The former USSR (commonly referred to as the Soviet Union) was formed as the result a weak Russian monarchy, an economic crisis, and over three years of unsuccessful fighting in World War I. Brilliantly using this situation, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution and seized the government from the Tsarist regime in the Fall of 1917. Lenin was a previously exiled Marxist authority who founded the Russian Communist Party and became the first leader of the Soviet State until his death in 1924. He was able to unite people in support of Bolsheviks under the idea of “power for workers and peasants.” His ideas of ending an unpopular war and redistribution of national wealth were also very popular.
The Bolshevik Revolution was followed by a brutal Civil War which took millions of lives. The Revolution and Civil War tragically divided the nation and millions of people left the country. Among these were the brightest and most talented writers, scientists, and specialists including the airplane designer Sikorskiy, the writers Bunin and Nabokov, the singer Shalyapin, the artist Mark Chagal. The Soviet State was officially founded at the end of 1922.
Joseph Stalin stepped in to Lenin’s shoes as the dominant ruler and instituted industrialization in the form of collective farming and social reorganization. Some of these unpopular programs helped to develop the country into a world power by World War II. Unfortunately, collectivization led to the destruction of agriculture and the physical elimination of millions of the most successful producers.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist (Bolshevik) Party created an enormously powerful machine of suppression and terror which included the KGB. Beginning the 1930’s Stalin used this political machine to wrongfully execute those that he thought were his enemies or that did not support his leadership of the Communist Party. It is estimated that fourteen to twenty million people were executed and died in GULAG during these years. Under Stalin’s supreme power, the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s armies in June of 1941. Four years of fierce battles took lives of twenty to thirty million Soviet citizens and every Soviet family lost relatives during the. The Soviet Union was the major power that defeated Hitler’s Germany. The enormous loss of lives and destruction of the cities during World War II still has an effect on Russians and it is a very touching subject even today.
After Stalin passed away in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev was named First Secretary of the Communist Party after several months of political turmoil. He reversed many of Stalin’s policies as First Secretary, which nearly caused him to be removed from office in 1957. In an 8-4 vote, the Presidium voted to dismiss Khruschev. His response was “Certainty in arithmetic two and two make four. But politics are not arithmetic. They are something different.” He used army transport planes from the remote regions of the USSR to rush his supporters to Moscow and with his new support he was able to retain his position and exile his critics.
Khrushchev strongly believed in the idea of peaceful coexistence with the other world power, the United States, which he visited in 1959. Under Khrushchev, United States and USSR relations were at an all time high until an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviets and the pilot was captured. This began the period in history known as the “Cold War” where military and nuclear assets were increased.
Khrushchev’s policies in the late 1950s and early 1960s earned the name of “Ottepel” (“Thaw”). During this time dissidents appeared on Soviet scene which brought fresh air into Soviet life and culture. This time brought new works from famous writers (Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and Aksenov), poets (Brodskiy, Galich, and Voznesenskiy), sculptors (Neizvestnyy), and historians (Necrich and Medvedev). Dissidents made major contributions to the fall of communism at the end of 1980s.
During Khrushchev’s rule the Soviet Union made major steps in space exploration: in 1957 they launched the first Sputnik, and then in 1961 Yuriy Gagarin became the first human in space. This was a great advancement, but economically the USSR was in very bad shape and the life of ordinary people was very tough.
Khrushchev was followed by Leonid Brezhnev (who gained a reputation in the West as the best dressed leader) in 1964 when Khrushchev was ousted. Brezhnev steadily began to eliminate the young and weak freedom movement which was seeded by his predecessor. During this time the KGB began to grow politically and it began to control everything. A new novel of Solzhenitsyn was forbidden and soon he was send out of country. The same fate was prepared for Necrich, Galich, Aksenov, and many other dissidents. The physicist Sakharov (the father of Soviet H-bomb) was sent into exile due to his “pacifists” views.
In 1968 Brezhnev sent Soviet troops to suppress democracy in Czechoslovakia and in 1979 he began the invasion into Afghanistan. At the same time Brezhnev met with Nixon in Moscow and signed the SALT treaty, which was a step towards nuclear disarmament. During this time, the economy continued to decline. It was a period when Russians would joke that “you create impression that you pay, we create impression that we work.” Brezhnev’s administration brought political humor to an all time high.
Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were party functionaries and each served short terms as head of state followed by Mikhail Gorbachev who was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1985. While in office, Gorbachev promoted his ideas of Glasnost (his policy of openness in public regarding current and historical problems) and Perestroika (establishing a market economy by establishing private ownership) which gained him enormous popularity in the West. In 1989 he ordered the withdrawal Soviet troops from Afghanistan after ten years of war.
Eventually, the poor economy and the close of Soviet factories led to his demise and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 (some researches consider the breakdown of the Soviet Union as coup). Boris Yeltsin became the first president of the new Russian Federation on June 12, 1991 and Gorbachev was ousted from his office in August. By the end of 1991 all of the former Soviet Republics were independent. The Soviet Union was no more.
This is a brief review of the political history of the former USSR. Many westerners have negative impressions about this country due to the politically biased media and movies. Classics such as James Bond, “The Hunt for Red October”, and “Rocky IV” paint the culture and politics of the former Soviet Union in a very poor light.
The Soviet Union was known for excellent culture and education including literature, art, music, ballet, and architecture. The authors Michail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Valentin Kataev, and Yuriy Trifonov (available in English) are highly recommended for their contributions to literature. Russian movie makers Andrey Tarkovskiy, Alexander Sokurov, and many others would amaze even Hollywood with their great works. Scientists around the world know the names of the famous Russian scientists Landau, Kapitsa, Gamov, Zeldovich, Sakharov, as well as many others. College education and health care was free for all citizens. Although many material items were lacking, most people were generally highly educated, kind, and interesting.
Before the breakdown, the Soviet Union was divided into 15 different union republics: Amenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. These republics are now separate countries that have retained their unique language, culture, and natural wealth.
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