Collapse of the Soviet Union

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Rus. Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, former republic. It was established in 1922 and dissolved in 1991. The Soviet Union was the first state to be based on Marxist socialism (see also Marxism; communism). Until 1989 the Communist party indirectly controlled all levels of government; the party's politburo effectively ruled the country, and its general secretary was the country's most powerful leader. Soviet industry was owned and managed by the state, and agricultural land was divided into state farms, collective farms, and small, privately held plots.

Politically the USSR was divided (from 1940 to 1991) into 15 constituent or union republics—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia (see Belarus), Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia (see Kyrgyzstan), Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia (see Moldova), Russia, Tadzhikistan (see Tajikistan), Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan—ostensibly joined in a federal union, but until the final year or so of the USSR's existence the republics had little real power. Russia, officially the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was only one of the constituent republics, but the terms "Russia," the "USSR," and the "Soviet Union" were often used interchangeably.

Early Years

The USSR was the successor state to the Russian Empire (see Russia) and the short-lived provisional government of Russia. The history of the provisional government, the Revolution of 1917, Soviet Russia's withdrawal from World War I, and the Russian Civil War are covered in the articles Russian Revolution and Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of.

Many policies indicative of the entire tenure of the Soviet rule appeared during the formative stage of the state. The torture or summary execution of real or imagined opponents, a "Red Terror" to subdue the Whites during the civil war, became institutionalized in the form of the secret police, who sought to suppress dissidence and opposition. Such tactics were employed even within the Communist party, as periodic "purges" were carried out to rid the party of dissident members. The denigration of rural peasants in favor of soldiers and urban dwellers was another tendency of the Soviet regime. Millions of peasants in the Don region starved to death from 1918 to 1920 as the army confiscated grain for its own needs and the needs of the urbanites.

The fundamental policy, however, of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from its beginning was complete socialization. Between 1918 and 1921, a period called "war communism," the state took control of the whole economy, mainly through the centralization of planning and the elimination of management from factories. This led to inefficiency and confusion, and in 1921 there was a partial return to the market economy with the adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP ushered in a period of relative stability and prosperity, and in 1922 the treaty of union formally joined Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia (divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijan republics).

At this time the USSR comprised Russia and the remainder of the Russian Empire (for its earlier history see Russia) as it had emerged from the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing civil war. The civil war had been complicated by Allied intervention and by war (1920) with Poland. The peace treaty (1921) with Poland (see Riga, Treaty of), the declarations of independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the seizure by Romania of Bessarabia had greatly reduced the size of the former Russian Empire, establishing what the governments of Western Europe called a cordon sanitaire (quarantine belt) separating Communist Russia from the rest of Europe.

Temporarily accepting this quarantine, Vladimir I. Lenin and the other leaders of the Soviet Union set about repairing the damage caused by the revolution and the civil war. In 1922, Germany recognized the Soviet Union (see Rapallo, Treaty of), and most other Western nations except the United States followed suit in 1924. Also in 1924 a constitution was adopted based theoretically on the dictatorship of the proletariat and founded economically on the public ownership of the land and the means of production according to the revolutionary proclamation of 1917.

The Stalin Era

A struggle for leadership followed Lenin's death in early 1924; Joseph V. Stalin and Leon Trotsky were the two main protagonists, with Stalin emerging victorious by the late 1920s. Stalin's program called for a more gradual transformation of Soviet society than did Trotsky's and had as its primary objective the consolidation of communism in the USSR rather than Trotsky's ideal of immediate world revolution. Later Stalin adopted more radical measures. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to guide the Communist parties abroad through the Third International, or Comintern.

The First Five-Year Plan

At home the New Economic Policy instituted in 1921 was replaced by full government planning with the adoption of the first Five-Year Plan (1928–32). The plan was drawn up by Gosplan (the state planning commission), setting goals and priorities for virtually the entire economy and emphasizing the production of capital and not consumer goods. A system of collective and state farms was imposed over widespread peasant opposition, which was expressed notably in the slaughter of livestock. Those comparatively prosperous peasants (called kulaks) who refused to join the new agricultural institutions were "liquidated" by drastic means. More than 5 million peasant households were eliminated, their property was confiscated, and most of the peasants were sent as forced laborers to Siberia. This also led to famine in 1932–33. By the end of the 1930s, 99% of the cultivated land was in collective farms (the system of state farms was established successfully only after World War II). Industrialization was accelerated, and the production of desperately needed industrial raw materials and capital equipment was stressed at the expense of consumer goods. One of the major results of the successive Five-Year Plans was the spectacular industrial and agricultural development of the Urals, Siberian USSR, and Central Asian USSR.

