The history of Russia between 1922 and 1991 is essentially the history of the Soviet Union. From its first years, the government in what became the Soviet Union was based on the one-party rule of the communists, as the Bolsheviks called themselves beginning in March 1918. After unsuccessfully attempting to centralize the economy in accordance with Marxist dogma during the Russian Civil War, the Soviet government permitted some private enterprise to coexist with nationalized industry in the 1920s.

From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, the leader of the Soviet state was Vladimir Lenin even though there was a pretense it was ruled by committee. Although a collective of prominent communists nominally guided the party and the Soviet Union, Lenin commanded such prestige and authority that even such brilliant theoreticians as Trotsky and Nikolay Bukharin generally yielded to his will. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Lenin formed the world's first Communist government on November 9, 1917 and took the title of president of the Society of People's Commissars, a position he held until his death. Leon Trotsky became the military commissar. Lenin was 47 years old when became leader. He was only in power for a short time, from 1917 to his death in 1924.


Communist Dictatorship

The Bolshevik's wasted no time getting down to business. An armistice with the Germans was declared in December 1917 which allowed the Bolsheviks to concentrate on issues at home such as taking land from industrialists and noblemen and redistributing it among workers and peasants.

In January 1918, the Red Army was founded by Trotsky. In March 1918, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the Bolsheviks) officially was renamed the Russian Communist Party and the capital of the new Communist state was moved from Petrograd (St. Petersburg), where tsarist sympathies remained strong, to Moscow. Moscow was also father away from central Europe and viewed as safe from a German attack. As part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky, signed in March 1918, Russia surrendered Poland, the Baltic provinces, Ukraine and Finland and Transcaucasus to the Germans. When World War I ended many of these places became independent countries.

The Communists took over the Russian government and created a dictatorship. University of London historian Geoffrey Hosking described it as "a new kind of imperial regime" which "rested on nothing more substantial than its own internal discipline." The Communists aimed to overhaul Russia’s economic and political systems. They took over the ownership of all land and assumed control over all industry, but they kept in place tsarist institutions such as the secret police, the Siberian labor camps and authoritarian rule for their own purposes.


As important as Lenin's activities were to the establishment of the Soviet Union, his legacy to the Soviet future was perhaps even more significant. By willingly changing his policies to suit new situations, Lenin had developed a pragmatic interpretation of Marxism (later called Marxist-Leninism) that implied that the party should follow any course that would ultimately lead to communism. His party, while still permitting intraorganizational debate, insisted that its members adhere to the organization's decisions once they were adopted, in accordance with the principle of democratic centralism. Finally, because the party embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat, organized opposition could not be tolerated, and adversaries would be prosecuted. Thus, although the Soviet regime was not totalitarian when he died, Lenin had nonetheless laid the foundation upon which such a tyranny would later arise. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Lenin wanted to achieve his goals as quickly as possible—no easy task. To achieve his goals he relied on suppression and brutality. Victor Chernov said: "Lenin was a man with a one-track mind. For that reason, his moral sense has been dulled. Lenin's socialism is a blunt socialism; he uses a big ax where a scalpel is needed."

Lenin based his goals on a rather unbalanced interpretation of Age of Enlightenment. He wanted to create a new society by reeducating and remodeling people in severe and brutal form of social engineering. His mode was later adopted by Mao and Pol Pot. The top priority of Marxist-Leninism was to stay in power at all costs. The second was the that party was always right. One slogan found at a gulag read: “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness.”

Lenin was committed to a one-party, one ideology self-preserving state. Lenin biographer Richard Pipes wrote, "Bolshevikism was the most audacious attempt in history to subject the entire life of a country to a master plan. It sought to sweep aside as useless rubbish the wisdom that mankind had accumulated over millennia. In that sense, it was a unique effort to apply science to human affairs: and it was pursued with the zeal characteristic of the breed of intellectuals who regard resistance to their ideas as proof that they are sound."

