History of the Soviet Union
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the Soviet Union
The "History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union" reflects a period of change for both Russia and the world. Though the terms "Soviet Russia" and "Soviet Union" are synonymous in everyday vocabulary, when we talk about the foundations of the Soviet Union, "Soviet Russia" refers to the few years after the abdication of the crown of the Russian Empire by Tsar Nicholas II (in 1917), but before the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922.
Early in its conception, the Soviet Union strived to achieve harmony among all peoples of all countries. The original ideology of the state was primarily based on the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In its essence, Marx's theory stated that economic and political systems went through an inevitable evolution in form, by which the current capitalist system would be replaced by a Socialist state before achieving international cooperation and peace in a "Workers' Paradise," creating a system directed by, what Marx called, "Pure Communism."
Displeased by the relatively few changes made by the Tsar after the Russian Revolution of 1905, Russia became a hotbed of anarchism, socialism and other radical political systems. The dominant socialist party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), subscribed to Marxist ideology. Starting in 1903 a series of splits in the party between two main leaders was escalating: the Bolsheviks (meaning "majority") led by Vladimir Lenin, and the Mensheviks (meaning minority) led by Julius Martov. Up until 1912, both groups continued to stay united under the name "RSDLP," but significant differences between Lenin and Martov thought split the party for its final time. The need of political dominance began between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. Not only did these groups fight with each other, but also had common enemies, notably, those trying to bring the Tsar back to power. Following the February Revolution, the Mensheviks gained control of Russia and established a provisional government. Though this lasted only a few months until the Bolsheviks took power after the October Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution). To distinguish themselves from other socialist parties, the Bolshevik party was renamed the Russian Communist Party (RCP).
Under the control of the party, all politics and attitudes that were not strictly RCP were suppressed, under the premise that the RCP represented the proletariat and all activities contrary to the party's beliefs were "counterrevolutionary" or "anti-socialist." During the years of 1917 to 1923, the Soviet Union achieved peace with the Central Powers, their enemies in World War I, but also fought the Russian Civil War against the White Army and foreign armies from United States, United Kingdom, and France, among others. This resulted in large territorial changes, albeit temporarily for some of these. Eventually crushing all opponents, the RCP spread Soviet style rule quickly and established itself through all of Russia. Following Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the RCP, became Lenin's successor and continued as "Head of State" for the Soviet Union clear into the 1950s.
The History of the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1953 covers the period of the Second World War victory against Germany, as the USSR was under the firm control of Joseph Stalin. He sought to destroy his enemies while transforming Soviet society with aggressive economic planning, in particular a sweeping collectivization of agriculture and rapid development of heavy industry. Stalin consolidated his power within the party and the state to degree of the personality cult. Soviet secret police and the mass mobilization Communist party were Stalin's major tools in molding the Soviet society. Stalin's brutal methods in achieving his goals, which included party purges, political repression of general population, and forced collectivization have led to millions of deaths, in Gulag labor camps and during the man-made famine.
World War II, known as "The Great Patriotic War" in the Soviet Union, devastated much of the USSR with about one out of every three World War II deaths being a citizen of the Soviet Union. After World War II, the Soviet Union's armies occupied Eastern Europe, where they put puppet Communist regimes in power. By 1949, the Cold War started between the Western Bloc and the Eastern (Soviet) Bloc, with Warsaw Pact pitched against the NATO in the Europe. After 1945, Stalin did not directly engage in any wars. Stalin continued his absolute rule until his death.
In the USSR, the eleven-year period from the death of Joseph Stalin (1953) to the political ouster of Nikita Khrushchev (1964), the national politics were dominated by the Cold War; the ideological U.S.–USSR struggle for the planetary domination of their respective socio–economic systems, and the defense of hegemonic spheres of influence. Nonetheless, since the mid-1950s, despite the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) having disowned Stalinism, the political culture of Stalinism — an omnipotent General Secretary, anti-Trotskyism, a five-year planned economy (post-New Economic Policy), and repudiation of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact secret protocols — remained the character of Soviet society until the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the CPSU in 1985.
The history of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, referred to as the Brezhnev Era, covers the period of Leonid Brezhnev's rule of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This period began with high economic growth and soaring prosperity, but ended with a much weaker Soviet Union facing social, political, and economic stagnation. The average annual income stagnated, because needed economic reforms were never fully carried out.
Nikita Khrushchev was ousted as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), as well as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, on 14 October 1964 due to his failed reforms and disregard for Party and Government institutions. Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as First Secretary and Alexei Kosygin replaced him as Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Anastas Mikoyan, and later Nikolai Podgorny, became Chairmen of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Together with Andrei Kirilenko as organisational secretary, and Mikhail Suslov as Chief Ideologue, they made up a reinvigorated collective leadership, which contrasted in form with the autocracy that characterized Khrushchev's rule.
The collective leadership first set out to stabilize the Soviet Union and calm Soviet society, a task which they were able to accomplish. In addition, they attempted to speed up economic growth, which had slowed considerably during Khrushchev's last years as ruler. In 1965 Kosygin initiated several reforms to decentralize the Soviet economy. After initial success in creating economic growth, hard-liners within the Party halted the reforms, fearing that they would weaken the Party's prestige and power. No other radical economic reforms were carried out during the Brezhnev era, and economic growth began to stagnate in the early-to-mid-1970s. By Brezhnev's death in 1982, Soviet economic growth had, according to several historians, nearly come to a standstill.
The stabilization policy brought about after Khrushchev's removal established a ruling gerontocracy, and political corruption became a normal phenomenon. Brezhnev, however, never initiated any large-scale anti-corruption campaigns. Due to the large military buildup of the 1960s the Soviet Union was able to consolidate itself as a superpower during Brezhnev's rule. The era ended with Brezhnev's death on 10 November 1982.
The history of the Soviet Union from 1982 through 1991, spans the period from Leonid Brezhnev's death and funeral until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Due to the years of Soviet military buildup at the expense of domestic development, economic growth stagnated. Failed attempts at reform, a standstill economy, and the success of the United States against the Soviet Union's forces in the war in Afghanistan led to a general feeling of discontent, especially in the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe.
Greater political and social freedoms, instituted by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, created an atmosphere of open criticism of the communist regime. The dramatic drop of the price of oil in 1985 and 1986 profoundly influenced actions of the Soviet leadership.
Nikolai Tikhonov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was succeeded by Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Vasili Kuznetsov, the acting Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, was succeeded by Andrei Gromyko, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Several Soviet Socialist Republics began resisting central control, and increasing democratization led to a weakening of the central government. The USSR's trade gap progressively emptied the coffers of the union, leading to eventual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of a failed coup that had attempted to topple reform-minded Gorbachev.
The History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union is covered in more detail in the following series of articles.
- History of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union (1917–27), from the October Revolution to Stalin's consolidation of power
- History of the Soviet Union (1927–53), the Stalin era
- History of the Soviet Union (1953–64), post-Stalinist power struggle and the Khrushchev Era
- History of the Soviet Union (1964–82), the Brezhnev Era
- History of the Soviet Union (1982–91), failed attempts to preserve the Soviet Union, ended by its dissolution
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