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The USSR: Communist Era

Lenin and the Bolsheviks

Alexis de Tocqueville has remarked that ‘experience teaches us that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.’[1] This rule holds true both for the establishment of the Communist regime in Russia as well as for its eventual collapse. Before the communists seized power in 1917, the Russian Empire had embarked on a series of economic, social and political modernisation programmes, trying to combat the conditions of widespread discontent and rising expectations.[2] Part of it was a hitherto unprecedented political evolution and by 1917 there were political parties for nearly every social class.[3]

Among them were two principal revolutionary parties – the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) and the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (Social Democrats). The SR, whose main base of support was the peasantry, was strongly influenced by anarchism and resorted to political terror.[4] The Social Democrats, on the other hand, believed such terror to be futile; they followed the classic doctrines according to which the development of capitalism inevitably created a radicalised proletariat that would in time stage a revolution and introduce socialism.[5]

In 1903, the Social Democrats split into two factions that soon developed into separate parties – the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.[6] The Mensheviks, loyal to traditional Social Democratic teachings, concentrated on developing ties with the working class and rejected a political revolution in agrarian largely pre-capitalist Russia as a premature development.[7] Bolsheviks, on the other hand, had no such prohibitions but their revolutionary agitation, especially a call for Russian defeat in the WWI, found little popular support in the early days.[8] However, the Tsarist regime’s inability to deal with the severe consequences of the First World War (not only military failures but also the resulting economic and social problems of an unexpectedly prolonged war, e.g. lack of food, draconian inflation, dire conditions for peasants and workers[9]), provided growing credibility to the Bolsheviks’ belief that Russia desperately needed a radical change.

February Revolution

In February 1917 public discontent erupted into angry protests and large-scale demonstrations. Nevertheless, the revolutionary opposition, ‘taken by surprise by the burgeoning, spontaneous movement,’ deemed it too early for a successful revolution and adopted a wait-and-see attitude. After some of the troops had gone over to the side of the demonstrators and arrived at the Tauride Palace where the Duma held its sessions in February 27, the latter formed a Provisional Committee, which was headed by Prince Georgy Lvov and assumed the task of restoring order. The Mensheviks had also organised a Soviet a few hours earlier. Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in March 2; Russia became a democratic republic.[10]

October Revolution

Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks and a fanatical revolutionary, had managed to build a small but dedicated and highly disciplined party determined to seize power (despite the entire party leadership being in exile after 1914 and successful infiltration by the tsarist secret police). Upon his return to Russia in April 1917 from long exile in Western Europe he made no secret of his intention to launch a new revolution.[11] Heller and Nekrich note that ‘the Provisional Government’s weakness, which was evident from the very first day of its existence, its lack of a clear program, its lack of confidence, allowed the Soviet to become a second power in the country.’[12] In a state of political vacuum, the door was opened for Lenin to seize control.

However, during the July demonstrations, Bolsheviks were still opposed to the immediate takeover of power. Only after they had gained majority in the Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow soviets in early September did Lenin push for an insurrection. Since the Bolsheviks were the only organisation with an independent armed force,[13] they took over the Military Revolutionary Committee and used it to topple the government. During the night of October 24–25, Bolshevik Red Guards peacefully occupied strategic points in St. Petersburg. On the morning of October 25 Lenin issued a declaration that announced the deposition of the Provisional government and the passing of all power to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Peasants Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee.[14]

Lenin’s 'politics of fear' was enforced from the very beginning: straight after gaining power he threatened to have the members of the Military Revolutionary Committee shot if they refused to launch an attack on the Winter Palace (seat of the Provisional Government). On Oct. 26, a day after taking the Winter Palace, Lenin published a proclamation in Pravda, making clear his real ambition to concentrate all power in the hands of the Bolsheviks:

We are taking power alone, relying on the country’s voice and counting on the friendly support of the European proletariat. But having taken power, we will punish with an iron hand the enemies of the revolution and the saboteurs… they dreamed of a Kornilov dictatorship… We will give them the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Although the ensuing Constituent Assembly elections were the freest in the history of Russia, the Bolsheviks, having received only 24% of the seats, quickly dissolved the assembly after only one meeting and launched a persecution campaign against their political opponents.[15] The resulting arrangement, where sovereignty lay in the hands of a single party, became the prototype for all totalitarian regimes. In March 1918 the Bolshevik Party was renamed the Russian Communist Party.

Confrontation with reality and early repressions

Lenin’s plans for transforming Russia were outlined in his 'State and Revolution'. However, as Heller and Nekrich observe, ‘immediately upon taking power Lenin ran into harsh reality, which put his utopia to the test.’[16] One of the first reality checks was the peace negotiation with Germany in Brest-Litovsk in December 1917. Although the Russian delegation, headed by Trotsky, initially refused to sign to peace treaty, Lenin, understanding that it would have been impossible to retain power if Germany had decided to challenge the Bolshevik rule, pushed the so-called ‘shameful peace’ through in March 1918.[17] As the soldiers and peasants had been opposed to war, their support allowed the Bolsheviks to stay in power. However, the peace did not solve any internal problems.

