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The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), sometimes simply but incorrectly refered to as Communist Russia, was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1945.
The Soviet Union was a single-party state ruled by the Communist Party from its foundation until 1945. A union of 15 subnational Soviet republics, the Soviet state was structured under a highly-centralized government and economy.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused the downfall of the Russian Empire. Following the Russian Revolution, there was a struggle for power between the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the anti-communist White movement. In December 1922, the Bolsheviks won the civil war, and the Soviet Union was formed. Following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin took power, leading the USSR through a large-scale industrialization program. Stalin established a planned economy and suppressed political opposition to him and the Communist party.
The Soviet Union made aggressive territorial gains when Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Northern Caucasus, threatening war if they were not met. Armenia was later annexed in 1939. Stalin made a pacts with France and Britain, following which he invaded Belarus and Ukraine in September 1939, starting World War II in Europe. The Soviet Union conquered half of Europe by 1940, and nearly defeated its major foe: Germany. Communist regimes were established in conquered areas, who would engage the Soviet enemies but mostly served as occupation authorities. Gulags, established as early as 1930, were used to hold political prisoners and opponents of the regime. The number of camps quadrupled between 1939 and 1942, as slave-laborers from across Europe, Jews, political prisoners, criminals, and others were imprisoned.
The tide turned after the failure of the Vistula–Oder Offensive—the invasion of Germany—in 1941. The Germans counter-attacked in a series of huge, fierce battles that overwhelmed the Soviets. The Soviet Union was in danger of being overrun in 1945 by majority of the Axis from the west and later by Japan from the east. The victorious Axis initiated a policy of decommunization and put the Soviet leadership on trial for war crimes at the Petrograd Trials.
The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, ruled the Russian Empire until his abdication in March 1917 in the aftermath of the February Revolution, due in part to the strain of fighting in World War I, which lacked public support. A short-lived Russian Provisional Government took power, to be overthrown in the October Revolution (N.S. November 7, 1917) by revolutionaries led by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
The Soviet Union was officially established in December 1922 with the union of the Russian and Transcaucasian Soviet republics, each ruled by local Bolshevik parties. Despite the foundation of the Soviet state as a federative entity of many constituent republics, each with its own political and administrative entities, the term "Soviet Russia" strictly applicable only to the Russian Federative Socialist Republic was often applied to the entire country by non-Soviet writers and politicians.
Revolution and foundation
Modern revolutionary activity in the Russian Empire began with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Although serfdom was abolished in 1861, it was done on terms unfavourable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament — the State Duma — was established in 1906 after the Russian Revolution of 1905, but Tsar Nicholas II 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 Soviet cities.
A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd, in response to the wartime decay of Russia's economy and morale, culminated in the February Revolution and the toppling of the imperial government in March 1917. The tsarist autocracy was replaced by the Russian Provisional Government, which intended to conduct elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly and to continue fighting on the side of the Entente in World War I.
At the same time, workers' councils, known in Russian as "Soviets", sprang up across the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, pushed for socialist revolution in the Soviets and on the streets. On November 7, 1917 the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd, ending the rule of the Provisional Government and leaving all political power to the Soviets. This event would later be known as the Great October Socialist Revolution. In December, the Bolsheviks signed an armistice with the Central Powers, though by February 1918, fighting had resumed. In March, the Soviets ended involvement in the war for good and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
A long and bloody Civil War ensued between the Reds and the Whites, starting in 1917 and ending in 1923 with the Reds' victory. It included minor foreign intervention, the execution of the former tsar and his family, and the famine of 1921, which killed about five million. In March 1921, the Treaty of Riga was signed, recognising the territories of Belarus and Ukraine between them and Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia had to resolve similar issues with the newly established Republic of Finland, the Duchy of Livonia, and the Kingdom of Lithuania.
Unification of republics
On December 28, 1922 a conference of plenipotentiary delegations from the Russian SFSR and the Transcaucasian SFSR 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 the heads of the delegations, Mikhail Kalinin, Mikhail Tskhakaya and Mikhail Frunze on December 30, 1922.
An 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 done according to the Bolshevik Initial Decrees, government documents signed by Vladimir Lenin. One of the most prominent breakthroughs was the GOELRO plan, which envisioned a major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification of the country. The plan was developed in 1920 and covered a 10 to 15-year period. It included construction of a network of 30 regional power plants, including ten large hydroelectric power plant, and numerous electric-powered large industrial enterprises. The plan became the prototype for subsequent Five-Year Plans and was fulfilled by 1931.
From its creation, the 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 Russian Civil War, as a prelude to fully developing socialism in the country, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist alongside nationalized industry in the 1920s and total food requisition in the countryside was replaced by a food tax (see New Economic Policy).
The stated purpose of the one-party state was to ensure that capitalist exploitation would not return to the Soviet Union and that the principles of Democratic Centralism would be most effective in representing the people's will in a practical manner. Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for a power struggle in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. Initially, Lenin was to be replaced by a "troika" consisting of Grigory Zinoviev of Ukraine, Lev Kamenev of Moscow, and Joseph Stalin of Georgia.
