Lenin  Stalin

Within one week's time, in the summer of 1991, the 74-year-old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--or Soviet Union--became a finished part of history. The forces of reform unleashed by President Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s spawned a democratic movement. After an attempted coup failed to restore centralized control in August 1991, the Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--moved rapidly to claim their independence. In September they left the Soviet Union and joined the United Nations. Among the remaining 12 republics, Belorussia (renamed Belarus) rushed to independence two days later. Kazakhstan and Kirghizia (renamed Kyrgyzstan) took control of their republics' resources and began economic reform and privatization. The other Muslim republics of Central Asia strongly supported a federal union, but they had little influence. In November seven of the republics agreed to form a new Union of Sovereign States, but it remained a shell. Desires for independence proved too powerful.

Ukraine voted overwhelmingly on December 1 for independence, and a week later the leaders of the three Slavic republics--Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus-- proclaimed a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with its seat in the Belarus capital of Minsk. The presidents of 11 of the 12 remaining republics (all but Georgia) signed agreements to join the CIS on December 21. Four days later Gorbachev formally resigned as president of the Soviet Union. The nation he governed for more than six years and tried to reform no longer existed. 

The Soviet Union was the world's largest country. It covered an area of 8.6 million square miles (22.3 million square kilometers), almost seven times the area of India and two and a half times that of the United States. It encompassed one sixth of the Earth's landmass, including half of Europe and about two fifths of Asia. The population of the country in 1991 was more than 290 million.

The Soviet Union's size ensured a generous endowment of natural features and raw materials. The country also had some of the world's highest mountains and lowest basins, largest plains and broadest tablelands, driest deserts and wettest swamps, purest waters and saltiest seas, longest rivers and deepest lakes, greatest grasslands and most extensive forests. The Soviet resource base was by far the world's most extensive, ensuring self-sufficiency for its people in most resources for many years. The Soviet Union was usually first or second in the annual production of most of the world's strategic raw materials.

Yet superior size can have its disadvantages. Quality often yields to quantity. Challenges of allocation and distribution arise. Raw materials, no matter how abundant, must be accessible and economical to exploit. Large countries need efficient transportation networks to get goods to market and effective communications to maintain smooth political control.

Immensity and Diversity

The Soviet Union stretched from Vistula Bar in Kaliningrad oblast on the Baltic Sea (19o E.) in the west to Ratmanova (Big Diomede) Island in the Bering Strait (169o W.) in the east. The 172 degrees of longitude spanned 5,700 miles (9,180 kilometers) and 11 of the world's 24 time zones. If the Soviet Union could have been placed atop North America so that Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was over Anchorage, Alaska, the Chukchi Peninsula would lie close to Oslo, Norway--fully halfway around the globe at the 60th parallel. Put another way, when Leningrad residents were eating their evening meal on any given day, Soviet Inuit were breakfasting on the next. From its southernmost point at 35o N. to the tip of its northernmost islands at 82o N., the Soviet Union extended nearly 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) southward.

As befits the world's largest country, Soviet borders were the longest of any nation and extended 37,000 miles (60,000 kilometers). More than two thirds of the borders were seacoast, the world's longest. To the north the country was bounded by the seas of the Arctic Ocean, and to the east were the seas of the Pacific. The vast majority of the coastal boundary, however, was frozen for up to ten months each year. Access to the world's oceans was both difficult and expensive.

Perhaps more significant than sheer size was the Soviet Union's location relative to other industrial nations. Three quarters of the country was north of the 50th parallel. Except for Alaska no part of the United States is so far north. Moscow, which was the capital of the Soviet Union, is in the latitude of Edmonton, Alta., Canada, while St. Petersburg's latitude approximates that of Anchorage, Alaska. Given its high-latitude position, the Soviet Union resembled Canada more than it did the United States. The most direct line between the central Soviet Union and central North America would cross the Arctic Circle. Yet the country was so large from east to west that St. Petersburg and Vladivostok are almost as far away from each other as they are from Seattle, Wash.

This north-south intercontinental axis contrasted sharply with the Soviet Union's historical east-west axis of domestic commerce and migration. These movements were funneled between the Arctic's frozen seas and the deserts and mountain barriers of the south. Size again explains why three quarters of the country was more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the sea, causing its continental climate.

Because it was so large, the Soviet Union in its totality displayed great beauty and diversity of landforms, climate, vegetation, and soils. Close up, though, it could be very dull and monotonous because of the great distances between geographic phenomena. Three quarters of the country, for example, was a vast plain at less than 1,500 feet (460 meters) in elevation. The typical Soviet landscape was a flat-to-rolling countryside, with mountains only along the borders and in the area east of the Yenisey River. The Ural Mountains, which divide Europe from Asia, are no higher than 6,200 feet (1,890 meters) and form only a modest barrier to passing air masses and human interaction. The average elevation for the country as a whole was 1,406 feet (429 meters), ranging from -433 feet (-132 meters) on the bottom of the Karagiye Depression in the Mangyshlak Peninsula to 24,590 feet (7,495 meters) atop Communism Peak in the Pamir Range of Central Asia.

Eurasian Collectivists

This mostly landlocked, huge northerly landmass bound on the north and east by icy, uninviting seas, on the south by rugged mountains, and on the west by a generally flat, open land border, posed great challenges to the people who lived there. As if the environment did not create difficulties enough, over the centuries the inhabitants had to deal persistently with the threat of foreign invasion. At first the invaders were Asian nomadic horsemen. From the 1800s modern armies invaded from Europe.

Whether they were being troubled by the hostile environment or attacked by hostile armies, the peoples of the East European Plain typically met danger collectively rather than as individuals. Village settlements and group cooperation were the rule rather than the exception throughout the history of most Eastern Slavic nations, including those who lived in the Slavic part of what became the Soviet Union.

Leaders of collectivist societies believe that the welfare of the collective--meaning all of society--is more important than individual liberties. Everyone's basic needs are taken care of by the governing body. In the Soviet state "basic needs" included such services as education, medical care, and transportation. Housing was inexpensive, and food supplies, though relatively expensive, were subsidized and generally available. In collective societies equal rights and shares among individuals and communities matter more than do individual freedoms. Everyone in such communities is supposed to have enough, but no one has very much because the resources are distributed equally. People's lives improve when the quality and quantity of resources increase and society overall progresses. Without the market principle to guide the economy, central authorities shape the direction of this progress. These authorities are supposed to be fair and rational in their decision making, but many times they are arbitrary and sometimes despotic. Without the traditions of common law, free enterprise, and an emphasis on human rights, only a handful of Russian, and later Soviet, intellectuals ever toyed with the concepts of individual freedom, initiative, and innovation until 1991. A brief experiment with capitalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s was limited to a few major cities and was too ineffective to have lasting influence.

In this sense, as with their geography, Russians were uniquely neither European nor Asian--they reflected a truly Eurasian character. They had an Eastern tradition of patience. Their religion sprang from Byzantium, not Rome. They never had a Renaissance. There was little experiment with free enterprise and democracy before the late 1980s. On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, two out of three Russians were peasant collectivists, and four out of five lived in rural villages of fewer than 15,000 residents. Perhaps socialism was tailor-made for what was then czarist Russia. In his last unpublished writings, in 1881, Karl Marx apparently thought so, and later on Lenin firmly believed so.

The Soviet Union not only loomed large on world maps but it also had the Earth's second (or third) largest economy and competed effectively for military superiority. From 1960 it took an increasingly major role in international commerce as its trade turnover quintupled to 131 billion rubles (170 billion mid-1980s United States dollars). A member of the United Nations together with the Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics from 1945, it was a powerful political force.

The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to espouse the causes of Marxist-Leninist socialism. Beginning as an impoverished country, the Soviet Union made spectacular strides after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Marxism-Leninism, as an alternative to capitalism, thus appealed to leaders of some developing countries--nations where there are many dispossessed and impoverished people, where a few have most of the wealth, or where the leadership is unresponsive to the needs of the masses. The Soviet constitution openly supported "wars of liberation" wherever and whenever they occurred, and impoverished, militant intellectuals were often only too happy to accept that support. Whether Western nations viewed the Soviet Union as a powerful rival or a threat, it could not be ignored.

In the 1980s the Soviet Union began to change. Following decades of repression, political favoritism, and bureaucratic and economic stagnation, the Soviet government after 1984 was given an injection of fresh, new leadership. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev promised a vast array of perestroika (restructuring) that in his words was "absolutely essential" if the Soviet Union was to remain competitive in the world economy. A policy of glasnost (openness) was encouraged. A host of peace proposals was proffered, resulting in a major nuclear arms reduction agreement with the United States. In less than a decade, however, these policies led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 


In 1991 the population of the Soviet Union was more than 291 million, the third largest in the world after China and India. There were 15 million more women than men; most of the imbalance was in the age group 55 and older.

Undergoing rapid industrial expansion after 1922, the Soviet Union changed from a very rural economy--82 percent--to a society in which two out of three people lived in cities. This was the result of migration from farms to the cities. The majority of rural dwellers were farmers. By 1991 nonfarmers--both urban and rural--outnumbered farmers by a ratio of 77 to 23. This means that one Soviet farmer produced the agricultural products to meet the needs of three nonfarmers. (In the United States one farmer supported 113 nonfarmers.)

Urbanization was accompanied by modernization. Until the 20th century, czarist Russia demographically resembled an underdeveloped country, with high birthrates (45 per 1,000), high death rates (about 30 per 1,000), and high infant mortality rates (more than 100 per 1,000). Natural increase rates were more than 15 per 1,000. In the Soviet period, after 1917, all these variables decreased until about 1965, when for some reason reported rates of death and infant mortality began to rise again. Child mortality--deaths of infants and children up to age 5--apparently peaked in 1979 and by 1989 was once again in decline. In 1989 the number of births was 17.6 per 1,000 and the number of deaths, 10.0. The natural increase rate thus stood at 7.6 per 1,000, slightly higher than that of the United States at that time.

