Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

views updated Jun 27 2018

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the official name of communist Russia from December 1922 until its collapse in late 1991. This self-proclaimed Marxist state was created out of the ruins of the Tszarist Empire following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the ensuing civil war in Russia. In the view of many scholars, the USSR under Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) and Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) evolved into a totalitarian dictatorship directly responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. Here the nature and scale of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Soviet state from the October Revolution to the death of Stalin will be examined, along with differing perspectives on Leninist and Stalinist terror.

Historical Context

Before World War I the Russian Empire had been an autocratic monarchy presided over by Tsar Nicholas II, who formally claimed the divine right to rule single-handedly. Russian political culture lacked liberal or democratic roots and institutions, and for many centuries the state had dominated society, often using repressive methods carried out by a prototype secret police force. As a consequence of this police state and emergent modernization during the course of the late nineteenth century, social tensions ran deep in tsarist Russia. For various political and socioeconomic reasons, these tensions between peasants and landlords, urban industrial workers and their bosses, and alienated middle-class intellectuals and the anachronistic tsarist state grew in the decades before 1914. Indeed, in 1905 and 1906 a full-scale, but ultimately abortive, revolution had occurred that threatened to overthrow monarchical rule. The nail in tsarism's coffin came during World War I. Russia's largely unsuccessful efforts to conduct the war against Germany and Austria added significantly to internal discontent. The result was the February Revolution of 1917, which forced Nicholas II to abdicate in favor of a centrist provisional government.

Despite meaningful democratic reforms the provisional government was unable to win mass support and it was, in turn, removed from power by the 1917 Bolshevik October Revolution. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, were a small urbanized Marxist party whose political mentality and revolutionary goals are critical for an understanding of the later communist crimes against humanity. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the Bolsheviks were utopian revolutionaries (some might say megalomaniac fanatics) who were utterly convinced that capitalism, liberalism, and parliamentarianism were dead, that socialism, and ultimately communism, represented the inevitable wave of the future, and that human society and individuals were perfectible by state engineering. They were deeply contemptuous of dissenting views and, more than any other Russian political movement, were prepared to countenance class-based violence in a society that was itself highly prone to violent confrontation. In short, the Bolsheviks' revolutionary "ends"—the destruction of capitalist exploitation, the emancipation of the working class, the transformation of "bourgeois" values, and the creation of a socialist state and society—justified any means of achieving these ends, including class discrimination, illegal arrest and incarceration, even mass executions. The origins of Leninist and Stalinist terror can thus be traced to this intransigent ideological orthodoxy.

After the Bolsheviks seized power, their many opponents rallied to contest the Marxist vision of Russia's future. A truly bitter and tragic civil war ensued, one that pitted the so-called Reds, the Bolsheviks and their extreme left-wing socialist allies, against the Whites, mainly ex-tsarist forces backed, half-heartedly, by several foreign states, the United States and Great Britain among them. The barbarity of the Russian Civil War, the class and ethnic hatreds exacerbated by the conflict, the arbitrary nature of both Red and White terror, and the sheer scale of violence must surely have brutalized Russian political culture, coming as they did on top of four years of world war and revolutionary upheaval. The civil war certainly engendered a siege mentality among the Bolshevik victors, who from that point on tended to see enemies everywhere, at home and abroad; a veritable "capitalist encirclement." Red terror under Lenin has thus been rationalized as a desperate last-ditch method of survival foisted onto an isolated and inward-looking band of revolutionaries in conditions of profound social, economic, and military turmoil.

Taking a position less sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, one may argue that state-sponsored class repression was inherent in Leninist ideology, predated the civil war, and was therefore not a consequence of the objective circumstances of the time. Indeed, Lenin almost welcomed the prospect of civil war as a means of purifying Russian society, purging it of "class enemies" and "traitors"—the landed gentry, capitalists, Orthodox priests, tsarist officials, bourgeois intellectuals, even kulaks (better-off peasants). The Bolsheviks' total belief in Marxism, which they regarded as scientific, assured them that they alone were right and everyone else was wrong, and their penchant for class discrimination transformed minor acts of nonconformity into "counterrevolutionary sabotage." Accordingly, the use of state terror became a conscious and deliberate instrument of governance under Lenin, arguably the principal method of maintaining and consolidating Bolshevik rule. Hence, it was Lenin who established the basis for later Stalinist atrocities.

Leninist Crimes

One of the first decrees of the Bolshevik regime in December 1917 was the creation of the Cheka, the original Soviet secret police force and forerunner of the much-vaunted KGB. The job of the Cheka was to root out all counterrevolutionary and antistate activities to bolster the fragile Leninist government. By June 1918 as the civil war got under way, reports of Cheka "excesses" began to reach Moscow. According to official statistics, the Cheka killed 12,733 prisoners between 1918 and 1920; unofficial calculations suggest a figure closer to 300,000. Lenin himself actively contributed to the wave of Red Terror. On August 11, 1918, shortly before an attempt was made to assassinate him, Lenin sent a now infamous telegram to local Bolsheviks, insisting that they "hang (hang without fail, so that the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. . . . Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts [kilometres] around, the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle . . . the bloodsucker kulaks" (Pipes, 1996, p. 50). One month earlier the tsar and his family had been murdered by local Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg. The spiral of terror and counterterror was growing.

