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Soviet Union: History, leaders and legacy

Propaganda poster : Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Stalin, 1953.
A Soviet propaganda poster from 1953, showing Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin (Image credit: Apic via Getty Images)

The Soviet Union was the world's first communist country. It was established following a civil war in Russia that raged from 1917 to 1921. The Soviet Union controlled a vast amount of territory and competed with the United States in a conflict known as the Cold War, which at several moments put the world on the brink of a nuclear war and also drove the Space Race. 

The Soviet Union's full name was the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" or U.S.S.R. "Soviet" comes from the name for workers' councils, and the hammer and sickle on its red flag symbolically represented the labor of the country's workers. 

The Soviet Union's influence on the world was huge and still has an impact today. In the decades after the founding of the U.S.S.R., communist governments emerged that still exist now in China, Cuba and North Korea, among other countries. While Russia is no longer communist, its president, Vladimir Putin, considers the fall of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" and is currently (as of February 2022) invading Ukraine, a now-independent country that was part of the Soviet Union. 

Related: Russian culture: Facts, customs & traditions

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, following a series of economic and political problems and broke up into 15 independent countries.

Founding of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Lenin, first leader of the Soviet Union, giving a speech in Moscow in 1919 (Image credit: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images)

Prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union, Russia was a monarchy ruled by a king, or czar. However, czarist Russia was fertile ground for a revolution. The czarist family lived a life of luxury, as illustrated by the ornate Fabergé eggs they commissioned and collected, while much of the population lived in poverty. Around 80% of the population may have been living in rural areas around the year 1900. That being said, recent research indicates that the level of inequality in the country was not particularly unusual — both for the time and compared with today's levels. 

"Russia's income inequality was not exceptional, either in comparison to contemporary societies or when stacked up against estimates for the post-Soviet period. This was despite the extreme suppression of political rights, the inequality of land ownership, and the clear regressivity of the imperial fiscal system," Peter Hindert and Steven Nafziger wrote in a paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Economic History. Hindert is a distinguished research professor of economics at the University of California Davis, and Nafziger is an economics professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, czarist Russia suffered a series of military defeats. From 1904 to 1905, Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War against Japan. A substantial amount of Russia's navy was destroyed or captured, and Russia was forced to cede territory to Japan. 

A revolution occurred in Russia in 1905, following the country's defeat to Japan, when parts of Russia's military rebelled against Czar Nicholas II. One famous example is the battleship Potemkin, whose crew mutinied and took over the ship. While the revolution was put down over the next two years by pro-czarist forces, it illustrated the fragile hold the czarist family had over their country. In response, Nicholas II implemented reforms that reduced the Czar's power to some degree. 

The impact of the failed 1905 revolution has been widely debated by commentators and historians, wrote Abraham Ascher, a distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York, in a paper published in the book "The Russian Revolution of 1905: Centenary Perspectives" (Routledge, 2005). Ascher noted that Lenin thought of it as a dress rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. Some historians believe that the revolution actually started in 1904 and ran on for years, whereas other historians don't believe that there was a "revolution" at all in 1905 but rather a series of smaller rebellions, Ascher wrote. 

A Fabergé egg, made for the Russian imperial family in 1887. These ornaments were commissioned and owned by the royal family while much of the Russian population lived in poverty. (Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid / Staff via Getty Images)

The situation worsened in 1914 when Russia entered World War I on the side of the Allies — mainly Britain, France, Japan, and later Italy and the U.S. — against the Central Powers — mainly Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The Russians lost several battles against Germany, and German forces advanced deep into the Russian Empire, coming close to St. Petersburg (the then-capital of Russia, which had been renamed Petrograd in 1914). In March 1917, the devastating military setbacks, growing death toll, worsening economic situation and increasing levels of hunger in Russia led the Russian population to depose Czar Nicholas and form the Provisional Government, in what became known as the February Revolution. (Russia used the Julian calendar at the time, so it was February in Russia but March in other countries.)

