Country USSR


Former nation extending from eastern Europe E across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. In the N it bordered on the Arctic Ocean and in the S on China, and on southwestern Asian countries. The USSR, successor to the Russian Empire, was the world’s largest nation in area and was third in population. It consisted of 15 constituent soviet socialist republics: the Armenian, Azerbaijan, Belorussian, Estonian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldavian, Russian Soviet Federated, Tadzhik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek.

After the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the creation of the Provisional Government under Alexand er Kerensky in March 1917, the Bolsheviks, the most powerful group among Russian communists, seized power from the democratic regime on November 7, 1917, and established the first Marxist government in the world. In January 1918 the popularly elected Constituent Assembly was abolished. Vladimir I. Lenin, now leader of the renamed Communist Party, became virtual dictator of the former Russian Empire until his death in 1924. Moscow once again became the capital, replacing Petrograd, or St.

Petersburg (Leningrad).

The new rulers, often called the Bolsheviks or Reds, inherited a country devastated by World War I, from which they had withdrawn their armies on December 5, 1917. Civil war soon broke out when anti-Bolsheviks, or Whites, formed a loose and never very effective alliance. The Whites were aided by forces from the United States, Great Britain, France, and Japan. The civil war lasted from 1918 to 1920, much of it being fought in Siberia and it ended with the defeat of the Whites amidst more devastation.

The period of the war also saw the purges of the Red Terror, and the creation of the Red Army under Leon Trotsky. A further result was a dire famine in 1921. By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918 between the Central Powers and the Soviets, the latter recognized the independence of the Ukraine, Georgia, Finland , and the Baltic States. When Germany lost the war in 1918, however, the treaty was declared void. War with Poland in 1920 resulted in some of the Ukraine and Belorussia being taken by Poland .

In 1919 the new Bolshevik government founded the Comintern to provide leadership for international communism.

Between 1919 and 1921 the new rulers also imposed a state of “war communism” on the nation, taking control of its entire economy. This step was not successful, and the economy continued to falter.

In March 1921 Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy to increase production and quiet general unrest.

The policy allowed some capitalist enterprise in order to encourage small farmers and businessmen to accumulate wealth.

In 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formally established. Up to this time, Soviet territory had consisted of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, a vast territory in eastern Europe and northern Asia, but in that year the RSFSR was united with the Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia to form the new USSR. This made the nation coextensive with the former empire, except for the loss in the war of Finland , Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, and Poland . The union eventually encompassed 15 republics in a federation granting some local autonomy to its 50 nationalities, speaking over 100 languages. The Slavic, Russian, and imperial traditions, however, soon came to predominate everywhere. By the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, Germany became the first nation to give full recognition to the Soviet government.

Other European nations delayed until 1924, and after that they did their best to “quarantine” the USSR to prevent the spread of communism.

After Lenin’s death a struggle for power between Leon Trotsky and Joseph V. Stalin resulted in the triumph of the latter through his manipulation of the Communist Party structure. Stalin launched the First Five Year Plan in 1928, intended to centralize economic and social life by organizing the economy from the top and to industrialize the USSR as rapidly as possible. The plan, ruthlessly enforced, included the use of forced labor in mines and mills. Thousand s of political dissidents were sent to concentration camps.

In 1929 Stalin imposed a collective farm system, nationalizing private farms and combining them into larger units. By February 1930 half the small farms had been collectivized, but the policy was only partly successful in terms of increasing agricultural output, while thousand s of peasants starved and many more thousand s of land owners were “liquidated.” Between 1936 and 1938 Stalin carried out a series of brutal purge trials of alleged dissidents, including many of the top leaders who were his rivals. These were executed or imprisoned.

In August 1939 the USSR and Germany signed a nonaggression pact that left Hitler free to invade Poland the next month, bringing on World War II.

On September 17 Russia occupied eastern Poland .

On June 22, 1941, however, Hitler turned on his ally and without warning invaded the USSR. By September 16, 1942, German troops had reached Stalingrad, now Volgograd, their farthest eastern penetration, but were turned back after a brutal winter siege. Even more bitter was the siege of Leningrad from September 1941 to January 1944, also in the end unsuccessful, in which some one million people died and the city was extensively damaged. Altogether the USSR suffered some 20 million military and civilian casualties in World War II, but with massive aid from the West and a remarkable internal mobilization it recovered from initial disasters to advance all the way to Berlin by April 1945.

In the meantime, the Soviets had invaded Finland in 1939 and after a struggle forced it in 1940 to cede some territory. By the Potsdam Conference of July 1945 the USSR, United States, and Great Britain agreed on spheres of influence in Europe along the lines already determined by their advancing armies.

The USSR was granted virtual control of Eastern Europe and some expansion of its own territories, retaining that part of eastern Poland taken in 1939, as well as parts of eastern Prussia taken from Germany.

