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Guide to Russia > Geography and History

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The Soviet Union

Creation of the Soviet Union

The history of Russia between 1922 and 1991 is essentially the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union. This ideologically-based union, established in December 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party, was roughly coterminous with the Russian Empire. At that time, the new nation included four constituent republics: the Russian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, Belorussian SSR, and the Transcaucasian SFSR.

The constitution, adopted in 1924, established a federal system of government based on a succession of soviets set up in villages, factories, and cities in larger regions. This pyramid of soviets in each constituent republic culminated in the All-Union Congress of Soviets. But while it appeared that the congress exercised sovereign power, this body was actually governed by the Communist Party, which in turn was controlled by the Politburo from Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, just as it had been under the tsars before Peter the Great.

War communism and the New Economic Policy

The period from the consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 until 1921 is known as the period of war communism. Banks, railroads, and shipping were nationalized and the money economy was restricted. Strong opposition soon developed. The peasants wanted cash payments for their products and resented having to surrender their surplus grain to the government as a part of its civil war policies. Confronted with peasant opposition, Lenin began a strategic retreat from war communism known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The peasants were freed from wholesale levies of grain and allowed to sell their surplus produce in the open market. Commerce was stimulated by permitting private retail trading. The state continued to be responsible for banking, transportation, heavy industry, and public utilities.

Although the left opposition among the Communists criticized the rich peasants or kulaks, who benefited from the NEP, the program proved highly beneficial and the economy revived. The NEP would later come under increasing opposition from within the party following Lenin's death in early 1924.

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Changes in Russian society

While the Russian economy was being transformed, the social life of the people underwent equally drastic changes. From the beginning of the revolution, the government attempted to weaken patriarchal domination of the family. Divorce no longer required court procedure, and to make women completely free of the responsibilities of childbearing, abortion was made legal as early as 1920. The emancipation of the women increased the labor market. Girls were encouraged to secure an education and pursue a career in the factory or the office. Communal nurseries were set up for the care of small children, and efforts were made to shift the center of people's social life from the home to educational and recreational groups, the soviet clubs.

The regime abandoned the tsarist policy of discriminating against national minorities in favor of a policy of incorporating the more than two hundred minority groups into Soviet life. Another feature of the regime was the extension of medical services. Campaigns were carried out against typhus, cholera, and malaria; the number of doctors was increased as rapidly as facilities and training would permit; and infant mortality rates rapidly decreased while life expectancy rapidly increased.

The government also promoted atheism and materialism, which formed the basis of Marxist theory. It opposed organized religion, especially in order to break the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, a former pillar of the old tsarist regime and a major barrier to social change. Many religious leaders were sent to internal exile camps. Members of the party were forbidden to attend religious services. The education system was separated from the Church. Religious teaching was prohibited except in the home and atheist instruction was stressed in the schools.

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Industrialization and collectivization

The years from 1929 to 1939 comprised a tumultuous decade in Russian history - a period of massive industrialization and internal struggles. At this time Joseph Stalin established near total control over Russian society, wielding unrestrained power unknown to even the most ambitious tsars. Following Lenin's death Stalin wrestled for control of the Soviet Union with rival factions in the Politburo, especially Leon Trotsky's. By 1928, with the Trotskyites either exiled or rendered powerless, Stalin was ready to put a radical program of industrialization into action.

In 1928 Stalin proposed the first Five-Year Plan and abolished the NEP. The first Five-Year Plan was the first of a number of plans aimed at swift accumulation of capital resources though the buildup of heavy industry, the collectivization of agriculture, and the restricted manufacture of consumer goods. With the implementation of the plan, for the first time in history a government controlled all economic activity. While in the capitalist countries factories and mines were idle or running on reduced schedules during the Great Depression and millions were unemployed, the Soviet people worked many hours a day, six days a week, in a thoroughgoing attempt to revolutionize Russia's economic structure.

As a part of the plan, the government took control of agriculture through the state and collective farms. By a decree of February 1930, about one million kulaks were forced off their land. Many peasants strongly opposed regimentation by the state, often slaughtering their herds when faced with the loss of their land. In some sections they revolted, and countless peasants deemed kulaks by the authorities were executed. A serious famine broke out and several million peasants died of starvation. The deteriorating conditions in the countryside drove millions of desperate peasants to the rapidly growing cities, vastly increasing Russia's urban population in the space of just a few years.