The level of literacy, very low in 1917, was steadily raised in all parts of the country, and free medical and social services were extended to the population. At the same time, the state (and behind it, the CPSU) increased its hold over all political, social, and cultural aspects of life. Education and media of public information passed under state control. Freedom of movement was severely restricted. All criticism of public policy, if not authorized by the state, was banned. The secret police became a major instrument of state control, and much power was given to the civil service. The system of controls gave rise to a large and powerful bureaucracy, called the "new class" by some analysts.

Religious bodies were severely persecuted in the early years of the Soviet Union, but in the mid-1930s there was a measure of relaxation in official policy, probably because antireligious propaganda in the schools had already taken effect among the younger generation. However, relations with the Roman Catholic Church and with the Jewish community remained hostile. Relations were also strained with the West Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Conservatism and Purges

The mid-1930s saw a conservative trend in official attitudes toward culture: family life was emphasized again, and divorces and abortions were made difficult to obtain; great men and events in pre-1917 Russian history were extolled in literature (e.g., in works by Aleksey N. Tolstoy) and in films (especially those of Sergei Eisenstein); and experimentation in education gave way to a return to structure and discipline. In 1936 the Stalin constitution was issued, and it included many features of Western democracies, which, however, were more window-dressing than true indications of the distribution of power in the Soviet system.

The CPSU continued to control the government and run the country, and Stalin, as the Wisest of the Wise, was firmly in control of the party. Following the murder (1934) of Sergei M. Kirov, one of Stalin's closest associates, and the announcement of the discovery of an alleged plot against Stalin's regime headed by the exiled Trotsky, there began a series of purges that culminated in the great purge from 1936 to 1938. The armed forces, the CPSU, and the government in general were purged of all allegedly dissident persons; the victims were generally sentenced to death or to long terms of hard labor. Much of the purge was carried out in secret, and only a few cases were tried in public "show trials." Among the many thousand victims of the purges were such prominent CPSU leaders as Grigori E. Zinoviev, Lev B. Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, and Aleksey I. Rykov and military figures like Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky. Independent influence in society was thus ended, and monolithic unity under Stalin was achieved by 1939.

Pre–World War II Foreign Relations

Soviet foreign policy, long hampered by the hostility of the nations of Europe and America and by pervasive mutual distrust, was carried out first by Georgi Chicherin and from 1930 by Maxim M. Litvinov. In 1933 the United States recognized the USSR, and in 1934 the Soviet Union was admitted into the League of Nations. In the mid-1930s the USSR sought friendly relations with its neighbors, declared its renunciation of imperialistic expansion, and advocated total disarmament. Soviet-controlled Communist parties in other countries became friendlier to more moderate socialists and to liberals and in 1936 joined leftist Popular Front coalitions in France and Spain. The Western nations did not invite the USSR to take part in the negotiations with Germany leading to the Munich Pact (1938), and a radical shift in Soviet foreign policy ensued. V. M. Molotov replaced Litvinov as foreign minister.

World War II

On Aug. 23, 1939, the USSR concluded a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, which shortly afterward invaded Poland, precipitating World War II. Soviet troops also entered (Sept., 1939) Poland, which was divided between Germany and the USSR. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were occupied (1940) by the Soviet Union, and in mid-1940 were transformed into constituent republics of the USSR. Finland opposed Soviet demands, and the Finnish-Russian War of 1939–40 resulted; it ended in a hard-earned Soviet victory. Finland ceded territory, which was organized into the Karelo-Finnish SSR (which in 1956 became part of the RSFSR as the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic). Romania was forced (1940) to cede Bessarabia and N Bukovina, and the Moldavian SSR was created. In Apr., 1941, a nonaggression treaty with Japan was signed.

