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At the Fifteenth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in December 1927, Josef Stalin attacked the left by expelling Leon Trotsky and his supporters from the party and then moving against the right by abandoning Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy which had been championed by Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Ivanovich Rykov. Warning delegates of an impending capitalist encirclement, he stressed that survival and development could only occur by pursuing the rapid development of heavy industry. Stalin remarked that the Soviet Union was "fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries" (the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.), and thus must narrow "this distance in ten years." In a perhaps eerie foreboding of World War II, Stalin declared, "Either we do it or we shall be crushed."
To oversee the radical transformation of the Soviet Union, the party, under Stalin's direction, established Gosplan (the State General Planning Commission), a state organization responsible for guiding the socialist economy toward accelerated industrialization. In April 1929 Gosplan released two joint drafts that began the process that would industrialize the primarily agrarian nation. This 1,700 page report became the basis for the first Five-Year Plan for National Economic Construction, or Piatiletka, calling for the doubling of Soviet capital stock between 1928 and 1933.
Shifting from Lenin's New Economic Policy or NEP, the first Five-Year Plan established central planning as the basis of economic decision-making, stressing rapid, heavy industrialization. It began the rapid process of transforming a largely agrarian nation consisting of peasants into an industrial superpower. In effect, the initial goals were laying the foundations for future exponential economic growth.
The new economic system put forward by the first Five-Year plan entailed a complicated series of planning arrangements. The plan focused on the mobilization of natural resources to build up the country's heavy industrial base by increasing output of coal, iron, and other vital resources. At a high human cost, this process was largely successful, forging a capital base for industrial development more rapidly than any country in history.
The mobilization of resources by state planning augmented the country's industrial base. From 1928 to 1932, pig iron output, necessary for the development of a previously nonexistent industrial infrastructure, rose from 3.3 million to 10 million tons per year. Coal, the integral product fueling modern economies and Stalinist industrialization, successfully rose from 35.4 million to 75 million tons, and output of iron ore rose from 5.7 million to 19 million tons. A number of industrial complexes such as Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk, the Moscow and Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) automobile plants, the Urals and Kramatorsk heavy machinery plants, and Kharkov, Stalingrad, and Cheliabinsk tractor plants were built or under construction.
Based largely on these figures, the Five Year Industrial Production Plan was fulfilled by 93.7 percent in only four years, and the heavy-industry targets were exceeded, reaching 108 percent of the goal. In December 1932 Stalin declared the plan a success to the Central Committee, since increases in the output of coal and iron would fuel future development.
While undoubtedly marking a tremendous leap in industrial capacity, the Five Year Plan was extremely harsh on industrial workers; quotas were extremely difficult to fulfill, requiring that miners put in 16- to 18-hour workdays. Failure to fulfill the quotas sometimes resulted in treason charges. Working conditions were poor and even hazardous. By some estimates, 127,000 workers died from 1928 to 1932. Due to the allocation of resources for industry, decreasing productivity since collectivization, and other political considerations, a famine ensued.
The use of forced labor and the development of labor camps to "re-educate" anyone deemed as "bourgeois" also began during this time. The so-called "Gulag Archipelago" used inmates of labor camps as expendable resources. From 1921 until 1954, during the period of state-guided, forced industrialization, it is alleged that at least 3.7 million people were sentenced for counter-revolutionary crimes, including 0.6 million sentenced to death, 2.4 million sentenced to labor camps, and 0.7 million sentenced to expatriation.
In November 1928 the Central Committee decided to implement forced collectivization of the peasant farmers. This marked the end of the NEP, which had allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market. Grain requisitioning intensified and peasants were forced to give up their private plots of land and property, to work for collective farms, and to sell their produce to the state for a low price set by the state.
Given the goals of the first Five Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture, hoping to feed the rapidly growing urban areas and to export grain, a source of foreign currency needed to import technologies necessary for heavy industrialization.
By 1936 about ninety percent of Soviet agriculture was collectivized. In many cases peasants bitterly opposed this process and often slaughtered their animals rather than giving them to collective farms. The state instituted a policy of liquidation of the kulaks as a class. The term kulak referred to more prosperous peasants, some of whom could employ other peasants. However, anyone who opposed collectivization could be deemed a kulak. The plan formulated by Stalin at the end of 1929 encouraged peasants to turn over kulaks for a reward, in an effort to divide and conquer the peasantry by making the most successful among them a common enemy. These kulaks were executed or forcibly resettled to Siberia, where a large portion were sent for "re-education" at forced labor camps.
