In-depth study studies and debates:

Key debate 1a:

 How ‘liberal’ was Russian government from 1855 to 1881?

  • Traditionally, Alexander II was viewed as the ‘Tsar Liberator’, mainly as a result of the Emancipation Edict of 1861 and its consequences. There are some historians, such as J.N.Westwood, who have been happy to perpetuate the view that Alexander II intentionally carried out reforms that granted Russians greater freedoms so that they could live better lives. Hence, Westwood believes that: “With the possible exceptions of Khrushchev and Gorbachev, no Russian ruler brought so much relief to so many of his people as did Alexander II, autocratic and conservative though he was."
  • Alexander II never wavered from being an autocrat. Although in 1862, from an assembly of ‘liberal’ nobility of Tver province, there was a questioning of the unrepresentative nature of central government, the tsar made only one change.The significance of the Zemstva is debated for numerous reasons: Both the district and provincial Zemstva were dominated by the nobility. The extent to which democracy was introduced is questionable. Also, the creation of the Zemstva appeared to divert the attention of the reformist nobility away from wanting changes to central government.
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Key debate 1a:

 How ‘liberal’ was Russian government from 1855 to 1881?

  • Writers who appear sympathetic towards Russian tsarist have emphasised the successes of the Zemstva. E.g. they did much ‘good work’ in the fields of education, public health and local economies. The original Zemstva were seen as so effective that, from 1870 onwards, the model was copied and applied to towns and cities.
  • The historian Tom Kemp has argued that “the efforts of Tsarism to survive, and reform in order to conserve, inevitably increased the numbers of the educated and potentially critical.”
  • The historian Orlando Figes also believes that opposition to Alexander II occurred logically as a result of his reforms. He claims that the creation of Zemstva resulted in the emergence of the Populist movement. Four attempts were made to assassinate the tsar. It was only a matter of time before one succeeded (1st Mach 1881).
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Key debate 2a:

To what extent was the Provisional Government doomed to fail from the start?

  • On 1st March 1917, the tsar agreed to hand over authority to the Temporary Committee and on 2 March he abdicated. The new Provisional Government, as it was labelled, was immediately revealed to the Russian peoples.
  • Some believe that the Provisional Government was doomed from the start but did not help itself by making poor decisions. Others argue that the new government was successful in achieving its main aim, which was the preparation for elections to a new Constituent Assembly. It was not so much the failings of the Provisional Government that led to the October Revolution of 1971 but the determination of the Bolsheviks to seize power.
  • The historians J.N.Westwood and Ian Thatcher have claimed that the Provisional Government was initially ‘popularly accepted’.
  • Of significance is the fact that the new government lacked legitimacy as it was an unelected body made up from members of the Progressive Bloc. This view is strengthened by the response of a member of a crowd that listens to Milyukov’s announcement of the composition of the Provisional Government; ‘Who has appointed you?’ was shouted out.
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Key debate 2a:

To what extent was the Provisional Government doomed to fail from the start?

  • Historian Michael Lynch has pointed out that the Provisional Government was simply ‘the old duma in a new form.’
  • Some historians have argued that the era of the Provisional Government was the only time that the Russian Empire was united. Others have pointed out that it was unlikely that the new government would have been able to sustain unity.
  • E.g. the first government established a set of eight principles by which it would rule. These were classically liberal and included decrees on political amnesty and full freedom of speech.
  • However, this allowed the proliferation of protest groups such as the Bolsheviks. + The peasant land issue dragged on. Due to the nature of the problem, the Provisional Government argued that only an elected assembly could deal with it/ This irritated peasant groups who wanted more immediate action to be taken.
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key debate 2a:

To what extent was the Provisional Government doomed to fail from the start?

  • An attempt to united the Provisional Government and Petrograd soviet was made in May 1917 when a coalition government was formed. This was led by Prince Lvov, who invited six members of the Petrograd soviet to join. However, national elections to a Constituent Assembly were postponed, the land issued ignored, workers’ committees were clamped down on, and involvement in the war continued. All of this dampened support of the Provisional Government and caused rising militancy within the Petrograd soviet. 
  • The historian Ian Thatcher has suggested that opposition in the form of Kornilov was the turning point in the fortunes of the Provisional Government.
  • Thatcher has argued that the Kornilov affair was significant for a number of reasons: the Bolsheviks were viewed as heroes for organising the protection of Petrograd, it was evident that the Provisional Government was susceptible to being challenged by the military and therefore others who might want to use force to seize power, Kerensky was shown to be a weak leader compared with Lenin, after the affair the Bolsheviks quickly gained more support so that by early September they had majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets. By the end of October, they had ousted the Provisional Government and taken control of Petrograd.
  • Overall, the Provisional Government struggled to deal with its opponents but this was probably due more to circumstances than to its incompetence
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Key Debate 3a:

 How far did de-Stalinisation represent a genuine break from the past?

