The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as the Soviet Union) used to occupy all the northern part of Asia, and a substantial part of Eastern Europe. Under that name, what was before, and is now again Russia lasted from 1936 to 1991. It comprised fifteen constituent republics.
The Tsar (or Emperor) Nicholas II (qv.) was removed and eliminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917. There followed the Russian Civil War (qv.) and the triumph of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin (qv). In 1922 a Congress of the first four republics took place, and as a result the new nation was named Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Government was based on national ownership of all land and industry, according to the teachings of Karl Marx (qv.). Legislative power was left to the Supreme Soviet, a totalitarian organisation, members of which became the new aristocracy of Russia. Purges of any dissidence on the part of the population were enforced by the new police forces and the Soviet Army. The collectivization of agriculture was expedited with a degree of efficiency. An estimated twenty million people died during the Stalinist regime that followed the death of Lenin in 1924.
In 1939 the Soviet Union signed a Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler’s Germany and accompanied the Third Reich in the annexation of Poland. Later the Baltic States were also annexed, and Finland invaded, in the Finnish-Russian War. Suddenly things changed when Hitler invaded his ally in 1941, much to the surprise and fury of Joseph Stalin. This extraordinary event, one of the most significant in the entire history of Europe, brought the Soviet Union, its vast armies and air power over to the side of the Allies, though some leaders of the latter had their doubts (ie. Winston Churchill, General de Gaulle and others).
Stalin declared war on Japan rather late, in 1945, and thus armed with good intentions, took part in the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam Conferences (qv). The Union shortly became a member of the newly formed United Nations (which had replaced the deluded and corrupt League of Nations). When the Americans and Soviets began growling at each other shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Soviets promptly formed something called The Warsaw Pact, as a defensive alliance to combat the West in case of war. Some historians have written that the Allies should have continued their ultimately successful invasion of Europe in 1944, taking not only Berlin but Moscow as well. President Roosevelt did not agree, but other allied leaders were afraid of the Soviet Union, now even larger as a result of the Peace Conferences’ handing over of states like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia etc. Without any doubt the Soviets would have tried to deny an allied invasion of their territory, but the Red Army had been enormously depleted by the War, and especially by the combined sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad, in which millions died. What the result of such a manoevre would have been must remain one of the biggest Ifs in History.
The Eastern European ‘Comecon’ republics were bonded and tied to the Soviet Union, and when unrest or complaint arose in Hungary and Poland (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) Soviet troops were sent to reinforce those countries’ governments against programmes of liberalization.
Meanwhile the situation was aggravated between the Union and China for ideological reasons. As the world began to recover from two world wars with hundreds of millions of civilian and military dead, the Soviet Union was providing aid right across the planet to any political movements with which it was in sympathy (Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Nicaragua etc.) In France, Italy and Britain the Communist-led trade unions came near to permanently upsetting the equilibrium. In the USA a massive witchhunt began in the early Fifties, as the authorities sought communists ‘hiding’ as best they could in the entertainment and other industries. The Cold War, as it was called, established a terrifying game of Noughts and Crosses, in which neither side could win because nuclear warfare destroys both sides as well as most of the Planet. This is sometimes called ‘The Balance of Power’.
Soviet troops made the classic mistake made by so many other power-hungry nations when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets had forgotten (or had never learned) the age-old axiom that you can belligerently invade any country in this world except Afghanistan. A pro-Soviet government under military protection was installed there, but it was no good. It was no good for Alexander the Great either, nor was Great Britain in any way successful.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union itself, the people were kept under constant police watch, including the repeated use of denouncements made by unfriendly neighbours. Private citizens’ lives were not private, the food supply became scarce, and the much photographed and ridiculed food queues became celebrated. Hundreds of thousands died of the cold, and thousands died in concentration camps, mostly in Siberia. High-ranking members of the Politburo or government, however, lived better and in richer surroundings than any boyar ever had before the Revolution. This phenomenon has happened after all massive revolutions. Joseph Stalin died in 1953.
The Union was a co-signer of the Helsinki Accord after the international conference in the Finnish capital (1973-75), but agitation continued unabated as the Russian people watched the rest of the world prospering while they had neither bread nor the right to an opinion. The emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Secretary-General in 1985 proclaimed a new kind of leadership devoted to a gradual liberalization and more transparent government. Arms control deals were struck with the West, and immense corruption in bureaucratic circles was menaced. As a result, demands for independence among the republics were precipitated.
Debates began in 1989/90 on the essential relation of the Supreme Soviet with the fifteen Republics, and significant changes were demanded and finally accepted. Then multi-party politics were legalized, beyond doubt seen by the West as a bell tolling for the demise of the Soviet Union. In August, 1991 the ‘Communist Party of the Soviet Union’ mounted an abortive coup against Mr. Gorbachev. It failed, but the message was clear. The Russian people had had enough, after seventy-four years of Soviet communism. The Union collapsed under its own weight in December 1991. All Baltic republics and the former SSRs of the Caucasus and Central Asia became independent, though they have not been over-friendly to each other since they obtained freedom. Some former Soviet republics have joined together, however, to form the Commonwealth of Independent States, a community of independent countries. It has taken time, but this (other) Commonwealth now includes Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. There may be more ‘istans’ now involved.
Government of the new Russia seems to be firmly in the hands of a President and a Prime Minister, positions occupied in turn by Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev. The people may now go where they like, if they can afford it, and many can. Political opinions are freely expressed. There have even been movements, not necessarily well supported, to bring back the Romanov family. Russian tourism is an important industry, and great cities like St. Petersburg, Moscow etc. have been restored to their former magnificence.
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