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- History: The Soviet Union
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The Russian Revolutions
Revolutionary strikes, following Russia's defeat in the war with Japan, forced Nicholas II (1894–1917) to grant a representative national body (Duma), elected by narrowly limited suffrage. It met for the first time in 1906 but had little influence on Nicholas.
World War I demonstrated czarist corruption and inefficiency, and only patriotism held the poorly equipped army together for a time. Disorders broke out in Petrograd (renamed Leningrad and now St. Petersburg) in March 1917, and defection of the Petrograd garrison launched the revolution. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917, and he and his family were killed by revolutionaries on July 16, 1918. A provisional government under the successive prime ministerships of Prince Lvov and a moderate, Alexander Kerensky, lost ground to the radical, or Bolshevik, wing of the Socialist Democratic Labor Party. On Nov. 7, 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution, engineered by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, overthrew the Kerensky government, and authority was vested in a Council of People's Commissars, with Lenin as prime minister.
The humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918) concluded the war with Germany, but civil war and foreign intervention delayed Communist control of all Russia until 1920. A brief war with Poland in 1920 resulted in Russian defeat.
Emergence of the USSR
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established as a federation on Dec. 30, 1922. The death of Lenin on Jan. 21, 1924, precipitated an intraparty struggle between Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the party, and Trotsky, who favored swifter socialization at home and fomentation of revolution abroad. Trotsky was dismissed as commissar of war in 1925 and banished from the Soviet Union in 1929. He was murdered in Mexico City on Aug. 21, 1940, by a political agent. Stalin further consolidated his power by a series of purges in the late 1930s, liquidating prominent party leaders and military officers. Stalin assumed the prime ministership on May 6, 1941.
The term Stalinism has become defined as an inhumane, draconian socialism. Stalin sent millions of Soviets who did not conform to the Stalinist ideal to forced-labor camps, and he persecuted his country's vast number of ethnic groups—reserving particular vitriol for Jews and Ukrainians. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev estimated that about 20 million died from starvation, executions, forced collectivization, and life in the labor camps under Stalin's rule.
Soviet foreign policy, at first friendly toward Germany and antagonistic toward Britain and France and then, after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, becoming anti-Fascist and pro–League of Nations, took an abrupt turn on Aug. 24, 1939, with the signing of a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The next month, Moscow joined in the German attack on Poland, seizing territory later incorporated into the Ukrainian and Belorussian SSRs. The Russo-Finnish War (1939–1940) added territory to the Karelian SSR set up on March 31, 1940; the annexation of Bessarabia and Bukovina from Romania became part of the new Moldavian SSR on Aug. 2, 1940; and the annexation of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in June 1940 created the 14th, 15th, and 16th Soviet republics. The Soviet-German collaboration ended abruptly with a lightning attack by Hitler on June 22, 1941, which seized 500,000 sq mi of Russian territory before Soviet defenses, aided by U.S. and British arms, could halt it. The Soviet resurgence at Stalingrad from Nov. 1942 to Feb. 1943 marked the turning point in a long battle, ending in the final offensive of Jan. 1945. Then, after denouncing a 1941 nonaggression pact with Japan in April 1945, when Allied forces were nearing victory in the Pacific, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, and quickly occupied Manchuria, Karafuto, and the Kuril Islands.
The Berlin Blockade and the Cold War
After the war, the Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, and France divided Berlin and Germany into four zones of occupation, which led to immediate antagonism between the Soviet and Western powers, culminating in the Berlin blockade in 1948. The USSR's tightening control over a cordon of Communist states, running from Poland in the north to Albania in the south, was dubbed the “iron curtain” by Churchill and would later lead to the Warsaw Pact. It marked the beginning of the cold war, the simmering hostility that pitted the world's two superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR—and their competing political ideologies—against each other for the next 45 years. Stalin died on March 6, 1953.
The new power emerging in the Kremlin was Nikita S. Khrushchev (1958–1964), first secretary of the party. Khrushchev formalized the eastern European system into a Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and a Warsaw Pact Treaty Organization as a counterweight to NATO. The Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb in 1953, developed an intercontinental ballistic missile by 1957, sent the first satellite into space (Sputnik I) in 1957, and put Yuri Gagarin in the first orbital flight around Earth in 1961. Khrushchev's downfall stemmed from his decision to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and then, when challenged by the U.S., backing down and removing the weapons. He was also blamed for the ideological break with China after 1963. Khrushchev was forced into retirement on Oct. 15, 1964, and was replaced by Leonid I. Brezhnev as first secretary of the party and Aleksei N. Kosygin as premier.
U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev signed the SALT II treaty in Vienna on June 18, 1979, setting ceilings on each nation's arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty because of the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops on Dec. 27, 1979. On Nov. 10, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died. Yuri V. Andropov, who had formerly headed the KGB, became his successor but died less than two years later, in Feb. 1984. Konstantin U. Chernenko, a 72-year-old party stalwart who had been close to Brezhnev, succeeded him. After 13 months in office, Chernenko died on March 10, 1985. Chosen to succeed him as Soviet leader was Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union in its long-awaited shift to a new generation of leadership. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Gorbachev did not also assume the title of president but wielded power from the post of party general secretary.
Gorbachev introduced sweeping political and economic reforms, bringing glasnost and perestroika, “openness” and “restructuring,” to the Soviet system. He established much warmer relations with the West, ended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and announced that the Warsaw Pact countries were free to pursue their own political agendas. Gorbachev's revolutionary steps ushered in the end of the cold war, and in 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to ending the 45-year conflict between East and West.
The Soviet Union took much criticism in early 1986 over the April 24 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant and its reluctance to give out any information on the accident.
Dissolution of the USSR
Gorbachev's promised reforms began to falter, and he soon had a formidable political opponent agitating for even more radical restructuring. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian SSR, began challenging the authority of the federal government and resigned from the Communist Party along with other dissenters in 1990. On Aug. 29, 1991, an attempted coup d'état against Gorbachev was orchestrated by a group of hard-liners. Yeltsin's defiant actions during the coup—he barricaded himself in the Russian parliament and called for national strikes—resulted in Gorbachev's reinstatement. But from then on, power had effectively shifted from Gorbachev to Yeltsin and away from centralized power to greater power for the individual Soviet republics. In his last months as the head of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party and proposed the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which, when implemented, gave most of the Soviet Socialist Republics their independence, binding them together in a loose, primarily economic federation. Russia and ten other former Soviet republics joined the CIS on Dec. 21, 1991. Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, and Yeltsin, who had been the driving force behind the Soviet dissolution, became president of the newly established Russian Republic.
At the start of 1992, Russia embarked on a series of dramatic economic reforms, including the freeing of prices on most goods, which led to an immediate downturn. A national referendum on confidence in Yeltsin and his economic program took place in April 1993. To the surprise of many, the president and his shock-therapy program won by a resounding margin. In September, Yeltsin dissolved the legislative bodies left over from the Soviet era.
The president of the southern republic of Chechnya accelerated his region's drive for independence in 1994. In December, Russian troops closed the borders and sought to squelch the independence drive. The Russian military forces met firm and costly resistance. In May 1997, the two-year war formally ended with the signing of a peace treaty that adroitly avoided the issue of Chechen independence.