Communist party (in Russia and the Soviet Union)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Communist party (in Russia and the Soviet Union)

Communist party, in Russia and the Soviet Union, political party that until 1991 exercised all effective power within the Soviet Union, and, as the oldest and for a long time the only ruling Communist party in the world, carried heavy or controlling influence over the Communist parties of other countries (see communism).


Marxist socialism (see Marxism) took root in Russia in the 1880s. Led by Georgi Plekhanov, a small group of Marxists formed (1883) the League for the Emancipation of Labor, stressing the revolutionary capabilities of the growing industrial proletariat. Other groups were soon founded, the largest of which was the Jewish Bund, and in 1898 they united to form the Russian Social Democratic Labor party. The second party congress (1903) in Brussels and London split into factions of Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, demanded a highly disciplined, centralized, and dedicated revolutionary elite rather than a mass party. These principles guided the Bolsheviks before the 1917 revolution and remained the basis for the party during its years in power.

Seizure of Power

When the Russian Revolution began in Mar., 1917, the Bolsheviks were unprepared, and under the provisional government they played a minor role. When Lenin returned from exile in April, he called for seizure of power, despite opposition within the party. The Bolsheviks gained strength in key areas, capitalizing on mass discontent, and in November they were able to seize control.

With a total party membership of about 200,000, they faced the problem of governing alone or sharing power. Lenin and Leon Trotsky demanded party dictatorship and destroyed all opposition from Mensheviks and other socialist groups. During the civil war (1918–20) the Bolshevik party—from 1918 the All-Russian Communist party—was at the height of its revolutionary ardor. Despite seemingly impossible odds, the party apparatus was strengthened at all levels.

Under Stalin

After the death of Lenin (1924) dissident elements in the party were silenced as Joseph Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor. While party debates in the party congresses of the 1920s were stormy and intraparty democracy was still evident, by the 16th party congress (1929) Stalin established virtual supremacy. The party (from 1925 the All-Union Communist party), was strongly urban. One purpose of the massive agricultural collectivization launched in 1929 was to strengthen the party's rural base. By 1933 there were more than 3,500,000 party members and candidates, many recruited from rural areas.

A series of purges in the 1930s decimated the party. Former leaders—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and others—were accused of treason, convicted in spectacular show trials, and executed or exiled. As the purges drew to a close by 1938, party membership had declined to 1,920,000. There was an immediate upturn in membership with the approach of World War II; in the period after the war membership grew more slowly.

The whole Stalinist period (1930–53), was dominated by a repressive and omnipotent dictatorship over all Soviet citizens, including party members. In 1952 the party was renamed the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

Post-Stalin Years

At the 20th party congress (1956, three years after Stalin's death) Premier Nikita Khrushchev testified about Stalin's crimes. The subsequent campaign of de-Stalinization reached a climax at the 22d party congress in 1961, and Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in a mausoleum in Red Square. After the death of Stalin, Georgi Malenkov at first appeared to hold power, but ultimately Khrushchev emerged as the successor, holding by 1958 the highest posts in both the party and government—first secretary of the party and chairman of the council of ministers. In the 1960s the tendency was once more to broaden the base of membership, but the party as an organization lost influence, while its leaders gained power. Party congresses were infrequent.

Khrushchev, however, was suddenly removed in 1964, replaced by a collective leadership whose leading members were Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin. By the 1970s, Brezhnev, general secretary of the party, was the dominant figure. The party gained a legal monopoly in the Soviet constitution of 1977 (other parties had been banned since 1921), but otherwise the period was one of stagnation after the failure of Khrushchev's reforms.

Dissolution and Revival

After Brezhnev's death (1982) and those of two short-lived successors, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary (1985) ushering in a period of reform characterized by glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or restructuring. The reforms increasingly destabilized the governing system, however, eliciting demands for ever more far-reaching reforms.

In 1991 hardline party and military leaders attempted a coup (see August Coup) to halt the process. Until then the CPSU had been organized to parallel the territorial hierarchy of government administration and all significant institutions, including the press and armed forces, thereby effectively controlling all policy. It was for this reason that all political activity in public institutions was banned in 1991, preparatory to dissolving the party, which was incriminated in the coup attempt. The party was banned by Russian President Boris Yeltsin late in 1991, and all its property seized. Subsequently, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated.

By 1992, however, the new Communist Party of Russia had been legally established. Several other descendent parties retain some political important in some of the other nations that emerged from the former Soviet Union. The Communist Party of Russia, the largest and most well-financed of the new parties, won the largest bloc of seats in the 1995 parliamentary elections, and in the first round of the 1996 Russian presidential election, Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov received almost as many votes as Yeltsin. Although the party again won the largest percentage of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the combined vote of the progovernment parties was greater. In what was seen as a pragmatic alliance, the parties supporting with President Putin joined in coalition with the Communists in the Duma, but in Apr., 2002, that alliance collapsed, and most Communist party members were stripped of their leadership positions in the Duma. Meanwhile, in 2000, Putin won the presidency in the first round, while Zyuganov was a distant second.

The parliamentary elections of 2003 were a setback for the party, which polled only 12.6% of the vote, and the party's candidate in the 2004 presidential elections won just 13.7%. Despite the setbacks the party suffered, the 2003 elections left it the only signification opposition party in the State Duma. In Aug., 2004, opponents of Zyuganov within the party attempted unsuccessfuly to oust him, but the following month the dissidents broke with the party and formed the All-Russia Communist party of the Future. Nonetheless, the mainstream Communists remain the second largest national political party in Russia, in both parliamentary and presidential balloting.


See L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (2d ed. 1971); S. F. Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience (1985); M. Geller, Utopia in Power (1986); S. Carter, Russian Nationalism (1990); J. F. Hough, Russia, the West, Gorbachev, and the Politics of Reform (1990).

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