The arrest of large numbers of alleged counterrevolutionaries meant that they had to be detained somewhere. Decrees in September 1918 and April 1919 sanctioned the establishment of the first concentration and labor camps, the latter originally conceived as sites for rehabilitating petty criminals through physical work. The most notorious of these early Soviet camps was the prison on the Solovetskii Islands in the White Sea in the far north of Russia. The camp population there grew from 3,000 in 1923 to approximately 50,000 in 1930. Between 1931 and 1933 around 25,000 convicts perished building the White Sea Canal, one of Stalin's pet schemes involving forced labor. From these relatively humble origins emerged the vast system of Soviet labor camps, widely known as the Gulag Archipelago (Gulag being, in Russian, the acronym for Main Administration of Camps). These camps housed not only political prisoners, but also ordinary criminals. Generally, they lived in appalling conditions, often in the most remote and inhospitable locations of the USSR. Inmates were in essence slave labor, whose contribution to the Soviet economy, especially from the 1930s, should not be overlooked.

The communist state also launched attacks on organized religion in the USSR. In March 1922, for instance, Lenin ordered the confiscation "with the most savage and merciless energy" of valuables belonging to the Orthodox Church. According to Richard Pipes, the aim was twofold: to secure vital assets for the cash-strapped Soviet government and to smash the power of the Orthodox Church and its hold over the peasantry. Even at a time of relative liberalization under the New Economic Policy (1921–1929), Lenin advocated the execution of large numbers of "reactionary clergy . . . so that they will not dare even to think of any resistance for several decades" (Pipes, 1996, p. 153–54). Lenin, also in 1922, insisted on the death penalty for the arrested leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but he was overruled and finally relented, with the leaders instead given lengthy prison terms. Nevertheless, Lenin's implacable attitude toward political and ideological adversaries undoubtedly contributed to the formation of a one-party state in Soviet Russia, a major step on the road to which was the forcible dissolution of the Constitutent Assembly (the multiparty national parliament) as early as January 1918.

Lenin may have been the initiator of many of the repressive measures undertaken between 1918 and 1923, but all leading Bolsheviks, to a greater or lesser degree, shared his intolerance of opposition and fundamental belief in a state-sponsored transformation of human society. Lev Trotsky, Grigorii Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Stalin all supported harsh policies against real and perceived opponents of the regime. However, serious disagreements emerged among the Bolshevik hierarchy, especially as Lenin's failing health from 1922 on led to an internal party power struggle. Lenin was acutely aware of the dangers of internal party disunity and attempted, rather ineffectually, to paper over the cracks in leadership. A year before his death in January 1924 he dictated a document that became known as "Lenin's Testament," in which he evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of six top Bolsheviks. The most notable comments, given subsequent developments, related to Stalin. In April 1922 Stalin had been appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party (the Bolshevik Party had been renamed the Communist Party in 1918) partly as a result of his close cooperation with Lenin, who valued the Georgian as a tough, practical activist who got things done. However, relations between the two men soured in 1922 and 1923, and in his testament Lenin warned that Stalin was "too crude" to serve as General Secretary. He advised the Party to find a way of removing Stalin from his post.

Portentously, Lenin's strictures were ignored. In the course of the ugly internecine power struggles that transformed the Party during the 1920s, Stalin was able to build up majority support in his position as General Secretary. His successive rivals, first Trotsky, then Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, and finally Bukharin, were all out-voted and out-manuevered; by 1929 Stalin had emerged as the clear leader of the Communist Party. His reliance on behind-the-scenes machinations, out-right slander, and administrative measures against his opponents concealed another of his characteristics: He was a workaholic who intervened in, and had practical solutions for, all the major and often secondary problems that confronted the Soviet state. What is more, he appeared to be a true Marxist dedicated to the construction of socialism in the USSR. Stalin was thus a very capable, not unintelligent, leader who commanded the respect of his followers. He was also, or at least became by the 1930s, a morbidly suspicious, capricious, and volatile man, who was possibly driven by an insatiable lust for power.

