Soviet Union

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Recent History

Союз Советских Социалистических Республик
Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik
Other languages

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Flag of the Soviet Union Coat of arms of the Soviet Union
Flag Coat of arms
Motto: Пролетарии всех стран, соединяйтесь!
( Transliterated: Proletarii vsekh stran, soedinyaytes!')
(Russian: Workers of the world, unite!)
Anthem: The Internationale (1922-1944)
Hymn of the Soviet Union (1944-1991)
Location of the Soviet Union
(and largest city)
55°45′N 37°38′E
Official languages None; Russian de facto
Government Federation of Soviet Republics
 - Last President Mikhail Gorbachev
 - Last Premier Ivan Silayev
Establishment October Revolution 
 - Declared 30 December 1922 
 - Recognized 31 January 1924 
 - Dissolved 25 December 1991 
 - Total 22,402,200 km² ( 1st)
8,649,538 sq mi 
 - Water (%) 0.5
 - July 1991 estimate 293,047,571 ( 3rd before collapse)
 - Density 13.08/km² ( not ranked)
33.8/sq mi
Currency Soviet ruble ( RUR)
Time zone ( UTC+2 to +13)
Internet TLD .su
Calling code +7

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ( abbreviated USSR) (Russian: ); tr.: "Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, SSSR"), more commonly known as the Soviet Union, was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. From 1945 until its dissolution in 1991, it was one of the world's two superpowers, along with the United States.

The USSR was created and expanded as a union of Soviet republics formed within the territory of the Russian Empire abolished by the Russian Revolution of 1917 followed by the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920. The geographic boundaries of the Soviet Union varied with time, but after the last major territorial annexations of the Baltic States, eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and certain other territories during World War II, from 1945 until dissolution the boundaries approximately corresponded to those of late Imperial Russia, with the notable exclusions of Poland and Finland.

The Soviet Union became the primary model for future Communist states during the Cold War; the government and the political organization of the country were defined by the only permitted political party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Established by four Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR grew to contain 15 constituent or union republics by 1956: Armenian SSR, Azerbaijan SSR, Byelorussian SSR, Estonian SSR, Georgian SSR, Kazakh SSR, Kyrgyz SSR, Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR, Moldavian SSR, Russian SFSR, Tajik SSR, Turkmen SSR, Ukrainian SSR, and Uzbek SSR. The republics were part of a highly centralized federal union that was dominated by the Russian SFSR. After the USSR's collapse in 1991, all 15 SSRs became independent countries.

The Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, and the successor states are a collection of 15 countries commonly dubbed, 'the former Soviet Union'. Eleven of these states are aligned through a loose confederation known as the Commonwealth of Independent States ( CIS). Turkmenistan, originally a full member of the CIS, is now an associate member. The three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) did not join this Commonwealth; instead, they joined both the European Union and the NATO alliance in 2004. Russia and Belarus also belong to the Union of Russia and Belarus.


The Soviet Union is traditionally considered to be the successor of the Russian Empire. The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, ruled until March 1917 and was executed with his family the following year. The Soviet Union was established in December 1922 as the union of the Russian (colloquially known as Bolshevist Russia), Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Transcaucasian Soviet republics ruled by Bolshevik parties.

Modern revolutionary activity in the Russian Empire began with the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, and although serfdom was abolished in 1861, its abolition was achieved on terms unfavorable to the peasants and served to encourage revolutionaries. A parliament, the State Duma, was established in 1906, after the 1905 Revolution, but political and social unrest continued and was aggravated during World War I by military defeat and food shortages in major cities.

A spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd, in response to the wartime decay of Russia's economy and morale, culminated in the toppling of the imperial government in March 1917 (see February Revolution). The tsarist autocracy was replaced by the Provisional Government, whose leaders intended to establish liberal democracy in Russia and to continue participating on the side of the Allies in World War I. At the same time, to ensure the rights of the working class, workers' councils, known as soviets, sprang up across the country. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, agitated for socialist revolution in the soviets and on the streets. They seized power from the Provisional Government in November 1917 (see October Revolution). Only after the long and bloody Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, which included foreign intervention in several parts of Russia, was the new Communist regime secure. The Red Army became infamous for burning entire villages full of people and sending the men to labor camps for sometimes harboring deserters from the army. The Cheka also had to put down numerous rebellions by the peasants because of food requisition. In a related conflict with Poland, the " Peace of Riga" in early 1921 split disputed territories in Belarus and Ukraine between Poland and Soviet powers.

