To fully understand the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics1, (abbreviated to USSR and rendered CCCP in the Cyrillic alphabet) it is best to look at it through the lives of its leaders. The earliest of these were Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, and Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, or Stalin, as most of us know him. At the time of their births, in 1870 and 1879 respectively, no one could have foreseen the great changes that lay ahead for the Russian Empire, an empire that had been ruled by the Grand Princes, Tsars and Emperors for almost one thousand years.
In 1848, Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto and in 1867, Das Kapital. The impact of these and other socialist writings were to affect Russia and indeed the rest of world for most of the 20th Century.
Who Led the USSR?
Unlike most other republics where the leader is the President or some other elected representative is the obvious leader of the country, in the USSR, the Communist Party was supreme. Therefore if you were Party Chairman you had the authority to select and sack whoever you wanted in government and follow whatever policy you wished. Only towards the end did Gorbachev make the two roles of Party Chairman and President into one - the short-lived role of Executive President of the USSR.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin 1870-1924
Lenin was the son of a schoolteacher who had risen to the position as an inspector of schools. However, he was expelled from university where he was studying law after only three months in 1887. He became a Marxist in 1889 and eventually took his law exams at Samara gaining a first class degree. The various Marxist groups first came together in 1895 as the Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class. Lenin quickly became established among the leaders, and with the others was arrested in December for organising demonstrations. He was initially jailed for fifteen months then exiled for three years in Siberia where he was joined by his fiancée Nadezhda Krupskaya; they were married in exile.
Most of the leaders were still imprisoned when the Marxist groups called a first congress in 1898 in Minsk. Little was achieved. However, at the second congress held in Brussels and London in 1903 the formation of ideology came to a dramatic impasse. Over a crucial vote there were two distinct groups within the newly-renamed Russian Social-Democratic Worker's Party. The majority supported the views of Lenin and became known as the Bolsheviks (meaning majoritorians) whereas the minority voted with L. Martovs and henceforth were known as the Mensheviks (or Minoritorians).
Both the groupings within Marxist circles agreed that two forms of revolution were required to bring about their manifesto. First, the Bourgeois, educated middle class liberals, and then the Proletariat working class. In 1902 Lenin had written What is to Be Done? basically a reworking and updating of Bakunin and Nechayes's 1869 Revolutionary Catechism. So an attempt to stir up these two classes was made in 1905. However, the time was not yet right for revolution and the leaders were either round up or scattered. Lenin himself was to find himself in exile from 1907 until 1917 when the 'glorious revolution' finally came.
The rift between the views of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks continued to deepen following the failure of 1905 and the split was made absolute in 1912 when Lenin called a Bolshevik Party Convention in Prague in 1912. Across Europe, with the threat of war, socialist groups agreed that if their nations led them into an Imperialist war it would be the time to prompt their people to revolution. However, in 1914 when the war finally came they fell into line with the war effort. Lenin found himself more or less cut off from Russia in neutral Switzerland, but tried to motivate socialists elsewhere to 'transform the imperialist war into civil war'2. Instead they agreed to go only as far as allowing the people the right to self determination.
The 1917 Revolution
The turnaround came in March 1917, when in Petrograd3 a war-weary, cold and hungry group of soldiers deposed the Tsar. On hearing the news Lenin, with the consent of the Germans, proceeded as fast as he could to the seat of the revolution he had so long been hoping for. When he arrived a provisional government was in place. Unfortunately for him the Mensheviks had a majority on the Petrograd Soviet4. They had considered that the revolution had been carried out by the bourgeois class and therefore had created a liberal provisional government to reflect this. Lenin took a month to get to Petrograd, but on his arrival declared the new regime simply a different form of Imperialism, not worthy of the support of the socialists. He said they were incapable of providing the workers, soldiers and peasants with their desire, i.e. a fair proportion of the wealth of their nation.
