Soviet Union

In 1922, the Soviet Union became the world's first communist state after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the Bolshevik Revolution brought an end to Tsarist Russia.  

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    Let's look at this transitional period for Russia and how the establishment of the USSR shaped the 20th century.

    The Soviet Union, formally known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was founded in 1922 and united Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasian Federation into a confederation. Throughout the 20th century, the USSR came to be comprised of 15 countries centralised under the communist government.

    A Bolshevik was a member of the far-left Marxist faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party led by Vladimir Lenin.

    Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (1917-1922)

    The Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917 following their revolution. Initially, they established and led the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) but in 1922, the USSR was founded.

    What events led to this transition?

    Formation of the Soviet Union: Timeline

    Below is a timeline showing the birth and collapse of the Soviet Union in Russia.

    • February Revolution: The monarch Tsar Nicholas II abdicated (gave up his authority) in March. The Provisional Government was set up and the Russian Republic was formed to administer the ex-Russian empire.
    • The October/Bolshevik Revolution: The Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and founded the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), an independent sovereign state.
    March 1918Vladimir Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which removed Russia from the First World War.
    1918-21The Reds and the Whites fought against each other in the Russian Civil War. The Cheka also began the Red Terror under Lenin's orders.
    1922After the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War, Lenin established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin died 2 years later in 1924 and was eventually succeeded by Joseph Stalin, who had consolidated authoritarian power over the USSR by the end of the 1920s.

    The RSFSR became one of the original republics of the Soviet Union, along with Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia.

    Soviet Meaning

    Before we learn more about the Soviet Union, what exactly is a soviet?

    A soviet was initially used as a term for an elected council that represented workers and soldiers in Russia. Communist parties such as the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks politicised the soviets to demand change for the working classes.

    Lenin adopted 'soviet' to refer to the proletariat who fought for socialism in the country as part of the Bolshevik cause. This was important because of Lenin's adaptation of Marxism.


    The social class comprised of peasants and industrial workers

    Karl Marx theorised that an economy would naturally transition through certain stages:

    1. Primitive communism
    2. Slave society
    3. Feudalism
    4. Capitalism
    5. Socialism
    6. Communism

    Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia was in the feudalist stage - society had clearly defined classes linked to land ownership. In theory, a peasant revolution would create a capitalist society and after a period of capitalism, the industrial working class would revolt to create a socialist society.

    However, Lenin wanted Russia to move from feudalism straight to socialism, skipping the capitalist stage. This meant uniting the peasants and industrial workers in one revolution to form a socialist society.

    The term 'soviet' then came to mean the elected representative groups of the proletariat which allowed Lenin to drive his socialist revolution.

    The Bolshevik Revolution

    The Bolshevik Revolution also called the October Revolution, gave the Bolsheviks control of Russia, meaning that they could create a new constitution and change the governmental system to allow the development of communism.

    Soviet Union, Lenin giving a speech after the October Revolution 1917, StudySmarterFig. 1 Although the October Revolution is often characterised by the "storming" of the Winter Palace, the Provisional Government put up little resistance to the Bolshevik Red Guard and even Lenin was surprised at how quickly the Revolution resulted in a soviet government.

    Lenin's dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 demonstrated how the Bolsheviks intended to take control of Russia's constitution and institute communism. Many parties were unhappy with the Bolshevik's methods of taking power, and this instigated the Russian Civil War.

    Russian Civil War

    After Revolution, Lenin held control over the key cities of Petrograd and Moscow but needed to consolidate power over the entirety of Russia and its other territories. A civil war followed in Russia between the Reds and the Whites.

    • Bolsheviks
    • Left Socialist-Revolutionaries
    • Tsarists
    • Liberals
    • Capitalists
    • Right Socialist-Revolutionaries
    • Anti-Bolsheviks

    The Bolsheviks used the Red Army to defeat the opposition and had successfully won the civil war by 1921.

    After this victory, Lenin used his newly-created Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, to control the civilian and anti-Bolshevik activist population in Russia. This period became known as the Red Terror and used violent methods to intimidate any potential opposition to Bolshevik rule, further securing their control of Russia.

