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The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was one of the two superpowers to emerge from the second world war (the other was the USA). It was the leader of the communist bloc of nations throughout the Cold War. As such it played a critical part in 20th century world history.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917

By 1917, the people of Russia were heartily sick of World War I, with its terrible casualties at the front, economic hardships at home and no military successes to speak of. The mismanagement of the war effort had utterly undermined confidence in the tsar and his government. Mutinies were spreading in the army, and desertions were taking place on a massive scale.

The fall of the Tsarist regime

In February 1917, a strike at a factory in the capital of Imperial Russia, Petrograd (the old St Petersburg, renamed at the start of the war because it sounded too German). This swiftly led to a general strike, which paralyzed the city. The factory workers organized themselves into workers’ councils, called soviets, and this enabled them to maintain the initiative. Soviets were soon being organized in the other cities of Russia, and unrest spread.


Lenin in 1916, (Feb 1916, Wilhelm Plier)

In March, 1917, the tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated, and a provisional government was formed. The new government was made up mainly of moderate reformers. These, however, were regarded with deep suspicion by the workers’ leaders in the soviets.

One of the worker groups active in the soviets at this time was the Bolshevik party. This followed the beliefs of Karl Marx, the 19th century German philosopher, who had preached Communist revolution. Over the next few months, thanks to their superior discipline and organization under the brilliant leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks gained control over the soviets.

The October Revolution

In October, the Bolshevik-dominated soviets carried out a second revolution (the “October Revolution”) which overthrew the provisional government. The Bolsheviks co-ordinated their activities through a Congress of Soviets, which effectively became the governing body of the Russian state.

Russia was renamed the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic. The Bolsheviks allowed the elections to a Constituent Assembly to go ahead, but these returned a majority for a rival, more moderate, socialist party. The Bolsheviks closed the assembly down after just one day (January 1918).

Civil war

Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks had signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans and their allies, which ended the war for Russia on extremely disadvantageous terms. By this time, however, several groups opposed to the Bolsheviks were fielding armies to overthrow them: conservative military leaders (the “White Russians”), Ukrainian nationalists, and even several foreign invading forces (Polish, Japanese, American and German).

Leon Trotsky

The Bolsheviks’ Red Army, however, was brilliantly led by Leon Trotsky, and within the territory it controlled the Bolshevik government enforced obedience through a reign of terror (called the Red Terror). The anti-Bolshevik armies failed to cooperate and were each defeated separately. The civil war lasted until 1922 and ended in victory for the Bolsheviks. In that year the Bolsheviks – by now renamed the Communist Party – proclaimed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union, or USSR).


Leon Trotsky, 1929, (German Federal Archives, Bild 183-R15068)


The Communist Party adopted a theoretically federal structure, which was originally composed of four republics but by 1940 was made up of 16 of them. Since one of these, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, contained more than half the population and territory of the USSR, it dominated all the others. Moscow, rather than Petrograd, was chosen as the new capital.

Vladimir Lenin dominated the Soviet government during these years. Under him, all farms were distributed to the peasants; large companies, including banks, were nationalized; and the vast wealth of the Orthodox Church was confiscated.

In the face of severe food shortages and general economic weakness, however, Lenin adopted a New Economic Policy which permitted some private enterprise.


Stalin’s rise

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a collective leadership ran the government for a time. Then a brief power struggle led to Joseph Stalin coming to power.

Stalin (right)-confers-with-an ailing-lenin-at gorky-in september

Stalin (right) confers with an ailing Lenin at Gorky in September 1922 (WWII database, Maria Ilyinichna Ulyanova, Sept1922)

Stalin soon rid himself of all political opposition. Trotsky, for example, stoutly opposed Stalin but found himself deprived of his posts, expelled from the Communist party, exiled abroad and later assassinated. Similar fates awaited most of the other early Bolshevik leaders.

Stalin’s policies

Stalin brought the New Economic Policy to an end and pursued a ruthless policy of collectivization. He suppressed all private enterprise and forced all peasants and businessmen to merge their farms and businesses into large collectives. He centralized economic decision-making in the state, to create the first centrally-planned command economy. Stalin was determined to move backward Russia to being an advanced industrial economy as swiftly as possible. In terms of heavy industry (iron, steel, coal, tractors and so on), at least, he succeeded in this aim, though at enormous human cost.

These policies were carried out with ruthless violence; they involved a ferocious attack on the peasantry, with millions being killed. To bring in foreign currency to help fund this policy, Stalin had no compunction in exporting food produce rather than feeding his own people – millions died of starvation, especially in the Ukraine.

The Purges

He then turned on members of the Communist Party itself. He carried out merciless purges, firstly against opponents, then against more junior officials and ordinary members who were in any way suspected of being less then fulsome in their support of Stalin and his policies. Mass arrests of many party members, military officers, and ordinary citizens were carried out, who were summarily tried and then (in the vast majority of cases) convicted and sentenced to death of hard labour in prison camps scattered around the vast country (nicknamed the “Gulag”). The secret police penetrated every aspect of life, and the entire population was gripped by terror.

