A History of the Soviet Union, 1927-1991

OZET Organization lottery ticket / Public Domain

The use of forced labor and the development of labor camps to “re-educate” anyone deemed as “bourgeois” began in 1921.

Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian

Stalinist Development


At the Fifteenth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in December 1927, Josef Stalin attacked the left by expelling Leon Trotsky and his supporters from the party and then moving against the right by abandoning Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy which had been championed by Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Ivanovich Rykov. Warning delegates of an impending capitalist encirclement, he stressed that survival and development could only occur by pursuing the rapid development of heavy industry. Stalin remarked that the Soviet Union was “fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries” (the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.), and thus must narrow “this distance in ten years.” In a perhaps eerie foreboding of World War II, Stalin declared, “Either we do it or we shall be crushed.”

To oversee the radical transformation of the Soviet Union, the party, under Stalin’s direction, established Gosplan (the State General Planning Commission), a state organization responsible for guiding the socialist economy toward accelerated industrialization. In April 1929 Gosplan released two joint drafts that began the process that would industrialize the primarily agrarian nation. This 1,700 page report became the basis for the first Five-Year Plan for National Economic Construction, or Piatiletka, calling for the doubling of Soviet capital stock between 1928 and 1933.[1]

Shifting from Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP, the first Five-Year Plan established central planning as the basis of economic decision-making, stressing rapid, heavy industrialization. It began the rapid process of transforming a largely agrarian nation consisting of peasants into an industrial superpower. In effect, the initial goals were laying the foundations for future exponential economic growth.

The new economic system put forward by the first Five-Year plan entailed a complicated series of planning arrangements. The plan focused on the mobilization of natural resources to build up the country’s heavy industrial base by increasing output of coal, iron, and other vital resources. At a high human cost, this process was largely successful, forging a capital base for industrial development more rapidly than any country in history.

Industrialization in Practice

Early Soviet poster: The Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia / Wikimedia Commons

The mobilization of resources by state planning augmented the country’s industrial base. From 1928 to 1932, pig iron output, necessary for the development of a previously nonexistent industrial infrastructure, rose from 3.3 million to 10 million tons per year. Coal, the integral product fueling modern economies and Stalinist industrialization, successfully rose from 35.4 million to 75 million tons, and output of iron ore rose from 5.7 million to 19 million tons. A number of industrial complexes such as Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk, the Moscow and Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) automobile plants, the Urals and Kramatorsk heavy machinery plants, and Kharkov, Stalingrad, and Cheliabinsk tractor plants were built or under construction.

Based largely on these figures, the Five Year Industrial Production Plan was fulfilled by 93.7 percent in only four years, and the heavy-industry targets were exceeded, reaching 108 percent of the goal. In December 1932 Stalin declared the plan a success to the Central Committee, since increases in the output of coal and iron would fuel future development.

While undoubtedly marking a tremendous leap in industrial capacity, the Five Year Plan was extremely harsh on industrial workers; quotas were extremely difficult to fulfill, requiring that miners put in 16- to 18-hour workdays. Failure to fulfill the quotas sometimes resulted in treason charges. Working conditions were poor and even hazardous. By some estimates, 127,000 workers died from 1928 to 1932. Due to the allocation of resources for industry, decreasing productivity since collectivization, and other political considerations, a famine ensued.

The use of forced labor and the development of labor camps to “re-educate” anyone deemed as “bourgeois” also began during this time. The so-called “Gulag Archipelago” used inmates of labor camps as expendable resources. From 1921 until 1954, during the period of state-guided, forced industrialization, it is alleged that at least 3.7 million people were sentenced for counter-revolutionary crimes, including 0.6 million sentenced to death, 2.4 million sentenced to labor camps, and 0.7 million sentenced to expatriation.


In November 1928 the Central Committee decided to implement forced collectivization of the peasant farmers. This marked the end of the NEP, which had allowed peasants to sell their surpluses on the open market. Grain requisitioning intensified and peasants were forced to give up their private plots of land and property, to work for collective farms, and to sell their produce to the state for a low price set by the state.

Given the goals of the first Five Year Plan, the state sought increased political control of agriculture, hoping to feed the rapidly growing urban areas and to export grain, a source of foreign currency needed to import technologies necessary for heavy industrialization.

By 1936 about ninety percent of Soviet agriculture was collectivized. In many cases peasants bitterly opposed this process and often slaughtered their animals rather than giving them to collective farms. The state instituted a policy of liquidation of the kulaks as a class. The term kulak referred to more prosperous peasants, some of whom could employ other peasants. However, anyone who opposed collectivization could be deemed a kulak. The plan formulated by Stalin at the end of 1929 encouraged peasants to turn over kulaks for a reward, in an effort to divide and conquer the peasantry by making the most successful among them a common enemy. These kulaks were executed or forcibly resettled to Siberia, where a large portion were sent for “re-education” at forced labor camps.

Collectivization led to a predictably catastrophic drop in farming productivity, which did not regain the NEP level until 1940. The upheaval associated with collectivization was particularly severe in Ukraine, and the heavily Ukrainian adjoining Volga regions, where Stalin employed a deliberate policy of starving the Ukrainians in order to force them to submit to Moscow’s authority. The number of people who died in the famines is estimated to be between three and 10 million in Ukraine alone. The actual number of casualties is bitterly disputed to this day.

Changes in Soviet Society

Endorsed by the Constitution of the USSR in 1924, the State Emblem of the Soviet Union (above) was a hammer and sickle symbolizing the alliance of the working class and the peasantry. Ears of wheat were entwined in a scarlet band with the inscription in the languages of all the 15 union republics: “Workers of All Countries, Unite!” The grain represented Soviet agriculture. A five-pointed star, symbolizing the Soviet Union’s solidarity with socialist revolutionaries on five continents, was drawn on the upper part of the Emblem. / Wikimedia Commons

Stalin’s industrial policies largely improved living standards for the majority of the urban population, although lowering mortality levels resulting from Stalinist policies diminished the accomplishment.

Unemployment had been a problem during the time of the tsar and even under the NEP, but it was not a major factor after the implementation of Stalin’s industrialization program. Employment rose greatly; 3.9 million new jobs per year was expected by 1923, but the number was actually an astounding 6.4 million. By 1937, the number rose yet again, to about 7.9 million, and in 1940 it was 8.3 million. Between 1926 and 1930, the urban population increased by 30 million. The mobilization of resources to industrialize the agrarian society created a need for labor. Numerous ambitious projects were begun, which supplied raw materials not only for military weapons but also for consumer goods.

