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Soviet Union

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet Union was politically, economically, and socially stagnant, according to many Western observers. After Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, however, unprecedented events portending substantial change began to occur. To revitalize the critically ailing economy, Gorbachev introduced perestroika; to alter the political power structure, he introduced demokratizatsiia; and to provide information needed to implement both, he introduced glasnost'. These three slogans represented evolving concepts rather than formal programs with specific plans and time schedules. Information about events occurring in the late 1980s came in such volume that many observers were overwhelmed.

The historical experience of the multinational Soviet Union is varied and complex and hjelps illuminate contemporary events and institutions. The histories of the predecessor states of the Soviet Union -- Kievan Rus', Muscovy, and the Russian Empire--demonstrate some long-term trends having applicability to the Soviet period: the predominant role of the East Slavs, particularly the Russians; the dominance of the state over the individual; territorial acquisition, which continued sporadically; nationality problems, which increased as diverse peoples became subjects of the state as a result of territorial expansion; a general xenophobia, coupled with admiration for Western ideas and technology and disruptive sporadic campaigns to adopt them; and cyclical periods of repression and reform.

The death knell of the Russian Empire came in March 1917, when the people of Petrograd (present-day Leningrad) rose up in an unplanned and unorganized protest against the tsarist regime and continued their efforts until Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. His government collapsed, leaving power in the hands of an elected Duma, which formed the Provisional Government. That government was in turn overthrown in November 1917 by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir I. Lenin. The Bolsheviks (who began calling themselves Communists in 1918) emerged victorious after a bitterly fought Civil War (1918-21). They secured their power and in December 1922 established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union), which included almost all the territory of the former Russian Empire. The new government prohibited other political organizations and inaugurated one-party rule, which exerted centralized control over the political, economic, social, and cultural lives of the people. Lenin, as head of the party, became the de facto ruler of the country.

After Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph V. Stalin gradually assumed supreme power in the party and the state by removing opponents from influential positions. Stalin ordered the construction of a socialist economy through the appropriation by the state of private industrial and agricultural properties. His ruthless policy of forced industrialization and collectivization of agriculture caused massive human suffering, as did his purge of party members. As the initiator of the Great Terror, Stalin also decimated the economic, social, military, cultural, and religions elites in the Russian Republic and in some of the non-Russian republics. Millions of citizens were executed, imprisoned, or starved. Nevertheless, the Soviet state succeeded in developing an industrial base of extraordinary dimensions, albeit skewed toward military and heavy industry rather than consumer needs. Stalin believed that the rapid development of heavy industry was necessary to ensure the Soviet Union's survival. His fear of attack led to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939, enabling the Soviet Union to acquire the eastern portion of Poland (western Ukraine), the Baltic states, and Bessarabia but failing to forestall for long the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that began in June 1941. After several crushing military defeats, the Red Army finally gained the offensive in 1943, expelled the enemy, and, by 1945, had occupied most of Eastern Europe. Although more than 20 million Soviet citizens died as a result of the war, the world was forced to acknowledge the tremendous power of the Soviet military forces.

In the postwar period, the Soviet Union converted its military occupation of the countries of Eastern Europe into political and economic domination by installing regimes dependent on Moscow. It also pursued its goal of extending Soviet power abroad. The Western powers reacted to Soviet expansionism, and thus began the Cold War. Simultaneously, Stalin rebuilt the devastated Soviet economy while retaining central planning and the emphasis on heavy industry and military production rather than satisfying the needs of the citizens. Suppression of dissent and human rights continued unabated.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita S. Khrushchev gradually became the dominant Soviet leader and, in a dramatic move, renounced his predecessor's use of terror and repression. He continued, however, a confrontational foreign policy toward the West. His attempts at domestic reform, particularly in agriculture, and his instigation of a missile crisis in Cuba, which almost launched a nuclear war, contributed to his ouster as party leader and head of state in 1964. After an extended period of collective leadership, Leonid I. Brezhnev assumed party and government power and initiated a foreign policy of dtente with the West. He continued the traditional economic policy of emphasizing heavy industry and military production over civilian needs.

At the death of Brezhnev in 1982, the political, economic, and cultural life of the country was controlled by a conservative, entrenched and aging bureaucracy. Brezhnev's successors, Iurii V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko, were in power too briefly before their deaths to effect lasting change, although Andropov attempted to initiate some reforms. When Gorbachev was selected general secretary of the CPSU and head of the Soviet state in 1985, the deterioration of the Soviet socialist system had nearly reached crisis proportions. Gorbachev announced that "revolutionary" change was required to revitalize the country, and he began his programs of perestroika, glasnost', and demokratizatsiia.

