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3.2: The USSR and the Russian Federation

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Define the main tenets of a socialist economy.
    2. Describe some of the conditions of life in the Soviet Union.
    3. Briefly explain why the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed.
    4. Describe the post-Soviet economic and political situation.

    As we learned in Section 3.1 “Introducing the Realm”, the Russian Empire was built by the czars over the course of a few hundred years. However, the economic and political systems of the Russian Empire were not sustainable in the modern era. The vast majority of the population were poor, and most were landless peasant farmers—and in a place with short growing seasons, farming was not an easy path to riches. Political decisions were made by a very small elite group. At the dawn of the twentieth century, one hundred years after the Industrial Revolution swept through Great Britain and Western Europe, Russia remained an agricultural country and had not yet begun large-scale industrialization. Outside of the aristocracy, few supported the status quo in Russia, and there was widespread desire for a new political system and government.

    However, no one could agree on what a new government would look like. In the aftermath of the First World War, a civil war erupted in Russia. During these chaotic times, the last czar, Nicholas II, was forced from office, and he and his family were executed. The most powerful group battling for control of Russia was a Communist group called the Bolsheviks, which literally meant the “larger group.” Other groups, including the “smaller group,” the Mensheviks, lost the civil war. The Bolshevik leader was Vladimir Lenin, and in 1917 he and his supporters embarked on a quest to turn Russia into a Communist state.

    The capital city was moved back to Moscow from St. Petersburg, where it had been since the time of Czar Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. St. Petersburg’s name was changed to Petrograd and then Leningrad in honor of Vladimir Lenin, as the atheist Soviets did not want any references to Christian saints. The entire territory of the Russian Empire was turned into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Russian people traded a monarchy for a Marxist totalitarian state (see the explanation of Marxism in Section 3.2.1 “Marxist-Leninist Central Planning”).

    Figure 3.5 Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin


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