One of the most difficult challenges that the new regime confronted was providing food for the cities and the newly formed Red Army. Lenin solved the issue with brutal methods, ordering the peasants to hand over all “surplus” grain to the state. To suppress potential resistance, armed squads with accompanying army units were sent to confiscate food from the villagers. Peasants who resisted were termed 'kulaks'[18] and portrayed as class enemies. Lenin described them as 'bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers who fatten on famine.'[19]

Lenin and his comrades thus found themselves caught in a merciless 'class war'. In order to gain absolute power, the Bolsheviks decided to eliminate all political and ideological adversaries, as well as the disobedient element of the general public by whichever legal and physical means necessary. The strategy of intimidation, often escalating to outright terror, was also applied to the nobility, the middle class, the intelligentsia, the clergy, and certain professional groups such as military officers and the police.[20]

On some occasions large groups of people were subjected to mass annihilation. The policy of 'decossackization' ('Raskazachivaniye'),[21] directed against a distinct socio-cultural stratum of the population mostly of Russo-Ukrainian ethnic origin and established in the area of lower Dnieper and Don basins,[22] was the first major Bolshevik act to take the form of a genocide.[23] The Cossacks were exterminated: the men were shot; women, children, and the elderly deported; the villages either destroyed or handed over to new non-Cossack occupants.[24] Estimations vary but in some areas potentially up to 70% of the Cossack population were physically eliminated.[25]

In December 1917, the Cheka[26] was founded. It was the Bolsheviks’ first internal security force, established with an aim to root out the regime’s enemies, and headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, who quite famously declared ‘Do not believe that I seek revolutionary forms of justice. We don’t need justice at this point. We are engaged today in hand-to-had combat, to the death, to the end! I propose, I demand, the organisation of revolutionary annihilation against all active counterrevolutionaries.’[27] In doing so it carried out few summary executions during the first half of 1918.[28] In July, the ex-tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were murdered in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg on the pretence of ‘military circumstances’[29] but in Figes’ opinion the real reasons should be sought in Bolsheviks’ wish to eliminate him as a rival source of legitimacy.[30]

Persecutions intensify

The persecutions intensified further in September 1918. The pretext was Fanni Kaplan’s nearly successful attempt to assassinate Lenin. The real reasons behind the “Red Terror” are still debated. In the view of historians like Courtois and Pipes, the Bolsheviks, who by then lacked popular support,[31] had to resort to terror in order to stay in control.[32] Conquest, on the other hand, has laid more emphasis on the revolutionary circumstances, arguing that 'unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society massively and speedily.'[33] However, Figes has drawn attention to the connections between the Red Terror and the plebeian war of privilege. He argues that the Terror was 'an integral element of the social revolution from the start. The Bolsheviks encouraged but did not create this mass terror.' Hence, it was not so much implicit in Marxism itself, as in the violent conditions of the Russian Revolution.[34]

All the same, Lenin tasked the Cheka with continued eradication of the regime’s suspected opponents. Many of the victims were the so-called ‘bourgeois hostages’, imprisoned without charge and killed whenever the state’s interests demanded it, mostly in reprisal for some alleged counter-revolutionary act.[35] These lawless and arbitrary arrests were justified by Lenin’s principle that ‘it was better to arrest a hundred innocent people than to run the risk of letting one enemy of the regime go free.’[36] In addition, in August 1918 the Bolshevik leaders started setting up concentration camps.

It is impossible to state an exact number of people who fell victim to the first wave of the Red Terror. Martin Latsis, one of the leaders of the Cheka, claimed that whereas only 22 individuals were shot by the Cheka during the first half of 1918, the second half saw the execution of more than 6,000 people.[37] Whatever the exact number of victims may have been that year — and the total reported in the official press suggests that there must have been between 10,000 and 15,000 victims at the very least — the Red Terror marked the beginning of the Bolshevik practice of treating any form of overt or suspected opposition as an act of civil disobedience.[38]

Russian Civil war

The civil war in Russia was a conflict between the 'Red' Bolsheviks and the 'White' Monarchists, characterised above all by the numerous forms of repression carried out by both sides.[39] 'The Red repressions' were, as before, wide-spread and systematic, targeting almost indiscriminately people from all levels of social stratification: militant politicians of opposing groups, striking workers, deserters fleeing from military units or abandoning conscription process, and citizens who just happened to belong to a "suspect" or "hostile" social class, including those whose only crime was to have been living in a town captured by the enemy.[40] Of all the repressive episodes, the one most carefully hidden by the new regime was the violence used against the workers in whose name the Bolsheviks had come to power in the first place.[41]

However, the Bolsheviks did not have a monopoly on terror. The counterpart 'White Terror' was particularly heinous in carrying out a wave of pogroms[42] in Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1919. The mass persecution accounted for more than 150,000 victims.

Eventually the Bolsheviks won the war and in 1922 proclaimed the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR), composed of Russia, Belorussia (now Belarus), Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian Federation.[43] Although nominally a league of equals, the USSR was from the very beginning dominated by the Russians.