Stalinist Crimes

Stalin's regime was arguably the most repressive in modern history. As a result of his so-called revolution launched in 1928 and 1929—the forced collectivization and "dekulakization" of the countryside and the intensely rapid tempos of industrialization—millions of Soviet citizens, particularly peasants, endured dire living conditions and often direct persecution at the hands of Stalinist leaders whose overriding priority was to make the USSR economically and militarily secure. As many as eight million peasants, the majority Ukrainian, starved to death in the Great Famine of 1932 and 1933, which Robert Conquest has insisted was a man-made catastrophe deliberately engineered by Stalin in order to smash Ukrainian nationalism. Whether this controversial interpretation is correct or not, the scale of human suffering endured in the early 1930s beggars belief. There was hope that the relatively moderate policies of the years 1934 to 1936 would curtail the suffering, but by 1937 mass arrests and executions became the norm. Archival figures made public shortly before the demise of Soviet communism indicate that approximately 800,000 people were shot between 1921 and 1953, a staggering 681,692 of whom were executed during the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938. Official statistics suggest that around 3.5 million people were detained in labor camps and internal exile during the Terror, the number rising to 5.5 million at the time of Stalin's death in 1953. On both counts many scholars have speculated that the actual totals were significantly higher. In the absence of definitive data, however, it seems prudent to accept the archival figures as essentially accurate.

Horrendous as they are, the bald statistics cited above obscure the unimaginable depths of human misery, the families ripped apart, the countless orphaned children, the mental and physical torture of prisoners, the uprooting of entire peoples from their homelands, the trampling on human integrity and dignity. How can all this be explained? Was the Terror simply a product of the deranged mind of a power-hungry tyrant? Or was there a larger purpose behind the seemingly arbitrary mass arrests and executions? Scholars have debated these and related issues for many decades. Research conducted in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrates that rather than being a unitary phenomenon possessing a single aim, the Great Terror was a multifaceted process composed of separate but related political, social, and "national" (ethnic) dimensions, the origins and goals of which were different, but which coalesced during the events of 1937 and 1938.

There is no doubt that Stalin was the prime perpetrator of the Terror, even if historians disagree on whether he had a long-term blueprint to eliminate his opponents. It is generally accepted, however, that the process of mass repression was set in motion by the December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov, the popular Leningrad Communist Party chief and, so it was rumored at the time, rival to Stalin. Although the jury is still out on Stalin's precise role in this assassination, it is clear that he used Kirov's murder to attack various opponents of the regime, including former Party leaders Zinoviev and Kamenev who were placed under arrest. Beginning in the summer of 1936, and more conclusively during the spring of 1937, Stalin extended these repressive measures, seeking, it appears, to eliminate any real or potential political opposition to his rule. In so doing, he broke an unwritten Leninist principle: never arrest Communist Party members and officials.

The list of actions to which Stalin provided direct input is long: The Soviet leader initiated and orchestrated the three great Show Trials of August 1936, January 1937, and March 1938, as a result of which his former Bolshevik rivals Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, among others, were executed. In September 1936 Stalin appointed Nikolai Ezhov, a known hardline adversary of "anti-Party elements," as head of the NKVD (secret police). He oversaw the decimation of the Red Army command from May through June 1937. He signed numerous death warrants and ratified numerous executions, thousands of the condemned being loyal Party and state officials; he even ordered the arrest of several members of his own extended family and close relatives of his colleagues, presumably in an attempt to test the latter's loyalty. Together with his propagandists, he set the overall tone and atmosphere of the Terror: the xenophobic suspicion of foreign spies and agents; the all-pervasive fear of wreckers, saboteurs, and double-dealers; and the endless exhortations to uphold Bolshevik vigilance in the face of these "enemies of the people." In short, as one expert has written, Stalin's "name is all over the horrible documents authorizing the terror" (Getty and Naumov, 1999, p. 451).

Aside from these politically motivated aspects, another fundamental characteristic of the Great Terror was the social component. Studies conducted in the late 1990s document the interrelationship between, on the one hand, social disorder and evolving secret police strategies to contain it in the early to mid-1930s and, on the other, the onset of mass arrests in the summer of 1937. According to one historian, the Great Terror represented "the culmination of a decade-long radicalization of policing practice against 'recidivist' criminals, social marginals, and all manner of lower-class individuals" (Hagenloh, 2000, p. 286). The threat of social instability posed by criminals, hooligans, other "socially harmful elements," and even armed gangs of bandits was taken seriously by secret police chiefs. By 1937 the lethal triumvirate of political opposition, social disorder, and ethnic subversion had raised fears among the increasingly xenophobic Stalinist elite of a broadly based anti-Soviet "fifth column" linked to foreign agents and spies. In response, on July 31, 1937, Stalin and his co-leaders sanctioned the notorious NKVD Order No. 00447, which specified by region the number of people to be sentenced either to death (approximately 73,000) or eight to ten years in the Gulag camps (approximately 186,500).