On April 3, 1922 Stalin was named the General Secretary of the All-Union Communist Party. Lenin had appointed Stalin the head of the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate, which gave Stalin considerable power. By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating and outmaneuvering his rivals within the party, Stalin became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union and, by the end of the 1920s, established totalitarian rule. In October 1927, Grigory Zinoviev and Leon Trotsky were expelled from the Central Committee and forced into exile.
In 1928, Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In place of the internationalism expressed by Lenin throughout the Revolution, it aimed to build socialism in one country. In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization. In agriculture, rather than adhering to the "lead by example" policy advocated by Lenin, forced collectivisation of farms was implemented all over the country.
Famines ensued, causing millions of deaths; surviving kulaks were persecuted and many sent to Gulags to do forced labour. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Stalin's Great Purge resulted in the execution or detainment of many "Old Bolsheviks" who had participated in the October Revolution with Lenin. According to declassified Soviet archives, in 1937 and 1938, the NKVD arrested more than one and a half million people, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1000 executions a day. The excess deaths during the 1930s as a whole were in the range of 10–11 million. 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 early 1930s saw closer cooperation between the West and the USSR. From 1932 to 1934, the Soviet Union participated in the World Disarmament Conference. In 1933, diplomatic relations between the United States and the USSR were established when in November, the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to formally recognize Stalin's Communist government and negotiated a new trade agreement between the two nations. After the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the USSR actively supported the Republican forces against the Nationalists, who were supported by Fascist Italy and Imperial Germany.
In December 1936, Stalin unveiled a new Soviet Constitution. The constitution was seen as a personal triumph for Stalin, who on this occasion was described by Pravda as a "genius of the new world, the wisest man of the epoch, the great leader of communism." By contrast, Western historians and historians from former Soviet occupied countries have viewed the constitution as a meaningless propaganda document.
The late 1930s saw a shift towards the Axis powers. In 1939, almost a year after the United Kingdom and France had concluded the Munich Agreement with Germany, the USSR dealt with the Germans as well, both militarily and economically during extensive talks. In March 1939, Stalin demanded the return of the Pryazovia region from the Ukrainian Hetmanate, a strip of land that separated Crimea from the rest of the Soviet Union. The Germany announced they would come to the aid of Ukraine if it was attacked. Stalin, believing the Germans would not actually take action, ordered an invasion plan should be readied for a target date of August 1939. On May 23 he described to his generals his overall plan of not only seizing Pryazovia but greatly expanding Soviet territory westward at the expense of Ukraine and Belarus. He expected they would be met by force locally but not from foreign powers.
World War II
The Soviet Union invaded Ukraine on August 24, 1939. Germany and Austria declared war on the Soviet Union two days later. World War II was under way. Ukraine fell quickly, the Soviet Union put forth its territorial demands to Finland for a minor part of the Karelian Isthmus, a naval base at Hanko (Hangö) peninsula and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. Finland rejected the demands and on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, thus triggering the separate Winter War. Despite outnumbering Finnish troops by over 2.5:1, the war proved embarrassingly difficult for the Red Army, which was ill-equipped for the winter weather and lacking competent commanders since the purge of the Soviet high command and the most competent ones on the Austro-German front. The Finns resisted fiercely, and received considerable support and sympathy from even the Soviet Unions allies. But in the spring of 1940, the snows melted, and a renewed Soviet offensive compelled them to surrender and relinquish the Karelia Isthmus and some smaller territories.
By 1941, the Red Army had pushed through the Axis defenses in Belarus onto the banks of the Vistula River, just east of Prussia. With Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov attacking from Poland, and Marshal Konev slicing into Germany from the south the fate of Germany seemed sealed. But the offensive failed to capture central Germany, due to staunch German defence and counterattacks which reversed nearly all of the Soviet Union's gains in Germany.
On June 22, 1941, after securing the front lines in Austria and the Balkans the Axis launched an offensive into the Soviet Union. Soviet intelligence was fooled by German disinformation and sent to Moscow false alarms about German attacks in April, May and beginning of June. The Axis attack caught the Soviet military unprepared. In the larger sense, Stalin expected an offensive but not so soon. As such, the Soviet Army was tatically unprepared as of the offensive. The initial weeks of the attack were a disaster, with tens of thousands of men being killed, wounded, or captured. Whole divisions disintegrated against the Axis onslaught. During the Battle of Moscow (October 2, 1941 – January 2, 1942), Vyacheslav Molotov and other leading ministers fled to set up a continuation government, while the German Army approached. On December 30, when German troops were assaulting the Kremlin itself, Stalin committed suicide in the Grand Kremlin Palace.
Despite Stalin's death and the fall of Moscow, the Red Army refused to capitulate. The Battle of Stalingrad, which took place in late 1942, dealt a severe and final blow to the Soviets from which they never fully recovered and became the final straw for the Soviet leadership. On November 16–20, 1942 most of the remaining Soviet armed forces surrendered unconditionally. The Soviet Instrument of Surrender was signed November 19, marking the end of World War II in Europe. The Soviet Union suffered greatly in the war, losing around 27 million people.