Although defense preparations were accelerated (probably in anticipation of eventual war with Germany), when Germany attacked on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was caught by surprise. Romania, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy joined in the invasion of the USSR. By the end of 1941 the Germans had overrun Belorussia and most of Ukraine, had surrounded Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and were converging on Moscow. The success of this first German offensive was in part due to the 1935–39 purges of the army and the party, which had robbed the USSR of many of its best military minds and political organizers.

A Soviet counter-offensive saved Moscow, but in June, 1942, the Germans launched a new drive directed against Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) and the Caucasus petroleum fields. Stalingrad held out, and the surrender (Feb. 2, 1943) of 330,000 Axis troops there marked a turning point in the war. The Soviets drove the invaders back in an almost uninterrupted offensive and in 1944 entered Poland and the Balkan Peninsula. Early in 1945, German resistance in Hungary was overcome, and Soviet troops marched into East Prussia. The converging Soviet armies then closed in on Berlin in a climactic drive. On May 2, 1945, Berlin fell; on May 7 the USSR together with the Western Allies accepted the surrender of Germany.

The Soviet victory was obtained at the great price of at least 20 million lives (including civilian casualties) and staggering material losses. The United States contributed much aid, about $9 billion, to the USSR through lend-lease. Understandings concerning the conduct of war and postwar policies had been reached by the USSR, the United States, and Great Britain at the Moscow Conferences (1941–47), the Tehran Conference (1943), the Yalta Conference (1945), and the Potsdam Conference (1945).

In accordance with a previous agreement, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 8, 1945, two days after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A swift campaign brought Soviet forces deep into Manchuria and Korea by the date (Sept. 2, 1945) Japan surrendered. As a direct result of the war, the USSR received the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands from Japan; the northern part of East Prussia from Germany; and some additional territory from Finland. By agreements in 1945 with Poland and Czechoslovakia the USSR also vastly increased the area of the Belorussian and Ukrainian republics.

The Cold War

Cooperation between the USSR and the Western powers—already shaky during the war—ceased soon after the armistice, and relations between the Soviet Union and the United States (which emerged from the war as the two chief powers in the world) became increasingly strained, leading to the international tension of the cold war. Friction became particularly acute in the jointly occupied countries of Germany, Austria, and Korea and in the United Nations (of which the USSR was a charter member), preventing the conclusion of joint peace treaties with Germany, Austria, and Korea and agreements over reparations and the control of nuclear weapons.

Increasing Soviet influence in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania and the continued tight control of East Germany created fears in the Western world of unlimited Soviet expansion, as did the creation (1947) of the Cominform (which in a limited sense was the successor of the Comintern). The USSR, on the other hand, justified its policies by claiming that it was merely responding to encirclement by hostile capitalist nations. In 1948, Yugoslavia declared its independence from the "Soviet bloc," as the Communist nations of East Europe came to be known. In 1948 and 1949 the USSR unsuccessfully tried to prevent supplies from reaching the sectors of Berlin occupied by the Western Allies. In 1949, the USSR recognized the newly established Communist government of China, and a 30-year alliance was signed in early 1950. Relations with the Western powers worsened considerably after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–53), which the West ascribed to Soviet instigation.

Internally, the goals of the immediate postwar era were the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and the reimposition of Stalin's dictatorship. A fourth Five-Year Plan was released, concentrating as usual on heavy industrial development, which had shifted east due to the war. Despite impressive developments in industry, Soviet agriculture suffered greatly in the postwar period, as a drought in 1946 caused a massive famine. Collective farming proved once again to be hugely inefficient. The development of military technology continued rapidly, however, and the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device in 1949.

Stalin managed to reassert his personal rule once more, ending the period of relatively free interaction in Soviet society mandated by the war effort. Millions of soldiers and ethnic minorities who had come into contact with the Germans and the Allies were deported to Central Asia and Siberia. Stalin instituted another round of anti-Semitic purges, killing many prominent Jewish writers. Propaganda extolling Communism's achievements reached new heights, as the government claimed Russian origins for nearly everything, even the American pastime of baseball.

