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Soviet Union

"Soviet" redirects here. For other uses, see Soviet (disambiguation).

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) .(Russian: Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик (СССР) ; tr.: Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (SSSR)), also called the Soviet Union (Сове́тский Сою́з; tr.: Sovetsky Soyuz), was a state in much of the northern region of Eurasia that existed from 1922 until its dissolution in 1991. Its formation was the culmination of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. It was the world's first Communist state, with the political organization of the country defined by the only permitted political party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The territory of the Soviet Union varied, and in its most recent times approximately corresponded to that of the late Imperial Russia, with notable exclusions of Poland and Finland.



Main article: History of the Soviet Union.

The USSR was roughly coterminous with the Russian Empire, whose last monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, ruled until 1917. The Soviet Union was established in December 1922 as the union of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet republics ruled by Bolshevik parties.

Revolutionary activity in Russia began with the Decembrist Revolt, uncovered in 1825, and although serfdom was abolished in 1861, its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament, the Duma, was established in 1906, after the 1905 Revolution but political and social unrest continued and was aggravated during World War I by military defeat and food shortages.

A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd, in response to the wartime decay of Russia's physical well-being and morale, culminated in the toppling of the imperial government in March 1917 (see February Revolution). The autocracy was replaced by the Provisional Government, whose leaders intended to establish democracy in Russia and to continue participating on the side of the Allies in World War I. At the same time, to ensure the rights of the working class, workers' councils, known as soviets, sprang up across the country. The radical Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, agitated for socialist revolution in the soviets and on the streets. They seized power from the Provisional Government in November 1917 (see October Revolution). Only after the long and bloody Russian Civil War of (1918-1921), which included combat between government forces and foreign troops in several parts of Russia, was the new communist regime secure. In a related conflict, the "Peace of Riga" in early 1921 split disputed territory in Belorussia and Ukraine between Poland and Soviet Russia.

From its first years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the communists, as the Bolsheviks called themselves beginning in March 1918. After the extraordinary economic policy of war communism during the Civil War the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s and total food requisition in the countryside was replaced by a food tax (see New Economic Policy). Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, notably Lenin's more obvious heir Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s.

In 1928 Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In industry the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture the state appropriated the peasants' property to establish collective farms (see Collectivization in the USSR). The Soviet Union became a major industrial power; but the plan's implementation produced widespread misery for the poorer segments of the population. Collectivization met widespread resistance from the kulaks as Stalin's army and secret police confiscated literally every last bit of grain, particularly in the Ukraine. In 1932, the Ukraine's grain quota was raised so high that there wouldn't be any left to feed the peasants; peasants were prevented from leaving by a system of passports, enforced by the NKVD. The end result was a horrific famine: several million in just the Ukraine died from starvation. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s, when Stalin began a purge of the party (see Great Purges); out of this process grew a campaign of terror that led to the execution or imprisonment of untold millions from all walks of life (see Gulag). Yet despite this turmoil, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.

Although Stalin tried to avert war with Germany by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945 (see Great Patriotic War). Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as an acknowledged great power.

During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy, with control always exerted exclusively from Moscow. The Soviet Union consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe, supplied aid to the eventually victorious communists in the People's Republic of China, and sought to expand its influence elsewhere in the world. This active foreign policy helped bring about the Cold War, which turned the Soviet Union's wartime allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, into foes (see Cold War). Within the Soviet Union, repressive measures continued in force; Stalin apparently was about to launch a new purge when he died in 1953.

In the absence of an acceptable successor, Stalin's closest associates opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although a struggle for power took place behind the facade of collective leadership. Nikita Khrushchev, who won the power struggle by the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of terror and eased repressive controls over party and society (see de-Stalinization). Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive, and foreign policy toward China and the United States suffered reverses. Khrushchev's colleagues in the leadership removed him from power in 1964.