Collectivization led to a predictably catastrophic drop in farming productivity, which did not regain the NEP level until 1940. The upheaval associated with collectivization was particularly severe in Ukraine, and the heavily Ukrainian adjoining Volga regions, where Stalin employed a deliberate policy of starving the Ukrainians in order to force them to submit to Moscow's authority. The number of people who died in the famines is estimated to be between three and 10 million in Ukraine alone. The actual number of casualties is bitterly disputed to this day.
Stalin's industrial policies largely improved living standards for the majority of the urban population, although lowering mortality levels resulting from Stalinist policies diminished the accomplishment.
Unemployment had been a problem during the time of the tsar and even under the NEP, but it was not a major factor after the implementation of Stalin's industrialization program. Employment rose greatly; 3.9 million new jobs per year was expected by 1923, but the number was actually an astounding 6.4 million. By 1937, the number rose yet again, to about 7.9 million, and in 1940 it was 8.3 million. Between 1926 and 1930, the urban population increased by 30 million. The mobilization of resources to industrialize the agrarian society created a need for labor. Numerous ambitious projects were begun, which supplied raw materials not only for military weapons but also for consumer goods.
The Moscow and Gorky automobile plants produced automobiles that the public could utilize, although not necessarily afford, and the expansion of heavy plant and steel production made the manufacture of a greater number of cars possible. Car and truck production, for example, reached two hundred thousand in 1931.
Because the industrial workers needed to be educated, the number of schools increased. In 1927, 7.9 million students attended 118,558 schools. This number rose to 9.7 million students and 166,275 schools by 1933. In addition, 900 specialist departments and 566 institutions were built and functioning by 1933. The generation born during Stalin's rule was the first nearly entirely literate generation. Engineers were sent abroad to learn industrial technology, and hundreds of foreign engineers were brought to Russia on contract.
Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which vastly increased the lifespan for the typical Soviet citizen and the quality of life. Stalin's policies granted the Soviet people universal access to health care and education, effectively creating the first generation free from the fear of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers, increasing life spans by decades.
Soviet women under Stalin were also the first generation of women able to give birth in the safety of a hospital, with access to prenatal care. Transport links were also improved, as many new railways were built. Workers who exceeded their quotas, called Stakhanovites after one such exemplary worker, received many rewards for their work. They could thus afford to buy the goods that were mass-produced by the rapidly expanding Soviet economy.
Although freedom of religious expression was formally declared by one of the first decrees of revolutionary government in January 1918, both the Church and its followers were heavily persecuted and deeply disadvantaged. Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were some 54,000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. Many religious hierarchs fled the country during the revolution and the civil war that followed. During the 1920s and 1930s, most church buildings were torn down, burned, or converted into secular buildings; over fifty thousand priests were either executed or sent to labor camps ( much of this was carried out during the Great Purges from 1936 to 1937). By 1939, there were less than one hundred functioning parishes and only four bishops.
During the 11 year period between 1927 and 1938, Stalin claimed near-absolute power. Using the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov (which Stalin is highly suspected of orchestrating) as a pretext, Stalin launched the Great Purges against his suspected political and ideological opponents, most notably the old cadres and the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had already been expelled from the party in 1927, exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928, and then expelled from the U.S.S.R. entirely in 1929. Stalin used the purges to politically and physically destroy his formal rivals (and former allies), accusing both Zinoviev and Kamenev of orchestrating the Kirov assassination and planning to overthrow Stalin. Ultimately, those supposedly involved in this deed and other conspiracies numbered in the tens of thousands. In order to explain industrial accidents, production shortfalls, and other failures of Stalin's regime, various old Bolsheviks and senior party members were often charged with conspiracy and sabotage. Measures used against opposition and suspected opposition ranged from imprisonment in work camps (Gulags) to execution to assassination (including Trotsky and his son Lev Sedov). The period between 1936 and 1937 is often called the Great Terror, in which thousands of people were killed or imprisoned. Stalin is reputed to have personally signed forty thousand death warrants of suspected political opponents.