The decree remained in force until November 1938. The intent of this massive purge of socially harmful elements was to destroy what appeared to the Stalinists to be the social base for an armed overthrow of the Soviet government. Thus, one of the most interesting conclusions of new research is that, contrary to conventional wisdom about the elite status of the Great Terror's victims, in strictly numerical terms the bulk of those repressed were ordinary noncommunist citizens, kulaks, workers, and various "social marginals": recidivist criminals, the homeless, the unemployed, all those suspected of deviating from the social norms of the emerging Stalinist system.

It is also now recognized that beginning in the summer of 1937 the NKVD launched national sweeps of specific categories of foreigners and Soviet citizens of foreign extraction. Central and East Europeans were particularly targeted, but so were Koreans, Chinese, Afghans, and many other minorities who were deported from their homelands or arrested en masse. The socalled Polish Operation, ratified by the Politburo on August 7, 1937, resulted in the arrest of approximately 140,000 people, a staggering 111,000 of whom were executed. Similar campaigns were directed against Germans, Finns, Balts, and numerous others who were perceived to be real or potential spies and agents of foreign anti-Soviet intelligence agencies, although the percentages of those killed were generally lower than in the Polish Operation. A significant proportion of the victims were Jews and members of national communist parties. Whether the former were targeted specifically because of their ethnic origin is unclear. Stalin's anti-Semitic tendencies appear to have been far more pronounced in the postwar period. Such was the scale of the "national operations" that from about February 1938 on they became the prime function of secret police activity, more pervasive than the campaigns associated with Order 00447. Indeed, ethnically based repression did not end in the late 1930s. Although the number of arrests and executions decreased significantly after November 1938, during World War II entire populations (Volga Germans, Chechens, Ingushi, Kalmyks, Crimean Tartars, and others) were deported from their homelands to Central Asia and Siberia, accused of subversive tactics, espionage, and collaboration with the occupying Nazi forces.

Inevitably, these examples of Soviet ethnic cleansing have compelled some scholars to compare Stalinist and Nazi policies of extermination. The term Stalinist genocide employed by several specialists suggests a close relationship and moral equivalence between Nazi and Soviet terror. If one views the latter in an intentional versus functional framework, it appears that both elements of motivation were applicable: The intended victims were the traditional suspects (peasants, political opponents, and supporters of the tsarist regime) and the functional victims were those invented within the specific context of developments in the late 1930s, consisting of replaceable elites and alien nationals. Although it is important to recognize the enormity of Stalinist repression, it is critical, as many historians do, to emphasize the uniqueness of the Holocaust "the only example which history offers to date of a deliberate policy aimed at the total physical destruction of every member of an ethnic group. There was no equivalent of this under Stalinism" (Kershaw and Lewin, 1997, p. 8).

The key issue of motive remains. Why did Stalin order the mass arrest of loyal Party and state bureaucrats? Why was the terror extended to include socially harmful elements? Why did the vicious assault on ethnic minorities escalate in late 1937 and continue well into 1938? Traditional explanations for the strictly political aspects of the Great Terror stress Stalin's lust for power and his determination to liquidate all real and perceived rivals in a paranoiac drive for autocratic rule. Large numbers of "Old Bolsheviks," former opponents, and a host of unreliable double dealers, wreckers, and saboteurs were targeted in what became an arbitrary frenzy of bloodletting. By eliminating these undesirables and replacing them with devoted "yes men," Stalin's power base was mightily strengthened. However, beginning in the 1980s so-called revisionist historians challenged this Stalin-oriented approach, arguing that one man could not, and did not, decide everything. Moreover, to these historians a certain systemic rationale existed for the apparently irrational waves of repression, one linked to center-periphery conflicts, interelite rivalries, and the chaotic and dysfunctional elements of the highly bureaucratized regime.

Although Stalin's motives remain, and will continue to remain, obscure, it appears that the decision to launch the mass operations in the summer of 1937 was related to reverses in the European and Asian arenas. In particular, the lessons of the Spanish Civil War induced an atmosphere of panic in the Kremlin and incited the Stalinists to seek "enemies" at home and abroad. The Soviet leadership's fears of a fifth column among Party, state, and military elites, who in the event of war could rely on broad support from socially harmful elements and hostile national minorities in the USSR, seem to account for the dramatic rise in arrests and executions. To this extent the threat of war and a potential fifth column represent the crucial link between the three dimensions of the Great Terror: political, social, and national. Only in the context of the Stalinists' grave fears for the security and integrity of the Soviet state can the mass repressions of 1937 and 1938 be understood.

Although mass arrests and executions abated after November 1938, repression continued in the USSR throughout World War II. Portrayed in the Soviet media as a heroic war of patriotism, there were many grim sides to this life-and-death struggle between the two totalitarian giants. Internally, Stalin used the conflict to target and deport entire peoples accused of collaborating with the Nazis. The number of Gulag inmates may have decreased in these years as many were released to fight the Germans, but the living and working conditions of those who remained were nothing short of atrocious. Famine, epidemics, overcrowding, summary shootings, and inhuman exploitation for the war effort were commonplace. For instance, in 1942 the Gulag Administration registered 249,000 deaths (18 % of the camp population) and in 1943 it registered 167,000 deaths (17%). The "myth" of the Battle of Stalingrad and the euphoria of total victory in May 1945 have tended to obscure the horrendous suffering perpetrated by the regime on millions of Soviet citizens during World War II. It was not about to end.

