Soviet Union

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Flag of the Soviet Union (1980-1991)

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known, for short, as the Soviet Union, was the first socialist country in the modern era. It resulted from the 1917 revolution in Russia which overthrew the monarch, Tsar Nicholas II, and turned the country into the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), governed by the Bolshevik party with Vladimir Lenin as leader. When in 1922 the RSFSR joined with neighbouring Byelorussia, Ukraine, and Transcaucasia, they became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union. The Soviet Union lasted until 1991, when its constituent territories splintered and their economies became capitalist.

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Taiga (Northern Forest)

Russian names:

  • `Soviet Union' = Советский Союз, transliteration: Sovietsky Soyuz.
  • `Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' (`USSR') = Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, transliteration: Soyuz Sovietskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. (СССР, SSSR.)

The Soviet Union was socialist in the sense that the major means of production (factories, infrastructure, natural resources, etc.) were publicly rather than privately held. Its leaders claimed to be committed to advancing it toward becoming a highly egalitarian Marxist communist society.

Geographically, the Soviet Union stretched across most of Northern Eurasia, and was, at 22 million square kilometers, the world's largest country in terms of land area. In terms of population it was one of the largest. The territories of the Soviet Union were economically underdeveloped at the time of the 1917 revolution; but over the next three or four decades the Soviet Union became the world's second-most economically and militarily powerful country, next to the United States.

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Revolutionary symbolism: New Planet, by Konstantin Yuon, 1921

It provided its entire population with high-quality free education and free health care, and had less wealth inequality and less class stratification than did the United States and other capitalist countries.

From its inception, the Soviet Union was regarded as an enemy by the leaders of the major capitalist powers such as the United States, Britain, Germany, and France. It was invaded by the United States and several other capitalist countries from 1917 to 1924, and by Germany from 1941 to 1945. It was forced into a nuclear arms race by the United States beginning in the late 1940s, which at times threatened to engulf the world in a technological holocaust. The rivalry between the two `superpowers', the Soviet Union and the United States, dominated much of world affairs for half a century.

Daughter of Soviet Kirgizia, Chuykov, 1974

Because it was the weaker of the two powers, and had to industrialise very quickly to defend itself, the Soviet Union could not offer its people consumer luxuries comparable to those in capitalist Western Europe and North America. It also experienced internal strains associated with the revolutionary transformation it was attempting. These strains notably included the conflict in the 1930s between the rich peasants, or `kulaks', and the central government, during which many kulaks were imprisoned or killed. Also, around the same time, the central government, fearing or alleging some combination of corruption, foreign espionage, and/or an internal plot to seize power – it is hard to sort this out – imprisoned a large number of people on political charges (although the rate of incarceration may never have been as high as it is in the present-day United States[1]). Soviet citizens regarded the ideological output of their government with attitudes ranging from enthusiasm to resentment to bemusement.

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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Soviet Union was formally structured as a federation of different territories, or Republics.[2] Each had the right to leave the union if it chose.[3] The Russian Republic, being the largest, tended to dominate decision-making. There were three official sources of power: the Communist Party, and the legeslative and executive branches of government. The Commmunist Party (CPSU – Communist Party of the Soviet Union) was, as laid out in the country's Constitution, supposed to be `the leading and guiding force of the Soviet society', and `determines the general perspectives of the development of society and the course of the home and foreign policy of the USSR....'[4] It maintained its control largely through its ability to appoint bureacrats and (along with trade unions, work collectives and some other public organisations) to nominate candidates for elections.[5]

Petrograd Madonna, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1920. A work `solving ethical and philosophical problems of the time' – Russian Wikipedia as translated by Google.

The legislative bodies were the Soviets of People's Deputies. The highest of these was the Supreme Soviet. It was elected every five years by universal adult secret-ballot vote. Its functions included enacting laws, amending the constitution, approving the economic and social plans, and approving the budget.[6] The executive body changed its name over time; in the later years it was called the Council of Ministers. It was appointed by the Supreme Soviet, and was responsible for drafting the economic `five year plans', as well as directing social and foreign policy and performing the other duties normal to the ministers of a modern state.[7]

More history

See also History of the Soviet Union

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Lenin established a democratic system in Russia. A lot of reforms were gained, and he was supported by most of the population. The state was known as the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic. Soviets were councils where ordinary workers discussed how Russia should be ruled. The countries Finland, Poland and Ukraine were made independent from Russia, though Ukraine merged with Russia already in 1919. In December 1922, the Soviet Union was created after the Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian and Transcausian Soviet Republics merged. Under Stalin, it was extended.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, the man who created the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had free education and healthcare, and had very low unemployment. The Soviet Union became one of the most powerful nations as a result of the five year plans instituted by Josef Stalin, and became a major industrial power. During the Second World War the Soviet Union played a major role and was responsible for most of the German defeats in the Wehrmacht and S.S on the Eastern Front, liberating many countries from nazi tyranny and saved many Jews from concentration camps.

