How did the Soviet Union influence Eastern Europe after World War Two?
In the closing months of World War II and the latter half of 1940s, the Soviet Union oversaw the establishment of Communist regimes throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Over the next four decades, these regimes constituted the so-called Soviet bloc. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe is often referred to as The Iron Curtain - a name given by Winston Churchill in 1946. Although from 1947 to 1951, Marshal Plan injected billions of US dollars into European nations for post-war rebuilding, these loans came with strict conditions, such as the adoption of liberal, democratic and capitalist policies. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet regime forbade access to the financial aid, which enabled the reconstruction of Western Capitalist Europe, while advancing American commercial and foreign policy interests. In the context of the Cold War, the Marshall Plan helped weak and war-ravaged governments and economies to recover, without falling prey to communist infiltration and being swallowed by the Soviet bloc.
The initial entrenchment and spread of Communist Rule in Eastern Europe
The emergence and consolidation of Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe proceeded at varying rates but at somewhat rather fast pace. In Yugoslavia and Albania the indigenous Communist parties led by Josip Tito, Enver Hoxha had obtained a good deal of political advantage and military strength through their participation in the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. Tito’s and Hoxha’s partisan armies had also fought against their domestic rivals throughout the war and were able to gain control of their countries as the fighting and fire ceased. In Romania Nicolae Ceaushescu was also a passionate follower of the Communist regime and forcedly induced King Michael to abdicate. Once in power, they quickly acted to establish Stalinist regimes and declare “People’s Republics” that closely mirrored the Soviet system turning them into Soviet satellites. 
In Bulgaria and Romania, Soviet troops who had occupied the countries in the late summer of 1944 enabled Communist-dominated governments to assume power by the end of the year. The Bulgarian and Romanian Communist parties had been of negligible influence prior to and during World War II, but the presence of Soviet military forces on Bulgarian and Romanian territory shifted the balance of political power sharply in favor of the Communists during the final months of the war. The new, Soviet-backed governments in both countries initially took the form of coalitions allowing some still popular non-Communist parties to take part as well. Nevertheless, that arrangement was mostly cosmetic and aimed to forestall any immediate frictions with the United States and Britain. No sooner had the governments of both countries been set up that the Communists began methodically eliminating their potential opponents, paving the way for Stalinist transformations. 
In the eastern zone of Germany, the Soviet occupation forces and administrators did not move immediately after the war to establish a Communist system. From the beginning, however, the Soviet occupation authorities took a number of steps that ensured they would eventually gain preeminent power. Soviet forces also methodically continued to dismantle industrial facilities and transfer them to the USSR. By the time the Soviet rule formally established the East German State in October 1949, also known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a Soviet-style politburo was firmly entrenched in East Berlin. Stalin by that point had largely abandoned any further hope of creating a unified German polity and had overcome his ambivalence about the desirability of setting up a Communist system in GDR.
Elsewhere in the region – in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia – events followed a more gradual pattern. Local communists who had spent many years in the Soviet Union returned to their native countries after World War II and worked jointly with fellow communists who had stayed at home during the war and had taken part in the anti-Nazi resistance. In all three countries, the resurgent Communist parties played a leading role in the formation of what initially were broad coalition governments that carried out extensive land redistribution and other long overdue economic and political reforms. However, the Soviet system kept the reform process under tight Communist control. Unsurprisingly, the ruling regimes did exclusively granted all of the higher key positions in the ministry of internal affairs to various Communist party members only. From those posts, they could oversee the purging of the local police forces and armies, the execution of alleged “collaborators”, the control and censorship of the mass media, and the intimidation and ouster of non-Communist ministers and legislators. 
Moscow decisively secured and strengthened its role in the Communization of the region in September 1947 by the establishment of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), a body responsible for biding together the East European Communist parties under the exclusive leadership of the Soviet Communist Party. Stalin himself inspired the establishment of the Cominform driven and motivated by his growing conviction that the East European states must conform to his own harsh methods of dictatorial rule. Stalin’s determination to prevent any further “contamination” from the West in the USSR necessitated the Stalinization of Eastern Europe.
The final step in the establishment of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe came with the seizure of power by the Communist party of Czechoslovakia in February 1948. From that point on, “People’s Democracies” allied with the Soviet Union were in place all over Eastern Europe. The Soviet power in the region was now firmly entrenched.
Further changes introduced: transformations billed as reforms
The economies of the Eastern Bloc countries mirrored and closely copied Soviet’s models and command economy lines. Stalin felt that socioeconomic transformations were indispensable to establish Soviet control, reflecting the Marxist-Leninist view that material bases, the distribution of the means of production, shaped social and political relations. Moscow put its excellent trained cadres into all crucial power positions to fulfill orders regarding sociopolitical transformation. Elimination of the bourgeoisie’s social and financial power by expropriation of land and industrial property was Stalin’s exclusive directive and absolute priority.
