Soyuz Sovietskykh Sotsialisticheskykh Respublik

now Minsk



Asian Reps.




Cold War









The Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was formed in 1921 as a result of the Communist revolution of 1917. It occupied the territory of the former Russian Empire minus Finland and Poland and plus, since 1939, Moldavia (from Romania) and the three Baltic Republics, since 1945 the western Ukraine (from Poland). In theory it was a federation of 15 equal republics; in practice the leader of the Communist party in Moskva controlled the governments of every republic by appointing the party leaders. The Russian republic occupied a commanding area of the USSR but was only a subordinate government.

The Soviet Union was the home of one of the 20th century's most notorious one-party dictatorships. From 1945 until the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachov (1985-1991) it was one of the two Superpowers.

It was founded in 1917 by Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov (Lenin), a member of the minor aristocracy, when his party, the Bolshevik (majority) wing of the former Russian Social Democratic Party, seized control of the state on 7 November (October in the old Russian calendar). This followed the original revolution against the monarchy which had occurred in March (February in the old calendar). The February revolutionaries had called for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution after the Tsar (King) had abdicated. They wanted a regime similar to the republican norm of western European states. A provisional government was formed by a coalition of parties led by the moderate Social Democrat Alexander Kerensky. (His wing of the party was called Menshevik which meant the Minority - the result of a vote at a Congress in London which was followed by a party split - but actually it had more support in the country than the Bolsheviks.)

Spontaneous councils of workers and soldiers (Soviets) were formed as a response to the collapse of the Tsar's government. At first these reflected the many parties that existed. Elections to a Constituent Assembly were held but Lenin's party did not gain a majority. After his coup d'etat he abolished the assembly and ruled through the force supplied by the armed Bolshevik party. The Soviets became instruments of Lenin's party and all other parties were forbidden.

There followed a civil war against supporters of the Provisional Government and supporters of the overthrown monarchy. During this war millions died. America and Britain supported the anti-Bolshevik forces with an Intervention Force but without much effect.

Lenin set up a centralized state more tyrannical than that of the Tsars who were supposed to have been the enemy. A secret police organization was founded (finally called the KGB) based on the traditional secret police of the Tsars. Imprisonment and execution without trial were commonplace and a system of prison camps (Gulag) was founded. These were greatly expanded in the time of Lenin's successor: Josef Vissarionavich Djugashvili (Stalin=Man of Steel).

In the last years before he died Lenin ordered a restoration of some aspects of Capitalism (his New Economic Policy). Would he have made this permanent if he had lived? The other members of the party - especially Stalin and his appointees - were against him.

Lenin died in 1924 after a period of paralysis following a stroke. It is believed that Lenin would have preferred Leon Bronstein (Trotsky), the founder of the Red Army, to be his successor but Stalin was a cleverer politician and already controlled the appointments of party secretaries. Stalin suppressed Lenin's Last Will and Testament which warned the other central committee members against Stalin's personality. Trotsky went into exile in Mexico and was murdered there by one of Stalin's agents. While reversing much of Lenin's policy, Stalin made Lenin a kind of god.

The Stalin period saw the arrest and execution of the original members of the Bolshevik party (renamed the Communist Party) and the arrest of many millions of people. The arrested people were used as slave laborers on the many huge construction projects which were started as Stalin tried to turn the Soviet Union into an industrial power. Many died. (In the last years before the first world war Russia had been a rapidly growing economic power, using a mixture of conventional companies and state enterprise).

More millions died when Stalin forced the collectivization of agriculture and caused famine.

Stalin suspected plots against him and killed, sometimes with a form of a trial, all possible opponents. In 1938 he suspected the army generals of plotting against him and had many of them shot. When Hitler attacked in 1941 the army was unable to oppose him until much of European Russia and the Ukraine had been occupied by the Germans. But with the help of America and Britain who sent tanks and airplanes, and with the construction of his own weapons in factories moved to beyond the Urals, Stalin organized the Soviet army to reverse the German thrust and drive them out of Russia into Germany. He also occupied a number of countries in eastern Europe and from 1948 installed subordinate governments of the same kind as his own.

