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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Introduction; The People of the Soviet Union; Arts and Sciences; Economy; Government; History of the Soviet Union
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Russian Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik), the original Communist dictatorship, the West’s principal adversary in the post-1945 hostility of the Cold War, and a dominant force in international affairs until its collapse in 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was commonly known as the Soviet Union (Sovetsky Soyuz). Occupying most of the far-flung lands of the former Russian Empire in Eastern Europe and Asia, it had its capital in Moscow, the ancestral seat of the Russian emperors, or tsars. Its title alluded to the soviets, or workers’ councils, of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that catapulted Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks (later renamed Communists) to power. The first state the Bolsheviks established bore the name Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). It was the largest of the many political entities of the former Russian Empire that proliferated during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921).
The Soviet Union was formed in December 1922 as a federal union of the RSFSR and those neighboring areas under its military occupation or ruled by branches of the communist movement. Initially it consisted of four Soviet states, or union republics: the RSFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR; also known as Ukraine), and the Belorussian SSR (now Belarus). The number of union republics and exact boundaries of the USSR shifted over time. The Turkmen and Uzbek republics (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were carved out of the Central Asian part of the RSFSR in late 1924. In this same region, the Tajik republic (Tajikistan) was demarcated from Uzbek territory in 1929, and the Kazakh and Kirgiz republics (now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) were likewise formed from RSFSR territory in 1936. Also that year the Transcaucasian republic was dissolved, and its three constituent republics—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—each became union republics of the USSR. The westward extension of Soviet borders in 1939 and 1940 enlarged Ukraine and Belorussia and annexed five areas as distinct republics: the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Moldavia, most of which was taken from Romania; and the Karelo-Finnish republic (see Karelia), which included territory taken from Finland. The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II (1939-1945) allowed the Soviet Union to solidify and round out its European conquests, although not all were recognized by Western countries, and to adjust its Pacific frontiers at the expense of Japan. The Soviet government transferred the Karelo-Finnish republic to the RSFSR in 1956, paring the number of union republics to 15.
In geographic extent, the Soviet Union was by far the largest country in the world. Its gross area in its post-1945 limits, counting island possessions and inland seas, was 22,402,000 sq km (8,649,500 sq mi), or nearly one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Three-quarters of Soviet territory was in the RSFSR (two-thirds of that in Siberia and the Russian Far East) and 12 percent in Kazakhstan. From its westernmost point on the Baltic Sea to its easternmost island in the Bering Strait, the Soviet Union spanned more than 10,000 km (6200 mi) and 11 time zones; the maximum distance from Central Asia in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north was almost 5000 km (3110 mi). The Soviet Union bordered 12 countries, more than any other. The bulk of it consisted of flat plains broken only by the low-slung Ural Mountains, the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and drained by large rivers flowing north to south or south to north. Chains of rugged mountains ringed it in the south and east.
Lenin and the zealots who founded the Soviet system saw it as a political and economic prototype other countries would soon copy. As prospects for world revolution dimmed in the 1920s, Lenin’s lieutenant and successor, Joseph Stalin, governed in an increasingly tyrannical manner. His three decades in power were memorable for the development of the Soviet Union’s state-owned economy, for its emergence as a nuclear-armed superpower, and for its acquisition of satellite states in Eastern Europe. They were known also for the regimentation of society, the deprivations of World War II, and the bruising political purges and repressions that killed or imprisoned millions of people.
Nikita Khrushchev, the main leader from 1953 to 1964, and his successor, Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), blunted the Stalinist terror but shied away from fundamental reforms. While its military strength and accomplishments in outer space and athletics won the Soviet Union world attention, domestic institutions stagnated and the economy stumbled under the competing demands of the army, industrial investment, and the consumer. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, loosened political controls in the 1980s and touched off freewheeling debate about the scale and pace of change. Conflict over constitutional and economic issues brought the Soviet Union to the brink of civil war and prompted its disintegration into 15 volatile successor states in 1991.
The Soviet Union’s total population as of its final census, in January 1989, was 286,717,000, making it the third most populous country in the world, after China and India. Its population increased between 1959 and 1989 by about 78 million, or 37 percent.
The Russian Empire in early 1917 was overwhelmingly rural, with only 18 percent of its subjects residing in urban settlements. Urbanization surged in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, as state-directed industry burgeoned in the cities and peasants fled villages despoiled by the forced collectivization of agriculture and the ensuing famine. The population was 33 percent urbanized in 1940, 48 percent in 1959, 56 percent in 1970, and 66 percent in 1989.
The Soviet population was distributed unevenly across republics and regions. Fifty-one percent of the total population (147 million people) lived in the RSFSR, and 18 percent (52 million people) lived in Ukraine in 1989. No other union republic held more than 10 percent of the population. The least populous republic, Estonia, contained only 1.6 million people, or less than 1 percent of the total. Population density, which was 13 persons per sq km (33 per sq mi) for the USSR as a whole in 1989, ranged from 6 persons per sq km (16 per sq mi) in Kazakhstan to 129 persons per sq km (334 per sq mi) in Moldavia. The RSFSR ranked 13th in population density among the republics. Topography and arduous climate left immense sections of the Soviet Union sparsely settled. In the northern provinces of European Russia, in Siberia and the Far East, and in the deserts of Central Asia, densities often fell below 1 person per sq km (below 3 per sq mi). More than two-thirds of the Soviet Union had less than 5 persons per sq km (less than 13 per sq mi).