Such averages hid regional variations. Slavs and Balts reflected very slow natural increase rates that ranged between 4 and 8 per 1,000, whereas the traditionally Muslim republics of Central Asia and Azerbaijan recorded Third World growth rates of between 20 and 35 per 1,000.

Society and the Family

As in most developed industrial countries in the last half of the 20th century, the integrity of the Soviet family was under stress. Prior to the 1917 Revolution, families were large and extended, including several generations. Land was divided into strips that were allocated to households by the village elders. The amount of peasant land was fixed, and as the farm population increased, the size of the individual strips decreased. Frustration over the size and quality of land created a sense of pessimism among the tightly knit peasant families. Nevertheless some peasants became successful landowners, or kulaks. Some other families migrated to Siberia to seek a new life.

Civil war from 1918 to 1920 fragmented many families. In the late 1920s private property was abolished, agriculture was collectivized, and industrialization reached frenzied proportions. Under Joseph Stalin some attempts were made to erase the institution of the family altogether.

From the 1950s the average size of families decreased to fewer than four members. Families were smallest among the Slavs and Balts and largest among Muslim groups. Many households continued to include one or more elderly persons, perpetuating the tradition of the extended family. This was especially true in rural and farm areas. In cities--because of crowding, economics, or both--couples waited longer to have children. The Soviet abortion rate was high. Divorce soared from one in ten marriages in 1960 to one in two or three in 1990. Because of the imbalance between the sexes, many older women could not find new spouses. Most of these problems were associated with the city-dwelling Slavic and Baltic peoples. Rural residents and Muslim peoples were less likely to suffer these strains.

In the 1950s Soviet citizens ate far less meat, milk, eggs, fish, fruit, and vegetables than did most Europeans. By the late 1980s they still consumed less meat and fruit and more grain and potatoes. Even among its Eastern European allies, the Soviet Union ranked below Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Bulgaria in per capita meat consumption. Soviet citizens ate less fruit than the Irish, who were the lowest fruit consumers in Western Europe.


Despite a total population almost four times smaller, the Soviet Union had an urban population almost the size of China's--192 million. In 1990 the country included 59 cities with populations of more than 500,000 and 24 with more than 1 million residents. The largest was Moscow, the Soviet and Russian capital, with an estimated 1991 population of 8.8 million. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had about 4.5 million, and Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, contained more than 2.6 million. The fourth largest Soviet city was Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The largest cities (500,000 or more) were growing the most rapidly. 

Controlled, predictable growth was the key to the planned development of the Soviet city. Attempts were made to limit the growth of large cities. They included the requirement that citizens over 15 carry internal passports or similar documents, without which they theoretically could not migrate between cities. Also required of city dwellers was the propiska, or "permit to reside," in a given city, without which housing could not be obtained legally, even for a short period. The government could also refuse to invest in new industry in a large city. Without new jobs, the city theoretically could not grow.

Despite these measures the big cities continued to grow by the addition of both legal and illegal residents. Part of the reason was that Soviet cities had no shortage of jobs--just of laborers. According to a 1935 decree Moscow, for instance, was to have a population of no more than 5 million. By 1991 the city's population was 75 percent larger. Many Soviet people wanted to live in Moscow because it was the center of government, culture, and trade.

Urbanization varied according to region and republic. Remote areas with severe climates, such as Siberia, generally had large proportions of urban dwellers (75 percent or more). The economically developed Baltic and Slavic republics also exhibited urban ratios of 75 percent or more. Moldavia (now Moldova), Transcaucasia (except for Armenia), and the Central Asian republics had urban shares of 55 percent or less. The most rural republic was Tadzhikistan (now Tajikistan), where only one in three persons lived in a city. Tadzhikistan also recorded the highest natural increase rate.

Ethnic and Language Groups

Although the Soviet Union contained more than 100 different ethnic groups, most were very small. According to the 1989 census, only 52 ethnic groups numbered 100,000 or more. Of these, 23 exceeded 1 million. Among the seven largest groups ethnic (and Russified) Russians led all others with 148 million, followed by Ukrainians (45 million), Uzbeks (17 million), Belorussians (10 million), Kazakhs (8.3 million), and Azerbaijanis and Tatars (6.9 million each).

Ethnicity is a complex concept. People may be classified according to physical traits (race), material culture (food, possessions, and ways of life), spiritual culture (religion), language, or political development. In physical appearance the Soviet people ranged from the fair, blue-eyed Balts in the northwest to swarthy, brown-eyed Mediterraneans in the south, who merged with the sallow-skinned, almond-eyed Mongoloids in the east. There were sedentary hunters on the Arctic coast, nomadic reindeer herders in the tundra and taiga, nomadic hunters in the taiga, sedentary fishermen along large rivers and coasts, nomadic herdsmen in the steppes, sedentary farmers in the temperate zone, seminomadic mountaineers, and irrigationists in the dry steppes and deserts.

Although the Soviet Union was an officially atheistic country, from 50 million to 90 million people may have belonged to some religion, according to Soviet government estimates. Of the Russian Orthodox churches that existed in 1917, however, only one out of seven was active in the late 1980s. There were only 400 operating synagogues and mosques.

Of the language families recognized in the world, four were significantly represented in the Soviet Union. About three quarters of the population spoke languages belonging to the Indo-European language family, including Slavic, Baltic, Germanic, Romance, Greek, Armenian, Iranian, and Indic languages. The fastest-growing family was Altaic, containing the Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus groups. The Uralic family comprised Finno-Ugric and Samoyed. Almost the entire Caucasian family was confined to the Soviet Union. Even the tiny Paleosiberian family is native to the country. Three of the minority languages--Korean, Chinese, and Semitic--had their main populations outside the Soviet Union.

Although an estimated 200 languages and dialects were spoken, Russian was the official, and most commonly spoken, language of the country. It was taught in all schools. According to the 1989 census, Russian was the primary language for 163 million people, of whom 148 million were ethnic Russians and those Russified from other ethnic groups. In addition 68 million claimed to speak Russian fluently as a second language. Thus 80 percent of the Soviet population had command of the Russian language.

In an age of nationalism every nationality aspires to independent statehood. The non-Russian peoples were appeased with a hierarchy of administrative units. Fifteen were granted a soviet socialist republic status that, according to the constitution, most resembled that of a sovereign nation-state. Twenty others possessed the status of an autonomous soviet socialist republic, which provided some cultural autonomy. Still others were recognized as autonomous oblasts or autonomous okrugs, designations that meant little beyond an official acknowledgment of ethnic identity. Many groups--like the ethnic Germans, Poles, Koreans, Bulgarians, Greeks, Hungarians, and Romanians--did not have homelands within the Soviet Union. Other officially designated homelands were so in name only. The Tatar autonomous republic, for example, included only a quarter of the Soviet Tatars, and the Jewish oblast in the Soviet Far East was only 5 percent Jewish.

The government became less and less ethnically representative as a result of the slow demographic growth of the ethnic Russians and the rapid growth of the other ethnic groups, especially the Muslim groups in Central Asia and elsewhere. Ethnic Russians, who represented about half of the total population, made up at least three fifths of the leadership of the Communist party. Of the 21 leading party and government officials in the Politburo and Secretariat in early 1988, not one was a Muslim or from a Muslim republic. Instead, the group was made up of 20 Eastern Slavs (17 were Russian, two were Belorussian, and one was Ukrainian) and one Georgian. A third of the 18-year-old Soviet army recruits, however, came from a Muslim background.


The history of religion in the Soviet Union is long and complex. By the 10th century the Eastern Orthodox church was highly influential among the Slavs. Kiev, the first East Slavic state, was ruled by the pagan Prince Svyatoslav until his death in 972. The next ruler, his son Vladimir, ordered the people of Kiev to receive baptism in the Orthodox Christian rite in 988.

Centuries later a more secular culture took hold in Russia as Peter the Great introduced far-reaching changes. He reformed the church, depriving the priests of their influence in secular matters. By the 19th century Russia was a multireligious society. The 1917 Revolution led to the official policy of eradication of religion in the country. Churches had no legal status and their property was confiscated. Private religious education of any kind was strictly forbidden.

In the late 1980s, under the reforms established by President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union pledged to increase religious freedom for all believers. In 1991 as much as half of the population of the Soviet Union consisted of believers, including 50-60 million Russian Orthodox Christians, 40-50 million Muslims, 10 million Roman Catholics, 4 million Armenian Apostolics (Gregorians), 3 million Georgian Orthodox Christians, 1.4 million Jews, and more than 1 million Protestants of all sects.


Traditionally, Soviet literature served the political regime. In 1932 all Soviet writers were organized into the Soviet Writers' Union, which was guided by the Stalinist doctrine of socialist realism. Under this concept writers were required to participate fully and prominently in building socialism. Those who did not conform would be expelled from the Writers' Union, as happened to the poet Anna Akhmatova in 1946 and to Boris Pasternak in 1958. Pasternak, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature for his novel 'Doctor Zhivago' (1957), was expelled after it was published in the West.

Maksim Gorki, who was a friend of Lenin, had established himself as an author in prerevolutionary Russia. He showed more sympathy for the working class (proletariat), however, than for the merchant capitalists and was honored by the early Bolsheviks. He dedicated the remainder of his life to salvaging the remnants of Russian culture and encouraging new Soviet authors, becoming the dean of Soviet authors in 1928 upon his return from a period in Italy. When he died in 1936 Soviet literature was well established. He was succeeded as the preeminent Soviet writer by Aleksei Tolstoi. 

Tolstoi, Vladimir Mayakovski, Panteleimon Romanov, Fedor Gladkov, Valentin Katayev, and Boris Pilnyak each dealt with propagandistic and pragmatic themes, as illustrated by Gladkov's novel 'Cement' (1926). Also emerging along with Pasternak in the prewar period was Mikhail Sholokhov, a Cossack from the Don region, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1965 for such works as 'And Quiet Flows the Don' (four volumes, 1928-40) and 'Virgin Soil Upturned' (two volumes, 1932-60). Sholokhov's novels describe Cossack life in the civil war and the period of collectivization. 