After the war the regime continued its ferocity and more millions were sent to the camps, a process described by one of the victims, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in numerous books.

Post-Stalin period
Stalin died in 1953, possibly of natural causes. A slow move away from the rigors of the dictatorship began then. Georgi Malenkov was the successor for a short time but the real successor was Nikita Khrushchov who denounced Stalin's crimes in a secret speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Many of the prisoners of the Gulag were released at this time, bringing to an end the slave labor system. However, the conclusion that a single party regime gives no check against such a dictatorship was not followed up until 1989. It was during Khrushchov's period of office in 1956 that Soviet troops invaded Hungary to put down an anti-communist revolt there.

Khrushchov was overthrown by a coup of the Central Committee in 1964 (while on holiday at the Black Sea) and Leonid Brezhnev was installed as leader. Khrushchov was criticized for his unsuccessful role in the Cuba crisis and his failure to improve agriculture. However, as with Gorbachov, he was threatening the comfortable positions of the bureaucrats. Brezhnev reversed the slight increase in free speech of the Khrushchov period though he did not reintroduce the worst excesses of the Stalin period. During his leadership the economy stagnated, the arms race continued, and invasions of Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1980) took place, causing a wave of fear in the rest of the world as it showed that in some circumstances the Soviet Union was an expansionist power. Civil Rights continued to be denied. The steady deterioration of the economy was accelerated by the increased demands of the military industry. The invasion of Afghanistan was a serious mistake and may well be seen as the key event which caused the whole system to unravel. Equally important was the widespread corruption by which the Communists had converted themselves into a kind of aristocracy or Mafia.

Brezhnev died in office in 1982 and was succeeded by Yuri Andropov the head of the KGB, the only group fully informed of the real situation. He attempted to reduce the corruption but he was sick and died after a year. He was succeeded for a year by Konstantin Chernenko, an aged and sick nonentity.

When he too died, Mikhail Gorbachov (Andropov's preference) was appointed General Secretary in March 1985 and showed that he too understood how serious the situation was. He announced that the system needed major change - Perestroika. He finally brought the Soviet role in the war in Afghanistan to an end by withdrawing Soviet troops in early 1989. (But he continued to send supplies to the Communist regime). Later he brought in a new constitution to replace Brezhnev's and made himself President (elected by the Supreme Soviet), perhaps in a move to distance himself from the Communist Party. For the rest of the world his main importance has been that he allowed the eastern European countries to choose their own governments and withdrew troops from Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and signed an agreement to withdraw them from East Germany which then joined up with West Germany. The Cold War appeared to be over.

He also began to allow press freedom - Glasnost - and small amounts of private business (called Cooperatives). But the economic problems were much worse than he knew, caused by the impossibility of managing a modern economy with central planning and no market. The bureaucrats did not want to lose their safe jobs and frustrated his attempts to allow autonomy to enterprises, even without privatization. A Mafia grew to prey upon the private businesses by exacting an unofficial criminal tax in addition to the very high official taxes. These taxes made the accumulation of capital for reinvestment impossible. According to Vitaly Vitaliev the Mafia and the Communist Party in the local areas were often the same people.

In late 1990 a program amounting to general privatization was announced but it was put off until the fall of Gorbachov. Most observers were pessimistic about the ability of Russians to carry it out and were very pessimistic about the probability of large scale unemployment, hyperinflation and famine. It was rejected and the advocates of privatization resigned from the government in January 1991. Gorbachov appeared to have sided with the conservatives - those whose real wish was to restore the pre-Gorbachov system. Their leader, Ligachov, tried to oust Gorbachov in 1988 while he was on a visit to Yugoslavia.

In 1990 several republics declared sovereignty and some announced they wished to secede. The three Baltic republics claimed that under international law they had never voluntarily been members of the Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine also declared sovereignty. Georgia and Armenia opted for independence. Conservatives led by General Pugo, Gorbachov's Interior Minister, tried to terrorize the Baltic peoples by the use of interior ministry troops (an echo of Britain's use of the Black and Tans in Ireland in 1920). Did Gorbachov know or agree? It is not yet known.