The Khrushchev Era

The death of Stalin on Mar. 5, 1953, ushered in a new era in Soviet history. "Collective leadership" at first replaced one-man rule, and after the arrest and execution (June, 1953) of Lavrenti P. Beria the power of the secret police was curtailed. Soviet citizens began to gain a greater degree of personal freedom and civil security. Georgi Malenkov succeeded Stalin as premier, while Nikita S. Khrushchev, as first secretary of the central committee of the CPSU, played an increasingly important role in policy planning. In 1955, Malenkov was replaced as premier by Nikolai Bulganin. At the 20th All Union Congress (Feb., 1956), Khrushchev bitterly denounced the dictatorial rule and personality of Stalin in a secret speech that was later obtained by foreigners. Khrushchev replaced Bulganin as premier in 1958, thus becoming leader of both the government and the CPSU; he modified some of the more dictatorial aspects of Stalin's rule, but the CPSU continued to dominate all facets of Soviet life.

Domestic Policy under Khrushchev

Khrushchev retained many of Stalin's basic economic policies, but there were important changes. Management of the economy (especially industry) was decentralized (1957) in an attempt to reduce the inefficiency and delays resulting from central bureaucratic control. Numerous national ministries were disbanded. In agriculture, vast tracts of virgin land (especially in Central Asian USSR and W Siberian USSR) were opened to the cultivation of grain, notably wheat; taxation of collective farmers' private plots was reduced; and the Machine Tractor Stations, established in the late 1920s and 30s as a means of supervising the collective farms by controlling their use of farm machinery, were abolished in 1958 and their equipment sold to the collectives. Somewhat larger amounts of consumer goods were manufactured. In 1957–58 the noted author Boris L. Pasternak was prevented from accepting his Nobel Prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago because it contained a general criticism of life in the Soviet Union immediately after the Revolution.

Foreign Relations under Khrushchev

Foreign policy became more flexible; the Soviet Union negotiated a peace treaty with Austria (1955), established diplomatic relations with West Germany (1955), restored the Porkkala naval base to Finland (1955), dissolved the Cominform (1956), allowed foreigners to travel in the USSR, and set up cultural exchanges with Western nations. In addition, it was considered proper beginning in 1955 to form alliances with, and give aid to, the non-Communist nations of the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria, and other non-Communist underdeveloped countries.

Relations with the Communist countries of Eastern Europe were formalized and strengthened by the establishment of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, or Warsaw Pact. In June, 1956, a revolt against Soviet influence in Poland was defeated by the Polish army, but the Poles managed to gain some concessions from Moscow; an uprising in Hungary in Oct., 1956, was crushed ruthlessly by Soviet troops.

In the technological race between the Soviet Union and the West (principally the United States), the USSR exploded (1953) a hydrogen bomb; announced (1957) the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles; orbited (1957) the first artificial earth satellite (called Sputnik); and in 1961 sent Yuri Gagarin in the first manned orbital flight. In Sept., 1959, Khrushchev undertook a 10-day tour of the United States. In May, 1960, a four-power (USSR, United States, France, and Great Britain) summit conference scheduled for Paris was aborted when a U.S. reconnaissance airplane ( "U-2" ) was shot down in the Soviet Union and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologize for the aerial spying. The USSR participated in the international negotiations on nuclear disarmament and agreed (1958) to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests, but resumed testing in 1961. In 1963, the USSR signed a milestone treaty with the United States and Great Britain banning atmospheric nuclear tests.

The question of divided Berlin (a focal point of the cold war) remained unresolved through several rounds of negotiations and a number of "Berlin crises," particularly the 1961 controversy over the erection of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin. In June, 1964, the Soviet Union signed a separate peace treaty with East Germany.