The plans received remarkable results in areas aside from agriculture. Russia, in many measures the poorest nation in Europe at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, now industrialized at a phenomenal rate, far surpassing Germany's pace of industrialization in the nineteenth century and Japan's earlier in the twentieth century. Soviet authorities claimed in 1932 an increase of industrial output of 334 percent over 1914, and in 1937 a further increase of 180 percent over 1932. Moreover, the survival of Russia in the face of the impending Nazi onslaught was made possible in part through the capacity for production that was the outcome of industrialization.

While the Five-Year Plans were forging ahead, Stalin was establishing his personal power. The secret police gathered thousands of Soviet citizens to face execution. Of the six original members of the 1920 Politburo who survived Lenin, all were purged by Stalin. Old Bolsheviks who had been loyal comrades of Lenin, high officers in the Red Army, and directors of industry were liquidated in the Great Purges.

Stalin's repressions led to the creation of a vast system of internal exile of considerably greater dimensions than those set up in the past by the tsars. Draconian penalties were introduced and many citizens were prosecuted for fictitious crimes of sabotage and espionage. The labor provided by convicts working in the labor camps of the Gulag system became an important component of the industrialization effort, especially in Siberia. Perhaps around five percent of the population passed through the Gulag system.

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World War II

Following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, the Soviets invaded eastern portions of Poland and fought a war with Finland known as the Winter War (1939-40). It was won by the Soviet Union, the aggressor, which gained part of the Karelian Isthmus. Despite Stalin's efforts to stay out of a war against Germany, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union and swept across the border on June 22, 1941. By November the German army had seized Ukraine, begun its siege of Leningrad, and threatened to capture Moscow (now the capital), itself.

However, the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad proved decisive, reversing the course of the entire war. After losing this battle the Germans lacked the strength to sustain their offensive operations against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union held the initiative for the rest of the war. By the end of 1943, the Red Army had broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of Ukraine. By the end of 1944, the front had moved beyond the 1939 Soviet frontiers into Eastern Europe. With a decisive superiority in troops, Soviet forces drove into eastern Germany, capturing Berlin in May 1945. The war with Germany thus ended triumphantly for the Soviet Union.

Although the Soviet Union was victorious in World War II, its economy had been devastated in the struggle and the war resulted in around 27 million Soviet deaths.

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Cold War

Collaboration among the major Allies had won the war and was supposed to serve as the basis for postwar reconstruction and security. However, the conflict between Soviet and U.S. national interests, known as the Cold War, came to dominate the international stage in the postwar period, assuming the public guise as a clash of ideologies.

The Cold War emerged out of a conflict between Stalin and U.S. President Harry Truman over the future of Eastern Europe during the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. Russia had suffered three devastating Western onslaughts in the previous 150 years during the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, and the Second World War, and Stalin's goal was to establish a buffer zone of states between Germany and the Soviet Union. Truman claimed that Stalin had betrayed the Yalta agreement. With Eastern Europe under Red Army occupation, Stalin was also biding his time, as his own atomic bomb project was steadily and secretly progressing.

In April 1949 the United States sponsored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense pact in which most Western nations pledged to treat an armed attack against one nation as an assault on all. The Soviet Union established an Eastern counterpart to NATO in 1955, dubbed the Warsaw Pact. The division of Europe into Western and Soviet blocs later took on a more global character, especially after 1949, when the U.S. nuclear monopoly ended with the testing of a Soviet bomb and the Communist takeover in China. The foremost objectives of Soviet foreign policy were the maintenance and enhancement of national security and the maintenance of hegemony over Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union maintained its dominance over the Warsaw Pact through crushing the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, suppressing the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and supporting the suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s.

As the Soviet Union continued to maintain tight control over its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Cold War gave way to Detente and a more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer clearly split into two clearly opposed blocs in the 1970s. Less powerful countries had more room to assert their independence, and the two superpowers were partially able to recognize their common interest in trying to check the further spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons in treaties such as SALT I, SALT II and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

U.S. - Soviet relations deteriorated following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, a staunch anticommunist, but improved as the Soviet bloc started to unravel in the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost the superpower status that it had won in the Second World War.

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The Khrushchev and Brezhnev years

In the power struggle that erupted after Stalin's death in 1953, his closest followers lost out. Nikita Khrushchev solidified his position in a speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 detailing Stalin's atrocities and attacking him for promoting a personality cult. As details of his speech became public, Khrushchev accelerated a wide range of reforms. Downplaying Stalin's emphasis on heavy industry, he increased the supply of consumer goods and housing and stimulated agricultural production. The new policies improved the standard of living, although shortages of appliances, clothing, and other consumer durables would increase in later years. The judicial system, albeit still under a complete Communist party control, replaced police terror, and intellectuals had more freedom than before.