One of the more reprehensible features of Stalin's rule after World War II was his increasing anti-Semitism. Indeed, at the time of his death in March 1953 it appears that he was planning another vast general purge of Soviet society based on the fictitious anti-Jewish Doctors' Plot that broke in January of the same year. Already in 1948 and 1949 hundreds of Jewish intellectuals had been arrested, at least one of whom, the world-renowned actor and theater director Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered. As a leading scholar has written: "Jews were systematically removed from all positions of authority in the arts and the media, in journalism and publishing, and in medicine and many other professions" (Werth, 1999, p. 245). The campaign reached a peak in the summer of 1952 with the secret trial of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, thirteen of whom were executed. There is some evidence that the aging and ill Stalin was at this time preparing to expose a wide-scale "Judeo-Zionist conspiracy," which was to conclude with the mass deportation of Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan, a barren region in Eastern Siberia. A major part of this final Stalinist plot was the arrest of several high-ranking Jewish doctors accused, among other things, of complicity in the deaths of two Soviet luminaries. Their trial, it seems, was set for mid-March 1953. Stalin's timely demise on March 5 put an end to their suffering and brought to a close the era of mass repression in the USSR. His successors, notably Nikita Khrushchev, renounced terror, released large numbers of Gulag prisoners, and attempted, not altogether successfully, to "de-Stalinize" Soviet politics and society.

The historical legacy of Stalin has often been framed in the following way: he was a cruel, but necessary, leader who after 1928 industrialized and modernized the USSR and thus established the economic, social, and military basis for victory over the Nazis in World War II. Given Soviet Russia's "backwardness," this could only have been accomplished rapidly by means of state coercion and pressure. Few, if any, contemporary scholars would subscribe to such an apologist interpretation of the Stalinist regime. There can be no justification—political, economic, military, and certainly not moral—for the crimes against humanity perpetrated from 1928 to 1953. However, this does not mean no connection exists between Stalin's revolution from above and the mass repressions. Indeed, a convincing consensus is emerging that stresses the interrelatedness of the two phenomena. The terror, it is argued, was inextricably linked to the massive campaigns of industrialization and the forced collectivization and dekulakization of Soviet agriculture from 1928 and 1929 on. The intense social flux and dislocation, the rising crime levels, the peasant resistance to collectivization, the urban tensions resulting from rapid industrialization, the limited success of the initiatives on the "nationality question," and the contradictory pressures on the bureaucracies and other elites, which engendered insubordination, deceit, and local and regional cliques and networks, all these outcomes of Stalin's revolution from above created conditions that were propitious for the hunt for "enemies". Add to this equation Stalin's considerable goals for personal power and his paranoias, and the built-in need for scapegoats to explain the dire state of Soviet material consumption, and the origins of mass repression become more explicable.


Leninist and Stalinist crimes against humanity are not easily elucidated. A multiplicity of factors—internal and external, ideological and practical, personal and systemic—must be carefully weighed. It is not enough to simply point the finger at two "evil," power-hungry men, highly relevant though they are to the entire process of Soviet mass repression. What motivated them? What were their fears? In what concrete political, economic, and military contexts did they make their decisions? What role did other actors play in fanning the flames of state violence? To what extent did elite attitudes reflect and magnify broader social mentalities, such as anti-Semitism and chauvinism? Here it is suggested that the roots of Soviet terror lay not only in the personal ambitions and whims of Lenin and Stalin, but also equally in the ideologically driven utopian mission of creating the perfect communist society purged of the politically and socially unfit in circumstances of international isolation and perceived foreign threats.

SEE ALSO Chechens; Cossacks; Gulag; Kalmyks; Katyn; Lenin, Vladimir; Memory; Stalin, Joseph; Statistical Analysis; Ukraine (Famine); Utopian Ideologies as Motives for Genocide


Applebaum, Anne (2003). Gulag. A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Allen Lane.

Conquest, Robert (1971). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. London: Pimlico Press, revised edition of The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1990.

Getty, J. Arch, and Oleg V. Naumov, eds. (1999). The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932–1939. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Hagenloh, Paul (2000). "'Socially Harmful Elements' and the Great Terror." In Stalinism: New Directions, ed. S. Fitzpatrick. London: Routledge.