At the 22d CPSU congress in 1961 the attack on Stalin was continued, and the reputations of many purge victims of the 1930s were rehabilitated. Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in the Kremlin next to Lenin's; his name was erased from the geography of the USSR (e.g., Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd), and pictures and statues of him were removed. Also at the 22d congress the Sino-Soviet conflict (which had begun in the late 1950s) emerged, stated at first in terms of a dispute with Albania (a close ally of China). Among other things, China had accused the USSR of betraying Marxism-Leninism by attempting to negotiate with the West, while Khrushchev and his administration insisted that Communist expansion could be accomplished in conjunction with a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with states having different social and economic systems.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

In Oct., 1962, despite seemingly improved relations with the West, the USSR came into sharp conflict with the United States over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The United States demanded the removal of the missiles and blockaded the island to keep out Soviet ships. Backing down, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, and the crisis passed. Some analysts maintain that the Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in U.S.-Soviet relations because the USSR realized the determination of the United States to protect what it considered its vital interests. In 1963 a "hot line" (direct and instantaneous teletype communications) was set up between the heads of government of the USSR and the United States.

The Brezhnev Era

In a well-prepared and bloodless move by CPSU leaders, Khrushchev was ousted from his positions of power Oct. 14–15, 1964. He was replaced as first secretary of the CPSU by Leonid I. Brezhnev (who in 1960 had become chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet) and as premier by Alexei N. Kosygin. The official reasons given for Khrushchev's ouster were his advanced age (70) and his declining health. The real reason was dissatisfaction with the policies and style of his government. Specifically, Khrushchev was criticized for the inadequate performance of the economy, especially the agricultural sector (there had been a bad harvest in 1963); for the humiliation of the USSR in the Cuban Missile Crisis; for the widening rift with China; and for his flamboyant personal style, which it was said created a "cult of personality." Several persons closely associated with Khrushchev also lost their posts; they included his son-in-law Alexei I. Adzhubei, the editor of the government newspaper Izvestia.

In July, 1964, Anastas I. Mikoyan succeeded Brezhnev as chairman of the presidium; Mikoyan was replaced in Dec., 1965, by Nikolai V. Podgorny. The new leaders stressed collective leadership (as opposed to Khrushchev's one-man rule), but because of his position at the head of the CPSU Brezhnev held an advantage and by 1970 was clearly the most powerful person in the country, followed at a considerable distance by Kosygin. In 1966 the position of first secretary of the CPSU again was called general secretary (as it had been until 1952), and the presidium of the supreme soviet reverted to the name politburo (short for political bureau). In the later 1960s the official attitude toward Stalin became somewhat less hostile. In internal affairs the new leaders stressed economic development, and in foreign affairs they generally pursued peaceful coexistence with the West (although there were several major indirect confrontations).

Domestic Policy under Brezhnev

Claiming that Khrushchev's policy of decentralizing administration had been ill advised, his successors reestablished 28 national ministries in 1965. However, at the same time a major program to decentralize decision-making in industry was begun. Under the system devised by Yevsei Liberman, an economist, individual firms made their own decisions on levels of production based on prevailing prices, and their efficiency was judged individually on the amount of profit they made. By the early 1970s the vast majority of industrial firms were operating on this basis. The new system allowed much more latitude to the individual firms, but they still had to operate within the constraints of the overall Five-Year Plans, which established the basic course of the Soviet economy, and of the annual national government budget.

Industrial production (and the productivity of individual workers) increased steadily after 1964, but not as rapidly as the leadership desired. To make up for a growing deficiency of technology, a number of major contracts were signed (beginning in the late 1960s) with Western firms to build factories and other installations in the USSR. With the exception of a bad harvest in 1972, agricultural production increased dramatically. The dramatic world oil price rises in 1973–74 and 1979 buoyed the economy, and the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Germany promised further economic expansion.

During the Brezhnev era leading writers, scientists, and intellectuals protested certain aspects of Soviet life, especially curbs on the free flow of ideas, corruption in government, and inefficiency. Although the dissidents were small in number and had little popular support, they were treated harshly by the government, many being sentenced to terms in prison or being forced into exile. The leading dissidents included the writers Andrei Sinyavsky (whose pen name was Abram Tertz), Yuri Daniel (whose pen name was Nikolai Arzhak), Anatoly V. Kuznetsov (who defected to Great Britain in 1969), Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (a Nobel Prize winner for Literature who was forced to leave the country in early 1974), Aleksandr Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, and Andrei Amalrik; the editor Aleksandr Tvardovski; the Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist Andrei D. Sakharov; the geneticist Zhores A. Medvedev (who left the country in 1973 and was not allowed to return); the economist Viktor Krasin; retired general Petro Grigorenko; and the historian Pyotr Yakir. Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the West in 1967 and took up residence in the United States.

