The Soviet Union (Russian: Советский Союз, tr. Sovetsky Soyuz), officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR; Russian: Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, tr. Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik; IPA: [sɐˈjus sɐˈvʲetskʲɪx sətsɨəlʲɪˈstʲitɕɪskʲɪx rʲɪsˈpublʲɪk] ( listen); abbreviated СССР, SSSR), was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991.
The Soviet Union was a single-party state ruled by the Communist Party from its foundation until 1990. A federal union of 15 subnational Soviet republics, the Soviet state was structured under a highly-centralized national government and economy.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused the downfall of the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution, there was a struggle for power between the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the anti-communist White movement. In December 1922, the Bolsheviks won the civil war, and the Soviet Union was formed with the merger of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin took power, leading the USSR through a large-scale industrialization program. Stalin established a planned economy and suppressed political opposition to him and the Communist party.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union, breaking the non-aggression pact, which the latter had signed in 1939. After four years of brutal warfare, the Soviet Union emerged victorious as one of the world's two superpowers, the other being the United States.
The Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states engaged in the Cold War, a prolonged global ideological and political struggle against the United States and its Western Bloc allies, which it ultimately abandoned in the face of economic troubles and both domestic and foreign political unrest. In the late 1980s, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the state with his policies of perestroika and glasnost, but the Soviet Union collapsed and was formally dissolved in December 1991 after the abortive August coup attempt. The Russian Federation assumed its rights and obligations.
The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ruled the Russian Empire until his abdication in March 1917, due in part to the strain of fighting in World War I. A short-lived Russian provisional government took power, to be overthrown in the 1917 October Revolution (N.S. 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 Republic – was often incorrectly applied to the entire country by non-Soviet writers and politicians.
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 unfavorable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament—the State Duma—was established in 1906 after the Russian Revolution of 1905, but the Tsar 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 cities. Vladimir Lenin addressing a crowd in 1920.
A spontaneous popular uprising in Saint Petersburg, 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 as Soviets, sprang up across the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for socialist revolution in the Soviets and on the streets. In November 1917, during the October Revolution, they seized power. In December, the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with the Central Powers, though by February 1918, fighting had resumed. In March, the Soviets quit the war for good and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
A long and bloody Russian Civil War ensued between the Reds and the Whites, starting in 1917 and ending in 1923 with the Reds victorious. It included foreign intervention, the execution of Nicholas II 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.
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, Mikha Tskhakaya, Mikhail Frunze, Grigory Petrovsky, and Aleksandr Chervyakov, on 30 December 1922.
On 1 February 1924, the USSR was recognized by the British Empire. The same year, a Soviet Constitution was approved, legitimizing the December 1922 union.
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.[1
From its beginning, 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, 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).
Soviet leaders argued that one-party rule was necessary to ensure that "capitalist exploitation" would not return to the Soviet Union and that the principles of Democratic Centralism would represent the people's will. 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 out-maneuvering 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. While encompassing the internationalism expressed by Lenin throughout the Revolution, it also 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, collective farms were established 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. 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 1938, 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. 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 25 kilometres (16 mi) 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.
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 of the war. After Stalingrad, Soviet forces drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin.
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The Supreme Soviet (successor of the Congress of Soviets and Central Executive Committee) was nominally the highest state body for most of the Soviet history, at first acting as a rubber stamp institution, approving and implementing all decisions made by the party. However, the powers and functions of the Supreme Soviet were extended in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, including the creation of new state commissions and committees. It gained additional powers when it came to the approval of the Five-Year Plans and the Soviet state budget. The Supreme Soviet elected a Presidium to wield its power between plenary sessions, ordinarily held twice a year, and appointed the Supreme Court, the Procurator General 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. 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.
The state security police (the KGB and its predecessor agencies) played an important role in Soviet politics. It was instrumental in the Stalinist terror, but after the death of Stalin, the state security police was brought under strict party control. Under Yuri Andropov, KGB chairman in 1967–1982 and General Secretary from 1982 to 1983, 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, culminating in the anti-corruption campaign targeting high party officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Before 1917, education was not free in the Russian Empire and was therefore either inaccessible or barely accessible for many children from lower-class working and peasant families. Estimates from 1917 recorded that 75–85 percent of the Russian population was illiterate.
Anatoly Lunacharsky became the first People's Commissariat for Education of Soviet Russia. At the beginning, the Soviet authorities placed great emphasis on the elimination of illiteracy. People who were literate were automatically hired as teachers. For a short period, quality was sacrificed for quantity. By 1940, Joseph Stalin could announce that illiteracy had been eliminated. In the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, the country's educational system expanded dramatically. This expansion had a tremendous effect. In the 1960s, nearly all Soviet 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 creating the New Soviet Man.
Only 20 percent of all applicants were accepted. The rest entered the labor market or learned a skill at a vocational technical school or technicum[dubious – discuss]. Students from families of dubious political reliability were barred from higher education. The Brezhnev administration introduced a rule that required all university applicants to present a reference from the local Komsomol party secretary. According to statistics from 1986, the number of students per 10,000 population was 181 for the USSR, compared to 517 for the US.
The Soviet Union became the first country to adopt a planned 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 nationalization of industry, centralized distribution of output, coercive requisition of agricultural production, and attempts to eliminate the circulation of money, as well as private enterprises and free trade. As it had aggravated a severe economic collapse caused by the war, in 1921, Lenin replaced War Communism with the New Economic Policy (NEP), legalizing free trade and private ownership of smaller businesses. The economy quickly recovered.
Following a lengthy debate among the members of Politburo over the course of economic development, by 1928–1929, upon gaining control of the country, Joseph 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 greatly expanded Soviet capacity in heavy industry and capital goods during the 1930s. Preparation for war was one of the main driving forces behind industrialization, mostly due to distrust of the outside capitalistic world. 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. During the war, the Soviet economy and infrastructure suffered massive devastation and required extensive reconstruction.
By the early 1940s, the Soviet economy had become relatively self-sufficient; for most of the period until the creation of Comecon, only a very small share of domestic products was traded internationally. After the creation of the Eastern Bloc, external trade rose rapidly. Still the influence of the world economy on the USSR was limited by fixed domestic prices and a state monopoly on foreign trade. Grain and sophisticated consumer manufactures became major import articles from around the 1960s. 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 Soviet Union became the largest arms exporter to the Third World. Significant amounts of Soviet resources during the Cold War were allocated in aid to the other socialist states.