Holquist, Peter (2003). "State Violence as Technique: The Logic of Violence in Soviet Totalitarianism." In Stalinism: The Essential Readings, ed. D. L. Hoffmann. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Kershaw, Ian, and Moshe Lewin, eds. (1997). Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLoughlin, Barry, and Kevin McDermott, eds. (2003). Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pipes, Richard, ed. (1996). The Unknown Lenin. From the Secret Archive. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Sebag Montefiore, Simon (2003). Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Service, Robert (2003). A History of Russia from Nicholas II to Putin. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander (1974–1978). The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956. 3 volumes. London: Collins/Harvill Press.

Suny, Ronald G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the Soviet Union and the Successor States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Robert C. (1990). Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928–1941. New York: Norton.

Werth, Nicolas (1999). "A State Against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union." In The Black Book of Communism. Crimes, Terror, Repression, ed. S. Courtois et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Yakovlev, Alexander N. (2002). A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Kevin McDermott

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

views updated May 23 2018

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics






The Soviet Union was the worlds first Communist state, the Wests principal adversary during the cold war, and a dominant force in international affairs until its collapse in 1991. Moreover, the Soviet Union was the worlds 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 Russias economy and morale triggered a spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd. This culminated in the imperial government of Czar Nicholas II (18681918) 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 (18701924), seized power from the provisional government and established the worlds 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 Stalins (18791953) rise to power, and he became general secretary in April 1922. Lenins death in January 1924 cemented Stalins dominance over the Politburo, the executive committee of the Communist Party.


Transformation and terror best characterize the first decade of Stalins 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 (18791940), 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 (19361939).

After France and Britain acquiesced to Adolph Hitlers (18891945) 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 (19391945) 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 Unions 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 (18941971) 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 Khrushchevs opponents. After becoming prime minister in March 1958, Khrushchevs 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 Unions international stature. Furthermore, Khrushchevs 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. Khrushchevs 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 (19061982), who attained the post of first secretary in 1964, became the most important figure within the Soviet leadership in 1971. During Brezhnevs 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 Brezhnevs death in 1982.

After the rapid succession of Yuri Andropov (19141984) and Konstantin Chernenko (19111985), 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 (19112004) of the United States. However, the impact the policies had on the Soviet Unions political and economic structures was not so positive.


Although there is debate over what exactly caused the Soviet Unions 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 Unions 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 Gorbachevs 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 Unions 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 Unions 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): 2135.

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): 594606.

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: 19171991. 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.

David Mastro

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

views updated May 29 2018

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Type of Government

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union, was the world’s first Communist state, existing from 1922 to 1991. It was a one-party socialist regime, with the decisions of the ruling Communist Party carried out by a Supreme Soviet, a Presidium, a premier who served as head of state, and a Council of Ministers. The General Secretary of the Communist Party was the de facto ruler. The country’s Communist era began with an immediate and radical program to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This would serve as a transitional state between the formerly capitalist society—whereby the means of production are controlled by a few for their own enrichment, according to Marxist ideology—to a classless society where all shared a nation’s resources equally.


Czarist Russia was ripe for revolution in the years preceding World War I. A wealthy class of nobles and landowners exploited those who tilled Russia’s agricultural lands and had only been freed from serfdom some fifty years earlier. In the cities conditions were equally difficult for the urban poor, and the war caused even more drastic shortages of basic necessities like food and fuel. Revolutionary groups calling for social reform had arisen but were dealt with harshly under the czars. However, one party, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), managed to survive as an underground group. In 1906 Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) was elected RSDLP president by a faction of his supporters who agreed with his idea that a more radical approach was necessary to bring revolution to Russia. This split in the party created the Bolsheviks—after bolshinstvo, or “majority,” who favored Lenin’s approach—and Mensheviks, borrowed from the Russian word for minority, menshinstvo, a group that argued for a more moderate path. A year later Lenin was forced to flee the country because of his political activities.

In February 1917 Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918) was forced to abdicate by the Russian Duma, or parliament, whose members blamed him for the heavy losses the country was suffering on the battlefield and the near-famine situation at home. A provisional government was established by the socialist Aleksandr Kerensky (1881–1970), a Duma deputy, but it, too, struggled to maintain order among civilians and a disheartened, ill-equipped military. Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April 1917, with imperial Germany—at war with Russia still—permitting him passage on a sealed train to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd; the Germans believed his return would only further destabilize Russia. In October 1917, under Lenin’s guidance, the Bolsheviks ousted the Provisional Government, and five months later Lenin—now elected Chair of the Council of People’s Commissars—signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Russian involvement in World War I.