Certainly, the Soviet rule publicly billed these measures altogether as power reforms rather than socioeconomic transformations. Throughout the Eastern Bloc “societal organizations” such as trade unions and associations representing various social, professional and other groups, were monopolized by a single organization for each category. Furthermore, loyal Stalinist cadres dominated and managed all those organizations, which in turn allowed no competition at all.
Asset relocation and international trade changes, bans and restrictions
At the same time, at the war’s end the Soviet Union adopted a “plunder policy” of physically transporting and relocating east European industrial assets to the Soviet Union. Eastern Bloc states were required to provide various resources such as coal, industrial equipment, technology, rolling stock etc. to reconstruct the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviets re-organized enterprises as joint-stock companies in which the Soviets possessed the controlling interest. Using that control vehicle, several enterprises were required to sell products at below world prices to the Soviets.
In this regard, the trading pattern of the Eastern Bloc countries went through some severe modifications and transformations, too. For instance - before World War II, the Soviet Union represented a small portion, no greater than 1% - 2% of the Eastern Bloc countries’ international trade. However, less than 10 years later, by 1953 - the share of the Soviet exports in and imports from these same countries had jumped to well over 40%. Moreover, this was yet another direct consequence of Stalin’s decisions, as well. In 1947, he denounced the famous Marshall Plan forbidding all Eastern Bloc countries from participating in it and or benefiting from its supportive post-war reconstruction and financial aid programs.
Introducing the famous Five-Year Plans: Core Soviet Economy principle
The Soviet Bloc system governed its regional economic activity by Five-Year plans, divided into monthly segments and milestones, with government planners frequently attempting to meet plan targets regardless of whether there was hardly any market for the goods being produced at the time. There was a limited coordination between the numerous production departments, which in turn led to some very amusing situations. Emblematic example was the automobile industry where factories could often produce millions of ready-to-drive cars even before there were hardly enough gas stations or roads to let people drive these cars. Nevertheless, once such monthly milestones or Five-Year plans targets had been met, communist propagandists could always boast of the crucial increase in the Soviet Bloc’s vehicle production. 
Factory managers and supervisors could hold their posts only if they were clear and passed under the nomenclatural list system of party-approved cadres. Furthermore, the party politics effectively limited all free initiatives and strictly constrained and modified the meaning of the term good management. Managers assigned their workers all tasks based on the pattern of “norms, with sanctions for non-fulfillment”. However, the system eventually served to significantly increase inefficiency. This was because once the norms were met and fulfilled, the management would merely increase them even further.
The Soviet Rule under Stalin also introduced the infamous “Lenin shifts” or “Lenin Saturdays”, where laborers had to work additional extra days and hours for no pay. However, the emphasis on the construction of heavy industry provided full employment and social mobility through the recruitment of young rural workers and women. While blue-collar workers enjoyed that they earned as much or more than many professionals, the standard of living did not match the pace of improvement in Western Europe.
Flourishing of the Black markets and grey economy
As a result, black markets emerged to fulfill the gap and need for supplies, goods and ingredients mostly stolen or intentionally hidden from the public sector by the Soviet Regimes. This second “parallel economy” flourished throughout the Soviet Bloc because of rising unmet state consumer needs. Black and grey markets for foodstuffs, goods, and cash arose. Goods included household goods, medical supplies, clothes, furniture, cosmetics, and toiletries in chronically short supply through official outlets.
Many farmers concealed actual output from purchasing agencies to set it illicitly to urban consumers. Hard foreign currencies were highly sought after, while highly valued Western items functioned as a medium of exchange or bribery in Stalinist countries, such as Romania, where Ken cigarettes served as an unofficial extensively used currency to buy goods and services.
Further urbanization and agricultural collectivization
The extensive production industrialization that resulted was not responsive to consumer needs and caused a neglect in the service sector, unprecedented rapid urbanization, acute urban overcrowding, chronic shortages and massive recruitment of women into mostly menial and/or low-paid occupations. The consequent strains resulted in the widespread use of coercion, repression, show trials, purges and intimidation. Cities became massive building sites, resulting in the reconstruction of some war-torn buildings but also the construction of drab dilapidated system-built apartment blocks. Urban living standards plummeted because the Soviet Rule redirected and invested huge local resources into enormous long-term building projects. At the same time, industrialization forced millions of former peasants to live in hut camps or grim apartment blocks close to massive polluting industrial complexes.
Collectivization was a process by which Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Eastern Bloc attempted to establish an ordered socialist system in rural agriculture. It required the forced consolidation of small-scale peasant farms and larger holdings belonging to the landed classes for creating larger modern “collective farms” owned, in theory, by the workers therein or by the state.
In addition to eradicating the perceived inefficiencies associated with small-scale farming on discontinuous land holdings, collectivization also purported to achieve the political goal of removing the rural basis for resistance to Stalinist regimes. A further justification given was the need to promote industrial development by facilitating the state’s procurement of agricultural products and transferring “surplus labor” from rural to urban areas. In short, the Soviet regimes reorganized all agriculture in order to proletarianise the peasantry and control production at prices determined by the state. However, collectivization often met with strong rural resistance, including peasants frequently destroying property rather than surrendering it to the collective bodies of the state.