During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without trial became commonplace for anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin's regime. The Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, NKVD, or the People's Commisariat for Internal Affairs estimated that 681,692 people were shot between 1937 and 1938 alone (although many historians think that this was an undercount), and millions of people were transported to Gulag work camps.
Several show trials, known as the Moscow Trials, were held in Moscow to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewhere in the country. There were four key trials from 1936 to 1938: The Trial of the Sixteen (December 1936), the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937), the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937), and the Trial of the Twenty One (including Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin) (March 1938).
In spite of Stalin's seemingly progressive constitution, enacted in 1936, the party's power was in reality subordinated to the secret police, which Stalin used together with the creation of a cult of personality to secure his dictatorship through state terror.
The Nazi invasion caught the Soviet military unprepared. This was due in part to the depletion of the senior officer core (an estimated forty thousand) in the Great Purges of 1936-1938. To secure Soviet influence over Eastern Europe as well as open economic relations with Germany, Stalin's government negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (named after the two foreign ministers) with Adolf Hitler. This non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, as well as the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement, was signed on August 23, 1939. A secret appendix to the pact gave eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland to the U.S.S.R. and western Poland and Lithuania to Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1; the U.S.S.R. followed suit on September 17. Following the 1939 annexation of eastern Poland, thousands of Polish Army officers, including reservists, were executed during the spring of 1940 in the Katyn forest, in what came to be known as the Katyn massacre.
With Poland divided between two powers, the Soviet Union put forth its territorial demands to Finland for a minor part of the Karelian Isthmus, a naval base at Hanko, Finland, and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. Finland rejected the demands so on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, triggering the Winter War. Despite outnumbering the Finnish troops by over 50:1, the war proved embarrassingly difficult for the Red Army. Although the end of the Winter War gave the Soviet Union control over several strategically important border areas, particularly those to the immediate north of Leningrad, the war triggered an international outcry. On December 14, 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations.
Using his contacts within the German Nazi party, NKVD spy Richard Sorge was able to discover the exact date and time of the planned German invasion. This information was passed along to Stalin, but was ignored, despite the warning not only from Sorge, but Winston Churchill as well. Stalin apparently refused to believe that Hitler break the treaty.
It had been generally believed that even after the invasion, Stalin refused to believe Nazi Germany had broken the treaty. However, new evidence shows Stalin held meetings with a variety of senior Soviet government and military figures, including Vyacheslav Molotov (People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs), Semyon Timoshenko (People's Commissar for Defense), Georgy Zhukov (Chief of Staff of the Red Army), Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (Commander of both North Caucasus and Baltic Military Districts), and Boris Shaposhnikov (Deputy People's Commissar for Defense). All in all, on the very first day of the attack, Stalin held meetings with over 15 individual members of the Soviet government and military apparatus.
Nazi troops reached the outskirts of Moscow in December 1941. At the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–1943, after losing an estimated 1 million men in the bloodiest fighting in history, the Red Army was able to regain the initiative. Due to the unwillingness of the Japanese to open a second front in Manchuria, the Soviets were able to call dozens of Red Army divisions back from eastern Russia. These units were instrumental in turning the tide, because most of their officer corps had escaped Stalin's purges. The Soviet forces were soon able to regain their lost territory and defeated their enemy.
Heavy industrialization contributed to the Soviet Union's wartime victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War (known throughout the former U.S.S.R. as the Great Patriotic War). The Red Army overturned the Nazi eastern expansion (although relying heavily on lend-lease aid from the United States and the United Kingdom) causing the tide of the war on the Eastern Front to turn at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans never recovered after their attempt to reverse their fortunes at the Battle of Kursk were crushed.
Although the Soviet Union was getting aid and weapons from the United States, its production of war materials was greater than that of Nazi Germany because of rapid growth of Soviet industrial production during the interwar years. The second Five-Year Plan raised the steel production to 18 million tons and the coal to 128 million tons. Before it was interrupted, the third Five-Year Plan produced no less than 19 million tons of steel and 150 million tons of coal. The Soviet Union's industrial output helped stop Nazi Germany's initial advance, and stripped them of their advantage. According to Robert L. Hutchings, "One can hardly doubt that if there had been a slower buildup of industry, the attack would have been successful and world history would have evolved quite differently."