The Moscow and Gorky automobile plants produced automobiles that the public could utilize, although not necessarily afford, and the expansion of heavy plant and steel production made the manufacture of a greater number of cars possible. Car and truck production, for example, reached two hundred thousand in 1931.[2]

Because the industrial workers needed to be educated, the number of schools increased. In 1927, 7.9 million students attended 118,558 schools. This number rose to 9.7 million students and 166,275 schools by 1933. In addition, 900 specialist departments and 566 institutions were built and functioning by 1933.[3] The generation born during Stalin’s rule was the first nearly entirely literate generation. Engineers were sent abroad to learn industrial technology, and hundreds of foreign engineers were brought to Russia on contract.

Stalinist development also contributed to advances in health care, which vastly increased the lifespan for the typical Soviet citizen and the quality of life. Stalin’s policies granted the Soviet people universal access to health care and education, effectively creating the first generation free from the fear of typhus, cholera, and malaria. The occurrences of these diseases dropped to record-low numbers, increasing life spans by decades.

Soviet women under Stalin were also the first generation of women able to give birth in the safety of a hospital, with access to prenatal care. Transport links were also improved, as many new railways were built. Workers who exceeded their quotas, called Stakhanovites after one such exemplary worker, received many rewards for their work. They could thus afford to buy the goods that were mass-produced by the rapidly expanding Soviet economy.

Atheism and the Russian Orthodox Church

Although freedom of religious expression was formally declared by one of the first decrees of revolutionary government in January 1918, both the Church and its followers were heavily persecuted and deeply disadvantaged. Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were some 54,000 functioning parishes and over 150 bishops. Many religious hierarchs fled the country during the revolution and the civil war that followed. During the 1920s and 1930s, most church buildings were torn down, burned, or converted into secular buildings; over fifty thousand priests were either executed or sent to labor camps ( much of this was carried out during the Great Purges from 1936 to 1937). By 1939, there were less than one hundred functioning parishes and only four bishops.

The Great Purges

The Great Purge from 1936 to 1938 was by no means restricted to just government officials and military officers. It included many peasants, intellectuals, priests, old Bolsheviks, former members of other political parties, vagrants and even Americans who went to the Soviet Union to work during the Depression. / Public Domain

During the 11 year period between 1927 and 1938, Stalin claimed near-absolute power. Using the 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov (which Stalin is highly suspected of orchestrating) as a pretext, Stalin launched the Great Purges against his suspected political and ideological opponents, most notably the old cadres and the rank and file of the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had already been expelled from the party in 1927, exiled to Kazakhstan in 1928, and then expelled from the U.S.S.R. entirely in 1929. Stalin used the purges to politically and physically destroy his formal rivals (and former allies), accusing both Zinoviev and Kamenev of orchestrating the Kirov assassination and planning to overthrow Stalin. Ultimately, those supposedly involved in this deed and other conspiracies numbered in the tens of thousands. In order to explain industrial accidents, production shortfalls, and other failures of Stalin’s regime, various old Bolsheviks and senior party members were often charged with conspiracy and sabotage. Measures used against opposition and suspected opposition ranged from imprisonment in work camps (Gulags) to execution to assassination (including Trotsky and his son Lev Sedov). The period between 1936 and 1937 is often called the Great Terror, in which thousands of people were killed or imprisoned. Stalin is reputed to have personally signed forty thousand death warrants of suspected political opponents.

During this period, the practice of mass arrest, torture, and imprisonment or execution without trial became commonplace for anyone suspected by the secret police of opposing Stalin’s regime. The Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, NKVD, or the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs estimated that 681,692 people were shot between 1937 and 1938 alone (although many historians think that this was an undercount), and millions of people were transported to Gulag work camps.

Several show trials, known as the Moscow Trials, were held in Moscow to serve as examples for the trials that local courts were expected to carry out elsewhere in the country. There were four key trials from 1936 to 1938: The Trial of the Sixteen (December 1936), the Trial of the Seventeen (January 1937), the trial of Red Army generals, including Marshal Tukhachevsky (June 1937), and the Trial of the Twenty One (including Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin) (March 1938).

In spite of Stalin’s seemingly progressive constitution, enacted in 1936, the party’s power was in reality subordinated to the secret police, which Stalin used together with the creation of a cult of personality to secure his dictatorship through state terror.

The Great Patriotic War

Pact with Hitler and Betrayal

The Nazi invasion caught the Soviet military unprepared. This was due in part to the depletion of the senior officer core (an estimated forty thousand) in the Great Purges of 1936-1938. To secure Soviet influence over Eastern Europe as well as open economic relations with Germany, Stalin’s government negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (named after the two foreign ministers) with Adolf Hitler. This non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, as well as the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement, was signed on August 23, 1939. A secret appendix to the pact gave eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland to the U.S.S.R. and western Poland and Lithuania to Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1; the U.S.S.R. followed suit on September 17. Following the 1939 annexation of eastern Poland, thousands of Polish Army officers, including reservists, were executed during the spring of 1940 in the Katyn forest, in what came to be known as the Katyn massacre.

With Poland divided between two powers, the Soviet Union put forth its territorial demands to Finland for a minor part of the Karelian Isthmus, a naval base at Hanko, Finland, and some islands in the Gulf of Finland. Finland rejected the demands so on November 30, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, triggering the Winter War. Despite outnumbering the Finnish troops by over 50:1, the war proved embarrassingly difficult for the Red Army. Although the end of the Winter War gave the Soviet Union control over several strategically important border areas, particularly those to the immediate north of Leningrad, the war triggered an international outcry. On December 14, 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union using a plan known as Operation Barbarossa.

Using his contacts within the German Nazi party, NKVD spy Richard Sorge was able to discover the exact date and time of the planned German invasion. This information was passed along to Stalin, but was ignored, despite the warning not only from Sorge, but Winston Churchill as well. Stalin apparently refused to believe that Hitler break the treaty.

It had been generally believed that even after the invasion, Stalin refused to believe Nazi Germany had broken the treaty. However, new evidence shows Stalin held meetings with a variety of senior Soviet government and military figures, including Vyacheslav Molotov (People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs), Semyon Timoshenko (People’s Commissar for Defense), Georgy Zhukov (Chief of Staff of the Red Army), Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (Commander of both North Caucasus and Baltic Military Districts), and Boris Shaposhnikov (Deputy People’s Commissar for Defense). All in all, on the very first day of the attack, Stalin held meetings with over 15 individual members of the Soviet government and military apparatus.

Nazi troops reached the outskirts of Moscow in December 1941. At the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–1943, after losing an estimated 1 million men in the bloodiest fighting in history, the Red Army was able to regain the initiative. Due to the unwillingness of the Japanese to open a second front in Manchuria, the Soviets were able to call dozens of Red Army divisions back from eastern Russia. These units were instrumental in turning the tide, because most of their officer corps had escaped Stalin’s purges. The Soviet forces were soon able to regain their lost territory and defeated their enemy.