    After assuming control, Lenin issued the 1921 Decree Against Factionalism, which prohibited Bolshevik opposition by law, and introduced the one-party state in Russia.

    The civil war also saw Russia's neighbouring countries establish Soviet republics. Having set up Soviet governments in these countries, Lenin created an international treaty to unite them under Bolshevik control. The treaty resulted in the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a.k.a. the Soviet Union.

    The Soviet Union Flag

    Soviet Union, The flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with hammer and sickle, StudySmarterFig. 2 The flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was first used in 1922 to show how the leading communist party represented the proletariat.

    The flag adopted by the Soviet Union represents the aims of the Communist Party and was carefully thought out.

    • The red background represents the "blood of marytrs" and was first used as a symbol of revolution in France in the late 18th century. Red flags were used to indicate King Louis XVI's orders for the National Guard to shoot at mass gatherings of protest. Revolutionaries adopted the red flag to represent the oppressed, which then was appropriated by socialists for their cause.
    • The Hammer represents the workers whilst the sickle represents the peasants. Both of these groups form the proletariat which the soviets fought for during the communist revolution.
    • The 5-pointed star shows the intent to spread communism across all 5 (inhabited) continents and symbolises the Red Army's protection of the proletariat.

    USSR: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-1991)

    After a series of strokes, Lenin died in 1924 and was succeeded by Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Stalin used his political influence to eliminate his opponents and manoeuvre his way to dictatorial leadership of the USSR by the late 1920s.


    Stalin's leadership shaped the USSR, as he led until his death in 1953, transforming the country's domestic and foreign policy.

    His dictatorship used communist policies of collectivisation and rapid industrialisation to improve the Soviet Union's economy. These policies were most famously pushed through Stalin's five-year plans.


    An agricultural policy in which people gave up their individual farms to join much larger collective ones

    The 1936 constitution, created by Stalin, was seen as a foundational moment of the USSR. Although the new constitution seemingly opened up democratic voting and guaranteed certain public freedoms to citizens, in practice it was a propaganda document for Stalinism.

    The supposed liberal claims in the new constitution for individual rights were contradicted by the assertion of the one-party state and Stalin's ultimate power, demonstrated by the Great Purge the following year. The purge eliminated Stalin's opponents which ranged from political activists to underperforming workers - it is estimated that around one million were killed.

    Development of the Cold War

    After fighting the Second World War (1939-45) as part of the Grand Alliance with the US and Britain, the USSR found itself at odds with its former ally, the US, as the Cold War developed.

    Stalin had previously met with the alliance leaders at the wartime conferences of Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, but developing tensions over how Europe would be divided after the war had led the Western leaders to become suspicious of Stalin.

    Stalin refused to withdraw from the Eastern European countries that the Red Army had liberated during WWII, occupying them and influencing their governments to establish Soviet-friendly states for the USSR.

    Stalin wanted to create loyal satellite states throughout Eastern Europe to increase the strength of the USSR and protect it from future invasion. The Soviet Union suffered huge losses in World War II and Stalin was anxious to avoid a similar situation.

    The spread of communism as a result increased international tensions, especially with the US.

    The Death of Stalin

    Stalin died in 1953. He left behind a legacy of terror and power that came to epitomise the Soviet Union.

    Malenkov assumed control of the USSR after Stalin's death as he was Secretary of the Central Committee and was regarded as Stalin's protégé. Weeks after his appointment, Khrushchev formed alliances to force Malenkov to give up his position as Secretary and instate a five-person Secretariat of the Central Committee, with Khrushchev as the leader. He then gained control of the USSR in September 1953.

    Khrushchev began reforming with a policy of destalinisation, instigating political, economic and social reform throughout the Soviet Union to reverse some of Stalin's policies. However, Khrushchev was regarded as erratic in terms of the international relations with the US, bringing the Cold War to its point of highest tension with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev in 1982.

