Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Rus. Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, former republic. It was established in 1922 and dissolved in 1991. The Soviet Union was the first state to be based on Marxist socialism (see also Marxism; communism). Until 1989 the Communist party indirectly controlled all levels of government; the party's politburo effectively ruled the country, and its general secretary was the country's most powerful leader. Soviet industry was owned and managed by the state, and agricultural land was divided into state farms, collective farms, and small, privately held plots.
Politically the USSR was divided (from 1940 to 1991) into 15 constituent or union republics—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia (see Belarus), Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia (see Kyrgyzstan), Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia (see Moldova), Russia, Tadzhikistan (see Tajikistan), Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan—ostensibly joined in a federal union, but until the final year or so of the USSR's existence the republics had little real power. Russia, officially the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was only one of the constituent republics, but the terms "Russia," the "USSR," and the "Soviet Union" were often used interchangeably.
The USSR was the successor state to the Russian Empire (see Russia) and the short-lived provisional government of Russia. The history of the provisional government, the Revolution of 1917, Soviet Russia's withdrawal from World War I, and the Russian Civil War are covered in the articles Russian Revolution and Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of.
Many policies indicative of the entire tenure of the Soviet rule appeared during the formative stage of the state. The torture or summary execution of real or imagined opponents, a "Red Terror" to subdue the Whites during the civil war, became institutionalized in the form of the secret police, who sought to suppress dissidence and opposition. Such tactics were employed even within the Communist party, as periodic "purges" were carried out to rid the party of dissident members. The denigration of rural peasants in favor of soldiers and urban dwellers was another tendency of the Soviet regime. Millions of peasants in the Don region starved to death from 1918 to 1920 as the army confiscated grain for its own needs and the needs of the urbanites.
The fundamental policy, however, of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from its beginning was complete socialization. Between 1918 and 1921, a period called "war communism," the state took control of the whole economy, mainly through the centralization of planning and the elimination of management from factories. This led to inefficiency and confusion, and in 1921 there was a partial return to the market economy with the adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP ushered in a period of relative stability and prosperity, and in 1922 the treaty of union formally joined Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia (divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijan republics).
At this time the USSR comprised Russia and the remainder of the Russian Empire (for its earlier history see Russia) as it had emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war. The civil war had been complicated by Allied intervention and by war (1920) with Poland. The peace treaty (1921) with Poland (see Riga, Treaty of), the declarations of independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the seizure by Romania of Bessarabia had greatly reduced the size of the former Russian Empire, establishing what the governments of Western Europe called a cordon sanitaire (quarantine belt) separating Communist Russia from the rest of Europe.
Temporarily accepting this quarantine, Vladimir I. Lenin and the other leaders of the Soviet Union set about repairing the damage caused by the revolution and the civil war. In 1922, Germany recognized the Soviet Union (see Rapallo, Treaty of), and most other Western nations except the United States followed suit in 1924. Also in 1924 a constitution was adopted based theoretically on the dictatorship of the proletariat and founded economically on the public ownership of the land and the means of production according to the revolutionary proclamation of 1917.
The Stalin Era
A struggle for leadership followed Lenin's death in early 1924; Joseph V. Stalin and Leon Trotsky were the two main protagonists, with Stalin emerging victorious by the late 1920s. Stalin's program called for a more gradual transformation of Soviet society than did Trotsky's and had as its primary objective the consolidation of communism in the USSR rather than Trotsky's ideal of immediate world revolution. Later Stalin adopted more radical measures. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to guide the Communist parties abroad through the Third International, or Comintern.
The First Five-Year Plan
At home the New Economic Policy instituted in 1921 was replaced by full government planning with the adoption of the first Five-Year Plan (1928–32). The plan was drawn up by Gosplan (the state planning commission), setting goals and priorities for virtually the entire economy and emphasizing the production of capital and not consumer goods. A system of collective and state farms was imposed over widespread peasant opposition, which was expressed notably in the slaughter of livestock. Those comparatively prosperous peasants (called kulaks) who refused to join the new agricultural institutions were "liquidated" by drastic means. More than 5 million peasant households were eliminated, their property was confiscated, and most of the peasants were sent as forced laborers to Siberia. This also led to famine in 1932–33. By the end of the 1930s, 99% of the cultivated land was in collective farms (the system of state farms was established successfully only after World War II). Industrialization was accelerated, and the production of desperately needed industrial raw materials and capital equipment was stressed at the expense of consumer goods. One of the major results of the successive Five-Year Plans was the spectacular industrial and agricultural development of the Urals, Siberian USSR, and Central Asian USSR.
The level of literacy, very low in 1917, was steadily raised in all parts of the country, and free medical and social services were extended to the population. At the same time, the state (and behind it, the CPSU) increased its hold over all political, social, and cultural aspects of life. Education and media of public information passed under state control. Freedom of movement was severely restricted. All criticism of public policy, if not authorized by the state, was banned. The secret police became a major instrument of state control, and much power was given to the civil service. The system of controls gave rise to a large and powerful bureaucracy, called the "new class" by some analysts.
Religious bodies were severely persecuted in the early years of the Soviet Union, but in the mid-1930s there was a measure of relaxation in official policy, probably because antireligious propaganda in the schools had already taken effect among the younger generation. However, relations with the Roman Catholic Church and with the Jewish community remained hostile. Relations were also strained with the West Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Conservatism and Purges
The mid-1930s saw a conservative trend in official attitudes toward culture: family life was emphasized again, and divorces and abortions were made difficult to obtain; great men and events in pre-1917 Russian history were extolled in literature (e.g., in works by Aleksey N. Tolstoy) and in films (especially those of Sergei Eisenstein); and experimentation in education gave way to a return to structure and discipline. In 1936 the Stalin constitution was issued, and it included many features of Western democracies, which, however, were more window-dressing than true indications of the distribution of power in the Soviet system.