Analysis of Soviet War Effort

Public Domain

Heavy industrialization contributed to the Soviet Union’s wartime victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War (known throughout the former U.S.S.R. as the Great Patriotic War). The Red Army overturned the Nazi eastern expansion (although relying heavily on lend-lease aid from the United States and the United Kingdom) causing the tide of the war on the Eastern Front to turn at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans never recovered after their attempt to reverse their fortunes at the Battle of Kursk were crushed.

Although the Soviet Union was getting aid and weapons from the United States, its production of war materials was greater than that of Nazi Germany because of rapid growth of Soviet industrial production during the interwar years. The second Five-Year Plan raised the steel production to 18 million tons and the coal to 128 million tons. Before it was interrupted, the third Five-Year Plan produced no less than 19 million tons of steel and 150 million tons of coal. The Soviet Union’s industrial output helped stop Nazi Germany’s initial advance, and stripped them of their advantage. According to Robert L. Hutchings, “One can hardly doubt that if there had been a slower buildup of industry, the attack would have been successful and world history would have evolved quite differently.”

Despite the fact that the Soviets eventually threw off the Nazi invaders through superior numbers of soldiers and armaments, they were ill-prepared for the war and suffered tremendous casualties in the first couple of years. Some historians interpret the lack of preparedness of the Soviet Union as a flaw in Stalin’s economic planning. David Shearer, for example, argues that there was “a command-administrative economy” but it was not “a planned one.” It is commonly held that the chaotic state of the Politburo due to the Great Purges resulted in the lack of preparedness for the Nazi German invasion.

End of the War and its Aftermath

Marking the Soviet Union’s victory, a soldier raises the Soviet flag over the German Reichstag in the Nazi capital, Berlin / Wikimedia Commons

The Soviets bore the brunt of World War II because the West could not open up a second ground front in Europe until the invasion of Italy and D-Day. Approximately 28 million Soviets, including 17 million civilians, were killed in “Operation Barbarossa,” the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Many feel that since the Nazis considered the Slavs to be “sub-human,” this was ethnically targeted mass murder. However, the local populations were also affected by the retreating Soviet army, which was ordered to pursue a “scorched earth” policy. Retreating Soviet troops were ordered to destroy civilian infrastructure and food supplies so that the Nazi German troops could not use them.

During the war, the Nazis laid seize to Leningrad for nearly two and a half years. While exact figures are impossible, estimates of Soviet casualties range from 20 to 28 million, with about two thirds due to starvation or exposure.

After the war, the Soviet Union continued to occupy and dominate Eastern Europe as a “buffer zone” to protect Russia from another invasion from the west. Russia had been invaded three times in the 150 years before the Cold War, during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II.

The Soviets were determined to punish the people they believed were collaborating with Germany during the war. Millions of Poles, Latvians, Georgians, Ukrainians, and other ethnic minorities were deported to Gulags in Siberia. Stalin also sent all Russian soldiers who had been taken captive by Germany to isolated work camps in Siberia. This was done to punish Soviet prisoners-of-war who had been recruited to fight alongside the Germans in the Vlasov army, but also to minimize any perceived counter-revolutionary ideas they might have been exposed to while in captivity.

The Cold War

Soviet Expansion and Domination in Eastern Europe

From the end of 1944 to 1949 large sections of eastern Germany came under the Soviet Union’s occupation. On May 2, 1945, the capital city, Berlin, was taken, while over 15 million Germans were removed from eastern Germany and pushed into central Germany (later called GDR German Democratic Republic) and western Germany (later called FRG Federal Republic of Germany). Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, etc. were then moved onto German land.

Soviet attempts at consolidation and domination in Eastern Europe were consistent with the older policies of Imperial Russia. Gaining the territories of interwar Poland, which was not initially achieved militarily, and the Baltic States through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets refused to cede any ground in post-WWII arrangements. Additionally, the country expanded into the territories of East Prussia (Kaliningrad Oblast), Ukrainian SSR (Zakarpattia Oblast), and Northern Bukovina ( Chernivtsi Oblast) through a 1947 treaty forced upon Communist Romania. In the post-war aftermath, the Soviet Union viewed the territories of countries liberated from Nazism by the Soviet Army as its natural sphere of influence. Hardline pro-Soviet communist regimes were installed in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, often against the will of those populations as expressed in popular elections.

The Breakdown of Postwar Peace

When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US, British, and French) troops were facing each other along a line down the center of Europe, ranging from Lubeck to Triest. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the “iron curtain” of Winston Churchill’s famous formulation, and the origin of the Cold War. The agreement negotiated at Yalta between the Allied Powers in practice appears to have ratified an agreement that both sides would maintain their sphere of influence and that neither side would use force to push the other out. The Soviets were able to use a well organized ring of spies in the United States to gain critical advantages during meetings with representatives of Great Britain and the United States. Several of President Roosevelt’s advisors and cabinet members unknowingly regularly reported their activities to NKVD handlers.

Still, Stalin viewed the reemergence of Germany and Japan as Russia’s chief threats, not the United States. At the time, the prospects of an Anglo-American front against the USSR seemed slim from Stalin’s standpoint. Stalin’s economic advisers, such as Eugen Varga, mistakenly predicted a postwar crisis of overproduction in capitalist countries which would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great depression. Stalin also assumed that the capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and trade and not pose a threat to Russia.

Two Visions of the World

Truman in the Oval Office, receiving a Hanukkah Menorah from the prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center). To the right is Abba Eban, ambassador of Israel to the United States / U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman beginning April 1945 after President Roosevelt’s death, was determined to shape the postwar world to open up the world’s markets to capitalist trade according to the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist democratic Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had never forgotten the excitement with which he had greeted the principles of Wilsonian idealism during World War I, and he saw his mission in the 1940s as bringing lasting peace and genuine democracy to the world.

Truman could advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced fifty percent of the world’s industrial goods and a vast military power that rested on a monopoly of the new atomic bomb. Such a power could mold and benefit from a recovering Europe, which in turn required a healthy Germany at its center; these aims were at the center of what the Soviet Union strove to avoid as the breakdown of the wartime alliance went forward.

The Beginning of the Cold War

The ability of the United States to advance a different vision of the postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests. National security had been the cornerstone of Soviet policy since the 1920s, when the Communist Party adopted Stalin’s “socialism in one country” and rejected Trotsky’s ideas of “world revolution.” Before the war, Stalin did not attempt to push Soviet boundaries beyond their full tsarist extent.

After the war, Stalin quickly imposed Moscow-dominated governments in the springboards of the Nazi onslaught: Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. The aims of the Soviet Union were part aggressive expansion and part consolidation of a “buffer zone” against future Western invasions, but were interpreted in the West as an aggressive attempt to expand communism.

The Soviet Union was determined to destroy Germany’s capacity for another war by keeping it under tight control. U.S. aims were just the opposite, a democratic restored Germany as a trade and military partner.