Bolsheviks started to suppress political dissidence by shutting down opposition’s newspapers and subjecting all publications to preventive censorship.[44] The Marxist-Leninist ideology also dictated the need to eliminate any expression of religious beliefs and to make atheism the official doctrine of the Soviet Union.[45] In the spring and summer of 1922, numerous incidents of resistance occurred which allowed the Bolsheviks to declare that the church was opposing them. Many priests were arrested and a number of religious people killed.[46]

Economic crisis

The policies of “War Communism” brought about an unprecedented economic crisis. Most hard-hitting was the decline in the production of grain. Compelled to surrender almost all of their grain to the government, the peasants kept reducing their output, triggering a devastating plunge in foodstuff production.[47] And then a periodic drought started a massive famine in early 1921. At the peak of the famine, 35 million people in 30 provinces were suffering from starvation.[48]

The losses would have been greater if no assistance had been provided by the American Relief Administration, headed by the future US President Herbert Hoover. With the money from the US Congress and voluntary contributions the government managed to alleviate the food shortage. Even so, the loss of lives due to the 1921 famine is estimated at around 5.1 million.[49]

The Great famine threw the entire countryside into a rebellion. Hundreds of thousands of angry peasants who lacked food clashed with the Red Army and Cheka units. In the most embattled provinces, such as Tambov, authorities used terror against the rural population in order to isolate the partisans and cut off any help they could have received from the locals. This included executions of hostages (as in the cities) and mass deportations.[50]

By July 1921, the military authorities and the Cheka had set up seven concentration camps which by then must have detained at least 50,000 people. Most were women, children and the elderly, hostages or deserters’ family members.[51]The conditions in the camps were intolerable: typhus and cholera were endemic, prisoners lacked clothes and basic amenities. By autumn 1921, the famine had raised the mortality rate in the camps to 15-20 per cent a month.[52]

The Kronstadt Rebellion of March 1921 convinced the Communist Party and its leader, Vladimir Lenin, of the need to retreat from socialist policies in order to maintain the party’s hold on power. Accordingly, the 10th Party Congress in March 1921 introduced the measures of the New Economic Policy (NEP). These measures included the return of most agriculture, retail trade, and small-scale light industry to private ownership and management while the state retained control of the heavy industry, transport, banking, and foreign trade. The peasantry was allowed to own and cultivate their own land, while paying taxes to the state.[53]

NEP was not a complete return to the market economy: it was just ‘one step back to move two steps forward’, a temporary measure which had tactical, rather than real economic, ground. With Lenin’s death in 1924 and the position of new political elite becoming stronger, such compromise was no longer needed.[54]

Lenin’s health began to deteriorate in 1921 and declined further over the next year as he suffered several strokes. His incapacitation led to Stalin’s election as the Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. After Lenin’s death in January 1924 (his embalmed body was put on permanent display in a mausoleum in Red Square) a power struggle between Stalin, Trotsky, Buhkarin, Kamenev, Zinovyev and a few more high-standing Politburo members intensified. By 1927 Stalin had managed to send Trotsky into exile through political manoeuvring and had established an unchallenged dictatorship.

In 1928 and 1929, Stalin and his supporters concluded that only collectivisation would make the grain available to the authorities, immediately increase the food supply for the urban population, the supply of raw materials for processing industry, and agricultural exports.[55] But to gain support for the collectivisation, the idea of “class struggle” needed to be popularised among the peasant population.

Hence, the fight against kulaks became more embittered. In 1929, many fines were imposed and families were forcefully relocated. By the end of the year “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class” policy was implemented.[56] It entailed a campaign of political repressions, including arrests, deportations, and executions of millions of better-off peasants. Between 1930 and 1932 more than 2 million peasants were deported (1.8 million in 1930-31 alone), 6 million died of hunger, and hundreds of thousands died as a direct result of deportation. The kulaks that resisted collectivisation were shot.[57]

The immediate outcome of collectivisation was a drastic decrease in agricultural output across the USSR as a whole. The grain requisitions were fiercely enforced by government officials leaving the peasantry with a scarce food supply at best.[58] As a result, in the winter of 1932–33, a major famine devastated the areas reliant on grain production. Some 5 to 6 million died in Ukraine (Ukrainians named this famine Holodomor) and another 2 to 3 million in the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga area.[59] Both the terror against kulaks and the famine of 1932–33 had particularly severe outcomes in Ukraine and the Ukrainian-speaking area of Kuban. Along with the famine occurred a series of repressions against the Ukrainian cultural, political, and social leadership. Despite being aware of the catastrophic situation with food supply in the region, Stalin used famine as a means of terror and revenge against the peasantry.[60]

Since the first concentration camps were established in 1918, the number of camps had steadily increased. From April 1930 onwards, the main Soviet labour camp system was administered by a government agency known as the Gulag.[61] By 1930 there were about 300 000 prisoners in the camps.[62] By 1935, the number of captives reached almost one million.[63] At the beginning of 1953, the total number of detainees was approximately 2.5 million and more than 6 million people had been interned in the camps during the period of their existence. According to Anne Applebaum 28.7 million people in total were used as forced labour by the end of 1953.[64]


The 1930s was a period of extensive industrialisation and the introduction of planned economy.

To trick the workers into exceeding the set quotas and achieve desired result, the Soviet propaganda also reached a new level.[65] Huge amount of resources were invested in monumental, yet largely ineffectual projects. For example, the construction of the Baltic–White Sea Canal employed some 200,000–300,000 forced workers but proved to be of no use when it was completed in 1933.[66] The Soviets wanted to present the canal as an example of the success of their planned economy - it was intended to be used as a ship canal connecting the White Sea with Lake Onega and the Baltic Sea - but its minimal depth of 3.5 meters made it impassable by most vessels. Regrettably, many people died in the process.

Internal politics and The Great Purge

In January 1931, the first law, allowing incarceration as a punishment for violation of labour discipline, was enforced. On 7 August 1932 death penalty was implemented for theft of state or collective property.