From its first years, government in the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks). After the extraordinary economic policy of War Communism during the Civil War, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s and total food requisition in the countryside was replaced by a food tax (see New Economic Policy). Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. By gradually consolidating his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, notably Lenin's more obvious heir Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s.

In 1928, Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy, now, unlike the internationalism expressed by Lenin and Trotsky throughout the course of the Revolution, "in one country." In industry, the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture collective farms were established all over the country (see Collectivisation in the USSR). The Soviet Union became a major industrial power; but the plan's implementation produced widespread misery for segments of the population. Collectivization met widespread resistance from peasants, resulting in a bitter struggle against the authorities in many areas, famine, and estimated millions of deaths. Social upheaval continued in the mid-1930s. Stalin's purge of the party (see Great Purges) eliminated many " Old Bolsheviks", who had participated in the Revolution with Lenin. Meanwhile, countless Soviet citizens were jailed and sent to Gulags (Chief Administration for Corrective Labor Camps), a vast network of forced-labor camps, or executed. Yet despite the turmoil of the mid- to late 1930s, the Soviet Union developed a powerful industrial economy in the years before World War II.

Red Army soldiers on the Reichstag, Berlin, raising the "Victory Banner" after the fall of Nazi Germany.  Photograph by Yevgeniy Khaldey.
Red Army soldiers on the Reichstag, Berlin, raising the "Victory Banner" after the fall of Nazi Germany. Photograph by Yevgeniy Khaldey.

The 1930s saw closer cooperation between Western countries and the USSR. In 1933, diplomatic relations between the USA and the USSR were established. Four years later, the USSR actively supported the Second Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War against Italian and German fascists. Nevertheless, after Great Britain and France concluded the Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, the USSR dealt with the latter as well, both economically and militarily, by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which involved the engagement of Red Army into Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the invasion of Poland in 1939. In late November 1939, unable to gain control of the strategic port of Petsamo by diplomatic means, Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland. Although it has been debated whether the Soviet Union had the intention of invading Nazi Germany once it was strong enough, Germany itself broke the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive in the Battle of Stalingrad, lasting from late 1942 to early 1943, being the major turning point, and drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945 (see Great Patriotic War). Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as an acknowledged superpower.

During the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union first rebuilt and then expanded its economy, while maintaining its strictly centralized control. The Soviet Union aided postwar reconstruction in Eastern Europe while turning them into Soviet satellite states, set up the Warsaw Pact and Comecon, supplied aid to the eventually victorious Communists in the People's Republic of China, and saw its influence grow elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, the rising tension of the Cold War turned the Soviet Union's wartime allies, the United Kingdom and the United States, into foes.

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953. In the absence of an acceptable successor, the highest Communist Party officials opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although a struggle for power took place behind the facade of collective leadership. Nikita Khrushchev, who won the power struggle by the mid-1950s, denounced Stalin's use of repression in 1956 and eased repressive controls over party and society (see de-Stalinization). At the same time, Soviet military force was used to suppress democratic uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956. During this period, the Soviet Union continued to realize scientific and technological pioneering exploits, in extenso, to launch the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1, living being Laika, and later, the first human being Yuri Gagarin into Earth's orbit. Khrushchev's reforms in agriculture and administration, however, were generally unproductive, and foreign policy towards China and the United States suffered reverses, including the actions that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Khrushchev's colleagues in the leadership removed him from power in 1964.

Following the ousting of Khrushchev, another period of rule by collective leadership ensued, lasting until Leonid Brezhnev established himself in the early 1970s as the preeminent figure in Soviet political life. Brezhnev presided over a period of Détente with the West while at the same time building up Soviet military strength; the arms buildup contributed to the demise of Détente in the late 1970s. Another contributing factor was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

After some experimentation with economic reforms in the mid-1960s, the Soviet leadership reverted to established means of economic management. Industry showed slow but steady gains during the 1970s, while agricultural development continued to lag. Throughout the period, the Soviet Union maintained parity with the United States in the areas of military technology, but this expansion ultimately crippled the economy. In contrast to the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, the prevailing mood of the Soviet leadership at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982 was one of aversion to change. The long period of Brezhnev's rule had come to be dubbed one of "stagnation" (застой), with an aging and ossified top political leadership.