Andrei Sinyavsky, dissident from the 1960s, wrote, "the incomprehensibility of Lenin is precisely this all-consuming intellectuality—the fact that from his calculations, from his neat pen, flowed seas of blood, whereas by nature he was not an evil person. On the contrary Vladimir Ilyich was a rather kind person whose cruelty was stipulated by science and in controvertible historical laws. As were his love of power and his political inheritance."

Lenin: The Hardworking Benevolent Dictator?

Describing his feelings upon taking over a country of 150 million people, of which 90 percent were illiterate, Lenin said, "It makes one's head spin." Some scholars have cast Lenin as a relatively benevolent leader who only resorted to violence when he had to, and that Stalin was the true evil leader of the Soviet Union. These scholars point to Lenin's liberal New Economic Policy of the 1920s and argue that Lenin was driven by the concept of world revolution, used terror only in wartime, surrounded himself with independent thinkers, and abhorred personal adulation whereas Stalin was motivated by a lust for power, used terror all the time, surrounded himself with sycophants, and established a personality cult.

Lenin said he intended to create a paradise on earth where there was no injustice. Out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Lenin tried to forge an ideal Communist state free of capitalism, private ownership, war, poverty, and religion. He believed that the state must control the economy. Among the tasks Lenin set out for his new government were creating a socialist society from scratch; redistributing the land held by the aristocracy; creating collective farms; nationalizing factories, mines, utilities and banks; bringing electricity to the interior; outlawing private property and profits; and dismantling the Orthodox church.

Achievements made by the early Communists included achieving a high rate of literacy among a society that had only emerged from feudalism 50 years before; provided free medical care and bring electricity to far reaches of the country. The Communists helped bring Russia into the modern world. Among other things, they forced the country to switch from the 16th century Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, the one most of the world uses today.⌂ ♦

Lenin: the Source of Stalinism?

Other historians see Lenin as the evil genius who laid the "blueprint" for Stalin and Stalinism and was the source of the Soviet Union's tragedies and eventual demise. Aleksandr N. Yakoviev, the head of commission organized by Yeltsin to reexamine Soviet history, told a news conference, "All the repression, camps, hostage-taking, mass deportations, executions without trial, even the executions of children were not invented by Stalin. He was just the great continuer of Lenin's Task, It all began under Lenin."

Some historians argue that Lenin would have killed just as many people as Stalin if he had been in power longer and had at his disposal the same technology as Stalin. Lenin biographer, Dmitri Volkogonov wrote, Lenin sowed "the seeds of the murderous collectivization...the appalling purges...and the postwar 'punishment' of entire nations." It was Lenin who was "the father of domestic Russian terrorism, merciless and totalitarian."

Lenin was the father of the gulags—Soviet forced labor camps and prisons—not Stalin. After the Bolsheviks came to power, camps known as knotslager, which had been built 1918 to house Czech soldiers who fought for the Bolshevik forces in Siberia, were used to incarcerate kulaks, wealthy farmers. The Resolution on Red Terror, issued in 1918, called fore the “safeguarding of the Soviet republic from class enemies by means of isolating them in concentration camps.” Categories of people deemed “enemies of the Revolution” were incarcerated and used as slave labor.

Construction of new camps began in 1919. By the end of 1920, there were 84 camps with around 50,000 people. By 1924, the year Lenin died, the number of camps had quadrupled. The Soviets tried to hide the camps but they were not concealed completely. Some foreign visitors to Russia in that period described them.

Pragmatic Leadership in Lenin's Last Years

Realizing the mistakes of his authoritarian rule, in the last years of his rule Lenin tried to open up to capitalist countries, reform his inefficient bureaucracy and correct abuses of his regime. In an effort to stem and avert disasters like the Kronstadt Mutiny and the Famine of 1920-21, Lenin implemented a New Economic Policy (1921-28), which allowed a limited amount of private enterprise. Managers with skill were rewarded. Agricultural and industrial productivity improved. Food supplies increased and factory products found there way to consumers.

But within the party, Lenin denounced the formation of factions, particularly by radical-left party members. Central party organs subordinated local soviets to their authority. Party members perceived as less committed periodically were purged from the rosters. The Politburo (Political Bureau), which became the elite policy-making agency of the nation, created the new post of general secretary for the supervision of personnel matters and assigned Stalin to this office in April 1922. A minor member of the party's Central Committee at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin was thought to be a rather lackluster personality and therefore well suited to the routine work required of the general secretary.