On 1 December 1934, a Bolshevik revolutionary Kirov, eader of the Leningrad branch of the Communist Party, was shot and killed at his office in the the Smolny Institute. According to Alexander Orlov (the Soviet secret police General), Stalin ordered NKVD[67] Commissar Genrikh Yagoda to arrange the assassination.[68] The event was of crucial importance to the establishment of the Stalinist regime: Kirov’s death was followed by a series of trials that laid the blame on a Zinovyevite terrorist group. Grigory Zinovyev and Lev Kamenev, Stalin’s opponents, were arrested and sentenced in closed court to jail for having 'political responsibility'.[69]

Over the next four years, hunting and suppression of an increasing number of suspected plotters against the regime became a common feature in the political life of the USSR. All of the persecuted were linked with the Kirov case. The country was dragged into an extreme campaign against 'enemies of the people.' This culminated in a series of public trials[70] and another wave of massive terror against the population.

During 1937 and 1938, what became later known as the Great Purge or the Great Terror, reached its climax. Although it affected the entire population (including repression of peasants) it was primarily directed against the Communist Party and government officials, Red Army leadership, and unaffiliated persons in an atmosphere of widespread surveillance and suspicion of «saboteurs».[71] The purge was motivated by the desire on part of the leadership to remove dissenters from the Party and what is often considered to have been a desire to consolidate the authority of Joseph Stalin.[72] The Great Purge was started under the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda but the peak of the campaigns from September 1936 to August 1938 occurred while the NKVD was headed by Nikolai Yezhov. These campaigns were labelled Yezhovshchina. The orders were often issued by the Party Politburo headed by Stalin. As a totalitarian system, Stalin’s regime had to maintain its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty. The recurrent purging provided the mechanism.[73]

Special tribunals were created to cope with the large-scale arrests, in particular the notorious NKVD 'troikas', which sentenced hundreds of thousands of people to death without trial. The mass graves of the victims remained hidden until the late 1980s.[74]

The exact number of victims remains unknown and estimations vary quite considerably. According to the Black Book of Communism, about 1,575,000 people were arrested by the NKVD during 1937-1938; of these, 1,345,000 (85.4 percent) received some sort of sentence and 681,692 (i.e. 51% of those sentenced) were executed.[75] Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, offers a far larger number, estimating that up to 1,700, 000 had been shot by January 1, 1939.[76] The usual interval between the arrest and the death sentence was a few weeks. The sentence, against which there was no appeal, was then carried out in a few days. Yezhovshchina remains one of the most brutal terrors in the human history.

Foreign relations

The German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in Moscow on 23 August 1939 to partake in a high level meeting that yielded the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Stalin-Hitler pact. The treaty included a secret protocol dividing Northern and Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The promise of German non-aggression was a prerequisite for the subsequent Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.[77] For Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, the pact established a foundation for the terror, mass deportations and murders of the occupation period.[78]

In the spring of 1940 the NKVD massacred 21,857 Polish prisoners of war captured in September 1939 during the Nazi-Soviet war against Poland. They were shot and buried at Katyn. The death warrant - an NKVD order to shoot the prisoners - was signed by Stalin himself on 5 March 1940.[79] Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied in the summer of 1940.

World War II

On June 22, Germany attacked the Soviet Union launching the Great Patriotic War. The Nazi occupation of Norway, the collapse of France, and the expulsion of the British forces from the continent were followed by German victories in Yugoslavia and Greece. These events made the USSR a potential target of a Nazi attack. By mid-October the Nazis had succeeded in blockading Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), had taken Kiev, and were at the gates of Moscow. However, when the Germans made their final effort in early December, they were forced back.[80]

The Battle of Stalingrad (late 1942 to early 1943) became a turning point in the war – it was a severe blow to the Germans from which they never fully recovered. After Stalingrad, Soviet forces passed through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945.[81] Soviet war casualties are estimated at over 20 million, of whom 11 to 12 million were civilians.[82]

In 1941, the Volga Germans and other Soviet Germans were deported, and the Volga German Republic was abolished. In 1943–45 the same measure was applied to the Crimean Tatars, the Kalmyks, the Chechens, and several other Caucasian peoples. More than 2 million people were affected, with the death rate estimated at about 500,000.[83]

Persecutions after World War II

Early 1946 saw а new wave of arrests, this time targeted predominantly against the military commanders. But attacks on leading writers such as poet Anna Akhmatova and satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko also commenced, as they were accused of 'individualism'.[84] Over the next two years a cultural and general purge, now known as High Stalinism, strengthened the regime.

In November 1952, a number of doctors, mainly of Jewish origin, were arrested, and in January 1953 they were accused of developing a plot with the primary aim to kill the Soviet leaders.[85]

The most devastating social consequence of Stalin’s rule was that millions had perished in the persecution of peasants in 1930–33 and the general terror of 1936–39, or barely survived in the labour camps. Administrative personnel and intellectuals that had been employed by the state were substituted by intellectually inferior personnel as obedience was prioritised over intellectual capacities.[86] Moreover, the new cadres themselves had been thoroughly purged so that all spheres of Soviet life were ruled by a caste, heavily motivated by dogma, fear, ambition, malice, and greed—a process commonly described in late 20th-century as 'negative selection'.[87] According to the negative selection theory, people on top of the hierarchy in any state institution wishing to remain in power, choose associates with the prime criterion of being incompetent. The associates must not be competent enough to remove the top administrators from power.

