During World War II, the Soviet Union suffered heavy loss of life and property. In the postwar period—as a reluctant ally of the United States and Great Britain—it enjoyed increased political importance and prestige on the world stage. From twenty to forty million Soviet citizens died between June 1941 and May 1945. Seven million of these were soldiers—the Soviet Union lost more soldiers than any other country involved in the conflict. During the two-and-a-half year German siege of Leningrad, one million Soviet civilians died. The homes of about twenty-eight million Soviets were destroyed, and at least 70,000 communities suffered extensive damage. A key aspect of the Soviet infrastructure—the railway—also saw thousands of miles of destruction. In addition, there was the loss of an extensive number of livestock and related agriculture products, which contributed to an extensive famine in the Soviet Union in 1947.
Despite this dire situation, the Soviet Union was able to rebuild and to expand its domain, and it emerged as a significant world power. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin remained in control of the Soviet Union. He had laid the groundwork for the Soviet Union's postwar recovery during World War II. The Soviet Union had marched the Red Army into Germany and several other Eastern European countries as World War II waned. In retribution for the way the German army treated Soviet soldiers and civilians when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Soviet forces killed up to one million German civilians during the invasion of that country.
Expansion of Influence
Before the war's end, the Allies, including the Soviet Union, decided to divide Germany into four zones. Each zone would be occupied by a major power in the war—the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. While the Allies had significant disagreements during the war, their differences were intensified after the war end. The Soviet Union was already Communist, and it turned the part of Germany it controlled—the eastern section—into a Communist country. Thus was the "Cold War" born—the Soviet Union became the leading Communist nation, and the Allies sought to prevent further expansion of Soviet and Communist influence in Europe and around the world by means other than war.
The Soviet Union had extended its influence to other European countries and sometimes took over whole nations and parts of nations. For example, it absorbed the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the early 1940s. These three countries remained part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. The Soviet Union also added the eastern tip of Czechoslovakia as well as parts of eastern Poland and Germany to its territory at the end of World War II.
The Eastern Bloc
Soviet-influenced Germany became the country of East Germany in 1949 and was significant member of the Eastern Bloc. The Eastern Bloc of nations consisted primarily of Central and Eastern European countries that the Soviet Union had liberated from Germany at the end of World War II. These nations included Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. (Yugoslavia, China, and Albania were also initially part of the group, but a conflict with Yugoslavia resulted in its expulsion in 1949. A rift between China and the Soviet Union during the 1950s led to both China and Albania withdrawing in 1959 and 1960, respectively.)
Stalin's liberation of these countries was about controlling them—although not strictly for the purpose of expanding Communism. By dominating the Eastern Bloc nations, the Soviet Union hoped to prevent invasion through those countries by another country, which had happened a number of times in the preceding centuries.
Providing financial support to reconstruct these countries, the Soviet Union put local Communist parties in power and essentially ran them. While locals initially supported the Soviet-friendly regimes because they resisted the Nazis and supported reform and social justice, popular backing soon waned under the Communist restrictions that were backed by Soviet military might. Members of the Communist Party gained the best government jobs in these countries, and noncommunists were removed from office. The media was also controlled and censored by the Soviet-dominated Communists.
While there was vast short-term economic growth from the late 1940s to the early 1950s because of industrialization and the forced implementation of collective programs, Eastern Bloc societies were also forced to undergo rapid change. These societies faced mass terror campaigns that created upheaval and unrest. The absolute Soviet dominance of the Eastern Bloc countries ended with Stalin's death on March 5, 1953. After that, Soviet control was loosened, and more civil unrest occurred. The Eastern Bloc remained intact until the late 1980s.