Consolidation of Power in the Soviet Union

In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Soviet Union) was established by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It was comprised of the four entities: the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian republics. By the late 1930s, there were 11 republics, all with government structures and ruling communist parties identical to the one in the Russian Republic. The 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) that existed at the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 were established by 1940.

About the time that the party sanctioned partial decentralization of the economy, it also approved a quasi-federal structure for the state. During the Civil War, the non-Russian Soviet republics on the periphery of Russia were theoretically independent, but in fact they were controlled by the central government through the party and the Red Army. Some communists favored a centralized Soviet state, while nationalists wanted autonomy for the borderlands. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A compromise between the two positions was reached in December 1922 with the formation of the USSR. The constituent republics of this "Soviet Union" (the Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Transcaucasian republics--the last combining Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) exercised a degree of cultural and linguistic autonomy, while the communist, predominantly Russian, leadership in Moscow retained political authority over the entire country. *

The party consolidated its authority throughout the country, becoming a monolithic presence in state and society. Potential rivals outside the party, including prominent members of the abolished Menshevik faction and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, were exiled.

Stalin as Leader of the Soviet Union

Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 to his death in 1953. In the early years of his leadership, Stalin continued Lenin’s policies. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928 he began doing thing his way: also in 1928 he launched his first Five-Year plan. This followed by the drive towards collectivization in the early 1930s and the change of the constitution in 1936 to give him more authority.

Policy was dictated under Five-Year Plans, a concept that first appeared under Stalin. In 1928 Stalin introduced the First Five-Year Plan for building a socialist economy. In industry the state assumed control over all existing enterprises and undertook an intensive program of industrialization; in agriculture the state appropriated the peasants' property to establish collective farms. The plan's implementation produced widespread misery, including the deaths of millions of peasants by starvation or directly at the hands of the government during forced collectivization. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

Stalin’s regime became steadily more repressive in the 1930s and locked the national economy into a rigid system of state control, with five-year plans prescribing the performance of every economic sector and heavily emphasizing heavy industry. By 1939 the Soviet Union had been transformed from a primarily agricultural country into a world industrial power. From 1941 until 1944, the Soviet Union fought German invading forces in World War II, losing millions of Russian lives. After the war, the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as the world’s major economic and ideological rivals in what soon came to be called the Cold War. In the early years of that confrontation, the Soviet Union gained control of all of Eastern Europe and developed a nuclear bomb. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]

Five Year Plans

In an effort to catch up with the West and industrialize and modernize the Soviet Union, Stalin launched a series of Five Year Plans in 1928 with the declaration: "We are 50 to 100 years behind advanced countries. We must cover the distance in 10 years." Later he warned, "To slacken the tempo means to fall behind. And the backward are always beaten." In heavy industry, and to some degree with consumer goods, the plans worked. By 1939, only the U.S. and Germany had higher industrial output.

A five-year plan is a comprehensive plan that set the middle-range economic goals in the Soviet Union. Once the Soviet regime stipulated plan figures, all levels of the economy, from individual enterprises to the national level, were obligated to meet those goals. Such plans were followed from 1928 until 1991.

In the first Five-Year plan, Stalin called for a quadrupling of outputs of heavy industry to be achieved with massive building projects and production quotas. The economy was centralized: small-scale industry and services were nationalized, managers strove to fulfill Gosplan's output quotas, and the trade unions were converted into mechanisms for increasing worker productivity. Between 1929 and 1933, when the West was enduring the Great Depression and the U.S. industrial output declined by nearly half, the Soviet Union was claiming its production had doubled.

Under Stalin, old historical buildings were torn down to make way for new apartments, schools, metro stations and prisons. About half of Moscow's churches were destroyed, and the ones that remained were turned into warehouses, factories, sports clubs and offices. New projects included huge factories and industrial complex, Gothic wedding-cake skyscrapers in Moscow and other cities, extensive canals system and dams that connected the countries rivers and made unnavigable stretches of river navigable. Much of the work was done by labor camp prisoners and German POWs.

