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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) also known as the Soviet Union. Name of a union of 15 Soviet republics that desintegrated in 1991. Now independent countries, the constituent republics were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazachstan, Kirgizstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russian Federation, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The union covered more than half of Europe and two-fifths of Asia. The capital was Moscow.

Land and People

The country comprises 15 constituent republics divided into 4 regions—European, Central Asian, Siberian, and Far Eastern. The Ural Mountains separate the European (west) sector from the Asian (east) sector. Most of the European sector is flatland, broken by the Urals, the Caucasus, and other highlands. To the east lie the great Siberian Plain and the deserts of central Asia; beyond them are the Siberian highlands and the Far Eastern mountains. Because it occupies about one-sixth of the land area of the world, the USSR has several different climatic regions, ranging from the polar north to the subtropical south. Long, cold winters and short summers are characteristic of much of the USSR's climate. Over 100 ethnic groups and nationalities make up the people of the country. Chief among them are Slavic-speaking peoples (Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians); Turkic-speaking peoples (Uzbeks, Tatars, Kazakhs, and Azerbaijani); and the Armenians, Georgians, Lithuanians, and Moldavians. The official language is Russian. Approximately 75 percent of the people live in the European sector of the country. Religion is officially discouraged, but many people still follow the Russian Orthodox church. Other religions include Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The ban on religion may be relaxed in the 1990s.


Under Communism, all industry is owned and operated by the government. Agriculture is organized around state farms (collective farms), with some small private plots permitted to farmers. A centralized economy has been a feature of the Soviet Union since 1917, but in the latter part of the 1980s, dissatisfaction with the performance of the economy has led to a time of turmoil and change. The USSR is a major producer of oil, coal, iron ore, natural gas, and timber, and it possesses a wealth of other natural resources. It is a major military power in the world, and a leader in space exploration and scientific research. In the 1990s the Soviet Union has begun to move away from top-down, centralized management in an attempt to form a market economy. Widespread strikes and demonstrations have been an early result of this transition.


Russia was ruled by tsars (emperors) for hundreds of years in an extremely autocratic manner. Under them the country was largely cut off from the industrially developing West. There were sporadic uprisings in the 19th and early 20th centuries against this despotic rule, and finally, due in large measure to the horrendous losses suffered by the Russians in World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917 forced Tsar Nicolas II to abdicate. He was replaced by a provisional government, led by Alexander F. Karensky, a Socialist. The government proved ineffective and was itself overthrown in November 1917 by the Marxist Bolsheviks led by Vladimir I. Ulyanov, who took the name of Lenin. He was helped by Leon Trotsky in organizing the takeover and in successfully prosecuting the following civil war. Lenin and the Bolsheviks set Russia on the course of state ownership of the means of production (farms, factories, mills, mines, etc.). In 1922, the Communist government established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (then 4 union republics) with the Russian Republic the first and the largest, which it remains to this day. Lenin died in 1924, and, after some jockeying for power among his successors, Joseph Stalin emerged in 1927 as undisputed leader. He embarked on a far-reaching policy of collectivizing the farmland and of securing total government control over all economic planning. The followers of Trotsky and many other opponents of Stalin's rule were purged in the fierce repression of the 1930s. In 1941, Germany invaded the USSR despite having signed a nonaggression pact with it in 1939. The Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call World War II, lasted until the defeat of Germany in 1945, in which the Russian forces played a key role despite having sustained fearful losses. After World War II, the Soviet Union went on to establish Communist governments throughout eastern Europe and in Soviet-held East Germany. Friction between the Soviet Union and the United States and other West European democracies led to the Cold War, which effectively divided the world into competing East and West blocs, led by the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively. Stalin died in 1953 to be replaced by Nikita S. Khrushchev, who denounced the worst excesses of the Stalin era but who also continued the rivalry with the United States. Partly as a result of the dangerous confrontation with the United States over Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962, where Russia was forced to turn back, Khrushchev was ousted by the party in 1964, replaced by Leonid I. Brezhnev. Relations with the West improved somewhat under Brezhnev (the period of détente), but the Soviet economy continued to stagnate and even deteriorate. The era of the old Bolsheviks, trained under Stalin, was coming to an end. Brezhnev died in 1982, to be replaced by Yuri V. Andropov. Andropov died in 1984 and was succeeded by Konstantin V. Chernenko, who died in 1985. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, at age 54, became head of the Communist Party, the first of the new generation of Soviet leaders to head the country. Faced with an unpopular war in Afghanistan, begun in the Brezhnev years, and with dire economic problems at home, Gorbachev embarked on a series of reforms he hoped would revitalize the country. He ended the Afghan war, allowed non-Communist governments to take power in Eastern Europe, approved the reunification of Germany by relinquishing control of East Germany, and set in motion new domestic policies such as glasnost (openness or freedom of expression for the people) and perestroika (reforms designed to transform the command economy of the USSR into one more receptive to free market forces). All these changes led to turmoil, where long-simmering disputes between ethnic groups and rival republics of the union broke into the open. With non-Communist parties allowed to participate in elections, various republics clamoring for independence, ethnic strife, and challenges mounted by powerful political leaders, the future existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was threatened and the union collapsed in 1991.

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