Khrushchev's era

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. Despite not being formally appointed as first secretary until September 1953, Khrushchev promptly assumed full control of the party after Stalin’s passing.[88] He aimed at a more humane socialism but continued to exploit the structures of Stalinism. The Communist Party retained its monopoly of power: the economy was kept under government control; and party control of the media, education, culture and all other spheres of life remained in place.[89]

Khrushchev's foreign policy continued to seek control over Eastern European states, which belonged to the sphere of influence of the USSR. He did not hesitate to use force when the tensions arose in Hungary in October 1956. Soviet soldiers suppressed a revolution led by local communists who wanted to establish independence from Moscow.[90]

Arms race

On August 26, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the West by announcing their success at testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Khruschev also tried to convert the development of USSR’s space industry into a real diplomatic advantage by threatening the West with Soviet missiles.[91] However, instead of instilling fear in Western political leaders, he stimulated greater Western spending on defence and by that dragged the USSR into an overwhelmingly costly arms race that it could not win.

The closest the world came to the edge of a nuclear war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 (link to ccorg ‘Cuba’). Soviet nuclear missiles had been installed in Cuba with major cities in the United States in striking distance. The US navy blockaded Cuba and Soviet ground commanders had the authority to launch a missile attack without approval from Moscow if they perceived that an American invasion was under way. Eventually Khrushchev backed off to avoid the nuclear confrontation.[92]

Cultural policy

The cultural 'thaw' that occurred under Khrushchev’s rule changed the intellectual environment and transformed the modern generation. Although repressions were still periodically used, it provided more liberties in comparison to Stalin's era.[93] However, under his leadership, churches continued to be destroyed and religious leaders persecuted.

The Brezhnev era

In February 1964 Leonid Brezhnev, Nikolay Podgorny, and Aleksandr Shelepin devised a plot to oust Khrushchev. He was transported back from his holiday on the Black Sea coast in October 1964 to face the party Presidium and as the Central Committee voted against him, was eliminated from office on October 14.[94]

At the 23rd Party Congress in March–April 1966, Brezhnev became the general secretary of the party. Shortly after, he began to deploy his own cadres.[95] By the mid-1970s he was the undisputed soviet leader.

Increased defence spending and the decision to intervene in Afghanistan in December 1979 brought the economy to a crawl. By the time of Brezhnev’s death in November 1982 the USSR was in deep economic and political decline.

In the absence of a free market, a bureaucratic market took over instead.[96] Despite huge spending on agriculture, output of agricultural products declined, partly because of lack of innovation and new technologies, partly because of the natural circumstances. Consequently, the Soviet Union needed to import vast amounts of grain to balance its food deficit. For the most part, the grain was paid for in US dollars, which the USSR had earned during a spike in oil prices in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the oil capacities, like so many others, were totally wasted as a result of lacking motivation.[97] In the absence of international competition and planned economy, companies were not motivated to improve their products and resisted innovation. The black market grew to cover holes of the planned economy. Along with this came widespread corruption, which became so common in every aspect of soviet life, that soviet lawyer in exile Konstantin Simis was able to conclude that in 1970s USSR was being transformed into a 'Kleptocratic state'.[98]

Excessive defence spending along with creeping economic growth led to cuts in investment. Education, medical and social services suffered the most.

The initial optimism among the intelligentsia faded quickly as the Brezhnev leadership revealed its intolerance towards intellectuals.[99] For instance, in September 1965, writers Andrey Sinyavsky and Yuly Daniel were arrested for publishing works abroad that criticised the Soviet state, and later sentenced to seven and five years of hard labour respectively.

Over the following years many other writers and their sympathizers were arrested, imprisoned, or placed in labour camps. Yet, dissidence flourished. In February 1970, Secretariat of the Writers Union strongly criticized the editors of “The New World”. Chief Editor Aleksandr Tvardovsky resigned, and the liberal line hitherto pursued by the magazine was suspended.[100]


The Brezhnev leadership also pursued Russian dominance of the union. Russian was vigorously promoted as the language of learning and communication; people were denied the right to use their native languages in public life.[101] Career opportunities depended on how well one could speak Russian. Anything new, important or interesting would be published in Russian.[102] This caused resentment across the union, but more so in the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine. Especially the latter felt the full force of this discriminating policy when bureaucrats, officials, and academics were purged on linguistic grounds between 1972 and 1973.

Foreign relations under Brezhnev

In Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact nations[103] (except Romania and East Germany) led by the Soviet Union intervened in Czechoslovakia on August 20–21, 1968. The Czechoslovakian Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček had initiated a policy that aimed to make socialism more democratic and humane, a movement known as the ‘Prague Spring’. However, the Soviets felt it would undermine the leadership of the Communist Party and eventually invaded the country to halt the reforms.[104]

The Soviet Union also intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979, fearing that an anti-Soviet regime could seize power there. However, Moscow paid a heavy price for its involvement in the Afghan war. The total personnel loss of the Soviet Armed Forces came to 14,453.[105] In retrospect, Soviet foreign and security policy from the mid-1970s onward was disastrous for the union.

When Ronald Reagan was elected the president of the US in November 1980 he was determined to rapidly increase American defence spending to force Moscow to follow suit.[106] The inability of the Soviets to keep up with the capitalist economy of the US resulted in ideological humiliation, leaving the economy on the edge of collapse.[107]

Gerontocracy: Andropov and Chernenko

The first two of Brezhnev's successors were transitional figures. As Yuri Andropov was 68 years old and Konstantin Chernenko 72 when they assumed power, their rule is usually referred to as 'gerontocracy'.[108] Both died within two years of accession.