Winston Churchill, long a visceral anticommunist, condemned Stalin for barricading off a new Russian empire behind an iron curtain. Truman later refused to give the war-torn Soviet Union “reparations” from West Germany’s industrial plants, so Stalin retaliated by sealing off East Germany as a communist state. A communist coup in Prague in 1948 made Czechoslovakia an effective Soviet satellite soon afterward, and it would remain under Soviet influence until the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s historic lack of maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was also a focus for Stalin. It was also another area where interests diverged between East and West. Stalin pressed the Turks for improved access out of the Black Sea through Turkey’s Dardanelles Strait, which would allow Soviet passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Churchill had earlier recognized Stalin’s claims, but now the British and the Americans forced the Soviet Union to pull back.

When the Soviet leadership did not perceive that the country’s security was at stake, their policies were more measured. The Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Northern Iran, at Anglo-American behest, Stalin observed his 1944 agreement with Churchill and did not aid the communists in the struggle against government in Greece, he accepted a friendly, noncommunist government in Finland, and Russian troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945.

“Containment” and the Marshall Plan

The Truman Doctrine was articulated in a speech in March 1947, declaring that the United States would spend as much as $400 million in efforts to “contain” communism. It began as an Anglo-American effort to support the Greek government, and became a struggle to protect free people everywhere against totalitarian communist regimes.

The policy of containment was developed by noted Sovietologist, then State Department officer George Kennan. He argued in a famous article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, notoriously signed “X” to protect his identity, that the Soviets had to be “contained” using “unalterable counterforce at every point,” until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred.

The United States launched massive economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12 billion into Western Europe. The rationale was that economically stable nations were less likely to fall prey to Soviet influence, a view which was vindicated in the long run.

In response, Stalin blockaded Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to the control of all four major powers. Convinced that he could starve and freeze West Berlin into submission, Stalin closed all railways and roads into West Berlin so that no trucks or trains could enter the city. However, this decision backfired when Truman embarked on a highly visible move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally—supplying the beleaguered city by air. Military confrontation threatened while Truman, with British help, flew supplies over East Germany into West Berlin during the 1948-1949 blockade. This costly aerial supplying of West Berlin became known as the Berlin Airlift.

Truman joined 11 other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States’ first “entangling” European alliance in 170 years. Stalin replied to these moves by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan. He ordered the first Soviet atomic device to be detonated in 1949, signed an alliance with Communist China in February 1950, and formed the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe’s equivalent to NATO.

U.S. officials quickly moved to escalate and expand the “containment.” In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to convince Americans to fight the costly Cold War. Truman ordered the development of a hydrogen bomb. In early 1950 the U.S. embarked on its first attempt to prop up colonialism in French Indochina in the face of mounting popular, communist-led resistance, and the United States embarked on what the Soviets considered a blatant violation of wartime treaties: plans to form a West German army.

The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for the popularity of communist ideology. Communist parties won large shares of the vote in free elections in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, and won significant popular support in Asia (Vietnam, India, and Japan) and throughout Latin America. In addition, they won large support in China, Greece, and Iran, where free elections remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed widespread appeal.

In response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological offensive. The United States aimed to contain communism through both aggressive diplomacy and interventionist policies. In retrospect, this initiative appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the leader of the “free world” at least as effectively as the Soviet Union brandished its position as the leader of the “anti-imperialist” camp.

Korean War

President Truman signing a proclamation declaring a national emergency and authorizing U.S. entry into the Korean War / National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons

In 1950 the Soviet Union protested against the fact that the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council was held by the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China, and boycotted the meetings. The Soviets came to regret this decision when the Korean War broke out. The UN passed a resolution condemning North Korean actions and offering military support to South Korea. Had the Soviet Union been present at the meetings it would certainly have vetoed the outcome. After this incident the Soviet Union was never absent at the meetings of the Security Council.

Impact of Stalin

This period in Soviet history was inaugurated by the death of Joseph Stalin and the so-called “Secret Speech” by Nikita Khrushchev to the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Under Khrushchev’s leadership, the Soviet Union ended the widespread use of terror, although the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), or “Committee for State Security,” continued to suppress dissidents. The 1970s were characterized by the arms race and the rise and fall of detente. By the early 1980s the Soviet Union had slid into a period of economic and political stagnation.

De-Stalinization and the Khrushchev Era


Khrushchev in 1963 / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

After Stalin died in March 1953, he was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Georgi Malenkov as Premier of the Soviet Union. The new leadership declared an amnesty for some serving prison sentences for criminal offenses, announced price cuts, and relaxed the restrictions on private plots. De-Stalinization also spelled an end to the role of large-scale forced labor in the economy.

During a period of collective leadership, Khrushchev gradually consolidated power. In his famous speech On the Personality Cult and its Consequences to the closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU on February 25, 1956, Khrushchev shocked his listeners by denouncing Stalin’s dictatorial rule and cult of personality. He also attacked the crimes committed by Stalin’s closest associates.

The impact on Soviet politics was immense. The speech stripped the legitimacy of his remaining Stalinist rivals, dramatically boosting his power domestically. Afterward, Khrushchev eased restrictions, freeing millions of political prisoners (the Gulag population declined from 13 million in 1953 to 5 million in 1956–1957) and initiating economic policies that emphasized commercial goods rather than coal and steel production, allowing living standards to rise dramatically while maintaining high levels of economic growth.

Such loosening of controls also caused an enormous impact on the Soviet Union’s satellites in Central Europe, many of which were resentful of Soviet influence in their affairs. Riots broke out in Poland in the summer of 1956, which led to reprisals from local forces. A political convulsion soon followed, leading to the rise of Władysław Gomułka to power in October 1956. This almost triggered a Soviet invasion when Polish Communists elected him without consulting the kremlin in advance, but in the end, Khrushchev backed down due to Gomułka’s widespread popularity in the country. Poland would still remain a member of the Warsaw Pact (established a year earlier), and in return, the Soviet Union intervened less frequently in its neighbor’s domestic and external affairs.

In the same year, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. About 25,000 to 50,000 Hungarian insurgents and seven thousand Soviet troops were killed, thousands more were wounded, and nearly a quarter million left the country as refugees. The revolution was a blow to communists in Western countries; many western communists who had formerly supported the Soviet Union began to criticize it in the wake of the Soviet suppresion of the Hungarian Revolution.

The following year Khrushchev defeated a concerted Stalinist attempt to recapture power, decisively defeating the so-called “Anti-Party Group.” This event also illustrated the new nature of Soviet politics. The most decisive attack on the Stalinists was delivered by defense minister Georgy Zhukov, and the implied threat to the plotters was clear. However, none of the Anti-Party Group was killed; one was posted to manage a power station in the Caucasus, and another, Vyacheslav Molotov, became ambassador to Mongolia.