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Pianist, Pimenyov, 1926

In 1924, Lenin died. This resulted in disagreements between different people. Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin was the strongest of them. Stalin became General Secretary in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union already in 1922, and Lenin tried to remove him from this.[8] Lenin failed and in 1927, Trotsky had to escape from the USSR after he had to admit that Stalin had won this fight.

Though some label Stalin's rule as authoritarian,[citation needed] he also industrialized the country and played an important role in The Allies victory in the Second World War, established socialist governments in Eastern Europe and several other things. Because of the victory in the World War, the industrialization of the USSR, the establishment of socialist governments in Eastern Europe and the expanding of the Soviet Union, he's still popular among the population.

After the Second World War the U.S.S.R became a major superpower and then had the Cold War with the U.S. The Soviet influence became powerful which resulted in successful revolutions like China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and others, which the U.S tried to turn back to Capitalism, but failed in most of them. The Soviet Union prospered during the 1970's which the economy was bigger than the U.S and people had a higher life expectancy.

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New Moscow, by Yuri Pimenyov, 1937. Optimism; new role of women.

After Stalin's death in 1953, the new leaders started a "de-Stalinization" campaign, and Nikita Khrushchev is famous for his "secret speech" in the United Nations in 1956, where he critisized Stalin for democide.[citation needed] Though it was meant to be a secret speech, it was soon revealed. Though Khrushchev became very popular in the USSR, he was unclever in agricultural politics. Of that reason, he was replaced with Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Though Brezhnev was often described to be authoritarian in the West, he was a strong man and was much better than Khrushchev in agricultural policies. Under Brezhnev, the USSR had less scandals in foreign policies. He died in 1982.

The Zuev Workers' Club, Moscow, in 1931

During the late 70's and the 80's the Soviet Union stagnated, and coupled with an costly guerellia war in Afghanistan began to decline.

In the early 1990's Gorbachev attempted to reform the U.S.S.R in a attempt to make it "more democratic"[CPOV issue]. This resulted in economic collapse,[9] high mortality rates, and macrocapitalism. He's often criticized for destroying the USSR.

Fall of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union fell at December 26 1991. Since then, the percentage of poor people in Russia and other Soviet republics, have became higher and higher. 2009 was the first years since 1992 that the Russian population had became higher. Also, Belarus and especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have become brutal capitalist dictatorships under the new regimes.[citation needed]
American propaganda poster during the Cold War about communist taking over America if they succeed.

Much Western propaganda criticized communism by making people in the West think that the Soviet Union was a horrible country, even today many people still think that way about it.

Trade unions in the Soviet Union

Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian neo-Marxist writer, says that the Soviet trade unions

"played an important but relatively inconspicuous role in society. They took care of social welfare issues; provided leisure facilities for workers (and especially, for workers' children); helped supply workers with consumer goods; and decided questions of job safety. In practice, the head of the trade union in an enterprise was an unofficial deputy director concerned with social issues. During the perestroika era the reforms left the trade unions virtually untouched. The unions went about their accustomed business, distributing subsidizes travel vouchers and hard-to-get goods among the workers of the labour collectives. Serious changes began to affect the trade unions only in 1990 and 1991." (Restoration in Russia: Why Capitalism Failed, p 138.)

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End of Winter, Konstantin Yuon, 1929

But even after the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the banning of the Communist Party in the early '90s, the trade unions managed to remain viable. Boris Kagarlitsky says that "their vitality was astonishing under conditions in which everything round about was collapsing, and when the trade union movement in the West was not experiencing the best of times" (p 137). He says that:

"After August 1991, when the Communist Party had been abolished and the structures of the USSR had disintegrated, the trade unions remained the only mass organizations in Russia. More than 80 per cent of trade union members remained faithful to their organizations. The FNPR [Federation of Independent Trade Unions] and ther regional federations retained their funds and property. Against a background of the chaos and corruption which prevailed in Russia, the trade union bureaucracy, accustomed to observing traditional standards, seemed like a model of decency. However, the trade union leadership lacked both a clear strategy and a full understanding of its own strength." (Restoration in Russia, p 141.)

