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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Союз Советских Социалистических Республик
Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik[a][1]
Flag of Soviet Union
State Emblem (1956–1991) of Soviet Union
State Emblem
Motto: Пролетарии всех стран, соединяйтесь!
"Workers of the world, unite!"
The Soviet Union during the Cold War
The Soviet Union during the Cold War
and largest city
55°45′N 37°37′E / 55.750°N 37.617°E / 55.750; 37.617
Official languagesRussian[c]
Recognised regional languages
Ethnic groups
GovernmentSee Government of the Soviet Union
• 1922–1924
Vladimir Lenin[d]
• 1924–1953
Joseph Stalin[e]
• 1953[g]
Georgy Malenkov[f]
• 1953–1964
Nikita Khrushchev[h]
• 1964–1982
Leonid Brezhnev[i]
• 1982–1984
Yuri Andropov
• 1984–1985
Konstantin Chernenko
• 1985–1991
Mikhail Gorbachev[j]
Head of State 
• 1922–1946 (first)
Mikhail Kalinin[k]
• 1988–1991 (last)
Mikhail Gorbachev[l]
• 1922–1924 (first)
Vladimir Lenin[m]
• 1991 (last)
Ivan Silayev[n]
Soviet of the Union
Historical era
7 November 1917
30 December 1922
• End of the Civil War
16 June 1923
31 January 1924
5 December 1936
24 October 1945
25 February 1956
9 October 1977
19–22 August 1991
8 December 1991[p]
26 December 1991[q]
• Total
22,402,200 km2 (8,649,500 sq mi) (1st)
• Water
2,767,198 km2 (1,068,421 sq mi)
• Water (%)
• 1989 census
Neutral increase 286,730,819[2] (3rd)
• Density
12.7/km2 (32.9/sq mi)
GDP (PPP)1990 estimate
• Total
$2.7 trillion (2nd)
• Per capita
GDP (nominal)1990 estimate
• Total
$2.7 trillion[3] (2nd)
• Per capita
$9,000 (28th)
Gini (1989)0.275
HDI (1990 formula)0.920[4]
very high
CurrencySoviet ruble (Rbl) (SUR)
Time zone(UTC+2 to +12)
Driving sideright
Calling code+7
ISO 3166 codeSU
Internet TLD.su[r]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Russian SFSR
Ukrainian SSR
Byelorussian SSR
Transcaucasian SFSR
Russian Federation
Gagauz Republic

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics[s] (USSR),[t] commonly known as the Soviet Union,[u] was a transcontinental country that spanned much of Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. It was the largest country in the world by area, extending across eleven time zones and sharing land borders with twelve countries.[v] A successor state to the Russian Empire, the country was nominally organized as a federal union of fifteen national republics, the largest and most populous of which was the Russian SFSR;[w] in practice, both its government and its economy were highly centralized until its final years. It was the world's third-most populous country and Europe's most populous country. As a one-party state governed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it was a flagship communist state. Its capital as well as its largest city was Moscow. Other highly urbanized centers were Leningrad, Kiev, Tashkent, and Baku.

The Soviet Union's roots lay in the October Revolution of 1917, which saw the Bolsheviks overthrow the Russian Provisional Government that formed earlier that year following the February Revolution that had dissolved the Russian Empire. The new government, led by Vladimir Lenin, established the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR),[x] the world's first constitutionally socialist state. The revolution was not accepted by all within the Russian Republic, resulting in the Russian Civil War between the Bolsheviks and the anti-communist Whites. As the war progressed in the Bolsheviks' favor, the RSFSR began to incorporate land acquired from the war into various puppet states, which were merged into the Soviet Union in December 1922. Following Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin came to power, inaugurating a period of rapid industrialization and forced collectivization that led to significant economic growth, but also contributed to a famine between 1930 and 1933 that killed millions. The forced labour camp system of the Gulag was also expanded in this period. During the late 1930s, Stalin conducted the Great Purge to remove actual and perceived opponents, resulting in mass death, imprisonment, and deportation. In 1939, the USSR and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact despite their ideological incongruence; nonetheless, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the largest land invasion in history, opening the Eastern Front of World War II. The Soviets played a decisive role in defeating the Axis powers in 1945, suffering an estimated 27 million casualties, which accounted for the majority of Allied losses. In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet Union consolidated the territory occupied by the Red Army, forming various satellite states, and undertook rapid economic development which cemented its status as a superpower.

Following World War II, ideological tensions with the United States eventually led to the Cold War. The American-led Western Bloc coalesced into NATO in 1949, prompting the Soviet Union to form its own military alliance, commonly known as the Warsaw Pact, in 1955. Neither side ever engaged in direct military confrontation, and instead fought on an ideological basis and through proxy wars. In 1953, following Stalin's death, the Soviet Union undertook a campaign of de-Stalinization under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, which saw reversals and rejections of Stalinist policies. This campaign caused tensions with Communist China. During the 1950s, the Soviet Union rapidly expanded its efforts in space exploration and took an early lead in the Space Race with the first artificial satellite, the first human spaceflight, the first space station, and the first probe to land on another planet (Venus). The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into full-scale nuclear war. The 1970s saw a brief détente in the Soviet Union's relationship with the United States, but tensions emerged again following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In 1985, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to reform the country through his policies of glasnost and perestroika. In 1989, various countries of the Warsaw Pact overthrew their Soviet-backed regimes, and nationalist and separatist movements erupted across the entire Soviet Union. In 1991, amid efforts to reform and preserve the country as a renewed federation, an attempted coup d'état against Gorbachev by hardline communists prompted the three most populous and economically developed republics—Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus—to secede from the Union. On December 26, Gorbachev officially recognized the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the RSFSR, oversaw its reconstitution into the Russian Federation, which became the Soviet Union's successor state; all other republics emerged as fully independent post-Soviet states.

During its existence, the Soviet Union produced many significant social and technological achievements and innovations. It had the world's second-largest economy and largest standing military. An NPT-designated state, it wielded the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. As an Allied nation, it was a founding member of the United Nations as well as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Before its dissolution, the USSR was one of the world's two superpowers through its hegemony in Eastern Europe, global diplomatic and ideological influence (particularly in the Global South), military and economic strengths, and scientific accomplishments.


The word soviet is derived from the Russian word sovet (Russian: совет), meaning 'council', 'assembly', 'advice',[y] ultimately deriving from the proto-Slavic verbal stem of *vět-iti ('to inform'), related to Slavic věst ('news'), English wise. The word sovietnik means 'councillor'.[5] Some organizations in Russian history were called council (Russian: совет). In the Russian Empire, the State Council, which functioned from 1810 to 1917, was referred to as a Council of Ministers.[5]

The Soviets as workers' councils first appeared during the 1905 Russian Revolution.[6][7] Although they were quickly suppressed by the Imperial army, after the February Revolution of 1917, workers' and soldiers' Soviets emerged throughout the country and shared power with the Russian Provisional Government.[6][8] The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, demanded that all power be transferred to the Soviets, and gained support from the workers and soldiers.[9] After the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in the name of the Soviets,[8][10] Lenin proclaimed the formation of the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR).[11]

During the Georgian Affair of 1922, Lenin called for the Russian SFSR and other national Soviet republics to form a greater union which he initially named as the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia (Russian: Союз Советских Республик Европы и Азии, romanized: Sojuz Sovjetskih Respublik Evropy i Azii).[12] Joseph Stalin initially resisted Lenin's proposal but ultimately accepted it, and with Lenin's agreement he changed the name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), although all republics began as socialist soviet and did not change to the other order until 1936. In addition, in the regional languages of several republics, the word council or conciliar in the respective language was only quite late changed to an adaptation of the Russian soviet and never in others, e.g. Ukrainian SSR.

СССР (in the Latin alphabet: SSSR) is the abbreviation of the Russian-language cognate of USSR, as written in Cyrillic letters. The Soviets used this abbreviation so frequently that audiences worldwide became familiar with its meaning. After this, the most common Russian initialization is Союз ССР (transliteration: Soyuz SSR) which essentially translates to Union of SSRs in English. In addition, the Russian short form name Советский Союз (transliteration: Sovjetskij Sojuz, which literally means Soviet Union) is also commonly used, but only in its unabbreviated form. Since the start of the Great Patriotic War at the latest, abbreviating the Russian name of the Soviet Union as СС has been taboo, the reason being that СС as a Russian Cyrillic abbreviation is associated with the infamous Schutzstaffel of Nazi Germany, just as SS is in English.

In English-language media, the state was referred to as the Soviet Union or the USSR. The Russian SFSR dominated the Soviet Union to such an extent that for most of the Soviet Union's existence, it was commonly, but incorrectly, referred to as Russia. According to historian Matthew White, it was an open secret that the country's federal structure was "window dressing" for Russian dominance. For that reason, the people of the USSR were almost always called "Russians", not "Soviets", since "everyone knew who really ran the show".[13]


Revolution and foundation (1917–1927)

Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union and the leader of the Bolsheviks
Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and a key figure in the October Revolution

Modern revolutionary activity in the Russian Empire began with the 1825 Decembrist revolt. Although serfdom was abolished in 1861, it was done on terms unfavourable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament, the State Duma, was established in 1906 after the Russian Revolution of 1905, but Emperor Nicholas II resisted attempts to move from absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Social unrest continued and was aggravated during World War I by military defeat and food shortages in major cities.

A spontaneous popular demonstration in Petrograd on 8 March 1917, demanding peace and bread, culminated in the February Revolution and the abdication of Nicholas II and the imperial government.[14] The tsarist autocracy was replaced by the social-democratic Russian Provisional Government, which intended to conduct elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly and to continue fighting on the side of the Entente in World War I. At the same time, workers' councils, known in Russian as 'Soviets', sprang up across the country, and the most influential of them, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, shared power with the Provisional Government.[7][8] Membership of the Bolshevik party had risen from 24,000 members in February 1917 to 200,000 members by September 1917.[15] 50,000 workers had passed a resolution in favour of the Bolshevik demand for the transfer of power to the Soviets.[16][17]

Lenin, Trotsky, and Kamenev celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution

The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for communist revolution in the Soviets and on the streets, adopting the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets" and urging the overthrow of the Provisional Government.[18][19] On 7 November 1917, Bolshevik Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, arresting the Provisional Government leaders and Lenin declared that all power was now transferred to the Soviets.[10][8] This event would later be officially known in Soviet bibliographies as the "Great October Socialist Revolution". Bolshevik figures such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Moisei Uritsky, and Dmitry Manuilsky agreed that Lenin's influence on the Bolshevik party was decisive but the October insurrection was carried out according to Trotsky's, not to Lenin's plan.[20] The initial stage of the October Revolution which involved the assault on Petrograd occurred largely without any human casualties.[21][22][23]

Lenin's government instituted a number of progressive measures such as universal education, universal healthcare, and equal rights for women.[24][25][26] Conversely, the bloody Red Terror was initiated to shut down all opposition, both perceived and real.[27] The terror also arose in response to a number of assassination attempts on Bolshevik senior leaders and organized insurrections against the Soviet government.[28][29][30]

In December, the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with the Central Powers, though by February 1918, fighting had resumed. In March, the Soviets ended involvement in the war and signed the separate peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Dissolution of the elected Russian Constituent Assembly by the Bolsheviks on 6 January 1918

A long and bloody Civil War ensued between the Reds and the Whites, starting in 1917 and ending in 1923 with the Reds' victory. It included foreign intervention, the murder of the former Emperor and his family, and the famine of 1921–1922, which killed about five million people.[31] In March 1921, during a related war against Poland, the Peace of Riga was signed, splitting disputed territories in Belarus and Ukraine between the Republic of Poland and Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia sought to re-conquer all newly independent nations of the former Empire, although their success was limited. Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania all repelled Soviet invasions, while Ukraine, Belarus (as a result of the Polish–Soviet War), Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were occupied by the Red Army.[32][33] Additionally, the forced requisition of food by the Soviet government led to substantial resistance, of which the most notable was the Tambov Rebellion, ultimately put down by the Red Army.[34]

Russian Civil War in the European part of Russia

The Civil War had a devastating impact on the economy. A black market emerged in Russia, despite the threat of martial law against profiteering. The ruble collapsed, with barter increasingly replacing money as a medium of exchange[35] and, by 1921, heavy industry output had fallen to 20% of 1913 levels. 90% of wages were paid with goods rather than money.[36] 70% of locomotives were in need of repair[citation needed], and food requisitioning, combined with the effects of seven years of war and a severe drought, contributed to a famine that caused between 3 and 10 million deaths.[37] Coal production decreased from 27.5 million tons (1913) to 7 million tons (1920), while overall factory production also declined from 10,000 million roubles to 1,000 million roubles. According to the noted historian David Christian, the grain harvest was also slashed from 80.1 million tons (1913) to 46.5 million tons (1920).[38]

Treaty on the Creation of the USSR

On 28 December 1922, a conference of plenipotentiary delegations from the Russian SFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, and the Byelorussian SSR approved the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR[39] and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.[40] These two documents were confirmed by the first Congress of Soviets of the USSR and signed by the heads of the delegations,[41] Mikhail Kalinin, Mikhail Tskhakaya, Mikhail Frunze, Grigory Petrovsky, and Alexander Chervyakov,[42] on 30 December 1922. The formal proclamation was made from the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

An intensive restructuring of the economy, industry, and politics of the country began in the early days of Soviet power in 1917. A large part of this was done according to the Bolshevik Initial Decrees, government documents signed by Vladimir Lenin. One of the most prominent breakthroughs was the GOELRO plan, which envisioned a major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification of Russia.[43] The plan became the prototype for subsequent Five-Year Plans and was fulfilled by 1931.[44] After the economic policy of 'War communism' during the Russian Civil War, as a prelude to fully developing socialism in the country, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist alongside nationalized industry in the 1920s, and total food requisition in the countryside was replaced by a food tax.

