Soviet Union

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The single most important fact in Russia's social history was serfdom, an institution that developed later than it did in western Europe, but existed until 1861. At the time of the Revolution of 1917, there were still people alive who had been born serfs, and a large majority had parents who had not been full-fledged citizens of their country. Serfdom was both the consequence of the poverty of the land and also the cause of lack of economic development. The land, not blessed by good climate and soil, had hardly produced enough for subsistence. The vast majority of the Russian people in early modern times lived in poorer material circumstances than people in the rest of Europe.

While in Europe competing social forces such as the aristocracy, royal power, and independent cities fought each other to reach a standstill and therefore concluded compromises, in Russia autocracy succeeded in defeating the nobility time and again, and cities, after the earliest stage of history, never became important. While in Europe the struggle between the papacy and the empire ended in compromise, Russia from Byzantium inherited a theory according to which the church was glad to serve the state. Prerevolutionary Russia was authoritarian, although it had just introduced some political reforms as a consequence of a revolution in 1905. The Russian parliament, the Duma, was elected on the basis of restricted, estate-based suffrage and therefore did not genuinely represent the political will of the nation. The government, which was not responsible to the legislature, itself in its struggle against the powerful revolutionary movement, did not always observe its own laws. Only in retrospect, in comparison with Stalinist practice, could tsarist legal order be considered civilized.

When the serfs were liberated, the reform plan was not drawn up in such a way as to bring about maximum economic development, but to protect the social order, including the economic interests of the landowning class. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the 1890s Russia experienced impressive economic growth. Indeed, arguably what led to social tensions was not the antiquated social and political order, but the changes that were the consequence of industrialization, such as the growth of the proletariat and urbanization in circumstances that produced great misery. Prerevolutionary society was deeply split between the privileged, who were able to participate in a European culture and civilization, and the rest of society.


After the events of 1905 the regime stabilized itself and the revolutionary movement was in retreat. However, after 1912 the number of strikes once again started to increase, and arguably at the time of the outbreak of World War I Russia was once again facing a revolutionary situation that was only retarded temporarily by the war. It has been a passionately debated issue among historians whether the country was heading toward a revolution before 1914, and the momentary patriotic enthusiasm simply delayed the outbreak, or, on the contrary, the tsarist regime was capable of reforming itself and it was the accident of the war that led to its demise. It is, however, self-evident that the tsarist regime, based on antiquated principles, proved incapable of mobilizing society for a modern war. The soldiers were increasingly tired of fighting, the logistical system broke down, and the cities could not be sufficiently supplied. On 8 March 1917, International Women's Day, when demonstrators expressed their anger, soldiers, unlike in the Revolution of 1905, proved unwilling to disperse the crowds, and the three-hundred-year-old Romanov monarchy collapsed with astonishing ease.

Two centers of power emerged. One was a provisional government that was self-appointed and based on the Duma. Strictly speaking, it lacked legitimacy because it came into being after Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), the tsar, had prorogued the parliament. The new government represented liberal Russia. The other center of power was the soviets (soviet, meaning council) spontaneously created by workers and soldiers to take care of the organizational needs of the moment. The power of the Petrograd Soviet was considerable because it could call on the workers of the capital and of the soldiers stationed there to demonstrate. For some months moderate socialists dominated the soviets. This dual system of power, in which one center had the responsibility for governing and the other had a following among the masses of citizens but no responsibility, was inherently unstable. Indeed in the course of 1917 the country lurched from one crisis to another of increasing severity.

The government ultimately failed because on the basis of principles in which the ministers believed it was impossible to govern the country at that historical moment. The first unresolved issue was the war. The moderate socialists in the soviets were still willing to support a defensive war, although soldiers were increasingly tired of the struggle. When in May, a letter became public in which the foreign minister Pavel Milyukov, a prominent leader of the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party, spoke of the continuation of the war to a victorious end and claimed significant territorial gains for Russia, a public demonstration forced his removal, and the entire government moved to the left. The government did not wish to end the war, but in retrospect it is clear that even if it did, it could not have received terms from the Germans acceptable to the majority of Russians.