The postwar period brought modest liberalization under Nikita Khrushchev. The unconventional poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky emerged. Although Pasternak was never allowed to claim his Nobel prize and died an "unperson" in 1960, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich', a short novel about the inmates of a Stalinist prison camp. Solzhenitsyn was later expelled from the Writers' Union for his so-called "anti-Soviet" novels, 'Cancer Ward' and 'The First Circle', and in 1974 he was charged with treason and exiled from the Soviet Union. Having been awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, he was able to accept it formally after his exile.

The most significant postwar literary movements leaned toward naturalism. Writers using rural themes, called "village prose writers," include Fyodor Abramov and Valentin Rasputin. Such writers as Vasily Shukshin wrote about the lives of ordinary citizens in a highly original way. The byt' (life-quality) writers wrote about the lives of Soviet intellectuals. The works of Yuri Trofonov, for example, focus on the post-Stalin era and question the validity of Marxism-Leninism.

There were further expulsions of outstanding Soviet writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Along with Solzhenitsyn, the writers Vladimir Maksimov, Vasily Voynovich, and Aleksandr Zinoviev were forced to emigrate to the West. Another emigre, Joseph Brodsky, won the Nobel prize for his poetry in 1987.

The Gorbachev administration's policy of glasnost stimulated literary liberalization from 1985. Measures included the posthumous reinstatement of Pasternak and the publication of 'Doctor Zhivago' in the Soviet Union, as well as much more freedom of expression for all writers. 

Visual Arts


Painting and sculpture. The stress on socialist realism in art as well as literature hampered artistic creativity from 1917. Modern painting and sculpture typically were banned and forced underground. Gorbachev, however, permitted public exhibits of Soviet modern art.

Architecture. Soviet buildings were pragmatic products of standardized architecture, largely the result of the need to build quickly after the devastation of World War II. Some examples of Stalinist "wedding cake" architecture were built in Moscow. From the 1960s more innovative architectural styles appeared around the country.

Performing Arts

Ballet. Soviet ballet continued the great 19th-century traditions established by Marius Petipa, considered the father of modern ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) were famous throughout the world. 

Theater. At the end of the 19th century Konstantin Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater, where Russian theater art came of age. Realistic plays produced here, among them the works of Anton Chekhov and Maksim Gorki, stimulated the modern "method" school of acting

Experimental theater, including the works of producer-director Vsevolod Meyerhold and fellow constructivists, flourished through the early Soviet period. As in literature under Stalin, all experimental theater was replaced by socialist realism. The Gorbachev administration allowed the performance of more controversial works. The Soviet Union had more theaters than any other country. Plays were performed both in Russian and in minority languages.

Music. Russian and Soviet opera combined music with theater and sometimes ballet to create a visual display that ranked among the best in the world. The Soviet people were great lovers of music. Almost all ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union had their own national instruments and musical traditions.

Famous Soviet composers were Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Miaskovsky, Nikolai Medtner, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Aram Khachaturian. Prokofiev's most famous works of the Soviet period are 'Peter and the Wolf' and the ballet 'Romeo and Juliet'. Miaskovsky wrote 27 symphonies, most of them known only in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, who wrote his first symphony at the age of 19, composed 15 symphonies, some of which were criticized by the authorities for not following the line of socialist realism. Orientalism reached a new high in the hands of Khachaturian, an ethnic Armenian. Modern Soviet composers numbered in the hundreds. As in the West, most specialized in writing popular songs and dances.

The Soviet Union had more permanent opera and ballet companies than any other country. The Soviet government encouraged all its ethnic minorities to develop their musical talents, including the revival of native instrumental music and dance. All ethnic capitals and many other cities had music halls. More than 30 cities had large opera and ballet theaters, where there were performances of both traditional and international works.

Cinema. The Soviet Union also led the world in the number of movie theaters. Soviet film made its mark in the 1920s. Sergei Eisenstein directed such innovative films as 'Potemkin', 'Ivan the Terrible', and 'Alexander Nevsky'. His realism and technique continue to influence filmmakers worldwide 

After World War II, which inflicted great suffering there, vast numbers of Soviet films dealt with wartime themes. Among these 'The Ballad of a Soldier' and 'The Cranes Are Flying' gained international critical acclaim. Under Gorbachev nearly three quarters of the leadership of the Filmmakers' Union changed. A reexamination of a number of films dealing with previously forbidden topics, such as portrayals of the Stalin era, led to their release or rerelease.

Television. Entirely state-controlled, television reflected the official viewpoint of the top leadership. Traditionally it was very much like public television in the West, though many more movies and sporting events were shown. Most Soviet citizens received only two channels: the main Moscow channel and a local channel. Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) had third stations. Television during the Gorbachev era became much more interesting and objective. He was the first Soviet leader to use television for popularizing his policies. Under his leadership television news analysts for the first time reported natural disasters and accidents. News reports also became much more informative, objective, and entertaining in their coverage of events in the rest of the world.


Before the Revolution education was generally available to only a privileged few. In 1913 only 6 percent of the total population of czarist Russia attended schools of all types. By 1991 one out of five Soviet citizens were enrolled in classes. As late as 1920 only 44 percent of the population in the age group 9 to 49 were literate. By 1991 the literacy rate had grown to more than 99 percent.

Primary and secondary education. Education was free or provided at minimal cost. Under the education reforms of the 1980s, Soviet children entered primary school (grades one to four) at age 6 and were required to continue through the 11th grade. By age 11 the pupil had undertaken work projects and had visited a factory. This aspect of the educational reform was an attempt to rectify a glaring deficiency in the old system: one new laborer in four entered the work force with insufficient vocational training. Prior to 1986 all school-age children finished an "incomplete" secondary educational program (through grade eight), and most (89 percent) finished a "complete" secondary program to grade ten in general high schools, specialized high schools, or trade schools. From 1970 about one high school graduate in six attended a college or university, with most students receiving government stipends as well as free room and board.

Soviet education was designed to meet the needs of the state. Pupils were taught the principles of Marxism-Leninism along with their formal courses. The Gorbachev reforms reemphasized this.

All boys and girls took the same subjects during their first four years in school: Russian grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing, singing, history, geography, natural science, and physical education. They went to school six days a week and wore uniforms. It was in the fifth grade that the differences between Soviet educational standards and those of the United States became pronounced. Biology, physics, chemistry, and foreign languages were added to the course load. By the age of 10, pupils decided what languages they would pursue for the rest of their school years--usually English, French, or German. At age 14 four of five Soviet pupils had strong backgrounds in biology, algebra, geometry, physics, and chemistry. They also had studied the fundamentals of politics and the framework of the Soviet constitution.

Elementary and secondary schools were run by the ministries of education in each republic. Their activities were coordinated from Moscow by the Ministry of Education.

Preschool. Nearly 60 percent of Soviet preschoolers were enrolled in some kind of child-care center or nursery. The facilities were more often available to city children than to rural children. The centers and nurseries were subsidized by Soviet trade unions, but unlike other forms of schooling they were not free to users. Parents paid a monthly tuition to ensure that their children were well supervised while they both worked. Child-care centers were for children between the ages of six months and 3 years. Nurseries or kindergartens were for children from 3 to 6 years old. In addition to being taught to appreciate their parents and to play cooperatively with each other, preschoolers and kindergartners learned the rudiments of the Russian language, some English, and a little Soviet history. Preschools of all types were supervised by the Ministry of Public Health.

Higher education. By 1991 there were 69 Soviet universities with 587,000 students enrolled. Students who finished the full 11-year primary and secondary program, and who ranked in the top 20 percent of their graduating class, took difficult college entrance examinations. Students ranking lower could become eligible later if they took additional secondary school courses. Other students could go to technicums, which trained technicians for industrial work, nursing, dentistry, agronomy, and primary school teaching. Entrance examinations were also required for these schools. Workers with technicum training had the best chance of obtaining supervisory jobs in industrial plants.

University students spent from five to six years studying their professions. Training was highly specialized from the outset. Seven percent of the students studied medicine (80 percent of these were women), about 10 percent studied agriculture, and 30 percent prepared to be teachers. Students took only the courses that pertained to their field of study.

Health Care

The Soviet Union had the most extensive system of medical care in the world. The country had the world's highest ratio of physicians to population. The system was characterized, however, by simple facilities, cheap labor (physicians, more than 80 percent of whom were women, were near the bottom of the pay scale and earned less than the average factory worker), low technology, and emphasis on large volumes of basic services.

A source of national pride, medical care was supposed to be inflation-free and free of charge to all Soviet citizens. In practice, however, patients desirous of receiving better treatment often paid physicians navelo ("on the left"), that is, secretly.

Between 1970 and 1989 the number of physicians increased from 27 to 39 per 10,000 persons, and the number of hospital beds from 109 to 131. Despite the impressive numbers, the Soviet Ministry of Health received thousands of complaints about long lines at polyclinics, shortages of medicines and medical personnel, and overcrowded hospitals where patients lay in corridors. Such facts reflected a health-care system that not only lacked the high technology usually found in the developed industrial world but may not even have been adequate to treat many common ailments. There was a relatively high incidence, for example, of rickets, respiratory ailments, influenza, and pneumonia. Kidney dialysis machines were in extremely short supply, X-ray equipment lacked lead shielding, and disposable hypodermic needles were rare. Manually carried stretchers--not rolling gurneys--were still used. Even bed linens were at times in scarce supply. Many drugs that could be bought over the counter in any pharmacy in the West were extremely rare in the Soviet Union.

Sophisticated medical care traditionally was available to high-ranking members of the Communist party, and the general public was aware of this imbalance. Gorbachev set out to correct this system of privileges, deeming it unsuitable for a socialist society.

There was radical improvement in the health of the people of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1964, but this was followed by rising age-specific mortality rates and declining life expectancy. The rate of deaths from heart disease more than doubled between 1960 and 1983, and cancer deaths also increased sharply. Gorbachev placed health care high on his agenda of reforms. He made sweeping personnel changes in the Ministry of Health, and hundreds of administrators and hospital workers were dismissed. Wages for medical personnel were increased "substantially." His anti-alcohol campaign aimed to reduce the rate of alcoholism and to improve the overall health of the nation. The mortality rate fell after 1984, and there were indications that age-specific death rates were down and life expectancy was up.