The Russian famine of 1921–22 killed an estimated 5 million people.

From its creation, the government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks).[z] The stated purpose was to prevent the return of capitalist exploitation, and that the principles of democratic centralism would be the most effective in representing the people's will in a practical manner. The debate over the future of the economy provided the background for a power struggle in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. Initially, Lenin was to be replaced by a 'troika' consisting of Grigory Zinoviev of the Ukrainian SSR, Lev Kamenev, of the Russian SFSR, and Joseph Stalin, of the Transcaucasian SFSR.

In February 1924, the USSR was recognized by the United Kingdom.[47][48] The same year, a Soviet Constitution was approved, legitimizing the December 1922 union.

According to Archie Brown the constitution was never an accurate guide to political reality in the USSR. For example, the fact that the Party played the leading role in making and enforcing policy was not mentioned in it until 1977.[49] The USSR was a federative entity of many constituent republics, each with its own political and administrative entities. However, the term 'Soviet Russia' – formally applicable only to the Russian Federative Socialist Republic – was often applied to the entire country by non-Soviet writers due to its domination by the Russian SFSR.

Stalin era (1927–1953)

The Soviet famine of 1930–1933, with areas where the effects of famine were most severe shaded

On 3 April 1922, Stalin was named the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lenin had appointed Stalin the head of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate, which gave Stalin considerable power.[50] By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating and outmaneuvering his rivals within the party, Stalin became the undisputed leader of the country and, by the end of the 1920s, established a totalitarian rule. In October 1927, Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky were expelled from the Central Committee and forced into exile.

In 1928, Stalin introduced the first five-year plan for building a socialist economy. In place of the internationalism expressed by Lenin throughout the revolution, it aimed to build Socialism in One Country. In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization. In agriculture, rather than adhering to the 'lead by example' policy advocated by Lenin,[51] forced collectivization of farms was implemented all over the country.

Famines ensued as a result, causing deaths estimated at three to seven million; surviving kulaks (wealthy or middle-class peasants) were persecuted, and many were sent to Gulags to do forced labor.[52][53] Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Despite the turmoil of the mid-to-late 1930s, the country developed a robust industrial economy in the years preceding World War II.

Construction of the bridge through the Kolyma (part of the Road of Bones from Magadan to Jakutsk) by the prisoners of Dalstroy

Closer cooperation between the USSR and the West developed in the early 1930s. From 1932 to 1934, the country participated in the World Disarmament Conference. In 1933, diplomatic relations between the United States and the USSR were established when in November, the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, chose to recognize Stalin's Communist government formally and negotiated a new trade agreement between the two countries.[54] In September 1934, the country joined the League of Nations. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the USSR actively supported the Republican forces against the Nationalists, who were supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.[55]

In December 1936, Stalin unveiled a new constitution that was praised by supporters around the world as the most democratic constitution imaginable, though there was some skepticism. American historian J. Arch Getty concludes: "Many who lauded Stalin's Soviet Union as the most democratic country on earth lived to regret their words. After all, the Soviet Constitution of 1936 was adopted on the eve of the Great Terror of the late 1930s; the "thoroughly democratic" elections to the first Supreme Soviet permitted only uncontested candidates and took place at the height of the savage violence in 1937. The civil rights, personal freedoms, and democratic forms promised in the Stalin constitution were trampled almost immediately and remained dead letters until long after Stalin's death."[56]

Five Marshals of the Soviet Union in 1935. Only two of them—Budyonny and Voroshilov—survived the Great Purge. Blyukher, Yegorov and Tukhachevsky were executed.

Stalin's Great Purge resulted in the detainment or execution of many 'Old Bolsheviks' who had participated in the October Revolution. According to declassified Soviet archives, the NKVD arrested more than one and a half million people in 1937 and 1938, of whom 681,692 were shot.[57] Over those two years, there were an average of over one thousand executions a day.[58][aa] Scholars estimate the total death toll for the Great Purge (1936–1938), including fatalities attributed to prison conditions, to be roughly 700,000-1.2 million.[62][63][64][65][66]

In 1939, after attempts to form a military alliance with Britain and France against Germany failed, the Soviet Union made a dramatic shift towards Nazi Germany.[67] Almost a year after Britain and France had concluded the Munich Agreement with Germany, the Soviet Union made agreements with Germany as well, both militarily and economically during extensive talks. Unlike the case of Britain and France, the Soviet Union's agreement with Germany, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (signed on 23 August 1939), included a secret protocol that paved the way for the Soviet invasion of Eastern European states and occupation of their territories.[68] The pact made possible the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and eastern Poland.

Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria with Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, on his lap. As head of the NKVD, Beria was responsible for many political repressions in the Soviet Union.

On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland and on the 17th the Soviet Union invaded Poland as well. On 6 October, Poland fell and part of the Soviet occupation zone was then handed over to Germany.

On 10 October, the Soviet Union and Lithuania signed an agreement whereby the Soviet Union transferred Polish sovereignty over the Vilna region to Lithuania, and on 28 October the boundary between the Soviet occupation zone and the new territory of Lithuania was officially demarcated.

On 1 November, the Soviet Union annexed Western Ukraine, followed by Western Belarus on the 2nd.

In late November, unable to coerce the Republic of Finland by diplomatic means into moving its border 25 kilometres (16 mi) back from Leningrad, Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland. On 14 December 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations for invading Finland.[69] In the east, the Soviet military won several decisive victories during border clashes with the Empire of Japan in 1938 and 1939. However, in April 1941, the USSR signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with Japan, which the Soviets would unilaterally break in 1945, recognizing the territorial integrity of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state. The pact ensured Japan would not enter the war against the USSR on the side of Germany later.

World War II

The Battle of Stalingrad, considered by many historians as a decisive turning point of World War II

Germany broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 starting what is known in Russia and some other post-Soviet states as the Great Patriotic War. The Red Army stopped the seemingly invincible German Army at the Battle of Moscow. The Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from late 1942 to early 1943, dealt a severe blow to Germany from which they never fully recovered and became a turning point in the war. After Stalingrad, Soviet forces drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945. The German Army suffered 80% of its military deaths in the Eastern Front.[70] Harry Hopkins, a close foreign policy advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, spoke on 10 August 1943 of the USSR's decisive role in the war, saying that "While in Sicily the forces of Great Britain and the United States are being opposed by 2 German divisions, the Russian front is receiving attention of approximately 200 German divisions."[ab] Up to 34 million soldiers served in the Red Army during World War II, 8 million of which were non-Slavic minorities.[72]

Residents of Leningrad leave their homes destroyed by German bombing. About 1 million civilians died during the 871-day Siege of Leningrad, mostly from starvation.
From left to right, the Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill confer in Tehran, 1943

The USSR suffered greatly in the war, losing around 20 million people (modern Russian sources put the number at 26.6 million).[59][73] This includes 8.7 million military deaths. The majority of the losses were ethnic Russians, followed by ethnic Ukrainians.[72] Approximately 2.8 million Soviet POWs died of starvation, mistreatment, or executions in just eight months of 1941–42.[74][75] More than 2 million people were killed in Belarus during the three years of German occupation,[76] almost a quarter of the region's population, including around 550,000 Jews in the Holocaust in Belarus.[77] During the war, the country together with the United States, the United Kingdom and China were considered the Big Four Allied powers,[78] and later became the Four Policemen that formed the basis of the United Nations Security Council.[79] It emerged as a superpower in the post-war period. Once denied diplomatic recognition by the Western world, the USSR had official relations with practically every country by the late 1940s. A member of the United Nations at its foundation in 1945, the country became one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which gave it the right to veto any of its resolutions.

The USSR, in fulfillment of its agreement with the Allies at the Yalta Conference, broke the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1945 which Japan had been honoring despite their alliance with Germany,[80] and invaded Manchukuo and other Japan-controlled territories on 9 August 1945.[81] This conflict ended with a decisive Soviet victory, contributing to the unconditional surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

Soviet soldiers committed mass rapes in occupied territories, especially in Germany.[82] The wartime rapes were followed by decades of silence.[83][84][85] According to historian Antony Beevor, whose books were banned in 2015 from some Russian schools and colleges, NKVD (Soviet secret police) files have revealed that the leadership knew what was happening, but did little to stop it.[86] It was often rear echelon units who committed the rapes. According to professor Oleg Rzheshevsky, "4,148 Red Army officers and many privates were punished for committing atrocities".[87] The exact number of German women and girls raped by Soviet troops during the war and occupation is uncertain, but historians estimate their numbers are likely in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as two million.[88]

U.S. Lend-Lease shipments to the USSR. During the war the USSR provided an unknown number of shipments of rare minerals to the US Treasury as a form of cashless repayment of Lend-Lease.

The Soviet Union was greatly assisted in its wartime effort by the United States via Lend-Lease. In total, the U.S. deliveries to the USSR through Lend-Lease amounted to $11 billion in materials: over 400,000 jeeps and trucks; 12,000 armored vehicles (including 7,000 tanks, about 1,386[89] of which were M3 Lees and 4,102 M4 Shermans);[90] 11,400 aircraft (of which 4,719 were Bell P-39 Airacobras, 3,414 were Douglas A-20 Havocs and 2,397 were Bell P-63 Kingcobras)[91] and 1.75 million tons of food.[92] As Soviet soldiers were bearing the brunt of the war, Roosevelt's advisor Harry Hopkins felt that American aid to the Soviets would hasten the war's conclusion.[93]

Roughly 17.5 million tons of military equipment, vehicles, industrial supplies, and food were shipped from the Western Hemisphere to the USSR, 94% coming from the US. For comparison, a total of 22 million tons landed in Europe to supply American forces from January 1942 to May 1945. It has been estimated that American deliveries to the USSR through the Persian Corridor alone were sufficient, by US Army standards, to maintain sixty combat divisions in the line.[94][95]

Cold War

Map showing the greatest territorial extent of the Soviet Union and the sovereign states that it dominated politically, economically and militarily in 1960, after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but before the official Sino-Soviet split of 1961 (total area: c. 35,000,000 km2)[ac]

During the immediate post-war period, the Soviet Union rebuilt and expanded its economy, while maintaining its strictly centralized control. It took effective control over most of the countries of Eastern Europe (except Yugoslavia and later Albania), turning them into satellite states. The USSR bound its satellite states in a military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, in 1955, and an economic organization, Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon, a counterpart to the European Economic Community (EEC), from 1949 to 1991.[96] Although nominally a "defensive" alliance, the Warsaw Pact's primary function was to safeguard the Soviet Union's hegemony over its Eastern European satellites, with the Pact's only direct military actions having been the invasions of its own member states to keep them from breaking away.[97] The USSR concentrated on its own recovery, seizing and transferring most of Germany's industrial plants, and it exacted war reparations from East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria using Soviet-dominated joint enterprises. It also instituted trading arrangements deliberately designed to favour the country. Moscow controlled the Communist parties that ruled the satellite states, and they followed orders from the Kremlin. Historian Mark Kramer concludes: "The net outflow of resources from eastern Europe to the Soviet Union was approximately $15 billion to $20 billion in the first decade after World War II, an amount roughly equal to the total aid provided by the United States to western Europe under the Marshall Plan."[98] Later, the Comecon supplied aid to the eventually victorious Chinese Communist Party, and its influence grew elsewhere in the world. Fearing its ambitions, the Soviet Union's wartime allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, became its enemies. In the ensuing Cold War, the two sides clashed indirectly in proxy wars.

De-Stalinization and Khrushchev Thaw (1953–64)

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left) with US President John F. Kennedy in Vienna, 3 June 1961

Stalin died on 5 March 1953. Without a mutually agreeable successor, the highest Communist Party officials initially opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly through a troika headed by Georgy Malenkov. This did not last, however, and Nikita Khrushchev eventually won the ensuing power struggle by the mid-1950s. In 1956, he denounced Joseph Stalin and proceeded to ease controls over the party and society. This was known as de-Stalinization.

