Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Early Years

Early Years

The USSR was the successor state to the Russian Empire (see Russia) and the short-lived provisional government of Russia. The history of the provisional government, the Revolution of 1917, Soviet Russia's withdrawal from World War I, and the Russian Civil War are covered in the articles Russian Revolution and Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of.

Many policies indicative of the entire tenure of the Soviet rule appeared during the formative stage of the state. The torture or summary execution of real or imagined opponents, a “Red Terror” to subdue the Whites during the civil war, became institutionalized in the form of the secret police, who sought to suppress dissidence and opposition. Such tactics were employed even within the Communist party, as periodic “purges” were carried out to rid the party of dissident members. The denigration of rural peasants in favor of soldiers and urban dwellers was another tendency of the Soviet regime. Millions of peasants in the Don region starved to death from 1918 to 1920 as the army confiscated grain for its own needs and the needs of the urbanites.

The fundamental policy, however, of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from its beginning was complete socialization. Between 1918 and 1921, a period called “war communism,” the state took control of the whole economy, mainly through the centralization of planning and the elimination of management from factories. This led to inefficiency and confusion, and in 1921 there was a partial return to the market economy with the adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP ushered in a period of relative stability and prosperity, and in 1922 the treaty of union formally joined Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia (divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijan republics).

At this time the USSR comprised Russia and the remainder of the Russian Empire (for its earlier history see Russia) as it had emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war. The civil war had been complicated by Allied intervention and by war (1920) with Poland. The peace treaty (1921) with Poland (see Riga, Treaty of), the declarations of independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the seizure by Romania of Bessarabia had greatly reduced the size of the former Russian Empire, establishing what the governments of Western Europe called a cordon sanitaire (quarantine belt) separating Communist Russia from the rest of Europe.

Temporarily accepting this quarantine, Vladimir I. Lenin and the other leaders of the Soviet Union set about repairing the damage caused by the revolution and the civil war. In 1922, Germany recognized the Soviet Union (see Rapallo, Treaty of), and most other Western nations except the United States followed suit in 1924. Also in 1924 a constitution was adopted based theoretically on the dictatorship of the proletariat and founded economically on the public ownership of the land and the means of production according to the revolutionary proclamation of 1917.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: CIS and Baltic Political Geography