In 1964 Khrushchev was ousted by the Communist Party's Central Committee, which charged him with a host of errors that included Soviet setbacks such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the deepening Sino-Soviet Split. After a brief period of collective leadership, a veteran bureaucrat, Leonid Brezhnev, took Khrushchev's place.

Despite Khrushchev's tinkering with economic planning, the economic system remained dependent on central plans drawn up with no reference to market mechanisms. As a developed industrial country, the Soviet Union by the 1970s found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high rates of growth in the industrial sector that it had enjoyed in earlier years. Increasingly large investment and labor inputs were required for growth, but these inputs were becoming more difficult to obtain, partly because of the new emphasis on production of consumer goods. Although the goals of the five-year plans of the 1970s had been scaled down from previous plans, the targets remained largely unmet. Agricultural development continued to lag in the Brezhnev years.

Although certain appliances and other goods became more accessible during the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in housing and food supply were not sufficient. The growing culture of consumerism and a shortage of consumer goods, inherent in a non-market pricing system, encouraged pilferage of government property and the growth of the black market. But, in contrast to the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, the prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of aversion to change.

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Impending breakup of the Union

Two developments dominated the decade that followed: the increasingly apparent crumbling of the Soviet Union's economic and political structures, and the patchwork attempts at reforms to reverse that process. After the rapid succession of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, transitional figures with deep roots in Brezhnevite tradition, the relatively young and energetic Mikhail Gorbachev made significant changes in the economy and the party leadership. His policy of glasnost freed public access to information after decades of government repression. But Gorbachev failed to address the systemic crisis of the Soviet system; by 1991, when a plot by government insiders revealed the weakness of Gorbachev's political position, the end of the Soviet Union was in sight.

At the end of World War I, the vast empires of the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, and the Romanovs collapsed, leaving Eastern Europe and Eurasia in turmoil. Only the Russian empire was reconfigured, under Bolshevik leadership. Stalin led it through industrialization and the Nazi onslaught to become a superpower rivaling the United States. Yet the Soviet Union remained essentially an empire, held together by a party rather than tsar. The command economy proved progressively less able to cope with postindustrial technologies and with the demands of the new industrial middle class and well-educated bureaucracy forged under its tutelage. Gorbachev's Perestroika spelled deconstruction of the economy; and glasnost allowed ethnic and nationalist disaffection to reach the surface. When Gorbachev tried to reform the party, he weakened the bonds that held the state and union together.

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The emergence of the Russian republic in the Soviet Union

Gorbachev has accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.

Because of the dominant position of Russians in the Soviet Union, most gave little thought to any distinction between Russia and the USSR before the late 1980s. However, the fact that the Soviet regime was dominated by Russians did not mean that the Russian SFSR necessarily benefited from this arrangement. In the Soviet Union, Russia lacked even the paltry instruments of statehood that the other republics possessed, such as its own republic-level Communist Party branch, KGB, trade union council, Academy of Sciences, and the like. The reason of course is that if these organizations had had branches at the level of the Russian SFSR, they would have threatened the power of Union-level structures.

In the late 1980s, Gorbachev underestimated the importance of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic emerging as a second power base to rival the Soviet Union. A Russian nationalist backlash against the Union came with many Russians arguing that Russia had long been subsidizing other republics, which tended to be poorer, with cheap oil, for instance. Demands were growing for Russia to have its own institutions, underdeveloped because of the equation of the Russian republic and the Soviet Union. As Russian nationalism became vocal in the late 1980s, a tension emerged between those who wanted to hold the Russian-dominated Union together and those who wanted to create a strong Russian state.

This tension came to be personified in the bitter power struggle between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Squeezed out of Union politics by Gorbachev in 1987, Yeltsin, an old-style party boss with no dissident background or contacts, needed an alternative platform to challenge Gorbachev. He established it by representing himself as both a Russian nationalist and a committed democrat. In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, he gained election as chairman of the Russian republic's new Supreme Soviet in May 1990, becoming in effect Russia's first directly elected president. The following month, he secured legislation giving Russian laws priority over Soviet laws and withholding two-thirds of the budget.

The August 1991 coup by Communist hardliners was later foiled with help from Yeltsin. The coup plotters had intended to save the party and the Union; instead, they hastened the demise of both.

The Soviet Union officially broke up on December 25, 1991. The final act of the passage of power from the Soviet Union to Russia was the passing of the briefcases containing codes that would launch the Soviet nuclear arsenal from Gorbachev to Yeltsin.

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