At the height of Soviet power in the late 1960s, one-third of the world’s population lived in communist countries. The great communist powers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China loomed over a vast swath of Eurasia, while smaller countries like Vietnam and North Korea occasionally erupted in revolution. Communist revolutions also broke out in Latin America, succeeding only in Cuba, and even non-aligned countries like India were often as sympathetic to the “Soviet Bloc” (i.e. countries allied with or under the control of the USSR) as they were to the United States and the other major capitalist countries. Even in the capitalist countries of the west, intellectuals, students, and workers often sympathized with communism as well, despite the apparent mismatch between the Utopian promise of Marxism and the reality of a police state in the USSR.
This global split between communist and capitalist was only possible because of the vast might of the USSR. The threat of world war terrified every sane person on the planet, but beyond that, the threat of conventional military intervention by the Soviets was almost as threatening. The USSR controlled the governments of every Eastern European country, with the strange exception of Yugoslavia, and it had considerable influence almost everywhere in the globe. Its factories churned out military hardware at an enormous rate, even as its scientists proved themselves the equal of anything the west could produce and its athletes often defeated all challengers at the Olympics every four years.
Behind the façade of strength and power, however, the USSR was one of the strangest historical paradoxes of all time. It was a country whose official political ideology, Marxism-Leninism, proclaimed an end to class warfare and the stated goal of achieving true communism, a worker’s state in which everyone enjoyed the fruits of science and industrialism and no one was left behind. In reality, the nation was in a perpetual state of economic stagnation, with its citizens enjoying dramatically lower standards of living than their contemporaries in the west and workers toiling harder and for fewer benefits than did many in the west. Marxism-Leninism was officially hostile to imperialism, and yet the USSR controlled the governments of most of its “allied” nations after World War II. Of all forms of government, communism was supposed to be the most genuinely democratic, responding to the will of the people instead of false representatives bought with the money of the rich, and yet decision-making rested in the hands of high-level member of the communist party, the so-called apparatchiks, or arch-bureaucrats. Finally, Marxism-Leninism was officially a political program of peace, yet nothing received so much attention or priority in the USSR as did military power.