The Soviet Union was in many ways an economic paradox. It ranked first or second in the output of most of the world's strategic minerals. It long led the world in cement and iron-ore production. During the 1970s it outstripped the United States in the output of steel, petroleum, and mineral fertilizers. In the 1980s it overtook the United States in the extraction of natural gas. Its ferroalloys, used in making steel, competed with southern Africa for world supremacy in production. It also took the lead in the output of some manufactures, such as tractors, woolen cloth, and butter. Its machine construction was numerically second only to the United States, and its chemical industry made spectacular advances from the early 1960s. All of these industrial resources and manufactured products laid the foundation for a mighty military complex that was one of the strongest in the world.

There is no question that the Soviet Union took great strides industrially in the 20th century. On the eve of the Revolution czarist Russia was a country of poor peasant farmers. They represented 69 percent of a population that was 87 percent rural. Despite the fact that in 1913 it ranked as the fifth largest industrial country, Russia registered a per capita income that was less than one sixth that of the United States.

The country always performed poorly in agriculture. The reasons are varied, but a major factor was weather. Canada has similar, though not identical, weather patterns in its farm belts, but Canada's population was less than 10 percent that of the Soviet Union. Canada could afford to leave much of its farmland in regenerative fallow.

The problem was not one of investment. Agriculture and defense allocations were estimated to account for nearly half of all Soviet investment. The Soviet government spent more money on agriculture (30 percent of gross national product, or GNP) than any other industrial country but did not reap equivalent benefits. When a crop failure occurred in the Soviet Union, it rippled through the economy like an earthquake--and there were more than six crop failures between 1970 and 1991.

Food is the most essential consumer good. Except for agriculture Soviet planners traditionally neglected the consumer sector, emphasizing heavy industry instead. The result was an economy dominated by a massive and successful military-heavy industrial base coupled with an agricultural base that at best muddled through. Little else was left for other consumer goods, and many goods that were produced were of such poor quality that few people wanted to buy them. The economy therefore consisted of a heavy industrial and armed forces sector commensurate with that of a developed country alongside a consumer sector comparable to that of a Third World country--an economic paradox.


Farming was conducted in an environment that differed from that of the Western world: short growing seasons, low average annual temperatures, and lack of balance in the distribution of precipitation. Such constraints restricted the availability of good farmland and created variations in food supply. The farm sector was vexed both by unreliable natural conditions and by a lack of work incentives for the farmer. Farm output consequently resembled a boom-or-bust cycle, but one that steadily rose between 1945 and 1978 but then flattened.

Soviet agriculture was huge. It accounted for nearly a third of total annual national investment and employed nearly 20 percent of the labor force. Farm production alone claimed 20 percent of annual investment and a similar share of the labor force, compared to less than 5 percent for both in the United States. Soviet farmers cultivated about a third more land than American farmers, but their average yield per acre was only 56 percent of that in the United States.

The lack of farm productivity, a problem dating from czarist times, affected trade in agricultural produce. Once one of the world's leading exporters of grain and other farm products, the Soviet Union became one of the world's largest importers of farm commodities. These failures were tied not only to the physical limitations of the agricultural base and poor wages for farmers, but also to the emphasis on collectivized and state-run farms; a bureaucracy that meddled in the affairs of farm managers; a poor infrastructure, including inadequate roads, storage facilities, and housing; a low quality of life; and poor performance of farm-support industries.

Traditional farming. A major stumbling block in the development of Soviet socialism was the backwardness of agriculture inherited from the czarist state. Small peasant farms, fragmented into widely dispersed, tiny strips of plowland, dominated the rural landscape. Since the farms were mainly sown with grain, fodder crops were scarce, pastures were often overgrazed, and the livestock sector was impoverished. Tools and methods were antiquated: in most areas sickles, scythes, and wooden plows were still in use, and chemical fertilizers were almost unknown. The obsolete three-field system of crop rotation (spring grain-winter grain-fallow), which dated from the 1500s, was evident virtually everywhere. In some areas (the colder north and Siberia), a two-field system (spring grain-fallow) was used. In Transcaucasia and Central Asia traditional subtropical and irrigation farming and semi-subsistence grazing of sheep prevailed.

This backwardness stemmed from the oppressive system of serfdom that existed in Russia between the 1500s and 1861. Under serfdom Russian noblemen were granted title to their landholdings by the czar in exchange for military or bureaucratic service. The landholding included all the peasants, or serfs, who lived on the land. The serfs were obliged to work for the lord in exchange for their right to use small farm strips. Serfs were bought or sold, were moved by the landlord at will, had no legal rights, and yet had to pay taxes to the state. Ironically, as serfdom intensified in Russia, it withered away in Western Europe. Like slavery in the United States, serfdom ended after its economic basis finally was discredited, and the peasants were emancipated in 1861.

Although peasants were legally free after 1861, most stayed in farming. The nobleman's estate was carved into peasant land--for which the nobleman was paid handsomely by the state--and noble property, which often became a large commercial farm worked by hired peasants. On the peasant land the authority of the noble landlord was replaced by the village commune (mir or obshchina). The commune, composed of the village elders, collected the redemption payments (a form of mortgage payment) from its peasant members. These payments were made at high interest for a period of no less than 40 years.

The commune held woodland, pastures, and plowland in common. Only the cottages, sheds, tools, animals, and garden plots adjacent to houses belonged to the peasant households. Members had access to the commons and at the commune meetings were allocated randomly distributed strips of plowland until the next reallocation. The choice of strips for a household was left to chance by drawing straws. As the number of households grew, the size of the strips became smaller. By the early 1900s the average size of a peasant holding was ridiculously small.

There were, however, scattered bits of technical and commercial progress. Large, successful gentry estates existed in the Baltics; there were rich sugar-beet plantations in Ukraine; and, in the steppes from southern Ukraine to the Volga River region, mechanized grain farms flourished. In the vicinity of Moscow and St. Petersburg (later Leningrad), multiple crop rotations added fodder grasses and potatoes to the three-field system, and better livestock herds were the result. In Central Asia new irrigation projects allowed creation of commercial cotton plantations. A significant number of hardworking peasants became private landowners, and many of the fragmented farms were consolidated, especially after 1905. This modernization and "stratification of the peasantry"--the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many--were described and disdained by Lenin. Lenin argued that because of these trends and others Russia was ripe for a proletarian revolution.

Socialist agriculture. Serfdom and the installation of the peasant commune after 1861 encouraged collectivism in agriculture. Whether because of their village orientation, the harshness of physical conditions, or some other reason, Russian farmers had always worked as a unit rather than as individuals.

Socialized farming, consisting of collective and state farm systems, was established during the 1930s. During the 1920s, under Lenin's New Economic Policy, a mixed farming economy arose in which land was nationalized but peasant farming prevailed. In 1928 more than 98 percent of the farm population and the sown area were nonsocialized. Joseph Stalin feared an entrenchment of private farming, and in his First Five-Year Plan (1928-33) he demanded radical collectivization of agriculture. By 1938, 93.5 percent of all peasant households were on collective or state farms.

The foundations of socialized agriculture rested in the teachings of Karl Marx, who believed that economies of scale operate in agriculture in the same way that they do in industry. Marx believed that large farms, like large factories, produce goods more cheaply than small ones. Marx's dream of the future included the organization of all workers into "industrial armies" working on large agricultural enterprises to produce food for their comrade workers in the cities--all "in accordance with a common [state] plan."

By the late 1980s most farms were part of the socialized sector of Soviet agriculture, of which 46 percent was state farmland and 54 percent collective farmland. About 8 percent of all farmland was in private plots that belonged either to farmers or urban residents.

The kolkhoz, or collective farm, consisted of a number of member families who were granted perpetual rights to rent-free state land. Membership was a birthright, and children normally were given membership on their 16th birthday. Typically families lived in small, individual cottages clustered in villages. Adjacent to each cottage was a rectangular private plot. Kolkhoz members were usually assigned to brigades, which were responsible for a production center such as a dairy or crop-production program. Often a brigade included all the members of a village. Workers received wages based on the number of hours contributed along with bonuses and production incentives.

A collective farm averaged 12,350 acres (5,000 hectares), of which 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) were in crops. It might include some 500 households, usually in more than one rural settlement within the limits of the farm. In the late 1980s the total number of collective farms in the Soviet Union was about 27,000. Formerly there had been many more, but some were converted to state farms and others consolidated.

The sovkhoz, or state farm, was the Marxian ideal: a state-operated "factory in the fields." Sovkhoz workers were state employees and were paid wages from state funds. They too received year-end bonuses if annual production exceeded targets.

The sovkhoz was normally much larger than the kolkhoz--typically about 42,000 acres (17,000 hectares). In the late 1980s there were about 23,000 state farms. In contrast to the kolkhoz headquarters, which ordinarily was a village, the center of the sovkhoz was a collection of apartments, dormitories, administrative buildings, and a cultural center.

Working units on the sovkhoz were also organized according to the brigade system, with permanently assigned personnel performing specific tasks. They were often assigned to the sovkhoz system upon graduation from a technical school in a distant town or city.

As the favored, truly proletarian, agricultural organization, the number of state farms grew from the 1950s. They lent themselves to central control.

Private agriculture. Known officially as the personal subsidiary holding, the private plot consisted of a small parcel of land around a village dwelling. The maximum size of a private holding was 1.2 acres (0.5 hectare), with the average size about 0.75 acre (0.3 hectare). This included the land occupied by the cottage. Most of the land was taken up by kitchen gardens, but the private holding might also include a cow, a pig, and up to ten sheep and goats.