President Gorbachov declared that he wished to call a conference to redefine the relationship between the Republics and the Union. The result seemed to be an evolution towards something like the European Community or the Commonwealth. In June 1991 a decision was made to change the name to the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics (Sovereign replaced Socialist, by then a discredited word). Many political parties came into existence though there was never a fully multi-party election.

During the summer of 1991 a new Union Treaty was discussed. It left open the precise nature of the future Soviet Union. Would it be a Confederation? Would the Union government have the right to raise taxes, or would it depend on the Republics for finance? (It seemed likely that it gave the Republics the control of taxes, rather than the Union.) Would it be a Community or association of independent states or a sovereign state? Would the republics have armies? If so, who would get the nuclear weapons?

The treaty was due to be signed on 20 August, the day after the attempted coup against President Gorbachov. After the failure of the coup the treaty was revised leading to a much weaker central authority, which was not much more than a coordinating committee of republican presidents. The real power passed to Russia from the moment of Gorbachov's release. In the end, the Republics refused to sign and the project lapsed.

The August 1991 Coup
The events of 19-21 August proved to be the equivalent of the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and brought to an end the period of "Reform Communism" - a project which had proved impossible. The Communist Party was formally abolished soon after and Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist but now popularly elected, gained the main power. The Soviet Union then dissolved into an informal association of sovereign states which may become like the European Community but with one huge member, Russia. Efforts continued to agree a treaty between the successor states.

The secession of Ukraine on 1 December 1991 was the most serious blow to the maintenance of a Union. Without it, the Union would have consisted only of Russia, Byelorussia and some of the Central Asian Republics. At the end of November 1991 the Union central bank ran out of money (because the republics weren't paying taxes) and the budget was taken over by Russia. The salaries of all employees were then paid by Russia, which then took over most functions. In the last month President Gorbachov's salary was paid by Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia.

The next step was a declaration in Minsk by the Presidents of Byelorussia (now Belarus), Russia and Ukraine that they would form a Commonwealth, (Sodruzhestvo) as an association of states rather than a federation. This had echoes of Solzhenitsyn's ideas - a federation of Slav states.

On 21 December 1991 the Muslim republics of Central Asia joined the Commonwealth. However, a Central Asian federation remains a possibility for the future, or even association with Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. This would be especially likely if the Commonwealth fails to revive the economy of the area. The Muslim states would be in a good position to ask for aid from the oil rich states of the Gulf. Western governments would no doubt be unhappy if the aid came from Iraq, Iran or Libya.

The only republics to stay out of the Commonwealth were Georgia, Azerbaijan and the three Baltic States.

It was agreed to end the Soviet Union on 31 December 1991.

The Commonwealth consists of: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tadjikistan, Turkmenia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. Georgia joined after a civil war which resulted in the overthrow of president Gamzakhurdia and Edward Shevardnadze the former Soviet Foreign Minister became president. By September 1993 Azerbaijan was considering readmission.

The constituent republics became members of the United Nations following the three Baltic states which joined in September 1991. Russia was then the Great Power and received the Security Council permanent seat. The headquarters of the CIS is at Minsk, the capital of Belarus (Byelorussia).

Wars have broken out in the former republics of: Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Tadjikistan. Numerous ethnic disputes have arisen. The frontiers between Russia and Ukraine are disputed. 25 million Russians living in the non Russian states are a threat to peace as they are driven out or resist discriminatory legislation.

By October 1992 it seemed that the CIS had few real functions, other than to supervise the break up of the USSR's former institutions, such as Central Bank, Railways and Airline. The monetary zone broke up as the members adopted their own currencies. The leaders seldom met and they have not signed a charter defining the functions of the CIS. The USSR seemed only of historical interest. Travel between the component states, especially from Central Asia, has become difficult.

Some commentators believe Russia is exerting its overwhelming power over the smaller states to recreate, if not a Russian Empire then a Sphere of Influence or neo-colonialism. Already by October 1993 Armenia and Georgia were seeking closer relations with Russia amounting to military control. Moldova and Ukraine were also being forced to accept closer economic relations as their economies could not function in separation from Russia. Belarus actually merged its economy with Russia's. The government forces in Tadjikistan were being assisted by Russian forces. In July 1994 Ukraine and Belarus elected pro-Russian leaders, suggesting a Slavic Union is possible. However, some of the Central Asian republics now have American bases, following the 1992 war in Afghanistan.