It also annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which became Soviet republics.

In the E, in the final days of the war, the USSR declared war on Japan and annexed the southern portion of Sakhalin Island .

Differences between the USSR and its wartime allies, however, soon brought on the cold war that lasted into the early 1960s. The differences were ideological in part but also involved the power politics of influence and status all over the world. By developing its own nuclear armaments soon after those of the United States, the USSR took the place already won in World War II as one of the two superpowers of the world. It brought eastern Europe more firmly within its orbit and in 1948 tried unsuccessfully to deny the Allies access to their sectors of occupied Berlin, already deep within communist territory. The Warsaw Treaty Organization, consisting of the USSR and seven satellite nations, was formed in 1955 to offset the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

When a revolt in Hungary threatened the communist government there in 1956, the Soviets intervened militarily to put it down.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 a struggle for power within the leadership of the Communist Party ended with the emergence in 1958 of Nikita S. Khrushchev as head of both party and state. Although Khrushchev professed to stand for “peaceful coexistence,” 1962 brought on a short-lived crisis with the United States when the Soviets began to build missile bases in Cuba, a satellite nation. The crisis was resolved through quiet diplomacy between Khrushchev and U.S. president John F. Kennedy. In 1964 there were armed border classes with China over boundary lines that have since escalated into a continuing confrontation between the two countries. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to put an artificial satellite, the Sputnik, into orbit, and on April 8, 1961, it launched the first manned orbital space flight. Khrushchev fell from power in 1964, largely because of renewed shortages in agricultural production.

Leonid I. Brezhnev rose to the top of the communist hierarchy in October 1964. His rule brought a measure of withdrawal from the harsher aspects of the Stalin days and , beginning in 1972, a measure also of detente in relations with the United States and the West, especially with regard to the nuclear arms race and trade. Nevertheless, the Soviet grip on its satellites and its interventionist policies did not change. This was exemplified in the Soviet suppression by force of a liberal regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, and its successful repression of the unrest and calls for reform in Poland beginning in 1980. The 1980s have also seen renewed political and economic tensions with the West and a new arms race with the United States. On Brezhnev’s death in November 1982, he was succeeded as effective ruler of the USSR by Yuri V. Andropov who started reforms, but died after a year in office. He was replaced by party loyalist Konstantin Chernenko, who also died after a year in office. Mikhail Gorbachev, became general secretary of the party in March 1985.

Gorbachev inherited a country with daunting economic and foreign policy troubles. Gorbachev’s reforms which he called glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), were designed to invigorate the Soviet economy by increasing the free flow of goods and information. Glasnost’s first challenge came in 1986 when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radioactive material over a large area of the Ukraine and Belarus. The government initially tried to cover up the extent of the disaster, but Gorbachev dramatically ended the coverup by removing all controls on reporting. The economy and the unpopularity of the Afghan conflict were openly discussed for the first time. Rapid and radical changes began. Dissidents released from detention and allowed to voice their views. The USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The party held its first conference in 50 years in 1988, further completing the de-Stalinization. In March of 1989, the first openly contested elections since 1917 were held in the Soviet Union. In May of 1989, Gorbachev visited Beijing, creating rapprochement with China. Loosening controls on emigration resulted in hundreds of thousand s of Soviet Jews leaving the country for Israel and the United States.

Gorbachev pushed the governments of Eastern Europe to attempt similar reform, were too late to prevent the collapse of the Communist regimes there when it was clear that the Soviet Union was not going to intervene as per the old Brezhnev Doctrine. The loss of dominance over Eastern Europe stunned conservatives in the military and the party, and Gorbachev came under increasing pressure to slow glasnost and perestroika. In 1990, the economy continued to stagnate as market reforms were slow to take effect. The Baltic states and Georgia demand ed independence and the miners went on strike. Treaties were signed with the United States reducing arms buildups, and with Germany ratifying the reunification.

In reaction, a group of senior officials led by Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and the heads of the KGB and the Interior Ministry, detained Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea on August 18, 1991, just two days before he was scheduled to sign a treaty granting greater autonomy to the USSR’s constituent republics.

In three days, the August coup collapsed, as junior military leaders and the presidents of the republics, including Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic led popular resistance to the attempted coup. The coup leaders were arrested, and Gorbachev was returned to his position as head of state. Real power, however, had passed to Yeltsin and the presidents of the other republics. On August 23, 1991, Yeltsin banned the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and seized its assets. The next day, Yeltsin recognized the independence of the Baltic states and the Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. The Supreme Soviets of the other republics passed similar resolutions. In September the Congress of People’s Deputies voted for the dissolution of the USSR, and discussions began which led to the founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR as the United States recognized the remaining republics of the USSR as independent nations. On December 26, the government of the Russian Republic occupied those offices of the USSR located within its boundaries and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved.

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