Two developments dominated the decade that followed: the increasingly apparent crumbling of the Soviet Union's economic and political structures, and the patchwork attempts at reforms to reverse that process. After the rapid succession of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, transitional figures with deep roots in Brezhnevite tradition, beginning in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev made significant changes in the economy (see Perestroika Glasnost) and the party leadership. His policy of glasnost freed public access to information after decades of government regulations.

In the late 1980s, constituent republics of the Soviet Union started asserting sovereignty over their territories or even declaring independence, citing Article 72 of the USSR Constitution, which stated that any constituent republic was free to secede. Many held their first free elections in the Soviet era for their own national legislatures in 1990. Many of these legislatures proceeded to produce legislation contradicting the Union laws in what was known as " The War of Laws." In 1989, Russian SFSR, which was then the largest constituent republic (with about half of the population) convened a newly elected Congress of People's Deputies. Boris Yeltsin was elected the chairman of the Congress. On June 12, 1990, the Congress declared Russia's sovereignty over its territory and proceeded to pass laws that attempted to supersede some of the USSR's laws. The period of legal uncertainty continued throughout 1991 as constituent republics slowly became de-facto independent.

A referendum for the preservation of the USSR was held on March 17, 1991, with the majority of the population voting for preservation of the Union in most republics. The referendum gave Gorbachev a minor boost, and, in the summer of 1991, a new Union Treaty was designed and agreed upon by most republics which would have turned the Soviet Union into a much looser federation. The signing of the treaty, however, was interrupted by the August Coup - an attempted coup d'état against Mikhail Gorbachev by conservative members of the Communist Party, referred to as "Hardliners" by the Western media. After the coup collapsed, Yeltsin came out as a hero while Gorbachev's power was effectively ended. The balance of power tipped significantly towards the republics. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania immediately declared their independence, while the other 12 republics continued discussing new, increasingly looser, models of the Union.

On December 8, 1991, Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed Belavezha Accords which declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States - CIS, in its place. While doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to dissolve the Union, on December 21, 1991, the representatives of all Soviet republics except Georgia, including those republics that had signed the Belavezha Accords, signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the dismemberment and consequential extinction of the USSR and restated the establishment of the CIS. The summit of Alma-Ata also agreed on several other practical measures consequential to the extinction of the Union. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev yielded to the inevitable and resigned as the president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct. He turned the powers that until then were vested in the presidency over to Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia. The following day, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union, recognized the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolved itself. This is generally recognized as the official, final dissolution of the Soviet Union as a functioning state. Many organizations such as the Soviet Army and Police forces continued to remain in place in the early months of 1992 but were slowly phased out and either withdrawn from or absorbed by the newly independent states.


The government of the Soviet Union administered the country's economy and society. It implemented decisions made by the leading political institution in the country, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

In the late 1980s, the government appeared to have many characteristics in common with liberal democratic political systems. For instance, a constitution established all organizations of government and granted to citizens a series of political and civic rights. A legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies, and its standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, represented the principle of popular sovereignty. The Supreme Soviet, which had an elected chairman who functioned as head of state, oversaw the Council of Ministers, which acted as the executive branch of the government. The chairman of the Council of Ministers, whose selection was approved by the legislative branch, functioned as head of government. A constitutionally based judicial branch of government included a court system, headed by the Supreme Court, that was responsible for overseeing the observance of Soviet law by government bodies. According to the 1977 Soviet Constitution, the government had a federal structure, permitting the republics some authority over policy implementation and offering the national minorities the appearance of participation in the management of their own affairs.