The after life
The Post Soviet states were nearly all continuing dictatorships using the same methods of rule as the original USSR. However, one by one these seem to be undergoing revolutions in 2004 and 2005.

The Baltic States fairly soon acquired elected governments and were all admitted to the European Union in 2004 as fully democratic states. Also in 2004 Georgia underwent change and seems to be on the path to a more normal kind of elected government. At the end of 2004 Ukraine also experienced a popular uprising (with some help from the United States) and elected a president from outside the post-communist ruling clique.

In Europe Belarus remains a complete Stalinist dictatorship. Moldova appears to be the next state to undergo a democratic revolution at its elections in March 2005. The former Soviet Central Asia is composed mainly of dictatorships with much in common with Stalin's but also reminding the observer of the pre-Russian Islamic Emirates, conquered by the Tsars in the 19th century. Kyrgizia (Kyrgystan) seems to be the next to democratise.

The final bit of unfinished business would seem to be Russia itself where the government is becoming less and less accountable.

Post Soviet problems
1. Trans-Dniestria

2. Georgia

Ossetia 3. Avkhasia

4. Nagorno-Karabakh


Slavic: Russian




Turkic: Azeri











The Soviet Union was the first of the modern one-party states. Its formation was the result of the seizure of power by the Bolshevik Party.

This party grew out of a conspiratorial group which worked to overthrow the Tsarist regime. However, before 1917 it was a much smaller group than many other opposition parties which included: Liberals (Constitutional Democrats), Social Revolutionaries and Moderate Social Democrats (Mensheviks). Headed by Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov (Lenin), a member of the minor aristocracy, it practiced the kind of secrecy found in such groups as the Carbonari in Italy, an ancient revolutionary group.

The Bolshevik Party was the result of a split in the Russian Social Democratic Party into two factions. When the vote was taken at the London congress in 1903 Lenin's faction had the majority and called itself the Majority (Bolshevik) faction. The other faction was the Minority (Menshevik) faction. The difference had been over membership. Lenin wanted only picked people to be allowed to be members; the Mensheviks wanted a conventional membership of sympathizers. In fact, the Mensheviks had more support in the country, following the revolution and the abdication of the Tsar. But Lenin's conspiratorial party was organized like a secret society or cult.

The Soviet Union was formed with the institutions of a federation. In practice every organ of government, assembly and civil service was controlled by the Bolshevik Party which Stalin officially renamed Communist only in 1952.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union therefore the real power was held by the Political Committee (Politburo) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The chief person in the Politburo was usually known as the General Secretary. This is because Stalin gained his power during the illness of Lenin in 1922 and after his death in 1924 through the party administration. The people who had seized power with Lenin in the October 1917 Putsch had not thought the secretarial work important and had allowed Stalin to appoint all the officials at lower levels. When the time came for Stalin to make his move the Old Bolsheviks, Lenin's associates, found that Stalin could give orders throughout the country and be obeyed. Thus it was his power that controlled the whole state. Following Stalin all the leaders of the Soviet Union held the title General Secretary, until Mikhail Gorbachov made himself President. The Party now resembled the Catholic Church with all its officials dependent on the people above.

The Soviet Union had ceremonial elections at which people had no choice of candidate. The candidates were selected by Communist Party local committees acting on the advice or orders of higher levels. People had the theoretical right to reject a candidate but in practice believed they would be identified by the KGB if they did so. The orders came from the General Secretary and passed down through the republic and regional secretaries. The state was run like an army; not like a society. The system was called Democratic Centralism but there was no democratic component in the sense of free choice by election. It meant that every party member had to obey orders from the center. Communist states often used the word Democratic but in a sense rather like Orwell described in "1984" in which it meant the opposite of what it means in western countries. The Politburo itself was in theory elected by the Central Committee. In practice it was appointed by the General Secretary.