The CPSU continued to control the government and run the country, and Stalin, as the Wisest of the Wise, was firmly in control of the party. Following the murder (1934) of Sergei M. Kirov, one of Stalin's closest associates, and the announcement of the discovery of an alleged plot against Stalin's regime headed by the exiled Trotsky, there began a series of purges that culminated in the great purge from 1936 to 1938. The armed forces, the CPSU, and the government in general were purged of all allegedly dissident persons; the victims were generally sentenced to death or to long terms of hard labor. Much of the purge was carried out in secret, and only a few cases were tried in public "show trials." Among the many thousand victims of the purges were such prominent CPSU leaders as Grigori E. Zinoviev, Lev B. Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, and Aleksey I. Rykov and military figures like Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky. Independent influence in society was thus ended, and monolithic unity under Stalin was achieved by 1939.
Pre–World War II Foreign Relations
Soviet foreign policy, long hampered by the hostility of the nations of Europe and America and by pervasive mutual distrust, was carried out first by Georgi Chicherin and from 1930 by Maxim M. Litvinov. In 1933 the United States recognized the USSR, and in 1934 the Soviet Union was admitted into the League of Nations. In the mid-1930s the USSR sought friendly relations with its neighbors, declared its renunciation of imperialistic expansion, and advocated total disarmament. Soviet-controlled Communist parties in other countries became friendlier to more moderate socialists and to liberals and in 1936 joined leftist Popular Front coalitions in France and Spain. The Western nations did not invite the USSR to take part in the negotiations with Germany leading to the Munich Pact (1938), and a radical shift in Soviet foreign policy ensued. V. M. Molotov replaced Litvinov as foreign minister.
World War II
On Aug. 23, 1939, the USSR concluded a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, which shortly afterward invaded Poland, precipitating World War II. Soviet troops also entered (Sept., 1939) Poland, which was divided between Germany and the USSR. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were occupied (1940) by the Soviet Union, and in mid-1940 were transformed into constituent republics of the USSR. Finland opposed Soviet demands, and the Finnish-Russian War of 1939–40 resulted; it ended in a hard-earned Soviet victory. Finland ceded territory, which was organized into the Karelo-Finnish SSR (which in 1956 became part of the RSFSR as the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Romania was forced (1940) to cede Bessarabia and N Bukovina, and the Moldavian SSR was created. In Apr., 1941, a nonaggression treaty with Japan was signed.
Although defense preparations were accelerated (probably in anticipation of eventual war with Germany), when Germany attacked on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was caught by surprise. Romania, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy joined in the invasion of the USSR. By the end of 1941 the Germans had overrun Belorussia and most of Ukraine, had surrounded Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and were converging on Moscow. The success of this first German offensive was in part due to the 1935–39 purges of the army and the party, which had robbed the USSR of many of its best military minds and political organizers.
A Soviet counter-offensive saved Moscow, but in June, 1942, the Germans launched a new drive directed against Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) and the Caucasus petroleum fields. Stalingrad held out, and the surrender (Feb. 2, 1943) of 330,000 Axis troops there marked a turning point in the war. The Soviets drove the invaders back in an almost uninterrupted offensive and in 1944 entered Poland and the Balkan Peninsula. Early in 1945, German resistance in Hungary was overcome, and Soviet troops marched into East Prussia. The converging Soviet armies then closed in on Berlin in a climactic drive. On May 2, 1945, Berlin fell; on May 7 the USSR together with the Western Allies accepted the surrender of Germany.
The Soviet victory was obtained at the great price of at least 20 million lives (including civilian casualties) and staggering material losses. The United States contributed much aid, about $9 billion, to the USSR through lend-lease. Understandings concerning the conduct of war and postwar policies had been reached by the USSR, the United States, and Great Britain at the Moscow Conferences (1941–47), the Tehran Conference (1943), the Yalta Conference (1945), and the Potsdam Conference (1945).
In accordance with a previous agreement, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, two days after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A swift campaign brought Soviet forces deep into Manchuria and Korea by the date (Sept. 2, 1945) Japan surrendered. As a direct result of the war, the USSR received the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands from Japan; the northern part of East Prussia from Germany; and some additional territory from Finland. By agreements in 1945 with Poland and Czechoslovakia the USSR also vastly increased the area of the Belorussian and Ukrainian republics.
The Cold War
Cooperation between the USSR and the Western powers—already shaky during the war—ceased soon after the armistice, and relations between the Soviet Union and the United States (which emerged from the war as the two chief powers in the world) became increasingly strained, leading to the international tension of the cold war. Friction became particularly acute in the jointly occupied countries of Germany, Austria, and Korea and in the United Nations (of which the USSR was a charter member), preventing the conclusion of joint peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Korea and agreements over reparations and the control of nuclear weapons.
Increasing Soviet influence in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania and the continued tight control of East Germany created fears in the Western world of unlimited Soviet expansion, as did the creation (1947) of the Cominform (which in a limited sense was the successor of the Comintern). The USSR, on the other hand, justified its policies by claiming that it was merely responding to encirclement by hostile capitalist nations. In 1948, Yugoslavia declared its independence from the "Soviet bloc," as the Communist nations of East Europe came to be known. In 1948 and 1949 the USSR unsuccessfully tried to prevent supplies from reaching the sectors of Berlin occupied by the Western Allies. In 1949, the USSR recognized the newly established Communist government of China, and a 30-year alliance was signed in early 1950. Relations with the Western powers worsened considerably after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–53), which the West ascribed to Soviet instigation.
Internally, the goals of the immediate postwar era were the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and the reimposition of Stalin's dictatorship. A fourth Five-Year Plan was released, concentrating as usual on heavy industrial development, which had shifted east due to the war. Despite impressive developments in industry, Soviet agriculture suffered greatly in the postwar period, as a drought in 1946 caused a massive famine. Collective farming proved once again to be hugely inefficient. The development of military technology continued rapidly, however, and the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device in 1949.
Stalin managed to reassert his personal rule once more, ending the period of relatively free interaction in Soviet society mandated by the war effort. Millions of soldiers and ethnic minorities who had come into contact with the Germans and the Allies were deported to Central Asia and Siberia. Stalin instituted another round of anti-Semitic purges, killing many prominent Jewish writers. Propaganda extolling Communism's achievements reached new heights, as the government claimed Russian origins for nearly everything, even the American pastime of baseball.