The Second Revolution
Lenin fled to Finland but set about re-establishing a majority in the local regional and town soviets for his Bolshevik branch of socialism, by publishing articles and pamphlets. His views to nationalise all land and the tightening of control over privately owned industry for the benefit of the labourers soon gathered support. By September the Petrograd Soviet and indeed those across the country once more had a Bolshevik majority. In October at great personal risk he returned to attend a meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee in Petrograd where he gained their agreement to seek supporters in the army and navy and to prepare the workers' militia, known as the Red Guard, for a military take over. On the 7th and 8th of November, to little resistance, the Bolshevik revolution took place. Shortly after, at the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets, Lenin was confirmed as the new Chairman. He may have finally achieved his long held aim but the struggle was far from over.
Civil War and the Establishment of the Soviet Union
Over the next two years the new regime faced economic crisis and civil war; not everyone was confident that the new way was the best. Some of the first shots fired in the conflict were indeed intended to remove Lenin. Two bullets from an assassin's gun lodged in his neck in August 1918. However, he made a rapid recovery, and as a result he managed to somehow maintain a supply line for the workers' Red Army in their battles against the White Army led by disillusioned Tsarist Generals and Admirals5. Lenin demanded the requisition of food from the peasants to supply his army from the land he had encouraged them to seize without compensation from the landed gentry. Some of the peasants resisted until they witnessed what the White Army's 'liberation' entailed. The Whites took revenge on those who supported the revolution by giving the land back to the previous owners and punishing those responsible for its seizure. Eventually the workers chose the Red cause and the war was won.
However, with the Whites defeated the peasantry no longer felt obliged to hand over all their grain to the nation, and fearing a revolt, Lenin gave way on one of his key principles and allowed them to sell their goods on the open market. On foreign policy he set about his two goals; to create a front preventing the Imperialists retaking Russia, and to nurture proletarian regimes abroad. The first was more or less achieved by the time of his death in 1924 when all the major powers recognised the Soviet regime with the exception of the United States of America. The latter objective would take some time, as others were not so quick to join a worldwide revolution. To encourage this he changed the party name to the Russian Communist Party and encouraged other socialists elsewhere to set up sister communist parties.
By 1921 all opposition was crushed, but Lenin believed his opponents now within the Party structure were more dangerous than ever. What came out of this was the start of suppression by fear and a number of 'show trials' occurred often ending in the death penalty for people seen to be enemies of the state by opposing the establishment of Bolshevism.
Lenin's health was failing. In the spring of 1922 he fell ill, the cause was put down to one of the bullets he had taken in 1918 and this was removed from his neck and he recovered rapidly. But a month later he faced paralysis and was unable to speak. He recovered by June and set about establishing the U.S.S.R., which was finally created on 30 December. However, just before the creation, he was again semi-paralysed and over the next month he dictated a number of articles to his secretary warning about the party falling under the control of the forceful personalities of Stalin or Trotsky. In March 1923 he suffered a stroke that would render him speechless from then until his death. It was a second stroke on the evening of 21 January 1924 that eventually killed him.
Joseph Stalin 1879-1953
Stalin was born Iosif Visssarionvich Dzhugashvili. He was the son of a drunken cobbler who often beat him. Unlike Lenin, who became an atheist in his youth, Stalin (he took his pseudonym from the Russian for steel) studied for the priesthood at Tiflis (now Tblisi) Theological Sminaryin Georgia. However, he was eventually expelled for revolutionary activity. In 1900, he joined the political underground, instigating strikes and demonstrations in the Caucasus. He would be imprisoned seven times for his efforts before 1913. When the Social Democrats split in two he joined the more militant Bolsheviks becoming a disciple of their leader Lenin. He plotted behind the scenes not making much of a political impact until in 1912 he was appointed to the Central Committee of the breakaway Bolshevik party. He became the editor of their newspaper Pravda until, in 1913, he embarked on his longest period in exile in Siberia. However, after the 1917 revolution, he resumed his position at Pravda.
Stalin played a significant, if less noticeable, role in the coup d'etat, than Leon Trotsky, bringing an end to the provisional government which saw Lenin take power. Then he served as commissar for nationalities and state control. He became Secretary General of the Party's Central Committee in 1922 following Lenin's worsening health, but used his new-found position of power to move away from Lenin's ideas. He also saw Trotsky as the main threat to his leadership and so Trotsky was banished to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, and from there deported to Turkey in 1929. As a former communist leader he had difficulty finding a country in which to settle and finally in 1937 he ended up in Mexico, but three years later he was murdered with an ice pick by one of Stalin's followers.
