The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics abbreviated to USSR or the Soviet Union, was a socialist state on the Eurasian continent that existed between 1922 and 1991, governed as a single-party state by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital. A union of multiple subnational Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized.
The Soviet Union had its roots in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which deposed the imperial autocracy. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, then overthrew the Provisional Government. The Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic was established, and the Russian Civil War began. The Red Army entered several territories of the former Russian Empire and helped local communists seize power. In 1922, the Bolsheviks were victorious, forming the Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics. Following Lenin's death in 1924, a troika collective leadership and a brief power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin committed the state ideology to Marxism–Leninism and initiated a centrally planned economy. As a result, the country underwent a period of rapid industrialisation and collectivisation which laid the basis for its later war effort and dominance after World War II. In the wake of the spread of fascism through Europe, Stalin repressed both Communist Party members and elements of the population by creating an atmosphere of political paranoia and establishing a system of correctional labour camps.
In the beginning of World War II, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, initially avoiding confrontation, but the treaty was disregarded in 1941 when the Nazis invaded, opening the largest and bloodiest theatre of combat in history. Soviet war casualties accounted for the highest proportion of the conflict, in the cost to acquire the upper hand over Axis forces at intense battles such as Stalingrad, eventually driving through Eastern Europe and capturing Berlin in 1945, inflicting the vast majority of German losses. Soviet occupied territory conquered from Axis forces in Central and Eastern Europe became satellite states of the Eastern Bloc. Ideological and political differences with Western Bloc counterparts directed by the United States led to the forming of economic and military pacts, culminating in the prolonged Cold War.
A de-Stalinization period followed Stalin's death, reducing the harshest aspects of society. The Soviet Union then went on to initiate significant technological achievements of the 20th century, including launching the first ever satellite and world's first human spaceflight, which led it into the Space Race. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis marked a period of extreme tension between the two superpowers, considered the closest to a mutual nuclear confrontation. In the 1970s, a relaxation of relations followed, but tensions resumed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The occupation drained economic resources and dragged on without achieving meaningful political results.
In the late 1980s the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to reform the Union and move it in the direction of Nordic-style social democracy, introducing the policies of glasnost and perestroika in an attempt to end the period of economic stagnation and democratize the government. However, this led to the rise of strong nationalist and separatist movements. Central authorities initiated a referendum, boycotted by the Baltic republics and Georgia, which resulted in the majority of participating citizens voting in favour of preserving the Union as a renewed federation. In August 1991, a coup d'état was attempted by hardliners against Gorbachev, with the intention of reversing his policies. The coup failed, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin playing a high-profile role in facing down the coup, resulting in the banning of the Communist Party. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the remaining twelve constituent republics emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union as independent post-Soviet states. The Russian Federation (formerly the Russian SFSR) assumed the Soviet Union's rights and obligations and is recognised as its continued legal personality.
The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ruled the Russian Empire until his abdication in March 1917 in the aftermath of the February Revolution, due in part to the strain of fighting in World War I, which lacked public support. A short-lived Russian Provisional Government took power, to be overthrown in the October Revolution (N.S. 7 November 1917) by revolutionaries led by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
The Soviet Union was officially established in December 1922 with the union of the Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet republics, each ruled by local Bolshevik parties. Despite the foundation of the Soviet state as a federative entity of many constituent republics, each with its own political and administrative entities, the term "Soviet Russia"strictly applicable only to the Russian Federative Socialist Republicwas often applied to the entire country by non-Soviet writers and politicians.
Revolution and foundation
Modern revolutionary activity in the Russian Empire began with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. 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 Tsar Nicholas II resisted attempts to move from absolute to constitutional monarchy. Social unrest continued and was aggravated during World War I by military defeat and food shortages in major Soviet cities.
A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd, in response to the wartime decay of Russia's economy and morale, culminated in the February Revolution and the toppling of the imperial government in March 1917. The tsarist autocracy was replaced by the 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. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for socialist revolution in the Soviets and on the streets. On 7 November 1917, the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, ending the rule of the Provisional Government and leaving all political power to the Soviets. This event would later be known as the Great October Socialist Revolution. 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 for good and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
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 execution of the former tsar and his family, and the famine of 1921, which killed about five million. In March 1921, during a related conflict with Poland, the Peace of Riga was signed, splitting disputed territories in Belarus and Ukraine between the Republic of Poland and Soviet Russia. The Soviet Union had to resolve similar conflicts with the newly established Republic of Finland, the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Latvia, and the Republic of Lithuania.
Unification of republics
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 of Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. These two documents were confirmed by the 1st Congress of Soviets of the USSR and signed by the heads of the delegations, Mikhail Kalinin, Mikhail Tskhakaya, Mikhail Frunze, Grigory Petrovsky, and Aleksandr Chervyakov, on 30 December 1922.
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 the country. The plan was developed in 1920 and covered a 10 to 15-year period. It included construction of a network of 30 regional power plants, including ten large hydroelectric power plants, and numerous electric-powered large industrial enterprises. The plan became the prototype for subsequent Five-Year Plans and was fulfilled by 1931.
From its creation, the government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks). 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 (see New Economic Policy).
The stated purpose of the one-party state was to ensure that capitalist exploitation would not return to the Soviet Union and that the principles of Democratic Centralism would be most effective in representing the people's will in a practical manner. 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 Ukraine, Lev Kamenev of Moscow, and Joseph Stalin of Georgia.
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. By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating and outmaneuvering his rivals within the party, Stalin became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union and, by the end of the 1920s, established totalitarian rule. In October 1927, Grigory 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, forced collectivisation of farms was implemented all over the country.