  • The role of the Soviet government was to supervise the running of Russia. Under Stalin, the party and government lost any freedoms they had and were answerable directly to him. The government became an organ which put into operation Stalin’s policies.
  • Khrushchev wanted to move away from the highly centralised and personalised mode of government established by Stalin. To do this, he created a government that was more accountable to him but also to the party.
  • However, the historian Martin McCauley has proposed that Khrushchev only ‘…changed aspects of the (political) system and not the system itself’. Thus, he is seen to be successful in: making the Communists Part more accountable to the people, reforming bureaucracy so it appeared less corrupt and more effective in dealing with the wants and needs of the population.
  • But McCauley believes that tinkering with the system and redirecting power to the party had a limited impact on presenting Russia, to the rest of the world, as a country that was moving away from the Stalinist years.
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Key Debate 3a:

 How far did de-Stalinisation represent a genuine break from the past?

  • The Stalinist regime had built up a great deal of mistrust in the West about Soviet intentions during the early years of the Cold War. Through de-Stalinisation, Khrushchev could be viewed as having done his best to make relations with the West more cordial.
  • Westwood has pointed out that ‘for the first time since Peter the Great there was a genuine interchange between the tsar and people’. This was due to the fact that Khrushchev ‘spent much of his time in the countryside, conferring with party secretaries, cajoling farm chairmen, and making promises to peasants in the kind of earthly language the could understand.’ Despite this, Khrushchev’s agricultural policies, especially the Virgin Land campaign, were not especially appealing to the Russian people; they soon started to express their discontent. When this happened, Khrushchev was not afraid to resort to force to deal with the unrest.
  • Another area of debate over opposition to Khrushchev concerns his eventual downfall. This is commonly attributed to: the failure of his agricultural policy, loss of prestige over the Cuban Missile Crisis, deterioration in relations with China, his decentralisation of the government, defence cuts which annoyed the military.
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key Debate 3a:

 How far did de-Stalinisation represent a genuine break from the past?

  • The historian Norman Lowe has suggested that this is rather a simplistic way of looking at why the Russian leader was eventually ‘persuaded’ to step down. He believes the reasons were of a more personal nature: “Perhaps his colleagues were tired of his extrovert personality" (once, in a heated moment at the United Nations, he took off his shoe and hammered the table with it) and felt he was taking too much on himself. Khrushchev had become increasingly aggressive and arrogant, and at times seemed to have developed the ‘cult of personality’ almost as much as Stalin.
  • However, some historians such as Dmitri Volkogonov, a critic of all Soviet leaders, believed that Khrushchev, through de-Stalinisation, ‘achieved virtually the impossible’ as ‘in a fundamental way (he) also changed society’. It was probably these core changes made by Khrushchev that worried his contemporaries the most. It is likely that they viewed them as a predecessor to even more radical reform sand the deconstruction of the communist system in Russia.
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Key debate 1b:

How far were Alexander II’s reforms due to the Crimean War?

  • The Crimean War revealed weaknesses in the way Nicholas I had ruled; the maintain of serfdom under strict autocratic rule did not seem too far with stain modern warfare.
  • The army was recruited from serfs who were not trained to the same standards as the professional armies of Britain and France. Also, serfs inclined to revolt and, given their other responsibilities, are probably not as committed as they might have been.
  • Soldiers had been poorly supplied; the production of armaments and uniforms was inadequate. This was a reflection on the way the economy was organised and how Russia had been slow to industrialise.
  • However… the casual link between the Crimean War and Alexander II’s reforms is questionable; ‘correlation is not proof of causation.’

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Key debate 1b:

How far were Alexander II’s reforms due to the Crimean War?

Other reasons for Alexander II’s reforms:

  1. Pressure to abolish serfdom as it was seen by some as a form of slavery and an institution that was immoral.
  2. Growing peasant unrest that could be dated back to the 1770’s.
  3. Demands from some politicians and entrepreneurs for more labour to work on projects such as railway routes.
  4. Population growth which put pressure on a farming system that was geared up to provide subsistence and not surplus. Famines became more frequent as the demand for food outstripped supply

Thus, it can be concluded that the Crimean war was one of a number of factors that influenced change but not the only reason for such change.

 

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key debate 1b:

How far were Alexander II’s reforms due to the Crimean War?