Moscow considered Eastern Europe to be a critically vital buffer zone for the forward defence of its western borders, in case of another major invasion such as the German invasion of 1941. For this reason, the USSR sought to cement its control of the region by transforming the Eastern European countries into satellite states, dependent upon and subservient to its leadership. As a result, Soviet military forces were used to suppress an anti-communist uprising in Hungary in 1956.

In the late 1950s, a confrontation with China regarding the Soviet rapprochement with the West, and what Mao Zedong perceived as Khrushchev's revisionism, led to the Sino–Soviet split. This resulted in a break throughout the global Marxist–Leninist movement, with the governments in Albania, Cambodia, and Somalia choosing to ally with China.

Republics of the Soviet Union in 1954–1991

During this period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USSR continued to realize scientific and technological exploits in the Space Race, rivaling the United States: launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957; a living dog named Laika in 1957; the first human being, Yuri Gagarin in 1961; the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963; Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space in 1965; the first soft landing on the Moon by spacecraft Luna 9 in 1966; and the first Moon rovers, Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2.[99]

Khrushchev initiated 'The Thaw', a complex shift in political, cultural, and economic life in the country. This included some openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic policies with more emphasis on commodity goods, allowing a dramatic rise in living standards while maintaining high levels of economic growth. Censorship was relaxed as well. Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive. In 1962, he precipitated a crisis with the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. An agreement was made with the United States to remove nuclear missiles from both Cuba and Turkey, concluding the crisis. This event caused Khrushchev much embarrassment and loss of prestige, resulting in his removal from power in 1964.

"Era of Stagnation" (1964–1985)

Nikolai Podgorny visiting Tampere, Finland on 16 October 1969
Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev and US President Jimmy Carter sign the SALT II arms limitation treaty in Vienna on 18 June 1979.

Following the ousting of Khrushchev, another period of collective leadership ensued, consisting of Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary, Alexei Kosygin as Premier and Nikolai Podgorny as Chairman of the Presidium, lasting until Brezhnev established himself in the early 1970s as the preeminent Soviet leader.

In 1968, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring reforms. In the aftermath, Brezhnev justified the invasion and previous military interventions, as well as any potential military interventions in the future, by introducing the Brezhnev Doctrine, which proclaimed any threat to Soviet rule in a Warsaw Pact state as a threat to all Warsaw Pact states, therefore justifying military intervention.

Brezhnev presided throughout détente with the West that resulted in treaties on armament control (SALT I, SALT II, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) while at the same time building up Soviet military might.

In October 1977, the third Soviet Constitution was unanimously adopted. The prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of aversion to change. The long period of Brezhnev's rule had come to be dubbed one of 'standstill', with an ageing and ossified top political leadership. This period is also known as the Era of Stagnation, a period of adverse economic, political, and social effects in the country, which began during the rule of Brezhnev and continued under his successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

In late 1979, the Soviet Union's military intervened in the ongoing civil war in neighboring Afghanistan, effectively ending a détente with the West.

Perestroika and Glasnost (1985–1991)

Mikhail Gorbachev in one-to-one discussions with US President Ronald Reagan (left), 1985

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. Kenneth S. Deffeyes argued in Beyond Oil that the Reagan administration encouraged Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil to the point where the Soviets could not make a profit selling their oil, and resulted in the depletion of the country's hard currency reserves.[100]

The Pan-European Picnic took place in August 1989 on the Hungarian-Austrian border.

Brezhnev's next two successors, transitional figures with deep roots in his tradition, did not last long. Yuri Andropov was 68 years old and Konstantin Chernenko 72 when they assumed power; both died in less than two years. In an attempt to avoid a third short-lived leader, in 1985, the Soviets turned to the next generation and selected Mikhail Gorbachev. In addition to the failing economy, the prolonged war in Afghanistan led to increased public dissatisfaction with the Communist government. Also, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 added motive force to Gorbachev's reforms.[101] He made significant changes in the economy and party leadership, called perestroika. His policy of glasnost freed public access to information after decades of heavy government censorship. Gorbachev also moved to end the Cold War. In 1988, the USSR abandoned its war in Afghanistan and began to withdraw its forces. In the following year, Gorbachev refused to interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet satellite states, which paved the way for the Revolutions of 1989. In particular, the standstill of the Soviet Union at the Pan-European Picnic in August 1989 then set a peaceful chain reaction in motion, at the end of which the Eastern Bloc collapsed. With the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and with East and West Germany pursuing re-unification, the Iron Curtain between the West and Soviet-occupied regions came down.[102][103][104][105]

At the same time, the Soviet republics started legal moves towards potentially declaring sovereignty over their territories, citing the freedom to secede in Article 72 of the USSR constitution.[106] On 7 April 1990, a law was passed allowing a republic to secede if more than two-thirds of its residents voted for it in a referendum.[107] Many held their first free elections in the Soviet era for their own national legislatures in 1990. Many of these legislatures proceeded to produce legislation contradicting the Union laws in what was known as the 'War of Laws'. In 1989, the Russian SFSR convened a newly elected Congress of People's Deputies. Boris Yeltsin was elected its chairman. On 12 June 1990, the Congress declared Russia's sovereignty over its territory and proceeded to pass laws that attempted to supersede some of the Soviet laws. After a landslide victory of Sąjūdis in Lithuania, that country declared its independence restored on 11 March 1990, citing the illegality of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. Soviet forces attempted to halt the secession by crushing popular demonstrations in Lithuania (Bloody Sunday) and Latvia (The Barricades), as a result of which numerous civilians were killed or wounded. However, these actions only bolstered international support for the secessionists.[108]

T-80 tank on Red Square during the August Coup

A referendum for the preservation of the USSR was held on 17 March 1991 in nine republics (the remainder having boycotted the vote), with the majority of the population in those republics voting for preservation of the Union in the form of a new federation. The referendum gave Gorbachev a minor boost. In the summer of 1991, the New Union Treaty, which would have turned the country into a much looser Union, was agreed upon by eight republics. The signing of the treaty, however, was interrupted by the August Coup—an attempted coup d'état by hardline members of the government and the KGB who sought to reverse Gorbachev's reforms and reassert the central government's control over the republics. After the coup collapsed, Russian president Yeltsin was seen as a hero for his decisive actions, while Gorbachev's power was effectively ended. The balance of power tipped significantly towards the republics. In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia immediately declared the restoration of their full independence (following Lithuania's 1990 example). Gorbachev resigned as general secretary in late August, and soon afterwards, the party's activities were indefinitely suspended—effectively ending its rule. By the fall, Gorbachev could no longer influence events outside Moscow, and he was being challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had been elected President of Russia in July 1991.

Dissolution and aftermath

Changes in national boundaries after the end of the Cold War
Internally displaced Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh, 1993
Country emblems of the Soviet Republics before and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (fifth in the second row) no longer exists as a political entity of any kind and the emblem is unofficial.)

The remaining 12 republics continued discussing new, increasingly looser, models of the Union. However, by December all except Russia and Kazakhstan had formally declared independence. During this time, Yeltsin took over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Moscow Kremlin. The final blow was struck on 1 December when Ukraine, the second-most powerful republic, voted overwhelmingly for independence. Ukraine's secession ended any realistic chance of the country staying together even on a limited scale.

On 8 December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), signed the Belavezha Accords, which declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. While doubts remained over the authority of the accords to do this, on 21 December 1991, the representatives of all Soviet republics except Georgia signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the accords. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as the President of the USSR, declaring the office extinct. He turned the powers that had been vested in the presidency over to Yeltsin. That night, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time, and the Russian tricolour was raised in its place.

The following day, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body, voted both itself and the country out of existence. This is generally recognized as marking the official, final dissolution of the Soviet Union as a functioning state, and the end of the Cold War.[109] The Soviet Army initially remained under overall CIS command but was soon absorbed into the different military forces of the newly independent states. The few remaining Soviet institutions that had not been taken over by Russia ceased to function by the end of 1991.

Following the dissolution, Russia was internationally recognized[110] as the USSR's legal successor on the international stage. To that end, Russia voluntarily accepted all Soviet foreign debt and claimed Soviet overseas properties as its own. Under the 1992 Lisbon Protocol, Russia also agreed to receive all nuclear weapons remaining in the territory of other former Soviet republics. Since then, the Russian Federation has assumed the Soviet Union's rights and obligations, and is widely viewed as the USSR's successor state.[111] Ukraine has refused to recognize exclusive Russian claims to succession of the USSR and claimed such status for Ukraine as well, which was codified in Articles 7 and 8 of its 1991 law On Legal Succession of Ukraine. Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has continued to pursue claims against Russia in foreign courts, seeking to recover its share of the foreign property that was owned by the USSR.

In summing up the international ramifications of these events, Vladislav Zubok stated: 'The collapse of the Soviet empire was an event of epochal geopolitical, military, ideological, and economic significance.'[112] Before the dissolution, the country had maintained its status as one of the world's two superpowers for four decades after World War II through its hegemony in Eastern Europe, military strength, economic strength and scientific research, especially in space technology and weaponry.[113]

Post-Soviet states

On 21 December 1991, the leaders of 11 former Soviet republics, including Russia and Ukraine, agreed to the Alma-Ata Protocols, formally establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The analysis of the succession of states for the 15 post-Soviet states is complex.[114] The Russian Federation is widely seen as the legal continuator state and is for most purposes the heir to the Soviet Union. It retained ownership of all former Soviet embassy properties, inheriting the full Soviet nuclear arsenal, and also inherited the Soviet Union's UN membership, with its permanent seat on the Security Council.[111]

Of the two other co-founding states of the USSR at the time of the dissolution, Ukraine was the only one that had passed laws, similar to Russia, claiming it is a state-successor of both the Ukrainian SSR and the USSR.[115] Soviet treaties laid groundwork for Ukraine's future foreign agreements as well as leading to the country agreeing to undertake 16.37% of debts of the Soviet Union for which it was going to receive its share of the USSR's foreign property. Russia's position as the 'only continuation of the USSR' that became widely accepted in the West, as well as constant pressure from the Western countries, allowed Russia to inherit Soviet state property abroad and conceal information about it. Due to that Ukraine never ratified 'zero option' agreement that Russian Federation had signed with other former Soviet republics, as it denied disclosing of information about Soviet Gold Reserves and its Diamond Fund.[116][117] The dispute over former Soviet property and assets between the two former republics is still ongoing:

The conflict is unsolvable. We can continue to poke Kiev handouts in the calculation of 'solve the problem', only it won't be solved. Going to a trial is also pointless: for a number of European countries this is a political issue, and they will make a decision clearly in whose favor. What to do in this situation is an open question. Search for non-trivial solutions. But we must remember that in 2014, with the filing of the then Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, litigation with Russia resumed in 32 countries.

Similar situation occurred with restitution of cultural property. Although on 14 February 1992 Russia and other former Soviet republics signed agreement 'On the return of cultural and historic property to the origin states' in Minsk, it was halted by the Russian State Duma that eventually passed 'Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the USSR as a Result of the Second World War and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation' which made restitution currently impossible, effectively barring the return of looted cultural heritage by Soviet troops during the Second World War to its original owners.[119]

Russian GDP since the end of the Soviet Union (from 2014 are forecasts)

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania consider themselves as revivals of the three independent countries that existed prior to their occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. They maintain that the process by which they were incorporated into the Soviet Union violated both international law and their own law, and that in 1990–1991 they were reasserting an independence that still legally existed.

Nearly all of the post-Soviet states suffered deep and prolonged recessions after shock therapy,[120] with poverty increasing more than tenfold.[121] In a 2001 study by the economist Steven Rosefielde, he calculated that there were 3.4 million premature deaths in Russia from 1990 to 1998, which he partly blames on the "shock therapy" that came with the Washington Consensus.[122]

In 2011, The Guardian published an analysis of the former Soviet countries twenty years after the fall of the USSR. They found that "GDP fell as much as 50 percent in the 1990s in some republics... as capital flight, industrial collapse, hyperinflation and tax avoidance took their toll," but that there was a rebound in the 2000s, and by 2010 "some economies were five times as big as they were in 1991." Life expectancy has grown since 1991 in some of the countries, but fallen in others; likewise, some held free and fair elections, while others remained authoritarian.[123]

There are additionally three states that claim independence from the other internationally recognized post-Soviet states but possess limited international recognition: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Donetsk and Luhansk were independent until they were annexed into Russia. The Armenian separatist movement of the Republic of Artsakh, Chechen separatist movement of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Gagauz separatist movement of the Gagauz Republic and the Talysh separatist movement of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic are other such cases which have already been resolved.