In the late 1980s there were 32 million Soviet families (kolkhozniki, sovkhozniki, and urbanites) operating some form of private plot. Comprising about 8 percent of the agricultural area, private plots yielded 64 percent of the Soviet potato crop (much of which was fed to pigs); 58 percent of the fruit; 33 percent of the vegetables; 1 percent of the grain; 19 percent of the consumed beef; 40 percent of the pork, mutton, and goat meat; 38 percent of the poultry meat; 30 percent of the milk; and 32 percent of the eggs.

Gorbachev assigned high priority to improving efficiency and reducing the enormous costs of food production. A major element of his program was to shift the share of investment away from farms and into development of the rural infrastructure, food processing, and agricultural supportive industries (machinery and chemicals). He also restructured the agricultural hierarchy under a single superministry-- Gosagroprom. Gorbachev strongly supported economic incentives instead of administrative directives as a means of regulating enterprise activity.

Crops. The principal food crops were grains (mainly wheat, rye, rice, buckwheat, and millet), potatoes, sugar beets, and vegetables. The Soviet Union was the world's largest producer of wheat.

Of land under cultivation, 55 percent was planted with grain in the 1980s, including 23 percent in wheat, 14 percent in barley, 6 percent in oats, and 12 percent in other grains and pulses. Grain acreage declined from 1980, and the area sown to feed crops (grasses, silage, green corn, and other fodder) increased. The area sown to industrial crops--like cotton, sugar beets, flax, hemp, and sunflowers--declined slightly as did the acreage in potatoes and vegetables.

Livestock. After 1955 Soviet leaders placed heavy emphasis on increased production of meat and dairy products. Livestock herds increased steadily, but production was erratic. Two thirds of the livestock was equally divided between dairy cows and beef cattle; pigs made up 17 percent and poultry 16 percent. Between 1980 and 1985, 55 percent of livestock feed consisted of domestic and imported grain; the remainder consisted of hay and silage.

Agricultural regions. Different regions emphasized different agricultural specializations. Well over half the country--from just north of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) to Lake Baikal and north of the Amur River to Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands--consisted of forests and tundra where there was little agriculture beyond reindeer herding, dairying, and raising root crops. An exception was Yakutia, where cattle and horses were raised on natural pasture and hay in forest clearings. Spring grains were also raised in sheltered river valleys.

Mixed and broadleaf forests stretched from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and L'vov (now L'viv) to Irkutsk. There flax, potatoes, oats, rye, barley, hay, and livestock were raised.

The largest and most important agricultural area was the Fertile Triangle. In its heart, the region north of the Black Sea, the steppes and forest steppes yielded wheat, sugar beets, sunflowers, corn, and livestock. Winter wheat was raised primarily west of the Volga River. Spring wheat grew in northern Kazakhstan and Siberia. Central Ukraine was known for sugar beets. Prized sunflowers grew in a belt running from Rostov-on-the-Don to Kuybyshev (now Samara). Corn yields were best in the North Caucasus and on the fringe of the Black Sea.

The humid subtropics of the Colchis and Lenkoran' lowlands in Transcaucasia were known for citrus, tea, tobacco, grapes, other fruits and vegetables, corn, rice, and livestock. The deserts (dry subtropics) of Central Asia were noted for irrigated cotton, rice, alfalfa, sugar beets, and a host of other exotic crops. These crops plus dry-farmed wheat were also raised in the semiarid mountain headlands of Central Asia, including the Fergana Basin. Here seasonal livestock raising was also conducted. The Amur River valley and the maritime province of the Soviet Far East were noted for wheat, sugar beets, soybeans, rice, grain sorghums, and livestock.


The Soviet Union contained the largest domestic forest in the world: roughly 80 billion cubic meters of wood, or 34 percent of world reserves, including 58 percent of the world's coniferous forest. Forestry industries suffered from bad geographic distribution. Only a fifth of the forest was in the Urals and European Russia, closest to the markets, whereas 80 percent was in Siberia. Of the annual cut of up to 425 million cubic meters, two thirds was in the Urals and European Russia and one third in Siberia.

Soviet loggers consistently "mined" their forests, and those forest areas accessible to loggers were over-cut. More than 346 million acres (140 million hectares) awaited reforestation. The huge reserve of forest was taken for granted by the cumbersome state bureaucracy. Much of the forest was cut over and diseased, and the vast majority of the healthy forest remained inaccessible.


Fish was a major element in the Soviet diet. Until 1955 most of the fish came from domestic fishing grounds, but Soviet fishing fleets later expanded enormously. They were on every ocean in the world and vied with Japan for world leadership in the annual harvest. Nearly 90 percent of the Soviet catch came from marine fisheries--chiefly the Pacific Ocean, North Atlantic, and east-central Atlantic. Most of the remaining catch was from the Caspian, Black, and Azov seas.

The stocking of inland lakes and streams and the establishment of fish farms and hatcheries were emphasized from the 1960s. By 1980 more than 320 freshwater fish farms, with a surface area of about 371,000 acres (150,000 hectares), had been created in ponds, reservoirs, and ditches.

Soviet aquaculturists were successful in increasing the productivity of these farms by adding nutrients to the water. Fish hatcheries along the Volga River helped to restore populations of the valuable caviar-producing sturgeon, whose numbers were reduced after construction of large dams on the river.


Mining was a far more significant sector of the Soviet economy than in other developed countries. This was partly because other sectors were weakly developed and partly because the Soviet raw-material base was extensive and relatively inexpensive to exploit. Apart from shortages of barite, bauxite, fluorite, tin, and tungsten, the Soviet mining industry was well endowed with virtually every other mineral.

The major obstacle to Soviet mining was the distance between regions of supply and demand, making it necessary to haul minerals over long distances. A quarter of the country--including the Urals, Transcaucasia, and the rest of the European Soviet Union--contained three quarters of the population and four fifths of industrial and agricultural production but had only one quarter of the country's mineral resources.

Kazakhstan and Central Asia, furthermore, contained 14 percent of the population, 18 percent of the area of the country, 7 percent of the industry, 11 percent of the agriculture, and less than 10 percent of the raw-material base. Siberia, with a mere 11 percent of the population, had 57 percent of Soviet territory and more than 67 percent of all the resources. Its industrial and agricultural products accounted for 13 and 8 percent, respectively.

Coal. In the mid-1980s the Soviet Union fell to third in the world in coal production (after the United States and China), its industry having fallen on hard times from the late 1970s. The country had the largest quantity of coal resources of any nation, but most of the fuel was in inaccessible deposits in eastern Siberia and was inferior brown coal (lignite). Eastern regions yielded more than half of all Soviet coal. Long-distance rail transport was required to reach consumers in the Urals and beyond.

Iron and steel. The Soviet iron and steel industry was heavily concentrated in the European section and the Urals, where most of the iron-ore reserves were found (in the Kursk Magnetic Anomaly, Krivoy Rog, and the southern Urals). The Soviet Union long led the world in iron-ore production, and from 1970 it led in steel production as well.

Petroleum and natural gas. From the 1960s there was a spectacular increase in the production of petroleum and natural gas. The Soviet Union came to lead in world output of both. This rapid development was the result of drilling operations in western Siberia in the Middle Ob' Basin. As of 1964 no oil was produced in western Siberia. In 1986 the region produced nearly 400 million metric tons, or 65 percent of Soviet output. Other oil-producing areas included the Volga-Urals region, the Caspian Basin (both on- and offshore), and the Timan-Pechora region.

Natural gas, not oil, paced the growth in Soviet energy. The country contained as much as a third of the world's natural gas reserves. Again the driving force was western Siberia in the Lower Ob' Basin. In the 1960s western Siberia yielded a mere trace of natural gas, but by 1985 it produced 58 percent of the country's output. Other regions of natural gas included the Lower Volga, Central Asia, the southern Urals, and the Timan-Pechora complex.


Although hydroelectric development began in the European section, Siberia had the greatest potential. Most of this was concentrated in the Yenisey-Angara Basin of central Siberia. The Siberian development program involved the construction of some of the world's largest dams--Bratsk, Krasnoyarsk, Ust'-Ilimsk, Sayanogorsk, and Boguchany--and the establishment of such associated power-consuming industries as aluminum reduction and wood-pulp manufacture. Half of Siberia's electricity was from hydroelectric installations. Other major dams were built along the Volga and Dnepr rivers and on fast-moving streams in the high mountains of Transcaucasia and Central Asia.


Before the 1917 Revolution only 2 percent of the population worked in factories. Nearly four fifths of industrial activity was situated in only five regions: Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Baltic region, southern and eastern Ukraine (including the Donbas), the Urals, and northwestern Ukraine (including Kiev). Until 1928 this pattern changed only slightly. Lenin's State Plan for Electrification established electric power in peripheral areas, but most new industry was light manufacturing.

Stalin's early five-year plans before World War II promoted heavy industry and indelibly changed the industrial landscape. Two thirds of all new projects were heavy industrial enterprises or power plants. Of 370 major industrial construction projects begun between 1928 and 1940, more than a third were located in former peripheral areas, and nearly two fifths were in new towns.

Foreseeing the threat of war, Stalin hurriedly tried to disperse the industrial base from the vulnerable European section to the east. His abbreviated Third Five-Year Plan (1938-42) stressed this need, and the war accelerated the process. Between July and November 1941, 1,500 factories were moved from Soviet Europe to eastern areas, especially the Urals (667), Turkestan (308), western Siberia (244), and eastern Siberia (78). After the war these factories stayed in place, but the need for reconstruction in the west took priority over further eastern development until the 1960s.

By the 1960s about 40 percent of manufacturing became concentrated in the central industrial district--including Moscow and Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod)--where diversified machine-building, textile, and chemical industries were located. Perhaps 15 percent of Soviet manufacturing was in southern and eastern Ukraine, where there was metallurgy, machine building, chemicals, and food processing. The Volga-Urals region--concentrating on chemicals, machinery, metallurgy, and wood processing--may have produced another 15 percent. The Leningrad area, with its skilled labor force, held more than 5 percent of Soviet manufacturing, including electronics, instruments, diversified machinery, textiles, and wood products. By the late 1980s, 80 percent of Soviet manufacturing was still based in the European section of the country. Siberia had only 12 percent of the industry, and Kazakhstan and Central Asia accounted for the rest of the Soviet Union's output.