Andropov was set to reform the country but he was a cautious reformer believing that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the socialist system that more discipline, energy, and initiative could not fix. Widespread corruption, absenteeism, and alcoholism were his special concerns.[109] Under Andropov a group of cautious reformers rose to prominence. These included Mikhail Gorbachev, Yegor Ligachev, and Nikolay Ryzhkov.

Andropov wanted Gorbachev to succeed him and added a paragraph to this effect to his report to a Central Committee plenum. However, the plenum did not convene until after his death on Feb. 9, 1984 and the 72-year-old terminally ill Konstantin Chernenko was appointed to the top party post instead. The aging Politburo had chosen a non-reformer, and took a step back to Brezhnevism.[110]

Economic and social reforms under Gorbachev

After Chernenko’s death in 1985, Gorbachev finally came to power. In a speech delivered on Dec. 10, 1984, he had spoken of the need to effect 'deep transformations in the economy and the whole system of social relations,'[111] to carry through the policies of perestroika ('restructuring' of economic management), the 'democratisation of social and economic life,' and glasnost - Soviet policy of open discussion of political and social issues. Glasnost took hold and produced much greater freedom of expression and open criticism of the political order. In addition, it freed public access to information after decades of heavy government censorship.

Perestroika concentrated initially on economic reform. Enterprises were encouraged to become self-financed, cooperatives were set up as businesses, and land could be leased to allow small scale farming. However, the bureaucrats who ran the economy feared that these activities would undermine their privileges and powerbase. Hence, the cooperatives were heavily taxed and supplies difficult to procure.[112]

Gorbachev sought to win over the intelligentsia by bringing the dissident physicist Andrey Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, back to Moscow from their exile in Gorky.[113] The intelligentsia’s support was perceived to be critical if the battle with the bureaucracy was to be won.

The attempted coup

The military, the KGB, and conservative communists were alarmed by the extent of the reforms and the call for independence strongly voiced in various member states. The former wanted strong central leadership in order to keep the Soviet Union communist and unified.[114]

On Aug. 18, 1991, a delegation visited Gorbachev at his summer cottage at Foros in the Crimea. The delegation demanded Gorbachev’s resignation and replacement by Gennady Yanayev, the vice president. When Gorbachev refused, he was held prisoner while the coup leaders called the Extraordinary Commission and guided by the KGB leader Vladimir Kryuchkov, declared that Gorbachev had resigned for health reasons.[115]

There were many reasons why the coup could have succeeded. Many were disenchanted with the course of perestroika. The military was unhappy about the withdrawal from Eastern Europe; the declining defence expenditure; and loss of status at home. Several republican leaders, including those in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, supported the coup.[116]

But as the commission tried to take over the country, on August 19 Boris Yeltsin, former chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR and recently elected President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, declared the putsch an attempt to harm Russia. Yeltsin called for the return of Gorbachev and appealed for popular support. Lack of decisiveness on the part of the coup leaders led to more and more support for Gorbachev; even soldiers and tank units turned to defend the parliament building, and some top military officers sided with Yeltsin.[117]

Hence, the coup failed and that for two main reasons. First, the inability of its leaders to understand the radical political and social transformation that had occurred in the USSR since 1985. It was no longer possible to falsely announce that Gorbachev had retired for reasons of poor health.[118] Secondly, it was poorly executed; the plotters failed to identify and deploy loyal troops, making a mistake in assuming that their orders would be blindly obeyed.

Nevertheless, although ultimately unsuccessful, the attempted coup still destroyed Gorbachev politically. The republics rushed to free themselves of Moscow’s control before another coup could succeed. The three Baltic republics successfully seceded from the union, as did many others.[119] Of key importance was Ukraine’s vote for independence on Dec. 1, 1991. On December 8, 1991 Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia (now renamed Belarus) declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and founded a new political grouping known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).[120]

On December 21, 11 states signed a protocol formally establishing the CIS in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Of the former Soviet republics only Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia refused to join. Gorbachev resigned as the Soviet president on December 25 and all Soviet institutions ceased to function at the end of 1991.[121]

Russia after 1991

After the disestablishment of the USSR, the newly formed Russian Federation pursued democracy and market economy but suffered from serious disorder and economic chaos. High inflation and continued economic crisis placed great pressure on Yeltsin.

Toward the end of Yeltsin’s tenure as president, Vladimir Putin began playing a more important role. In the presidential election held in March 2000, Putin easily defeated Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.[122]

Although Putin's leadership has enjoyed considerable popularity, with generally high approval ratings, many of his actions have been characterised as undemocratic. For instance, his crackdown on media freedom has merited widespread criticism in the West and also among the local liberals.[123])

Putin appointed the first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor in the 2008 presitential elections. In turn, Medvedev announced that he would appoint Putin as the prime minister, thus giving Putin a platform on which to continue his dominance of Russian politics.

Widely regarded as more liberal than Putin, Medvedev's agenda as the President entailed a wide-ranging modernisation programme of Russia's economy and society. Although he did not run for a second term as President, Medvedev was appointed Prime Minister by Putin, who won the 2012 presidential election.


[1] A. de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; original French edition 1856). Parallel pointed out by M. Heller and A.M. Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (New York, Simon & Schuster/Summit Books, 1986), 17.