Following the ouster of Khrushchev, another period of rule by collective leadership ensued, lasting until Leonid Brezhnev established himself in the early 1970s as the preeminent figure in Soviet political life. Brezhnev presided over a period of détente with the West while at the same time building up Soviet military strength; the arms buildup contributed to the demise of détente in the late 1970s. Another contributing factor was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

After some experimentation with economic reforms in the mid-1960s, the Soviet leadership reverted to established means of economic management. Industry showed slow but steady gains during the 1970s, while agricultural development continued to lag. In contrast to the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, the prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of aversion to change.

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

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and turned the powers of his office over to Boris Yeltsin. The next day, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and by the end of the year all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations.


Main article: Politics of the Soviet Union

The government of the Soviet Union administered the country's economy and society. It implemented decisions made by the leading political institution in the country, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

In the late 1980s, the government appeared to have many characteristics in common with Western, democratic political systems. For instance, a constitution established all organs of government and granted to citizens a series of political and civic rights. A legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies, and its standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, represented the principle of popular sovereignty. The Supreme Soviet, which had an elected chairman who functioned as head of state, oversaw the Council of Ministers, which acted as the executive branch of the government. The chairman of the Council of Ministers, whose selection was approved by the legislative branch, functioned as head of government. A constitutionally based judicial branch of government included a court system, headed by the Supreme Court, that was responsible for overseeing the observance of Soviet law by government bodies. According to the 1977 Soviet Constitution, the government had a federal structure, permitting the republics some authority over policy implementation and offering the national minorities the appearance of participation in the management of their own affairs

In practice, however, the government differed markedly from Western systems. In the late 1980s, the CPSU performed many functions that governments of other countries usually perform. For example, the party decided on the policy alternatives that the government ultimately implemented. The government merely ratified the party's decisions to lend them an aura of legitimacy. The CPSU used a variety of mechanisms to ensure that the government adhered to its policies. The party, using its nomenklatura authority, placed its loyalists in leadership positions throughout the government, where they were subject to the norms of democratic centralism. Party bodies closely monitored the actions of government ministries, agencies, and legislative organs.

The content of the Soviet Constitution differed in many ways from typical Western constitutions. It generally described existing political relationships, as determined by the CPSU, rather than prescribing an ideal set of political relationships. The Constitution was long and detailed, giving technical specifications for individual organs of government. The Constitution included political statements, such as foreign policy goals, and provided a theoretical definition of the state within the ideological framework of Marxism-Leninism. The CPSU could radically change the constitution or remake it completely, as it has done several times in the past.

The Council of Ministers acted as the executive body of the government. Its most important duties lay in the administration of the economy. The council was thoroughly under the control of the CPSU, and its chairman - the Soviet prime minister--was always a member of the Politburo. The council, which in 1989 included more than 100 members, is too large and unwieldy to act as a unified executive body. The council's Presidium, made up of the leading economic administrators and led by the chairman, exercised dominant power within the Council of Ministers.

According to the Constitution, as amended in 1988, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union was the Congress of People's Deputies, which convened for the first time in May 1989. The main tasks of the congress were the election of the standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, and the election of the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, who acted as head of state. Theoretically, the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet wielded enormous legislative power. In practice, however, the Congress of People's Deputies met only a few days in 1989 to approve decisions made by the party, the Council of Ministers, and its own Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers had substantial authority to enact laws, decrees, resolutions, and orders binding on the population. The Congress of People's Deputies had the authority to ratify these decisions.

The judiciary was not independent. The Supreme Court supervised the lower courts 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 lacked an adversary court procedure. Under Soviet law, which derived from Roman law, a procurator worked together with a judge and a defense attorney to ensure that civil and criminal trials uncovered the truth of the case, rather than having advocates for and against the accused.

The Soviet Union was a federal state made up of fifteen republics joined together in a theoretically voluntary union. In turn, a series of territorial units made up the republics. The republics also contained jurisdictions intended to protect the interests of national minorities. The republics had their own constitutions, which, along with the all-union Constitution, provide the theoretical division of power in the Soviet Union. In 1989, however, the CPSU and the central government retained all significant authority, setting policies that were executed by republic, provincial, oblast, and district governments.