The second irresolvable issue was land reform. The peasants after serf liberation did not receive all the lands that they believed should have been theirs and clamored for more. The ministers of the provisional government did not altogether oppose land reform, but on the basis of their liberal principles took it for granted that the landlords had to be compensated, and the country lacked the resources. Even more importantly, they considered that carrying out a land reform during wartime would contribute to the disintegration of the army, since the peasant soldiers would want to return to their villages in order to claim their share. The government decided to postpone this difficult and contentious issue until a constituent assembly could be convened. The problem was that the authority of the government did not extend to the thousands of villages. The peasants took matters into their own hands; they chased away landlords and occupied land. The government did not have the power to prevent this lawlessness on the one hand and on the other was unable satisfy the desire of the peasants. By the summer of 1917 the country was descending into anarchy.

The third problem the government faced was the increased national consciousness of the minorities. Imperial Russia was a multinational empire, but as long as it was powerful the nationalism of the minorities could be controlled and suppressed. However, now that the center was obviously weak, not only historical nations such as Poles and Finns, but also Ukrainians claimed if not independence, at least autonomy. The government had neither the will to satisfy these demands nor the ability to repress.

In July the government was able to fend off a rising from disgruntled soldiers who did not want to go to battle. At this point Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist, became prime minister. In August it was the turn of the Right to attempt to change the status quo. General Lavr Kornilov, recently named commander of the army, organized a coup. The regime prevailed once again; however, the cost of these "victories" was that the government's base of support evaporated. In September the Bolsheviks, uncompromising Marxist revolutionaries—led by Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov; 1870–1924)—who at the time of the March revolution made up only a tiny minority within the soviets, won majorities both in Petrograd and in Moscow. Unlike the moderate socialists, who were willing to compromise, the Bolsheviks were ready to take power. At this time they could count on the support of the majority of the workers in the two major cities and also on the support of the soldiers stationed in the rear. Workers and soldiers supported the Bolsheviks because they alone were not compromised by collaboration with the increasingly hated provisional government. Lenin decided to take power before a scheduled congress of soviets because he wanted the congress to legitimize his action. The Bolsheviks did not so much overthrow the provisional government as that government disintegrated and the revolutionaries were there to take advantage.

Bolshevik action on 7 November initiated a civil war that lasted for three years. At the outset both sides were weak, but as time went on each succeeded in organizing their forces. The Bolsheviks were able and willing to satisfy the desire of the majority—ending the international war by accepting highly unfavorable terms from the Germans, and giving land to the peasants, that is, legitimizing land grabs. Consequently the majority of the people, while not attracted to Marxist ideas and programs, nevertheless opposed the Bolsheviks less vigorously than they opposed their opponents, the Whites, whom they associated with the old regime. Tsarist officers led the forces of the counterrevolutionaries, and their numerically smaller armies were better led. The Whites also enjoyed the support of the Orthodox Church.

The end of the war in Europe had far-reaching consequences for the course of the civil war in Russia. As long as the Allies and the Central Powers were fighting one another, they looked at their involvement in Russia as far less important. Although the Allied governments regarded the Bolsheviks and everything they stood for with fear and loathing, had the Bolsheviks continued the war against the Germany, they could have received Allied support. The Allies first assisted the Whites with the illusory hope that the anti-German front might be reconstructed. The British and the Americans, who in early 1918 sent small detachments to the far north in Murmansk and Archangel and to the far east in Vladivostok, justified their intervention in Russian affairs in terms of their need to fight the Germans. Once World War I ended, any rationale for the intervention fell away, while the opportunities for practical aid to the anti-Bolsheviks vastly improved. Immediately after the defeat of the Germans, French troops landed in Odessa, and shortly after in the Crimea. The British sent small detachments to the Caucasus and to Central Asia, and soon began the delivery of valuable military hardware to Kolchak and to Anton Denikin, the commander of the volunteer White Army.

By 1920 it was fairly certain that the Reds would ultimately win. Poland, which became an independent country at the end of the war, had great territorial ambitions at Russia's expense. The Polish leader, Józef Pilsudski, believing he could get a better deal from the Bolsheviks than from the victorious Whites, waited until the defeat of the main White forces and then started his campaign. The Russo-Polish War, which inspired nationalist passions on both sides, saw changing military fortunes; at one point the victorious Red Army threatened the Polish capital. The war ultimately ended in the compromise peace of Riga in March 1921. Following the decisive phase of the Polish campaign, the Red Army defeated the commander of the volunteer White Army, Peter Wrangel, and forced him and the remnants of his army into exile. By the end of 1920 the Bolsheviks had defeated all their enemies with the exception of a few scattered peasant bands.