[2] For reasons and measures used see Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 15-8.

[3] Ibid, 17, 21.

[4] ESERY (or SR) was founded in 1901 and owed its ideology to the Populists, demanding for the socialisation of the land and change in federal governmental structure. See Manfred Hildemeier, The Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party Before the First World War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), especially pages 51-98 on ideology and terror.

[5] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (from now on NEB), 2010, vol.28, 1000.

[6] Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919 (London: The Harvill Press, 1990), 360.

[7] NEB, 1000.

[8] Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 22.

[9] See ibid, 18-21.

[10] Ibid, 25-7.

[11] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 360.

[12] Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 28.

[13] During the taking of Petrograd Bolshevik force amounted to c. 6,000-7,000 men (against 1,500-2,000 supporters of the Provisional Government; the Petrograd garrison had declared itself neutral) (ibid, 42).

[14] Robert V. Daniels, The End of the Communist Revolution (New York : Routledge, 1993), 98-102.

[15] The first party to be outlawed and its members declared ‘enemies of the people’ were the Cadets. Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 47-8.

[16] Ibid, 51.

[17] Ibid, 51-2.

[18] Kulak - in Russian and Soviet history, a wealthy or prosperous peasant, generally characterized as one who owned a relatively large farm and several head of cattle and horses and who was financially capable of employing hired labour and leasing land. For more information see NEB. Lenin had transfered a word from its original meaning (Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (University of Alberta Press, 1986), 74).

[19] V. Lenin, ‘Comrade Workers, Forward To The Last, Decisive Fight!

[20] Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne (trans. by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 8. A strike of civil servants (including doctors, nurses, teachers, university professors etc.) had broken out soon after the revolution; the intelligentsia, who had longed for a revolution for nearly a century, became disillusioned and disenchanted with the new regime. The police and army were terrorized for disciplinary aims. Vatsetis’ letter to Lenin summarizes the result of this approach: 'discipline is based on harsh punishments, particularly executions…Through these punishments and executions we have struck terror in the hearts of everyone, soldiers, commanders, and commissars alike…' (Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 55-6, 87-8). For problems in the Red Army see Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy (London: Penguin, 1997), 589-600.

[21] Decossackization was the Bolshevik policy of systematic repressions against Cossacks of the Don and the Kuban between 1917 and 1921 aimed at the elimination of the cossackhood as a separate social, political, and economic entity.

[22] The initially neutral Cossacks turned against the Bolsheviks in spring 1918 after Soviet powered had occupied Ukraine and carried out mass executions. On April 10, the Cossacks rebelled. With the concurrent Czechoslovak revolt, the Soviet government came under serious pressure. By mid-1918 the Cossack ‘Army of the Don’ had become the most important anti-Bolshevik force and in early 1919 they merged with the White Army. Consequently, the Orgburo (Organizational Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee) document dated to January 24, 1919, found that “in view of the experience with the Cossacks in the civil war,” the only correct procedure was “to wage the most ruthless possible war against all the Cossack upper elements, exterminating them to the last man” through “ruthless mass terror.” After the spring and summer revolt, the policy was implemented with full force. (Heller & Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 77-87, 100-101).

[23] By definition the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

[24] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 8-9.

[25] Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 87. This estimation applies to the Don region, which around 1900 had a population of 1 million Cossacks and 1.2 million non-Cossacks (ibid, 77). M. Kort (The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2010 7th ed.), 140) offers a somewhat lower estimation of 300,000 to 500,000 deported or killed during 1919-1920 out of an overall population of about 3 million. V. Tishkov (Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and After the Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame (London: SAGE, 1997), 36) suggests that approx. 1,250,000 Cossacks suffered under Soviet persecutions.

[26] All-Russian Emergency Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. For more information see NEB.

[27] An opinion expressed at the founding meeting of the Cheka. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 510-11; Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 54.

[28] NEB, 1002.

[29] Anti-Bolshevik forces took Yekaterinburg eight days later, the ex-Tsar’s capture by the Monarchist was to be avoided. Cf. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 639.

[30] Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 636-40. Had Trotsky’s original plan to put him in a public trial in Moscow worked, it would have raised the possibility of his innocence and questioned the moral legitimacy of the revolution. ‘To put Nicholas on trial would also be to put the Bolsheviks on trial.’

[31] E.g. a declaration adopted by the delegates from the factories, railroad workshops, power plants, and printing houses of Petrograd expressed the workers discontent with the Bolshevik government four months after the revolution and stated: ‘…the workers have supported the new government, which declared itself a workers’ and peasants’ government and promised to carry out our wishes and respect our interests. All our organisations were placed at its service. Out sons and brothers had shed their blood for it . We have patiently endured famine and adversity. In our name all those whom the new government has designated its enemies have been cruelly repressed. Hoping that the promises it gave would be kept, we resigned ourselves to the eradication of our liberty and our rights. But four onths have gone by already, and we see that our trust has been cruelly abused, that our hopes have been brutally stamped out.’ Such feelings spread to other cities. (Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 57-8).

[32] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 72.

[33] Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: Norton & Company, 2000), 101.

[34] Figes, A People's Tragedy, 520-25, 630

[35] Ibid, 642-3.

[36] Ibid, 643.

[37] Heller & Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 67.

[38] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 78.

[39] Ibid, 81.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, 85.

[42] Pogrom - a violent mob attack.

[43] Or Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic was a short-lived South Caucasian state extending across what are now Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

[44] E.g. 1917 Decree on Suppression of Hostile Newspapers.