The Khrushchev Era
The death of Stalin on Mar. 5, 1953, ushered in a new era in Soviet history. "Collective leadership" at first replaced one-man rule, and after the arrest and execution (June, 1953) of Lavrenti P. Beria the power of the secret police was curtailed. Soviet citizens began to gain a greater degree of personal freedom and civil security. Georgi Malenkov succeeded Stalin as premier, while Nikita S. Khrushchev, as first secretary of the central committee of the CPSU, played an increasingly important role in policy planning. In 1955, Malenkov was replaced as premier by Nikolai Bulganin. At the 20th All Union Congress (Feb., 1956), Khrushchev bitterly denounced the dictatorial rule and personality of Stalin in a secret speech that was later obtained by foreigners. Khrushchev replaced Bulganin as premier in 1958, thus becoming leader of both the government and the CPSU; he modified some of the more dictatorial aspects of Stalin's rule, but the CPSU continued to dominate all facets of Soviet life.
Domestic Policy under Khrushchev
Khrushchev retained many of Stalin's basic economic policies, but there were important changes. Management of the economy (especially industry) was decentralized (1957) in an attempt to reduce the inefficiency and delays resulting from central bureaucratic control. Numerous national ministries were disbanded. In agriculture, vast tracts of virgin land (especially in Central Asian USSR and W Siberian USSR) were opened to the cultivation of grain, notably wheat; taxation of collective farmers' private plots was reduced; and the Machine Tractor Stations, established in the late 1920s and 30s as a means of supervising the collective farms by controlling their use of farm machinery, were abolished in 1958 and their equipment sold to the collectives. Somewhat larger amounts of consumer goods were manufactured. In 1957–58 the noted author Boris L. Pasternak was prevented from accepting his Nobel Prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago because it contained a general criticism of life in the Soviet Union immediately after the Revolution.
Foreign Relations under Khrushchev
Foreign policy became more flexible; the Soviet Union negotiated a peace treaty with Austria (1955), established diplomatic relations with West Germany (1955), restored the Porkkala naval base to Finland (1955), dissolved the Cominform (1956), allowed foreigners to travel in the USSR, and set up cultural exchanges with Western nations. In addition, it was considered proper beginning in 1955 to form alliances with, and give aid to, the non-Communist nations of the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria, and other non-Communist underdeveloped countries.
Relations with the Communist countries of Eastern Europe were formalized and strengthened by the establishment of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, or Warsaw Pact. In June, 1956, a revolt against Soviet influence in Poland was defeated by the Polish army, but the Poles managed to gain some concessions from Moscow; an uprising in Hungary in Oct., 1956, was crushed ruthlessly by Soviet troops.
In the technological race between the Soviet Union and the West (principally the United States), the USSR exploded (1953) a hydrogen bomb; announced (1957) the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles; orbited (1957) the first artificial earth satellite (called Sputnik); and in 1961 sent Yuri Gagarin in the first manned orbital flight. In Sept., 1959, Khrushchev undertook a 10-day tour of the United States. In May, 1960, a four-power (USSR, United States, France, and Great Britain) summit conference scheduled for Paris was aborted when a U.S. reconnaissance airplane ( "U-2" ) was shot down in the Soviet Union and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologize for the aerial spying. The USSR participated in the international negotiations on nuclear disarmament and agreed (1958) to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests, but resumed testing in 1961. In 1963, the USSR signed a milestone treaty with the United States and Great Britain banning atmospheric nuclear tests.
The question of divided Berlin (a focal point of the cold war) remained unresolved through several rounds of negotiations and a number of "Berlin crises," particularly the 1961 controversy over the erection of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin. In June, 1964, the Soviet Union signed a separate peace treaty with East Germany.
At the 22d CPSU congress in 1961 the attack on Stalin was continued, and the reputations of many purge victims of the 1930s were rehabilitated. Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in the Kremlin next to Lenin's; his name was erased from the geography of the USSR (e.g., Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd), and pictures and statues of him were removed. Also at the 22d congress the Sino-Soviet conflict (which had begun in the late 1950s) emerged, stated at first in terms of a dispute with Albania (a close ally of China). Among other things, China had accused the USSR of betraying Marxism-Leninism by attempting to negotiate with the West, while Khrushchev and his administration insisted that Communist expansion could be accomplished in conjunction with a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with states having different social and economic systems.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
In Oct., 1962, despite seemingly improved relations with the West, the USSR came into sharp conflict with the United States over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The United States demanded the removal of the missiles and blockaded the island to keep out Soviet ships. Backing down, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, and the crisis passed. Some analysts maintain that the Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in U.S.-Soviet relations because the USSR realized the determination of the United States to protect what it considered its vital interests. In 1963 a "hot line" (direct and instantaneous teletype communications) was set up between the heads of government of the USSR and the United States.
The Brezhnev Era
In a well-prepared and bloodless move by CPSU leaders, Khrushchev was ousted from his positions of power Oct. 14–15, 1964. He was replaced as first secretary of the CPSU by Leonid I. Brezhnev (who in 1960 had become chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet) and as premier by Alexei N. Kosygin. The official reasons given for Khrushchev's ouster were his advanced age (70) and his declining health. The real reason was dissatisfaction with the policies and style of his government. Specifically, Khrushchev was criticized for the inadequate performance of the economy, especially the agricultural sector (there had been a bad harvest in 1963); for the humiliation of the USSR in the Cuban Missile Crisis; for the widening rift with China; and for his flamboyant personal style, which it was said created a "cult of personality." Several persons closely associated with Khrushchev also lost their posts; they included his son-in-law Alexei I. Adzhubei, the editor of the government newspaper Izvestia.
