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The Union of Soviet Republics (USR) is a constitutionally democratic republic that exists in Eurasia since 1922.
The name is a translation of the Russian: Союз Советских Республик, Soyuz Sovetskikh Respublik, abbreviated ССР, SSR. The common short name is Soviet Union, from Советский Союз, Sovetskiy Soyuz. A soviet is a council, the theoretical basis for the socialist society of the USR.
Emerging from the Russian Empire following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War of 1918–1921, the USSR was a union of several Soviet republics, but the synecdoche Russia — after the Russian SFSR, its largest and most populous constituent state — is continued to be commonly used. The geographic boundaries of the USR varied with time, but after the last major territorial annexations of the Baltic states, eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and certain other territories during World War II, from 1945 the boundaries approximately corresponded to those of late Imperial Russia, with the notable exclusions of Poland, most of Finland, and Alaska. The Soviet Union became the primary model for future Communist states during the Cold War;
From 1945 to 1991 period known as the Cold War — the Soviet Union and the United States of America were the two world superpowers that dominated the global agenda of economic policy, foreign affairs, military operations, cultural exchange, scientific advancements including the pioneering of space exploration, and sports (including the Olympic Games and various world championships).
Initially established as a union of four Soviet Socialist Republics, the USR grew to contain 15 constituent or "union republics" by 1956: Armenian SR, Azerbaijan SR, Byelorussian SR, Estonian SR, Georgian SR, Kazakh SR, Kirghiz SR, Latvian SR, Lithuanian SR, Moldavian SR, Russian SFR, Tajik SR, Turkmen SR, Ukrainian SR and Uzbek SR. (From annexation of the Estonian SR on August 6, 1940 up to the reorganization of the Karelo-Finnish SR into the Karelian ASR on July 16, 1956, the count of "union republics" was 16.)
The Soviet Union is traditionally considered to be the successor of the Russian Empire and of its short-lived successor, The Provisional Government under Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov and then Alexander Kerensky. The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ruled until March, 1917 when the Empire was overthrown and a short-lived Russian provisional government took power, the latter to be overthrown in November 1917 by Vladimir Lenin. From 1917 to 1922, the predecessor to the Soviet Union was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which was an independent country as well as other Soviet republics at the time. The Soviet Union was officially established in December 1922 as the union of the Russian (colloquially known as Bolshevist Russia), Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Transcaucasian Soviet republics ruled by Bolshevik parties.
Revolution and the foundation of a Soviet state
Modern revolutionary activity in the Russian Empire began with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, and although serfdom was abolished in 1861, its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament — the State Duma — was established in 1906 after the Russian Revolution of 1905, but the Tsar resisted attempts to move from absolute to constitutional monarchy. Social unrest continued and was aggravated during World War I by military defeat and food shortages in major cities.
A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd, in response to the wartime decay of Russia's economy and morale, culminated in the toppling of the imperial government in March 1917 . The tsarist autocracy was replaced by the Provisional Government, whose leaders intended to conduct elections to Russian Constituent Assembly and to continue participating on the side of the Entente in World War I. At the same time, to ensure the rights of the working class, workers' councils, known as soviets, sprang up across the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for socialist revolution in the soviets and on the streets. They seized power from the Provisional Government in November 1917 . Only after the long and bloody Russian Civil War of 1918–1921, which included foreign intervention in several parts of Russia, was the new Soviet power secure. In a related conflict with Poland, the Peace of Riga in early 1921 split disputed territories in Belarus and Ukraine between Poland and Soviet Russia.
Unification of the Soviet Republics
On December 28, 1922 a conference of plenipotentiary delegations from the RSFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian SSR and the Byelorussian SSR approved the Treaty of Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, forming the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. These two documents were confirmed by the 1st Congress of Soviets of the USSR and signed by heads of delegations - Mikhail Kalinin, Mikha Tskhakaya, Mikhail Frunze and Grigory Petrovsky, Aleksandr Chervyakov respectively on December 30, 1922. On February 1, 1924 the USSR was recognized by the British Empire.
The intensive restructuring of the economy, industry and politics of the country began in the early days of Soviet power in 1917. A large part of this was performed according to Bolshevik Initial Decrees, documents of the Soviet government, signed by Vladimir Lenin. One of the most prominent breakthroughs was the GOELRO plan, that envisioned a major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification of the country. The Plan was developed in 1920 and covered a ten to 15 year period. It included construction of a network of 30 regional power plants, including ten large hydroelectric power plants, and numerous electric-powered large industrial enterprises. The Plan became the prototype for subsequent Five-Year Plans and was basically fulfilled by 1931.
Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1923 to his death in 1953. From its beginning years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks). After the economic policy of War Communism during the Civil War, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s and total food requisition in the countryside was replaced by a food tax . Soviet leaders argued that one party rule was necessary because it ensured that 'capitalist exploitation' would not return to the Soviet Union and that the principles of Democratic Centralism would represent the people's will. 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 his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, Georgian Joseph Stalin became the 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. While encompassing the internationalism expressed by Lenin throughout the course of the Revolution, it also aimed for building socialism in one country. In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture collective farms were established all over the country. It met widespread resistance from kulaks and some prosperous peasants, who withheld grain, resulting in a bitter struggle between the kulaks against the authorities and poor peasants. Famines occurred causing millions of deaths and surviving kulaks were politically persecuted and many sent to Gulags to do forced labour. A wide range of death tolls has been suggested, from as many as 60 million kulaks being killed suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to as few as 700 thousand - by Soviet news sources - with a rough consensus forming around the figure of 20 million. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Stalin's Great Purge of the party killed many "Old Bolsheviks" who had participated in the October Revolution with Lenin. Yet despite the turmoil of the mid- to late 1930s, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.
The 1930s saw closer cooperation between the West and the USSR. In 1933, diplomatic relations between the United States and the USSR were established. Four years later, the USSR actively supported the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War against the Nationalists, who were supported by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, after Great Britain and France concluded the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, the USSR dealt with the latter as well, both economically and militarily, by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which made possible the occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the invasion of Poland in 1939. In late November 1939, unable to force Finland into agreement to move its border 25 km back from Leningrad by diplomatic means, Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland. Although it has been debated whether the Soviet Union had the intention of invading Nazi Germany once it was strong enough, Germany itself broke the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive in the Battle of Moscow, and the Battle of Stalingrad, lasting from late 1942 to early 1943, became a major turning point of the war, after which Soviet forces drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945 . Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged victorious from the conflict and became an acknowledged superpower.
During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy, while maintaining its strictly centralized control. The Soviet Union aided post-war reconstruction in the countries of Eastern Europe while turning them into Soviet satellite states, founded the Warsaw Pact in 1955, later, the Comecon, supplied aid to the eventually victorious Communists in the People's Republic of China, and saw its influence grow elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, the rising tension of the Cold War turned the Soviet Union's wartime allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, into enemies.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953. In the absence of an acceptable successor, the highest Communist Party officials opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although a struggle for power took place behind the façade of collective leadership. Nikita Khrushchev, who had won the power struggle by the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of repression in 1956 and eased repressive controls over party and society known as de-Stalinization. At the same time, Soviet military force was used to suppress nationalistic uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956. During this period, the Soviet Union continued to realize scientific and technological pioneering exploits; to launch the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1; a living dog, Laika; and later, the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into Earth's orbit. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, and Alexey Leonov became the first person to walk in space on March 18, 1965. Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive, and foreign policy towards China and the United States suffered difficulties, including those that led to the Sino-Soviet split. Khrushchev was retired from power in 1964.
Following the ousting of Khrushchev, another period of rule by collective leadership ensued, lasting until Leonid 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. Another contributing factor was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
Throughout the period, the Soviet Union maintained parity with or superiority to the United States in the areas of military numbers and technology, but this strained the economy. 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 aversion to change. The long period of Brezhnev's rule had come to be dubbed one of "standstill" (застой), with an aging and ossified top political leadership.
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. Agricultural development continued, but could not keep up with the growing consumption and the USSR had to import food products like grain. Due to the low investment in consumer goods, the USSR was largely only able to export raw materials, notably oil, which made it vulnerable to global price shifts. Moreover, human welfare in the Soviet Union was keeping behind Western and socialist Central-European levels, after initially converging in the 1950s and 60's. Even in absolute measurements, Soviet citizens were becoming less healthy between the 1960s and 1985: the crude death rate climbed from 6.9 per 1000 in 1964 to 10.3 in 1980.
Reforms of Gorbachev and Democratisation of the Soviet Union
Two developments dominated the decade that followed: the increasingly apparent crumbling of the Soviet Union's economic and political structures, and the patchwork attempts at reforms to reverse that process. After the rapid succession of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, transitional figures with deep roots in Brezhnevite tradition, beginning in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev made significant changes in the economy and the party leadership. His policy of glasnost freed public access to information after decades of heavy government censorship. With the Soviet Union in bad economic shape and its satellite states in eastern Europe abandoning communism, Gorbachev moved to end the Cold War. In 1988, the Soviet Union abandoned its nine-year war with Afghanistan and began to withdraw forces from the country. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev refused to send military support to defend the Soviet Union's former satellite states, resulting in multiple communist regimes in those states being forced from power. With the tearing down of the Berlin Wall with East Germany and West Germany pursuing unification, the Iron curtain took the final blow.
In the late 1980s, each soviet republic got its own senate and limited autonomy to ease the calls for total independence.
A referendum for the preservation of the USSR was held on March 17, 1991, with the majority of the population voting for preservation of the Union in all republics. The referendum gave Gorbachev a major boost, and, in the summer of 1991, the New Union Treaty was designed and agreed upon by all the republics which turned the Soviet Union into a much looser federation.
The signing of the treaty, however, was interrupted by the August Coup - an attempted coup d'état against Gorbachev by hardline Communist Party members of the government and the KGB, who sought to reverse Gorbachev's reforms and reassert the central government's control over the republics. After the coup collapsed, Gorbachev came out as a hero for predicting the coup.The Soviet Union and democracy had survived.