History of Russia - 1917 to 1991

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THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA between 1922 and 1991 is essentially the history of the Soviet Union (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--USSR). This ideologically based empire was roughly coterminous with the Russian Empire, whose last monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, ruled until 1917. The Soviet Union was established in December 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). At that time, the new nation included the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian republics.

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. Replacing the autocracy was 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 I. Lenin, agitated for socialist revolution in the soviets and on the streets. They seized power from the Provisional Government in November 1917. Only after the long and bloody Civil War of 1918-21, which included combat between government forces and foreign troops in several parts of Russia, was the new communist regime secure.

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 unsuccessfully attempting to centralize the economy in accordance with Marxist dogma during the Civil War, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s. 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, Joseph V. 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. The plan's implementation produced widespread misery, including the deaths of millions of peasants by starvation or directly at the hands of the government during forced collectivization. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s, when Stalin began a purge of the party; out of this process grew a campaign of terror that led to the execution or imprisonment of untold millions from all walks of life. 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. 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 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, Britain and the United States, into foes. 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 S. Khrushchev, who won the power struggle by the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of terror and eased repressive controls over party and society. 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 I. 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 Yuriy V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko, transitional figures with deep roots in Brezhnevite tradition, the energetic Mikhail S. Gorbachev made significant changes in the economy and the party leadership. His policy of glasnost (see Glossary) 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.

Early History to 1917    1917 to 1991    1991 to 1997

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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