Civil war intensified in 1918, with anti-Bolshevik forces called the Whites fighting Bolshevik troops of the “Red Army” banner until 1921. During this period Lenin proclaimed a policy of “war communism,” a drastic reallocation of all national resources to bring a Red Army victory. This program included the nationalization of all industries, the abolition of all private enterprise, and a policy of shooting workers who went on strike. Finally, with the civil war quelled in 1921, Lenin and the Bolsheviks concluded a 1922 treaty of union that united the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The new entity was named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and over the next twenty years it would add—most often by force—several other constituent republics in Central Asia and the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Government Structure

There were three different constitutions that provided the framework for the Soviet state. The first one, in 1924, established the Congress of Soviets as the ruling body. Its members were representatives from local councils (soviets), made up of workers and peasants but fully controlled by the Communist Party, as the Bolshevik organization renamed itself. The Congress of Soviets would elect the government, called the Council of People’s Commissars. The various ministries of government were called the People’s Commissariats but were later renamed the Council of Ministers. In the interim period between the meetings of the Congresses of Soviets, ruling power would be held by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.

The 1936 Constitution differed markedly from its predecessor. It eliminated the Congress of Soviets, guaranteed Soviet citizens the rights to work and to an education, and also ensured their medical care, housing needs, and old-age pensions. At the time, no other constitution in the world provided such economic assurances to its people. Ruling power was to be invested in the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, now renamed the Supreme Soviet. This was a bicameral legislature, with a “Soviet of the Union” elected on a proportional basis, with one deputy for every 300,000 citizens. The “Soviet of Nationalities” consisted of deputies from the constituent republics, each of which sent thirty-two deputies regardless of their population.

In between sessions of the Supreme Soviet, a Presidium carried out the functions of government. This body, elected by the Supreme Soviet, had approximately three dozen members and elected its own chairperson, who served as the premier, or head of state. The premier oversaw the Council of Ministers—the other component of the executive branch—and was usually, but not always, the General Secretary of the Communist Party as well. Each of the individual republics had their own Supreme Soviets.

A new constitution went into effect in 1977. It asserted that the goals of the dictatorship of the proletariat had been met, that workers and peasants no longer needed their interests protected by the state from exploitation, and in effect the Soviet state was the Soviet people. As with the previous documents, civil liberties such as freedom of speech, of religion, and of assembly were protected—so long as they did not infringe upon the goals of the state or tenets of the Communist Party, which the 1977 Constitution described the “leading and guiding force” of the state.

At the head of the judiciary of the Soviet Union was the Supreme Court, whose members were chosen by the Supreme Soviet. Its duty was to ensure that the government complied with Soviet laws, and it also supervised the lower courts. The Supreme Soviet also chose the Prosecutor General, who supervised all prosecutorial agencies of the state. Peace was maintained, however, largely through the Committee for State Security, known by its infamous Russian-language acronym KGB. Its departments included a foreign intelligence service and a secret police. Its origins were in a Bolshevik division formed in 1917, the Cheka, to root out dissenters and coup-plotters in the party at a time of tremendous political instability. The KGB had broad powers to spy on Soviet citizens, who could be brought to trial and sentenced to labor camps for crimes against the state, which included criticisms of party leadership.

In 1989 a new legislature was created that resurrected the Congress of Soviets of the 1930s. The election of its membership marked the first tentative steps toward a multiparty system. There were 2,250 deputies, with 750 elected for every 300,000 citizens; another 750 were elected by direct suffrage, with set numbers of seats awarded to each of the republics, oblasts, and national districts; and the final 750 were chosen by the CPSU and other public organizations. Its duty was to meet twice yearly and elect the Supreme Soviet. Only one legislative election was ever held in the Soviet Union, however, in March 1989, but it was the first time that new political parties had been allowed to form and participate in the electoral process.

Political Parties and Factions

Before reforms were enacted in 1989, Soviet political institutions merely carried out the policies and directives of the Communist Party. The party’s executive leadership committee made all decisions, and government bodies “voted” their approval to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1952, the party ruled every aspect of Soviet life. In any institution where there was minimum of three party members—the workplace, schools, or military units, for example—a party “cell” was established, which was later called the Primary Party Organization, or PPO. The PPOs elected district bodies, which in turn elected assemblies, which in turn elected the delegates to the party conferences, or congresses as they were known in some cases. These congresses were generally held every five years after 1952, and in turn elected the Central Committee of the CPSU. The Central Committee met twice yearly and elected the twenty or so members of the Politburo, which served as the CPSU’s executive leadership body. The Central Committee was also responsible for choosing the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but at times this relationship was reversed, and during particularly repressive periods the General Secretary instead chose the Central Committee and members of the Politburo.

Major Events

The death of Lenin in 1924 was the first milestone in the history of the fully formed Soviet state. A Georgian Communist named Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) had risen within party ranks and was already serving as General Secretary of the Party at the time of Lenin’s death, but that post did not yet carry the influence it later would. By ruthlessly eliminating threats to his leadership, Stalin came to control the state as well as the party by 1928. He went on to establish a cult of personality and initiate a period of intense political repression. His economic policies, including the forced collectivization of farmland, caused widespread famine in the western parts of the Soviet Union, but his leadership during World War II made him an ally of the United States and Great Britain in their fight against Nazi Germany. Known as the Great Fatherland War, the 1939–45 conflict was especially hard on the Soviet people, which lost nearly an eighth of its population, or twenty million people, from civilian and military casualties combined.

