The emergence of communist Russia was the most significant
event in twentieth-century Eastern Europe. After 1945, much
of East Europe fell to Soviet dominance. The Russian
Revolution also served as a model for communist movements in
China and Cuba. After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as one of the two great world powers. Russian history in the 20th century divides into four subperiods, including the revolution and its aftermath, 1917-28; Stalinism, isolation, and the new Soviet Empire, 1928-53; consolidation and superpower status, 1953-85; and dissolution of the communist system from 1985 onward.
- The Russian Revolution
Riots began in March 1917 in St. Petersburg protesting poor
conditions and demanding a new political regime. Councils of
workers, or soviets, took over the city. Unable to suppress
the disorder, the tsar abdicated.
- Liberalism to Communism
The first stage of the Russian Revolution was led by
liberals, such as Alexander Kerensky, who wanted to establish
parliamentary government. Lack of a substantial middle
class, unwillingness to enact land reform, and devotion to
continuation of World War I caused the liberal regime to lose
support. In November of 1917, a second revolution unseated
the liberal government and brought the Bolsheviks to power
under the leadership of Lenin. Lenin centralized his power
in the soviets. The Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from World
War I, even at the cost of land losses in western Russia.
The remaining Allies regarded the Bolshevik government as
dangerous, excluded them from the Versailles peace
conference, and carved new nations from formerly Russian
The first election held following the November revolution
returned a parliament in which the Social Revolutionary
party, not the Bolsheviks, held a majority. Lenin shut down
the parliament and replaced it with a Congress of Soviets,
thus establishing a Bolshevik monopoly on political action.
The Communist party controlled Soviet politics until 1989.
The revolution produced foreign opposition and internal
unrest. Britain, France, the United States, and Japan all
attempted to intervene in Russia to overthrow the Bolsheviks,
but they failed. Internal efforts to oust the Communists
and reverse the process of nationalization of economic
resources created a civil war.
- Stabilization of the New Regime
The creation of the Red Army under Leon Trotsky and
restoration of some order in the economy through the New
Economic Policy reduced resistance to Communist rule. The
NEP permitted some market freedom for both small businesses
and peasants. In 1923, a new constitution established the
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which remained under the
domination of ethnic Russians. Separate republics were
subject to the national Communist party and the government
remained strongly centralized. Universal suffrage elected
the Supreme Soviet, but only Communist party members were
allowed to stand for office. The parliament simply ratified
decisions reached in the party's executive committees.
Although a new constitution in the 1930s promised human
rights, the Communist regime represented a return to absolute
autocracy. When Lenin died in 1924, a power struggle ensued
for control of the Communist party and the government.
Joseph Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor. Stalin was more
devoted to national development than the spread of
international communism. Stalin concentrated on building
"socialism in one country." Rival political leaders were
destroyed as Stalin created a stranglehold on political
power. The Russian Revolution had swept away the tsar and
the aristocracy. The Bolsheviks created a new political and
economic reality for Russia.
- Building Soviet Society
Immediately after Lenin's death, there was more openness in
the Communist party than thereafter. New groups, workers,
and women were able to have some voice in the direction of
the revolution. Conceptions of family changed, but, by the
1930s, efforts to protect the family structure were enacted.
One key to the spirit of experimentation was the new
education system that improved literacy and reshaped popular
As Joseph Stalin was able to gain control of the Communist
apparatus, the process of experimentation came to an end.
Stalin wished to accelerate the process of nationalization
temporarily halted by the NEP. Stalin wished to establish an
industrialized society under governmental control without
private initiative or capitalization. Even agriculture was
to be subjected to the goals of industrialization.
- Centralized Economic Policies
Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture in 1928.
Large, state-run farms replaced individual family units.
Collectivization permitted government capitalization and
firmer control over the peasant population. When the
wealthier peasants, or kulaks, resisted, Stalin ordered them
killed or deported. The Communists imposed collectivization
by force. Government-run farms produced little incentive on
the part of the peasantry, and production suffered.
Collectivization did siphon capital and labor out of
agriculture into industrialization. To foster
industrialization, Stalin created a state planning commission
and a series of five-year plans. Government capitalized
infrastructure and industrialization. The focus was entirely
on heavy industry, not consumer production. State planning
did reduce dependence on markets, but also created
bottlenecks and waste. Despite problems, Russian
industrialization under the five-year plans was rapid.
- Toward an Industrial Society
Soviet industrialization shared some aspects with Western
developments. Urbanization rapidly increased, factory
management of labor was strict, and welfare services
developed over time.
Standards of living remained low, as industrialization
produced few consumer products. The entire process was
state-directed, and there was no mechanism to air worker
- Totalitarian Rule
Stalin created a totalitarian state through the creation of a
state police apparatus and the party. Potential rivals were
ruthlessly eliminated. Dissemination of information was
carefully controlled. Stalin's regime was repressive. His
elimination of many military officials weakened the Soviet
Union's ability to respond to external threats, particularly
the rising challenge of Nazi Germany. His emphasis on
internal development left the Soviet Union without allies or
much of a foreign policy.