On the death of Lenin Stalin created a cult to the Bolshevik leader by having his embalmed body put on permanent display in a mausoleum in Red Square. He also renamed Petrograd, the starting point of the revolution, Leningrad in 1924. However, after a few short years, he moved away from Lenin's quasi-capitalist approach to economics to state-organised industrialisation under a series of rigid five-year plans. These included organising peasants' small holdings into collective farms, refusal to do so leading to arrest, exile or execution. However, the rigidity of his policies on exportation caused a famine in the Ukraine. The full extent of his policies on the rural community are not known, but 10 million may have perished as a result. His rapid programme of industrialisation faired little better and Stalin put a succession of managers on trial for their failure to fulfil the chairman's policies. However, it did succeed in dragging the country from it's backward industrial state into an industrialised nation.
The 1930s saw the beginning of the worst excesses of Stalin. He started to purge the party of anyone he considered a potential threat. This followed the assassination of his leading colleague and rival Sergey Kirov in 1934. As a result many leading political and military leaders where sentenced to death for treason. The effect was to silence any voice of opposition or even questioning of his five-year plans. The secret police, arts, academia, legal and diplomatic spheres were also subject to denunciation and execution.
World War II
In 1939 Stalin initially tried to form an anti-Hitler alliance with the Western powers but when this was rejected, he formed a pact with the Germans. This resulted in the German invasion of Poland and the declaration of war. Stalin annexed Eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania6 as well as a part of Finland in an attempt to shore up his boundaries. However, when Hitler suddenly turned his attention east on 22 June 1941 the preparations of Stalin were found to be wanting against the effective Blitzkrieg. By the end of the year the Germans were only 25 miles from the Kremlin and threatening Moscow. Stalin, by this time having appointed himself Chief of Staff, stayed in the capital to oversee a successful counter offensive which pushed the Germans back. The Battle of Stalingrad the following year and the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943 were further Soviet victories repulsing the German onslaught, an advantage they never again surrendered until the final victory in May 1945. He maintained close personal control over the war effort and unlike Hitler trusted those around him enough to delegate.
After the war Stalin imposed a colonial control over the communist countries, now increased with the creation of the Eastern Soviet zone in Germany, until Tito took Yugoslavia out of the alliance in 1948. To stop further defections he resorted to the show trails and executions that had proved so successful in the 1930s's to tighten his control. His allies from the war, Great Britain and the United States, were now his new enemies on ideological grounds. Also, the Soviet Union became more ego-centric ignoring the achievements of the outside world while emphatically praising their own.
In January 1953, a new series of purging appeared to be about to begin in the Soviet Union when some doctors at the Kremlin, mainly Jewish, were arrested on suspicion of medically murdering various Soviet leaders. The fears, however, were greatly eased by the sudden and 'timely' death of Stalin on 5 March 1953.
Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov 1902-1988
For a couple of weeks following the death of Stalin, Malenkov held absolute power as First Secretary of the Central Committee. He remained on as Prime Minister under Khruschev until 1955, trying to reduce arms spending, increase the production of consumer goods and create incentives for farmers. However, he was eventually removed from this post as well, but remained in the politburo from where he mounted a failed challenge to the leadership of Khruschev. As a result he was ostracised and thrown out of the Communist Party by 1961. He managed a remote hydro-electric plant in the Kazakh S.S.R. for 30 years and eventually died, still in disgrace, aged 88.
Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev 1894-1971
Unlike most of the other Soviet leaders who had a middle class background, Khruschev was the son of a miner from the Ukraine. He worked for Stalin in the war effort relocating Ukrainian industry as far East as possible trying to avoid the advancing Germans. His role following the War was trying to restore the administration structures and increasing agricultural production, which earned him the nickname the Butcher of the Ukraine.
After the death of Stalin there were three potential heirs. Malenkov was the natural heir apparent but there was also Lavrenty Beria his deputy Prime Minister and Khruschev, who was popular with the politburo. Malenkov was soon ousted and Beria was sentenced and executed as an imperialist spy, establishing Khruschev in power.
One of his first acts as leader was to set about rectifying the excesses of the purges of the Stalin era. He condemned Stalin for his 'intolerance, his brutality, his abuse of power'7. He exposed the wrongful executions of the 1930s and set thousands of political prisoners free and rehabilitated many less fortunate who died in prison or exile.
He also allowed a greater degree of freedom to the other Warsaw Pact nations than Stalin who had started to clamp down on them. However, when in 1956 Hungary's premier Imre Nagy threatened to withdraw from the alliance, he suppressed this insurrection using military might. This led to opposition at home led by Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov. He appealed to the rest of the central committee and further strengthened his power by making himself Prime Minister in 1958.
In 1959 he changed the approach to the West, setting up in 'peaceful competition'8 especially in space where the first satellite, space walk and docking were all Soviet successes. He set about visiting the United States of America and revelations reached a new high when he met President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Camp David. However, he later cancelled a conference between the two but met the next President John F. Kennedy only to disagree over the solution for the German question; within months the Berlin wall was erected. Soviet-American relations continued to degenerate, with the Soviet Union placing medium-range weapons just outside San Cristobal, Cuba in 1963 bringing the two superpowers to the edge of war. It was only averted on the promise of the Americans not to attempt to overthrow Castro's Communist government. However, in reaching this agreement with the imperialists he upset China on ideological grounds.
He relaxed the rules on visas allowing Soviet tourism overseas, but he continued to fail with the Soviet Unions' ongoing battle to increase agricultural production. He attempted even to cultivate 70 million acres of Siberia but still the U.S.S.R. received massive imports from the USA and Canada. This crisis and the ever deepening China rift led to him eventually being forced from power and he resigned on 14 October 1964, on the grounds of age and ill health, though he lived on till 1971. He was the only Soviet Leader to retire from office of his own volition.
Leonid Ilich Brezhnev 1906-1982
Born in 1906 Brezhnev worked as a land surveyor in the early Soviet years of the 1920s before studying at university to become an engineer. However, he was soon taking positions in the local party. He rose swiftly under Stalin's regime becoming by 1939 the secretary of his regional party committee in Dnepropetovsk. During World War II he served as a political commissar reaching the heady heights of head of the commissars on the Ukrainian front with the rank of major general.
On the death of Stalin he gave up all his positions in the party including his central committee membership to become the deputy head of the political department at the Ministry of Defence as a lieutenant general. However he was soon promoted to be second secretary of the Kazakh SSR Central Committee where he soon caught the eye of the new Chairman Khruschev. He returned to the Central Committee in 1956 and loyally supported its leader in the attempted rebellion of 1957. Three years later he was rewarded by being created chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Then in 1964 he was created assistant Secretary to Khrushchev of the Central Committee. However, three months later, he was instrumental in forcing Khruschev to give way before taking the Chairmanship himself.
As head of government he delegated some functions, such as diplomatic relations and internal economics to his colleagues Aleksey Kosygin and Nikolay Podgorny, while focusing his attentions on foreign and military affairs as well as dissenters to Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union. He made many foreign visits including a grand tour of his eastern European allies in 1965. However, twelve years after his predecessor faced a similar problem in Hungary he faced down Czechoslovakia who made a bid for greater freedom.
During the 1970s he attempted to cool the Cold War with a new policy of co-existence with the United States. However, he continued to increase and modernise his military power base. Also, he supported wars of national liberty in developing countries, which often found him in direct conflict with the United States. As his reign continued the early idea of collective government vanished. In 1976 he attained the rank of marshal (the highest military rank) and the following year became the first leader to be both Chairman of the Presidium and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In his last years, however, he was seen less in public and when he did appear, he often looked to be on strong medication. His last major appearance on the world stage was at the heavily boycotted Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, as a result of the invasion of Afghanistan.
The Interim Leaders
Yury Vladimirovich Andropov 1914-1984
In preparation for the death of Brezhnev, Andropov resigned from his post as head of the KGB. On 12 November, 1982, two days after the death of his predecessor, at the age of 68, he was elected chairman of the central committee. However in August 1983 he withdrew from public life with his terminal illness. His 15-month tenure in charge of one of the world's superpowers yielded nothing of note, and his death on 9 February, 1984 led to another interim leader taking his place.
Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko 1911-1985
At 73, Chernenko was older than his predecessor, but he had been the Chief of Staff for Brezhnev. He maintained the hard-line approach of his former boss on foreign affairs, but his frequent absences through ill health led to speculation that the selection of such an elderly and infirm man was only to allow the successful grooming of the eventual heir to Brezhnev. His death in 1985 allowed the final reformer of Soviet history to take his place in the Union's short history.
Mikhail Sergeyovich Gorbachev Born 1931
The only leader of the Soviet Union not to be born under the Tsars was to eventually become inadvertently the architect that dismantled the mighty Union. Born the son of peasants in 1931 in the village of Privolnoie near Stavropol. He went to study at Moscow State University where he graduated with a degree in Law. He later gained a qualification from Stavropol Agricultural Institute's department of the economy which enabled him to move into a profession as an agronomist-economist.
He rose steadily through the ranks of the local party in Stavropol until in 1971 he was elected to the Central Committee at the 24th Party Congress. In 1979 he entered the Supreme Soviet representing the Ipatovsky district. Interestingly, a list published at this time of Kremlin leaders listed Gorbachev 28th and last in the hierarchy. In 1980 he swiftly became a full member of the Politburu.
His experience and education in agriculture were quickly utilised and he was given key role in Brezhnev's ten year food plan. The eventual proposal linked agriculture with the industries supporting it for the first time in Soviet history. However, bad harvests continued and Gorbachev's position was perilous for four years in a row. On Brezhnev's death he was moved to a position overseeing the Party apparatus and government under Andropov. Then, under Chernenko, he became effectively second in command.
Leader of the Soviet Union
He became General Secretary of the Communist Party in May 1985, in preference to Chernenko's preferred successor Victor Grishin, and set about the most radical change in Soviet policies since the time of Stalin. He initiated a period of political openness (glasnost) and transformation (perestroika) intended to modernise the U.S.S.R. more towards a western style of government than had been present for the previous 70 years. He entered into extensive dialogues with President Reagan and then Bush in the USA and the European leaders Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand. He eventually also became elected President in 1988.
He started the process of dismantling the world's nuclear arsenal and received the Nobel Peace Prize for this initiative in 1990. However, the year before he received his award, the world was starting to change.
The Collapse of the System
November 1989 saw the visible and ideological collapse of the Iron Curtain when the Berlin wall came down. The impetus to move away from communism spread through eastern Europe country by country. On 26 December, even hardline Romania pulled away by executing Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife. Only Russia, China, Albania and Cuba remained as communist states unaffected by this wave of change at the end of the year.
In March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet states to declare independence; Latvia and Estonia followed soon after. These three states had known independence between the two World Wars.
On 18 August, 1991 a hard-line communist coup d'etat placed Gorbachev and his wife Raisa under house arrest at his dacha in the Crimea. The coup plotters, Boldin (Chief of the President's staff), Shenin (a member of Politburo, Secretary of the Central Committee), Baklanov (Deputy Chief of Defence Council), Varennikov (General of the Army) and Plekhanov (Chief of KGB department of personal protection) were there demanding he declare a state of emergency or resign; Gorbachev refused. The following day it was announced that Gorbachev had been relieved of his duties due to the state of his health and that power had been transferred to Vice President Gennadi Yanaev.
The first voice of dissent to what was going on was Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President. He denounced the actions of the day as reactionary and anti-Constitutional. Meanwhile the military were taking control of Moscow and Leningrad and other key sites. Things became tense and the White House, home of the Russian Parliament, came under attack from the Soviet military.
Yeltsin became the voice of the people appearing on the streets and in front of tanks defending the constitution that had recently come into place. On 21 August the Coup collapsed and Gorbachev was free to return to Moscow and resume power. However, three days later, Gorbachev resigned from his position as head of the communist party.
For the remainder of the year tensions continued to flow underneath the fabric of the Soviet Union as each of the states wanted more autonomy and independence. Eventually on 25 December he resigned as President and dissolved the Soviet Union. The 'Bear of Communism' in the East had roared its last and became for the first time in a long time fifteen states again.