Distribution and Trade

The State Planning Commission (Gosplan) decided what products various enterprises in the different industrial branches would manufacture. The agency set weekly, monthly, and annual production targets, which plant managers had to meet or surpass.

Changes under Gorbachev included a liberalized target system. Annual targets were still set, but how plant managers fulfilled the targets became their responsibility. The state procurement agencies had taken most of the output, but the state's share was now lowered to 25 percent and below. Factories dealt directly not only with suppliers but also with retailers without interference from above. Success was based on profit. In 1988 all Soviet enterprises switched to local cost accounting (khozcaschet) and self-financing, both of which had been done at the central level.

A cooperative and private industrial sector was also encouraged by Gorbachev. Cooperative markets in agriculture had existed for many years. Most of the produce from private plots was sold in the collective farm market at much higher prices than in state stores.

The Soviet Union usually achieved a favorable foreign trade balance except in years of crop failure. Such trade was only a small share of Soviet GNP--less than 10 percent. Most trade was with socialist countries (58 percent), but 30 percent was with developed capitalist countries and 12 percent with Third World countries. The Soviet Union maintained healthy trade balances with socialist and Third World countries, but it had trade deficits with developed capitalist countries, with which it exchanged raw materials for finished products and technology. This and the nonconvertibility of the ruble created a large foreign debt. The government continually sought hard foreign currencies to pay for imports of technology from Western nations and Japan.


The Soviet domestic transportation system was the most heavily used in the world. It carried three times as much freight per kilometer, for instance, as did the network in the United States. The expansion of the country's rail, pipeline, river, and maritime programs was ambitious and largely successful. Yet historically the Soviet government placed a low priority on transportation in relation to other branches of the economy.

Railways. Railway construction began in Russia in 1837 with a short line between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin). By 1913 more than 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) of track were in operation. With few exceptions (the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Caspian, and others), the overwhelming majority of lines were concentrated in European Russia. With the fall of the czar, railroad building continued under Soviet rule, but from 1938 added rail traffic outstripped the construction of new track. By 1990 the length of the Soviet system surpassed 91,000 miles (146,000 kilometers), but it was still little more than half the trackage of the United States.

Without sufficient track to absorb the rapidly expanding demand, Soviet planners called for increasing train weights and lengths, causing safety problems. This in turn affected the relative performance of the railroads. In 1940, 85 percent of ton-kilometers were by rail; by the 1980s the share fell to less than half. The principal cargoes of Soviet railroads were coal, building materials, and refined petroleum products.

Pipelines. The chief contributor to the shift in the transport balance was the pipeline. Until 1955 nearly 65 percent of the country's energy needs was satisfied by coal combustion, and a large portion of the oil was hauled by rail. A decision to convert from the burning of coal to oil and natural gas stimulated an unprecedented demand for trunk pipelines. Pipeline length increased from 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) to more than 184,000 miles (296,000 kilometers) in 1990. Later expansion was between the Ob' Basin and the West, including Eastern and Western Europe.

Roads and highways. The neglect of motor vehicle transportation has been characterized as the greatest weakness in the Soviet transportation network. Soviet roadways were always few in number, and they ranked among the poorest in the world. (Most farm-to-market roads in the United States were superior to the Moscow-Leningrad Highway.) The roads were especially bad in farming regions, causing delays in bringing harvests to markets.

Although inadequate, the network of surfaced roads continued to expand. The proportion of paved roads increased from 40 percent in 1971 to 88 percent in 1989, but the term hard-surfaced was used to describe anything from gravel-covered rural roads to concrete city streets.

For years the majority of Soviet motor vehicles were trucks, but there was a fivefold growth of passenger cars between 1970 and 1983. In the late 1980s there were about 13 million passenger cars, a per capita figure 12 times smaller than in the United States and 50 percent smaller than in Mexico. A third of the cars belonged to government officials. More than 9 million trucks hauled more than half of the cargo around the country, most of it over long distances. Railroads carried the bulk of the small and short-distance traffic, for which they were ill suited.

Rivers. In 1913 Russian waterways carried nearly half as many shipments as were carried by rail. While expressing enthusiasm for waterway transport, Soviet leaders gave it low priority for investment, particularly in boats and port facilities. Most Soviet rivers were frozen for at least 80 days a year. The major inland waterway, the Volga, for example, freezes for three to five months. By 1990 inland waterways were no longer a significant factor in the overall transport balance, carrying only 3 percent of the freight and 0.5 percent of the passengers.

Maritime. Soviet marine shipments grew rapidly between 1950 and 1990--from 23rd in world shipping to 4th place. The Soviet Union was bounded by the sea along 70 percent of its border, but much of the coastline was either frozen for part of the year or lacked good harbor facilities.

Much of the effort in expanding maritime activity after 1970 aimed to lengthen the navigation season of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean. Frozen for as long as nine months of the year, the route was kept navigable with atomic icebreakers, which led convoys of conventional icebreakers and freighters between Murmansk, Dudinka, and Noril'sk. Maritime shipping accounted for as much as 14 percent of all Soviet freight haulage. The principal basins were the Black and Azov seas, the Caspian Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Far East, and the northern seas.

Air. Soviet aviation carried an increasingly large share of passenger traffic but only a trace of the overall freight. Limited to the mail and high-value, low-weight materials and finished products, airlines hauled little more than 3.3 million tons of freight each year, compared to 4 billion tons shipped by rail. After the pipelines, however, aviation was the fastest-growing branch of transportation. Most of the increase was in intercity passenger flights.

The Soviet airline Aeroflot became the largest airline in the world. It employed 400,000 people and operated more than 6,500 aircraft of all types, flying to 3,500 domestic locations and 84 foreign countries.


In the early 1990s there was one telephone for every six Soviet citizens. Most countries of Western Europe had about one telephone for every two persons.

Radio and television were much more common--with about one radio for every 1.5 persons and one television for every three persons. This was a higher rate than in any other advanced industrial country except the United States, Japan, Canada, France, and Great Britain. The Soviet Union had its own telecommunications satellites. Usually within two years of the establishment of an urban settlement in a remote area such as northeastern Siberia, television transmitters beamed programs from the main Moscow channel and a local or regional channel.


The capital city of the Soviet Union was Moscow in the Russian Federation, and the government was headquartered in Moscow's Kremlin. This medieval fortress served as the center of Russian government until 1712, when the capital was moved to St. Petersburg. The Kremlin again became the capitol of the Soviet state after 1918 

The Soviet state had a dual structure: one part was represented by the Communist party, and the other was the official government organization. Each side had a parallel hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid. In theory power flowed upward from the broad base, but in reality only high-level party officials made the major decisions.

Communist Party

The Communist party was an elite organization. Its membership rarely exceeded from 6 to 12 percent of the population. Membership was regarded as a great privilege and a reflection of high moral character and leadership qualities. Any person 18 years of age or older could join the party. In order to join the party, however, one needed recommendations by three party members in good standing and approval by the regional party organization. Young persons between the ages of 15 and 27 could become members of the Young Communist League (Komsomol).

Although at 20 million members the Communist party was relatively small, it affected all aspects of Soviet life through the primary party organization (PPO). Composed of three or more members, PPOs were found in factories, offices, military platoons, and on farms.

In accordance with the Leninist principle of democratic centralism, PPO members elected a secretary from among their members who represented them at the next higher level (raykom or gorkom). At each ensuing level a secretary was chosen until the top of the party pyramid was reached.

Each level of the hierarchy (rayon or city, kray or oblast, republic or region) held a congress. Republic or regional congresses elected deputies to the all-union congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. The all-union party congress, which met once every five years, elected members of the Central Committee, which in turn selected the Secretariat.

Standing committees at each level were staffed by full-time party functionaries. The party apparatus consisted of about 300,000 employees in the early 1990s. The apparatchiks, as these people were called, composed the bulk of party officers. They were guided in their work by the Secretariat, which handled the day-to-day implementation of decisions made by the Politburo.

The Politburo was the highest administrative unit in the Communist party and the most powerful Soviet political body. Like those of the Secretariat, its members were selected by the Central Committee. Members of the Central Committee or of its Politburo made all major state decisions. Some Politburo members were also members of the Secretariat. The first secretary of the Secretariat was also general secretary of the Politburo. Decisions made by the Politburo were binding on all persons and units below. Simultaneously, its decrees were automatically ratified by the parallel government structures.

A failed coup in August 1991 by Communist party hard-liners led the Soviet parliament to suspend all Communist party activities. Individual republics took over the party's property and funds.

Government Organization

The government bureaucracy consisted of both elective and appointive bodies.

Elective bodies. Among the elective bodies was the two-chamber Supreme Soviet (Council), which had 1,500 members who met twice a year in Moscow. One chamber, the Soviet of the Union, was a body whose 750 deputies were elected on the basis of one representative for every 375,000 people. The other chamber was the Soviet of Nationalities, whose 750 deputies represented a given national administrative unit--Russians, Tatars, Uzbeks, and so on. The relative allocation of the 750 seats on the Soviet of Nationalities depended on the rank of a given ethnic group on the "nationalities ladder." The 15 republics had 32 deputies each; the 20 autonomous republics, 11 deputies each; the eight autonomous oblasts, five deputies each; and the ten autonomous okrugs, one deputy each.

The two houses were elected popularly once every five years by more than 180 million voters, 90 percent of whom were nonparty members. To be eligible to vote, citizens had to be at least 18 years of age. Voting was done in secret, and at least 97 percent of the electorate turned out to vote.

Candidates--both party and nonparty members--were carefully screened by the local heads of the Communist party. Each office on the ballot listed the name of a single party-approved nominee, but there was room for write-ins. Candidates had to be at least 23 years old. Of those elected to the Supreme Soviet, 80 percent were party members.