In July, 1964, Anastas I. Mikoyan succeeded Brezhnev as chairman of the presidium; Mikoyan was replaced in Dec., 1965, by Nikolai V. Podgorny. The new leaders stressed collective leadership (as opposed to Khrushchev's one-man rule), but because of his position at the head of the CPSU Brezhnev held an advantage and by 1970 was clearly the most powerful person in the country, followed at a considerable distance by Kosygin. In 1966 the position of first secretary of the CPSU again was called general secretary (as it had been until 1952), and the presidium of the supreme soviet reverted to the name politburo (short for political bureau). In the later 1960s the official attitude toward Stalin became somewhat less hostile. In internal affairs the new leaders stressed economic development, and in foreign affairs they generally pursued peaceful coexistence with the West (although there were several major indirect confrontations).
Domestic Policy under Brezhnev
Claiming that Khrushchev's policy of decentralizing administration had been ill advised, his successors reestablished 28 national ministries in 1965. However, at the same time a major program to decentralize decision-making in industry was begun. Under the system devised by Yevsei Liberman, an economist, individual firms made their own decisions on levels of production based on prevailing prices, and their efficiency was judged individually on the amount of profit they made. By the early 1970s the vast majority of industrial firms were operating on this basis. The new system allowed much more latitude to the individual firms, but they still had to operate within the constraints of the overall Five-Year Plans, which established the basic course of the Soviet economy, and of the annual national government budget.
Industrial production (and the productivity of individual workers) increased steadily after 1964, but not as rapidly as the leadership desired. To make up for a growing deficiency of technology, a number of major contracts were signed (beginning in the late 1960s) with Western firms to build factories and other installations in the USSR. With the exception of a bad harvest in 1972, agricultural production increased dramatically. The dramatic world oil price rises in 1973–74 and 1979 buoyed the economy, and the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Germany promised further economic expansion.
During the Brezhnev era leading writers, scientists, and intellectuals protested certain aspects of Soviet life, especially curbs on the free flow of ideas, corruption in government, and inefficiency. Although the dissidents were small in number and had little popular support, they were treated harshly by the government, many being sentenced to terms in prison or being forced into exile. The leading dissidents included the writers Andrei Sinyavsky (whose pen name was Abram Tertz), Yuri Daniel (whose pen name was Nikolai Arzhak), Anatoly V. Kuznetsov (who defected to Great Britain in 1969), Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (a Nobel Prize winner for Literature who was forced to leave the country in early 1974), Aleksandr Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, and Andrei Amalrik; the editor Aleksandr Tvardovski; the Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist Andrei D. Sakharov; the geneticist Zhores A. Medvedev (who left the country in 1973 and was not allowed to return); the economist Viktor Krasin; retired general Petro Grigorenko; and the historian Pyotr Yakir. Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the West in 1967 and took up residence in the United States.
From the later 1960s many Jews asked to leave the country, mainly in order to settle in Israel. For a time the government made emigration for them exceptionally difficult (for instance, by charging a high "emigration tax" allegedly to cover the cost of the person's education in the USSR), but in the early 1970s considerable numbers of Jews were able to emigrate (partly because the emigration tax was suspended). In 1974 the USSR agreed to ease its emigration policy in return for favored-nation trade status with the United States. Contributing to disquiet in the country were the members of several ethnic groups (notably the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Tatars) who vociferously demanded increased autonomy for their people.
Foreign Relations under Brezhnev
Formal Soviet-U.S. relations continued to be good after 1964, but there was a serious indirect conflict in Vietnam (where the USSR gave North Vietnam much material aid, but did not send troops, to oppose U.S. forces active in South Vietnam). Other indirect conflicts included the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (where the Soviet Union backed the Arabs rhetorically but gave them little material assistance), the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 (when the USSR aided India and the United States backed Pakistan), the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (when U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, believing that the Soviet Union was about to send troops to back the Arab side, instituted a worldwide precautionary alert of U.S. forces), the Angolan, Mozambican, and Ethiopian civil wars (where the U.S. backed rebellions against Soviet-backed governments), and the Contra war in Nicaragua.
In 1968, Soviet relations with the Communist nations of Eastern Europe reached a critical stage when Soviet troops (and forces of some of the other Warsaw Treaty Organization members) invaded (Aug. 21) Czechoslovakia in a successful effort to curb the trend toward liberalization there (and indirectly to reduce Czechoslovakia's increasing contact with Western European nations). Brezhnev declared (in what became known as the "Brezhnev doctrine" ) that Communist countries had the right to intervene in other Communist nations whose actions threatened the international Communist movement. Romania and Yugoslavia explicitly denounced the Brezhnev doctrine.
The Sino-Soviet conflict worsened after 1964. In 1969 there were numerous border clashes, including a major one over control of Damansky Island in the Ussuri River. Both countries enlarged their border forces and maintained them in the early 1970s despite somewhat less tense relations.
The Era of Détente
In 1969, the USSR, the United States, and about 100 other nations signed a treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons to countries not possessing them. Strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States began in 1969, and they were continuing in 1974. When President Nixon visited Moscow in 1972, an agreement partially limiting strategic arms was signed (an agreement that was renewed during Nixon's 1974 visit to the USSR), along with accords on cooperation in space exploration, environmental matters, and trade. By this time Soviet-U.S. relations were described as having entered an era of détente, and the cold war was said to have ended. In 1973, Brezhnev toured the United States and met with Nixon.
A major objective of Soviet foreign policy in the early 1970s was to gain official recognition of the post–World War II settlement in Europe. In 1970 a landmark treaty with West Germany was signed (ratified in 1972) confirming existing boundaries in Europe (notably the eastern border of East Germany) and also renouncing the use of force to settle disputes. In 1972 the USSR, the United States, Great Britain, and France signed an accord regularizing the position of Berlin.
In 1973 a European security conference, which the USSR hoped would also help make permanent the status quo in Europe, formally opened. A second phase of SALT talks began, as well as negotiations for a mutual and balanced reduction of forces in Europe. The USSR gave considerable assistance to underdeveloped countries during the Brezhnev era. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War the Soviet Union played a major role in equipping both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. At Tashkent in 1966, Kosygin mediated a dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
In the early 1970s there was a notable increase in both the size and quality of the Soviet military, especially the navy. In the "space race" with the United States, the USSR did not place a man on the moon (as the United States did in 1969) but made other important, but less spectacular, exploratory probes of space. In 1975 a symbolic linkup in space between Soviet and U.S. spacecraft capped the era of détente.