Key restrictions introduced: civil, media, speech, information and travelling restrictions
Communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc viewed marginal groups of opposition intellectuals as a potential threat because of the basis underlying Communist power therein. The Block considered the suppression of any dissidence and opposition a central prerequisite to retain its power, in spite of the enormous expenses required in order to keep certain countries population under secret surveillance. Following a totalitarian initial phase, a post-totalitarian period followed the death of Stalin in which the primary method of Communist rule shifted from mass terror to selective key repression, along with ideological and sociopolitical strategies of legitimation and securing of loyalty. A large number of people were executed or died in custody during the newly established communist People's Republics existence, most during the Stalinist era of the 1950s. While judicial executions between 1945 and 1964 numbered several thousand, deaths in custody were estimated in the hundreds of thousands and even totaled millions. Many more were imprisoned for political, economical or other reasons and suffered abuse, torture and often death in specially established Labour Camps.
The press in the communist period was an organ of the state, completely reliant on and subservient to the communist party. Before the late 1980s, Eastern Bloc radio and television organizations were all state-owned, while mostly local communist party political organizations usually owned the print media. The communist party itself directly exercised the overall control and state censorship of the media. Media served as an important form of control over information and society. The communist authorities considered the dissemination and portrayal of knowledge to be vital to communism’s survival by stifling alternative concepts and critiques. However, Western countries invested heavily in their own powerful transmitters, effectively enabling services such as BBC, VOA and Radio Free Europe to penetrate the radio waves and signals through the Eastern Bloc, despite attempts by authorities to jam the airways.  In the USSR, because of strict Soviet secrecy under Joseph Stalin, for many years after WWII, even the best-informed foreigners did not effectively know about the operations of the Soviet economy. Stalin had sealed off outside access to the Soviet Union since 1935, effectively permitting no foreign travel inside the Soviet Union to the extent that outsiders did not know of the political processes that had taken place therein.
With a few exceptions, after the creation of the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Rule effectively halted emigration out of the newly occupied countries, as well. The Soviets actually were in charge for and controlled the national movement in most countries of the Eastern Bloc. Despite the critics, the Eastern Bloc countries overall achieved generally high rates of economic and technical progress, promoted industrialization, and ensured steady growth rates of labor productivity and rises in the standard of living. However, western historians claim that because of the lack of market signals, Eastern Bloc economies experienced inadequate, misdirected and underdevelopment by central planners. The Eastern Bloc also depended upon the Soviet Union for import of significant amounts of materials to drive its production facilities, which in turn determined its disintegration fate later.
Harsh road back to reintegration and democracy
During the late 1980s, the weakened, politically unstable and economically exhausted Soviet Union gradually stopped interfering in the internal affairs of Eastern Bloc nations and numerous independence movements took place.
Following the Brezhnev stagnation, the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled the trend towards greater liberalization. Gorbachev rejected the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that Moscow would intervene immediately if socialism was to be denounced or threatened in any state. Moreover, he announced and proclaimed the so-called “Sinatra Doctrine”, which in effect allowed the countries from Central and Eastern Europe to determine their own internal affairs during this period. Gorbachev initiated a policy of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, and emphasized the need for perestroika (economic restructuring) since the Soviet Union was struggling economically after years of misdevelopment and disproportions. It did not have the resources to control Central and Eastern Europe.A wave of Revolutions of 1989, sometimes called the “Autumn of Nations”, swept across the Eastern Bloc culminating in the destruction and fall of the infamous Berlin Wall dividing Europe and the world into Western and Eastern Blocs and reuniting Europe, reintroducing once again free markets, trade, civil rights, freedom of speech, trans-border movement of people, goods and services. Post-communist Eastern Bloc paved way for extensive privatization of the state owned monopolies, return of the private sectors, denouncing the former communist regimes and their former leaders often by the means of public bloodsheds or open “democratic” court trials.
- The Iron Curtain: License to plunder - http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/iron-curtain/#sthash.uaBWkuOL.dpuf
- Cold War: Formation of the Eastern Bloc. From Allies to Satellites - https://www.highbeam.com/topics/cold-war-formation-of-the-eastern-bloc-t10918
- Mark Kramer, Stanford Edu, Stalin, Soviet policy, and the consolidation of a Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe: http://fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/evnts/media/Stalin_and_Eastern_Europe.pdf
- Eastern Bloc: Initial changes and Five-Year plans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Bloc
- Political and civil restrictions: purges and show trials - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Bloc_politics
- Eastern Bloc media and propaganda - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Bloc_media_and_propaganda
- The Iron Curtain: Tightened border controls - http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/iron-curtain/#sthash.uaBWkuOL.dpuf