Twenty-three Soviet cities exceeded 1 million in population in 1989, and 35 had between 500,000 and 1 million people. Moscow, with about 9 million inhabitants, was not only the governmental headquarters of the USSR and the RSFSR, but also an important industrial site and the focal point for Soviet science and engineering, mass communications, and cultural activities. Second in size, at 5 million, was Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), which under the name of Saint Petersburg and then Petrograd had been capital of the Russian Empire from 1712 to 1917; the city was a prominent seaport and industrial center after the Bolsheviks moved the seat of government to Moscow in 1918. Other large cities were the republic capitals of Kiev (now Kyiv), in Ukraine; Toshkent, in Uzbekistan; Baku, in Azerbaijan ; and Minsk, in Belorussia.
The Soviet regime’s proclaimed goal was to forge the classless, communist society that German political theorist Karl Marx had sketched in the 19th century. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) pledged in its 1961 program to attain full-fledged communism within a generation. The target proved unrealizable. CPSU theory classified the Soviet Union as a socialist society in which three main groups—the working class (proletariat), peasantry, and white-collar intelligentsia—coexisted harmoniously and selflessly laid the foundations of the coming communist utopia. In reality, social structure was more complicated than the theory allowed, and the ruling party worried more about perpetuating its power and privileges than about advancing popular well-being or preparing for the future.
Many personal freedoms were drastically curtailed in the Soviet Union. In the Stalin era, employees needed the permission of management to change jobs and could face criminal prosecution for tardiness or absenteeism. These cruel penalties were abandoned in the 1950s; most other restrictions were not. Soviet citizens continued to be subject to surveillance and interference by the political police. They could join only associations approved by the CPSU. They could not set up businesses or sell their individual services, save for a few minor fields such as tutoring and baby-sitting. State-imposed regulations on personal mobility required residents to carry internal passports and to have them stamped by the police before changing locale; travel abroad was possible only with special authorization. Military service was compulsory and graduates from higher education had to accept work assignments, sometimes in undesirable locations, the first few years after acquiring their diplomas. Able-bodied adults who did not hold a job were condemned as “social parasites”, and evicted from the big cities.
Average living conditions deteriorated between the 1917 revolution and Stalin’s death in 1953, depressed by social upheaval, warfare, and planners’ bias toward military and industrial spending. Progress at last came about under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in boosting the supply of foodstuffs, consumer goods, and housing. Even at that, the standard of living lagged far behind the affluent West. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated Soviet national output in 1991 to be about $9100 per capita, compared with $15,000 per capita in the United Kingdom and $21,800 in the United States. In the neglected consumer realm, Soviet backwardness was greater than overall figures might suggest. Some Western and Russian experts judged per capita purchasing power to be about one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. norm in the 1980s.
In the housing realm, for example, 15 percent of families lived in a single room in 1989 and 47 percent in two rooms. Waiting times for government-funded apartments, which rented for tiny sums once allocated, were ten or more years long in some cities. Sixty-three percent of Soviet households did not have a telephone. Housing construction fell far short of demand after the mid-1970s, as only six or seven apartments were built for every ten new households formed. Home appliances and other consumer durables were widespread, yet quality was shabby, assortment limited, and repair facilities scarce. Chronic shortages forced people to spend hours in line at state stores and to hoard items, thereby aggravating the shortages. Disparities between official and black-market prices bred corruption among sales personnel.
The regime’s egalitarian ideals often clashed with its desire to spur productivity and loyalty by differentiating the rewards people received. Inequality of income and social status was pervasive under Stalin and persevered afterward, despite efforts to improve the lot of the poorest segments of the population. Average earnings of the best-paid 10 percent of the labor force were more than three times those of the worst-paid 10 percent in 1976. Members of the CPSU apparatus, senior economic managers, and other favored groups enjoyed not only higher salaries but also more comfortable apartments, better recreational opportunities, access to luxury goods, and foreign travel.
Public services to some degree offset low incomes. A point of pride was the government’s free provision of health care, education, and social-security benefits. Even here, though, problems of quality, availability, and equity simmered beneath the surface. Hospital treatment may have been without charge, but it was revealed in the 1980s that only every second hospital had an X-ray machine and only 20 percent of rural hospitals and clinics had hot running water. The sick often had to purchase therapy and medication through illegal gratuities. The Soviet elite, by contrast, received superior medical care in secret facilities closed to the masses. Underfunding of welfare programs, growing stress and alcohol consumption, and a worsening of environmental pollution caused a noticeable deterioration in health indicators in the late Soviet era. The infant mortality rate, which had plunged from 80.7 per 1000 live births in 1950 to 22.9 per 1000 in 1971, rose to 27.3 per 1000 in 1980, dropping somewhat to 25.4 per 1000 in 1987. Life expectancy for men, 66 years in the mid-1960s, sagged to 62 years by the early 1980s.