Gorbachev's efforts at political and economic reform, however, unleashed a flood of events leading to a profound political crisis and broad nationality unrest while leaving fundamental economic problems unresolved. Several of the nationalities having union republic status began to seek greater political and economic autonomy; indeed, some sought complete independence from the Soviet multinational federation. Longstanding rivalries and enmities among nationality groups that had been suppressed by successive Soviet regimes exploded in some areas of the country, causing loss of life and property. Thus, the authoritarian socialist system, although undergoing tentative restructuring, became less capable of effectively responding to societal disorder and of implementing necessary fundamental change rapidly. In the 1990s, Gorbachev's policy of perestroika offered the people little in substantive, near-term economic improvement, and his policies of glasnost' and demokratizatsiia resulted in rapidly raising their expectations while lessening the regime's controls over society. As a result, in mid-1991 the Soviet Union was a disintegrating federation with a collapsing economy and a despairing, confused society.

Internationally, the Soviet Union's affairs were in a state of fundamental change. Beginning in late 1989, the Soviet Union's East European empire crumbled as citizens in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Romania overthrew their communist dictators with at least the tacit approval of Gorbachev. Earlier in the year, the people of Poland and Hungary had overthrown their communist systems. The actions of the peoples of Eastern Europe led to the dissolution, in May and June 1991, respectively, of the two Soviet-dominated, multinational organizations, the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) that had helped bind Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. In a collaborative effort with the United States, Gorbachev met with President George H.W. Bush at Malta in December 1989 and at Washington in May-June 1990 to effectively end the Cold War and to move toward a cooperative relationship. In August 1991, Bush and Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which required the United States and the Soviet Union to cut their nuclear weapons within seven years so that each side would have only 4,900 ballistic missile nuclear warheads as part of a total of 6,000 "accountable" warheads. The two countries had been engaged in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) since 1982. In another collaborative effort, the Soviet Union voted with the United States and an international coalition of nations to oppose the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, a nation that had been the recipient of substantial amounts of Soviet military advice, equipment, and weapons.

It was Gorbachev's "new thinking" in foreign policy that produced the most dramatic and far-reaching results of his reform efforts. In addition to the significant developments just mentioned, these included the withdrawal of Soviet armed forces from Afghanistan; acceptance of national self-determination for the East European communist countries and a promised complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from those countries; agreement to a unified Germany remaining in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and the ending of support for Cuban military operations in Angola. The international community began to regard the Soviet Union as less menacing and acknowledged that the actions it had taken contributed substantially to the ending of the Cold War. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 for his foreign policy initiatives and for their impact on world affairs. By no means, however, did the Soviet Union abandon its foreign policy goals. It continued its economic and military support of some longstanding allies, such as Afghanistan, Cuba, and Vietnam, as well as Third World client states, although it often chose to act covertly, in the hope of receiving economic aid from the West.

In 1991 the Soviet economy continued to be beset with serious problems that had brought the Soviet Union to the point of crisis. The problems included poor planning by government officials; inefficient production methods; lack of incentives to boost efficiency; lack of worker discipline; unemployment, underemployment, and strikes; shortages of food and consumer goods; theft of state property; wasteful use of resources; prices distorted by a lack of market mechanisms; and investments of scarce funds in projects of dubious value. The system of central planning and rigid control by Moscow bureaucrats was partially disrupted by economic problems and the regime's policy of perestroika. Nevertheless, almost all natural resources, agricultural and industrial enterprises , transportation and communications systems, and financial institutions remained in the hands of the party-controlled government. In addition, the vast majority of workers remained, effectively, salaried employees of the government. Although the 1977 Constitution, as amended and changed, provided for cooperative or collective ownership of property, it also stated that the "socialist ownership of the means of production" was the foundation of the economy, and socialist ownership remained the preferred form of ownership. The Gorbachev regime, however, sought to devise a restructuring program that would enable market forces rather than government planners to make many economic decisions. Thus, in the early 1990s the economic reform envisioned by Gorbachev in the late 1980s seemed to be shifting away from centralized planning to a market-oriented economy.

Gorbachev hoped that he could at least hold the union together in a decentralized form. On August 19, 1991, one day before Gorbachev and a group of republic leaders were due to sign the union treaty, a group calling itself the State Emergency Committee attempted to seize power in Moscow. By December 1991, all of the republics had declared independence, and negotiations over a new union treaty began anew. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

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