The two annual sessions of the Supreme Soviet lasted only a few days. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was elected at a joint meeting of the two chambers. It acted as a legislative body when the Supreme Soviet was not in session. The Presidium approved or ratified legislation proposed by the ministries and central administrations of government. Its senior ranking member was the president of the Supreme Soviet, who more often than not was also the party's general secretary.

The Supreme Soviet was nominally the highest legislative body. Although the Supreme Soviet debated issues, it never vetoed legislation proposed by the Council of Ministers. Such legislation had already been approved by the Presidium. No legislation ever originated with the Supreme Soviet, though technically it could.

Under a nominally federal system each of the 15 republics also had a Supreme Soviet. There was also a system of regional and local soviets.

The Soviet parliament approved changes to the constitution on Dec. 1, 1988. The new legislature consisted of two bodies. The upper house, called the Congress of People's Deputies, had 2,250 members, 1,500 of whom were elected from regional and national districts and 750 of whom were selected by party organizations, social and professional organizations, trade unions, and other groups. Members met once a year in Moscow and were responsible for electing the lower house. The deputies were each limited to two five-year terms. The Supreme Soviet, the lower house, was a parliament made up of 400 to 450 members, who were selected from the members of the Congress of People's Deputies. It met every year for two sessions of four months each and ruled on foreign and domestic policies. It also elected the executive president of the Soviet Union. The first law passed by the new Supreme Soviet granted workers the right to strike.

Appointive bodies. Among appointive bodies the highest was the Council of Ministers. Most of its members were also high-ranking officials in the Communist party and most were members of the Central Committee. Ministers previously screened by the party were proposed to the Supreme Soviet by the chairman of the Council of Ministers through the Presidium. They were automatically approved.

The Council of Ministers was the chief executive body of Soviet government. Alone, or jointly with the Central Committee of the Communist party, it formally issued all major legislative and administrative orders. These were automatically ratified by the Supreme Soviet.

Members of the Council of Ministers headed the various ministries, commissions, and committees of government that ran day-to-day activities. Each minister dealt with the affairs of a specific branch of the economy or of a given region.

Key appointive administrative posts, like those of the Council of Ministers, were filled only with the approval of the Communist party. Appointive positions, which could not be filled without party consent, were called nomenklatura (patronage) jobs. Holders of these positions were among the most powerful members of Soviet society.

Mikhail Gorbachev restructured the ministries. His purpose was to streamline them and make them more efficient. Former bureaucrats were recycled into other more productive sectors of the economy.

The Council of Ministers had its own Presidium of a dozen or more members, comparable in size and function to the Politburo on the party side. The chief executive of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers was called the chairman, or premier. The premier inevitably was a ranking member of the Politburo. In 1989 the country held its first elections since 1917 in which voters had a choice of candidates for each office.

In February 1990 the Supreme Soviet created the office of president of the Soviet Union, a new executive presidency with widely expanded powers. Subsequent presidents were to be elected in popular nationwide voting.

The attempted coup in August 1991 led to the collapse of central controls and accelerated the process of change in the Soviet Union. In September the Congress of People's Deputies approved a sweeping transfer of power to a State Council, a transitional executive authority composed of President Mikhail Gorbachev and leaders of the ten participating republics. The independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had already been recognized; Moldavia (now Moldova) and Georgia did not sign the new plan. A new two-house legislature, consisting of the Council of the Union and the Council of the Republics, was expected to set up a commission to draft a new constitution. A new union treaty was expected to be negotiated among the participating republics, but it was never signed and the union ultimately disintegrated.

Judicial bodies. Justice was administered by the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, the Supreme Court of each of the union republics, regional courts, and local peoples' courts. Special officials called procurators supervised the courts to make sure that state law was strictly observed. Judges were elected by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union for a period of five years. The procurator general served for seven years.

International Relations

Soviet leaders believed that capitalist countries were inherently expansionist and that they were a threat to Soviet security. Relations with the West typically were undermined by an air of suspicion and hostility--the Cold War. The Cold War did not become a hot war because the Soviets believed in the inevitable collapse of capitalism and because both sides had huge nuclear capabilities. Marxist-Leninist doctrine provided a theoretical basis for the special relationship of the Soviet state with the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and with Communist parties elsewhere. It also helped to explain the intense Soviet interest in the less developed countries, already predisposed against capitalism because of its association with their colonial pasts, as they sought ways to modernize.

Nonideological considerations also played a role in influencing Soviet policy toward the West, toward ruling and nonruling Communist parties, and toward developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nonideological considerations included the protection of Soviet security through a defensive buffer, the need for extensive foreign trade to obtain exchangeable currency, and the desire for prestige and recognition as a global superpower.

The Gorbachev administration showed a willingness to rethink its interpretation of relations with capitalist countries. Historically, relations with the West improved whenever the Russian or Soviet economy needed help: in the early 1700s under Peter the Great, in the late 1700s under Catherine the Great, between 1890 and 1917 under Nicholas II, in the 1930s under Stalin, and in the 1970s under Brezhnev. The difference between the earlier improvements and those made under Gorbachev was that Gorbachev realized that the Soviet economy was in a state of crisis and needed drastic reforms to survive.


The last czar of all the Russias, Nicholas II, led his country into a disastrous war against Germany and Austria in August 1914. His own incompetent leadership in the field and the government's inability to supply and equip its armies led to enormous military failures with millions of lives lost. By March 1917 there were severe food shortages, resulting in mass rioting in the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg). As casualties mounted, soldiers deserted the military and joined the peasants in revolt in St. Petersburg. The newly elected Duma, or parliament, demanded the abdication of the czar. Nicholas stepped down on March 15, and he and his family were exiled. This was the first phase of the Russian Revolution.

Revolution and the Soviet Union

The March 1917 revolution was over within a week with little bloodshed. For a time the government was in the hands of the nonsocialist Constitutional Democrats. In July, however, power passed to Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky wanted to continue the war against Germany, but the Russian people did not.

Bolsheviks take power. At this point a group of socialists schooled in the doctrines of Karl Marx filtered into Petrograd. Many had been in exile in Russia and abroad. They were few in number, though the name Bolsheviks means "majority men." They were extremely well organized and dedicated, and they had a program. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) was the Bolsheviks' undisputed leader. Lenin aimed to overthrow Russia's infant capitalist system, which he would then replace with a dictatorship of the proletariat (workers) based on the principles that had been espoused by Marx. 

October Revolution. Thousands of revolutionary soviets (councils) had sprung up all over Russia. The Bolsheviks carried on propaganda campaigns among them. By October 1917 the party controlled the majority of the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow.

On October 25 the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was scheduled to meet in Petrograd. Early that morning Red Guards poured into the city, surrounded the Winter Palace, and occupied the railroad stations, the ministries, and the state bank. When the Congress of Soviets met that night, Lenin was proclaimed premier. The event is called the October Revolution because Russia still used the old calendar, but according to the calendar now in use, the event took place on November 7. The October Revolution itself was over in a week, and fighting was limited to the major cities. Eight months later the former czar and his entire family were executed near the city of Ekaterinburg.

The new government assumed ownership of all land and took control of industry. In March 1918 a treaty of peace was signed with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. By the terms of the treaty Russia recognized Germany's claims to the Caucasus and Ukraine. In addition, Russia agreed to give up Poland and the Baltic states and pay huge indemnities.

Civil war and famine. Between 1918 and 1922 the Bolsheviks were confronted with civil war, intervention by foreign troops, and terrible famine. "White" armies of soldiers loyal to the czar challenged the Bolshevik "Red" armies. The White armies were supplied by foreign interventionists--including British, American, and Japanese--and were quite successful at first. Having finished with Germany, the victorious Western Allies wanted to use troops to try to defeat the Soviet revolution. Most of these troops arrived in the far north at Archangel. After the surrender of Germany in 1918 Poland invaded Belorussia (now Belarus), Ukraine was recovered in 1919, and the Caucasus in 1922. In Russia the Reds finally defeated the Whites, the interventionists withdrew, and Lenin made peace with Poland. On Dec. 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially established.

In economic chaos, Russia had suffered a drought in 1921, causing widespread famine and disease. The American Relief Administration, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, fed millions, but many people died. In 1921 Lenin inaugurated the New Economic Policy (NEP), encouraging individual initiative in the farm sector. The NEP temporarily reinvigorated the Soviet economy by providing sufficient food for everyone.

Stalin Years

Lenin died in 1924, and a struggle for leadership began between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. As secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party, Stalin stripped Trotsky of power and exiled him in 1928. 

Stalin continued Lenin's NEP until 1928. Fearing the entrenchment of a capitalist class in agriculture, however, he initiated the First Five-Year Plan. The plan called for rapid growth in heavy industry and collectivization of agriculture.

Rapid and forced collectivization of agriculture resulted in great inefficiencies, the deportation of millions of the wealthier peasants, and confiscation of grain. Rather than yield their livestock to the new collectives, many farmers slaughtered them. A man-made famine resulted. In 1932 about 3 million people died of starvation in Ukraine alone. Nevertheless, when the First Five-Year Plan ended in 1932 the government announced that great progress had been made. Peasant resistance had been smashed, and the country was on the road to industrialization.

Stalin meanwhile tightened his grip on the government and the Red Army by means of a series of purges. In 1935 and 1936 nearly 500,000 people were executed, imprisoned, or forced into labor camps. He further consolidated his position through the Great Purge trials of 1936-39. Through this system Stalin eliminated his rivals. He systematically employed the services of the secret police (later known as the KGB) to root out "political criminals."

Stalin's foreign policy was equally ruthless. Like Lenin, he believed that the Soviet state would never be totally secure until the entire world was communist. Many nations were disturbed by the Third, or Communist, International, known as the Comintern. The Comintern directed the activities of Communist parties outside the Soviet Union. It gathered information by espionage, caused labor troubles and other civil discord, and undermined governments.

In Germany the Communist party played a major part in helping destroy the Weimar Republic. Its destruction, however, brought Adolf Hitler, an outspoken anti-Communist, to power. Stalin then began to advocate "collective security" and ordered the Comintern to tone down its propaganda. With the apparent change in the Communist program, President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, and in 1934 it joined the League of Nations.