Mountain Khan Tengri (6,995 m) of the Tian Shan mountain range.
Landscape near Karabash, Chelyabinsk Oblast, an area that was previously covered with forests until acid rainfall from a nearby copper smelter killed all vegetation
One of the many impacts of the approach to the environment in the USSR and post-Soviet states is the Aral Sea. (See status in 1989 and 2014.)[124]

With an area of 22,402,200 square kilometres (8,649,500 sq mi), the Soviet Union was the world's largest country,[87] a status that is retained by the Russian Federation.[125] Covering a sixth of Earth's land surface, its size was comparable to that of North America.[126] Two other successor states, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, rank among the top 10 countries by land area, and the largest country entirely in Europe, respectively. The European portion accounted for a quarter of the country's area and was the cultural and economic center. The eastern part in Asia extended to the Pacific Ocean to the east and Afghanistan to the south, and, except some areas in Central Asia, was much less populous. It spanned over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) east to west across 11 time zones, and over 7,200 kilometres (4,500 mi) north to south. It had five climate zones: tundra, taiga, steppes, desert and mountains.

The USSR, like Russia, had the world's longest border, measuring over 60,000 kilometres (37,000 mi), or 1+12 circumferences of Earth. Two-thirds of it was a coastline. The country bordered Afghanistan, the People's Republic of China, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Iran, Mongolia, North Korea, Norway, Poland, Romania, and Turkey from 1945 to 1991. The Bering Strait separated the USSR from the United States.

The country's highest mountain was Communism Peak (now Ismoil Somoni Peak) in Tajikistan, at 7,495 metres (24,590 ft). The USSR also included most of the world's largest lakes; the Caspian Sea (shared with Iran), and Lake Baikal, the world's largest (by volume) and deepest freshwater lake that is also an internal body of water in Russia.

Neighbouring countries were aware of the high levels of pollution in the Soviet Union[127][128] but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it was discovered that its environmental problems were greater than what the Soviet authorities admitted.[129] The Soviet Union was the world's second largest producer of harmful emissions. In 1988, total emissions in the Soviet Union were about 79% of those in the United States. But since the Soviet GNP was only 54% of that of the United States, this means that the Soviet Union generated 1.5 times more pollution than the United States per unit of GNP.[130]

The Soviet Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was the first major accident at a civilian nuclear power plant.[131][132][133] Unparalleled in the world, it resulted in a large number of radioactive isotopes being released into the atmosphere. Radioactive doses were scattered relatively far.[134] Although long-term effects of the accident were unknown, 4,000 new cases of thyroid cancer which resulted from the accident's contamination were reported at the time of the accident, but this led to a relatively low number of deaths (WHO data, 2005).[135] Another major radioactive accident was the Kyshtym disaster.[136]

The Kola Peninsula was one of the places with major problems.[137] Around the industrial cities of Monchegorsk and Norilsk, where nickel, for example, is mined, all forests have been destroyed by contamination, while the northern and other parts of Russia have been affected by emissions.[138] During the 1990s, people in the West were also interested in the radioactive hazards of nuclear facilities, decommissioned nuclear submarines, and the processing of nuclear waste or spent nuclear fuel.[139][140] It was also known in the early 1990s that the USSR had transported radioactive material to the Barents Sea and Kara Sea, which was later confirmed by the Russian parliament. The crash of the K-141 Kursk submarine in 2000 in the west further raised concerns.[141] In the past, there were accidents involving submarines K-19, K-8, a K-129, K-27, K-219 and K-278 Komsomolets.[142][143][144][145]

Government and politics

There were three power hierarchies in the Soviet Union: the legislature represented by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, the government represented by the Council of Ministers, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the only legal party and the final policymaker in the country.[146]

Communist Party

Military parade on the Red Square in Moscow, 7 November 1964

At the top of the Communist Party was the Central Committee, elected at Party Congresses and Conferences. In turn, the Central Committee voted for a Politburo (called the Presidium between 1952 and 1966), Secretariat and the general secretary (First Secretary from 1953 to 1966), the de facto highest office in the Soviet Union.[147] Depending on the degree of power consolidation, it was either the Politburo as a collective body or the General Secretary, who always was one of the Politburo members, that effectively led the party and the country[148] (except for the period of the highly personalized authority of Stalin, exercised directly through his position in the Council of Ministers rather than the Politburo after 1941).[149] They were not controlled by the general party membership, as the key principle of the party organization was democratic centralism, demanding strict subordination to higher bodies, and elections went uncontested, endorsing the candidates proposed from above.[150]

The Communist Party maintained its dominance over the state mainly through its control over the system of appointments. All senior government officials and most deputies of the Supreme Soviet were members of the CPSU. Of the party heads themselves, Stalin (1941–1953) and Khrushchev (1958–1964) were Premiers. Upon the forced retirement of Khrushchev, the party leader was prohibited from this kind of double membership,[151] but the later General Secretaries for at least some part of their tenure occupied the mostly ceremonial position of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the nominal head of state. The institutions at lower levels were overseen and at times supplanted by primary party organizations.[152]

However, in practice the degree of control the party was able to exercise over the state bureaucracy, particularly after the death of Stalin, was far from total, with the bureaucracy pursuing different interests that were at times in conflict with the party,[153] nor was the party itself monolithic from top to bottom, although factions were officially banned.[154]


The Grand Kremlin Palace, the seat of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, 1982

The Supreme Soviet (successor of the Congress of Soviets) was nominally the highest state body for most of the Soviet history,[155] at first acting as a rubber stamp institution, approving and implementing all decisions made by the party. However, its powers and functions were extended in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including the creation of new state commissions and committees. It gained additional powers relating to the approval of the Five-Year Plans and the government budget.[156] The Supreme Soviet elected a Presidium (successor of the Central Executive Committee) to wield its power between plenary sessions,[157] ordinarily held twice a year, and appointed the Supreme Court,[158] the Procurator General[159] and the Council of Ministers (known before 1946 as the Council of People's Commissars), headed by the Chairman (Premier) and managing an enormous bureaucracy responsible for the administration of the economy and society.[157] State and party structures of the constituent republics largely emulated the structure of the central institutions, although the Russian SFSR, unlike the other constituent republics, for most of its history had no republican branch of the CPSU, being ruled directly by the union-wide party until 1990. Local authorities were organized likewise into party committees, local Soviets and executive committees. While the state system was nominally federal, the party was unitary.[160]

The state security police (the KGB and its predecessor agencies) played an important role in Soviet politics. It was instrumental in the Red Terror and Great Purge,[161] but was brought under strict party control after Stalin's death. Under Yuri Andropov, the KGB engaged in the suppression of political dissent and maintained an extensive network of informers, reasserting itself as a political actor to some extent independent of the party-state structure,[162] culminating in the anti-corruption campaign targeting high-ranking party officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[163]

Separation of power and reform

Nationalist anti-government riots in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, 1990

The constitution, which was promulgated in 1924, 1936 and 1977,[164] did not limit state power. No formal separation of powers existed between the Party, Supreme Soviet and Council of Ministers[165] that represented executive and legislative branches of the government. The system was governed less by statute than by informal conventions, and no settled mechanism of leadership succession existed. Bitter and at times deadly power struggles took place in the Politburo after the deaths of Lenin[166] and Stalin,[167] as well as after Khrushchev's dismissal,[168] itself due to a decision by both the Politburo and the Central Committee.[169] All leaders of the Communist Party before Gorbachev died in office, except Georgy Malenkov[170] and Khrushchev, both dismissed from the party leadership amid internal struggle within the party.[169]

Between 1988 and 1990, facing considerable opposition, Mikhail Gorbachev enacted reforms shifting power away from the highest bodies of the party and making the Supreme Soviet less dependent on them. The Congress of People's Deputies was established, the majority of whose members were directly elected in competitive elections held in March 1989, the first in Soviet history. The Congress now elected the Supreme Soviet, which became a full-time parliament, and much stronger than before. For the first time since the 1920s, it refused to rubber stamp proposals from the party and Council of Ministers.[171] In 1990, Gorbachev introduced and assumed the position of the President of the Soviet Union, concentrated power in his executive office, independent of the party, and subordinated the government,[172] now renamed the Cabinet of Ministers of the USSR, to himself.[173]

Tensions grew between the Union-wide authorities under Gorbachev, reformists led in Russia by Boris Yeltsin and controlling the newly elected Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR, and communist hardliners. On 19–21 August 1991, a group of hardliners staged a coup attempt. The coup failed, and the State Council of the Soviet Union became the highest organ of state power 'in the period of transition'.[174] Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary, only remaining President for the final months of the existence of the USSR.[175]

Judicial system

The judiciary was not independent of the other branches of government. The Supreme Court supervised the lower courts (People's Court) and applied the law as established by the constitution or as interpreted by the Supreme Soviet. The Constitutional Oversight Committee reviewed the constitutionality of laws and acts. The Soviet Union used the inquisitorial system of Roman law, where the judge, procurator, and defence attorney collaborate to "establish the truth".[176]

Human rights

Human rights in the Soviet Union were severely limited. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state from 1927 until 1953[177][178][179][180] and a one-party state until 1990.[181] Freedom of speech was suppressed and dissent was punished. Independent political activities were not tolerated, whether these involved participation in free labor unions, private corporations, independent churches or opposition political parties. The freedom of movement within and especially outside the country was limited. The state restricted rights of citizens to private property.

The Soviet conception of human rights was very different from international law. According to Soviet legal theory, "it is the government who is the beneficiary of human rights which are to be asserted against the individual".[182] The Soviet state was considered as the source of human rights.[183] Therefore, the Soviet legal system regarded law as an arm of politics and courts as agencies of the government.[184] Extensive extrajudicial powers were given to the Soviet secret police agencies. The Soviet government in practice significantly curbed the rule of law, civil liberties, protection of law, freedom of movement[185] and guarantees of property,[184][186] which were considered as examples of "bourgeois morality" by Soviet law theorists such as Andrey Vyshinsky.[187] According to Vladimir Lenin, the purpose of socialist courts was "not to eliminate terror ... but to substantiate it and legitimize it in principle".[184]

The Soviet Union signed legally-binding human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1973, but they were neither widely known or accessible to people living under Communist rule, nor were they taken seriously by the Communist authorities.[188]: 117 

Foreign relations

Sukarno and Voroshilov in a state meeting on 1958
Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nikita Khrushchev in 1964
Soviet stamps 1974 for friendship between the USSR and India
Gerald Ford, Andrei Gromyko, Leonid Brezhnev and Henry Kissinger speaking informally at the Vladivostok Summit in 1974
Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush signing bilateral documents during Gorbachev's official visit to the United States in 1990

During his rule, Stalin always made the final policy decisions. Otherwise, Soviet foreign policy was set by the commission on the Foreign Policy of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or by the party's highest body the Politburo. Operations were handled by the separate Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was known as the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (or Narkomindel), until 1946. The most influential spokesmen were Georgy Chicherin (1872–1936), Maxim Litvinov (1876–1951), Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986), Andrey Vyshinsky (1883–1954) and Andrei Gromyko (1909–1989). Intellectuals were based in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.[189]

  • Comintern (1919–1943), or Communist International, was an international communist organization based in the Kremlin that advocated world communism. The Comintern intended to 'struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state'.[190] It was abolished as a conciliatory measure toward Britain and the United States.[191]
  • Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Russian: Совет Экономической Взаимопомощи, Sovet Ekonomicheskoy Vzaimopomoshchi, СЭВ, SEV) was an economic organization from 1949 to 1991 under Soviet control that comprised the countries of the Eastern Bloc along with several communist states elsewhere in the world. Moscow was concerned about the Marshall Plan, and Comecon was meant to prevent countries in the Soviets' sphere of influence from moving towards that of the Americans and Southeast Asia. Comecon was the Eastern Bloc's reply to the formation in Western Europe of the Organization for European Economic Co-Operation (OEEC),[192][193]
  • The Warsaw Pact was a collective defence alliance formed in 1955 among the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.[194][195] The Warsaw Pact was the military complement to the Comecon, the regional economic organization for the socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was created in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO.[196][194] Although nominally a "defensive" alliance, the Pact's primary function was to safeguard the Soviet Union's hegemony over its Eastern European satellites, with the Pact's only direct military actions having been the invasions of its own member states to keep them from breaking away.[97][194][197][198]
  • The Cominform (1947–1956), informally the Communist Information Bureau and officially the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers' Parties, was the first official agency of the international Marxist-Leninist movement since the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. Its role was to coordinate actions between Marxist-Leninist parties under Soviet direction. Stalin used it to order Western European communist parties to abandon their exclusively parliamentarian line and instead concentrate on politically impeding the operations of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. program of rebuilding Europe after the war and developing its economy.[199] It also coordinated international aid to Marxist-Leninist insurgents during the Greek Civil War in 1947–1949.[200] It expelled Yugoslavia in 1948 after Josip Broz Tito insisted on an independent program. Its newspaper, For a Lasting Peace, for a People's Democracy!, promoted Stalin's positions. The Cominform's concentration on Europe meant a deemphasis on world revolution in Soviet foreign policy. By enunciating a uniform ideology, it allowed the constituent parties to focus on personalities rather than issues.[201]

Early policies (1919–1939)

1987 Soviet stamp

The Marxist-Leninist leadership of the Soviet Union intensely debated foreign policy issues and changed directions several times. Even after Stalin assumed dictatorial control in the late 1920s, there were debates, and he frequently changed positions.[202]

During the country's early period, it was assumed that Communist revolutions would break out soon in every major industrial country, and it was the Russian responsibility to assist them. The Comintern was the weapon of choice. A few revolutions did break out, but they were quickly suppressed (the longest lasting one was in Hungary)—the Hungarian Soviet Republic—lasted only from 21 March 1919 to 1 August 1919. The Russian Bolsheviks were in no position to give any help.