Foreign relations

Main article: Foreign relations of the Soviet Union

Once a pariah denied diplomatic recognition by most countries, the Soviet Union had official relations with the majority of the nations of the world by the late 1980s. The Soviet Union also had progressed from being an outsider in international organizations and negotiations to being one of the arbiters of Europe's fate after World War II. A member of the United Nations at its foundation in 1945, the Soviet Union became one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council which gave it the right to veto any of its resolutions (see Soviet Union and the United Nations).

The USSR emerged as one of the two major world powers, a position maintained for four decades through its hegemony in Eastern Europe (see Warsaw Pact), military strength, aid to developing countries, and scientific research, especially into space technology and weaponry. The Soviet Union's effort to extend its influence or control over many states and peoples resulted in the formation of a world socialist system of states.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union achieved rough nuclear parity with the United States, and surpassed it by the end of that decade with the deployment of the SS-18 missile. It perceived its own involvement as essential to the solution of any major international problem. Meanwhile, the Cold War gave way to Détente and a more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer clearly split into two clearly opposed blocs. Less powerful countries had more room to assert their independence, and the two superpowers were partially able to recognize their common interest in trying to check the further spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons (see SALT I, SALT II, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty).

Since the early 1970s, the Soviet Union concluded friendship and cooperation treaties with a number of states in the noncommunist world, especially among Third World and Non-Aligned Movement states. For all these reasons, Soviet foreign policy is of major importance to the noncommunist world and helped determine the tenor of international relations.

Although myriad bureaucracies were involved in the formation and execution of Soviet foreign policy, the major policy guidelines were determined by the Politburo of the Communist Party. The foremost objectives of Soviet foreign policy were the maintenance and enhancement of national security and the maintenance of hegemony over Eastern Europe. Relations with the United States and Western Europe were also of major concern to Soviet foreign policy makers, and relations with individual Third World states were at least partly determined by the proximity of each state to the Soviet border and to Soviet estimates of its strategic significance.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia claimed to be the legal successor to the Soviet Union on the international stage. Russian foreign policy repudiated Marxism-Leninism as a guide to action, soliciting Western support for capitalist reforms in postcommunist Russia.


Main article: Republics of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was a federation of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR). The first Republics were established shortly after the October Revolution of 1917. At that time, republics were technically independent one from another but their governments acted in close coordination, as directed by the CPSU leadership. In 1922, four Republics (Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SSR, Belorussian SSR, and Transcaucasian SFSR) joined into the Soviet Union. Between 1922 and 1940, the number of Republics grew to sixteen. Some of the new Republics were formed from territories acquired, or reacquired by the Soviet Union, others by splitting existing Republics into several parts. The criteria for establishing new republics were as follows:

  1. to be located on the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to be able to exercise their alleged right to secession,
  2. be economically strong enough to survive on their own upon secession and
  3. be named after the dominant ethnic group which should consist of at least one million people.

The system remained almost unchanged after 1940. No new Republics were established. One republic, Karelo-Finnish SSR, was disbanded in 1956. The remaining 15 republics lasted until 1991. Secession remained theoretical, and very unlikely, given Soviet centralism, until the 1991 collapse of the Union. At that time, the republics became independent countries, with some still loosely organized under the heading Commonwealth of Independent States.

Some republics had common history and geographical regions, and were referred by group names. These were Baltic Republics, Transcaucasian Republics, and Central Asian Republics.