Stalin-Hitler pact. On Aug. 23, 1939, Stalin and Hitler signed a Soviet-German nonaggression pact. This assured Hitler that he would not have to fight a war on two fronts. On September 1 the Nazis attacked Poland, and World War II began. Shortly thereafter Soviet troops occupied eastern Poland.

In November the Soviets attacked Finland and defeated the Finns in three months of bitter fighting. In 1940 Soviet authorities annexed the Baltic states--Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia--and Moldavia (now Moldova), a part of Romania.

Germany invades the Soviet Union. Much against the advice of his generals, Hitler ordered the Nazi armies to invade the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in pursuit of the rich granaries of Ukraine and the petroleum fields of the Caucasus. By November the Germans had reached the suburbs of Moscow. In the north, aided by the Finns, they had surrounded Leningrad (St. Petersburg). In the south, aided by the Romanians, they reached Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1942.

That spring supplies from the United States and Great Britain poured into the Soviet Union. Soviet fighters were soon fed and outfitted by the very capitalists who were so much despised by Stalin. By the end of the war, the United States had given more than 11 billion dollars in aid to the Soviet Union. Ultimately the Germans were defeated by reequipped Soviet soldiers, severe winter weather, and a scorched-earth policy. Early in 1943 the Red Army forced the surrender of 22 enfeebled German divisions at Stalingrad. Counterattacking on all fronts, Soviet forces reached Berlin, victoriously, in 1945. No one knows exactly what the Soviet war losses were, but it has been estimated that 20 million soldiers and civilians died directly because of the war and as many as 15 million births were not realized because of it.

Yalta and Potsdam. In February 1945 Stalin met with Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula. Stalin promised to enter the war against Japan three months after the end of hostilities in Europe. The Soviets turned against Japan on Aug. 8, 1945. They fought no battles, but when Japan surrendered on September 2 the Red Army had moved into northern Korea and into much of Manchuria.

After Germany's unconditional surrender, representatives of the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain met again--in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. At this conference Germany and Austria were both divided into four zones--each zone to be occupied by one of the Big Three nations and France. Although entirely within the Soviet German sector (East Germany), the city of Berlin was also carved into four parts. 

Eastern Europe. At Yalta and Potsdam Stalin promised that in Soviet-occupied Europe there would be civil liberties, free elections, and representative governments. In all of these countries, however, Moscow-trained political leaders supported by the military succeeded in gaining power. Anti-Communists were soon dead, in jail, or in exile.

As a concession to foreign opinion, the Comintern was dissolved in 1943. In 1947 it was revived as the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau). It controlled the Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe.

Cold War. The Soviet Union was a charter member of the United Nations and one of the Big Five on the Security Council. In the council Soviet representatives used their veto power to halt disarmament plans and to prevent action against Soviet aggression.

In 1948 Stalin tried to drive the Western powers out of Berlin by blockading the city and starving the people. Great Britain and the United States broke the blockade, bringing in food by air. 

On April 4, 1949, the United States, Canada, and most of the countries of Western Europe signed a pact creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which provided that an armed attack against any one of them should be considered an attack against them all. When West Germany was admitted into NATO in 1955, the Soviet Union reacted by forming the Warsaw Pact defense alliance with the countries of Eastern Europe.

Marxism-Leninism in Asia. In 1924 Outer Mongolia had become a people's republic. A Communist government was established in North Korea in 1948. From Manchuria Soviet forces were partially withdrawn to allow the Chinese Communists to take over much of the industrial area as a base for operations against the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war. In 1949 Chinese Communists finally drove the Nationalist government off the mainland and set up a government modeled on that of the Soviet Union. In February 1950 Communist China and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship, alliance, and mutual assistance. The United Nations created the republic of South Korea when the Soviets refused to allow free elections in a unified Korea. On June 25, 1950, Soviet-trained North Koreans, using Soviet tanks and equipment, invaded South Korea. The United Nations was able to take action against the aggression because the Soviets boycotted the Security Council. 

Khrushchev: The Curious Reformer

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Party leaders announced that the nation would be ruled by a committee, headed by Georgi M. Malenkov. Nikita S. Khrushchev seemed to be the least important member of the ruling group. In a few days, however, Malenkov "voluntarily" resigned the key post of first secretary of the party, and Khrushchev took over. Malenkov kept his title of premier, but two years later Khrushchev forced Malenkov to resign that position. Nikolai Bulganin took Malenkov's place.

In 1956 Khrushchev, in what was considered a very bold move, denounced Stalin in a secret speech before the Communist party congress. He also dissolved the Cominform. Several satellite countries were at once encouraged to strike out for more independence. The Poles rioted, and the Hungarians launched a full-scale revolt that the Soviet army quickly suppressed.

Khrushchev next moved against his enemies in the government. In July 1957 Malenkov was again demoted along with the foreign minister, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, and other prominent leaders. In March 1958 Khrushchev ousted Bulganin and took the title of premier himself.

Soviet strides in science and technology scored propaganda victories and aroused concern in the West. The successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile was announced in August 1957, and in October Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite, rocketed into orbit. In April 1961 Soviet scientists sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth. 

In 1958 and 1959 Soviet leaders demanded that Western troops be removed from Berlin. Later Khrushchev made friendship visits to the United States and Asia. Hoping to promote a summit meeting of heads of state, he did not press the Berlin demands. But the four-power conference collapsed in May 1960.

In 1961 Soviet officials ordered a wall built between East and West Berlin. Ignoring a no-testing agreement with the West, they also resumed nuclear weapons tests. In 1962 United States President John F. Kennedy demanded that Soviet offensive missiles be withdrawn from Cuba. Facing a United States naval blockade of Cuba and the threat of nuclear war, Khrushchev yielded. 

In 1960 the Communist party congress narrowly endorsed Khrushchev's doctrine of peaceful coexistence with the West. Soviet representatives signed a limited nuclear test-ban treaty with the Western nations in 1963. The following year Khrushchev was ousted. 

Brezhnev to Gorbachev

Leonid I. Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev as first secretary (later called general secretary) with Aleksei N. Kosygin as premier. In 1966 the Soviets landed an unmanned vehicle on the moon and sent a satellite into moon orbit. In 1968 they led a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to halt that country's liberalization movement. Relations with China deteriorated during the 1960s.

During the Brezhnev years there was emphasis on detente with the West along with a massive arms buildup. In the 1970s and early 1980s the Soviet government came under international pressure for suppressing dissent within the country and restricting the emigration of Jews. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to preserve a newly established Marxist regime. Although Brezhnev had singled out Konstantin Chernenko as his successor, Yuri Andropov became general secretary after Brezhnev's death in 1982. Chernenko, who had replaced Andropov as second secretary, succeeded Andropov, who died in 1984. When Chernenko died in 1985, the second secretary was Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

In March 1988 Gorbachev signed a bilateral arms reduction agreement known as the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty with the United States. He called for the elimination of all nuclear arms by the year 2000 and withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Also in 1989 Gorbachev visited Cuba. He and Cuban President Fidel Castro signed a friendship treaty in which they pledged to work toward relieving Third World debt.

Gorbachev also met that year with Deng Xiaoping, China's senior statesman, in the first summit between the two countries since 1959. The meeting formally normalized relations between China and the Soviet Union, which had been broken in 1960. But the meeting did not put to rest the suspicions between the Chinese and Soviets. A student demonstration for democracy was gathering steam in Beijing just as Gorbachev arrived, and the Chinese authorities blamed much of this unrest on the new Soviet policies.

Gorbachev radically changed the structure of the government and was determined to reform the domestic economy. His policies of glasnost and perestroika had wide-ranging effects, both abroad and within his own country, though in later years his commitment to reform seemed to waver. 

There were nationalist protests in various republics beginning in 1987, with demonstrators demanding independence or greater autonomy for their republics. Political perestroika involved taking the power out of the hands of the Communist party leaders and setting up parliament, the presidency, and the justice system under the rule of law. The Supreme Soviet--the Soviet parliament--made numerous fundamental changes in the constitution and the laws, including approval of a private property law. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev assumed the Soviet Union's new executive presidency and pledged to use his broadened powers to speed economic reform, but shortages of food, housing, and medical supplies continued. In August 1991 Gorbachev and leaders of seven of the Soviet Union's constituent republics were scheduled to sign a treaty to decentralize power and change the country's name to the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics, but an attempted political coup prevented adoption of the treaty and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Revolution of 1991

On August 18 Gorbachev and his family were detained by military authorities at their home in the Crimea. In Moscow the next morning, an eight-man junta calling itself the State Committee for the State of Emergency announced that it had seized power. The committee was headed by Gorbachev's vice-president, Gennadi Yanayev. Soviet troops in tanks quickly moved into Moscow. The coup was badly planned, however, and it was immediately opposed by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation. Standing atop a tank (just as Lenin had done in 1917), he called for a general strike and resistance to the takeover, and he demanded that Gorbachev be returned to power. Leaders of Western nations and Japan immediately suspended aid to the Soviet Union. As parts of the army turned against the coup, it collapsed within 72 hours, and its leaders fled the city.

Upon Gorbachev's return, on August 22, events moved quickly. The coup leaders were soon arrested. Others who had supported them were driven from power. On August 24 Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist party and disbanded the party itself. The party was forbidden any role in governing the country, and its assets were seized by the Soviet parliament. One republic after another declared independence. Statues and pictures of Lenin and other Soviet founders were removed from public places. But perhaps most significant of all was the shift in power from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, hero of the resistance during the coup.

On September 5 the Congress of People's Deputies dissolved itself. A transitional state council was set up, with Gorbachev as its head, to decide on the future of the country. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were granted independence the next day. The Commonwealth of Independent States was proclaimed on December 8 by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and the newly named Belarus (formerly Belorussia). Eleven of the 12 remaining republics joined on December 21. Only Georgia and the three Baltic states remained outside the commonwealth. Gorbachev resigned as president on December 25. The 74-year-old Soviet Union was no more.

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