By 1921, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin realized that capitalism had stabilized itself in Europe and there would not be any widespread revolutions anytime soon. It became the duty of the Russian Bolsheviks to protect what they had in Russia, and avoid military confrontations that might destroy their bridgehead. Russia was now a pariah state, along with Germany. The two came to terms in 1922 with the Treaty of Rapallo that settled long-standing grievances. At the same time, the two countries secretly set up training programs for the illegal German army and air force operations at hidden camps in the USSR.[203]

Moscow eventually stopped threatening other states, and instead worked to open peaceful relationships in terms of trade, and diplomatic recognition. The United Kingdom dismissed the warnings of Winston Churchill and a few others about a continuing Marxist-Leninist threat, and opened trade relations and de facto diplomatic recognition in 1922. There was hope for a settlement of the pre-war Tsarist debts, but it was repeatedly postponed. Formal recognition came when the new Labour Party came to power in 1924.[204] All the other countries followed suit in opening trade relations. Henry Ford opened large-scale business relations with the Soviets in the late 1920s, hoping that it would lead to long-term peace. Finally, in 1933, the United States officially recognized the USSR, a decision backed by the public opinion and especially by US business interests that expected an opening of a new profitable market.[205]

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin ordered Marxist-Leninist parties across the world to strongly oppose non-Marxist political parties, labor unions or other organizations on the left, which they labelled social fascists. In the usage of the Soviet Union, and of the Comintern and its affiliated parties in this period, the epithet fascist was used to describe capitalist society in general and virtually any anti-Soviet or anti-Stalinist activity or opinion.[206] Stalin reversed himself in 1934 with the Popular Front program that called on all Marxist parties to join with all anti-Fascist political, labor, and organizational forces that were opposed to fascism, especially of the Nazi variety.[207][208]

The rapid growth of power in Nazi Germany encouraged both Paris and Moscow to form a military alliance, and the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance was signed in May 1935. A firm believer in collective security, Stalin's foreign minister Maxim Litvinov worked very hard to form a closer relationship with France and Britain.[209]

In 1939, half a year after the Munich Agreement, the USSR attempted to form an anti-Nazi alliance with France and Britain.[210] Adolf Hitler proposed a better deal, which would give the USSR control over much of Eastern Europe through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. In September, Germany invaded Poland, and the USSR also invaded later that month, resulting in the partition of Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of World War II.[211]

World War II (1939–1945)

Up until his death in 1953, Joseph Stalin controlled all foreign relations of the Soviet Union during the interwar period. Despite the increasing build-up of Germany's war machine and the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Soviet Union did not cooperate with any other nation, choosing to follow its own path.[212] However, after Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union's priorities changed. Despite previous conflict with the United Kingdom, Vyacheslav Molotov dropped his post war border demands.[213]

Cold War (1945–1991)

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc, which began following World War II in 1945. The term cold war is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two superpowers, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict was based around the ideological and geopolitical struggle for global influence by these two superpowers, following their temporary alliance and victory against Nazi Germany in 1945. Aside from the nuclear arsenal development and conventional military deployment, the struggle for dominance was expressed via indirect means such as psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, espionage, far-reaching embargoes, rivalry at sports events and technological competitions such as the Space Race.

Administrative divisions

Constitutionally, the USSR was a federation of constituent Union Republics, which were either unitary states, such as Ukraine or Byelorussia (SSRs), or federations, such as Russia or Transcaucasia (SFSRs),[146] all four being the founding republics who signed the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR in December 1922. In 1924, during the national delimitation in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were formed from parts of Russia's Turkestan ASSR and two Soviet dependencies, the Khorezm and Bukharan PSPs. In 1929, Tajikistan was split off from the Uzbekistan SSR. With the constitution of 1936, the Transcaucasian SFSR was dissolved, resulting in its constituent republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan being elevated to Union Republics, while Kazakhstan and Kirghizia were split off from the Russian SFSR, resulting in the same status.[214] In August 1940, Moldavia was formed from parts of Ukraine and Soviet-occupied Bessarabia, and Ukrainian SSR. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were also annexed by the Soviet Union and turned into SSRs, which was not recognized by most of the international community and was considered an illegal occupation. After the Soviet invasion of Finland, the Karelo-Finnish SSR was formed on annexed territory as a Union Republic in March 1940 and then incorporated into Russia as the Karelian ASSR in 1956. Between July 1956 and September 1991, there were 15 union republics (see map below).[215]

While nominally a union of equals, in practice the Soviet Union was dominated by Russians. The domination was so absolute that for most of its existence, the country was commonly (but incorrectly) referred to as 'Russia'. While the Russian SFSR was technically only one republic within the larger union, it was by far the largest (both in terms of population and area), most powerful, and most highly developed. The Russian SFSR was also the industrial center of the Soviet Union. Historian Matthew White wrote that it was an open secret that the country's federal structure was 'window dressing' for Russian dominance. For that reason, the people of the USSR were usually called 'Russians', not 'Soviets', since 'everyone knew who really ran the show'.[13]

Republic Map of the Union Republics between 1956 and 1991
1  Russian SFSR
2  Ukrainian SSR
3  Byelorussian SSR
4  Uzbek SSR
5  Kazakh SSR
6  Georgian SSR
7  Azerbaijan SSR
8  Lithuanian SSR
9  Moldavian SSR
10  Latvian SSR
11  Kirghiz SSR
12  Tajik SSR
13  Armenian SSR
14  Turkmen SSR
15  Estonian SSR


A medium-range SS-20 non-ICBM ballistic missile, the deployment of which by the Soviet Union in the late 1970s launched a new arms race in Europe when NATO responded by deploying Pershing II missiles in West Germany, among other things

Under the Military Law of September 1925, the Soviet Armed Forces consisted of the Land Forces, the Air Force, the Navy, Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU) and the Internal Troops.[216] The OGPU later became independent and in 1934 joined the NKVD secret police, and so its internal troops were under the joint leadership of the defense and internal commissariats. After World War II, Strategic Missile Forces (1959), Air Defense Forces (1948) and National Civil Defense Forces (1970) were formed, which ranked first, third, and sixth in the official Soviet system of importance (ground forces were second, Air Force fourth, and Navy fifth).

The army had the greatest political influence. In 1989, there served two million soldiers divided between 150 motorized and 52 armored divisions. Until the early 1960s, the Soviet navy was a rather small military branch, but after the Caribbean crisis, under the leadership of Sergei Gorshkov, it expanded significantly. It became known for battlecruisers and submarines. In 1989, there served 500 000 men. The Soviet Air Force focused on a fleet of strategic bombers and during war situation was to eradicate enemy infrastructure and nuclear capacity. The air force also had a number of fighters and tactical bombers to support the army in the war. Strategic missile forces had more than 1,400 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed between 28 bases and 300 command centers.

In the post-war period, the Soviet Army was directly involved in several military operations abroad.[3][217][218] These included the suppression of the uprising in East Germany (1953), Hungarian revolution (1956) and the invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968). The Soviet Union also participated in the war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.

In the Soviet Union, general conscription applied, meaning all able-bodied males aged 18 and older were drafted in the armed forces.[219]


The Soviet Union in comparison to other countries by GDP (nominal) per capita in 1965 based on a West-German school book (1971)
  > 5,000 DM
  2,500–5,000 DM
  1,000–2,500 DM
  500–1,000 DM
  250–500 DM
  < 250 DM

The Soviet Union adopted a command economy, whereby production and distribution of goods were centralized and directed by the government. The first Bolshevik experience with a command economy was the policy of war communism, which involved the nationalization of industry, centralized distribution of output, coercive or forced requisition of agricultural production, and attempts to eliminate money circulation, private enterprises and free trade. The barrier troops were also used to enforce Bolshevik control over food supplies in areas controlled by the Red Army, a role which soon earned them the hatred of the Russian civilian population.[220] After the severe economic collapse, Lenin replaced war communism by the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, legalizing free trade and private ownership of small businesses. The economy steadily recovered as a result.[221]

After a long debate among the members of the Politburo about the course of economic development, by 1928–1929, upon gaining control of the country, Stalin abandoned the NEP and pushed for full central planning, starting forced collectivization of agriculture and enacting draconian labor legislation. Resources were mobilized for rapid industrialization, which significantly expanded Soviet capacity in heavy industry and capital goods during the 1930s.[221] The primary motivation for industrialization was preparation for war, mostly due to distrust of the outside capitalist world.[222] As a result, the USSR was transformed from a largely agrarian economy into a great industrial power, leading the way for its emergence as a superpower after World War II.[223] The war caused extensive devastation of the Soviet economy and infrastructure, which required massive reconstruction.[224]

The DneproGES, one of many hydroelectric power stations in the Soviet Union

By the early 1940s, the Soviet economy had become relatively self-sufficient; for most of the period until the creation of Comecon, only a tiny share of domestic products was traded internationally.[225] After the creation of the Eastern Bloc, external trade rose rapidly. However, the influence of the world economy on the USSR was limited by fixed domestic prices and a state monopoly on foreign trade.[226] Grain and sophisticated consumer manufactures became major import articles from around the 1960s.[225] During the arms race of the Cold War, the Soviet economy was burdened by military expenditures, heavily lobbied for by a powerful bureaucracy dependent on the arms industry. At the same time, the USSR became the largest arms exporter to the Third World. A portion of Soviet resources during the Cold War were allocated in aid to the Soviet-aligned states.[225] The Soviet Union's military budget in the 1970s was gigantic, forming 40–60% of the entire federal budget and accounting to 15% of the USSR's GDP (13% in the 1980s).[227]

Picking cotton in Armenia in the 1930s

From the 1930s until its dissolution in late 1991, the way the Soviet economy operated remained essentially unchanged. The economy was formally directed by central planning, carried out by Gosplan and organized in five-year plans. However, in practice, the plans were highly aggregated and provisional, subject to ad hoc intervention by superiors. All critical economic decisions were taken by the political leadership. Allocated resources and plan targets were usually denominated in rubles rather than in physical goods. Credit was discouraged, but widespread. The final allocation of output was achieved through relatively decentralized, unplanned contracting. Although in theory prices were legally set from above, in practice they were often negotiated, and informal horizontal links (e.g. between producer factories) were widespread.[221]

A number of basic services were state-funded, such as education and health care. In the manufacturing sector, heavy industry and defence were prioritized over consumer goods.[228] Consumer goods, particularly outside large cities, were often scarce, of poor quality and limited variety. Under the command economy, consumers had almost no influence on production, and the changing demands of a population with growing incomes could not be satisfied by supplies at rigidly fixed prices.[229] A massive unplanned second economy grew up at low levels alongside the planned one, providing some of the goods and services that the planners could not. The legalization of some elements of the decentralized economy was attempted with the reform of 1965.[221]

Workers of the Salihorsk potash plant, Belarus, 1968

Although statistics of the Soviet economy are notoriously unreliable and its economic growth difficult to estimate precisely,[230][231] by most accounts, the economy continued to expand until the mid-1980s. During the 1950s and 1960s, it had comparatively high growth and was catching up to the West.[232] However, after 1970, the growth, while still positive, steadily declined much more quickly and consistently than in other countries, despite a rapid increase in the capital stock (the rate of capital increase was only surpassed by Japan).[221]

Volzhsky Avtomobilny Zavod (VAZ) in 1969

Overall, the growth rate of per capita income in the Soviet Union between 1960 and 1989 was slightly above the world average (based on 102 countries).[233] A 1986 study published in the American Journal of Public Health claimed that, citing World Bank data, the Soviet model provided a better quality of life and human development than market economies at the same level of economic development in most cases.[234] According to Stanley Fischer and William Easterly, growth could have been faster. By their calculation, per capita income in 1989 should have been twice higher than it was, considering the amount of investment, education and population. The authors attribute this poor performance to the low productivity of capital.[235] Steven Rosefielde states that the standard of living declined due to Stalin's despotism. While there was a brief improvement after his death, it lapsed into stagnation.[236]