Yale history professor Paul Kennedy wrote: “Believing un the superiority of scientific socialism and obsesses with what one might term “giganticism,” they threw money, raw materials and the lives of many millions of laborer into creating large cities, steel mills and extraction plants in the coldest parts of the world.”

But because Stalin insisted on unrealistic production targets, serious problems soon arose. With the greatest share of investment put into heavy industry, widespread shortages of consumer goods occurred, and inflation grew. By 1932 Stalin realized that both the economy and society were under serious strain. Although industry failed to meet its production targets and agriculture actually lost ground in comparison with 1928 yields, Stalin declared that the First Five-Year Plan had successfully met its goals in four years. He then proceeded to set more realistic goals. Under the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), the state devoted attention to consumer goods, and the factories built under the first plan helped increase industrial output in general. The Third Five-Year Plan, begun in 1938, produced poorer results because of a sudden shift of emphasis to armaments production in response to the worsening international climate. In general, however, the Soviet economy had become industrialized by the end of the 1930s. Agriculture, which had been exploited to finance the industrialization drive, continued to show poor returns throughout the decade. *


In the 1920s and 30s, Stalin government took over privately run farms, organized huge government-run state farms and order peasants to join together and form collective farms. Many peasants whose families had worked their land for centuries resisted and were forced to give up their farms and move to huge collective farms.

"Collectivization" was an aim to produce enough food for everyone and free people to factory workers. It was thought that fewer people would be able to produce more food under the system, but actually productivity dropped and peasantry was destroyed as a class and a way of life.

Stalin forced peasants into collective farms against their will and imposed impossible quotas. Police and party brigades carried off away food and seed grain. Mills and storage facilities were burned down and harvests were confiscated and exported while people went hungry to demonstrate to the world the success of "scientific socialism."

To satisfy the state's need for increased food supplies, the First Five-Year Plan called for the organization of the peasantry into collective units that the authorities could easily control. This collectivization program entailed compounding the peasants' lands and animals into collective farms (kolkhozy; sing., kolkhoz) and state farms (sovkhozy; sing., sovkhoz) and restricting the peasants' movement from these farms. The effect of this restructuring was to reintroduce a kind of serfdom into the countryside.

Propaganda and Culture Under Stalin

Under Stalin, literature and the arts came under direct party control during the 1930s, with mandatory membership in unions of writers, musicians, and other artists entailing adherence to established standards. After 1934 the party dictated that creative works had to express socialistic spirit through traditional forms. This officially sanctioned doctrine, called "socialist realism," applied to all fields of art. The state repressed works that were stylistically innovative or lacked appropriate content.

In the Stalin era, propaganda was emblazoned on posters, artworks, statues, tapestries, carpets, and lacquered boxes. Tea sets trumpeted achievements like the "tractorization" of the countryside; porcelain dishes were devoted to Stalin's 1936 constitution; and banners depicted children shouting, "Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!" Propaganda included ideological formulas and slogans. "The people must know their heroes" was an important slogan in the Stalin era. The purpose of Soviet propaganda under Stalin was to promote his personality cult and encourage people to labor and make sacrifices for the state.

When Stalin came to power in the late 1920s, the Party imposed strict controls on culture and education. Contact with the West was all but cut off, and writers and artists were required to join government-supported unions or be ignored. According to the “Revolution from Above,” writers had to to stick close to proletariat values and eliminate all “bourgeois” and “deviaionist” writing. Anything that hinted of mysticism, religion, the supernatural or was anyway linked to the West was forbidden.

After a group of "proletarian writers" had gained ascendancy in the early 1930s, the communist party Central Committee forced all fiction writers into the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934. The union then established the standard of "socialist realism" for Soviet literature, and many of the writers in Russia fell silent or emigrated. A few prose writers adapted by describing moral problems in the new Soviet state, but the stage was dominated by formulaic works of minimal literary value such as Nikolay Ostrovskiy's “How the Steel Was Tempered” and Yuriy Krymov's “Tanker Derbent.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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