Trotsky had been a key figure in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He soon became one of the members of the first Politburo that was founded to manage the transition to a communist state, alongside the Bolshevik founder Vladimir Lenin, and the USSR’s future leader Joseph Stalin.
As Lenin’s health began to fail in the early 1920s, it initially appeared as though Trotsky would be his successor. Following Stalin’s alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev in the troika, however, Trotsky soon found himself marginalised and he became the subject of rumours about his health and capability to serve in government.
Stalin subsequently emerged as the leader of the USSR following Lenin’s death in 1924. Trotsky’s Left Opposition faction was a vocal critic of many of Stalin’s policies but, with Trotsky himself being increasingly side-lined from government decisions, he was removed from his position as war commissar in 1925 and from the Politburo itself the following year.
Having organised a demonstration by the Left Opposition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky was accused of fomenting and organising a counter revolution. He, along with his recent ally Zinoviev, was expelled from the Communist Party on 12 November 1927 while 98 of his supporters met the same fate a month later.
Trotsky was soon exiled to Alma Ata, a small town in Kazakhstan, but within a year had left the USSR completely. He never returned, eventually being granted asylum in Mexico where he was assassinated with an ice pick by an NKVD agent.
On the 7th November 1917, Red Guards entered the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in a defining event of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the October Revolution, the 7th November is the date from the modern Gregorian calendar that aligns with the 25th October on the old style Julian calendar, from which the revolution got its alternative name.
On the night of the 6th November Leon Trotsky led the Red Guards to take control of key government buildings and communication points such as post offices, bridges and the State Bank. Although the Red Guards were armed, historians generally accept that the takeover was carried out without bloodshed or indeed any shots being fired.
Throughout the 7th November large crowds of troops sympathetic to the Bolsheviks began to surround the Winter Palace. The actual attack on the palace began after a signal shot fired from cruiser ship Aurora. Soviet accounts of the night, portrayed most powerfully in Sergei Eisenstein’s film reenactment, present the takeover of the Winter Palace as a huge battle. However, this popular image is a fabrication. The large number of Red Guards marching towards the palace led to the Cossacks guarding the palace to desert their posts, while the remaining Cadets and volunteers from the Women’s Battalion laid down their weapons and surrendered after the Red Guards found their way inside the palace through an open door.
The remnants of the Provisional Government were discovered in a small dining room and arrested. Meanwhile the wine cellar was looted, leading to what historian Orlando Figes suggested was perhaps, “the biggest hangover in history”.
On the 3rd November 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to enter orbit around the Earth when she was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2. Laika was never intended to return as the technology to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet been developed. However, the launch of a canine into space was seen by the Russian scientists as a precursor to human spaceflight in order to determine the effect of launch and prolonged weightlessness on a living passenger. Laika survived the launch, but died due to overheating as a result of a malfunction in the temperature control system.
Laika was a stray dog who was found on the streets of Moscow. Strays from Moscow were specifically chosen on the assumption that they had already learned how to deal with extreme temperatures and prolonged periods without food. However, Laika and two other dogs still had to undergo extension training ahead of the mission. This included long periods of time in cramped conditions, extreme G-forces on centrifuges, and exposure to loud noises to simulate the conditions of spaceflight.
Throughout the mission, scientists on the ground monitored data coming from sensors attached to Laika. The readings indicated significant stress, but she survived the launch and made four circuits of the Earth before dying of overheating. The exact cause of her death was only confirmed in 2002.
Laika’s death raised ethical questions about the use of animals in scientific research since the spacecraft was not designed to be retrievable. She was, therefore, knowingly sent a mission from which she would not return.
At 9:00 am on the 28th October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended when Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed to remove Russian nuclear missiles from the island of Cuba. Although the missiles were identified by American reconnaissance on October 15th, the Thirteen Days of the crisis officially began when President John F. Kennedy was informed on the morning of the 16th.