In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform and revitalize the economy with his program of perestroika. His policies relaxed state control over enterprises but did not replace it by market incentives, resulting in a sharp decline in output. The economy, already suffering from reduced petroleum export revenues, started to collapse. Prices were still fixed, and the property was still largely state-owned until after the country's dissolution.[221][229] For most of the period after World War II until its collapse, Soviet GDP (PPP) was the second-largest in the world, and third during the second half of the 1980s,[237] although on a per-capita basis, it was behind that of First World countries.[238] Compared to countries with similar per-capita GDP in 1928, the Soviet Union experienced significant growth.[citation needed]

In 1990, the country had a Human Development Index of 0.920, placing it in the 'high' category of human development. It was the third-highest in the Eastern Bloc, behind Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and the 25th in the world of 130 countries.[239]


Soviet stamp depicting the 30th anniversary of the International Atomic Energy Agency, published in 1987, a year following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

The need for fuel declined in the Soviet Union from the 1970s to the 1980s,[240] both per ruble of gross social product and per ruble of industrial product. At the start, this decline grew very rapidly but gradually slowed down between 1970 and 1975. From 1975 and 1980, it grew even slower,[clarification needed] only 2.6%.[241] David Wilson, a historian, believed that the gas industry would account for 40% of Soviet fuel production by the end of the century. His theory did not come to fruition because of the USSR's collapse.[242] The USSR, in theory, would have continued to have an economic growth rate of 2–2.5% during the 1990s because of Soviet energy fields.[clarification needed][243] However, the energy sector faced many difficulties, among them the country's high military expenditure and hostile relations with the First World.[244]

In 1991, the Soviet Union had a pipeline network of 82,000 kilometres (51,000 mi) for crude oil and another 206,500 kilometres (128,300 mi) for natural gas.[245] Petroleum and petroleum-based products, natural gas, metals, wood, agricultural products, and a variety of manufactured goods, primarily machinery, arms and military equipment, were exported.[246] In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR heavily relied on fossil fuel exports to earn hard currency.[225] At its peak in 1988, it was the largest producer and second-largest exporter of crude oil, surpassed only by Saudi Arabia.[247]

Science and technology

Soviet stamp showing the orbit of Sputnik 1

The Soviet Union placed great emphasis on science and technology within its economy,[248][113] however, the most remarkable Soviet successes in technology, such as producing the world's first space satellite, typically were the responsibility of the military.[228] Lenin believed that the USSR would never overtake the developed world if it remained as technologically backward as it was upon its founding. Soviet authorities proved their commitment to Lenin's belief by developing massive networks, research and development organizations. In the early 1960s, the Soviets awarded 40% of chemistry PhDs to women, compared to only 5% in the United States.[249] By 1989, Soviet scientists were among the world's best-trained specialists in several areas, such as Energy physics, selected areas of medicine, mathematics, welding and military technologies. Due to rigid state planning and bureaucracy, the Soviets remained far behind technologically in chemistry, biology, and computers when compared to the First World. The Soviet government opposed and persecuted geneticists in favour of Lysenkoism, a pseudoscience rejected by the scientific community in the Soviet Union and abroad but supported by Stalin's inner circles. Implemented in the USSR and China, it resulted in reduced crop yields and is widely believed to have contributed to the Great Chinese Famine.[250] The Soviet Union also had more scientists and engineers, relative to the world population, than any other major country due to the strong levels of state support for scientific developments by the 1980s.[251]

Under the Reagan administration, Project Socrates determined that the Soviet Union addressed the acquisition of science and technology in a manner that was radically different from what the US was using. In the case of the US, economic prioritization was being used for indigenous research and development as the means to acquire science and technology in both the private and public sectors. In contrast, the USSR was offensively and defensively maneuvering in the acquisition and use of the worldwide technology, to increase the competitive advantage that they acquired from the technology while preventing the US from acquiring a competitive advantage. However, technology-based planning was executed in a centralized, government-centric manner that greatly hindered its flexibility. This was exploited by the US to undermine the strength of the Soviet Union and thus foster its reform.[252][253][254]

Space program

From left to right: Yuri Gagarin, Pavel Popovich, Valentina Tereshkova and Nikita Khrushchev at the Lenin's Mausoleum in 1963
Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome

At the end of the 1950s, the USSR constructed the first satelliteSputnik 1, which marked the beginning of the Space Race—a competition to achieve superior spaceflight capability with the United States.[255] This was followed by other successful satellites, most notably Sputnik 5, where test dogs were sent to space. On 12 April 1961, the USSR launched Vostok 1, which carried Yuri Gagarin, making him the first human to ever be launched into space and complete a space journey.[256] The first plans for space shuttles and orbital stations were drawn up in Soviet design offices, but personal disputes between designers and management prevented their development.

In terms of the Luna program, the USSR only had automated spacecraft launches with no crewed spacecraft, passing on the 'Moon' part of Space Race, which was won by the Americans. The Soviet public's reaction to the American moon-landing was mixed. The Soviet government limited the release of information about it, which affected the reaction. A portion of the populace did not give it attention, and another portion was angered.[257][258]

In the 1970s, specific proposals for the design of a space shuttle emerged, but shortcomings, especially in the electronics industry (rapid overheating of electronics), postponed it till the end of the 1980s. The first shuttle, the Buran, flew in 1988, but without a human crew. Another, Ptichka, endured prolonged construction and was canceled in 1991. For their launch into space, there is today an unused superpower rocket, Energia, which is the most powerful in the world.[259]

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union built the Mir orbital station. It was built on the construction of Salyut stations and its only role was civilian-grade research tasks.[260][261] Mir was the only orbital station in operation from 1986 to 1998. Gradually, other modules were added to it, including American modules. However, the station deteriorated rapidly after a fire on board, so in 2001 it was decided to bring it into the atmosphere where it burned down.[260]


Aeroflot's flag during the Soviet era
Nuclear Icebreaker Lenin

Transport was a vital component of the country's economy. The economic centralization of the late 1920s and 1930s led to the development of infrastructure on a massive scale, most notably the establishment of Aeroflot, an aviation enterprise.[262] The country had a wide variety of modes of transport by land, water and air.[245] However, due to inadequate maintenance, much of the road, water and Soviet civil aviation transport were outdated and technologically backward compared to the First World.[263]

Soviet rail transport was the largest and most intensively used in the world;[263] it was also better developed than most of its Western counterparts.[264] By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet economists were calling for the construction of more roads to alleviate some of the burdens from the railways and to improve the Soviet government budget.[265] The street network and automotive industry[266] remained underdeveloped,[267] and dirt roads were common outside major cities.[268] Soviet maintenance projects proved unable to take care of even the few roads the country had. By the early-to-mid-1980s, the Soviet authorities tried to solve the road problem by ordering the construction of new ones.[268] Meanwhile, the automobile industry was growing at a faster rate than road construction.[269] The underdeveloped road network led to a growing demand for public transport.[270]

Despite improvements, several aspects of the transport sector were still[when?] riddled with problems due to outdated infrastructure, lack of investment, corruption and bad decision-making. Soviet authorities were unable to meet the growing demand for transport infrastructure and services.[271]

The Soviet merchant navy was one of the largest in the world.[245]


Population of the Soviet Union (red) and the post-Soviet states (blue) from 1961 to 2009 as well as projection (dotted blue) from 2010 to 2100

Excess deaths throughout World War I and the Russian Civil War (including the famine of 1921–1922 that was triggered by Lenin's war communism policies)[272] amounted to a combined total of 18 million,[273] some 10 million in the 1930s,[59] and more than 20 million in 1941–1945. The postwar Soviet population was 45 to 50 million smaller than it would have been if pre-war demographic growth had continued.[274] According to Catherine Merridale, '... reasonable estimate would place the total number of excess deaths for the whole period somewhere around 60 million.'[275]

The birth rate of the USSR decreased from 44.0 per thousand in 1926 to 18.0 in 1974, mainly due to increasing urbanization and the rising average age of marriages. The mortality rate demonstrated a gradual decrease as well—from 23.7 per thousand in 1926 to 8.7 in 1974. In general, the birth rates of the southern republics in Transcaucasia and Central Asia were considerably higher than those in the northern parts of the Soviet Union, and in some cases even increased in the post–World War II period, a phenomenon partly attributed to slower rates of urbanization and traditionally earlier marriages in the southern republics.[276] Soviet Europe moved towards sub-replacement fertility, while Soviet Central Asia continued to exhibit population growth well above replacement-level fertility.[277]

The late 1960s and the 1970s witnessed a reversal of the declining trajectory of the rate of mortality in the USSR, and was especially notable among men of working age, but was also prevalent in Russia and other predominantly Slavic areas of the country.[278] An analysis of the official data from the late 1980s showed that after worsening in the late-1970s and the early 1980s, adult mortality began to improve again.[279] The infant mortality rate increased from 24.7 in 1970 to 27.9 in 1974. Some researchers regarded the rise as mostly real, a consequence of worsening health conditions and services.[280] The rises in both adult and infant mortality were not explained or defended by Soviet officials, and the Soviet government stopped publishing all mortality statistics for ten years. Soviet demographers and health specialists remained silent about the mortality increases until the late-1980s, when the publication of mortality data resumed, and researchers could delve into the real causes.[281]

Largest cities or towns in the Soviet Union
Rank Name Republic Pop. Rank Name Republic Pop.
1 Moscow Russian SFSR 8,967,332 11 Tbilisi Georgian SSR 1,246,936 Kiev
2 Leningrad Russian SFSR 4,990,749 12 Kuybyshev Russian SFSR 1,254,460
3 Kiev Ukrainian SSR 2,571,000 13 Yerevan Armenian SSR 1,201,539
4 Tashkent Uzbek SSR 2,072,459 14 Dnepropetrovsk Ukrainian SSR 1,178,000
5 Baku Azerbaijan SSR 1,727,000 15 Omsk Russian SFSR 1,148,418
6 Kharkov Ukrainian SSR 1,593,970 16 Chelyabinsk Russian SFSR 1,141,777
7 Minsk Byelorussian SSR 1,607,077 17 Odessa Ukrainian SSR 1,115,371
8 Gorki Russian SFSR 1,438,133 18 Donetsk Ukrainian SSR 1,109,900
9 Novosibirsk Russian SFSR 1,436,516 19 Kazan Russian SFSR 1,094,378
10 Sverdlovsk Russian SFSR 1,364,621 20 Alma-Ata Kazakh SSR 1,071,900


Largest cities of the USSR close to its dissolution

The Soviet Union imposed heavy control on city growth, preventing some cities from reaching their full potential while promoting others.[282][283]

For the entirety of its existence, the most populous cities were Moscow and Leningrad (both in Russian SFSR), with the third far place taken by Kiev (Ukrainian SSR). At its inception, the Top 5 was completed by Kharkov (Ukrainian SSR) and Baku (Azerbaijan SSR), but, by the end of the century, Tashkent (Uzbek SSR), which had assumed the position of capital of Soviet Central Asia, had risen to fourth place. Another city worth mentioning is Minsk (Byelorussian SSR), which saw rapid growth during the 20th century, rising from the 32nd most populous in the union to the 7th.[283][284][285]

Women and fertility

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, visiting the Lvov confectionery, Ukrainian SSR, 1967

Under Lenin, the state made explicit commitments to promote the equality of men and women. Many early Russian feminists and ordinary Russian working women actively participated in the Revolution, and many more were affected by the events of that period and the new policies. Beginning in October 1918, Lenin's government liberalized divorce and abortion laws, decriminalized homosexuality (re-criminalized in 1932), permitted cohabitation, and ushered in a host of reforms.[286] However, without birth control, the new system produced many broken marriages, as well as countless out-of-wedlock children.[287] The epidemic of divorces and extramarital affairs created social hardships when Soviet leaders wanted people to concentrate their efforts on growing the economy. Giving women control over their fertility also led to a precipitous decline in the birth rate, perceived as a threat to their country's military power. By 1936, Stalin reversed most of the liberal laws, ushering in a pronatalist era that lasted for decades.[288]

By 1917, Russia became the first great power to grant women the right to vote.[289] After heavy casualties in World War I and II, women outnumbered men in Russia by a 4:3 ratio.[290] This contributed to the larger role women played in Russian society compared to other great powers at the time.


Young Pioneers at a Young Pioneer camp in Kazakh SSR

Anatoly Lunacharsky became the first People's Commissar for Education of Soviet Russia. In the beginning, the Soviet authorities placed great emphasis on the elimination of illiteracy. All left-handed children were forced to write with their right hand in the Soviet school system.[291][292][293][294] Literate people were automatically hired as teachers. [citation needed] For a short period, quality was sacrificed for quantity. By 1940, Stalin could announce that illiteracy had been eliminated. Throughout the 1930s, social mobility rose sharply, which has been attributed to reforms in education.[295] In the aftermath of World War II, the country's educational system expanded dramatically, which had a tremendous effect. In the 1960s, nearly all children had access to education, the only exception being those living in remote areas. Nikita Khrushchev tried to make education more accessible, making it clear to children that education was closely linked to the needs of society. Education also became important in giving rise to the New Man.[296] Citizens directly entering the workforce had the constitutional right to a job and to free vocational training.

The education system was highly centralized and universally accessible to all citizens, with affirmative action for applicants from nations associated with cultural backwardness. However, as part of a general antisemitic policy, an unofficial Jewish quota was applied[when?] in the leading institutions of higher education by subjecting Jewish applicants to harsher entrance examinations.[297][298][299][300] The Brezhnev era also introduced a rule that required all university applicants to present a reference from the local Komsomol party secretary.[301] According to statistics from 1986, the number of higher education students per the population of 10,000 was 181 for the USSR, compared to 517 for the US.[302]

Nationalities and ethnic groups

People in Samarkand, Uzbek SSR, 1981
Svaneti man in Mestia, Georgian SSR, 1929

The Soviet Union was an ethnically diverse country, with more than 100 distinct ethnic groups. The total population of the country was estimated at 293 million in 1991. According to a 1990 estimate, the majority of the population were Russians (50.78%), followed by Ukrainians (15.45%) and Uzbeks (5.84%).[303] Overall, in 1989 the ethnic demography of the country showed that 69.8% was East Slavic, 17.5% was Turkic, 1.6% were Armenians, 1.6% were Balts, 1.5% were Finnic, 1.5% were Tajik, 1.4% were Georgian, 1.2% were Moldovan and 4.1% were of other various ethnic groups.[304]

All citizens of the USSR had their own ethnic affiliation. The ethnicity of a person was chosen at the age of sixteen by the child's parents.[305] If the parents did not agree, the child was automatically assigned the ethnicity of the father. Partly due to Soviet policies, some of the smaller minority ethnic groups were considered part of larger ones, such as the Mingrelians of Georgia, who were classified with the linguistically related Georgians.[306] Some ethnic groups voluntarily assimilated, while others were brought in by force. Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, who were all East Slavic and Orthodox, shared close cultural, ethnic, and religious ties, while other groups did not. With multiple nationalities living in the same territory, ethnic antagonisms developed over the years.[307][neutrality is disputed]

Members of various ethnicities participated in legislative bodies. Organs of power like the Politburo, the Secretariat of the Central Committee etc., were formally ethnically neutral, but in reality, ethnic Russians were overrepresented, although there were also non-Russian leaders in the Soviet leadership, such as Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Podgorny or Andrei Gromyko. During the Soviet era, a significant number of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians migrated to other Soviet republics, and many of them settled there. According to the last census in 1989, the Russian 'diaspora' in the Soviet republics had reached 25 million.[308]


An early Soviet-era poster discouraging unsafe abortion practices

In 1917, before the revolution, health conditions were significantly behind those of developed countries. As Lenin later noted, "Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice".[309] The Soviet health care system was conceived by the People's Commissariat for Health in 1918. Under the Semashko model, health care was to be controlled by the state and would be provided to its citizens free of charge, a revolutionary concept at the time. Article 42 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution gave all citizens the right to health protection and free access to any health institutions in the USSR. Before Leonid Brezhnev became general secretary, the Soviet healthcare system was held in high esteem by many foreign specialists. This changed, however, from Brezhnev's accession and Mikhail Gorbachev's tenure as leader, during which the health care system was heavily criticized for many basic faults, such as the quality of service and the unevenness in its provision.[310] Minister of Health Yevgeniy Chazov, during the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, while highlighting such successes as having the most doctors and hospitals in the world, recognized the system's areas for improvement and felt that billions of rubles were squandered.[311]

After the revolution, life expectancy for all age groups went up. This statistic in itself was seen by some that the socialist system was superior to the capitalist system. These improvements continued into the 1960s when statistics indicated that the life expectancy briefly surpassed that of the United States. Life expectancy started to decline in the 1970s, possibly because of alcohol abuse. At the same time, infant mortality began to rise. After 1974, the government stopped publishing statistics on the matter. This trend can be partly explained by the number of pregnancies rising drastically in the Asian part of the country where infant mortality was the highest while declining markedly in the more developed European part of the Soviet Union.[312]


Soviet dental technology and dental health were considered notoriously bad. In 1991, the average 35-year-old had 12 to 14 cavities, fillings or missing teeth. Toothpaste was often not available, and toothbrushes did not conform to standards of modern dentistry.[313][314]


Under Lenin, the government gave small language groups their own writing systems.[315] The development of these writing systems was highly successful, even though some flaws were detected. During the later days of the USSR, countries with the same multilingual situation implemented similar policies. A serious problem when creating these writing systems was that the languages differed dialectally greatly from each other.[316] When a language had been given a writing system and appeared in a notable publication, it would attain 'official language' status. There were many minority languages which never received their own writing system; therefore, their speakers were forced to have a second language.[317] There are examples where the government retreated from this policy, most notably under Stalin where education was discontinued in languages that were not widespread. These languages were then assimilated into another language, mostly Russian.[318] During World War II, some minority languages were banned, and their speakers accused of collaborating with the enemy.[319]

As the most widely spoken of the Soviet Union's many languages, Russian de facto functioned as an official language, as the 'language of interethnic communication' (Russian: язык межнационального общения), but only assumed the de jure status as the official national language in 1990.[320]


Cover of Bezbozhnik in 1929, magazine of the Society of the Godless. The first five-year plan of the Soviet Union is shown crushing the gods of the Abrahamic religions.
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow during its demolition in 1931
The Saviour Church on Sennaya Square in Leningrad was one of many notable church buildings destroyed during the Khrushchev Thaw
A paranja burning ceremony in the Uzbek SSR as part of Soviet Hujum policies
Major religious groups in the Soviet Union as published by the CIA

Christianity and Islam had the highest number of adherents among the religious citizens.[321] Eastern Christianity predominated among Christians, with Russia's traditional Russian Orthodox Church being the largest Christian denomination. About 90% of the Soviet Union's Muslims were Sunnis, with Shias being concentrated in the Azerbaijan SSR.[321] Smaller groups included Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and a variety of Protestant denominations (especially Baptists and Lutherans).[321]

Religious influence had been strong in the Russian Empire. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed a privileged status as the church of the monarchy and took part in carrying out official state functions.[322] The immediate period following the establishment of the Soviet state included a struggle against the Orthodox Church, which the revolutionaries considered an ally of the former ruling classes.[323]

In Soviet law, the 'freedom to hold religious services' was constitutionally guaranteed, although the ruling Communist Party regarded religion as incompatible with the Marxist spirit of scientific materialism.[323] In practice, the Soviet system subscribed to a narrow interpretation of this right, and in fact used a range of official measures to discourage religion and curb the activities of religious groups.[323]

The 1918 Council of People's Commissars decree establishing the Russian SFSR as a secular state also decreed that 'the teaching of religion in all [places] where subjects of general instruction are taught, is forbidden. Citizens may teach and may be taught religion privately.'[324] Among further restrictions, those adopted in 1929 included express prohibitions on a range of church activities, including meetings for organized Bible study.[323] Both Christian and non-Christian establishments were shut down by the thousands in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1940, as many as 90% of the churches, synagogues, and mosques that had been operating in 1917 were closed; the majority of them were demolished or re-purposed for state needs with little concern for their historic and cultural value.[325]

More than 85,000 Orthodox priests were shot in 1937 alone.[326] Only a twelfth of the Russian Orthodox Church's priests were left functioning in their parishes by 1941.[327] In the period between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in Russia fell from 29,584 to less than 500 (1.7%).[328]

The Soviet Union was officially a secular state,[329][330] but a 'government-sponsored program of forced conversion to atheism' was conducted under the doctrine of state atheism.[331][332][333] The government targeted religions based on state interests, and while most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools.[334] In 1925, the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the propaganda campaign.[335] Accordingly, although personal expressions of religious faith were not explicitly banned, a strong sense of social stigma was imposed on them by the formal structures and mass media, and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious. While persecution accelerated following Stalin's rise to power, a revival of Orthodoxy was fostered by the government during World War II and the Soviet authorities sought to control the Russian Orthodox Church rather than liquidate it. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests. Many others were imprisoned or exiled. Believers were harassed and persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and the publication of most religious material was prohibited. By 1941, only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence before World War I.

Convinced that religious anti-Sovietism had become a thing of the past, and with the looming threat of war, the Stalin administration began shifting to a more moderate religion policy in the late 1930s.[336] Soviet religious establishments overwhelmingly rallied to support the war effort during World War II. Amid other accommodations to religious faith after the German invasion, churches were reopened. Radio Moscow began broadcasting a religious hour, and a historic meeting between Stalin and Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Sergius of Moscow was held in 1943. Stalin had the support of the majority of the religious people in the USSR even through the late 1980s.[336] The general tendency of this period was an increase in religious activity among believers of all faiths.[337]

Under Nikita Khrushchev, the state leadership clashed with the churches in 1958–1964, a period when atheism was emphasized in the educational curriculum, and numerous state publications promoted atheistic views.[336] During this period, the number of churches fell from 20,000 to 10,000 from 1959 to 1965, and the number of synagogues dropped from 500 to 97.[338] The number of working mosques also declined, falling from 1,500 to 500 within a decade.[338]

Religious institutions remained monitored by the Soviet government, but churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques were all given more leeway in the Brezhnev era.[339] Official relations between the Orthodox Church and the government again warmed to the point that the Brezhnev government twice honored Orthodox Patriarch Alexy I with the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.[340] A poll conducted by Soviet authorities in 1982 recorded 20% of the Soviet population as 'active religious believers.'[341]


The 'Enthusiast's March', a 1930s song famous in the Soviet Union
Soviet singer-songwriter, poet and actor Vladimir Vysotsky in 1979

The culture of the Soviet Union passed through several stages during the USSR's existence. During the first decade following the revolution, there was relative freedom and artists experimented with several different styles to find a distinctive Soviet style of art. Lenin wanted art to be accessible to the Russian people. On the other hand, hundreds of intellectuals, writers, and artists were exiled or executed, and their work banned, such as Nikolay Gumilyov who was shot for alleged conspiracy against the Bolsheviks, and Yevgeny Zamyatin.[342]

The government encouraged a variety of trends. In art and literature, numerous schools, some traditional and others radically experimental, proliferated. Communist writers Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky were active during this time. As a means of influencing a largely illiterate society, films received encouragement from the state, and much of director Sergei Eisenstein's best work dates from this period.

During Stalin's rule, the Soviet culture was characterized by the rise and domination of the government-imposed style of socialist realism, with all other trends being severely repressed, with rare exceptions, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's works. Many writers were imprisoned and killed.[343]

Following the Khrushchev Thaw, censorship was diminished. During this time, a distinctive period of Soviet culture developed, characterized by conformist public life and an intense focus on personal life. Greater experimentation in art forms was again permissible, resulting in the production of more sophisticated and subtly critical work. The government loosened its emphasis on socialist realism; thus, for instance, many protagonists of the novels of author Yury Trifonov concerned themselves with problems of daily life rather than with building socialism. Underground dissident literature, known as samizdat, developed during this late period. In architecture, the Khrushchev era mostly focused on functional design as opposed to the highly decorated style of Stalin's epoch. In music, in response to the increasing popularity of forms of popular music like jazz in the West, many jazz orchestras were permitted throughout the USSR, notably the Melodiya Ensemble, named after the principle record label in the USSR.

In the second half of the 1980s, Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost significantly expanded freedom of expression throughout the country in the media and the press.[344]


Valeri Kharlamov represented the Soviet Union at 11 Ice Hockey World Championships, winning eight gold medals, two silvers and one bronze.

In summer of 1923 in Moscow was established the Proletarian Sports Society "Dynamo" as a sports organization of Soviet secret police Cheka.

On 13 July 1925 the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) adopted a statement "About the party's tasks in sphere of physical culture". In the statement was determined the role of physical culture in Soviet society and the party's tasks in political leadership of physical culture movement in the country.

The Soviet Olympic Committee formed on 21 April 1951, and the IOC recognized the new body in its 45th session. In the same year, when the Soviet representative Konstantin Andrianov became an IOC member, the USSR officially joined the Olympic Movement. The 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki thus became first Olympic Games for Soviet athletes. The Soviet Union was the biggest rival to the United States at the Summer Olympics, winning six of its nine appearances at the games and also topping the medal tally at the Winter Olympics six times. The Soviet Union's Olympics success has been attributed to its large investment in sports to demonstrate its superpower image and political influence on a global stage.[345]

The Soviet Union national ice hockey team won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991 and never failed to medal in any International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournament in which they competed.