Khrushchev became Premier on March 27, 1958, seizing absolute power in the country—the tradition begun by his successors and followed by his predecessors. The 10 year period that followed Stalin’s death also witnessed the reassertion of political power over the means of coercion. The party became the dominant institution over the secret police as well as the army.

Aid to developing countries and scientific research, especially into space technology and weaponry, maintained the Soviet Union as one of the world’s two major world powers. The Soviet Union launched the first ever artificial earth satellite in history, Sputnik 1, which orbited the earth in 1957. The Soviets also sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.

Khrushchev outmaneuvered his Stalinist rivals, but he was regarded by his political enemies—especially the emerging caste of professional technocrats—as a boorish peasant who would interrupt speakers to insult them.

Reforms and Khrushchev’s Fall

Throughout his years of leadership, Khrushchev attempted to carry out reform in a range of fields. The problems of Soviet agriculture, a major concern of Khrushchev’s, had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture.

In his Virgin Lands Campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened many tracts of land to farming in Kazakhstan and neighboring areas of Russia. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later agricultural reforms by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside.

Khrushchev’s attempts at reform in industry and administrative organization created even greater problems. In a politically motivated move to weaken the central state bureaucracy, in 1957 Khrushchev did away with the industrial ministries in Moscow, replacing them with sovnarkhoz, or regional economic councils.

The Khrushchev era saw increased construction of rapidly built, prefabricated apartment complexes. (photo circa 1950s) / Wikimedia Commons

Although he intended these economic councils to be more responsive to local needs, the decentralization of industry led to disruption and inefficiency. Connected with this decentralization was Khrushchev’s decision in 1962 to recast party organizations along economic, rather than administrative, lines. The resulting bifurcation of the party apparatus into industrial and agricultural sectors at the oblast, or province, level and below contributed to the disarray, alienating many party officials at all levels. Symptomatic of the country’s economic difficulties was the abandonment in 1963 of Khrushchev’s special seven-year economic plan (1959–1965) two years short of its completion.

By 1964 Khrushchev’s prestige had been damaged in a number of areas. Industrial growth had slowed while agriculture showed no new progress. Abroad, the Sino-Soviet Split, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis hurt the Soviet Union’s international stature, and Khrushchev’s efforts to improve relations with the West antagonized many in the military. Lastly, the 1962 party reorganization caused turmoil throughout the Soviet political chain of command.

In military policy Khrushchev relentlessly pursued a plan to develop the Soviet Union’s missile forces with a view to reduce the size of the armed forces, thus freeing more young men for productive labor and releasing resources to develop the economy, especially consumer goods. This policy, too, proved personally disastrous, alienating key figures in the Soviet military establishment, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite large reductions in Soviet military forces, there was only a slight thawing in relations with the West as Europe’s “iron curtain” remained fortified.

Khrushchev’s boasts about Soviet missile forces provided John F. Kennedy with a key issue to use against Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election—the so-called “Missile Gap.” But all Khrushchev’s attempts to build a strong personal relationship with the new president failed, as his typical combination of bluster, miscalculation, and mishap resulted in the Cuban fiasco.

In October 1964 while Khrushchev was vacationing in the Crimea, the Presidium voted him out of office and refused to permit him to take his case to the Central Committee. Khrushchev retired as a private citizen after his successors denounced him for his “hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions, and hasty decisions.” Still, whatever his real deficiencies as a leader, Khrushchev will always be remembered for his public disavowal of Stalinism, significant liberalization in the country, and the greater flexibility he brought to Soviet leadership.

Stagnation and the Brezhnev Era


After 1964 CPSU First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Aleksei Kosygin emerged as the most influential candidates in the new collective leadership. Eager to avoid Khrushchev’s failures, Brezhnev and Kosygin, who represented a new generation of post-revolutionary professional technocrats, conducted state and party affairs in a discreet, cautious manner.

Leonid Brezhnev / New World Encyclopedia

By the mid-1960s the Soviet Union was a complex industrialized society with an intricate division of labor and a complex interconnection of industries over a huge geographical expanse that had reached rough military parity with the Western powers. Social and political reforms were, however, largely stopped, which led to the emergence of the term zastoy (lang-ru|застой), or “stagnation,” generally referred to as the “Brezhnev stagnation” in reference to this period of Soviet history.

Concerning the economy, when the first Five-Year Plan drafted by the Gosudarstvennyi Planovyi Komitet, aka Gosplan, established centralized planning as the basis of economic decision making, the Soviet Union was still largely an agrarian nation lacking the complexities of a highly industrialized one. Thus, its goals, namely augmenting the country’s industrial base, were those of extensive growth or the mobilization of resources. At a high human cost, due in large part to prison labor, and the effective militarization of factories, the Soviet Union forged a modern, highly industrialized economy more rapidly than any other nation beforehand.

Under Brezhnev’s tutelage, the Soviet economy still had not yet exhausted its capacity for growth. The Soviet Union improved living standards by doubling urban wages and raising rural wages by around 75 percent, building millions of one-family apartments, and manufacturing large quantities of consumer goods and home appliances.

Industrial output also increased by 75 percent and the Soviet Union became the world’s largest producer of oil and steel. The 20 years following Stalin’s death in 1953 were the most successful years for ordinary citizen in the history of Russia, as the country saw rising living standards, stability, and peace.

Terror, famines, and world war were largely horrific memories while the tide of history appeared to be turning in favor of the Soviet Union. The United States was bogged down with an economic recession resulting from the OPEC oil embargo, inflation caused by excessive government expenditures for the Vietnam War, and the general malaise caused by the wartime failures. Meanwhile, Moscow was able to advance state interests by gaining strategic footholds abroad as pro-Soviet regimes were making great strides, especially in the Third World. North Vietnam had successfully thwarted the United States, becoming a united Communist State while other Marxist insurgencies were spreading rapidly across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

Problems of Economic Planning

During the later years of the Brezhnev era, however, the Soviet economy began to stagnate and the population increasingly began demanding greater quantities of consumer goods.

In the postwar years, the Soviet economy had entered a period of intensive growth based on productivity improvements. With this growth came a new set of challenges, different from those of the extensive growth due to mobilization of capital and labor experienced in the Stalinist era.

As the Soviet economy grew more complex, it required more and more complex disaggregating of control figures, or plan targets, and factory inputs. As it required more communication between the enterprises and the planning ministries, and as the number of enterprises, trusts, and ministries multiplied, the Soviet economy, lacking market incentives and mechanisms, started stagnating. The Soviet economy was increasingly sluggish when it came to responding to change, adapting cost-saving technologies, and providing incentives at all levels to improve growth, productivity, and efficiency.

At the enterprise level, managers were often more preoccupied with institutional careerism than with improving productivity. They received fixed wages and only received incentives for plan fulfillment on the basis of job security, bonuses, and benefits like special clinics and private dachas. Managers received such benefits when targets were surpassed, but when, for instance, they were “greatly” surpassed, the managers only saw their control figures increased.