Ultimately, after changing fortunes, the Bolsheviks emerged victorious. However, the cost was horrendous. During the world war and in the bitter civil conflict millions died; the destruction was extraordinary, and the reconstruction therefore had to be slow and painful. Famine ravaged the land. The civil war changed the Bolsheviks from underground revolutionaries to administrators and rulers. They had never been liberals; they believed that their knowledge of Marxism enabled them to interpret past, present, and future. They took it for granted that they were acting in the interest the of the people even if the "people" did not understand their own interests. The repression of ideas and opponents started at the very moment of the creation of the regime. The Bolsheviks did not recoil from introducing terror, though it must be said that they were neither better nor worse in this respect than their enemies, the Whites.


At the end of the civil war the country was exhausted. The Bolsheviks in order to supply their armies and feed the cities had resorted to requisitioning from the peasants. They had suspended all free economic activities, most importantly among them free trade in grain. In 1921 at the Tenth Party Congress Lenin introduced a system that came to be called the New Economic Policy (NEP). From the Bolshevik point of view, this was a step backward, away from the dream of classless society, and a concession given to the "class enemy," but circumstances forced the revolutionaries to give concessions. NEP was indeed a hybrid of Marxist ideology and capitalism. In practice it meant that peasants regained their ability to sell their products in the market, and small-scale industry was allowed to operate. Socially it meant that the regime decided to tolerate economic conditions that would allow some peasants at least to become reasonably prosperous and to coexist with the "Nepman," an obnoxious (from the regime's point of view) petty capitalist. Culturally it meant that while the regime preserved its monopoly of interpreting politics, it allowed a considerable degree of heterogeneity and contacts of intellectuals and artists with the outside world. Consequently, the notorious turning point in Soviet intellectual history should be dated not in 1917, but in 1930. NEP was indeed successful to the extent of allowing recovery after dreadful devastation.

Against the background of mixed economy and flourishing intellectual life took place the struggle for succession to Lenin's mantle. The struggle was bound to be contentious. Lenin, after all, was the founder of the movement, his charisma was such that his fellow leaders naturally deferred to him and he could be magnanimous enough to take them back time and again when they "erred." There could be no natural successor. Ultimately it was Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) who emerged victorious. This was because while he may not have been the equal of a Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), a great organizer and eloquent speaker, or a Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938) as a theorist, he was better as a politician. He prevailed over better-known politicians not only because as general secretary since 1922 he had been able to place his followers in crucial positions, but also because he managed to convey the impression to a wide circle of activists, ironically, that he was a safer choice, one who would pursue an internationally less adventurous policy than Trotsky.

The NEP system was internally self-contradictory and from the outset doomed to failure. The regime needed the services of private entrepreneurs and kulaks (well-to-do peasants) but on the other hand feared these people as possible opposition and therefore hampered their activities. At the end of the 1920s the country faced a crisis. The government set the price of grain too low in order to save money for its ambitious industrialization project. The predictable consequence was that the peasants switched to other products, which promised better return, and suddenly the government could not feed the cities. The Stalinist solution was to cut the Gordian knot by returning to the system of forced collection of grain used at the time of the civil war. This action violated the fundamental principle of NEP, and there was no return. If the peasants could not be certain that they would be fairly compensated for their labor, they had no incentive to produce. Stalin started a war against the peasantry by forcing them to join collective farms. The country once again experienced a revolution. It was from this point on in 1929 that we can properly talk of the age of Stalin.