In 1975 the USSR signed the Helsinki Accords, which declared the postwar European boundaries inviolable and subject to change only by peaceful means. The Accords also contained provisions on human rights, and the Soviet government drew international criticism for harassing or imprisoning citizens who tried to monitor Soviet compliance with the Accords. A new "Brezhnev" constitution was promulgated in 1977, but differed little from the preceding Stalin constitution.
Brezhnev's foreign policy during the 1970s supported Marxist revolutionary governments in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Grenada, Nicaragua, and South Yemen, but it stumbled in applying the Brezhnev doctrine to Afghanistan. A 10-year occupation of that country (1979–89) pitted the forces of the USSR against the same sort of indigenous, nationalistic guerrilla army that the United States had faced in Vietnam. The United States' response to the invasion was swift; it shelved the second SALT agreement, suspended grain shipments, and led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. and European governments, despite domestic opposition, placed new intermediate range Pershing II missiles in Europe, and a staunch anti-Communist, Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States. Détente was over.
Almost in synchrony with the breakdown in international relations, the Stalin-era leadership began to fail. Kosygin resigned and died in 1980. Brezhnev grew ill. His declining health slowed the Soviet response to the 1980–82 challenge posed by Poland's Solidarity union. Soviet economists, who had been secretly relying on doctored economic figures and raw material exports to gloss over the economy's deficiencies, could not disguise the USSR's failure to meet its Five-Year Plan goals. Fortuitous increases in gold and oil prices in the 1970s had camouflaged the decay, but the USSR possessed few manufacturing exports, the lifeblood of all developing economies. Life expectancy for men began to decline due to alcohol abuse, a fact so embarrassing to the government that it stopped issuing life expectancy figures.
The Gorbachev Era
Brezhnev died in 1982 and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, the recent head of the KGB. He tried to reform the nation through campaigns against alcoholism and absenteeism, but he died after little more than a year in office. He was replaced by party loyalist Konstantin Chernenko, who also died after a year in office. An Andropov protege, Mikhail Gorbachev, became general secretary of the CPSU in Mar., 1985.
Glasnost and Perestroika
Gorbachev inherited a country with daunting economic and foreign policy troubles. In the first nine months of his tenure he replaced 40% of the regional-level leadership. Like his mentor Andropov, he unleashed a vigorous campaign against alcohol use. Like Khrushchev, he approved measures aimed at loosening social restraints. The measures, which Gorbachev called glasnost ( "openness" ) and perestroika ( "restructuring" ), were expected to invigorate the Soviet economy by increasing the free flow of goods and information.
Glasnost received an immediate challenge when on Apr. 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radioactive material over a large area. The Soviet government initially tried to cover up the extent of the disaster, but Gorbachev dramatically ended the cover-up by removing all controls on reporting. The basic poverty of the Soviet people, the waste of the country's resources, the unpopularity of the Afghan conflict were openly discussed for the first time.
Rapid and radical changes began. Dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were released from detention and allowed to voice their views. The USSR signed an agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, a process that was completed by Feb., 1989. The CPSU held its first conference in 50 years in 1988, further denouncing Stalin and his policies. In Mar., 1989, the first openly contested elections since 1917 were held. In May, Gorbachev visited Beijing, signaling the end of the Sino-Soviet split. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews left the country after emigration restraints were removed. Over 400,000 had moved to Israel by 1993, and substantial numbers also moved to the United States.
Dissolution of the Union
Gorbachev's criticisms of the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe who were not attempting reforms similar to glasnost hinted that the Brezhnev doctrine would be ignored. Frantic, last-minute efforts at reform by Eastern European leaders in the summer and fall of 1989 at best only slowed the collapse of their Communist governments. The loss of dominance over Eastern Europe stunned conservatives in the military and the CPSU, and Gorbachev came under increasing pressure to slow glasnost and perestroika.
The country's troubles continued. The economy did not respond as expected, actually shrinking 4% in 1990. The citizens of the Baltic states and Georgia demanded independence from the USSR. Miners in Donets and Kuznetsk Basins went on strike, a severe blow to a party and a government that had always claimed to represent the workers. Arms reductions with the United States and a pact that accepted the reunification of Germany were signed. In desperation, a group of senior officials led by Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and the heads of the KGB and the Interior Ministry, detained Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea on Aug. 18, 1991, just two days before he was scheduled to sign a treaty granting greater autonomy to the USSR's constituent republics.
In three days, the August Coup collapsed, as junior military leaders and the presidents of the republics, most notably Boris Yeltsin of the RSFSR, led popular resistance to the attempted coup. The coup leaders were arrested, and Gorbachev was returned to his position as head of state. De facto power, however, had passed to Yeltsin and the presidents of the other republics.
On Aug. 23, 1991, Yeltsin banned the CPSU and seized its assets. On Aug. 24, Yeltsin recognized the independence of the Baltic states; on the same day Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. The Supreme Soviets of the other republics soon passed similar resolutions. In September the Congress of People's Deputies voted for the dissolution of the USSR, and discussions began which led to the Dec. 8 founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States. On Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and was not replaced; on the same day the United States recognized the remaining republics of the USSR as independent nations. On Dec. 26 the government of the Russian Republic (see Russia) occupied those offices of the USSR located within its boundaries.