In practice, however, the government differed markedly from Western systems. In the late 1980s, the CPSU performed many functions that governments of other countries usually perform. For example, the party decided on the policy alternatives that the government ultimately implemented. The government merely ratified the party's decisions to lend them an aura of legitimacy. The CPSU used a variety of mechanisms to ensure that the government adhered to its policies. The party, using its nomenklatura authority, placed its loyalists in leadership positions throughout the government, where they were subject to the norms of democratic centralism. Party bodies closely monitored the actions of government ministries, agencies, and legislative organs.

The content of the Soviet Constitution differed in many ways from typical Western constitutions. It generally described existing political relationships, as determined by the CPSU, rather than prescribing an ideal set of political relationships. The Constitution was long and detailed, giving technical specifications for individual organs of government. The Constitution included political statements, such as foreign policy goals, and provided a theoretical definition of the state within the ideological framework of Marxism-Leninism. The CPSU leadership could radically change the constitution or remake it completely, as it did several times throughout its history.

The Council of Ministers acted as the executive body of the government. Its most important duties lay in the administration of the economy. The council was thoroughly under the control of the CPSU, and its chairman - the Soviet prime minister - was always a member of the Politburo. The council, which in 1989 included more than 100 members, was too large and unwieldy to act as a unified executive body. The council's Presidium, made up of the leading economic administrators and led by the chairman, exercised dominant power within the Council of Ministers.

According to the Constitution, as amended in 1988, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union was the Congress of People's Deputies, which convened for the first time in May 1989. The main tasks of the congress were the election of the standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, and the election of the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, who acted as head of state. Theoretically, the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet wielded enormous legislative power. In practice, however, the Congress of People's Deputies met infrequently and only to approve decisions made by the party, the Council of Ministers, and its own Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the Council of Ministers had substantial authority to enact laws, decrees, resolutions, and orders binding on the population. The Congress of People's Deputies had the authority to ratify these decisions.

The judiciary was not independent. The Supreme Court supervised the lower courts and applied the law as established by the Constitution or as interpreted by the Supreme Soviet. The Constitutional Oversight Committee reviewed the constitutionality of laws and acts. The Soviet Union lacked an adversarial court procedure known to common law jurisdictions. Rather, Soviet law utilised the system derived from Roman law, where judge, procurator and defense attorney worked collaboratively to establish the truth.

The Soviet Union was a federal state made up of fifteen republics joined together in a theoretically voluntary union. In turn, a series of territorial units made up the republics. The republics also contained jurisdictions intended to protect the interests of national minorities. The republics had their own constitutions, which, along with the all-union Constitution, provide the theoretical division of power in the Soviet Union. In 1989, however, the CPSU and the central government retained all significant authority, setting policies that were executed by republic, provincial, oblast, and district governments.

Leaders of the Soviet Union

The de facto leader of the Soviet Union was the First/General Secretary of the CPSU. The head of government was considered the Premier, and the head of state was considered the President. The Soviet leader could also have one (or both) of these positions, along with the position of General-Secretary of the party.

List of Soviet Premiers
(Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR (1923-1946); Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR (1946-1990); Prime Minister of the USSR (1991))
List of Soviet Presidents
(Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets (1917-1922); Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR (1922-1938); Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (1938-1989); Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (1989-1990); President of the Soviet Union (1990-1991))

Foreign relations

Map of Warsaw Pact member states.
Map of Warsaw Pact member states.

Once denied diplomatic recognition by the capitalist world, the Soviet Union had official relations with the majority of the nations of the world by the late 1980s. The Soviet Union also had progressed from being an outsider in international organizations and negotiations to being one of the arbiters of Europe's fate after World War II. A member of the United Nations at its foundation in 1945, the Soviet Union became one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council which gave it the right to veto any of its resolutions (see Soviet Union and the United Nations).

The Soviet Union emerged from World War II as one of the two major world powers, a position maintained for four decades through its hegemony in Eastern Europe (see Eastern Bloc), military strength, aid to developing countries, and scientific research, especially into space technology and weaponry. The Soviet Union's growing influence abroad in the postwar years helped lead to a Communist system of states in Eastern Europe united by military and economic agreements. It overtook the British Empire as a global superpower, both in a military sense and its ability to expand its influence beyond its borders. Established in 1949 as an economic bloc of Communist countries led by Moscow, the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) served as a framework for cooperation among the planned economies of the Soviet Union, and, later, for trade and economic cooperation with the Third World. The military counterpart to the Comecon was the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet economy was also of major importance to Eastern Europe because of imports of vital natural resources from the USSR, such as natural gas.