Collectivization was the most extraordinary, most dangerous act of the regime and would also have the most far-reaching consequences. While in the 1920s the regime had maintained only a weak hold on the countryside, by forcing the peasants into collective farms against their will, the regime created an institution that enabled it to control every aspect of peasant life. Most immediately, it enabled the regime to take hold of the products of the collective farms cheaply, thereby enabling the government to proceed with its ambitious industrialization plans for which it had lacked capital. The great Soviet industrialization that took place in the course of the First and Second Five-Year Plans and that transformed society was primarily financed by the extraordinarily low standard of living of the peasantry that in the years 1932–1933 led to mass famine with millions of victims. Industrialization was unbalanced; scarce resources were devoted disproportionately to heavy industry, while the production of consumer goods suffered. Waste in human lives and in material was extraordinary, and the unquestionably great achievements were accomplished at a very high price in terms of human suffering. On the other hand, it is hard to contradict the proposition that it was this industrialization that allowed the Soviet economy to produce weapons, which were later needed to defeat the German army of World War II.

During the First Five-Year Plan the population of Soviet cities almost doubled. What this meant in terms of living conditions can be easily imagined. The Soviet state was determined to invest in heavy industry and was not about to be diverted by spending scarce resources on social overhead, meaning construction of apartment buildings and provision of various city amenities such as transportation and water. Living conditions became appalling: usually several families had to share a kitchen, and often a family could not even have a single room to itself. It would take a long time for the Soviet Union to make up for this dreadful neglect. The vast social transformation of the 1930s created a Soviet urban working class.

The terror of the 1930s defies rational explanation. It is possible to point out that the soil had been well prepared: the extraordinary human losses in World War I, followed by a murderous civil war, followed by a man-made famine, gave a sense to the rulers that life was cheap. Hundreds of thousands of people were sentenced to death, without exception on trumped up charges, and millions died in concentration camps. Obviously, Stalin and his comrades could not possibly choose all the victims; nevertheless they created an atmosphere in which denunciations for revenge and for personal benefit became the rule of the day. Although all segments of the population suffered, there were particular groups that were especially victimized. Intellectuals, foreign Communists, people who had had contact with foreigners, and former Communists were most likely to be hard hit.

This period of terror and privation was also a time of genuine achievements. The regime finally succeeded in enlarging the educational system, above all on the primary level, and by the end of the decade, for the first time in Russian history, the country was able to make good on its promise to provide at least some schooling for all children. Thousands of new schools opened in the countryside, and tens of thousands of teachers, willingly or unwillingly, left the cities to teach village children. The circumstances in which the teachers had to work were extremely primitive and difficult, and many had to be compelled to give up their relatively comfortable lives in the cities. Only a dictatorial regime could have forced people to undertake such jobs and accept such unattractive transfers. The great expansion of the educational system was a major step in transforming backward Russia into an industrial Soviet Union. To be sure, village schools remained much inferior to what was available in the cities; nevertheless, it was a remarkable achievement of Stalinist industrialization that every child was able to spend at least some years in school. It was the general availability of primary schools that enabled the regime finally to take decisive steps toward the elimination of illiteracy. By the end of the decade, four out of five Soviet citizens under the age of fifty could read and write.

In between the civil war and the mid-1930s the Soviet Union was not genuinely threatened by a foreign power. Even Adolf Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 did not particularly concern the Soviet leadership. However, German rearmament and Hitler's boundlessly aggressive policies, aside from his explicit anticommunism and low regard for Slavs, made it clear to Stalin and his advisors that they were facing a new and dangerous international environment. The first Soviet response to the new threat was to reorient its foreign policy and attempt to find allies among democratic countries. Such a policy line also necessitated directing the communist parties to support the policy of "popular fronts," meaning willingness to cooperate with socialist and liberal parties. The pusillanimity of the governments of England and France to Nazi aggression, concerning the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the open German and Italian intervention in the Spanish civil war (1936–1939), and finally the abandonment of Czechoslovakia, convinced the Soviet government that the West was not a reliable ally in deterring the Nazis. When the German army was ready to move against Poland in August 1939, the Nazis, to avoid a two-front war, concluded a nonaggression pact with Stalin, which enabled the Soviet dictator to reclaim lands that Russia had lost at the end of the First World War: the eastern half of the interwar Polish state, the Baltic republics, and Bessarabia. Stalin's thinking in concluding this pact, an act that demoralized the world communist movement, was that the Western Allies and Germany would fight each other to a standstill and his country would greatly benefit. Of course, we know it did not turn out that way. In the summer of 1940 France collapsed, on 22 June 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and for three dreadful years the Red Army for all intents and purposes had to face the brunt of the German attacking forces alone.