In November 1917, communist (also called "Bolshevik") forces led by Vladimir Lenin moved to take over from the Provisional Government in what became known as the October Revolution, and Russia disintegrated into a civil war that lasted until 1921. Lenin's communism was partly based on the ideas of Karl Marx, an economic philosopher who contended that large social and economic changes were needed for workers to gain the benefits of their labor.

Nicholas II and most of his family, including his five children, were executed by gunfire on the night of July 16-17, 1918 by communist forces.

A 1913 portrait of Czar Nicholas II and his family. They were murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918. (Image credit: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The new government made peace with Germany and withdrew from World War I.

Britain and the United States were alarmed at the growth of Lenin's forces and sent soldiers to Russia in an attempt to support anti-communist groups — known as the "White armies" in their fight against Lenin's "Red Army."

During the civil war, Lenin's forces expropriated and nationalized some of the businesses that it captured, which was part of a policy often referred to as "war communism," Silvana Malle, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Verona in Italy, wrote in their book "The Economic Organization of War Communism, 1918-1921" (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

In 1921, the Red Army defeated the last major military forces opposed to Lenin, and the world's first communist country was born.

In the aftermath of World War I, a number of countries that had been controlled by the Russian Empire — such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — gained their independence. For Ukraine, that independence was short-lived: Lenin's communist forces attacked Ukraine in 1919 and conquered most of the country by the end of 1921. Belarus also gained its independence for a brief time but was conquered by Lenin's forces in 1921.

Soviet Union's early years

Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in 1922. Stalin became leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin died.  (Image credit: Laski Diffusion via Getty Images)

Lenin didn't live to govern the Soviet Union for long; he died in 1924. In the short time he governed, a famine raged across the Soviet Union. A 1922 League of Nations (a forerunner to the modern United Nations) report stated that famine was "due to a combination of economic causes and an exceptionally severe drought." The report noted that estimates for the number of dead varied but was believed to be about 2 million people and put some of the blame on Lenin's "war communism" policies, saying that they had disrupted the Russian economy and farming practices. 

Following the civil war, Lenin backed away from the "war communism" policies that encouraged nationalization and expropriation, and he instead launched a "New Economic Policy" in 1921 that allowed for more private ownership and operation of enterprises, wrote Malle. 

Another important development during Lenin's rule was the imposition of restrictions on religious groups, as the communists worried that these groups may oppose communist rule. 

Lenin's health declined in his final years, and two senior officials — Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky — became rivals for leadership of the ruling Communist Party. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin became leader, and Trotsky was forced into exile — he was assassinated by Stalin's agents in Mexico in 1940. 

Stalin's rule

A portrait of Joseph Stalin. Stalin instigated a violent, suppressive rule characterized by mass "purges" of people he considered disloyal. (Image credit: Bettmann via Getty Images)

Stalin became known for his paranoia-induced purges and harsh treatment of some of the Soviet Union's minority groups. Stalin was also known for his elaborate attempts to paint himself in a positive light, even going so far as to have photos altered to show him making important decisions at historic moments — and to erase political opponents from other images. 

Stalin moved away from Lenin's "New Economic Policy" and instead instituted a policy of collectivization, in which people were forced to group their farm holdings together and operate as a collective. Stalin also began rapidly industrializing the Soviet Union, seeking to greatly increase the country's manufacturing capabilities. 

These policies further disrupted Soviet agriculture, which led to food shortages. Additionally, Stalin's fear of some minority groups — such as Ukrainians — led to policies that aimed to deprive them of food, Andrea Graziosi, a history professor at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, wrote in a paper published in 2015 in the East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies. Estimates for the death toll vary but run into the millions. 