Cuban President Fidel Castro had met with Khrushchev in July 1961, where the two men had agreed to station short-range nuclear missiles on Cuba. America already had a number of nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey that threatened the USSR, and had supported the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in April 1961.
Threatened by the discovery of the missiles on Cuba, which lay barely 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the USA responded by enforcing a naval blockade around the island in an attempt to stop any more missiles being delivered. Although the Soviet Union initially refused to recognize the blockade, the ships carrying missiles turned back while Kennedy and Khrushchev continued a series of tense negotiations.
Eventually an agreement was struck in which the USSR would publicly remove the missiles from Cuba while the USA would secretly remove its own from Turkey and Italy. The Soviet Union broadcast its intention to remove the missiles on Radio Moscow on the morning of the 28th October, and the first dismantled missiles were shipped out of Cuba on the 5th November.
Because America’s part of the agreement was kept secret, Khrushchev appeared to have ‘lost’. The reality is that both sides made concessions.
Negotiations over the building of new embassies for the two superpowers were completed in 1969. Bugs had been discovered in the old US building in Moscow just three years earlier but, amidst the improving relations of détente, the Nixon administration permitted the Soviets to have an unprecedented amount of input in to the design and construction of the new American building.
By the time construction began in 1979, the USSR had already manufactured concrete pieces for the building in their own factories. Since these were made away from US supervision, they were fitted with bugs that could not be easily spotted by a visual inspection when they arrived at the construction site. American technical experts still raised concerns, but proof of Soviet devices could not be proved until a team of trained rock-climbers began to X-ray the concrete pillars and beams in situ from 1982 onwards.
News of the situation reached Congress in 1985, and by the summer of 1987 it had become public knowledge that the Soviets had bugged the new building with technology that the United States was struggling to disable. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted in favour of demolishing the entire building the next year, and on October 27 Reagan formally called for a halt on construction. A decision over the future of the new embassy was left until after the Presidential election two weeks later.
Robert E. Lamb, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, later stated, ‘we knew the Russians were going to bug it, but we were confident we could deal with it. Obviously, we were wrong.’
The Chinese Communists in the People’s Liberation Army had been fighting the second stage of a long and costly civil war against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, known as the Kuomintang, since shortly after the end of the Second World War. The first stage had been suspended in 1937 in order to focus a combined Chinese army against the Japanese, but relations between the two Chinese contingents had remained poor.
Even before the Japanese surrender, the Kuomintang and the PLA had begun to receive support from the USA and the USSR respectively. In the aftermath of the Second World War this division continued until the two Chinese armies resumed full-scale war on 26 June 1946. A quarter of China’s land area and a third of the population were already under Communist control, and the PLA soon expanded to over 1.2 million troops supported by a militia of almost double that.
With the resumption of the Civil War, the Communist Party itself promised land reform to the peasantry. In return for supporting the PLA, peasants were told that they would be given possession of their own land instead of needing to rent it from unscrupulous landlords. This secured more support for the Communists and, combined with the effective ‘passive defense’ strategy, led to the gradual expansion of Communist control and a Kuomintang retreat.
By October 1949 almost all of mainland China was under Communist control and Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and the retreating Kuomintang fled to the island of Taiwan in December.
On the 24th September 1946, Clark Clifford and George Elsey presented a report to President Truman in which they recommended “restraining and confining” Soviet influence. The report helped to shape Truman’s decision to follow a policy of containment, having a direct impact on the introduction of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and on the formation of NATO.
The report was a detailed appraisal of relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, elaborating on the points raised in the so-called “Long Telegram” by George F. Kennan at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Kennan’s telegram highlighted the USSR’s ‘perpetual war’ with capitalism, stating that the communist and capitalist worlds could never peacefully coexist.
These warnings were picked up by Clifford and Elsey, who also noted Kennan’s comments regarding the likelihood that the Soviets would back down from any direct conflict in their attempts to expand communism. Consequently they recommended “restraining and confining” Soviet influence in an attempt to maintain some form of coexistence. Elsey noted that the USSR needed to be persuaded that the USA was “too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened”. The term ‘containment’ was first used to describe this approach in an expanded essay in the Foreign Affairs journal.