This system was the work of Stalin on foundations laid down by Lenin following the revolution. Lenin had ordered that factions within the party were forbidden. This was the foundation of totalitarianism because it prevented the discussion of policy. It made a quasi-monarchy inevitable as only one person could be permitted to make policy. At first this was Lenin; later it was Stalin. This structure had been imitated by or imposed on all other communist countries. In 1989-90 these systems were abandoned everywhere (except, so far, in China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea). The system was also imitated by Adolf Hitler in Germany and by the Arab Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq and by numerous post-colonial regimes.

The control of this system was maintained by a secret police (KGB- Committee for State Security in the last years) which prevented free discussion of any topic labeled as "political".

The weakness of this system was that it had all the features of an absolute monarchy. As monarch, Stalin compared with the worst known in history, as bad or worse than England's king Henry the eighth, and comparable with Ivan the Terrible in Russia. Following the death of Stalin his successors were all weaker. Khrushchov attempted some reforms but did not have the power to alter the system and was overthrown by those whose jobs he threatened. His successor Brezhnev had the intention only of maintaining the system which became extremely corrupt in the ordinary monetary sense of widespread taking of bribes. The Brezhnev period saw the Communist Party develop into a non-hereditary aristocracy which isolated itself from the life of the ordinary people by creating a whole parallel economy of privileged shops, hospitals and schools. They never needed to stand in line with the ordinary people who were not members of the Party. They could buy western goods in their own shops and go on trips abroad.

But the rhetoric of the regime continued the original socialist message of equality and collective effort. Just as the rhetoric of democracy used in Central America creates an atmosphere of cynicism among the hearers and hypocrisy in the speakers, people in the Soviet Union ceased to believe what they were told. Their real feelings seem to have been similar to the medieval peasant who knew he had no power over the rulers and simply had to accommodate themselves to them.

Within months of taking power Lenin had set up the Control Commission (Cheka) which grew into the Committee for State Security (KGB). The Cheka soon employed former Tsarist secret police agents. Thus some elements of the Communist dictatorship were continuous with the Tsarist dictatorship.

The KGB created a climate of fear, or at best, extreme carefulness. Another component of the dictatorship was press censorship. All newspapers were owned by the Party and controlled by the Central Committee. The editors had to submit articles to political control. At once it became impossible to write the truth but quite easy to publish lies.

Lenin's system included party supervision of every part of society. Thus there were party cells in every factory and place of work (until abolished by Boris Yeltsin in July 1991). In the army the Party officials watched the regular officers. The KGB reported to the Party. The result was a society in which everyone was being watched. Under Stalin there was a great fear because people were arrested more or less at random, or for minor actions such as writing even mild criticisms of the leader (e.g. Solzhenitsyn).

Gorbachov Period (1986-91)
During the Gorbachov period (1986-1991) the Soviet Union appeared to be evolving very rapidly towards democracy.

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachov was elected by the Politburo and Central Committee as a younger man in a body composed of very old men. His policy since coming to power was to change the system. He proposed that democracy be introduced into the party itself with the election of local party leaders by the members instead of being appointed by the center. When the party bureaucrats refused to allow this he introduced a choice of candidates in state elections and allowed non-party members to stand for election. This evolved to the point that members of elected bodies often contained a majority of non- communists. He was trying to shift power from the Party to the State.

The center of power then apparently moved from the Politburo to the President and President's Council. These were in theory answerable to the Supreme Soviet, a body chosen from the Congress of People's Deputies. This was still not entirely elected as about a third of its members were chosen by the Communist Party without popular election, thus corresponding to the British House of Lords rather than the House of Commons.

It seems likely that in a free election in 1991 the Communist Party, if it had been permitted to stand, would have been reduced to the same proportion as in Eastern Europe - very small. The big political question was whether the people who possessed the real power - possibly the KGB which answered to the Communist Party but, especially in the time of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, may have exercised the real power in the state (Bagehot's Efficient, rather then Dignified, part of the constitution) - would have allowed this to happen. If it had happened the Soviet Union might have been transformed into some kind of democratic state. However, it seems the KGB supported and perhaps organized the August 1991 coup. Some writers have pointed out that the Party functioned like a Mafia and therefore would not have given up power easily.