Moscow considered Eastern Europe to be a buffer zone for the forward defense of its western borders and ensured its control of the region by transforming the East European countries into satellite states. Soviet troops intervened in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and cited the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet counterpart to the U.S. Johnson Doctrine and later Nixon Doctrine, and helped oust the Czechoslovak government in 1968, sometimes referred to as the Prague Spring.

In the late 1950s, a confrontation with China regarding the USSR's rapprochement with the West and what Mao perceived as Khrushchev's revisionism led to the Sino-Soviet split. This resulted in a break throughout the global Communist movement and Communist regimes in Albania and Cambodia choosing to ally with China in place of the USSR. For a time, war between the former allies appeared to be a possibility; while relations would cool during the 1970s, they would not return to normalcy until the Gorbachev era.

During the same period, a tense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

The KGB (Committee for State Security), served in a fashion as the Soviet counterpart to both the FBI and the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the U.S. It ran a massive network of informants throughout the Soviet Union, which was used to monitor violations in law. The foreign wing of the KGB was used to gather intelligence in countries around the globe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was replaced in Russia by the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation).

The KGB was not without substantial oversight. The GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), not publicized by Russia until the end of the Soviet era during perestroika, was created by Lenin in 1918 and served both as a centralized handler of military intelligence and as an institutional check-and-balance for the otherwise relatively unrestricted power of the KGB. Effectively, it served to spy on the spies, and, not surprisingly, the KGB served a similar function with the GRU. As with the KGB, the GRU operated in nations around the world, particularly in Soviet bloc and client states. The GRU continues to operate in Russia today, with resources estimated by some to exceed those of the SVR .

Gorbachev in one-on-one discussions with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Gorbachev in one-on-one discussions with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union achieved rough nuclear parity with the United States. It perceived its own involvement as essential to the solution of any major international problem. Meanwhile, the Cold War gave way to Détente and a more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer clearly split into two clearly opposed blocs. Less powerful countries had more room to assert their independence, and the two superpowers were partially able to recognize their common interest in trying to check the further spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons (see SALT I, SALT II, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty).

By this time, the Soviet Union had concluded friendship and cooperation treaties with a number of states in the non-Communist world, especially among Third World and Non-Aligned Movement states like India and Egypt. Notwithstanding some ideological obstacles, Moscow advanced state interests by gaining military footholds in strategically important areas throughout the Third World. Furthermore, the Soviet Union continued to provide military aid for revolutionary movements in the Third World. For all these reasons, Soviet foreign policy was of major importance to the non-Communist world and helped determine the tenor of international relations.

Although myriad bureaucracies were involved in the formation and execution of Soviet foreign policy, the major policy guidelines were determined by the Politburo of the Communist Party. The foremost objectives of Soviet foreign policy had been the maintenance and enhancement of national security and the maintenance of hegemony over Eastern Europe. Relations with the United States and Western Europe were also of major concern to Soviet foreign policy makers, and relations with individual Third World states were at least partly determined by the proximity of each state to the Soviet border and to Soviet estimates of its strategic significance.

After Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, he introduced many changes in Soviet foreign policy and in the economy of the USSR. Gorbachev pursued conciliatory policies towards the West instead of maintaining the Cold War status quo. The Soviet Union ended its occupation of Afghanistan, signed strategic arms reduction treaties with the United States, and allowed its allies in Eastern Europe to determine their own affairs. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall beginning in November 1989 dramatically signaled the end of the Soviet Union's external empire in Central and Eastern Europe. Two years later, the internal empire also came to an end.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, Russia claimed to be the legal successor to the Soviet state on the international stage. In such way, Russia, voluntarily accepted all of USSR foreign debt and claimed USSR's foreign property as its own. To prevent subsequent disputes over Soviet Union property, "Zero Variant" treaty was suggested to new independent states. Ukrainian Parliament has not ratified this treaty. Several disputed legal regulation acts left after USSR dissolution, Russia simply claims that USSR should be read as Russia, while formally it is not. Russian foreign policy repudiated Marxism-Leninism as a guide to action, soliciting Western support for capitalist reforms in post-Soviet Russia.