See M. Beloff, The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1929–1941 (2 vol., 1947–49; repr. 1955); G. F. Kennan, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin (1961); J. Erickson, The Soviet High Command (1962); A. Werth, Russia at War, 1941–1945 (1964); J. P. Nettl, The Soviet Achievement (1967); R. Conquest, ed., Justice and the Legal System in the USSR (1968) and Religion in the USSR (1968); L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1971); M. Matthews, Class and Society in Soviet Russia (1973); A. B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917 to 1973 (1974) and Stalin: The Man and His Era (1974); J. A. Armstrong, Ideology, Politics, and Government in the Soviet Union (3d ed. 1974); A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974); J. Hough and M. Fainsod, How the Soviet Union Is Governed (1979); S. Bialer, Stalin's Successors (1980); A. Nove, The Soviet Economy (1969) and An Economic History of the USSR (1984); R. C. Stuart, The Soviet Rural Economy (1984); L. Alekseeva, Soviet Dissent (1985); M. Walker, Waking the Giant: Gorbachev's Russia (1986); B. Seweryn, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion and Internal Decline (1987); J. S. Berliner, Soviet Industry from Stalin to Gorbachev (1988); J. H. Bater, The Soviet Scene: A Geographical Perspective (1989); G. Hosking, The First Socialist Society (1985) and The Awakening of the Soviet Union (1990); H. Smith, The Russians (1983) and The New Russians (1990); M. Feshbach and A. F. Murray, Ecocide in the USSR (1992); R. Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1995); M. Dobbs, Down with Big Brother (1997); M. Malia, Russia under Western Eyes (1999); L. Siegelbaum and A. Sokolov, ed., Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents (2000); S. Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (2001).
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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
The Soviet Union was the world’s first Communist state, the West’s principal adversary during the cold war, and a dominant force in international affairs until its collapse in 1991. Moreover, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Pacific Ocean. It also had over one-hundred distinct nationalities living within its borders, making it extremely diverse. Thus, it is not surprising that almost every social science subfield devoted much time and effort to studying various aspects of the Soviet Union. This makes the amount of social science research produced on it almost impossible to quantify.
The history of the Soviet Union begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. In February of that year the wartime decay of Russia’s economy and morale triggered a spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd. This culminated in the imperial government of Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918) being overthrown. After the formation of a provisional government, workers councils, known as soviets, began to sprout up throughout the country to protect the rights of the working class. This allowed the Bolsheviks (Communists) to arouse widespread interest in a socialist revolution. Eventually, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), seized power from the provisional government and established the world’s first Communist government.
Immediately after the Bolsheviks came to power a civil war erupted between the Communist Red Army and the loosely allied anti-Communist White Army. Despite struggling for survival throughout the bitterly fought civil war, there was no doubt that the Communists would emerge victorious by the end of 1920. Finally, after securing power, the Bolsheviks officially established the Soviet Union in December 1922. Lenin, as head of the party, became the de facto ruler of the country.
Under Lenin, the new government centralized its control over the political, economic, social, and cultural lives of the Soviet people by prohibiting other political organizations and inaugurating one-party rule. However, Lenin realized that a radical approach to communism did not suit existing conditions and jeopardized the survival of his regime. In turn, under the program that came to be known as the New Economic Policy, the state sanctioned partial decentralization of the economy; market forces and the monetary system regained their importance, but heavy industry remained under state control.
As the Communist Party continued to consolidate its authority throughout the country, it became a monolithic presence. However, in May 1922 after Lenin became temporarily incapacitated by a stroke, the unity of the Communist Party fractured. This facilitated Joseph Stalin’s (1879–1953) rise to power, and he became general secretary in April 1922. Lenin’s death in January 1924 cemented Stalin’s dominance over the Politburo, the executive committee of the Communist Party.
Transformation and terror best characterize the first decade of Stalin’s rule. Beginning in the late 1920s, Stalin began carrying out a program of intensive socialist construction by rapidly industrializing the economy and nationalizing all industry and services. At the same time, Stalin began purging from the Communist Party all leaders and their followers deemed disloyal. The most prominent leader was Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), a Bolshevik revolutionary and a founding member of the Politburo.
Soviet foreign policy also underwent a series of changes. Lenin realized that the Soviet government required normal relations with the Western world for it to survive. Stalin, by contrast, aimed to exasperate social tensions in Europe to produce conditions favorable to Communist revolution. Nevertheless, the dynamics of Soviet foreign relations changed drastically after Stalin recognized the danger Nazi Germany posed. In turn, to constrain Germany, the Soviet Union built coalitions that were hostile to fascism. Furthermore, it gave assistance to antifascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).
After France and Britain acquiesced to Adolph Hitler’s (1889–1945) demands for Czechoslovak territory at Munich, Germany, in 1938, Soviet foreign policy shifted again; Stalin decided to come to an understanding with Germany. This culminated in the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939, which called for absolute neutrality in the event one of the parties became involved in war. However, after World War II (1939–1945) broke out, Hitler began preparing for war against the Soviet Union. Germany finally declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Although the Great Patriotic War, as World War II was referred to in the Soviet Union, began inauspiciously for the Soviet Union, the war with Germany ended triumphantly for the Soviets.
The Soviet Union rebuilt its economy during the immediate postwar period and continued to maintain strict centralized control over state and society. It also emerged from the war as a world superpower along with the United States. In turn the Soviet Union began taking an active role in the United Nations as well as in other major international and regional organizations. However, as it turned many Eastern European countries into satellite states and set up the Warsaw Pact and Comecon (economic and military organizations of Central and Eastern European Communist states), the Soviet Union’s relations with the West became extremely tense. This led to the protracted geopolitical, ideological, and economic struggle between capitalism and communism known as the cold war.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Since Stalin did not name an heir, a factional power struggle broke out within the party. After the succession struggle abated, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) emerged as first secretary. By the beginning of 1956, Khrushchev was the most important figure within the Soviet leadership. Khrushchev even denounced Stalin and launched a campaign to ease the repressive controls over party and society. But, Khrushchev did face significant opposition in the Presidium, or Politburo, which threatened much needed economic reform and the de-Stalinization campaign. The Presidium even voted Khrushchev out of office in June 1957, but the Central Committee (the highest body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to which the Politburo reported to) overturned the decision and expelled Khrushchev’s opponents. After becoming prime minister in March 1958, Khrushchev’s position in the state and party was solidified.