Hitler's rise necessitated a change to a more aggressive
foreign policy. When Britain and France failed to support
Stalin's initiatives in Spain, he signed a pact with Hitler
in 1939. The alliance with Hitler was only a temporary
respite. In 1941, the German assault on Soviet territory
brought Stalin into an alliance with Britain and the United
States. Soviet industrialization and the military eventually
drove back the German invaders, but the costs in human loss
were enormous. The advance of the Red Army at the end of
World War II permitted the Soviet Union to establish a
position of dominance in Eastern Europe.
- The Soviet Union as a Superpower
Following 1945, the Soviet Union wished to regain the tsarist
boundaries and to continue playing a major role in European
diplomacy. Industrialization and success in the war elevated
the Soviet Union to the status of superpower along with its
primary rival, the United States. Soviet participation at
the very end of the war in campaigns against the Japanese
also gave the Soviets a foothold in Asian islands and in
North Korea. Soviet support for communist movements in China
and Southeast Asia also elevated their role in that part of
the world. Alliance with Cuba in Latin America and with some
nations in the Middle East helped to construct the bipolar
world divided between superpowers.
- The New Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe
The clearest extension of Soviet influence was in East
Europe, a development that helped start the cold war. Many
of the East European nations were the creation of the
negotiations that ended World War I. They were politically
unstable and retained largely agricultural economies. Only
in Czechoslovakia did industrialization and urbanization
produce the basis for parliamentary democracy. Much of
Eastern Europe fell to the Nazi advance after 1939. Some
other nations chose to ally with Germany. The Red Army drove
the Germans from Eastern Europe and became a new occupation
force. Communist parties within the technically independent
nations crushed opposition and became part of the Soviet
bloc. Only three nations were able to escape dominance:
Albania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Soviet regimes removed
possible rivals, established mass education and propaganda
systems, collectivized agriculture, and began heavy
Nations of East Europe became part of the Warsaw Pact to
counterbalance the U.S.-oriented NATO. There was some
resistance to overt Soviet control. East German workers rioted in
1953, but were quickly suppressed. To halt emigration, the
Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 and the border between
Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and the West was marked by
After Stalin's death, more liberal communist leaders arose in
Hungary and Poland. Soviet response varied. The Soviet
Union supported new leadership in Poland and some relaxation
of controls, but crushed the reform government of Hungary.
In general, post-Stalin governments in Eastern Europe were
granted greater freedom in economic planning and cultural
development. Limits to liberalization were demonstrated in
1968, when the Soviet Union expelled a reform government in
Czechoslovakia. The Polish army took over the state during
the late 1970s to prevent the growing influence of
Solidarity, an independent labor movement. As in Russia,
Soviet domination in Eastern Europe removed the aristocracy
and introduced an industrialized economy. Cultural ties with
the West were weakened.
- Evolution of Domestic Policies
The Stalinist sense of nationalism continued into the cold
war in opposition to the United States. Fear of U.S.
aggression led many to consent to continued autocracy.
Support for the government permitted relatively rapid
recovery from the devastation of World War II and facilitated
Stalin's attempts to retain isolation from the West. The
party bureaucracy continued to direct the economy, systems of
education, welfare, and the secret police from Moscow. Party
membership was kept intentionally low to emphasize the elite
nature of the Soviet command structure. The party itself
was dominated by the Politburo, whose members also held
ministries and military positions. Decision-making was left
in the hands of a chosen few members of the party, then
filtered down to subordinates. Innovation, to say nothing of
criticism, was stifled. Electoral contests or open
parliamentarianism was clearly avoided, but the Supreme
Soviet had no legislative power.
- Soviet Culture: Promoting New Beliefs
The Communist party also had a cultural agenda. The basis of
Soviet culture was a pervasive secularism designed to glorify
the functions of the state. The Orthodox Church was
forbidden to offer instruction to the young, restricting
active Church membership to the elderly. The Jewish minority
was also discriminated against. The state abandoned
emulation of Western artistic styles in favor of “socialist
realism,” which glorified the lives of soldiers, workers, and
peasants. Socialist realism spread to East Europe in the
postwar years. Soviet literary forms remained more diverse
and often earned censorship from the government. The Soviet
academy also emphasized the sciences and social sciences.
Urged to reject Western theories, Soviet scientists who
served government ideology were rewarded through state
funding. Technological advances in the postwar years were
- Economy and Society
Manufacturing and industrialization increased rapidly after
1920. There were some features of Soviet industrialization
that differed from the West. In the Soviet Union, the
government controlled all aspects of the economy. There was
virtually no emphasis on the production of consumer goods.
Despite the absence of consumer products, standards of living
The communist system also failed to develop a thriving
agricultural sector. In other ways, the Soviet economy was
similar to the West. Work rhythms and leisure practices
tended to be similar. Eastern European social structures
also began to more closely resemble those of the West. Urban
society was divided between workers and managers. The
nuclear family became the primary social unit within the
Soviet Union. Birth rates dropped until they approximated
those of the West. Most Soviet women worked, and remaining
in the home was less common in the East. Family expectations
with respect to education and acquisition of goods shared
some common goals with Western counterparts.