Almost certainly democratic elections would have resulted in the adoption of a market economy and private ownership. By the end of 1990 there were signs that the KGB and the Communist Party were resisting change. Most observers doubted that a military-KGB coup could have restored the economy even to the condition it had in the time of Brezhnev. More likely it would have provoked civil war and a faster collapse.

In early 1991 it seemed that the Communist Party, a conservative force, was still exercising a great deal of power and was trying to prevent democracy evolving. Many reporters commented that Gorbachov had failed or neglected to get the Soviet Parliament elected solely by popular vote and had therefore kept open the possibility of the return of dictatorship. The "conservative" forces came mostly from those deputies "elected" by party organizations. Moreover, he surrounded himself with people who did not want change, and who in August led the abortive coup.

Gorbachov's legal basis of power was that he was elected as President by the Congress of People's Deputies, which had granted him potentially dictatorial power. However, as this Congress was only partially elected his democratic credentials were poor especially in comparison with the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, elected by a fully democratic election - but with limited real power. On the dissolution of this Congress following the August 1991 events Gorbachov's position was anomalous as the Party had disappeared. He became answerable only to the heads of the Republics.

Before the August coup there was talk that if the Union Treaty were signed presidential elections would be held.

August 1991 coup
There was an attempted unconstitutional coup on 19 August 1991. Gorbachov was arrested for two days and the coup leaders tried to suppress all the democratic institutions. It seemed to be a joint attack by the KGB, some elements of the military and communist officials. There was no evidence that these had any popular support other than people's desire to get food moving into the shops again (some said the conspirators had siphoned off food into store so that they could release it after the coup). But the military regime could not get the soldiers, who were mostly conscripts, to act. The regime failed on the third day.

The result was a weakening of the Soviet Union to the benefit of the Russian Republic. The Communist Party was abolished in Russia by decree. The chief problem of the successors was then to discover the monetary assets of the party which are believed to have been sent abroad (Swiss Banks).

The Supreme Soviet and Congress of Peoples' Deputies were sent away and not expected to meet again. It voted a transfer of its powers to the President's Council. The Soviet Union as a state came to an end. The ownership and command of the military forces had to be negotiated between the successor republics, especially Russia and Ukraine.

A Union Treaty between seven republics was again considered in mid-November 1991. The Union agreed then appeared to be weak. The Presidency would be up for election. Could Gorbachov have won, some time in 1992? Few thought so. The Republics which almost agreed then were: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmeniya. The Ukraine refused to attend the meeting. On the failure to sign, Gorbachov was left as a president without a state. There was no role for him in the succeeding Commonwealth. The announcement of the formation of a Commonwealth of Independent States appeared to be a coup against Gorbachov arranged by President Yeltsin of Russia.

The Commonwealth was set up on 21 December 1991. Gorbachov resigned at Christmas 1991, ending the Soviet Union.

The Commonwealth does not seem to have any more substance than the British Commonwealth, a mainly symbolic organization. It is too soon to judge what, if anything, it consists of.

The Soviet Union was in many ways a continuation of the Tsarist state. It continued the lack of democracy, the secret police, the inefficiency, and intolerance. Pessimists think there is some deep rooted cultural trait which predisposes Russians to dictatorship. Only time will tell.

Is Vladimir Putin working to reconstitute the Soviet Union - or at least, the Russian Empire?

Interesting reading

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn - The Gulag Archepelago

Der Archipel Gulag

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Robert Service - History of 20th century Russia

A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin

Edward Hallet Carr

Boris Pasternak - Doctor Zhivago (novel)

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago

deutsch buch Doktor Shiwago Le docteur Jivago


Doctor Zhivago [1965] [DVD]
Doktor Schiwago (2 Discs)
Le Docteur Jivago

Elena Gorokhova - A Mountain of Crumbs

A Mountain of Crumbs: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Jonathan Haslam - Russia's Cold War
From the Soviet archives

Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall






It is the economic failure of the Soviet Union's state-controlled and owned economy (Stalinist) which caused its political power to collapse. From the time of Stalin, with the Five Year Plan, the Communists believed they could plan the economy better than the market. In the early years they believed it was successful, as during Stalin's time industry grew rapidly and all its output could be used (demand was much greater than supply). By the time of Brezhnev it began to fail because the size of the economy was far beyond the powers of any bureaucrats to control. The introduction of computers did not alleviate the basic problem.