Hence, there was an incentive to exceed targets, but not by much. Enterprises often understated capacity in order to bargain for more advantageous plan targets or control figures with the ministries (targets that, of course, would be easier to implement).

Another problem was that production quotas usually stipulated the quantity of goods to be produced by a given factory but not the quality. Therefore managers were often tempted to meet their production quotas by sacrificing the quality of the goods they produced. Thus, much of the output of the Soviet economy was of very low quality by international standards. This led to the frequent problems of badly made machinery breaking down, and disrupting the rest of the economy.

Planning was also very rigid; plant managers were not able to deviate from the plan and were allocated certain funds for certain capital and labor inputs. As a result, plant managers could not lay off unnecessary workers in an attempt to improve productivity due to such labor controls. There was substantial underemployment due to controls in plans drafted during collective bargaining between enterprises and ministries.

At the enterprise level, incentives were lacking for the application of price-saving technology. Planners would often reward consumers with lower prices, rather than rewarding the enterprise for its productivity gains. In other words, technological innovation would often fail to make the industry more profitable for those who had a stake in it.

The Khrushchev and Brezhnev years saw concessions to consumers: wages for workers were relatively high, while prices were kept down at artificially-low, administratively-set levels. Yet income levels rose far more rapidly than price levels, despite slow productivity gains. As a result, supply shortages were increasingly common.

The arms race was another drain on the consumer economy. With a gross domestic product (GDP) that rarely exceeded 70 percent of that of the U.S., the Soviets faced an uneven burden in the arms race, forcing the country to devote a far higher share of their resources to the defense sector.

Calls for Reform

As the political atmosphere gradually became more relaxed after de-Stalinization, a reform movement high up in party ranks was able to survive the expulsion of Khrushchev in 1964.

Evsei Liberman in 1967 / Nationaal Archief, Wikimedia Commons

Most remarkably, the market-oriented reforms of 1965, based on the ideas of Soviet economist Evsei Liberman and backed by Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin, were an attempt to revamp the economic system and cope with problems increasingly evident at the enterprise level. The Kosygin reforms called for giving industrial enterprises more control over their own production mix and some flexibility in wages. Moreover, they sought to turn enterprises’ economic objectives toward making a profit, allowing them to put a proportion of profit into their own funds.

However, the style of the new leadership posed some problems for its own reform policies. The collective leadership sought to reconcile the interests of many different sectors of the state, party, and economic bureaucracy. As a result, the planning ministries and the military—the sectors most threatened by Kosygin’s reforms—were able to obstruct considerably the reform efforts.

Fearing a move away from detailed central planning and control from above, the planning ministries—whose numbers were proliferating rapidly—fought back and protected their old powers. The ministries controlled supplies and rewarded performance, and were thus a formidable element of Soviet society. To maintain their grip over industry, planners started issuing more detailed instructions that slowed the reforms, impeding the freedom of action of the enterprises.

Kosygin, meanwhile, lacked the strength and the support to counteract their influence. Since these reforms were aimed at increasing productivity by pushing aside surplus labor, support from workers was minimal. Although enterprise management stood to gain the most from the reforms, their support was lukewarm, given their fears that the reforms would eventually falter.

Finally, pressure from without, in the form of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, signaled an end to the period of political liberalization. It came to an end later that summer, on August 20, when two hundred thousand Warsaw Pact troops and five thousand tanks invaded the country, following the Brezhnev Doctrine.

By the early 1970s the party’s power vis-à-vis the economic bureaucracy and the military was weakening considerably. Momentum for economic and political reform stalled until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

In 1980 a reformist movement in Poland, called Solidarity, was suppressed when the communist government leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law, fearing that the continued Solidarity-led protest could trigger a similar Soviet intervention as Czechoslovakia experienced during the Prague Spring. However, Solidarity survived the year of martial law and would continue to undermine Soviet Union influence and remain in control of Poland.

Leadership Transition


By 1982 the stagnation of the Soviet economy was obvious, as evidenced by the fact that the Soviet Union had been importing grain from the U.S. throughout the 1970s, but the system was not yet ready for drastic change. The transition period that separated the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras resembled the former much more than the latter, although hints of reform emerged as early as 1983.

The Andropov Interregnum

Andropov in 1983 / Wikimedia Commons

Two days passed between Brezhnev’s death and the announcement of the election of Yuri Andropov as the new General Secretary, suggesting to many outsiders that a power struggle had occurred in the Kremlin. Once in power, however, Andropov wasted no time in promoting his supporters. In June 1983 he assumed the post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, thus becoming the ceremonial head of state. Brezhnev had needed 13 years to acquire this post. During his short rule, Andropov replaced more than one-fifth of the Soviet ministers and regional party first secretaries and more than one-third of the department heads within the Central Committee apparatus. As a result, he replaced the aging leadership with younger, more dynamic administrators. But Andropov’s ability to reshape the top leadership was constrained by his poor health and the influence of his rival Konstantin Chernenko, who had previously supervised personnel matters in the Central Committee.

Andropov’s domestic policy leaned heavily toward restoring discipline and order to Soviet society. He avoided radical political and economic reforms, promoting instead a small degree of candor in politics and mild economic experiments similar to those that had been associated with Kosygin in the mid-1960s. In tandem with such economic experiments, Andropov launched an anticorruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. Andropov also tried to boost labor discipline and initiate an anti-alcoholism campaign.

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev’s policies. U.S.-Soviet relations began deteriorating more rapidly in March 1983, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Soviet spokesmen criticized Reagan’s “bellicose, lunatic” anti-communism statement.

Andropov’s health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he died in February 1984 after disappearing from public view for several months. His most significant legacy to the Soviet Union was his discovery and promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev. Beginning in 1978, Gorbachev advanced in two years through the Kremlin hierarchy to full membership in the Politburo. His responsibilities for the appointment of personnel allowed him to make the contacts and distribute the favors necessary for a future bid to become general secretary. At this point, Western experts believed that Andropov was grooming Gorbachev as his successor. However, although Gorbachev acted as a deputy to the general secretary throughout Andropov’s illness, Gorbachev’s power base was not yet sufficient to acquire the top spot when his patron died early in 1984.

The Chernenko Interregnum

Chernenko’s Party card following his promotion to the CPSU’s Central Committee / Wikimedia Commons

At 72, Konstantin Chernenko was in poor health and unable to play an active role in policy making when he was chosen, after lengthy discussion, to succeed Andropov. But Chernenko’s short time in office did bring some significant policy changes. The personnel changes and investigations into corruption undertaken under Andropov’s tutelage came to an end. Chernenko advocated more investment in consumer goods and services and in agriculture. He also called for a reduction in the CPSU’s micromanagement of the economy and greater attention to public opinion. However, KGB repression of Soviet dissidents also increased.

Although Chernenko had called for renewed détente with the West, little progress was made toward closing the rift in East-West relations during his rule. The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in retaliation for the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow four years earlier. In the late summer of 1984, the Soviet Union also prevented a visit to West Germany by East German leader Erich Honecker. Fighting in Afghanistan intensified, but in the late autumn of 1984 the United States and the Soviet Union did agree to resume arms control talks in early 1985.

The poor state of Chernenko’s health made the question of succession an acute one. Chernenko gave Gorbachev high party positions that provided significant influence in the Politburo, and Gorbachev was able to gain the vital support of Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko in the struggle for succession. When Chernenko died in March 1985, Gorbachev was well positioned to assume power.

The End Begins

The last few years of the Soviet Union were characterized by the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to revive the flagging Soviet economy and turn around years of political and social stagnation, but ultimately to no avail. With the passing of Yuri Andropov (1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1985), Gorbachev attempted a variety of reforms aimed at allowing socialism to succeed. Glasnost, the best known of these, enhanced freedom of expression, including religious expression and led to a more open press, the emergence of alternative media, access to the Western press and eventually the creation of political unions in opposition to communism and in support of certain republics’ independence from the Soviet Union. Glasnost underscored the failings of the Soviet system and did little to bring about the needed economic improvements that were sought. In the end, Gorbachev’s attempts to make socialism work were unsuccessful. They led to an unsuccessful hard-line coup d’etat in August 1991, which was followed by Boris Yeltsin’s declaring that the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991.

The Rise of Gorbachev


Mikhail Gorbachev / Wikimedia Commons

Although reform in the Soviet Union stalled between 1965 and 1982, a generational shift in Soviet leadership gave new momentum for reform. One key factor was changing relations with the United States due to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan was convinced that he could put pressure on the Soviets through an enhanced and updated military build-up including a focused initiative to develop a Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars”) to defend against Soviet missile-based nuclear offensive. Reagan and a number of his cabinet members, including CIA Director William Casey and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were aware that the weakened state of the Soviet economy as well as the West’s technological edge placed the United States in a strong position. Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” gave further insight into Reagan’s assessment of the Soviet Union. The cataclysmic failures of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which the Soviets attempted to conceal and downplay, added impetus for reform.

Jimmy Carter who had scoffed about America’s “inordinate fear of communism” underwent a change of opinion following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979. East-West tensions during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981–1985) increased to levels not seen since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

After years of stagnation, the “new thinking” of younger communist apparatchiks began to emerge. Following the death of the elderly Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Soviet Union in March 1985, marking the rise of a new generation of leadership. Under Gorbachev, relatively young, reform-oriented technocrats who had begun their careers in the heyday of “de-Stalinization” under Nikita Khrushchev (1953–1964), rapidly consolidated power within the CPSU, providing new momentum for political and economic liberalization, and the impetus for cultivating warmer relations and trade with the West.

By the time Gorbachev ushered in the process that would lead to the dismantling of the Soviet administrative command economy through his programs of glasnost (political openness), perestroika (economic restructuring), and uskoreniye (speed-up of economic development) announced in 1986, the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages aggravated by an increasingly open black market that undermined the official economy. Additionally, the costs of superpower status—the military, KGB, and subsidies to client states—were out of proportion to the Soviet economy. The new wave of industrialization based upon information technology had left the Soviet Union desperate for Western technology and credit to address its increasing technical backwardness.


The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1988 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

A 1987 conference convened by Soviet economist Leonid Abalkin, an advisor to Gorbachev, concluded, “Deep transformations in the management of the economy cannot be realized without corresponding changes in the political system.”[4] It is therefore likely that Gorbachev’s primary goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, although he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate, and participation, the Soviet people as a whole would support his reform initiatives.

Glasnost resulted in greater freedom of speech and greater freedom of the press. Thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released. Soviet social science became free to explore and publish on many subjects that had previously been off limits, including conducting public opinion polls. The All-Union Center for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM)—the most prominent of several polling organizations that were started then—was opened. State archives became more accessible, and some social statistics that had been embargoed or kept secret became open for research and publication on sensitive subjects such as income disparities, crime, suicide, abortion, and infant mortality. The first center for gender studies was opened within a newly formed Institute for the Socio-Economic Study of Human Population.

In January 1987 Gorbachev called for the infusion of democratic elements, such as multi-candidate elections, into the Soviet political process. In June 1988 at the CPSU’s Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet approved the establishment of a Congress of People’s Deputies, which constitutional amendments had established as the Soviet Union’s new legislative body. Elections to the congress were held throughout the U.S.S.R. in March and April 1989. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.

Unintended Consequences

Undermining Soviet Authority

Gorbachev’s efforts to streamline the Communist system offered promise, but ultimately only exacerbated tensions within the system, resulting in a cascade of events that eventually concluded with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Initially intended as tools to bolster the Soviet economy, the policies of perestroika and glasnost soon led to unintended negative consequences.

Relaxation of censorship under glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its absolute grip on the media. Before long, and much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems the Soviet government had long denied existed and actively concealed. Problems receiving increased attention included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, outdated Stalinist-era factories, and petty- to large-scale corruption. Media reports also exposed crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as the gulags, his treaty with Adolf Hitler, and the Great Purges ignored by the official media. Moreover, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the mishandling of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster further damaged the credibility of the Soviet government at a time when dissatisfaction was increasing.

In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This undermined the faith of the public in the Soviet system and eroded the Communist Party’s social power base, threatening the identity and integrity of the Soviet Union itself.

Fraying among the nations included in the Warsaw Pact and instability of the Soviet Union’s western allies, first indicated by Lech Wałęsa’s 1980 rise to leadership of the trade union Solidarity, accelerated—leaving the Soviet Union unable to depend upon its Eastern European satellite states for protection as a buffer zone. By 1988 Moscow had repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies; Gorbachev also renounced Soviet support for wars of national liberation in the developing world and calling for greater United Nations involvement in resolving such matters. Gradually, each of the Warsaw Pact nations saw their communist governments fall to popular elections and, in the case of Romania, a violent uprising. By 1991 the communist governments of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, all of which had been imposed after World War II, were brought down as revolution swept Eastern Europe.

Economic Woes

While the policy of glasnost was working to undermine Soviet authority, the policy of perestroika and uskoreniye were not.

Emboldened by the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was more overt than ever before in the Soviet Union. Although perestroika was considered bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev’s attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country’s chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system, including price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.

By 1990 the Soviet government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined as revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign. Furthermore, republic-level and municipal governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown of traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev’s decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.