From the later 1960s many Jews asked to leave the country, mainly in order to settle in Israel. For a time the government made emigration for them exceptionally difficult (for instance, by charging a high "emigration tax" allegedly to cover the cost of the person's education in the USSR), but in the early 1970s considerable numbers of Jews were able to emigrate (partly because the emigration tax was suspended). In 1974 the USSR agreed to ease its emigration policy in return for favored-nation trade status with the United States. Contributing to disquiet in the country were the members of several ethnic groups (notably the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Tatars) who vociferously demanded increased autonomy for their people.

Foreign Relations under Brezhnev

Formal Soviet-U.S. relations continued to be good after 1964, but there was a serious indirect conflict in Vietnam (where the USSR gave North Vietnam much material aid, but did not send troops, to oppose U.S. forces active in South Vietnam). Other indirect conflicts included the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (where the Soviet Union backed the Arabs rhetorically but gave them little material assistance), the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 (when the USSR aided India and the United States backed Pakistan), the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (when U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, believing that the Soviet Union was about to send troops to back the Arab side, instituted a worldwide precautionary alert of U.S. forces), the Angolan, Mozambican, and Ethiopian civil wars (where the U.S. backed rebellions against Soviet-backed governments), and the Contra war in Nicaragua.

In 1968, Soviet relations with the Communist nations of Eastern Europe reached a critical stage when Soviet troops (and forces of some of the other Warsaw Treaty Organization members) invaded (Aug. 21) Czechoslovakia in a successful effort to curb the trend toward liberalization there (and indirectly to reduce Czechoslovakia's increasing contact with Western European nations). Brezhnev declared (in what became known as the "Brezhnev doctrine" ) that Communist countries had the right to intervene in other Communist nations whose actions threatened the international Communist movement. Romania and Yugoslavia explicitly denounced the Brezhnev doctrine.

The Sino-Soviet conflict worsened after 1964. In 1969 there were numerous border clashes, including a major one over control of Damansky Island in the Ussuri River. Both countries enlarged their border forces and maintained them in the early 1970s despite somewhat less tense relations.

The Era of Détente

In 1969, the USSR, the United States, and about 100 other nations signed a treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons to countries not possessing them. Strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States began in 1969, and they were continuing in 1974. When President Nixon visited Moscow in 1972, an agreement partially limiting strategic arms was signed (an agreement that was renewed during Nixon's 1974 visit to the USSR), along with accords on cooperation in space exploration, environmental matters, and trade. By this time Soviet-U.S. relations were described as having entered an era of détente, and the cold war was said to have ended. In 1973, Brezhnev toured the United States and met with Nixon.

A major objective of Soviet foreign policy in the early 1970s was to gain official recognition of the post–World War II settlement in Europe. In 1970 a landmark treaty with West Germany was signed (ratified in 1972) confirming existing boundaries in Europe (notably the eastern border of East Germany) and also renouncing the use of force to settle disputes. In 1972 the USSR, the United States, Great Britain, and France signed an accord regularizing the position of Berlin.

In 1973 a European security conference, which the USSR hoped would also help make permanent the status quo in Europe, formally opened. A second phase of SALT talks began, as well as negotiations for a mutual and balanced reduction of forces in Europe. The USSR gave considerable assistance to underdeveloped countries during the Brezhnev era. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War the Soviet Union played a major role in equipping both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. At Tashkent in 1966, Kosygin mediated a dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

In the early 1970s there was a notable increase in both the size and quality of the Soviet military, especially the navy. In the "space race" with the United States, the USSR did not place a man on the moon (as the United States did in 1969) but made other important, but less spectacular, exploratory probes of space. In 1975 a symbolic linkup in space between Soviet and U.S. spacecraft capped the era of détente.

