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Soviet Union

Chapter 2. Historical Setting: 1917 to 1982

THE UNION OF SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUBLICS (Soviet Union) was established in December 1922 by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) on territory generally corresponding to that of the old Russian Empire. A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd overthrew the imperial government in March 1917, leading to the formation of the Provisional Government, which intended to establish democracy in Russia. At the same time, to ensure the rights of the working class, workers' councils (soviets) sprang up across the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir I. Lenin, agitated for socialist revolution in the soviets and on the streets, and they seized power from the Provisional Government in November 1917. Only after the ensuing Civil War (1918-21) and foreign intervention was the new communist government secure.

From its first years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communists, as the Bolsheviks called themselves beginning March 1918. After unsuccessfully attempting to centralize the economy during the Civil War, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s. Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. By gradually consolidating influence and isolating his rivals within the party, Joseph V. Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s.

In 1928 Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture, the state appropriated the peasants' property to establish collective farms. These sweeping economic innovations produced widespread misery, and millions of peasants perished during forced collectivization. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s when Stalin began a purge of the party; out of this purge grew a campaign of terror that led to the execution or imprisonment of untold millions of people from all walks of life. Yet despite this turmoil, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.

Stalin tried to avert war with Germany by concluding the NaziSoviet Nonaggression Pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939, but in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and then overran much of eastern Europe before Germany surrendered in 1945. Although severely ravaged in the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as one of the world's great powers.

During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy. The Soviet Union consolidated its control over postwar Eastern Europe, supplied aid toward the victory of the communists in China, and sought to expand its influence elsewhere in the world. The active Soviet foreign policy helped bring about the Cold War, which turned its wartime allies, Britain and the United States, into foes. Within the Soviet Union, repressive measures continued in force; Stalin apparently was about to launch a new purge when he died in 1953.

In the absence of an acceptable successor, Stalin's closest associates opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although behind the public display of collective leadership a struggle for power took place. Nikita S. Khrushchev, who acquired the dominant position in the country in the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of terror and effectively reduced repressive controls over party and society. Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive, and foreign policy toward China and the United States suffered reverses. Khrushchev's colleagues in the leadership removed him from power in 1964.

Following the ouster of Khrushchev, another period of rule by collective leadership ensued, which lasted until Leonid I. Brezhnev established himself in the early 1970s as the preeminent figure in Soviet political life. Brezhnev presided over a period of détente with the West while at the same time building up Soviet military strength; the arms buildup contributed to the demise of détente in the late 1970s. Also contributing to the end of détente was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

After some experimentation with economic reforms in the mid-1960s, the Soviet leadership reverted to established means of economic management. Industry showed slow but steady gains during the 1970s, while agricultural development continued to lag. In contrast to the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, the prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of cautious conservatism and aversion to change.

Data as of May 1989


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