Given the failures of the Russian military during the war it is not surprising that Alexander II prioritised major reforms to the military:

  • Although aspects of the reforms, such as conscription and the reduction in periods of service, were seen as radical, new training regimes were compromised by the poor level of education of recruits.
  • The historian John Hite has emphasised that in 1877 the Russian army struggled to defeat ‘weak Turkish troops’ and later, in 1904-5, Russia was beaten by Japan.
  • The economic cost of supporting an ineffective standing army were reduced, agricultural efficiency was improved, soldiers were better trained, and , in the long run, there was an improvement in literacy. Therefore, ion context, the military reforms were more radical than some observers have made out. 
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Key Debate 2b:

How far was the First World War responsible for the downfall of the Provisional Government?

  • Optimist and pessimist perspectives.
  • Optimists argue that the Provisional Government was not necessarily doomed from the start. 
  • Optimists claim that the war hindered the progress of the Provisional Government:
  • The war had popular support; demands for withdrawal and peace were Meade on the basis that this would be honourable and unconditional. It was unlikely that Germany would agree to such a deal given the strong military position it was in by March 1917.
  • The war was costly in terms of the impact on land, labour (especially soldiers) and capital. The PG also felt committed to continuing the war given that much had already been invested in trying to win.
  • The PG had limited support from its allies (Britain and France).
  • Challenges such as land distribution and the impact on public health as a result of urbanisation were ignored; continuing with the war became a priority. 
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Key Debate 2b:

How far was the First World War responsible for the downfall of the Provisional Government?

  • The pessimists believe that: the peoples of the Russian Empire views the Provisional Government as simply a variation on the tsarist regime. Workers had already organised and campaigned for economic and social change before the war. By 1917, the Soviets were in such a strong position that the PG was compelled to join them to create a dual authority.
  • Kerensky’s leadership was suspect especially when it came to dealing with opposition from Kornilov. He was not trusted by the workers and peasants even though he had a socialist background.

To conclude… The pessimist view is convincing to an extent; it stresses the need to see the revolution of 1917 as an event resulting from a multitude of pressures that built up over a long period of time and there is much evidence to support this. However, it downplays the impact of the First World War by suggesting that it affected Russia in a similar way to previous wars. This washes over the point that the war was the first global, total war and, by definition, would have had a much greater effect than any military conflict witnessed before.  

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Key Debate 3b:

How effectively did Khrushchev deal with the challenges posed by the Cold War?:

  • The Cold War was already under way when Khrushchev became the leader of Russia. He faced the challenge of dealing with the aftermath of the Korean War, dissent in Eastern Europe against Russian influence and managing a nuclear arms race.
  • Khrushchev was seen to have a number of successes: In Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of Feb 1956, he stated that for Russian foreign policy: ‘There are only two ways-either peaceful coexistence (with the West) or the most destructive war in history.
  • There is no third way.’ The change of policy can be viewed as a success as the Russian leader was seen to be taking the initiative in attempting to create a more peaceful and secure world.Khrushchev supported the signing of the Austrian State Treaty (May 1955). This indicated that Russia was willing to cooperate with the West over with dealing with Austria’s claims for independence .
  • The thaw in the Cold War epitomised by the policy of ‘peaceful existence’ prompted Russia’s satellite states to demand more freedom. When this appeared to get out of control, as in the case of Hungary in 1956, Khrushchev, using Russian tanks, was quick to react. The Budapest rising was ruthlessly suppressed, which gained Khrushchev support from the Communist Party in Russia.
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Key Debate 3b:

How effectively did Khrushchev deal with the challenges posed by the Cold War?

  • Khrushchev’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) is sometimes praised as he initially tested Kennedy’s diplomatic and decision skills before agreeing to a relaxation of tensions. Some historians have argued that Khrushchev forced Kennedy to compromise rather than call the Russian leader’s bluff by invading Cuba and overthrowing Castro. Also the compromise can be viewed as a Russian success as it resulted in the ‘hotline’ telephone link between Moscow and Washington. 
  • For some, commenting at the time and since, Khrushchev’s Cold War policy was too risky. Rather then creating stability it is often viewed as leading to heightened tensions. More specifically: 
    • Peaceful coexistence was viewed by some communists as a betrayal of ideals; it was perceives as a U-turn with respect to spreading communism internationally. The Chinese communists criticised the Russian leader of being ‘too soft on imperialists’; this criticism led Khrushchev withdrawing military support when the Chinese needed it. 
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Key Debate 3b:

How effectively did Khrushchev deal with the challenges posed by the Cold War?

