Política y Administración Pública

The Soviet Union: a broken empire


Russia now is a place of profound dissapointment where ordinary people have lost their faith in government; but why?, and what has caused this?. Some people think, that this was caused by the quickly entrance of capitalism in the U.S.S.R.; but other facts also

Within one week`s time, in the summer of 1991, the 74-year-old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics became a finished part of history. The forces of reform unleashed by President Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s spawned a democratic movement. The Soviet Union was the world´s largest country. It covered en area of 22.3 million square kilometers), almost seven times the area of India and two and a half times that of the United States. It encompassed one sixth of the Earth`s landmass, including half of Europe and about two fifths of Asia. The population of the contry in1991 was more than 290 million.

The Soviet Union's size ensured a generous endowment of natural features and raw materials. The country also had some of the world's highest mountains and lowest basins, largest plains and broadest tablelands, driest deserts and wettest swamps, purest waters and saltiest seas, longest rivers and deepest lakes, greatest grasslands and most extensive forests. The Soviet resource base was by far the world's most extensive, ensuring self-sufficiency for its people in most resources for many years. The Soviet Union was usually first or second in the annual production of most of the world's strategic raw materials.

Yet superior size can have its disadvantages. Quality often yields to quantity. Challenges of allocation and distribution arise. Raw materials, no matter how abundant, must be accessible and economical to exploit. Large countries need efficient transportation networks to get goods to market and effective communications to maintain smooth political control.


In 1991 the population of the Soviet Union was more than 291 million, the third largest in the world after China and India. There were 15 million more women than men; most of the imbalance was in the age group 55 and older.

The rapid industrial expansion after 1922, the Soviet Union changed from a very rural economy 82 percent to a society in which two out of three people lived in cities. This was the result of migration from farms to the cities. One Soviet farmer produced the agricultural products to meet the needs of three nonfarmers. (In the United States one farmer supported 113 nonfarmers.)

Society and the family

As in most developed industrial countries, the integrity of the Soviet family was under stress. Before the 1917 Revolution, families were large and extended, and from the 1950s the average size of families decreased to fewer than four members. Another curious thing is that the soviet abortion rate was high; and divorce soared from one in ten in 1960 to one in two or three in 1990.


Despite a total population almost four times smaller, the Soviet Union had an urban population almost the size of China's 192 million. In 1990 the country included 59 cities with populations of more than 500,000 and 24 with more than 1 million residents. The largest was Moscow, with an estimated population of 8.8 million. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had about 4.5 million, and Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, contained more than 2.6 million.

Ethnic and Language Groups

The Soviet Union contained more than 100 different ethnic groups, but

most were very small. According to the 1989 census, only 52 ethnic groups numbered 100,000 or more. Of these, 23 exceeded 1 million.

Although the Soviet Union was an officially atheistic country, from 50 million to 90 million people may have belonged to some religion, according to Soviet government estimates. Of the Russian Orthodox churches that existed in 1917, however, only one out of seven was active in the late 1980s.

Although an estimated 200 languages and dialects were spoken, Russian was the official, and most commonly spoken, language of the country. It was taught in all schools.


The history of religion in the Soviet Union is long and complex. By the 10th century the Eastern Orthodox church was highly influential among the Slavs and by the 19th century Russia was a multireligious society. The 1917 Revolution led to the official policy of eradication of religion in the country. Churches had no legal status and their property was confiscated. Private religious education of any kind was strictly forbidden.

In the late 1980s, under the reforms established by President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union pledged to increase religious freedom for all believers. In 1991 as much as half of the population of the Soviet Union consisted of believers.

Performing Arts

Television: It was very much like public television in the West, though many more movies and sporting events were shown. Most Soviet citizens received two channels: the main Moscow channel and a local channel. Television during the Gorbachev era became much more interesting. He was the first Soviet leader to use television for popularizing his policies.


Before the Revolution education was generally available to only a privileged few. In 1913 only 6 percent of the total population of czarist Russia attended schools of all types. By 1991 one out of five Soviet citizens were enrolled in classes. As late as 1920 only 44 percent of the population in the age group 9 to 49 were literate. By 1991 the literacy rate had grown to more than 99 percent. It consisted in:

- A primary and secondary education.

- The preschool.

- And a higher education.

Health care

The Soviet Union had the most extensive system of medical care in the world. The country had the world's highest ratio of physicians to population.