In 1975 the USSR signed the Helsinki Accords, which declared the postwar European boundaries inviolable and subject to change only by peaceful means. The Accords also contained provisions on human rights, and the Soviet government drew international criticism for harassing or imprisoning citizens who tried to monitor Soviet compliance with the Accords. A new "Brezhnev" constitution was promulgated in 1977, but differed little from the preceding Stalin constitution.

Détente Ends

Brezhnev's foreign policy during the 1970s supported Marxist revolutionary governments in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Grenada, Nicaragua, and South Yemen, but it stumbled in applying the Brezhnev doctrine to Afghanistan. A 10-year occupation of that country (1979–89) pitted the forces of the USSR against the same sort of indigenous, nationalistic guerrilla army that the United States had faced in Vietnam. The United States' response to the invasion was swift; it shelved the second SALT agreement, suspended grain shipments, and led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. and European governments, despite domestic opposition, placed new intermediate range Pershing II missiles in Europe, and a staunch anti-Communist, Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States. Détente was over.

Almost in synchrony with the breakdown in international relations, the Stalin-era leadership began to fail. Kosygin resigned and died in 1980. Brezhnev grew ill. His declining health slowed the Soviet response to the 1980–82 challenge posed by Poland's Solidarity union. Soviet economists, who had been secretly relying on doctored economic figures and raw material exports to gloss over the economy's deficiencies, could not disguise the USSR's failure to meet its Five-Year Plan goals. Fortuitous increases in gold and oil prices in the 1970s had camouflaged the decay, but the USSR possessed few manufacturing exports, the lifeblood of all developing economies. Life expectancy for men began to decline due to alcohol abuse, a fact so embarrassing to the government that it stopped issuing life expectancy figures.

The Gorbachev Era

Brezhnev died in 1982 and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, the recent head of the KGB. He tried to reform the nation through campaigns against alcoholism and absenteeism, but he died after little more than a year in office. He was replaced by party loyalist Konstantin Chernenko, who also died after a year in office. An Andropov protege, Mikhail Gorbachev, became general secretary of the CPSU in Mar., 1985.

Glasnost and Perestroika

Gorbachev inherited a country with daunting economic and foreign policy troubles. In the first nine months of his tenure he replaced 40% of the regional-level leadership. Like his mentor Andropov, he unleashed a vigorous campaign against alcohol use. Like Khrushchev, he approved measures aimed at loosening social restraints. The measures, which Gorbachev called glasnost ( "openness" ) and perestroika ( "restructuring" ), were expected to invigorate the Soviet economy by increasing the free flow of goods and information.

Glasnost received an immediate challenge when on Apr. 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, spewing radioactive material over a large area. The Soviet government initially tried to cover up the extent of the disaster, but Gorbachev dramatically ended the cover-up by removing all controls on reporting. The basic poverty of the Soviet people, the waste of the country's resources, the unpopularity of the Afghan conflict were openly discussed for the first time.

Rapid and radical changes began. Dissidents like Andrei Sakharov were released from detention and allowed to voice their views. The USSR signed an agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, a process that was completed by Feb., 1989. The CPSU held its first conference in 50 years in 1988, further denouncing Stalin and his policies. In Mar., 1989, the first openly contested elections since 1917 were held. In May, Gorbachev visited Beijing, signaling the end of the Sino-Soviet split. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews left the country after emigration restraints were removed. Over 400,000 had moved to Israel by 1993, and substantial numbers also moved to the United States.

Dissolution of the Union

Gorbachev's criticisms of the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe who were not attempting reforms similar to glasnost hinted that the Brezhnev doctrine would be ignored. Frantic, last-minute efforts at reform by Eastern European leaders in the summer and fall of 1989 at best only slowed the collapse of their Communist governments. The loss of dominance over Eastern Europe stunned conservatives in the military and the CPSU, and Gorbachev came under increasing pressure to slow glasnost and perestroika.

The country's troubles continued. The economy did not respond as expected, actually shrinking 4% in 1990. The citizens of the Baltic states and Georgia demanded independence from the USSR. Miners in Donets and Kuznetsk Basins went on strike, a severe blow to a party and a government that had always claimed to represent the workers. Arms reductions with the United States and a pact that accepted the reunification of Germany were signed. In desperation, a group of senior officials led by Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and the heads of the KGB and the Interior Ministry, detained Gorbachev at his dacha in the Crimea on Aug. 18, 1991, just two days before he was scheduled to sign a treaty granting greater autonomy to the USSR's constituent republics.

