The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded after the October 1917 Russian Revolution as the world’s first socialist state. Led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party, the USSR was supposed to be a dictatorship of the proletariat that would facilitate the construction of communism in the Russian empire and globally. The USSR was officially created from the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Transcaucasian Soviet republics in 1922. After expansion between 1922 and 1945, it contained fifteen republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
The Soviet Union Under Stalin
Formally the USSR was a federation, and all republics had equal rights and their own governments. In practice, the republics were subject to the central Soviet government, itself under the direction of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU, as the Bolshevik party was renamed in 1952).
Politically, this system was a dictatorship by the time that the USSR was created. The soviets that were supposed to ensure mass political participation and emancipation and be the titular core of the political system were subjugated to the will of the Bolshevik party during the civil war (1918–1921) that followed the revolution. The concentration of power in the party enabled its General Secretary, Joseph Stalin, to succeed Lenin as the USSR’s leader. Stalin aimed to rapidly modernize the USSR, which was supposed to address both the USSR’s security fears—as the first communist state, it was surrounded by hostile capitalist powers—and to lay the basis for communist construction in the USSR by transforming its peasant economy. Control of the economy was centralized and economic activity directed by a five-year plan drawn up under the supervision of the central CPSU leadership. Plan implementation became the main work of party and state, which became intertwined and dominated society.
Rapid modernization through central planning was costly to both the Soviet people and the Soviet system. The human cost ran into millions of lives as agriculture was collectivized amid famine and mass deportations. Later, the Stalinist purges saw the repression of further millions as Stalin struggled to control the growing state bureaucracy and direct economic activity. The cost to the system was its bureaucratization and economic inefficiency. Bureaucratization meant that the party elite began to develop some of the characteristics of a class, and the elite became privileged and isolated from the Soviet people whose liberation it was supposed to nurture. Inefficiency grew because bureaucratization and ideological control dulled flexibility and initiative, and this made the economic problems of central planning—waste, poor labor productivity and investment returns—intractable. Stalin’s solution was coercion and more demands for high growth. While this worked in the short term, enabling the USSR to build a superpower military machine and expand its power in eastern Europe after World War II (1939–1945), it was not sustainable in the long term.
Stalin’s combination of dictatorship, repression, and ideologically inspired economic control created what Western political scientists called a totalitarian system, but this totalitarianism could not outlast Stalin because of its economic inefficiencies and human costs. The cold war, which was partly prompted by the expansion of Soviet power, placed immense strain on the economic system because the USSR spent much more of its far smaller national wealth to compete with the United States and its allies. The USSR began the process of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev, who condemned Stalin in his Secret Speech at the 1956 20th Party Congress. De-Stalinization consolidated Khrushchev’s leadership position but constrained his ability to reform Stalinism because he could not coerce change from the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy grew unwilling to countenance change or lose any of its privileges. Khrushchev’s efforts at reform lost him support and alongside policy failures in agriculture and foreign affairs—most notably the 1962 Cuban missile affair— led to his ousting in 1964.
The new leadership, under Leonid Brezhnev, declared the USSR had entered the stage of developed socialism and would change only incrementally toward communism. This recognized that the USSR was now a modern urban and industrialized society that would no longer grow rapidly, but did not resolve the problems of central planning and bureaucratization. If anything it did the opposite: Brezhnev promised stability to Soviet elites, and they expanded their power and privilege under his rule. Growth in the USSR was secured by oil sales, the price of which was inflated in the 1970s. Oil sales enabled more popular consumption and military spending, but it did not resolve the underlying structural problems of planning. Worse, large parts of the economy were deprived of investment, and the USSR began to fall behind its competitors technologically.
Reform and The Collapse of The USSR
Many Soviet leaders recognized the need for reform by the early 1980s. The economy was entering crisis, and the costs of military competition with the West, which grew after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and its rule over eastern Europe could not be sustained. Brezhnev’s immediate successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were not in power long enough to effect change.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to CPSU General Secretary in 1985 broke the logjam. Gorbachev’s aim was to revitalize the Soviet economy by cutting military expenditure, incentivizing the workforce, and cutting back on bureaucratic obstacles to reform. Foreign policy reform, including withdrawal from Afghanistan, relaxation of Soviet control over eastern Europe, and rapprochement with the West, was to facilitate arms cuts. Reform of the CPSU and democratization were supposed to cut bureaucracy and engage the Soviet people in securing change. Gorbachev’s foreign policy was successful in reducing international tension, but domestic reform had unintended effects. The CPSU reformed slowly and popular protest, most notably the nationalist movements that developed in the republics as Gorbachev relaxed political controls, weakened central authority. Elections in 1989 to an all-Union parliament and in 1990 to republican parliaments undermined Gorbachev’s power, and he was forced to negotiate a new Union treaty in the spring of 1991. This would have changed the nature of the USSR fundamentally. Conservative forces tried to stop the treaty’s August 1991 ratification by overthrowing Gorbachev. Their failure demonstrated that authority lay with republican governments, most of which now seceded from the Soviet Union. An agreement among Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia in early December 1991 sealed the USSR’s fate, and it was formally abolished on December 26, 1991.
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