The Allied victory in 1945 gave the Soviet Union an opportunity to widen its sphere of influence. Stalin, along with U.S. and British leaders, agreed to divide up the conquered Nazi territory at the end of the war, and behind the Red Army’s push westward to beat the Nazis came party cadres who quickly allied with native communist organizations in the devastated countries of Eastern Europe. By 1948 Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and even the Soviet-occupied quartile of Germany declared themselves one-party socialist states—though it should be noted Soviet troops were still present in these countries, and the “people’s revolutions” seemed to be accompanied by suspicious events, such as the 1948 “suicide” of Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister after an apparent jump from his office window. Soviet forces returned to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quell pro-democracy uprisings.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) became General Secretary of the CPSU and de facto leader of the Soviet Union, following a long line of stolid, often elderly party hardliners who ruled after Stalin’s death in 1953. The new Soviet leader stunned a world long dominated by Cold War politics between the Soviet Union and its equally powerful ideological enemy, the ardently capitalist United States, by introducing a series of reforms that were publicized by two catchwords, glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Glasnost was aimed at reducing the endemic bureaucratic corruption, partly by allowing more freedom of the press. Perestroika involved a rethinking of some of the Soviet Union’s long-cherished economic tenets, including the prohibition on private enterprise. Gorbachev also supported a new treaty of union that would end Moscow’s and the CPSU’s centralized hold on the individual republics, instead creating a new federation of independent republics, but just prior to its signing in August 1991 Gorbachev was surprised by a delegation of top-ranking officials at his summer home in the Crimea. They included the country’s ministers for defense and the interior as well as the head of the KGB, and he was kept under house arrest while a coup attempt was made at the seat of government in Moscow’s Kremlin. Large public demonstrations erupted in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, spurred in part by similar regime changes instigated in the Eastern European countries two years earlier thanks to popular pro-democracy uprisings that were genuine “people’s revolutions,” and the August 1991 coup came to a quick and relatively bloodless end three days after it began. A provision of the Soviet constitution allowed republics to vote to secede from the Soviet Union, and each of their respective legislatures—with freely elected non-CPSU members now—took advantage of the clause and declared their independence.


The August 1991 coup led to the outlawing of the CPSU, and Gorbachev resigned from office on December 25, 1991. That same month, the Commonwealth of Independent States was established by the former Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. A dramatic period of transformation began, with formerly state-owned companies sold off to private investors, who became wealthy almost overnight. Ordinary citizens, however, suffered tremendous hardships due to the end of the Soviet planned economy, which had regulated the price of food and housing. By the end of the decade, a former CPSU member and KGB officer, Vladimir Putin (1952–), had risen to power as president of the Russian Federation, and his domestic policies were criticized for appearing to rescind some of the democratic freedoms in place since the end of the Soviet Union.

Despite its rather spectacular collapse and dramatic end, the Soviet Union existed for a seventy-year period as one of the most important social and political experiments in the history of world government. The stated goals of the 1917 Revolution—the establishment of a classless and stateless communist society—never materialized, but the control of the CPSU over a population of 293 million Soviet citizens across 8.6 million square miles was unprecedented in human history, as was Moscow’s management of the largest centrally planned economy in the world.

As one of the two world superpowers for much of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union played a decisive role in nearly all major world events and social developments, and though it never entered into direct military engagement with the United States, surrogate battles were played out in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Soviet influence on the political life of Eastern Europe remained a difficult legacy even more than a decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Bloc, as each of the newly independent nations struggled to join an international community of democratic, free-market states. Within the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, too, governments strained to achieve a multiparty political life given the threat posed by right-wing or even still-active Communist elements within their populace.

What may be the Soviet Union’s greatest legacy was the rapid transformation of a largely agrarian, near-medieval society into one of the most heavily industrialized, literate, and scientifically advanced nations in the world within just a few short decades—an achievement accomplished by the sheer force and power of a party leadership who recognized that their authority and the security of their state was dependent entirely on economic might, not ideological right.

Coleman, Fred. The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Forty Years That Shook the World, from Stalin to Yeltsin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

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

McAuley, Mary. Soviet Politics 1917–1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

views updated May 11 2018


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 republicsthe 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 republicsnotably the three Baltic statesbecame 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 regimeexcept for the years of high Stalinism, when it is more appropriately termed totalitarianism, and the perestroika period that saw the development of political pluralismthe 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 19871988. 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 19702000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McAuley, Mary. (1992). Soviet Politics 19171991. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nove, Alec. (1993). An Economic History of the USSR 19171991. New York: Penguin.

Schapiro, Leonard. (1971). The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 2nd ed. New York: Random House.

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.

Archie Brown

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Official name for the Soviet Union

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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics