A Brief History of the USSR

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1917 – 1991) was as much the result of distortions created by the First World War as it was of the need for reform in the Russian Empire.  In large measure, its fate was decided on the basis of organizational skills: its founders succeeded in the face of their enemies because no one could match their organizational ability, but in the long run, no one had the skills to preserve this experiment indefinitely, least of all the leading members of the Party in 1990 and 1991.

The Tsarist government that had begun the Twentieth Century had long managed to avoid meaningful political reform.  After Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, it weathered one revolution in 1905 by enacting half-hearted constitutional reforms.  As Malia has pointed out (p. 68), this revolution was not a proletarian revolution at all, but rather the belated Russian manifestation of the same wave of revolution that had passed through the rest of Europe in 1848.

World War I was the crisis that reopened old disputes.  The mismanagement of the war highlighted and exacerbated the consequences of domestic mismanagement, and in February of 1917, another mass-based revolution occurred.  Bands of soldiers dropped their guns and walked back home, and even timid parliamentary leaders told the Tsar that the time had come to abdicate.

The Provisional Government that succeeded the Tsar’s regime continued Russia’s involvement in the war, which alone was enough to rob it of much of its support.  The Bolshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party, led by Lenin, was determined to overthrow the Provisional Government and institute a Proletarian Dictatorship.  In October, 1917, Bolsheviks staged a palace coup and declared that all power rested in the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (Soviets).

Almost immediately, Lenin made peace with Germany.  Lenin’s priority was to consolidate his power in the lands he did control, and then to extend that control to those territories of Russia that resisted him.  From 1918 to 1920, the Bolsheviks fought against all opponents in Russia, known as Whites; this further enhanced the militant character of the Bolsheviks.  Under the banner of War Communism, Trotsky organized a new army, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, which proved stronger than any of its disunited opponents.  Under the same banner, Lenin built a repressive state apparatus, pioneering several of the practices that Soviet apologists later claimed were unique to Stalin’s reign.  Two notable parallels are the creation of a powerful secret police force, the Cheka, under Felix Dzerzhinski, and confiscation of food at gunpoint from the peasantry.

By 1920, Lenin controlled most of the former Russian Empire, except for Finland, the Baltic States, and those parts of Poland that Russia had ruled.  He proceeded to invade Poland, ostensibly to reignite the flames of revolution in the rest of Europe, where several Communist revolts failed after the end of World War I.  The Soviet invasion failed as well, and with it ended the dream of a global Communist state in the foreseeable future.  Thus it fell to Lenin to find a way to govern his own state.

Lenin’s assumption in 1917 had been that Russia’s technical and economic development was sufficient to sustain a Communist regime without first passing through a period of capitalist rule; after years of warfare, Russia’s economic state clearly was not capable of doing so.  Accordingly, he proclaimed the New Economic Policy, or NEP, in 1921.  NEP permitted limited free enterprise within the context of overall Party control.  Essentially, it was intended to regenerate the economic strength of the country.

NEP remained the official policy until 1928, and many important changes occurred during that period.  The state took on its official identity as the Soviet Union in 1922; during that same year, Lenin was removed from active power by a pair of strokes.  When Lenin died, the Party’s General Secretary, Stalin, joined forces with Zinoviev and Kamenev to prevent Trotsky, the heir apparent, from succeeding him.  They managed to marginalize Trotsky, but then Zinoviev and Kamenev tried in vain to rein in the powers that Stalin had managed to accumulate around himself.  Again, it was superior organizational skills that ensured success: Stalin understood the bureaucratic capabilities of the Soviet system better than any of his opponents, and employed them with ruthless efficiency to sweep away any who wished, or might wish, to oppose him.

Stalin embarked on a policy of “Socialism in One Country,” abandoning NEP and actively seeking to build up a powerful industrial base under a pure command system, without any underlying markets.  In 1929 he announced the first Fire Year Plan.  In order to feed the massive influx of workers into the cities, it was necessary for heavier quantities of food to pass from the countryside to urban centers, and this was to be done by central planning and not price markets.  Thus, in the same year he demanded the complete collectivization of farming in the Soviet Union.

Collectivization was accomplished by force, with large numbers of peasants deemed rich, known as kulaks, being killed or taken away to prison camps.  Famine broke out, devastating the countryside, but it was unnoticed in the cities, to which sufficient food was delivered.  Then Stalin unleashed waves of purges within the party and army leadership, ensuring that no one who might oppose him would be able to trust anyone else who might also oppose him.

In foreign affairs, Stalin used the Comintern as a way of directing indigenous Marxist movements in foreign countries as Soviet agents.  Through it, he opposed Hitler’s interests until the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, then he made Hitler acceptable in the eyes of Marxists until the invasion in 1941, at which point the Communists again turned against him.  The 1939 treaty was not a peace treaty: it was the blueprint for a joint attack on Poland.  In 1939 and 1940, the Soviets seized one-third of Poland, all of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and important border regions in Finland and Romania.

Then, in 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were unprepared for the attack, and it took several years for the Soviets to regain their equilibrium and push the Germans back.  It also required Stalin to make political compromises in the name of national unity.  When eventually Hitler was defeated, Stalin set up client states in that portion of Europe occupied by Soviet soldiers.

Rivalry with the West was renewed after the war, but through an indirect conflict known as the Cold War.  The Soviets sponsored Communist revolutions wherever a movement existed, and created a few where one did not.  Stalin lived to see China become a Communist state, and conducted a proxy war with the West in Korea.

Soviet foreign policy continued in this fashion after Stalin’s death; domestically, important changes came when his successor, Khruschev, denounced Stalin’s cult of personality in 1956, and again in 1964 when Khruschev was peacefully removed from power.  He was replaced by Brezhnev, and the system became one of governance by and for the Communist Party members.  Attempts by client states to initiate meaningful reform were met by fierce retribution, but otherwise, stagnation set in.  Then, in the 1980s, the west emerged from a period of stagnation of its own, and vigorous new leadership required a response in Moscow.

Under the leadership of a new General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets attempted to renew their system under policies of “Openness” and “Restructuring.”  The economic component of Perestroika was more timid than NEP, however, and did little to improve life, while Glasnost permitted people to complain about it publicly.

The 1989 downfall of client states in Eastern Europe prompted harsh reaction from some in the government.  When Gorbachev proved unable to quell unrest in the USSR itself, a group within the Politburo staged a coup on August 21, 1991.  The coup collapsed when the army demonstrated its unwillingness to put down opposition, even standing by demonstrators as former Party member Boris Yeltsin addressed them from atop one of their tanks.  Over the coming months, reformers and nationalists joined forces to formulate a transition from the USSR to a series of sovereign states.  Just before midnight, December 31, 1991, the red flag of the USSR was lowered for the last time.


Malia, Martin.  The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991.  Free Press, 1994.

Medvedev, Roy.  Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.  Columbia, 1989.

Pankin, Boris.  The Last Hundred Days of the Soviet Union.  I.B. Tauris, 1996.


© 2011, 2013.  All rights reserved.