Currently the economy of Russia is growing rapidly. The fulfillment of the capitalist reforms started in the USSR under Gorbachev can be seen from the fact that in 2005 the Russian Federation became the third country by number of billionaires, who were able to benefit from their former connections in the Communist Party during the chaotic post-USSR sale of state property into private hands. The poverty rate, meanwhile, has increased substantially during that time.


Soviet Union administrative divisions, 1989
Soviet Union administrative divisions, 1989

The Soviet Union was a federation of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR). The first Republics were established shortly after the October Revolution of 1917. At that time, republics were technically independent from one another but their governments acted in closely coordinated confederation, as directed by the CPSU leadership. In 1922, four Republics ( Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SSR, Belarusian SSR, and Transcaucasian SFSR) joined into the Soviet Union. Between 1922 and 1940, the number of Republics grew to sixteen. Some of the new Republics were formed from territories acquired, or reacquired by the Soviet Union, others by splitting existing Republics into several parts. The criteria for establishing new republics were as follows:

  1. to be located on the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to be able to exercise their alleged right to secession;
  2. be economically strong enough to survive on their own upon secession; and
  3. be named after the dominant ethnic group which should consist of at least one million people.

The system remained almost unchanged after 1940. No new Republics were established. One republic, Karelo-Finnish SSR, was disbanded in 1956, and the territory formally became the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Russian SFSR. The remaining 15 republics lasted until 1991. Even though Soviet Constitutions established the right for a republic to secede, it remained theoretical and very unlikely, given Soviet centralism, until the 1991 collapse of the Union. At that time, the republics became independent countries, with some still loosely organized under the heading Commonwealth of Independent States. Some republics had common history and geographical regions, and were referred by group names. These were Baltic Republics, Transcaucasian Republics, and Central Asian Republics. In its final state, the Soviet Union consisted of the following republics:


The DneproGES, one of many hydroelectric power stations in the Soviet Union
The DneproGES, one of many hydroelectric power stations in the Soviet Union

Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union had the largest centrally directed economy in the world. The government established its economic priorities through central planning, a system under which administrative decisions rather than the market determined resource allocation and prices.

Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the country grew from a largely underdeveloped peasant society with minimal industry to become the second largest industrial power in the world. According to Soviet statistics, the country's share in world industrial production grew from 5.5% to 20% between 1913 and 1980. Although some Western analysts considered these claims to be inflated, the Soviet achievement remained remarkable. Recovering from the calamitous events of World War II, the country's economy had maintained a continuous though uneven rate of growth. Living standards, although still modest for most inhabitants by Western standards, had improved.

Although these past achievements were impressive, in the mid-1980s Soviet leaders faced many problems. Production in the consumer and agricultural sectors was often inadequate (see Agriculture of the Soviet Union and shortage economy). Crises in the agricultural sector reaped catastrophic consequences in the 1930s, when collectivization met widespread resistance from the kulaks, resulting in a bitter struggle of many peasants against the authorities, famine, particularly in Ukraine (see Holodomor), but also in the Volga River area and Kazakhstan. In the consumer and service sectors, a lack of investment resulted in black markets in some areas.

Soviet space station Mir was the world's most advanced space station until ISS.
Soviet space station Mir was the world's most advanced space station until ISS.

In addition, since the 1970s, the growth rate had slowed substantially. Extensive economic development, based on vast inputs of materials and labor, was no longer possible; yet the productivity of Soviet assets remained low compared with other major industrialized countries. Product quality needed improvement. Soviet leaders faced a fundamental dilemma: the strong central controls of the increasingly conservative bureaucracy that had traditionally guided economic development had failed to respond to the complex demands of industry of a highly developed, modern economy.

Conceding the weaknesses of their past approaches in solving new problems, the leaders of the late 1980s were seeking to mold a program of economic reform to galvanize the economy. The leadership, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev, was experimenting with solutions to economic problems with an openness ( glasnost) never before seen in the history of the economy. One method for improving productivity appeared to be a strengthening of the role of market forces. Yet reforms in which market forces assumed a greater role would signify a lessening of authority and control by the planning hierarchy, as well as a significant diminution of social services traditionally provided by the state, such as housing and education.