In three days, the August Coup collapsed, as junior military leaders and the presidents of the republics, most notably Boris Yeltsin of the RSFSR, led popular resistance to the attempted coup. The coup leaders were arrested, and Gorbachev was returned to his position as head of state. De facto power, however, had passed to Yeltsin and the presidents of the other republics.

On Aug. 23, 1991, Yeltsin banned the CPSU and seized its assets. On Aug. 24, Yeltsin recognized the independence of the Baltic states; on the same day Ukraine declared itself an independent nation. The Supreme Soviets of the other republics soon passed similar resolutions. In September the Congress of People's Deputies voted for the dissolution of the USSR, and discussions began which led to the Dec. 8 founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States. On Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR and was not replaced; on the same day the United States recognized the remaining republics of the USSR as independent nations. On Dec. 26 the government of the Russian Republic (see Russia) occupied those offices of the USSR located within its boundaries.


See M. Beloff, The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1929–1941 (2 vol., 1947–49; repr. 1955); G. F. Kennan, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin (1961); J. Erickson, The Soviet High Command (1962); A. Werth, Russia at War, 1941–1945 (1964); J. P. Nettl, The Soviet Achievement (1967); R. Conquest, ed., Justice and the Legal System in the USSR (1968) and Religion in the USSR (1968); L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1971); M. Matthews, Class and Society in Soviet Russia (1973); A. B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917 to 1973 (1974) and Stalin: The Man and His Era (1974); J. A. Armstrong, Ideology, Politics, and Government in the Soviet Union (3d ed. 1974); A. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974); J. Hough and M. Fainsod, How the Soviet Union Is Governed (1979); S. Bialer, Stalin's Successors (1980); A. Nove, The Soviet Economy (1969) and An Economic History of the USSR (1984); R. C. Stuart, The Soviet Rural Economy (1984); L. Alekseeva, Soviet Dissent (1985); M. Walker, Waking the Giant: Gorbachev's Russia (1986); B. Seweryn, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion and Internal Decline (1987); J. S. Berliner, Soviet Industry from Stalin to Gorbachev (1988); J. H. Bater, The Soviet Scene: A Geographical Perspective (1989); G. Hosking, The First Socialist Society (1985) and The Awakening of the Soviet Union (1990); H. Smith, The Russians (1983) and The New Russians (1990); M. Feshbach and A. F. Murray, Ecocide in the USSR (1992); R. Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1995); M. Dobbs, Down with Big Brother (1997); M. Malia, Russia under Western Eyes (1999); L. Siegelbaum and A. Sokolov, ed., Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents (2000); S. Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (2001).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000
Stephen Kotkin.
Oxford University Press, 2008 (Updated edition)
Final Days: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Andrei S. Grachev; Margo Milne.
Westview Press, 1995
The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union
William E. Watson.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change
Robert Strayer.
M. E. Sharpe, 1998
Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990: Ten Years That Did Not Shake the World
David Arbel; Ran Edelist.
Frank Cass, 2003
The Destruction of the Soviet Union: A Study in Globalization
David Lockwood.
Macmillan, 2000
The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union
Walter Laqueur.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Gorbachev and the Collapse of Communism
Morewood, Steven.
History Review, No. 31, September 1998
Ronald Reagan and the Defeat of the Soviet Empire
Busch, Andrew E.
Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 1997
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Did the West Undo the East?
Sestanovich, Stephen.
The National Interest, No. 31, Spring 1993
Riddles, Mysteries, and Enigmas: Unanswered Questions of Communism's Collapse
Somin, Ilya.
Policy Review, No. 70, Fall 1994
The Economic Fallacy
Kontorovich, Vladimir.
The National Interest, No. 31, Spring 1993
A Fatal Logic
Malia, Martin.
The National Interest, No. 31, Spring 1993
Last of the Empires: A History of the Soviet Union, 1945-1991
John L. H. Keep.
Oxford University Press, 1996
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