[45] Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924 (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 346.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid, 370-1.

[48] Ibid, 410-11.

[49] NEB, 1005.

[50] Pipes, 1919-1924, 386.

[51] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 118.

[52] Ibid.

[53] NEB, s.v. 'New Economic Policy (NEP)'.

[54] See Ukraine.

[55] Mark Edele, Stalinist Society 1928-1953 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 44-48.

[56] Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow, 117.

[57] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 146.

[58] NEB, 1008.

[59] Ibid, 1009.

[60] Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow, 225-9.

[61] Or GULag, Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies. Camps for the prisoners of war, filtration camps and special settlements for deportees were administered by other agencies.

[62] Anne Applebaum, Gulag (Tallinn: Varrak, 2005; trans. by Aldo Randmaa), 94.

[63] Ibid, 529-30.

[64] Ibid, 532.

[65] История России : ХХ - до начала ХХI века, под редакцией Л. В. Милова (Москва: ЭКСМО, 2010), 433-9.

[66] Applebaum, Gulag, 81.

[67] People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the police organization of the USSR.

[68] For several decades it was widely believed that Stalin had played an important role in the assassination of Kirov, who was his chief political rival. This belief stemmed from the "revelations" made by Nikita Khrushchev in the secret report he presented on the night of 24-25 February 1956 to the Soviet delegates at the Twentieth Party Congress. The theory has recently been called into question. In any case it is indisputable that Stalin used the assassination for his own political ends to crystallize the idea of conspiracy, which was always a central motif in Stalinist rhetoric. It allowed him to maintain the atmosphere of crisis and tension by "proving" the existence of a huge conspiracy against the country, its leaders, and socialism itself It even became a convenient explanation for the failures of the system: when everything went badly and life was no longer "happy and merry;' in Stalin's famous expression, then it was "all the fault of Kirov's assassins". See Courtois et al, The Black Book, 184.

[69] Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (Tallinn: Varrak, 2011, trans. by Tõnis Värnik), 92.

[70] E.g. ‘The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre’ (1936).

[71] Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, (London: Allen Lane, 2007), 227-315.

[72] Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (London: Pimlico, 1998), 419-23.

[73] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 184.

[74] NEB, 1011.


[76] Gulag Archipelago, 1: 439.

[77] История России : ХХ - до начала ХХI века, 487.

[78] BBC: 'Viewpoint: The Nazi-Soviet Pact'.

[79] Dmitri Volkogonov, Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 220.

[80] NEB, 1012.

[81] William J. Duiker, Contemporary World History (Wadsworth: Cengage Learning, 2010), 128.

[82] Michael Haynes, 'Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: a Note', Europe Asia Studies Vol.55, Issue 2 (2003), 300–309

[83] Robert Conquest, The Nation Killers (Macmillan, 1970), 59-61.

[84] Дмитрий Волкогонов, Сталин : политический портрет : в двух книгах, книга 2 (Москва : Новости, 1997), 463.

[85] Courtois et al., The Black Book, 242-6.

[86] Conquest, The Great Terror, 484-9.

[87] NEB, 1014.

[88] Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, 272-9.

[89] Милова, История России, 639-42.

[90] William Taubman (ed.; trans. David Gehrenbeck), Nikita Khrushchev (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 215.

[91] William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Tallinn: Varrak, 2006; trans. Rein Turu), 347.

[92] Ibid, 500-503, 542-545.

[93] Taubman, Nikita Khruschchev, 160-6.

[94] Taubman, Khruchchev, 585.

[95] Leonid Mletšin, Brežnev, (Tallinn: Varrak, 2011; trans. Jüri Ojamaa), 138-141.

[96] Paul Gregory and Robert Stuart, Soviet and Post Soviet Economic Structure and Performance (Harper Collins College Publishers, 1994), 379.

[97] Ibid, 1017.

[98] Heller and Nekrich, Utopia in Power, 664.

[99] Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, 478-80.

[100] Милова, История России, 735.

[101] Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver, 'Equality, Efficiency, and Politics in Soviet Bilingual Education Policy: 1934–1980', American Political Science Review 78 (1984), 1019–1039.

[102] О. Субтельний, Україна: Історія (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 640.

[103] Warsaw Pact – cooperation and mutual assistance treaty establishing a mutual-defense organization (Warsaw Treaty Organization) composed originally of the Soviet Union and Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

[104] Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, 478-80.

[105] Karen Henderson and Neil Robinson, Post-Communist Politics: An Introduction (London; New York: Prentice Hall, 1997), 27.

[106] Leslie Holmes, Post-Communism: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 26-31.

[107] A gerontocracy is a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population.

[108] Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.

[109] Милова, История России, 716-8.

[110] Martin McCauley, Gorbachev (London; New York: Longman, 1998), 50.

[111] NEB, 1021.

[112] Brown, The Gorbachev Factor, 165.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Evan Mawdsley and Stephen White, The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev: The Central Committee and its Members, 1917-1991 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 233, 237-238.

[115] McCauley, Gorbachev, 241-2.

[116] NEB, 1023.

[117] McCauley, Gorbachev, 241-2.

[118] Henderson and Robinson, Post-Communist Politics, 108-11.

[119] Holmes, Post-Communism, 111-4.

[120] Henderson and Robinson, Post-Communist Politics, 116-23, 125.

[121] Милова, История России, 823-5.

[122] Ibid, 935-6.