Assessing developments in the economy was difficult for Western observers. The country contained enormous economic and regional disparities. Yet analyzing statistical data broken down by region was a cumbersome process. Furthermore, Soviet statistics themselves might have been of limited use to Western analysts because they are not directly comparable with those used in Western countries. The differing statistical concepts, valuations, and procedures used by Communist and non-Communist economists made even the most basic data, such as the relative productivity of various sectors, difficult to assess.


The Soviet Union occupied the eastern portion of the European continent and the northern portion of the Asian continent. Most of the country was north of 50° north latitude and covered a total area of approximately 22,402,200 square kilometres (8,649,500  sq mi). Due to the sheer size of the state, the climate varied greatly from subtropical and continental to subarctic and polar. 11% of the land was arable, 16% was meadows and pasture, 41% was forest and woodland, and 32% was declared "other" (including tundra).

The Soviet Union measured some 10,000 kilometres (6,200  mi) from Kaliningrad on the Gulf of Gdańsk in the west to Ratmanova Island ( Big Diomede Island) in the Bering Strait, or roughly equivalent to the distance from Edinburgh, Scotland, east to Nome, Alaska. From the tip of the Taymyr Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean to the Central Asian town of Kushka near the Afghan border extended almost 5,000 kilometres (3,100 mi) of mostly rugged, inhospitable terrain. The east-west expanse of the continental United States would easily fit between the northern and southern borders of the Soviet Union at their extremities.

Population and society

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.
This map shows the 1974 geographic location of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries, with more than 150 distinct ethnic groups within its borders. The total population was estimated at 293 million in 1991. In the last years of the Soviet Union, the majority of the population were Russians (50.78%), followed by Ukrainians (15.45%) and Uzbeks (5.84%). Other ethnic groups included the Georgians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Tajiks, Chechens, Hungarians, and others. Mainly because of differences in birth rates among the Soviet nationalities, the share of the population that was Russian steadily declined in the post-World War II period.


The extensive multinational empire that the Bolsheviks inherited after their revolution was created by Tsarist expansion over some four centuries. Some nationality groups came into the empire voluntarily, others were brought in by force. Generally, the Russians and most of the non-Russian subjects of the empire shared little in common—culturally, religiously, or linguistically. More often than not, two or more diverse nationalities were collocated on the same territory. Therefore, national antagonisms built up over the years not only against the Russians but often between some of the subject nations as well.

For many years, Soviet leaders maintained that the underlying causes of conflict between nationalities of the Soviet Union had been eliminated and that the Soviet Union consisted of a family of nations living harmoniously together. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the government conducted a policy of korenizatsiya (indigenization) of local governments in an effort to recruit non-Russians into the new Soviet political institutions and to reduce the conflict between Russians and the minority nationalities. One area in which the Soviet leaders made concessions perhaps more out of necessity than out of conviction, was language policy. To increase literacy and mass education, the government encouraged the development and publication in many of the "national languages" of the minority groups. While Russian became a required subject of study in all Soviet schools in 1938, in the mainly non-Russian areas the chief language of instruction was the local language or languages. This practice led to widespread bilingualism in the educated population, though among smaller nationalities and among elements of the population that were heavily affected by the immigration of Russians, linguistic assimilation also was common, in which the members of a given non-Russian nationality lost facility in the historic language of their group.

The concessions granted national cultures and the limited autonomy tolerated in the union republics in the 1920s led to the development of national elites and a heightened sense of national identity. Subsequent repression and Russianization fostered resentment against domination by Moscow and promoted further growth of national consciousness. National feelings were also exacerbated in the Soviet multinational state by increased competition for resources, services, and jobs, and by the policy of the leaders in Moscow to move workers -- mainly Russians -- to the peripheral areas of the country, the homelands of non-Russian nationalities.

By the end of the 1980s, encouraged in part by Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, unofficial groups formed around a great many social, cultural, and political issues. In some non-Russian regions ostensible green movements or ecological movements were thinly disguised national movements in support of the protection of natural resources and the national patrimony generally from control by ministries in Moscow.