Stalin had every reason to fear that the long-suffering peoples of the Soviet Union would not show loyalty to a regime that had mistreated so many of them so badly. Indeed, in the newly occupied territories the Nazis were often received as liberators, however, ultimately, the Russian people persevered. The government, out of necessity, changed its policy line: instead of speaking of international solidarity of the working classes, it called on the Russian people to demonstrate their love of the motherland.

Perhaps the most significant battle of the war took place in December 1941 at the gates of Moscow. The Soviet Union, taking advantage of its recently signed nonaggression pact with Japan, was able to bring up fresh troops and prevent the Germans from occupying the capital. Once the myth of German invincibility was broken, time was on the side of the Red Army. The Soviet Union was able to mobilize its entire industry for the needs of the war to a far greater extent than any other belligerent country. Its industry had always been centralized, essentially on a wartime footing. The Soviet Union, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, was able to move its industry from the war zone to the Ural Mountains or into Siberia, where the factories continued to produce tanks, airplanes, and guns. The turning point was, of course, the enormous battle of Stalingrad, where the extent of German defeat was such as to make it clear to the rest of the world that Germany could not win this war. Although the Red Army still suffered occasional reverses and the death of millions of its soldiers, ultimate victory was only a matter of time.

The Soviet Union emerged from the war with its prestige greatly heightened, a prestige it had not enjoyed since Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812. On the other hand, it was greatly weakened: the human and material losses were horrendous; it is estimated that over twenty-six million citizens of the Soviet Union died. Among the dead there were disproportionate numbers of Jews, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and citizens of the Baltic states. In 1946–1947 the Soviet people suffered the ravages of yet another famine. Reconstruction was bound to be slow and painful. The regime returned to the economic policies that it had followed since collectivization: it invested scarce resources in the rebuilding of heavy industry, neglecting agriculture and light industry.

The government in order to win the war had had to allow a degree of loosening of social discipline. During the war, peoples of the Soviet Union believed that by showing their loyalty the regime would reciprocate and allow a freer life. This was not to be. The Stalinists could not conceive a regime in which they did not have total control. They feared that contact with the West, which had been inevitable during the war, would have subversive consequences. In 1946 the regime once again tightened the screws: harsh discipline was imposed on the collective farms, the degree of intellectual heterogeneity that had been allowed during the struggle against the Nazis was suspended, and a deadly uniformity was imposed on the cultural life of the nation that was even worse than what had existed before 1939. Concentration camps once again came to be filled. Liberated prisoners of war were often not allowed to settle in their previous domicile. Culture was poisoned by an exaggerated form of Russian nationalism, xenophobia, and for the first time in Soviet history, an almost explicit anti-Semitism. Stalin's last years (1945–1953) were the darkest, intellectually most barren years of Soviet history.

The Red Army liberated most of Eastern Europe from the Nazis and in between 1945 and 1947 the Soviet Union established satellite regimes in this region. As the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies came to an end it was unlikely that friendly relations could continue. From the Soviet point of view the West with its immeasurably higher standard of living represented a subversive force. The Soviet Union, after the great destruction of the war could not afford another, but on the other hand, in the perception of the leadership, neither could it afford good relations. Stalin's foreign policy was cautious in the sense that he made sure that Soviet expansion would not involve the country in an armed conflict. On the other hand, in countries where the Red Army was already present, Soviet-type regimes were imposed. The Cold War was the result.


Stalin died on 5 March 1953. On the one hand, it seemed impossible that anyone could take his place, but on the other many people could not imagine the system functioning without a dictator. Stalin's closest comrades, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrenty Beria, and Nikita Khrushchev agreed on "collective leadership." Those who had served Stalin unquestioningly now immediately agreed that substantial liberalization was needed. Collective leadership did not last long. Malenkov, who became premier, seemed in the strongest position to emerge on the top, but Khrushchev, who shortly after Stalin's death assumed leadership of the party, succeeded in out-maneuvering him by gaining the support of the army leadership and of those who wanted to preserve the primacy of heavy industry. In 1955 Khrushchev removed Malenkov from his position. Only at this point did he associate himself with a more liberal policy and then went even further than Malenkov had advocated.

The Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 was a major turning point in Soviet history. The frozen intellectual life began to thaw almost immediately after Stalin's death, and some of Stalin's policies were implicitly repudiated. Nevertheless the explicit criticisms of Stalin in Khrushchev's so-called secret speech still had an extraordinary impact. Khrushchev was in a difficult position: he wanted to separate his policies from that of the dead tyrant because he believed that society could no longer tolerate the burden placed on it by Stalin. At the same time any repudiation of Stalin had to be limited, for the institutions that he had created, the collective farms, the highly centralized economy, a centralized party organization, continued to be the defining characteristics of Soviet polity and society. Khrushchev's compromise was to argue that Stalin had lost the correct path before World War II as he became affected by a "cult of personality." He of course made no attempt to explain how a nominally Marxist society could fall victim to a personality cult. Furthermore, by calling attention to Stalin's crimes he exposed himself to the danger of people pointing out that he himself was deeply implicated in the terror. It is to Khrushchev's credit that he was willing to run the risk. Probably he believed that his fellow leaders were even guiltier than he was and therefore he was safe from being attacked by them.

The consequences of the revelations were far reaching. An attack on Stalinism, however moderate and limited, was bound to create a contradictory situation in a country such as Hungary, where the Hungarian Stalin, Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971), remained in office yet was in no position to oppose this new turn of Soviet politics. In October 1956 the Polish government was tottering and on the brink of collapse, while Hungary in the same month experienced an anti-Soviet, anticommunist revolution. After some hesitation the Soviet leadership decided to intervene for it feared that its entire hold on Eastern Europe might unravel, and its enemies would perceive a lack of response as a sign of weakness.

The international communist movement received a major blow: communists up to that point could deny the obvious, but this strategy worked no longer. This was a serious loss. The Soviet Union had benefited in the past from the support of people in the West who saw in it an example of attempting to overcome inequality and economic irrationality that supposedly was inherent in capitalism. In the 1930s antifascists regarded the Soviet Union as the best hope of confronting Hitler. At the time of World War II millions were rightly impressed by the Soviet achievement of overcoming a fearsome adversary. The foreign friends of the Soviet Union at times could influence the policies of their countries.

Most of the people who had an unrealistic opinion of the Soviet Union in fact were unhappy with their own societies and therefore looked for an alternative. After Khrushchev's revelations of the real Stalin, Western idealists had to look elsewhere for a "better society," than the Soviet Union, such as China, Cuba, or North Vietnam.

It is understandable that Khrushchev's colleagues blamed him for the problems in the Soviet bloc. In June 1957 they made an attempt to remove him from his position. On this occasion, however, the wily Khrushchev prevailed. The following four or five years were the most optimistic period in the history of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev made serious attempts to raise the pitifully low level of standard of living of the Soviet people. He increased investment in agriculture both in order to lessen the wide gap between the cities and the countryside and also to provide better nourishment for all the people. The most significant reform he introduced was the simplest, namely paying higher prices for agricultural products. He also encouraged bringing new lands under cultivation, mostly in Central Asia. He dissolved the machine tractor stations, institutions coeval with the collective farms, which compelled the farms to share agriculture machinery. Because it did not divide responsibility for agricultural work this was a sensible move, although in the short run it caused problems, for the farms were not in the position to pay for the machinery. The government was willing to make major investments to improve the dreadful housing situation. Although the buildings were poorly constructed and maintained, nevertheless it immeasurably improved the quality of life for many, in that they could have more or less decent living space.

In Khrushchev's days the Soviet Union was an authoritarian state where dissent was not tolerated, and the authorities were capricious, one day allowing the publication of significant criticism of the system, the next day arresting an unfortunate artist for saying much less. On the other hand, unlike in the days of Stalin, people were arrested for what they wrote, said, or did, and rarely for no reason at all. It was at this point that dissent became possible. The dissenters were people who for the sake of their beliefs were willing to accept often very heavy punishment. The authoritarian as opposed to totalitarian state allowed the revival of the arts. Once again it was possible to publish worthwhile articles and books and make interesting films. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, obtained permission to publish his stories including descriptions of living conditions in the camps. Honest, first rate films could be made, reminiscent of the golden age of the 1920s.