Famines ensued, causing millions of deaths; surviving kulaks were persecuted and many sent to Gulags to do forced labour. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Stalin's Great Purge resulted in the execution or detainment of many "Old Bolsheviks" who had participated in the October Revolution with Lenin. According to declassified Soviet archives, in 1937 and 1938, the NKVD arrested more than one and a half million people, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. The excess deaths during the 1930s as a whole were in the range of 10–11 million. Yet despite the turmoil of the mid-to-late 1930s, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.
The early 1930s saw closer cooperation between the West and the USSR. From 1932 to 1934, the Soviet Union 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 formally recognize Stalin's Communist government and negotiated a new trade agreement between the two nations. In September 1934, the Soviet Union 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.
In December 1936, Stalin unveiled a new Soviet Constitution. The constitution was seen as a personal triumph for Stalin, who on this occasion was described by Pravda as a "genius of the new world, the wisest man of the epoch, the great leader of communism." By contrast, Western historians and historians from former Soviet occupied countries have viewed the constitution as a meaningless propaganda document.
The late 1930s saw a shift towards the Axis powers. In 1939, almost a year after the United Kingdom and France had concluded the Munich Agreement with Germany, the USSR dealt with the Nazis as well, both militarily and economically during extensive talks. The two countries concluded the German–Soviet Nonaggression Pact and the German–Soviet Commercial Agreement in August 1939. The nonaggression pact made possible Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and eastern Poland. In late November of the same year, unable to coerce the Republic of Finland by diplomatic means into moving its border back from Leningrad, Joseph Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland.
In the east, the Soviet military won several decisive victories during border clashes with the Japanese Empire in 1938 and 1939. However, in April 1941, USSR signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with the Empire of Japan, recognizing the territorial integrity of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state.
World War II
Although it has been debated whether the Soviet Union intended to invade Germany once it was strong enough, Germany itself broke the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, starting what was known in the USSR as the "Great Patriotic War". The Red Army stopped the seemingly invincible German Army at the Battle of Moscow, aided by an unusually harsh winter. The Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from late 1942 to early 1943, dealt a severe blow to the Germans 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.
The Soviet Union suffered greatly in the war, losing around 27 million people. Despite this, it emerged as a superpower in the post-war period. Once denied diplomatic recognition by the Western world, the Soviet Union had official relations with practically every nation by the late 1940s. 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 Soviet Union maintained its status as one of the world's two superpowers for four decades through its hegemony in Eastern Europe, military strength, economic strength, aid to developing countries, and scientific research, especially in space technology and weaponry.
During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union rebuilt and expanded its economy, while maintaining its strictly centralized control. It aided post-war reconstruction in the countries of Eastern Europe, while turning them into satellite states, binding them in a military alliance (the Warsaw Pact) in 1955, and an economic organization (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon) from 1949 to 1991, the latter a counterpart to the European Economic Community. Later, the Comecon supplied aid to the eventually victorious Chinese Communist Party, and saw its influence grow 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 using mostly proxies.
Stalin died on 5 March 1953. Without a mutually agreeable successor, the highest Communist Party officials opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly. Nikita Khrushchev, who had won the power struggle by the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of repression in 1956 and eased repressive controls over party and society. This was known as de-Stalinization.
Moscow considered Eastern Europe to be a buffer zone for the forward defense of its western borders, and ensured its control of the region by transforming the Eastern European countries into satellite states. Soviet military force was used to suppress anti-Stalinist uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956.
In the late 1950s, a confrontation with China regarding the USSR's 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 Communist movement, with Communist regimes in Albania, Cambodia and Somalia choosing to ally with China in place of the USSR.
During this period, the Soviet Union continued to realize scientific and technological exploits: Launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957; a living dog, Laika in 1957; the first human being, Yuri Gagarin in 1961; the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963; Alexey 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.
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 between the Soviet Union and the United States to remove enemy 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.
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 halt the Prague Spring reforms.
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 aging and ossified top political leadership.
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, so that the USSR's hard currency reserves became depleted.
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 the late 1980s, the constituent republics of the Soviet Union started legal moves towards potentially declaring sovereignty over their territories, citing Article 72 of the USSR constitution, which stated that any constituent republic was free to secede. 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. 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, which was then the largest constituent republic (with about half of the population) 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 USSR's laws. After a landslide victory of Sąjūdis in Lithuania, that country declared its independence restored on 11 March 1990.
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 nine republics voting for preservation of the Union. The referendum gave Gorbachev a minor boost. In the summer of 1991, the New Union Treaty, which would have turned the Soviet Union into a much looser Union, was agreed upon by eight republics.
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 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 Soviet Union 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 yielded to the inevitable and 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 tricolor was raised in its place.
The following day, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union, voted both itself and the Soviet Union out of existence. This is generally recognized as marking the official, final dissolution of the Soviet Union as a functioning state. The Soviet Army originally 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 of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991, Russia was internationally recognized as its legal successor on the international stage. To that end, Russia voluntarily accepted all Soviet foreign debt and claimed overseas Soviet 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.
The analysis of the succession of states with respect to the 15 post-Soviet states is complex. The Russian Federation is seen as the continuator state and is for most purposes the heir to the Soviet Union, retaining ownership of all former Soviet embassy properties and UN Security Council seat. The Baltic states are not successor states to the Soviet Union; they are considered to have de jure continuity with their pre-World War Two governments through the non-recognition of the original Soviet incorporation in 1940. The other 11 post-Soviet states are considered newly independent successor states to the Soviet Union.