    Other USSR Leaders

    The table below shows a timeline of the leaders who succeeded Stalin after his death in 1953 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

    DateLeader of the USSRBrief Summary of Leadership
    March 1953Georgy MalenkovMalenkov appeared to be reformist with his cuts to military spending, but this proved unpopular and Khrushchev ousted him through strategic alliances in a matter of weeks.
    September 1953Nikita KhrushchevKhruschev pursued destalinisation throughout Russia, giving socialism a "human face" but also removing Stalin's supporters from government. He brought the Cold War to the brink of a hot war because of his aggressive support for communism on the international stage, demonstrated by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
    1964Leonid BrezhnevBrezhnev created the Brezhnev Doctrine, stating that a threat to one socialist state was a threat to them all. He was also responsible for vastly increasing the USSR's nuclear arms. He was also generally hard-line in his policies.
    1982Yuri AndropovAndropov attempted to reform the Russian economy and tackle domestic issues of alcoholism and corruption. He also strongly opposed Ronald Reagan, creating international tension by withdrawing from arms reduction talks. He died in 1984.
    1984Konstantin ChernenkoChernenko was more hard-line like Brezhnev, and returned to these policies following Andropov's death. His rule was short-lived, but he boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 in retaliation for the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He died in 1985.
    1985Mikhail GorbachevGorbachev was a reformist looking to change how the Soviet Union was run. His introduction of policies of perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya dismantled the Communist party's control of the USSR, contributing to its collapse in 1991.

    In order to adapt the USSR after Stalin's death, his successors had to dismantle his reign of terror and cult of personality, which had survived after his death. Khrushchev recognised this with his policy of destalinisation, which freed prisoners from gulags and enabled him to remove Stalin's supporters within the government so he could revert back to a form of Marxist-Leninism. The USSR continued to go through changes between hard-line communist ideologies and more liberal approaches, eventually ending with major reforms initiated by Gorbachev.

    Soviet Union Collapse

    After leadership changed hands multiple times, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. He sought to reform the USSR with his policies of glasnost, perestroika and demokratizatsiya, the latter of which introduced a multi-party system to the Soviet Union, which weakened the communist party's power. The USSR was eventually dissolved in 1991, effectively ending the Cold War.

    Soviet Union, WEF meeting with Henry Kissinger and former USSR leaders, StudySmarterFig. 3 Henry Kissinger panelled a session at the World Economic Forum with the presidents of former USSR countries in 1992 following its dissolution. Kissinger was the US Secretary of State at the time and was welcoming the newly independent countries to help improve the global economy.

    Soviet Union - Key takeaways

    • The Soviet Union was created in 1922 after the successful Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and subsequent consolidation of power through the Russian Civil War and the Red Terror.
    • Stalin took control of the Soviet Union in 1924 after Lenin's death that year. He eliminated his opponents and became the sole dictator of the USSR by the end of the 1920s.
    • Stalin introduced policies that secured his dictatorship and controlled the economy through collectivisation and rapid industrialisation. The Soviet Union became characterised by Stalin's brutal rule using the Great Purge.
    • After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev took over and began destalinisation. However, his aggressive defence of communist ideology worsened relations with the US during the Cold War and he was ousted in 1982 by Leonid Brezhnev.
    • The USSR was dissolved in 1991 after Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reformation policies of glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya.


    1. Fig. 2 Flag of USSR ( by rotemliss ( licensed by CC BY SA 3.0 (
    2. Fig. 3 World Economic Forum in 1992 ( by World Economic Forum ( licensed by CC BY SA 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Soviet Union

    When did the Soviet Union fall?


    Why did the soviet union collapse?

    After Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reformation policies of glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya between 1985-6 the USSR allowed multi-party elections. This weakened the communist party and eventually led the the USSR collapse in 1991.

    How many countries were in the Soviet Union?

    Initially, following the October Revolution in 1917, the USSR was made up of a confederation of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Transcaucasian Federation (modern-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).

    The USSR developed to include 15 republics, they were: Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

    What is the USSR called now?

    After the USSR's collapse in 1991, Russia came to be controlled under the Russian Federation. Other countries within the USSR became independent.

    What does USSR stand for?

    The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who succeeded Lenin as General Secretary and sole dictator of the USSR in the late 1920s?

    When did Stalin issue the new constitution of the USSR to secure his totalitarian rule?

    Who immediately succeeded Stalin after his death in 1953?


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