Ten copies of the report were printed, the first of which was presented to the President. Truman’s daughter, Margaret, wrote that – having stayed up most of the night to read it – he ordered all copies to be brought to him and locked away since the content was a serious threat to US-Soviet relations.
On the 30th August 1918, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the victim of a failed assassination plot. Fanya Kaplan, a member of the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, believed that Lenin was a ‘traitor to the revolution’ for dissolving the Constituent Assembly and banning other left-wing political parties. She fired three shots at him as he left the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, of which one hit his arm and lodged in his shoulder while the other went through his neck and is reported to have punctured part of his left lung.
Made unconscious by the attack, Lenin was taken to his living quarters in the Kremlin from where he refused to move in case other would-be assassins attacked him. Without the medical facilities of a hospital, his doctors were unable to remove the bullets and, although Lenin did survive, the injuries he sustained may have contributed towards the strokes that led to his death in 1924.
In retaliation for the attack on Lenin barely two weeks after the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks issued a decree beginning the Red Terror. Designed to crush counter-revolutionary action against the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror is generally accepted to have lasted throughout the period of the Civil War until 1922. Meanwhile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda used the attack as a propaganda tool to promote Lenin.
Kaplan was executed on the 3rd September, but over the next four years tens if not hundreds of thousands of Bolsheviks opponents were killed.
On the 29th August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first nuclear weapon codenamed RDS-1 and nicknamed First Lightning. The explosion had the power of 22 kilotons of TNT, and was 50% more destructive than its designers had expected.
The USSR started its nuclear program in 1943 after discovering the USA, Britain and Canada had begun bomb development. Assisted by intelligence from sources inside the USA’s Manhattan Project, the Soviet Union’s program developed quickly as the Soviets were able to replicate American successes while avoiding some of their costlier mistakes. Consequently, although the majority of Cold War academics accept that the USSR’s success had a lot to do with domestic expertise they recognise that intelligence helped to reduce the time it took for them to develop the bomb.
Work was accelerated after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in secret, purpose-built cities dedicated to the nuclear program known as Atomgrads. By 1949 the Soviets had developed two types of bomb, but opted to detonate the simpler of the two designs first since it was similar in design to the successful Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
The RDS-1 test was conducted in secret in an attempt to avoid the USA increasing its own nuclear program, but the US Air Force began to detect radioactive fallout from the explosion a few days later and tracked the trail. Soviet success had occurred up to 4 years ahead of Western estimates, and the knowledge that the USSR now had ‘the bomb’ dramatically increased tensions in the early years of the Cold War.
On 23rd August 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop – the Soviet foreign minister and the German foreign minister – signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, otherwise known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Outwardly it was a guarantee that neither side would fight against the other in war, but a ‘secret protocol’ also outlined how Eastern Europe would be divided between the two countries. This agreement cleared the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland just nine days later.
Stalin’s Communist USSR distrusted Hitler’s Nazi Germany, knowing that ultimately Hitler intended to invade and annex Russia. Similarly, Britain distrusted Stalin due a fear of Communism. Although talks took place between Britain and Russia in early August 1939 regarding a possible alliance against Hitler, they were never taken seriously by the British government who sent their representative by a slow boat and gave him no authority to actually make any decisions.
Frustrated, Stalin’s government received Ribbentrop later that month. He proposed the Nazi-Soviet agreement which, in the face of continued British reluctance to form an alliance, was accepted. The Soviet government almost certainly knew that Hitler would break the non-aggression pact at some point and would invade Russia, but at least the pact delayed that and gave time to prepare.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact was broken less than two years after it was signed, when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on the 22nd June 1941. All the territory gained by Russia under terms of the ‘secret protocol’ was lost in just a matter of weeks.