The rigid government system began to loosen after Stalin's
death in 1953. It was not until 1956 that a new leader,
Nikita Khrushchev, emerged. Khrushchev attacked Stalin for
his autocracy, theoretical dogma, brutality, and arbitrary
government. While few institutional changes were made, more
political opposition was visible. Party control and
centralized economic planning continued to be features of the
Soviet government. Agricultural failures in Siberia led to
Khrushchev's political demise.
Following de-Stalinization and Khrushchev's fall, little
innovation appeared in the Soviet economy or government. The
intensity of the cold war, which reached its peak during the
Cuban missile crisis under Khrushchev, lessened under
subsequent Soviet leaders. Soviet technological advances
were reflected in the launch of the first space satellite,
Sputnik. In both the space and the arms race, the Soviet
Union remained competitive with the U.S. Foreign policy
rifts with China after 1950 and growing dissidence among
minorities within the Soviet Union foretold serious problems.
The invasion of Afghanistan during the 1970s proved a costly
disaster. Social problems and the continued lack of consumer
products began to seriously handicap the economy of the
Soviet Union, and industrial production began to lag behind
- The Explosion of the 1980s and 1990s
Economic disruption forced political changes that led to the
dismantling of the Soviet Union after 1985.
- Economic Stagnation
Environmental deterioration contributed to a declining sense
of well-being in East Europe and the Soviet Union.
Industrial production began to slip as a result of poor
worker morale and continued central planning. As production
dropped, the percentage of gross national product devoted to
the military reached unacceptable proportions.
- Reform and Agitation
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev began to dismantle some of the
most obvious flaws of the centralized state and economy. The
new leader acted to reduce nuclear armaments and ended the
war in Afghanistan. Internally, the new policy of glasnost
was intended to provide a more open atmosphere, in which
criticism of the government would be somewhat tolerated.
While Gorbachev hoped to introduce some Western management
techniques, he continued to be critical of Western culture
and politics. With some misgivings, Gorbachev opened the
Soviet economy to Western investment and limited trade.
Although Gorbachev's reforms failed to stimulate the economy,
they did open markets to more private initiative. The Soviet
Union did reduce expenditures on the military and attempted
to redirect funds into production of consumer goods.
A new Soviet constitution in 1988 granted some powers to a
new parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies. Parties
other than the Communists began to develop. In 1990,
Gorbachev was elected to the newly powerful position of
President of the Soviet Union. After 1988, ethnic minorities
in the Soviet Union began to agitate for national self-
determination. By 1991, Georgia and Lithuania voted for
- Dismantling the Soviet Empire
As the Soviet military power weakened, states in East Europe
moved toward independence. Bulgaria moved away from
communism in 1987 and 1989. Hungary installed a noncommunist
government in 1988. In Poland, Solidarity, the noncommunist
labor movement, became the primary political voice after
1988. East Germany expelled its communist government in 1989
and took down the Berlin Wall in 1990. By the end of the
same year, unification between East and West Germany was
completed. Czechoslovakia moved away from communism in 1989.
Of all the independence movements, only the ouster of the
Romanian leadership led to violence. Even within the newly
independent nations of East Europe, ethnic violence was
common. Slow economic growth and political indecision led to
the reestablishment of communist governments in Poland and
Hungary by 1994. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor,
Boris Yeltsin, withdrew Soviet troops and allowed political
self-determination in East Europe.
- Shocks in 1991: The End of the Soviet Union
An attempted coup against Gorbachev's government failed in
1991, as popular demonstrations supported the democratic
trend within the Soviet Union. Sensing the weakness within
the central government, ethnic minorities moved toward
independence in the Baltic republics, Belarus, Ukraine,
Moldova, and the Muslim regions of central Asia. The Soviet
Union ceased to exist and was replaced by a loose
confederation of republics, the Commonwealth of Independent
Boris Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev as Russian president in the
final stages of the process. As in East Europe, the new
republics were devastated by internal ethnic violence.
Yeltsin himself was forced to suppress conservative
elements within the Russian parliament, but was unable to
establish a firm basis for continued democratic government.
In the aftermath of centralized planning, the Russian economy
remained weak. There was little progress in producing
consumer goods or in creating sufficient jobs.
- Conclusion: What Next?
Recent trends in Russian history demonstrate that Russia and
East Europe had changed relatively little in some ways during
the twentieth century. Ethnic differences continue to divide
the new nations of the post-Soviet era. Religion continued
to remain a vital force, despite its relegation to
insignificance under the Soviets. Despite the establishment
of a totalitarian state for much of the century, Russia
remained attracted to Western culture, including the concepts
of political liberty and a market economy. Russian
aggression during the twentieth century was actually
Some aspects of the Soviet Union have been retained in East
Europe. Despite reforms, the new Russian government
continues to stress the significance of strong, central
authority. Democracy has not been well-established. Many of
the new nations wish to continue the concept of a welfare
state that typified the communist governments and to attack
individualism associated with Western culture.