  • The historian Martin McCauley has argued that the Hungarian crisis of 1956 was a ‘disaster’ that could be balked on de-Stalinisation. The ruthless suppression of Hungarian protesters was viewed as a ‘poor advertisement’ of communism.
  • The erection of the Berlin Wall can also be seen as an oppressive measure and on that worsened relations with the West.
  • By taking Kennedy to the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev is seen as someone who nearly provoked what would have been a catastrophic nuclear war. Moreover, by agreeing to withdraw missiles from Cuba, the Russian leader was seen by fellow Russian officials as someone who had backed down.
  • The debate over Khrushchev’s handling of the Cold War seems to hinge on whether he is seen as ‘inspirational and innovative’ or ‘erratic and impulsive’
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Key Debate 1c:

To what extent did reforms made by Alexander II improve the status of Russian peasants?:

  • Traditionally, Alexander II was viewed as the 'Tsar Liberator', maily as a result of the Emnacipation Edict of 1861. Historian J.N.Westwood believes that: "With the possible exceptions of Khrushchev and Gorbachev, no Russian ruler brought so much relief to so many of his people as did Alexander II, autocratic and conservative though he was."
  • However, others argue that the Tsar was more concerned with only making some concessions to win support.
  • The Emancipation was the most important measure enacted by Alexander II as, from this, other economic, social and political changes became a necessity.
  • The conditions layed down by the edict were as follows:

1. 23 million serfs were freed.

2. Nobles had to hand over a proportion of land to peasants.

3. Peasants had to help pay for the compensation through redemption payments.

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Key Debate 1c:

To what extent did reforms made by Alexander II improve the status of Russian peasants?:

  • The reform, taken at face value would justify Alexander II being given the title of 'Tsar Liberator'. But it has often been pointed out that there was considerable opposition to the statute from landowners.
  • Many peasants also reacted badly to the reform for the following reasons:

1. Peasants were allocated poorer quality land and received less than they had before.

2. Many peasants struggled to earn enough from the land to meet redemption payments.

3. Peasants were not totally free as they had to answer to the mir.

  • Thus, it would seem that the freedoms given to the peasants were rather limited and this remainedthe case throughout Alexander II's reign.
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Key Debate 2c:

Why is the Provisional Government often viewed as one that was reluctant to carry out reforms?:

  • The P.G. paid little if any attention to economic and social reform. Its aim was to enable reform of the political system through the setting up of a Constituent Assembly; by January 1918 this was achieved.
  • Historain Martin McCauley claimed that the P.G. could have carried out economic and social reforms that would have helped it maintain power: "The greatest feature of the government was inactivity". His view is that the P.G. attempted the following but this was not enough to appease workers and peasants:

1. Political prisoners were released.

2. Secret courts were ended.

3. Freedom of the press was introduced. 

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Key Debate 2c:

Why is the Provisional Government often viewed as one that was reluctant to carry out reforms?:

  • The major issues of worker demands for an 8-hour day and peasant demands for more land were largely ignored
  • Also the government's policy of continuation in the war resulted in food shortages, inflation and demonstrations by workers, soldiers and sailors.
  • The counter-argument to this is that the early changes made by the P.G. were intended not as reforms but as principles which would aid major political change.
  • The lack of an economic and social programme of reform was understandable given the war situation, one which had been inherited by the previous regime. The P.G. saw itself as a 'War time Government'.
  • NcCauley's claim that there was a lack of urgency about the government seems unfair given the scope of internal and external challenges it faced.
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Key Debate 3c:

To what extent were the economic and social reforms made by Khrushchev a failure?:

  • A fairly common view is that Khrushchev attempted to make some quite innovative and radical changes but was largely unsuccessfuly due to a lack of cooperation from senior Communist Party officials and beureaucrats.
  • Historian Donald Filtzler argues that Khrushchev's schemes were poorly thought out for the following reasons:

1. Well intended but poorly planned. E.g. Virgin Land programme: initially brain production increased but this tailed off due to the poor quality of land and lack of equipment.

2. Some members of the Communist Party may have felt threatened by the changes he made.

3. The reforms were not as radical as they needed to be to cope with the challenges left by the Stalinist regime (such as the 'backwardness' of industry and agriculture).

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Key Debate 3c:

To what extent were the economic and social reforms made by Khrushchev a failure?:

  • Historian Norman Lowe emphasised that Khrushchev's reforms were a considerable achievement given the context in which he was working. Staln had left agriculture in a perlious state and Russian industry had been geared up to meet the demands of war. Lowe argued that:

1. It was only in 1963 that a significant fall in grain production was witnessed and that was mainly down to poor weather.

2. Khrushchev made quite a radical change to the industrial infrastructure which increased living standards. E.g. from 1955-66, the number of washing machines per thousand of the population increased from 1 to 7.

