 Olaf Mertelsmann, Aigi Rahi-Tamm, ‘Cleansing and Compromise: The Es- tonian SSR in 1944–1945’, Cahiers du monde russe, no. 49 (2008): 319–340.


40 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘Mehrdimensionale Arbeitswelten als Überlebensstrategie während der stalinistischen Industrialisierung am Beispiel Estlands’, – Mehrdi- mensionale Arbeitswelten im baltischen Raum, eds. Burghart Schmidt and Jürgen Hogeforster (Hamburg: DOBU Verlag, 2007), 94–106; idem, ‘Living on a Stalinist Kolkhoz: Peasant Survival Strategies in Estonia’, Humanitāro Zinātņu Vēstnesis, no. 15 (2009): 83–94.

41 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘Der Zusammenhang von Sowjetisierung und Alkohol- missbrauch aus der Sicht der estnischen Bevölkerung’, – Estland und Russland: Aspekte der Beziehungen beider Länder, ed. Olaf Mertelsmann (Hamburg: Dr. Kovač, 2005), 275–288.

41 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘Der Zusammenhang von Sowjetisierung und Alkohol- missbrauch aus der Sicht der estnischen Bevölkerung’, – Estland und Russland: Aspekte der Beziehungen beider Länder, ed. Olaf Mertelsmann (Hamburg: Dr. Kovač, 2005), 275–288.


42 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘Die Ausweitung von Kultur und Bildung als Stütze des sowjetischen Systems in Estland’, Vom Hitler-Stalin-Pakt bis zu Stalins Tod: Es- tland 1939–1953, ed. Olaf Mertelsmann (Hamburg: Bibliotheca Baltica, 2005), 251–265.

43 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘The Private Sphere in Estonia during Stalinism’, Problemy istorii, filologii, kul’tury, no. 18 (2007): 58–81.

44 Olaf Mertelsmann, ‘How the Russians Turned into the Image of the “National Enemy” of the Estonians’, Pro Ethnologia, no. 19 (2005): 43–58.


45 Gerhard Simon, ‘Entkolonialisierung in der Sowjetunion: Die neuen natio- nalen Eliten in den sowjetischen Unionsrepubliken seit den 1950er Jahren’, – Deutschland, Rußland und das Baltikum: Beiträge zu einer Geschichte wechselvol- ler Beziehungen: Festschrift zum 85. Geburtstag von Peter Krupnikov, eds. Anton Florin and Leonid Luks, (Cologne: Böhlau, 2005), 277–289.

46 Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York: Free Press, 1994).

47 Elena Zubkova, ‘Estland unter sowjetischer Herrschaft 1944–1953: Die Mos- kauer Perspektive’, – Vom Hitler-Stalin-Pakt bis zu Stalins Tod, 266–81, here 268.