Despite the fact that the Soviets eventually threw off the Nazi invaders through superior numbers of soldiers and armaments, they were ill-prepared for the war and suffered tremendous casualties in the first couple of years. Some historians interpret the lack of preparedness of the Soviet Union as a flaw in Stalin's economic planning. David Shearer, for example, argues that there was "a command-administrative economy" but it was not "a planned one." It is commonly held that the chaotic state of the Politburo due to the Great Purges resulted in the lack of preparedness for the Nazi German invasion.
The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II because the West could not open up a second ground front in Europe until the invasion of Italy and D-Day. Approximately 28 million Soviets, including 17 million civilians, were killed in "Operation Barbarossa," the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Many feel that since the Nazis considered the Slavs to be "sub-human," this was ethnically targeted mass murder. However, the local populations were also affected by the retreating Soviet army, which was ordered to pursue a “scorched earth” policy. Retreating Soviet troops were ordered to destroy civilian infrastructure and food supplies so that the Nazi German troops could not use them.
During the war, the Nazis laid seize to Leningrad for nearly two and a half years. While exact figures are impossible, estimates of Soviet casualties range from 20 to 28 million, with about two thirds due to starvation or exposure.
After the war, the Soviet Union continued to occupy and dominate Eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" to protect Russia from another invasion from the west. Russia had been invaded three times in the 150 years before the Cold War, during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II.
The Soviets were determined to punish the people they believed were collaborating with Germany during the war. Millions of Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Ukrainians, and other ethnic minorities were deported to Gulags in Siberia. Stalin also sent all Russian soldiers who had been taken captive by Germany to isolated work camps in Siberia. This was done to punish Soviet prisoners-of-war who had been recruited to fight alongside the Germans in the Vlasov army, but also to minimize any perceived counter-revolutionary ideas they might have been exposed to while in captivity.
From the end of 1944 to 1949 large sections of eastern Germany came under the Soviet Union's occupation. On May 2, 1945, the capital city, Berlin, was taken, while over 15 million Germans were removed from eastern Germany and pushed into central Germany (later called GDR German Democratic Republic) and western Germany (later called FRG Federal Republic of Germany). Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, etc. were then moved onto German land.
Soviet attempts at consolidation and domination in Eastern Europe were consistent with the older policies of Imperial Russia. Gaining the territories of interwar Poland, which was not initially achieved militarily, and the Baltic States through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets refused to cede any ground in post-WWII arrangements. Additionally, the country expanded into the territories of East Prussia (Kaliningrad Oblast), Ukrainian SSR (Zakarpattia Oblast), and Northern Bukovina ( Chernivtsi Oblast) through a 1947 treaty forced upon Communist Romania. In the post-war aftermath, the Soviet Union viewed the territories of countries liberated from Nazism by the Soviet Army as its natural sphere of influence. Hardline pro-Soviet communist regimes were installed in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, often against the will of those populations as expressed in popular elections.
When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US, British, and French) troops were facing each other along a line down the center of Europe, ranging from Lubeck to Triest. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the "iron curtain" of Winston Churchill's famous formulation, and the origin of the Cold War. The agreement negotiated at Yalta between the Allied Powers in practice appears to have ratified an agreement that both sides would maintain their sphere of influence and that neither side would use force to push the other out. The Soviets were able to use a well organized ring of spies in the United States to gain critical advantages during meetings with representatives of Great Britain and the United States. Several of President Roosevelt’s advisors and cabinet members unknowingly regularly reported their activities to NKVD handlers.
Still, Stalin viewed the reemergence of Germany and Japan as Russia's chief threats, not the United States. At the time, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against the USSR seemed slim from Stalin's standpoint. Stalin's economic advisers, such as Eugen Varga, mistakenly predicted a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries which would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great depression. Stalin also assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to Russia.
The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman beginning April 1945 after President Roosevelt's death, was determined to shape the postwar world to open up the world's markets to capitalist trade according to the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist democratic Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had never forgotten the excitement with which he had greeted the principles of Wilsonian idealism during World War I, and he saw his mission in the 1940s as bringing lasting peace and genuine democracy to the world.
Truman could advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced fifty percent of the world's industrial goods and a vast military power that rested on a monopoly of the new atomic bomb. Such a power could mold and benefit from a recovering Europe, which in turn required a healthy Germany at its center; these aims were at the center of what the Soviet Union strove to avoid as the breakdown of the wartime alliance went forward.