Soviet Republics Independent states
Armenian SSR Armenia
Azerbaijan SSR Azerbaijan
Byelorussian SSR Belarus
Estonian SSR Estonia
Georgian SSR Georgia
Kazakh SSR Kazakhstan
Kirghiz SSR Kyrgyzstan
Latvian SSR Latvia
Lithuanian SSR Lithuania
Moldavian SSR Moldova
Russian SFSR Russian Federation
Tadzhik SSR Tajikistan
Turkmen SSR Turkmenistan
Ukrainian SSR Ukraine
Uzbek SSR Uzbekistan


Main article: Economy of the Soviet Union

Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union had the largest centrally directed economy in the world. The regime established its economic priorities through central planning, a system under which administrative decisions rather than the market determined resource allocation and prices.

Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the country grew from a largely underdeveloped peasant society with minimal industry to become the second largest industrial power in the world. According to Soviet statistics, the country's share in world industrial production grew from 4 percent to 20 percent between 1913 and 1980. Although many Western analysts considered these claims to be inflated, the Soviet achievement remained remarkable. Recovering from the calamitous events of World War II, the country's economy had maintained a continuous though uneven rate of growth. Living standards, although still modest for most inhabitants by Western standards, had improved, and Soviet citizens of the late 1980s had a measure of economic security.

Although these past achievements were impressive, in the mid-1980s Soviet leaders faced many problems. Production in the consumer and agricultural sectors was often inadequate (see Agriculture of the Soviet Union). Crises in the agricultural sector reaped catastrophic consequences in the 1930s, when collectivization met widespread resistance from the kulaks, resulting in a bitter struggle of many peasants against the authorities, famine, and possibly millions of casualties, particularly in Ukraine. In the consumer and service sectors, a lack of investment resulted in black markets in some areas.

In addition, since the 1970s, the growth rate had slowed substantially. Extensive economic development, based on vast inputs of materials and labor, was no longer possible; yet the productivity of Soviet assets remained low compared with other major industrialized countries. Product quality needed improvement. Soviet leaders faced a fundamental dilemma: the strong central controls that had traditionally guided economic development had failed to promote the creativity and productivity urgently needed in a highly developed, modern economy.

Conceding the weaknesses of their past approaches in solving new problems, the leaders of the late 1980s were seeking to mold a program of economic reform to galvanize the economy. The leadership, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, was experimenting with solutions to economic problems with an openness (glasnost) never before seen in the history of the economy. One method for improving productivity appeared to be a strengthening of the role of market forces. Yet reforms in which market forces assumed a greater role would signify a lessening of authority and control by the planning hierarchy.

Assessing developments in the economy was difficult for Western observers. The country contained enormous economic and regional disparities. Yet analyzing statistical data broken down by region was a cumbersome process. Furthermore, Soviet statistics themselves might have been of limited use to Western analysts because they are not directly comparable with those used in Western countries. The differing statistical concepts, valuations, and procedures used by communist and noncommunist economists made even the most basic data, such as the relative productivity of various sectors, difficult to assess. Most Western analysts, and some Soviet economists, doubted the accuracy of the published statistics, recognizing that the industrial growth figures tend to be inflated.


Main article: Geography of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union occupied the eastern portion of European continent and northern portion of Asian continent. Most of country was north of 50° north latitude and covered a total area of 22 402 200 square kilometres. Due to the sheer size of the state the climate varied greatly from temperate and subtropical to Arctic continental . 11 percent of land was arable, 16 percent were meadows and pasture , 41 percent was forest and woodland, and 32 percent other (including tundra).

Demographics and society

Main article: Demographics of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries, with more than 100 distinct national ethnicities living within its borders. The total population was estimated at 293 million in 1991. Major part of the population were Russians (about 53.4 percent, 1970 census), there were also Ukrainians (16.9 percent), Uzbeks (3.8 percent) and many other nationalities. The Soviet Union was so large, in fact, that even after all associated republics gained independence, Russia remains the largest country by area, and remains quite ethnically diverse, including, e.g., minorities of Tatars, Udmurts, and many other non-Russian ethnicities.