Khrushchev attempted to carry out domestic reform in a range of fields, but economic difficulties and political disarray remained. At the same time, events such as the suppression of democratic uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956 hurt the Soviet Union’s international stature. Furthermore, Khrushchev’s efforts to improve relations with the West suffered many setbacks, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis (a cold war conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding a Soviet buildup of nuclear missiles in Cuba). These events highlighted the fact that Khrushchev never exercised the high level of authority that Stalin did.
In October 1964 the Presidium voted Khrushchev out of office again. Khrushchev’s removal from office was followed by another period of rule by collective leadership. During this time, the Soviet leadership experimented with economic reform and several individuals contended for power. This situation lasted until Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982), who attained the post of first secretary in 1964, became the most important figure within the Soviet leadership in 1971. During Brezhnev’s sixteen years as first secretary, economic and political reform was nonexistent. The Soviet Union also stepped up its repression against political dissidents and even tolerated popular expressions of anti-Semitism.
Soviet relations with the West first improved in the years after Khrushchev, which led to détente, or a relaxing of strained relations, in the early 1970s. Although the international community viewed this as a positive development, the use of force in Eastern Europe to suppress reform movements, attempts to broaden its influence in the Middle East, and its expanding influence in the developing world in accordance with the strategy of non-alignment caused improved relations to be short-lived. Finally, détente appeared dead when Brezhnev sent armed forces into Afghanistan in December 1979 to shore up the Communist government there. This along with economic stagnation proved to be formidable challenges for the Soviet leadership after Brezhnev’s death in 1982.
After the rapid succession of Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985), the reform minded Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) became general secretary in March 1985. To fix the crumbling Soviet political and economic structures, Gorbachev implemented the perestroika program to improve living standards and worker productivity and glasnost, which freed public access to information after decades of government regulations. This reinvigorated détente allowed Gorbachev to develop a strong relationship with President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) of the United States. However, the impact the policies had on the Soviet Union’s political and economic structures was not so positive.
THE SOVIET UNION’S DEMISE
Although there is debate over what exactly caused the Soviet Union’s demise, it is clear that the policies of perestroika and glasnost led to unintended consequences that greatly contributed to this. This is because the relaxation of censorship on the media brought to light many of the severe social and economic problems the Soviet government claimed did not exist; events such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 exasperated this. These negative aspects of Soviet life, in turn, undermined the faith of the people in the Soviet system and eroded the Soviet Union’s identity and integrity. Moreover, improved relations with the West infuriated Soviet hardliners.
This led to upheaval throughout the Soviet Union and in its Eastern European satellite states. In the late 1980s nationalism was rising throughout the Soviet republics, which reawakened ethnic tensions throughout the Union thereby discrediting the idea of a unified Soviet people. The Soviet Union, in turn, lost all control over economic conditions. At the same time, Moscow disowned the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of nonintervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies. This was significant given that the Brezhnev Doctrine had modeled Soviet foreign policy since 1968; the Brezhnev doctrine stated that if any hostile force tried to turn the development of any socialist country towards capitalism, it would become the problem and concern of all socialist countries. Eventually, many Soviet satellite states began asserting sovereignty over their territories with some even declaring independence. By 1991 revolution had swept through Eastern Europe bringing down several Communist governments.
In February 1990 the unintended consequences of Gorbachev’s reforms forced the Central Committee of the Soviet Union to give up its monopoly of power. Even though the Communists were not going down without a fight, a unionwide referendum saw approximately 78 percent of voters approve the retention of the Soviet Union in an altered form. Presidential elections followed in June; Boris Yeltsin defeated the Gorbachev-backed Nikolai Ryzhkov.
Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet system into a less centralized state. But in August 1991, the vice president, prime minister, defense minister, KGB (the Soviet security agency) chief, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty. The coup organizers put Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation home in the Crimea and attempted to restore the Union to its former state. However, public sympathy for their actions was largely against them and the coup ultimately failed. After the coup the Soviet republics accelerated their process toward independence. Finally, on December 8, 1991, Soviet leaders decided to dissolve the Union and established the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is an alliance that is open to all former Soviet republics. The Soviet Union ceased to exist by the end of December.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to numerous political, economic, and social changes within the region. Democratization and economic liberalization began throughout the post-Soviet sphere. However, the transition from communism in the former Soviet Union only sometimes led to democracy; some states abandoned communism for democracy, while others turned to authoritarian rule. Many of the post-Soviet republics also saw their economies collapse during the transition to capitalism. Corruption, weak property rights protection, and political instability were just a few of the reasons for this. Russia, in particular, struggled in its transition to a market economy. This precipitated a return to more interventionist economic policies by the government. Further, numerous ethnic and religious conflicts erupted. There are a number of de facto, but internationally unrecognized, states as a result of this.
Several global changes that have occurred since the Soviet Union’s demise are also worthy of note. There are no longer two clear-cut superpowers dominating international political life. Nuclear disarmament and reconfigured security arrangements are the salient themes in this “new world order.” Economic interdependence and political integration are also being seen everywhere. However, the most important global change since the Soviet Union’s demise is the ever-increasing threat of terrorism, especially Islamic fundamentalism. The events of September 11, 2001, indicate that this has officially replaced nuclear war as the greatest threat to peace.
There is no doubt that the Soviet Union was one of the most powerful countries in the world during its period of existence, especially from 1945 to 1991. At its peak it consisted of fifteen republics making it one of the most strongly centralized federal unions in the history of the world. Furthermore, the Soviet Union became a primary model for future Communist states; some states, such as Cuba, exemplify the Soviet tradition. All of this suggests that it is likely that few topics will generate as much social science research as the Soviet Union did.
SEE ALSO Berlin Wall; Bolshevism; Castro, Fidel; Cold War; Communism; Confederations; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cuban Revolution; Decentralization; Deterrence, Mutual; Economies, Transitional; Glasnost; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Hitler, Adolf; Industrialization; Khrushchev, Nikita; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Leninism; Nationalism and Nationality; Nationalization; Nation-State; Non-Alignment; Reagan, Ronald; Russian Revolution; Socialism; Stalin, Joseph; Third World; Trotsky, Leon; United Nations; Weaponry, Nuclear; World War II; Yeltsin, Boris
Aron, Leon. 2006. The “Mystery” of the Soviet Collapse. Journal of Democracy 17 (2): 21–35.