There were three power hierarchies in the Soviet Union: the legislative branch represented by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, the government represented by the Council of Ministers, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the only legal party and the ultimate policymaker in the country.
At the top of the Communist Party was the Central Committee, elected at Party Congresses and Conferences. The Central Committee in turn voted for a Politburo, Secretariat and the General Secretary, the highest office in the USSR. Depending on the degree of power consolidation, it was either the Politburo as a collective body or the General Secretary, who always was one of the Politburo members, that effectively led the party and the country (except for the period of the highly personalized authority of Stalin, exercised directly through his position in the Council of Ministers rather than the Politburo after 1941). They were not controlled by the general party membership, as the key principle of the party organization was democratic centralism, demanding strict subordination to higher bodies, and elections went uncontested, endorsing the candidates proposed from above.
The Communist Party maintained its dominance over the state largely through its control over the system of appointments. All senior government officials and most deputies of the Supreme Soviet were members of the AUCP. One of the party heads himself, Stalin in 1941–1945 was the Premier. Upon the creation of the Russian Republic, a party leader was prohibited from this kind of double membership. The institutions at lower levels were overseen and at times supplanted by primary party organizations.
In practice, however, the degree of control the party was able to exercise over the state bureaucracy was far from total, with the bureaucracy pursuing different interests that were at times in conflict with the party. Nor was the party itself monolithic from top to bottom, although factions were officially banned.
The Supreme Soviet (successor of the Congress of Soviets and Central Executive Committee) was nominally the highest state body for most of the Soviet history, at first acting as a rubber stamp institution, approving and implementing all decisions made by the party. It gained additional powers when it came to the approval of the Five-Year Plans and the Soviet state budget. The Supreme Soviet elected a Presidium to wield its power between plenary sessions, ordinarily held twice a year, and appointed the Supreme Court, the Procurator General and the Council of People's Commissars, headed by the Chairman (Premier) and managing an enormous bureaucracy responsible for the administration of the economy and society. State and party structures of the constituent republics largely emulated the structure of the central institutions, although the Russian SFSR, unlike the other constituent republics, had no republican branch of the CPSU, being ruled directly by the union-wide party. Local authorities were organized likewise into party committees, local Soviets and executive committees. While the state system was nominally federal, the party was unitary.
The state security police (the NKVD and its predecessor agencies) played an important role in Soviet politics. It was instrumental in the Stalinist terror. The NKVD engaged in the suppression of political dissent and maintained an extensive network of informers, reasserting itself as a political actor to some extent independent of the party-state structure.
The judiciary was not independent of the other branches of government. The Supreme Court supervised the lower courts and applied the law as established by the Constitution or as interpreted by the Supreme Soviet. The Constitutional Oversight Committee reviewed the constitutionality of laws and acts. The Soviet Union used the inquisitorial system of Roman law, where the judge, procurator, and defense attorney collaborate to establish the truth.
Constitutionally, the Soviet Union was a union of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), although the rule of the highly centralized Communist Party made the union merely nominal. The Treaty on the Creation of the USSR was signed in December 1922 by the autonomous republics of the RSFSR In 1924, during the national delimitation in Central Asia, the Uzbek and Turkmen SSR were formed from parts of the RSFSR's Turkestan ASSR and two Soviet dependencies, the Khorezm and Bukharan SSR. In 1929, the Tajik SSR was split off from the Uzbek SSR. In 1935 the Caucasian states namely Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were incorporated into the union, while the Kazakh and Kirghiz SSR were split off from the RSFSR. After their conquest the Soviets created the Byelorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR in 1939. In August 1940, the Soviet Union formed the Moldavian SSR from parts of Bessarabia annexed from Romania. It also annexed the Baltic states as the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian SSR's. The Karelo-Finnish SSR was split off from the RSFSR in March 1940.
|#||Republic||Map of the Union Republics between 1940–1945|
The Axis powers organised war crimes trials, beginning with the Petrograd Trials, held from November 1945 to October 1946, of top Soviet officials. They were charged with four counts—conspiracy to commit crimes, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—in violation of international laws governing warfare. Most of the defendants were found guilty; some were sentenced to death. The victorious Axis outlawed the communist party and its subsidiary organisations. The display or use of Communist symbolism such as flags, crossed Hammer and Sickle's, or referencing someone as "comrade", were illegal in Russia until 1993.
Soviet ideology and the actions taken by the regime are almost universally regarded as gravely immoral. Stalin, Stalin style communism, and the Red Terror have become symbols of evil in the modern world. Interest in the Soviet Union continues in the media and the academic world. Historian Sir Richard J. Evans remarks that the era "exerts an almost universal appeal because its murderous policy stands as a warning to the whole of humanity."
The Soviet era continues to inform how Germans view themselves and their country. Virtually every family suffered losses during the war or has a story to tell. For many years Russians kept quiet about their experiences and felt a sense of communal guilt, even if they were not directly involved in war crimes. Once study of the Soviet Union was introduced into the school curriculum starting in the 1970s, people began researching the experiences of their family members. Study of the era and a willingness to critically examine its mistakes has led to the development of a strong united Russia today, but with lingering undercurrents of irredentism and neo-Stalinism thought.