The extensive multinational empire that the Bolsheviks inherited after their revolution was created by Tsarist expansion over some four centuries. Some nationality groups came into the empire voluntarily, but most were brought in by force. Generally, the Russians and most of the non-Russian subjects of the empire shared little in common—culturally, religiously, or linguistically. More often than not, two or more diverse nationalities were collocated on the same territory. Therefore, national antagonisms built up over the years not only against the Russians but often between some of the subject nations as well.

For close to seventy years, Soviet leaders had maintained that frictions between the many nationalities of the Soviet Union had been eliminated and that the Soviet Union consisted of a family of nations living harmoniously together. However, the national ferment that shook almost every corner of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s proved that seventy years of communist rule had failed to obliterate national and ethnic differences and that traditional cultures and religions would reemerge given the slightest opportunity. This reality facing Gorbachev and his colleagues meant that, short of relying on the traditional use of force, they had to find alternative solutions in order to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The concessions granted national cultures and the limited autonomy tolerated in the union republics in the 1920s led to the development of national elites and a heightened sense of national identity. Subsequent repression and Russianization fostered resentment against domination by Moscow and promoted further growth of national consciousness. National feelings were also exacerbated in the Soviet multinational state by increased competition for resources, services, and jobs.

Religious groups

Main article: Religion in the Soviet Union

The state was separated from church by the Decree of Council of People's Comissars 1918 January 23. Official figures on the number of religious believers in the Soviet Union were not available in 1989. But according to various Soviet and Western sources, over one-third of the people in the Soviet Union, an officially atheistic state, professed religious belief. Christianity and Islam had the most believers. Christians belonged to various churches: Orthodox, which had the largest number of followers; Catholic; and Baptist and various other Protestant sects. There were many churches in the country (7500 Russian Orthodox churches in 1974). The majority of the Islamic faithful were Sunni. Judaism also had many followers. Other religions, which were practiced by a relatively small number of believers, included Buddhism, Lamaism, and shamanism, a religion based on primitive spiritualism. The role of religion in the daily lives of Soviet citizens varied greatly. Because Islamic religious tenets and social values of Muslims are closely interrelated, religion appeared to have a greater influence on Muslims than on either Christians or other believers. Two-thirds of the Soviet population, however, had no religious beliefs. About half the people, including members of the CPSU and high-level government officials, professed atheism. For the majority of Soviet citizens, therefore, religion seemed irrelevant.



Date English Name Local Name Remarks
January 1 New Year's Day Новый Год  
February 23 Red Army Day День Советской Армии и Военно-Морского Флота February Revolution, 1917,
Formation of the Red Army, 1918

Is currently called День Защитника Отечества

March 8 International Women's Day Международный Женский День  
April 12 Cosmonauts Day День Космонавтики День Космонавтики - The Day Yuri Gagarin became the fist man in Space, in 1961.
May 1 International Labor Day (May Day) Первое Мая - День Солидарности Трудящихся  
May 9 Victory Day День Победы End of Great Patriotic War, marked by capitulation of Nazi Germany, 1945
October 7 USSR Constitution Day День Конституции СССР 1977 Constitution of the USSR accepted
November 7 Great October Socialist Revolution Седьмое Ноября October Revolution 1917; it is currently called День Примирения и Согласия;

Related articles

Main article: List of Soviet Union-related topics.

Further reading

  • Brown, Archie, et al, eds., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
  • Gilbert, Martin, The Routledge Atlas of Russian History (London: Routledge, 2002).
  • Goldman, Minton, The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Connecticut: Global Studies, Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1986).
  • Howe, G. Melvyn, The Soviet Union: A Geographical Survey 2nd. edn. (Estover, UK: MacDonald and Evans, 1983).
  • Katz, Zev, ed., Handbook of Major Soviet Nationalities (New York: Free Press, 1975).
  • Bruno Rizzi, "The bureaucratization of the world : the first English ed. of the underground marxist classic that analyzed class exploitation in the USSR" , New York, NY : Free Press, 1985

External links


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