Soviet Olympic team was notorious for skirting the edge of amateur rules. All Soviet athletes held some nominal jobs, but were in fact state-sponsored and trained full-time. According to many experts, that gave the Soviet Union a huge advantage over the United States and other Western countries, whose athletes were students or real amateurs.[346][347] Indeed, the Soviet Union monopolized the top place in the medal standings after 1968, and, until its collapse, placed second only once, in the 1984 Winter games, after another Eastern bloc nation, the GDR. Amateur rules were relaxed only in the late 1980s and were almost completely abolished in the 1990s, after the fall of the USSR.[348][349]

According to British journalist Andrew Jennings, a KGB colonel stated that the agency's officers had posed as anti-doping authorities from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to undermine doping tests and that Soviet athletes were "rescued with [these] tremendous efforts".[350][351] Documents obtained in 2016 revealed the Soviet Union's plans for a statewide doping system in track and field in preparation for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Dated prior to the country's decision to boycott the Games, the document detailed the existing steroids operations of the program, along with suggestions for further enhancements.[352]


World War II military deaths in Europe by theatre and by year. Nazi Germany suffered 80% of its military deaths on the Eastern Front.[353]

The legacy of the USSR remains a controversial topic. The socio-economic nature of communist states such as the USSR, especially under Stalin, has also been much debated, varyingly being labelled a form of bureaucratic collectivism, state capitalism, state socialism, or a totally unique mode of production.[354] The USSR implemented a broad range of policies over a long period of time, with a large amount of conflicting policies being implemented by different leaders. Some have a positive view of it whilst others are critical towards the country, calling it a repressive oligarchy.[355] The opinions on the USSR are complex and have changed over time, with different generations having different views on the matter as well as on Soviet policies corresponding to separate time periods during its history.[356]

2001 stamp of Moldova shows Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

Western academicians published various analyses of the post-Soviet states' development, claiming that the dissolution was followed by a severe drop in economic and social conditions in these countries,[357][358] including a rapid increase in poverty,[359][360][361][362] crime,[363] corruption,[364][365] unemployment,[366][367] homelessness,[368][369] rates of disease,[370][371][372] infant mortality and domestic violence,[373] as well as demographic losses,[374] income inequality and the rise of an oligarchical class,[375][359] along with decreases in calorie intake, life expectancy, adult literacy, and income.[376] Between 1988 and 1989 and 1993–1995, the Gini ratio increased by an average of 9 points for all former Soviet republics.[359] According to Western analysis, the economic shocks that accompanied wholesale privatization were associated with sharp increases in mortality,[377] Russia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia saw a tripling of unemployment and a 42% increase in male death rates between 1991 and 1994,[378][379] and in the following decades, only five or six of the post-communist states are on a path to joining the wealthy capitalist West while most are falling behind, some to such an extent that it will take over fifty years to catch up to where they were before the fall of the Soviet Bloc.[380][381] However, virtually all the former Soviet republics were able to turn their economies around and increase GDP to multiple times what it was under the USSR,[382] though with large wealth disparities, and many post-soviet economies described as oligarchic.[383]

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, annual polling by the Levada Center has shown that over 50% of Russia's population regretted this event, with the only exception to this being in the year 2012 when support for the Soviet Union dipped below 50 percent.[384] A 2018 poll showed that 66% of Russians regretted the fall of the Soviet Union, setting a 15-year record, and the majority of these regretting opinions came from people older than 55.[384][385] In 2020, polls conducted by the Levada Center found that 75% of Russians agreed that the Soviet era was the greatest era in their country's history.[386]

According to the New Russia Barometer (NRB) polls by the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, 50% of Russian respondents reported a positive impression of the Soviet Union in 1991.[387] This increased to about 75% of NRB respondents in 2000, dropping slightly to 71% in 2009.[387] Throughout the 2000s, an average of 32% of NRB respondents supported the restoration of the Soviet Union.[387]

In a 2021 poll, a record 70% of Russians indicated they had a mostly/very favourable view of Joseph Stalin.[388] In Armenia, 12% of respondents said the USSR collapse did good, while 66% said it did harm. In Kyrgyzstan, 16% of respondents said the collapse of the USSR did good, while 61% said it did harm.[389] In a 2018 Rating Sociological Group poll, 47% of Ukrainian respondents had a positive opinion of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, while viewing Lenin, Stalin, and Gorbachev very negatively.[390] A 2021 poll conducted by the Levada Center found that 49% of Russians prefer the USSR's political system, while 18% prefer the current political system and 16% would prefer a Western democracy. A further 62% of people polled preferred the Soviet system of central planning, while 24% prefer a market-based system.[391] According to the Levada Center's polls, the primary reasons cited for Soviet nostalgia are the advantages of the shared economic union between the Soviet republics, including perceived financial stability.[392] This was referenced by up to 53% of respondents in 2016.[392] At least 43% also lamented the loss of the Soviet Union's global political superpower status.[392] About 31% cited the loss of social trust and capital.[393] The remainder of the respondents cited a mix of reasons ranging from practical travel difficulties to a sense of national displacement.[392]

The 1941–1945 period of World War II is still known in Russia as the 'Great Patriotic War'. The war became a topic of great importance in cinema, literature, history lessons at school, the mass media, and the arts. As a result of the massive losses suffered by the military and civilians during the conflict, Victory Day celebrated on 9 May is still one of the most important and emotional dates in Russia.[394] Catherine Wanner asserts that Victory Day commemorations are a vehicle for Soviet nostalgia, as they "kept alive a mythology of Soviet grandeur, of solidarity among the Sovietskii narod, and of a sense of self as citizen of a superpower state".[395]

Russian Victory Day parades are organized annually in most cities, with the central military parade taking place in Moscow (just as during the Soviet times).[396][397] Additionally, the recently introduced Immortal Regiment on May 9 sees millions of Russians carry the portraits of their relatives who fought in the war.[398] Russia also retains other Soviet holidays, such as the Defender of the Fatherland Day (February 23), International Women's Day (March 8), and International Workers' Day.[399]

In the former Soviet republics

People in Russian-occupied Donetsk celebrate the annual Victory Day over Nazi Germany, 9 May 2018.
Protest against Ukrainian decommunization policies in Donetsk, 2014. The red banner reads, "Our homeland USSR".

In some post-Soviet republics, there is a more negative view of the USSR, although there is no unanimity on the matter. In large part due to the Holodomor, ethnic Ukrainians have a negative view of the Soviet Union.[400] Russian-speaking Ukrainians of Ukraine's southern and eastern regions have a more positive view of the USSR. In some countries with internal conflict, there is also nostalgia for the USSR, especially for refugees of the post-Soviet conflicts who have been forced to flee their homes and have been displaced. The many Russian enclaves in the former USSR republics such as Transnistria have in a general a positive remembrance of it.[401]

By the political left

The left's view of the USSR is complex. While some leftists regard the USSR as an example of state capitalism or that it was an oligarchical state, other leftists admire Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution.[402] Council communists generally view the USSR as failing to create class consciousness, turning into a corrupt state in which the elite controlled society.

Trotskyists believe that the ascendancy of the Stalinist bureaucracy ensured a degenerated or deformed workers' state, where the capitalist elite have been replaced by an unaccountable bureaucratic elite and there is no true democracy or workers' control of industry.[403] In particular, American Trotskyist David North noted that the generation of bureaucrats that rose to power under Stalin's tutelage presided over the stagnation and breakdown of the Soviet Union.[404]

Many anti-Stalinist leftists such as anarchists are extremely critical of Soviet authoritarianism and repression. Much of the criticism it receives is centered around massacres in the Soviet Union, the centralized hierarchy present in the USSR and mass political repression as well as violence towards government critics and political dissidents such as other leftists. Critics also point towards its failure to implement any substantial worker cooperatives or implementing worker liberation, as well as corruption and the Soviet authoritarian nature.[citation needed]

Anarchists are also critical of the country, labeling the Soviet system as red fascism. Factors contributing to the anarchist animosity towards the USSR included the Soviet destruction of the Makhnovist movement after an initial alliance, the suppression of the anarchist Kronstadt rebellion, and the defeat of the rival anarchist factions by the Soviet-supported Communist faction during the Spanish Civil War.[405]

Maoists also have a mixed opinion on the USSR, viewing it negatively during the Sino-Soviet Split and denouncing it as revisionist and reverted to capitalism. The Chinese government in 1963 articulated its criticism of the USSR's system and promoted China's ideological line as an alternative.[406][407]

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) released a press statement titled "We welcome the end of a party which embodied the historical evil of great power chauvinism and hegemonism".[408]

Noam Chomsky called the collapse of the Soviet Union "a small victory for socialism, not only because of the fall of one of the most anti-socialist states in the world, where working people had fewer rights than in the West, but also because it freed the term 'socialism' from the burden of being associated in the propaganda systems of East and West with Soviet tyranny — for the East, in order to benefit from the aura of authentic socialism, for the West, in order to demonize the concept."[409]

See also


  1. ^ For names of the Soviet Union in other official languages, see Official names of the Soviet Union.
  2. ^ The original lyrics used from 1944 to 1956 praised Stalin. No lyrics were used from 1956 to 1977. Revised lyrics were used from 1977 to 1991.
  3. ^ De facto, legally since 1990. Constituent republics had the right to declare their own regional languages.
  4. ^ As chairman of the Council of People's Commissars.
  5. ^ As General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (then the Council of Ministers).
  6. ^ As chairman of the Council of Ministers.
  7. ^ March–September.
  8. ^ As First Secretary of the Communist Party.
  9. ^ As General Secretary of the Communist Party.
  10. ^ As General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the Soviet Union.
  11. ^ As Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.
  12. ^ As President.
  13. ^ As Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union and Russian SFSR.
  14. ^ As Chairman of the Committee on the Operational Management of the Soviet Economy.
  15. ^ Unicameral.
  16. ^ The Alma-Ata Protocol was signed by the remaining 11 of 12 republics on 21 December 1991.
  17. ^ Declaration No. 142-Н of the Soviet of the Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, formally establishing the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a state and subject of international law (in Russian).
  18. ^ Assigned on 19 September 1990, existing onwards.
  19. ^ Russian: Союз Советских Социалистических Республик, romanized: Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, IPA: [sɐˈjus sɐˈvʲetskʲɪx sətsɨəlʲɪˈsʲtʲitɕɪskʲɪx rʲɪˈspublʲɪk] .
  20. ^ Russian: СССР, romanized: SSSR.
  21. ^ Russian: Советский Союз, romanized: Sovetskiy Soyuz, IPA: [sɐˈvʲetskʲɪj sɐˈjus]
  22. ^ As of 1989, the countries that bordered the Soviet Union were: Norway and Finland to the northwest; Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania to the west; Turkey and Iran to the southwest; Afghanistan and Mongolia to the south; China and North Korea to the southeast. The Soviet Union also shared maritime boundaries with Japan (which was bordered to the south until 1945) and the United States.
  23. ^ As outlined in Part III of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, "The National-State Structure of the USSR".
  24. ^ Named the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1918, then renamed the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1936.
  25. ^ Ukrainian: рада (rada); Polish: rada; Belarusian: савет/рада; Uzbek: совет; Kazakh: совет / кеңес (sovet / kenges); Georgian: საბჭოთა (sabch′ota); Azerbaijani: совет; Lithuanian: taryba; Romanian: soviet (Moldovan Cyrillic: совиет); Latvian: padome; Kyrgyz: совет; Tajik: шӯравӣ / совет (šūravī / sovet); Armenian: խորհուրդ / սովետ (xorhurd / sovet); Turkmen: совет; Estonian: nõukogu.
  26. ^ The consolidation into a one-party state took place during the first three and a half years after the revolution, which included the period of War communism and an election in which multiple parties competed. See Schapiro, Leonard (1955). The Origin of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State, First Phase 1917–1922. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  27. ^ According to British historian Geoffrey Hosking, "excess deaths during the 1930s as a whole were in the range of 10–11 million."[59] American historian Timothy D. Snyder claims that archival evidence suggests maximum excess mortality of nine million during the entire Stalin era.[60] Australian historian and archival researcher Stephen G. Wheatcroft asserts that around a million "purposive killings" can be attributed to the Stalinist regime, along with the premature deaths of roughly two million more amongst the repressed populations (i.e. in camps, prisons, exiles, etc.) through criminal negligence.[61]
  28. ^ "In War II Russia occupies a dominant position and is the decisive factor looking toward the defeat of the Axis in Europe. While in Sicily the forces of Great Britain and the United States are being opposed by 2 German divisions, the Russian front is receiving attention of approximately 200 German divisions. Whenever the Allies open a second front on the Continent, it will be decidedly a secondary front to that of Russia; theirs will continue to be the main effort. Without Russia in the war, the Axis cannot be defeated in Europe, and the position of the United Nations becomes precarious. Similarly, Russia's post-war position in Europe will be a dominant one. With Germany crushed, there is no power in Europe to oppose her tremendous military forces."[71]
  29. ^ 34,374,483 km2


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