The Great Patriotic War

Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and then joined with Germany in the occupation and dismemberment of Poland (September 1939). The Russian army also invaded Finland, but such were the casualties that it suffered in the “Winter War”, that although the Finns were defeated, they were able to keep their independence.


In June 1941, to Stalin’s complete astonishment, the Germans turned on the Soviet Union and launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. This inaugurated what the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War”.


German soldiers clearing the streets in Stalingrad, October 1942, (Rothkopf)

The Soviet defenses were overwhelmed as the Germans drove deep into Russia. Whole armies were encircled and captured. Soviet casualties were on mind-numbing scale. The Germans laid siege to Leningrad (the city which had been Petrograd, and before that St Petersburg), and were stopped just in front Moscow by a combination of the freezing Russian winter and sheer Russian obstinacy.

During these months in 1941 one of the most astonishing feats in history was carried out, as the Soviet industrial infrastructure was hurriedly taken up, transported hundreds of miles further east, out of reach of the invading German forces, and re-erected behind the Ural mountains.

Stalingrad and after

In 1942 the Germans committed their main forces to a drive into southern Russia. After a swift advance on a scale similar to the previous year, they were fought to a standstill in bitter street-by-street fighting in Stalingrad. The Soviet armies then launched a massive counter-attack which cut stranded an entire German army in Stalingrad, which eventually had no choice but to surrender.


German Infantry in position for an attack (1942, German Federal Archives, Bild 146-1971-107-40)


The Germans then began a long retreat; first back towards the Russian borders (1943), then back into central Europe (1944) and on into Germany itself (1945). The Soviet forces closed in on Berlin and took the city, ending the war in Europe.

The “Great Patriotic War” between the Soviet Union and Germany accounted for about 90% of all the casualties in World War II, and even as a war in its own right it was the largest and bloodiest in history. However, the Soviet Union ended the war as one of the two superpowers in the world, along with the USA. It soon enhanced this status when it acquired nuclear weapons.

The Cold War

The Cold War which followed quickly on the heals of Word War II divided Europe into two camps. The territory occupied by the Soviet army in its drive towards Berlin became the Soviet satellite nations of central Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Each had a Communist government installed in power, loyal to the powers in Moscow. Facing off against them were the countries of Western Europe, allies of the USA.

In the Far East, the Soviet Union had acquired an ally in North Korea, whose territories it had occupied in the closing days of World War II. The Korean War was fought here between 1950 and 1953 between the Communist regime in the North and the South. The Soviet Union and China supported the former while the USA and its allies supported the latter. The war ended in a stalemate which ash endured ever since.

Nikita Khrushchev

Stalin died in 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev emerged as leader from the brief power struggle which followed. A period of political and economic liberalization followed. Industrialization continued apace, and the Soviet Union became, again along with the USA, one of the two powers involved in the space race. However, the Soviet government showed its determination to keep control in central Europe by ruthlessly putting down protests and uprisings in Hungary, in 1956. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which put up a solid divide between the Communist-controlled and Western-controlled sections of the city, represented a stark act of repression.


Nikita Khrushchev, June 1963 (Junge, Heinz, German Federal Archives, Bild 183-B0628-0015-035)

The Cold War threatened to turn “hot” in an episode called the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 Khrushchev ordered Soviet missiles to be stationed on newly-communist Cuba. In the face of stark threats from the US president, John F Kennedy, Khrushchev backed down, the missiles were withdrawn and the world breathed a sigh of relief.


Khrushchev was toppled from power in 1964 and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. Under their more collective leadership, the economic limitations of the Communist system became increasingly apparent as stagnation set in. The Soviets’ ruthless crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia showed that the Communist government was bereft of new ideas.


Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague.(1968, 10 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the central intelligence agency)

In 1979 the army was sent in to shore up the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, and embarked on a disastrous war from which it had to flee a decade later.

The End of the Soviet Union

By this time the Communist regime was crumbling at home. After years of being ruled by elderly men with no answers to the mounting economic and social problems of the Soviet system, the comparatively young Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in 1985.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev launched a far-reaching economic and political liberalization. His policies towards central Europe – in effect, not supporting the crushing of dissent – ended the Soviet domination of that region and brought about an end to the Cold War in 1989, as the countries there overthrew their respective communist regimes.

A photo of Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev 1988 (IA Novosti archive, image #485307, Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин), CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Communist rule within the Soviet Union itself then rapidly unravelled. Strong nationalist and separatist movements began to make themselves felt. In 1991 an attempted coup by Communist Party hardliners failed, and the Communist Party was itself banned. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union dissolved into twelve republics. By far the largest of these was Russia, which became the Russian Federation, which assumed most of the mantle of the former Soviet Union, including its nuclear capabilities.

Further Study

External links:

The rise of the Soviet Union

The rise and fall of the Soviet Union

The economic collapse of the Soviet Union

The collapse of the Soviet Union: Office of the Historian