Prices and production quotas were set by a central planning ministry (Gosplan) in Moskva. But this organization could not know what was needed or what people wanted. The result was that the goods produced were often not what people needed. Because there were no incentives for good work most of the goods produced were of poor quality. And there was no incentive to innovate. (The old joke in the USSR and the east European countries was: We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us). Stealing from factories was on a very large scale. The statistics of production were almost wholly fictitious.

It can be argued that the Communists' main error was a kind of Cargo Cult. In the 1920s they enthusiastically adopted American ideas of big engineering without understanding how American society worked. Soviet Socialism was also an imitation of some corrective ideas adopted within British and European society to counter the bad effects of unregulated industrialism. Later, the Plan was also carried to excess so that it smothered the economy with meaningless orders which could not be carried out.

The system tended to produce copies of western goods, usually several years after the originals had been designed and superseded. The system probably worked, up to a point, during the Stalin period when almost all goods were standardized and unsophisticated. As modern life became more complex the system worked less and less well. The accelerated development caused by the introduction of computers into western economies did not occur in the Soviet Union. However, such computers as were installed made the surveillance by the secret police more and more difficult.

The most important failure was certainly agriculture. For most of the Soviet period food had to be imported, mainly from the United States. The causes of agricultural failure were: collectivisation; the murder of the successful farmers (Kulaks); the adoption of Lysenko's fake science instead of modern plant breeding.

In 1992 the centralized system was abandoned but no new system was agreed. In the interim there is a danger of famine. Availability of goods is getting worse. GNP fell steeply. The 1990 and 1991 harvest collections were poor because the organization of labor had broken down and the farms still had not been privatized. About 30% of Soviet food came from the private plots allowed to collective farmers, but these comprised only about 1% of the land area. It does not seem to have occurred to Gorbachov that even a tripling of the private plot area might have solved the Soviet Union's food problems. (Obviously it is more complicated than that). The food distribution is still very poor and a high proportion (40% according to some) of the harvest is lost to bad storage or in transport. There is no efficient system of wholesale and retail distribution as found in western countries. The distributors have no financial interest in preventing waste.

Before the revolution Russia was an important exporter of grain. Even if agriculture becomes efficient, it is unlikely that exports can resume because such wide areas are contaminated by the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl so that food will not be acceptable on the world market. Much of the food production was concentrated in Ukraine, now an independent republic.

Privately sold goods including food are very expensive and only black marketeers can afford them.

The currency, the Rouble, was not convertible until December 1991, when prices of foreign currency were set by auction. Therefore the use of dollars and deutschmarks, and even western cigarettes, is growing as a parallel currency. Many goods are only available in hard currency stores. Members of the Party have long been able to buy western goods and food in special party shops. As the general population became aware of the insulation of the party from everyone else's misery they became very unpopular. Some of the republics created their own currencies. Ukraine and the three Baltic Republics were furthest advanced in this respect. Ukraine already by July 1991 required locally issued ration coupons as well as roubles to buy locally produced food in order to prevent non-Ukrainians buying it. (This would not be permitted in the United States as it would be a restraint on inter-state trade. Nor would it be permitted in the European Community from January 1993 under the Single European Act.)

There were delays in agreeing how to change the system because the bureaucrats feared that they would lose their jobs as they would have had no role in a market economy. Moreover, after 70 years of communism there were few people who knew how to operate in a market system. Those who did are either from non-Russian ethnic groups, such as the Armenians, or from the Baltic Republics (free before 1939) or the previously illegal black market traders. Even extensive training in western management methods is unlikely to solve this problem. Much of the argument for delaying the change was about the price levels. The bureaucrats did not understand that a free price is a free price and must not be controlled. Thus they argue for phasing in higher prices instead of introducing free prices at once to rise or fall. Free prices allowed the German economic miracle in the years following 1949 (but there were many German entrepreneurs)

By late 1990 those in favor of decentralization and privatization appeared to have lost the argument to the bureaucrats who wished to retain the old system. This caused the paralysis to continue until the attempted coup of August 1991.