3. Khrushchev had to prioritise, to an extent, political problems. E.g. the ending of Stalinist Gulags and the placing of the NKVD under the control of the party and the state. 

  • Therefore, McCauley's view that Khrushchev's reform made him a 'courageous failure' seems rather simplistic. Given the challenges he faced, Khrushchev did much to improve the lives of Russian peoples in a short period of time.
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Key Debate 1d:

How far were issues relating to the empire and minorities neglected by Alexander II?:

  • Alexander II's domestic reform: most discussion revolves around the connection between the emancipation edict and reforms that followed, especially those to regional government. 
  • The introduction of the Zemstva to take over the running of local affairs is seen as a major step towards liberalising the empire. 
  • When historians observe Alexander II's reign, the following points tend to be ignored:

1. The Polish rebellion of 1863 was the result of a complex interplay of factors including the access to land. Alexander tried very hard to compromise with the Polish government by allowing it to frame its own land-reform programme. After the rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed in 1864, the Tsar imposed reforms which benefited the majority of peasants to the detriment of the nobility.

2. The Polish rebellion was the start of the Russification process. This supports the argument that Alexander II was very concerned to maintain order across the whole of the empire.

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Key Debate 1d:

How far were issues relating to the empire and minorities neglected by Alexander II?:

3. Alexander II continued his father's liberal policy towards the Baltic Germans.

4. The Tsar took some practical measures to improve the lives of Jews. E.g. Jewish merchants and doctors in particular were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement.

5. During the rule of Alexander II, there was significant Russian expansion into Central Asia.

  •  Alexander II was well aware of the need to monitor developments across the whole of the empire in response to his programme of reforms. He also listened to the demandss of national minorities.
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Key Debate 2d:

To what extent did opposition from national minorities lead to the fall of the Provisional Government?:

  • The P.G.'s main aim was to maintain the cohesiveness of the state until a Constituent Assembly could be instigated, thus it should have been a priority to assert authority across the whole of the empire. 
  • Instead the P.G. focused mainly on urban political, economic and social issues. Some historians have stressed that this was a mistake as:

1.The P.G.'s slowness in creating an assembly in which the minorities could express their views caused resentment and calls for autonomy.

2. Minorities were spurred on by the successes of workers, soldiers and sailors in establishing committees to demand more rights from employers and the government.

  • As a result, certain national minorities started to organise their own forms of provincial government.
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Key Debate 2d:

To what extent did opposition from national minorities lead to the fall of the Provisional Government?:

  • It has been pointed out that such moves by national minorities were not ingored by the P.G. E.g., demands for self-rule in the Transcaucasus were met with the formation of a Special Transcaucasian Committee.
  • On the other hand, it seems reasonable to emphasise that the fortunes of the P.G. rested on how well they dealt with the challenges of a lack of the legitimacy, the land question, urban unrest and the First World War.
  • However, in Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine the majority of the population were peasants, it seems naive for the P.G. not to have prioritised dealing with the land transference issue. Not getting a grip on the rise of nationalism in the regions of the empire undoubtedly cause the P.G. further problems as it enable more left-wing parties at local level to gain support.
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Key Debate 3d:

How valid is 'courageous failure' as an assessment of Khrushchev's policy towards minorities, satellite states and Asia:

  • With respect to minorities, satellite states and Asia, the 'courageous' label stems from de-Stalinisation and the policy of 'peaceful coexistence'. Critics of Khrushchev have highlighted the following failures of his 'courageous' policies:

1. The Hungarian crisis of 1956 ended in disaster: by using force, Khrushchev had resorted to Stalinist tactics to deal with opposition. De-Stalinisation and, therefore, the prospect of further liberal reforms in Eastern Europe suffered a major setback.

2. With respect to Germany, Khrushchev's approach resulted in the construction of the Berlin Wall.

3. De-Stalinisation seemed to worsen relations with China as Khrushchev struggled to deal with the criticisms from Mao.

  • Khrushchev was too willing to resort to repression when his more liberal policies failed. 
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Key Debate 3d:

How valid is 'courageous failure' as an assessment of Khrushchev's policy towards minorities, satellite states and Asia:

  • Defenders of Khrushchev believe that the following achievements are often sidelined:

1. Khrushchev got the backing of Poland, Romania and China for his handling of the Hungarian crisis.

2. The Soviet leader's stance on Germany prevented the West from taking total control of the country and its capital, Berlin.

3. Khrushchev showed the Chinese that he was prepared to take a strong position against them. E.g. in 1958, the Soviet Union declined to provide China with military support in its conflict with Taiwan and the USA.

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