Stalin feared his own military and had many of the officers in his army killed between 1936 and 1938. Stalin also targeted religious officials, people he thought were loyal to Trotsky, and any others he believed may be disloyal to him. Sometimes these killings were preceded by torture and sham trials — an event that became known as "the Great Purge." The purge of so many trained military officers made it more difficult for the Soviet Union's military to fight the Germans when they invaded in 1941. 

World War II

A photo of the Battle of Stalingrad. The brutal battle proved a major turning point in World War II. (Image credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Adolf Hitler had expressed his desire to attack the Soviet Union since before he came to power. In his book "Mein Kampf," which he wrote when he was in jail in 1924, Hitler said that Germany required "living space" and needed to conquer a vast amount of territory in Eastern Europe. 

Despite this, Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact on Aug. 23, 1939, in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany agreed to divide Poland between them. Germany then invaded the western half of Poland a week later, and the Soviet Union invaded the eastern half on Sept. 17. After Poland surrendered on Sept. 27, the Soviet military killed tens of thousands of captured Polish soldiers and officials in a series of massacres. 

With France and Britain busy fighting Germany, having declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Finland in November 1939, in what became known as the Winter War. While the Soviet Union took significant losses, Finland ultimately had to sign a peace deal in May 1940 that ceded land to the Soviet Union. In June 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, annexing all three countries into the Soviet Union. 

While Stalin expanded the Soviet Union, Hitler enjoyed rapid success in western Europe. France was overrun by Germany in a lightning military offensive — or blitzkrieg— that lasted from May 10 to June 25, 1940 and forced France to sign an armistice with Germany. While Hitler was unable to knock Britain out of the war in that offensive, or subdue Britain's air force during the Battle of Britain for long enough to launch an invasion of England, the fall of France meant that he was able to dedicate a vast amount of men and materiel toward a new objective — the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Prior to that invasion, Britain repeatedly warned Stalin that Germany was going to attack, but Stalin ignored it, presuming that the warnings were a ploy to draw the Soviet Union into war against Germany.

Stalin's own intelligence service was also warning him of a pending German invasion but Stalin didn't believe them either. "Stalin's blindness in the face of what his own people were telling him was intimately connected to the conviction that the warnings of a coming surprise attack were part of a British plot to embroil the USSR in a war with Germany," wrote Geoffrey Roberts, a history professor at University College Cork, in his book "The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933–1941" (Macmillan Education, 1995).

Soviet soldiers fly the Soviet flag over the German Reichstag in Berlin, 1945. (Image credit: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union that advanced rapidly. On Sept. 8, the Germans started laying siege to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and came within miles of taking Moscow before being pushed back in a Soviet counterattack in December 1941.

Soviet forces, and Stalin himself, were taken by surprise with large numbers of Soviet troops being encircled and forced to surrender. In response to the German advance the Soviet Union moved factories into the interior of the Soviet Union and massively ramped up the production of war equipment.

In 1942, Germany launched a large offensive toward the city of Stalingrad (now called Volgograd). However, an entire German army became trapped in and around the city and was forced to surrender in January 1943. The German army also advanced into the Caucasus. Another German offensive at Kursk in July and August 1943 failed, and from that point on the Soviet Union was constantly on the offensive.

Soviet forces drove the German army out of the Soviet Union and then launched attacks in a push toward Germany. The war ended in May 1945 with the Soviet military in control of Berlin, along with a vast amount of territory in Central and Eastern Europe. Exact death counts vary, but sources generally agree that the Soviet Union suffered more than 20 million deaths during World War II — the highest of any country in any war in history.

Post war

Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain, Harry Truman, president of the United States, and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. (Image credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union created communist governments that were heavily influenced by Moscow in many of the territories that it occupied — such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. A communist government was established in Soviet-occupied areas of east Germany, creating The German Democratic Republic (GDR), often referred to as East Germany. The western areas of Germany occupied by Britain, the United States and France eventually formed the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) often called West Germany — a democracy that followed an economic system based on capitalism. 