Hosking, Geoffrey. 1992. The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hough, Jerry F. 1977. The Soviet Union and Social Science Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Laibman, David. 2005. The Soviet Demise: Revisionist Betrayal, Structural Defect, or Authoritarian Distortion? Science and Society 69 (4): 594–606.
Nogee, Joseph L., and Robert H. Donaldson. 1992. Soviet Foreign Policy since World War II. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
Sakwa, Richard. 1999. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917–1991. New York: Routledge.
Service, Robert. 2005. A History of Modern Russia: From Nicolas II to Vladimir Putin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Zickel, Raymond E., ed. 1991. Soviet Union: A Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: The Division.
"Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/union-soviet-socialist-republics
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UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS
Although the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in November 1917, it was not until 1922 that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed. At that time there were only four Soviet republics—the Russian republic (officially called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic or RSFSR), Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia. The name, USSR, was chosen deliberately to avoid that of any particular nation or country, since the hope of its founders was that, gradually, more and more countries throughout the world would join its ranks.
The USSR came to embrace almost every part of the Russian Empire at its most expansive. The Baltic states were forcibly incorporated in 1940, and in the post-World War II Soviet Union there were fifteen Union Republics. Some of them contained so-called Autonomous Republics which, like the Union Republics, were named after a nationality for which that territory was a traditional homeland.
According to the Soviet Constitution the USSR was a federation, but in reality many of the basic features of a federal system were lacking. The deficits included the lack of a clear definition of what lay within the jurisdiction of the component parts of the federation and what was the sole responsibility of the central authorities, the lack of any real autonomy for the fifteen republics, and the absence of an independent judicial body that could adjudicate in cases of dispute between the republics and Moscow. Moreover, the doctrine of democratic centralism that governed relations within the Communist Party (and in Brezhnev's time was made a principle of the organization of the entire Soviet state) made a mockery of the federal principle. Democratic centralism was interpreted by Soviet communists to mean that the decisions of higher party organs were unconditionally binding on lower party bodies, and that they applied to the subjects of the federation, such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Latvia, just as much as to a Russian province.
In practice, the degree to which the nationals of the various Soviet republics ran their republics, and the extent to which they were given some latitude to introduce local variation, changed over time. It was, however, only during the perestroika period that the federal forms gained legitimacy. Pressure grew from below, burgeoning from arguments in favor of a genuine federalism to press for a loose confederation and culminated in demands for complete independence. With the liberalization and partial democratization of the Soviet system after 1985, the fact that the Soviet Union had been divided administratively along national-territorial lines gained immense significance. Institutions that had made modest concessions to national consciousness in the case of nations of long standing (such as Armenia) and had contributed, unwittingly, to a process of nation-building in parts of Soviet Central Asia, began to use the resources at their disposal to pose fundamental challenges to the federal authorities in Moscow.
Not all the republics demanded independence, however, the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were in the vanguard of the independence movement, and separatist sentiments also grew in Georgia. Ukraine was divided and only later fully embraced independent statehood. The Central Asian republics had independence virtually thrust upon them when Boris Yeltsin joined the leaders of Ukraine and Belorussia in December 1991 to proclaim that the USSR would cease to exist. Surveys of public opinion in Russia both before and after 1991 showed a majority of Russians in favor of preserving the Union, but in the aftermath of the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev of August 1991, Yeltsin chose to assert Russia's independence from the USSR. Since Russia comprised approximately three-quarters of the territory of the USSR and roughly half of its population, this was the final blow to the state. The flag of the Union was lowered from the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, and replaced by the Russian tricolor. By the end of the month the USSR had ceased to exist.
A distinction can be drawn between the dismantling or transformation of the Soviet system, and the disintegration of the USSR. From the standpoint of democracy, the former was a necessity. The breakup of the Soviet Union was more ambiguous in respect of democratic developments. Some of the republics—notably the three Baltic states—became relatively successful democracies once they had gained their independence. A number of other successor states to the USSR became more authoritarian than they were in the last years of the Soviet Union.
During most of its existence the USSR was a major player on the international stage. While maintaining a highly authoritarian regime—except for the years of high Stalinism, when it is more appropriately termed totalitarianism, and the perestroika period that saw the development of political pluralism—the Soviet state was able to project its power and influence abroad. Its success in doing so depended more upon military might than on its economic achievements or political attractiveness.
Nevertheless, the USSR played the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany in Europe in World War II and earned the gratitude of many citizens of Western Europe. The Soviet "liberation" of Eastern Europe, by contrast, led to the imposition of Soviet-style dictatorial regimes in that half of the continent and the suppression of freedom within East-Central Europe for another four decades. The interaction between the Soviet Union and what was known as the Communist bloc led ultimately, however, to important two-way influence once serious reform got underway in Moscow in 1987–1988. The changes in the USSR emboldened reformers and advocates of national independence in East-Central Europe. The fact that Soviet troops stayed in their barracks as the countries in the Eastern part of the continent broke free of Soviet tutelage in 1989 encouraged the most disaffected nationalities within the USSR itself, with the Lithuanians in the vanguard, to demand no less for themselves than had been attained by Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs. Thus, the Soviet control over Eastern Europe that had once seemed a source of strength of the USSR turned out, in the last years of the Soviet regime, to add to its own entropic pressures.
Following the disintegration of the Union, the permanent place on the United Nations Security Council, which had belonged to the USSR since the formation of the United Nations, passed to the largest of the Soviet successor states, Russia.
See also: bolshevism; communist party of the soviet union; economic growth, soviet; nationalism in the soviet union; union of sovereign states
Kotkin, Stephen. (2001). Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McAuley, Mary. (1992). Soviet Politics 1917–1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nove, Alec. (1993). An Economic History of the USSR 1917–1991. New York: Penguin.
Service, Robert. (1998). The History of Twentieth Century Russia. New York: Penguin.
Suny, Ronald G. (1994). The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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