“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a
riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
—Winston Churchill, October 1, 1939
The land commonly called Russia was in those days more formally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviet Union, inheritor of the Russian Empire, was a patchwork of heterogeneous republics and was the largest state on earth, covering more than one seventh of its land surface and consisting of a population somewhat in excess of 201,000,000 persons. While St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) had served as capital from 1712 to 1918, Moscow was once again the capital, and its rule extended from the Baltic and the Black Seas to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic Ocean to the borders of China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. Western borders of the USSR touched on the frontiers of Finland, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. In a broad sense, the USSR consisted of four distinct zones of climate and vegetation: the arctic zone being a tundra region, the central zone an area densely forested and having a humid continental climate, the southern zone consisting mostly of fertile steppes with rich black-earth soils, and the Central Asiatic republics mainly vast hot, arid deserts.
Serfdom was the nature of peasant labor for centuries throughout Europe and Asia. In the Middle Ages, it developed in France, Italy, and Spain, later spreading to Germany, before spreading into Slavic lands early in the 15th century. Serfdom in early Russia took different forms,