The economy fragmented into quasi-feudal areas as trade between the states and cities became difficult. The republics and cities which are issuing ration coupons to supplement roubles still cannot guarantee that the coupons will buy anything. Trade is almost wholly by barter as the rouble is unreliable (the then Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, a supporter of the August coup, suddenly demonetized the 50 rouble notes in January 1991).

Throughout 1991 Soviet economists predicted hyperinflation and mass unemployment. This has bad implications for the security of neighbors in western Europe if attempted mass emigration occurs.

Prices rose in April 1991 and hyperinflation arrived during 1993.

The Soviet Union controlled important sources of natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. However, its oil technology is not up to date and its exploitation of its fields is inefficient. Despite this the Soviet Union was the world's largest producer of oil. Until recently most of it was sold to the COMECON countries for non-convertible currency or barter at lower than world prices. It was priced for internal consumption at an unrealistic low price so that there were no incentives to save energy. Since 1991 there has been a new policy of exporting only for dollars. Soviet oil could influence the world market if its supply is either cut off or increased. (The fall in world oil prices is believed to have been an important factor in the collapse of the Soviet economy.)

The problems of the 1991 harvest could lead to famine.

The leaders of the coup of August 1991 first announced a fall in prices and a rise in wages. This was a recipe for hyperinflation or a further distrust of the currency. There was no reason to think that the communists who nearly regained power then could have restored the economy. They tried to punish "black marketeers" who are in fact the entrepreneurs whose expertise is necessary. There was a large printing of currency to pay the government's deficit which is the classic condition for hyperinflation. The republics were not paying taxes or sending contributions to the Union budget.

November 1991
Boris Yeltsin decreed, as president of Russia, that the resources of the former Soviet Union on Russian soil were to be transferred to Russia. Following this the Union was unable to meet its repayment obligations on the large Soviet debt to the outside world. Yeltsin also claimed control of the Currency in order to prevent its inflation by printing notes. The Union lost control of its economy.

When the Central Bank announced that it could not pay the salaries of Union employees, including the military, Yeltsin took over the budget and paid them from Russian funds. This completed the Union's loss of economic control. Its functions were dispersed into the republics and perhaps to the new coordinating Commonwealth.

December 1991
The Soviet Union ended on Christmas day. On 2 January 1992 prices in Russia and Ukraine were freed, or at least raised. Will this produce more goods in the shops? Probably not, as the producers were not privatized first. Very great poverty seems likely.






The Soviet Union had within its borders some of the world's most serious ecological problems. Excessive extraction of irrigation water from the Amu Daria (Oxus) and Syr Daria has caused the Aral Sea to dry up. The disappearance of this large body of water has caused climate changes in the neighboring republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Many rivers are polluted. The Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986) is the world's worst so far and has caused and will cause the early deaths of thousands of people.

Soviet industry used energy priced at a level much lower than the world price and thus used much more per unit of output than comparable western industry. In the absence of democracy people were unable to compel the installation of filters and the enactment of enforceable pollution controls on chemical and heavy industry. Thus steel works produce heavy sulfur dioxide pollution. Lake Baikal, formerly the source of the purest natural water on the planet, has become polluted by industries set up on its shores.

The use of pesticides has also been uncontrolled and many areas including the surrounds of the former Aral Sea are contaminated to the point of causing health problems to people.

Uncontrolled nuclear tests in Kazakhstan have left large areas radioactive and left many people damaged. A radioactive waste store in the Urals (at Kshitym) is known to have exploded in the 1950s and contaminated a large area surrounding. There were 30,000 nuclear weapons.





Human Rights

The Soviet Union has had some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. Gorbachov is said to have released most political prisoners but some reports suggest there were still some at the end. The treatment of conscripts in the army, especially those from non-Russian nationalities has been reported to be brutal. Local government is still often in the hands of old communists accustomed to forcing people to do what they want.

At the end the rule of law had not yet been established, though courts were beginning to show some independence.

Last revised 21/08/10


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