In Berlin, Britain, the U.S., France and the Soviet Union agreed to share control of the capital. As a result, the area of Berlin controlled by the Soviet Union became part of East Germany, while the areas controlled by the British, French and Americans would become part of West Germany — despite being in the east of the country and surrounded by East German territory. 

Many East Germans tried to leave for West Germany. The result was that the Soviets and the East German government heavily fortified the borders, and in Berlin they erected a wall that separated parts of Berlin controlled by East Germany from areas controlled by West Germany. The Berlin Wall would come to symbolize the divide and struggle between countries under communist control and those under a democracy. 

On March 5, 1946, former British prime minister Winston Churchill gave a speech at Westminster College in Missouri in which he said that "an iron curtain" of communist countries, heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, were being created. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," Churchill said in the speech. 

As the Soviet Union's strength increased, tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States increased too — giving rise to the Cold War. 

Cold War

Berliners await deliveries of supplies from U.S. planes during the Berlin Airlift.

Berliners await deliveries of supplies from Allied planes during the Berlin Airlift. (Image credit: Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union built up their militaries — particularly their nuclear arsenals — and supported different sides in conflicts across the world. Between June 24, 1948 and May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union prevented all shipments from traveling overland to the areas of Berlin controlled by the United States, Britain and France. The Soviet Union hoped to force the Allies to cede control over their parts of the city to the Soviet Union, wrote historian Roger Miller in his book "To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949" (Texas A & M Press, 2000). In response, the Allies instigated a massive aerial resupply that resulted in Berlin getting enough food and goods to survive. The Soviet Union eventually accepted the blockade had failed and lifted the blockade.

This blockade helped drive forward the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on April 4, 1949, in which the U.S., Canada and several countries in Western Europe signed a treaty saying that an attack against any of their countries would be considered an attack against all. The aim was to discourage the Soviet Union from launching any attacks against the member countries. On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union created a similar alliance called the Warsaw Pact, between the Soviet Union and several communist states in Eastern Europe that it had heavy influence over.

Stalin died in 1953, and his successor Nikita Khrushchev eased some of the persecutions and killings that Stalin had been known for, although tensions with democratic countries continued to escalate.

During the Cold War, communist governments expanded beyond the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In December 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, took over mainland China, forcing their opponents to flee to Taiwan. The Soviet Union provided extensive support to communist China, but in time relations between the two countries weakened, with a border clash occurring in 1969.

A U.S. plane and destroyer escort a Soviet freighter suspected of carrying nuclear missiles as it leaves Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Image credit: Underwood Archives via Getty Images)

In 1959, communist rebels led by Fidel Castro took over Cuba and enjoyed extensive Soviet support. Castro even allowed the Soviet Union to place nuclear missiles on the island — a decision that resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during which Cuba was blockaded by the United States; the Soviet Union eventually agreed to remove the missiles. 

Communist governments in Asia were also drawn into the conflict between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Notably, communist regimes in North Korea and North Vietnam found themselves at war with the United States and its allies. The Korean War lasted from June 1950 to July 1953 and ended with an armistice. The Vietnam War raged from November 1955 to April 1975 and ended with Vietnam being unified under communist rule as U.S. forces pulled out of the country. Communist regimes also sprang up in Laos and Cambodia. 

During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and United States built up their nuclear missile inventories — both sides eventually controlling thousands of nuclear missiles. More powerful nuclear weapons — such as the hydrogen bomb — were also invented.

This build-up of nuclear arms led to fears of human civilization being destroyed in a nuclear war. In an effort to lessen the chances of this happening, a hotline was established between Moscow and Washington, D.C. so that the two sides could quickly communicate. Additionally, a series of treaties were signed between 1960 and 1990 that aimed to limit the testing and size of nuclear arsenals.

The Cold War was not just a battle of military strength or ideology but also of scientific achievements, most notably in space. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the satellite Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to orbit Earth; and on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit Earth.

End of the Soviet Union

East German soldiers preparing to pass through a hole in the Berlin wall as crowds celebrate

East German soldiers preparing to pass through a hole in the Berlin wall as crowds celebrate. The fall of the wall was symbolic of the collapse of the USSR's power and influence. (Image credit: GERARD MALIE / Staff)

A number of factors contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an effort to support a communist government there. A number of insurgent groups backed by the United States fought back, leading to a costly decade-long war that forced the Soviet Union withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. 

The cost of keeping a vast military in a region stretching from East Germany to the Pacific coast took a heavy toll on the Soviet economy, which was significantly weaker than the economies of the United States and its allies. 

The "Soviet Union had always suffered from its economic and financial inferiority relative to the US," wrote Vladislav Zubok, a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, in his book "Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union" (Yale University Press, 2021). Zubok noted that the Soviet Union required a strong military backed up by a powerful ideological message in order to function and survive. The Soviet Union's economic problems, coupled with political problems that discredited its communist ideology, weakened it, Zubok noted. 

Additionally, groups opposing communist regimes — such as the trade union "Solidarity" in Poland — put more pressure on communist countries where the Soviet Union had strong influence to introduce reforms. Also, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986 released radiation across a sizable area, creating an uninhabitable zone in what is today Ukraine. The disaster was expensive to clean up and cost the country's communist rulers credibility with their own population.

In 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev brought in reforms, sometimes called "perestroika" and "glasnot," that attempted to reform the Soviet economy by making it more open to outside investment and trade and allowing people some freedom to express opinions. Ultimately, these efforts were unsuccessful, and in 1989 the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and East and West Germany were reunified. The communist governments supported by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe also collapsed in the late 1980s. Communist rule in the Soviet Union collapsed soon after, with many parts of the Soviet Union — such as Ukraine — re-asserting their independence.

Soviet legacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video conference meeting with the working group on amendments to the Russian constitution at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence on July 3, 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video conference meeting with the working group on amendments to the Russian constitution at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence on July 3, 2020. (Image credit: Russian Look Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo)

Though the Soviet Union collapsed more than 30 years ago, its legacy lives on in many ways. Some of the communist governments the country supported — such as China, Cuba and North Korea — still exist. China is now the world's second-largest economy and a rising military power.

Additionally, Russian president Vladimir Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy and has attempted to bring parts of the former Soviet Union under Russian control or influence — the invasion of Ukraine being the latest example. 

Fuel from the Chernobyl nuclear plant poses an ongoing danger. Artifacts from the time also continue to turn up, including a Soviet spy radio that was found near the German city of Cologne. Buried fossil plants found during a Cold War military operation in Greenland look like they were buried yesterday, researchers recently reported.

Bibliography

Graziosi, Andrea "The Impact of Holodomor Studies on the Understanding of the USSR" East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies, vol 2, no 1, 2015

https://ewjus.com/index.php/ewjus/article/view/Graziosi 

Jonathan Smele and Anthony Heywood (eds) "The Russian Revolution of 1905: Centenary Perspectives" Routledge, 2005

Peter H. Lindert and Steven Nafziger "Russian Inequality on the Eve of Revolution," The Journal of Economic History, vol 74, no 3, September 2014, pp. 767 — 798 

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-economic-history/article/russian-inequality-on-the-eve-of-revolution/A5CED37A899914A15F9CFB1777A441DF

Malle, Silvana "The Economic Organization of War Communism, 1918-1921" Cambridge University Press, 1985

Miller, Roger, "To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949" Texas A & M Press, 2000

"Report on economic conditions in Russia: with special reference to the famine of 1921-1922 and the state of agriculture," League of Nations, Geneva, 1922

Retrieved from: https://cdm21047.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/russian/id/4092 

Roberts, Geoffrey "The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933–1941" Macmillan Education, 1995

Zubok, Vladislav "Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union" Yale University Press, 2021

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.