Khrushchev also introduced major changes in Soviet foreign policy. Stalin had been a cautious leader: he took control over the countries when he could without involving the Soviet Union in a major war. He established a system where a sharp line was drawn between areas in which the Soviet domination was unquestioned and the rest of the world. However much hostility existed between the two sides, the international system in fact was remarkably stable. Khrushchev by contrast wanted to ameliorate the Cold War and spoke of the peaceful coexistence between the two social systems. He also aimed to reform the socialist bloc by allowing a degree of autonomy to the various countries. But at the same time he hoped to extend Soviet influence in regions of the world where before the Soviet Union had shown no interest. Ironically, Khrushchev's desire to lessen tensions ended by creating a more dangerous world. He obviously did not foresee the decisiveness of the American response to his placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, and at that point the world was closer to a nuclear war than ever before or since. His greatest foreign policy disaster, however, was not the humiliation that he had to suffer by bowing to American threats and withdrawing the missiles, but allowing the deterioration of relations with the other communist giant, China.

Khrushchev's successes and failures came from the same source. He believed in the superiority of the communist system and when he saw failures he attempted to remedy them by experimenting. Some of his experiments were successful, but most of them were not well thought out and actually created confusion. Also, because of his belief in communism he was dismayed to see that social equality remained an empty promise and that the privileged were able to transmit their advantages to the next generation. His reforms that aimed to curb privilege made a greater contribution to his ultimate fate than his failures in foreign policy and his inability to reform Soviet economy. On 15 October 1964 the top leaders successfully conspired against him and he was removed from office.


Once against the Soviet leaders called for collective leadership and once again it lasted only for a short time. This time it was Leonid Brezhnev (1906– 1982) who emerged at the top. For some time the regime was able to further increase the standard of living of the people and at the same time make great investment in military hardware. The Soviet Union was, or at least seemed to be, the equal of the United States in military power. Soviet power and therefore influence now for the first time extended to every part of the globe. Gradually, however, decline set in. Methods that had enabled the economy to function reasonably well, at a different stage of development in a different international environment, failed to produce results. The autarky (an economy that does not trade with other countries) that had made sense in the 1930s and 1940s was no longer possible; the economic system, which was able to produce a great deal of steel—however poor in quality—and cement, was not very efficient in creating software for computers. It had been possible in earlier decades to cut off the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, but in the age of modern communications that no longer worked.

The regime deteriorated into senescence. As time passed the leadership became increasingly conservative: turnover in important positions slowed down, and the incompetent were not removed. Brezhnev and his comrades saw in the process of liberalization above all a danger that change might lead to disintegration. During roughly the last five years of Brezhnev's life there were constant rumors of his failing health. His comrades in the Politburo, almost all of them as old as he, were also tired, unimaginative people. The Soviet leadership became the butt of jokes at home and abroad.

Publicists of the Brezhnev era described the political and social system of their country as "real, existing socialism." This phrase well described the difference between Khrushchev's and Brezhnev's Soviet Union. The new leaders felt uncomfortable with a utopian ideology, unconsciously realizing that the promise of a just and affluent society in the distant future had outlived its usefulness: people were tired of waiting. The publicists simply declared that "socialism" had arrived. The implication was that constant experimentation, mass mobilization, and exhortation for new and ambitious campaigns would largely be abandoned. The era was one of complacency and conservatism.

Brezhnev died in 1982 and was followed by two short-term first secretaries, Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). Andropov was intelligent, but was ill during most of his tenure, and Chernenko was a man of limited vision. Consequently the period between 1982 and 1985 could be regarded as an interregnum when the problems facing the Soviet Union not only were not addressed but were allowed to worsen. At this point even in the highest circle of leadership there was an understanding that some sort of change was inevitable, and that made it possible for the relatively youthful and obviously intelligent Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) to be elected general secretary in 1985.


The recognition that reforms were needed of course did not mean that the new leader had a mandate to alter the fundamental institutions of the regime. Indeed, it is clear that Gorbachev himself had no such intention. He obviously believed that it was possible to eliminate the flaws within a fundamentally healthy system: workers had to work better and more efficiently, alcoholism had to be checked, corruption stopped. The first series of reforms, which came to be called "acceleration" (uskorenie), were simply tinkering, and it soon became obvious that these did not eliminate the problems but if anything made them worse. It was at that point and also partially as a result of the obviously mishandled Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 (the largest nuclear accident so far in history) that impelled Gorbachev to take the second and ultimately crucial step, calling for openness ( glasnost) in discussing the problems facing the country. Indeed, in order to remedy what ailed the country, the problems had to be honestly examined. Probably no one foresaw the consequences.