Leaders of the Soviet Union

List of the de facto leaders of the USSR:[citation needed]

  1. Vladimir Lenin (1922-1924) (in Russia since 1917)
  2. Joseph Stalin (1924/1927-1953)
  3. Georgy Malenkov[citation needed] (1953)
  4. Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964)
  5. Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982)
  6. Yuri Andropov (1982-1984)
  7. Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985)
  8. Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991)


The Soviet Union achieved very strong growth in economic output. For example, as the graph below shows, over the period of the Soviet Union's existence, 1917-1991, her gdp per capita grew faster than did that of the United States. This is despite the fact that twice during that period, the USSR endured episodes of horrendous wartime destruction. The first of these was the Foreign Intervention and Civil War (and foreign economic embargo), which began in late 1917 and for the most part ended in 1922, although there was still some minor conflict after that. It resulted in famine and great economic destruction, reflected in a 40 percent drop in per capita GDP from 1917-22. The second cataclysm was the Nazi invasion of the early 1940s during which the Western part of the country was razed. If one omits these periods of economic loss, which can not reasonably be blamed on her socialist mode of production, the USSR's rate of per capita GDP growth is even more impressive. Indeed, few if any large countries have ever had sustained economic growth rates as high as the USSR's during her peacetime periods.

On a less cheerful note, the graph also shows the slowdown of the USSR's GDP growth during the 1980s, which was one of the main things that prompted the Soviet leadership to undertake the risky process of reform which got out of their control and led to the 1991 debacle. Given the present environmental situation, in which homo sapiens' ecological footprint is now one and a half times as large as the entire bioproductive area of planet Earth[10], low GDP growth rates may not be a bad thing. But being in miltary, ideological, and economic competitiion with the large, expansive, capitalist powers of the West, the USSR could probably not have afforded to take a low-growth route, even if her leaders had understood its desirability. After the restoration of capitalism in 1991, the territories of the former USSR entered serious economic decline, the first few years of which can be seen in the graph, which ends in 1994.

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USA and USSR real GDP per capita. Y-axis is logarithmic.

The following graph is similar to the one above but shows more countries and a somewhat longer period. Sorry if it is a bit cluttered.

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England, USA, USSR, Brazil, and Japan real GDP per capita. Y-axis is logarithmic

Comparison to other countries

The economy of the Soviet Union and its social provisions for the common people made it attractive to visitors from undeveloped areas of the world such as Latin America, but dreary to those from The United States and Western Europe. Students at Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, which drew its students for the most part from the undeveloped world and from the lower strata of that world, generally found life in the Soviet Union attractive and pleasant.[11]


  1. Northern Star
  2. Constitution of the U.S.S.R. (1977), Chapter 8, Article 70.
  3. Constitution of the U.S.S.R. (1977), Chapter 8, Article 72.
  4. Chapter 1, Article 6
  5. Constitution of the U.S.S.R. (1977), Chapter 13, Article 100: `The following shall have the right to nominate candidates: branches and organisations of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, trade unions, and the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League; co-operatives and other public organisations; work collectives, and meetings of servicemen in their military units.'
  6. Constitution of the U.S.S.R. (1977), Chapters 12-15.
  7. Constitution of the U.S.S.R. (1977), Chapter 16.
  8. Lenin's Testament#Contents of Lenin's Last Testaments Lenin's Testament - Wikipedia;
    Stalin Removes Zinoviev: 1926;
    NY Times book review, louriet: Toward the end of his life, Lenin sought Stalin's removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party, ...
  9. Russia: Economic Conditions in Mid-1996. Library of Congress. URL accessed on 4 March 2011.
  10. Global Footprinting Network, 2010 Atlas
  11. Tobias Rupprecht, Soviet Internationalism after Stalin pages 226, 227

External links and further reading

  • Boris Kagarlitsky, 1995. Restoration in Russia: Why Capitalism Failed. London, England: Verso (New Left Books).
  • Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Adopted at the Seventh (Special) Session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Ninth Convocation, on October 7, 1977. Novosti Press Publishing House, Moscow, 1985.
  • Stephen F. Cohen, 2011. "The Soviet Union's Afterlife" The Nation, December 21, 2011, issue of January 9-16, 2012