The Nationalities Dilemma

The Soviet Union was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity. By 1988 it began experiencing upheaval as the political consequences of glasnost reverberated throughout the country, especially inside the fifteen republics making up the Soviet Union. Despite efforts at containment, the upheaval in Eastern Europe inevitably spread to nationalities within the U.S.S.R. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, nationalists as well as radical reformers swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the U.S.S.R.’s central Moscow government to impose its will on the U.S.S.R.’s constituent republics had been largely undermined. Massive peaceful protests in the Baltic Republics such as The Baltic Way and the Singing Revolution drew international attention and bolstered independence movements in various other regions.

The rise of nationalism under glasnost soon reawakened simmering ethnic tensions in various Soviet republics, further discrediting the ideal of a unified Soviet people. One instance occurred in February 1988, when the government in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian S.S.R. Violence against local Azerbaijanis was reported on Soviet television, provoking massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

Yeltsin and the Dissolution of the U.S.S.R.


Boris Yeltsin / Wikimedia Commons

On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The U.S.S.R.’s constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow, and started a “war of laws” with the central Moscow government, in which the governments of the constituent republics repudiated all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation, as supply lines in the economy were broken, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.

The pro-independence movement in Lithuania, Sąjūdis, established on June 3, 1988, warranted a visit by Gorbachev in January 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania, led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Vytautas Landsbergis, declared independence. However, the Soviet Army had a strong presence in Lithuania. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there “to secure the rights of ethnic Russians.”

On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state. The process of restoration of independence of Latvia began on May 4, 1990, with a Latvian Supreme Council vote stipulating a transitional period to complete independence.

On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with KGB Spetsnaz group Alfa, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Vilnius to suppress the free media. This ended with 14 unarmed Lithuanian civilians dead and hundreds more injured. On the night of July 31, 1991, Russian OMON from Riga, the Soviet military headquarters in the Baltics, assaulted the Lithuanian border post in Medininkai and killed seven Lithuanian servicemen. This further weakened the Soviet Union’s position, internationally and domestically.

On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum, 78 percent of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. The Baltics, Armenia, Soviet Georgia, and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of a revitalized Soviet Union.

On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57 percent of the popular vote in the democratic elections for president of the Russian S.F.S.R., defeating Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16 percent of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the “dictatorship of the center,” but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the rail track in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10, 1991.

The August Coup

Tanks at the Red Square / Wikimedia Commons

Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 2, 1991, the Russian S.F.S.R. was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, the more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet state. Disintegration of the U.S.S.R. also resonated with the desire of local authorities, including Boris Yeltsin, to establish full power over their territories. In contrast to the reformers’ lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president Gennadi Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the State Committee on the State Emergency. The “Committee” put Gorbachev (vacationing in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest and attempted to restore the union state. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.

While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in Moscow was largely against them. Thousands of people came out to defend the “White House” (Yeltsin’s office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup.

After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev’s powers were now fatally compromised as neither the Union nor the Russian power structures heeded his commands. Through the autumn of 1991 the Russian government took over the Union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991 Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former apparatchiks abandoned the Communist Party in favor of positions in new government structures.

After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. Their local authorities started to seize property located on their territory. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic States, which the western powers had always held to be sovereign. Yet, in the battle for power on October 18, Gorbachev and the representatives of eight republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community. Then on December 1, 1991, Ukraine reaffirmed its independence after a popular referendum wherein 90 percent of voters opted for independence.

Meanwhile, the situation of the Soviet economy continued to deteriorate. By December 1991 food shortages in central Russia resulted in the introduction of food rationing in the Moscow area for the first time since World War II. However, Gorbachev, as president of the U.S.S.R., and his government were still opposed to any rapid market reforms in the country’s collapsing economy, such as Gregory Yavlinsky’s “500 Days” economic program.

To break Gorbachev’s opposition, Yeltsin decided to disband the Soviet Union in accordance with the Treaty of the Union of 1922 and therefore to remove Gorbachev and the government of the U.S.S.R. from power. This was seen as a forced measure to save the country from a complete economic collapse and was at the time widely supported by Russia’s population. The step was also enthusiastically supported by the governments of Ukraine and Belarus, which were parties of the Treaty of 1922 along with Russia.

Formation of the C.I.S. and Official End of the U.S.S.R.

Map of the Commonwealth of Independent States / Wikimedia Commons

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to issue the Belavezha Accords, declaring the Soviet Union officially dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.). Gorbachev described this as a constitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.

Of the 15 republics, 12 signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague on December 17, 1991, as if they were sovereign states, along with 28 other European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries.

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the U.S.S.R. A day later, December 26, 1991, the Supreme Soviet dissolved itself. By December 31, 1991, all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations and individual republics assumed the central government’s role. The Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin.

The four principal elements of the old Soviet system were the hierarchy of Soviets, ethnic federalism, state socialism, and Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev’s programs of perestroika and glasnost produced radical unforeseen effects that brought that system down. As a means of reviving the Soviet state, Gorbachev repeatedly attempted to build a coalition of political leaders supportive of reform and created new arenas and bases of power. He implemented these measures because he wanted to resolve serious economic problems and political inertia that clearly threatened to put the Soviet Union into a state of long-term stagnation.

But by using structural reforms to widen opportunities for leaders and using popular movements in the Union republics to gain influence, Gorbachev also made it possible for nationalist, orthodox communist, and populist forces to oppose his attempts to liberalize and revitalize Soviet communism. Although some of the new movements aspired to replace the Soviet system altogether with a liberal democratic one, others demanded independence for the national republics. Still others insisted on the restoration of the old Soviet ways. Ultimately, Gorbachev could not forge a compromise among these forces and the consequence was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Post-Soviet Restructuring

In order to restructure the Soviet administrative command system and implement transition to a market-based economy, Yeltsin introduced a “shock therapy” program in the days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The subsidies to money-losing farms and industries were cut, price controls were abolished, and the ruble was moved toward convertibility.

New opportunities for Yeltsin’s circle and other entrepreneurs to seize the former state property had been created, thus restructuring the old state-owned economy within a few months. After obtaining power, the vast majority of “idealistic” reformers gained huge areas of state property using their positions in the government and became business oligarchs, thus discrediting ideas of democracy. Existing institutions had been conspicuously abandoned before the new legal structures of the market economy that governed private property, oversaw financial markets, and enforced taxation.

Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise the GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create new production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge macroeconomic and structural distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization. Since the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, Russia has been facing many problems that the free-market proponents in 1992 did not anticipate: among other things, 25 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, life expectancy has dropped, birthrates are low, and the GDP has plunged by half. In the eyes of many of the older generations in Russia, life under the old Soviet system was better than what followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. However, most saw revived opportunity for economic improvements and greater freedom with the changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union.



  1. Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. p. 96. 1990.
  2. Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. p. 96. 1990.
  3. Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. p. 228. 1990.
  4. Leonid Abalkin, Voprosy Ekonomiki. (Moscow. no. 2. 1988), 79.


Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 01.11.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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