The Soviet Union – WorldAtlas


The Soviet Union, officially known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR for short, was a country made up of 15 different units, called republics. Among these republics was Russia, which was the largest, most populous and most dominant in the union. It was in Russia that Communist forces took control and eventually united the former territory of the vast Russian Empire into what became the Soviet Union, which was once the largest country in the world. The country was the first Marxist state, in which all power belonged to the Communist Party. It set a precedent for the founding of future Marxist states, which largely copied the government structures of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet state. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991, following unsuccessful attempts to reform its economy and government institutions.

Formation of the Soviet Union

Map and flags of the republics of the former USSR.

The Soviet Union was formed from the ashes of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed. In March 1917, a popular uprising deposed Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. A provisional government was established, which set out to create a new Russian democracy. But that government was overthrown by the Russian Communists, otherwise known as the Bolsheviks, in November of the same year.

After the Bolsheviks took control, a civil war broke out between the Red Army, which supported the new Bolshevik regime, and the White Army, which was made up of several factions, including capitalists, democratic socialists and monarchists. During this civil war, former parts of the former Russian Empire gained independence and became the following countries: Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the independence of many of these countries was short-lived. The Red Army conquered Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. On December 30, 1922, a treaty of union between Russia and these countries was signed, officially establishing the Soviet Union.

What does “soviet” mean?

The term “Soviet” is a Russian word that translates into English as advice or advice. In verbal form it means to advise. The term originally referred to the advisory councils, or soviets, of the Communist Party, dating back to the time of the Russian Revolution. These soviets existed at all levels of the Communist Party structure, from the local level to the national level.

Soviet government and politics

Soviet Union
Postage stamp from the Soviet Union showing Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and Karl Heinrich Marx, 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, circa 1961 Editorial credit: wonderful_life /

In theory, the Soviet Union was a federal state made up of fifteen republics. The federal government, based in Moscow, had executive, legislative and judicial powers. The legislature was known as the Supreme Soviet. The executive branch of government was known as the Council of Ministers, which was headed by the prime minister. Each Soviet republic also had its own government. So, on paper, the USSR was not too different from the United States in its government structure. In practice, however, all organs of power in the USSR were accountable to the only legal political party in the country: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Communist Party of the USSR was made up of several organs, the most powerful of which were the Central Committee, the Politburo and the Secretariat. The Central Committee ruled the Communist Party between mass party congresses, in which its members were elected by all party members. The Central Committee elected the Politburo, which made executive decisions when the Central Committee itself was unable to meet. The Politburo was made up of the most powerful and popular politicians in the Soviet Union. The Secretariat was responsible for coordinating the activities of all organs of the Communist Party. The head of the secretariat was called the general secretary of the Communist Party. In theory, the secretary general only headed the secretariat. In practice, however, he was the most powerful person in the Soviet Union and the de facto leader of the country.

In some cases, Communist Party leaders have also held executive government positions. For example, the two Soviet leaders, Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev served as both secretary general and prime minister. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which was the equivalent of the American Cabinet, was responsible for implementing the decisions of the Communist Party. These decisions were then endorsed by the Supreme Soviet, which was theoretically elected by the people. However, all candidates for the Supreme Soviet had to be approved by the Communist Party. Once approved, these candidates would stand for election without opposition. Thus, the official government of the USSR and the Communist Party were one.

How did the Soviet Union collapse?

Mikhail Gorbachev
Celebration of the 67th anniversary of Victory Day (WWII) on Red Square on May 9, 2012 in Moscow, Russia. President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev on the podium. Editorial credit: ID1974 /

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union, took power in 1985, the economy and institutions of the USSR were already in decline. Two important policies initiated by Gorbachev accelerated this decline: Glasnost and Perestroika. Glasnost was Gorbachev’s attempt to allow more transparency in Soviet government. Thus, there was less state censorship and more openness in the government’s resolution of the country’s problems. In addition, non-Communist parties were allowed to participate in the Soviet elections for the first time. Perestroika was Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the Soviet economy. Capitalist market reforms were introduced in place of communist central planning.

It was mainly Gorbachev’s glasnost policy that hastened the end of the USSR. For example, the republics of the Soviet Union began to demand more autonomy from the central government. Moreover, Gorbachev’s decision to loosen control over the affairs of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe motivated those countries to push for even greater autonomy. Perhaps one of the most serious blows to the continued existence of the USSR was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989. In the late 1980s, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were falling one by one.

In the USSR itself, the Soviet republics of the Baltic States and the Caucasus began to demand independence. The continued weakening of the Communist Party’s control over the country eventually led extremists within the party to stage a coup to force Gorbachev from power in August 1991. But the coup failed, as its leaders failed. did not have the support of the army or the USSR people, whose latter took to the streets to defend the democratic freedoms that Gorbachev had granted to the country. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned from his post as leader of the USSR. On Christmas Day, the USSR itself was officially dissolved and its 15 republics all became independent states.

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