The ability of the United States to advance a different vision of the postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests. National security had been the cornerstone of Soviet policy since the 1920s, when the Communist Party adopted Stalin's "socialism in one country" and rejected Trotsky's ideas of "world revolution." Before the war, Stalin did not attempt to push Soviet boundaries beyond their full tsarist extent.
After the war, Stalin quickly imposed Moscow-dominated governments in the springboards of the Nazi onslaught: Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. The aims of the Soviet Union were part aggressive expansion and part consolidation of a “buffer zone” against future Western invasions, but were interpreted in the West as an aggressive attempt to expand communism.
The Soviet Union was determined to destroy Germany's capacity for another war by keeping it under tight control. U.S. aims were just the opposite, a democratic restored Germany as a trade and military partner.
Winston Churchill, long a visceral anticommunist, condemned Stalin for barricading off a new Russian empire behind an iron curtain. Truman later refused to give the war-torn Soviet Union "reparations" from West Germany's industrial plants, so Stalin retaliated by sealing off East Germany as a communist state. A communist coup in Prague in 1948 made Czechoslovakia an effective Soviet satellite soon afterward, and it would remain under Soviet influence until the end of the Cold War.
Russia's historic lack of maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was also a focus for Stalin. It was also another area where interests diverged between East and West. Stalin pressed the Turks for improved access out of the Black Sea through Turkey's Dardanelles Strait, which would allow Soviet passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Churchill had earlier recognized Stalin's claims, but now the British and the Americans forced the Soviet Union to pull back.
When the Soviet leadership did not perceive that the country's security was at stake, their policies were more measured. The Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Northern Iran, at Anglo-American behest, Stalin observed his 1944 agreement with Churchill and did not aid the communists in the struggle against government in Greece, he accepted a friendly, noncommunist government in Finland, and Russian troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945.
The Truman Doctrine was articulated in a speech in March 1947, declaring that the United States would spend as much as $400 million in efforts to "contain" communism. It began as an Anglo-American effort to support the Greek government, and became a struggle to protect free people everywhere against totalitarian communist regimes.
The policy of containment was developed by noted Sovietologist, then State Department officer George Kennan. He argued in a famous article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, notoriously signed "X" to protect his identity, that the Soviets had to be "contained" using "unalterable counterforce at every point," until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred.
The United States launched massive economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12 billion into Western Europe. The rationale was that economically stable nations were less likely to fall prey to Soviet influence, a view which was vindicated in the long run.
In response, Stalin blockaded Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to the control of all four major powers. Convinced that he could starve and freeze West Berlin into submission, Stalin closed all railways and roads into West Berlin so that no trucks or trains could enter the city. However, this decision backfired when Truman embarked on a highly visible move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally—supplying the beleaguered city by air. Military confrontation threatened while Truman, with British help, flew supplies over East Germany into West Berlin during the 1948-1949 blockade. This costly aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift.
Truman joined 11 other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States' first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin replied to these moves by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan. He ordered the first Soviet atomic device to be detonated in 1949, signed an alliance with Communist China in February 1950, and formed the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's equivalent to NATO.
U.S. officials quickly moved to escalate and expand the "containment." In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to convince Americans to fight the costly Cold War. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb. In early 1950 the U.S. embarked on its first attempt to prop up colonialism in French Indochina in the face of mounting popular, communist-led resistance, and the United States embarked on what the Soviets considered a blatant violation of wartime treaties: plans to form a West German army.
The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. Communist parties won large shares of the vote in free elections in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, and won significant popular support in Asia (Vietnam, India, and Japan) and throughout Latin America. In addition, they won large support in China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread appeal.
In response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological offensive. The United States aimed to contain communism through both aggressive diplomacy and interventionist policies. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the leader of the "free world" at least as effectively as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the "anti-imperialist" camp.
In 1950 the Soviet Union protested against the fact that the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council was held by the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China, and boycotted the meetings. The Soviets came to regret this decision when the Korean War broke out. The UN passed a resolution condemning North Korean actions and offering military support to South Korea. Had the Soviet Union been present at the meetings it would certainly have vetoed the outcome. After this incident the Soviet Union was never absent at the meetings of the Security Council.
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