Religious groups

Although the Soviet Union was officially atheist and suppressed religion, according to various Soviet and Western sources, over one-third of the people in the Soviet Union professed religious belief. Christianity and Islam had the most believers. The state was separated from church by the Decree of Council of People's Comissars on January 23, 1918. Two-thirds of the Soviet population, however, had no religious beliefs. About half the people, including members of the CPSU and high-level government officials, professed atheism. For the majority of Soviet citizens, therefore, religion seemed irrelevant. Official figures on the number of religious believers in the Soviet Union were not available in 1989.

Christians belonged to various churches: Orthodox, which had the largest number of followers; Catholic; and Baptist and various other Protestant sects.

Government persecution of Christianity continued unabated until the fall of the Communist government, with Stalin's reign the most repressive. Stalin is quoted as saying that "The Party cannot be neutral towards religion. It conducts an anti-religious struggle against any and all religious prejudices." However in World War II the repression against the Russian Orthodox Church temporarily ceased as it was perceived as "instrument of patriotic unity" in the war against "the western Teutonics". Repression against Russian Orthodox restarted from ca. 1946 onwards and more forcibly under Nikita Khrushchev. In 1914, before the revolution, there were over 54,000 churches, while during the early years of Stalin's reign that number was counted in the hundreds. By 1988 the number had decreased to roughly 7,000. Immediately following the fall of the Soviet government, churches were re-opening at a recorded rate of over thirty a week. Today there are nearly 20,000.

Although there were many ethnic Jews in the Soviet Union, actual practice of Judaism was rare in Communist times. In 1928, Stalin created the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the far east of what is now Russia to try to create a "Soviet Zion" for a proletarian Jewish culture to develop.

The overwhelming majority of the Islamic faithful were Sunni. The Azerbaijanis, who were Shiite, were one major exception. Because Islamic religious tenets and social values of Muslims are closely interrelated, religion appeared to have a greater influence on Muslims than on either Christians or other believers. The largest groups of Muslims in the Soviet Union resided in the Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and Kazakhstan, though substantial numbers also resided in Central Russia (principally in Bashkiria and Tatarstan), in the North Caucasian part of Russia (Chechnya, Dagestan, and other autonomous republics) and in Transcaucasia (principally in Azerbaijan but also certain regions of Georgia).

Other religions, which were practiced by a relatively small number of believers, included Buddhism, Lamaism, and shamanism, a religion based on spiritualism. The role of religion in the daily lives of Soviet citizens thus varied greatly.


Date English Name Local Name Remarks
January 1 New Year's Day Новый год Arguably the largest celebration of the year. Most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia ( Father Frost, a decorated fir-tree) moved to New Year's Eve after the Revolution and are associated with New Year's Eve to this day.
February 23 Red Army Day День Советской Армии и Военно-морского флота ("Day of the Soviet Army and Navy") Formation of the Red Army in February 1918.

Is currently called День защитника отечества ("Day of the Defender of the Fatherland") in Russia

March 8 International Women's Day Международный женский день An official holiday marking women's liberation movement, popularly celebrated as a cross between American Mother's Day and Valentine's Day.
April 12 Cosmonautics Day День космонавтики ("Day of Cosmonautics") The Day Yuri Gagarin became the first man in Space, in 1961.
May 1 International Labor Day (May Day) Первое Мая - День международной солидарности трудящихся ("International Day of Worker's Solidarity") Celebrated on May 1 and May 2. Now called Праздник весны и труда ("Celebration of Spring and Labor").
May 9 Victory Day День Победы End of Great Patriotic War, marked by capitulation of Nazi Germany, 1945
October 7 USSR Constitution Day День Конституции СССР 1977 Constitution of the USSR accepted - December 5 previously
November 7 Great October Socialist Revolution Годовщина Великой Октябрьской социалистической революции or Седьмое ноября Celebrating October Revolution of 1917. It has now been replaced with День примирения и согласия ("Day of Reconciliation and Agreement"), celebrated on a Nov. 7 (at least officially) before amendments in Labour Codex (adopted in December 2004, new holiday, which celebrates at November 4 is the People Unity Day ("День народного единства)" in Russia.
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