At least for a time, among the intelligentsia the possibility to speak, to write openly, and to organize produced euphoria. For a while it seemed that there was a national unity, in opposition to the crimes of the Stalin era, not seen since World War II. This unity, however, was only apparent. Discussions led to proposals for reorganization and changes (perestroika, literally "restructuring"), and as economic and political reforms were introduced it became clear that society was far from united. No conceivable set of reforms could have both improved standards of living and at the same time remedied the profound, structural problems of the economy. Nor was it possible to introduce a degree of democracy and openness and at the same time to preserve the privileged role of the Communist Party. It turned out that there was no constituency for change that required sacrifice. By 1990 the steam from the reformist impulse ran out. The economy further deteriorated, and the country was foundering. Just as in 1917, as the center weakened, the national minorities increasingly asserted themselves not only against the dominant Russians, but also against one another. The Soviet Union was falling apart. The decisive moment came in August 1991. The opponents of the reforms—all put into office by Gorbachev himself—conspired to carry out a coup and attempt to return to the prereform era. That was not possible. They were not only incompetent, but they also lacked a constituency. Not merely did they fail to achieve their goal, but they gave a coup de grace to the Soviet Union itself.

In the post-Soviet era after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Gorbachev had no role to play. The man of the moment was Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931), a maverick and populist former Communist, whose achievement was the destruction of the political and economic institutions of the Soviet state.

The last decade of the twentieth century turned out to be a painful and troubled one for the people of Russia. The introduction of the market economy and privatization led to great injustices and profound social inequality, and the majority of the people found that capitalism, at least in the short run, did not benefit them, but on the contrary, made their misery greater. The demise of the Soviet state did not mean the introduction of a genuinely democratic political system, for example, in 1993 Yeltsin forcefully dissolved the Russian parliament. The newly successful and enormously rich businessmen acquired considerable political power that they used for their own benefit. Corruption came to assume extraordinary proportions.

It is impossible to say to what extent the problems of contemporary Russia are the consequence of the legacy of seventy-four years of communism or to mismanaged reforms. The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive. It must be recognized, however, that the Soviet Union was unreformable, and the country had no choice but to take a different path.

See alsoBolshevism; Chernobyl; Cold War; Collectivization; Commonwealth of Independent States; Communism; Destalinization; Dissidence; Eastern Bloc; Five-Year Plan; Gulag; Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact; Moscow; New Economic Policy (NEP); Perestroika; Purges; Russia; Russian Civil War; Russian Revolutions of 1917; Samizdat; Stakhanovites; Terror; Totalitarianism; Warsaw Pact.


Heller, Mikhail, and Aleksandr Nekrich. Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present. New York, 1986.

Hosking, Geoffrey. First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. New York, 1999.

Malia, Martin . The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. New York, 1994.

McCauley, Martin. The Soviet Union: 1917–1991. 2nd ed. London, 1993.

Service, Robert. Russia: Experiment with a People. Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States. New York, 1998.

Thompson, John. A Vision Unfulfilled: Russia and the Soviet Union in the Twentieth Century. Lexington, Mass., 1996.

Peter Kenez

Soviet Union

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Soviet Union (officially Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR) Former federal republic, successor to the Russian Empire and the world's first communist state. The Soviet Union formed on December 30, 1922 and, when dissolved on December 31, 1991, was the largest country in the world. The Bolshevik regime, led by Lenin, came to power in the Russian Revolution (1917). Lenin's government survived civil war (1918–22) and famine by instituting a centralized command economy. In 1921, the New Economic Policy (NEP) marked a return to a mixed economy. In 1922, the republics of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia signed a treaty of union. In 1923, a new constitution was adopted establishing the supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and the Supreme Soviet as the highest legislative body. Lenin died in January 1924, and a power struggle ensued between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Stalin emerged the victor, and Trotsky was expelled in 1927.

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