The Soviet Union, as heir to the former territory of the Russian Empire, was exceptionally diverse in its national composition. Its 1989 census identified 113 ethnic communities, or “nationalities” (Russian natsional’nosti), having populations of 1000 or more, as well as several dozen groups numbering in the hundreds. Almost all had their own languages, customs, and religious traditions, although in many cases national consciousness was weak until the 20th century. Twenty-two Soviet nationalities had at least 1 million members.
The 145.2 million ethnic Russians, the largest nationality by a lopsided margin, came to a bare majority (50.8 percent) of the entire population. Their fellow Eastern Slavs, the Ukrainians and Belorussians, came second and fourth in size, with 44.2 million people (15.5 percent) and 10 million people (3.5 percent), respectively, and several smaller Slavic nationalities were also represented. Ethnic groups of Turkic extraction, based primarily in Central Asia, the Azerbaijan republic, and the middle Volga River valley of the RSFSR, accounted for about 17 percent of the population. Of them, the 16.7 million Uzbeks were the third largest Soviet nationality, the 8.1 million Kazakhs fifth, the 6.8 million Azerbaijanis sixth, and the 6.6 million Tatars seventh. In eighth, ninth, and tenth place were the Armenians (4.6 million), in the South Caucasus; the Tajiks (4.2 million), in Central Asia; and the Georgians (4 million), also in the South Caucasus.
Soviet nationality policy had two defining and at times discordant aspects. On the one hand, it singled out the Russians as the foremost ethnic group and placed the Soviet Union firmly in the line of Russian states going back to the Russian Empire and to the medieval principality of Muscovy. All heads of the Communist Party except Stalin, a Georgian, were of Russian descent. On the other hand, the state acknowledged the worth of the minority nationalities and demarcated a territorial homeland for most of the largest of them. The area’s government and party committee were normally headed by persons from the titular ethnic group.
For 15 of the 22 biggest nationalities (Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Belorussians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Tajiks, Georgians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Turkmen, Kirgiz, Latvians, and Estonians) the homeland was a union republic, or SSR. Several dozen smaller groups were assigned lesser units labeled, depending on their size and location, autonomous soviet socialist republics (ASSRs), autonomous oblasts (regions), or autonomous okrugs (areas). Twenty autonomous republics (all but four of them in the RSFSR), eight autonomous oblasts, and ten autonomous okrugs existed in 1989. Three nationalities with more than 1 million members each—the 2 million Germans, 1.4 million Jews, and 1.1 million Poles—had no localized territorial base.
The borders of the union republics invariably encompassed groups other than the titular nationality, and migration, especially of Russians out from the RSFSR, also heightened their ethnic pluralism. The titular groups were the largest community in all union republics in 1989, but there was much variation. At one pole, the indigenous Armenians constituted 93.3 percent of the population of the Armenian republic; at the other, Kazakhs were only 39.7 percent of the population of their republic. There was one union republic (Kazakhstan) in which the titular people made up less than 50 percent of the population, two republics (Latvia and Kirgizia) where the titular people barely cleared 50 percent, and three (Estonia, Moldavia, and Tajikistan) where they composed between 60 and 65 percent. In the capital cities of seven of the 14 non-Russian republics, the titular nationality was less than 50 percent of the population, and in two it was 51 percent. Ethnic Russians, 81.5 percent of the population of the RSFSR, were second to the titular group in all union republics except Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia.
The orienting principles of Soviet nationality policy were applied in different ways in different periods. In the early years, the emphasis was on the cultural autonomy of the minorities. A more rigidly pro-Russian approach was introduced in the mid-1930s, followed by arrests of the political and cultural leaders of most non-Russian republics, and by the wholesale deportation during World War II of several groups—the Germans of Ukraine and the Volga basin, the Chechens, and the Crimean Tatars among them—unjustly accused of pro-Nazi sympathies. After 1953 the CPSU allowed most of the banished peoples to return and moderated its stance, although it did not hesitate to use force against open critics of the system. Rhetoric about the long-term “fusion” of the Soviet peoples aside, efforts to assimilate the non-Russians focused on education, linguistic integration, migration, and intermarriage.
Ethnic relations became more strained in the 1970s and 1980s. One reason was the perception among some Russians that the Soviet Union catered too much to other nationalities and that higher birthrates among non-Russians were about to deprive Russians of their slim demographic majority. At the same time, dissent and impatience with Moscow’s domination picked up pace on the non-Russian side, especially in the Baltic republics and Ukraine. Many Soviet Jews, deprived of a territorial unit, alienated by frequent occurrences of anti-Semitism, and frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity, sought to emigrate to Israel or other destinations. Bowing to Western pressure, the Soviet government grudgingly allowed several hundred thousand to leave. Ethnic Germans also departed in large numbers.
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