There was radical improvement in the health of the people of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1964. The rate of deaths from heart disease more than doubled between 1960 and 1983, and cancer deaths also increased sharply. Gorbachev placed health care high on his agenda of reforms. His anti-alcohol campaign aimed to reduce the rate of alcoholism and to improve the overall health of the nation. The mortality rate fell after 1984, and there were indications that age-specific death rates were down and life expectancy was up.


It ranked first or second in the output of most of the world's strategic minerals. Its machine construction was numerically second only to the United States, and its chemical industry made spectacular advances from the early 1960s. All of these industrial resources and manufactured products laid the foundation for a mighty military complex that was one of the strongest in the world.

There is no question that the Soviet Union took great strides industrially in the 20th century. On the eve of the Revolution czarist Russia was a country of poor peasant farmers. They represented 69 percent of a population that was 87 percent rural. Despite the fact that in 1913 it ranked as the fifth largest industrial country, Russia registered a per capita income that was less than one sixth that of the United States.

The Soviet government spent more money on agriculture (30 percent of gross national product, or GNP) than any other industrial country but did not reap equivalent benefits. When a crop failure occurred in the Soviet Union, it rippled through the economy like an earthquake and there were more than six crop failures between 1970 and 1991.


Socialized farming, consisting of collective and state farm systems, was established during the 1930s. During the 1920s, under Lenin's New Economic Policy, a mixed farming economy arose in which land was nationalized but peasant farming prevailed. In 1928 more than 98 percent of the farm population and the sown area were nonsocialized.

The foundations of socialized agriculture rested in the teachings of Karl Marx, who believed that economies of scale operate in agriculture in the same way that they do in industry. Marx believed that large farms, like large factories, produce goods more cheaply than small ones. Marx's dream of the future included the organization of all workers into "industrial armies" working on large agricultural enterprises to produce food for their comrade workers in the cities all "in accordance with a common [state] plan."

The kolkhoz, or collective farm, consisted of a number of member families who were granted perpetual rights to rent-free state land.

The sovkhoz, or state farm, was the Marxian ideal: a state-operated "factory in the fields." Sovkhoz workers were state employees and were paid wages from state funds. They too received year-end bonuses if annual production exceeded targets.

Crops. The principal food crops were grains (mainly wheat, rye, rice, buckwheat, and millet), potatoes, sugar beets, and vegetables. The Soviet Union was the world's largest producer of wheat.


The capital city of the Soviet Union was Moscow in the Russian Federation, and the government was headquartered in Moscow's Kremlin.

The Soviet state had a dual structure: one part was represented by the Communist party, and the other was the official government organization.

Communist Party

The Communist party was an elite organization. Its membership rarely exceeded from 6 to 12 percent of the population. Membership was regarded as a great privilege and a reflection of high moral character and leadership qualities. Any person 18 years of age or older could join the party. In order to join the party, however, one needed recommendations by three party members in good standing and approval by the regional party organization.

The Communist party was relatively small, but it affected all aspects of Soviet life through the primary party organization (PPO). PPOs were found in factories, offices, military platoons, and on farms.

In accordance with the Leninist principle of democratic centralism, PPO members elected a secretary from among their members who represented them at the next higher level.

The Politburo was the highest administrative unit in the Communist party and the most powerful Soviet political body. Its members were selected by the Central Committee. Members of the Central Committee or of its Politburo made all major state decisions.


The March 1917 revolution was over within a week with little bloodshed. For a time the government was in the hands of the nonsocialist Constitutional Democrats. In July, however, power passed to Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky wanted to continue the war against Germany, but the Russian people did not.

Bolsheviks take power. At this point a group of socialists schooled in the doctrines of Karl Marx filtered into Petrograd. They were few in number, though the name Bolsheviks means "majority men." They were extremely well organized and dedicated, and they had a program. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) was the Bolsheviks' undisputed leader. Lenin aimed to overthrow Russia's infant capitalist system.

October Revolution. Thousands of revolutionary soviets (councils) had sprung up all over Russia. The Bolsheviks carried on propaganda campaigns among them. By October 1917 the party controlled the majority of the soviets of Petrograd and Moscow.

On October 25 the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was scheduled to meet in Petrograd. Early that morning Red Guards poured into the city, surrounded the Winter Palace, and occupied the railroad stations, the ministries, and the state bank. When the Congress of Soviets met that night, Lenin was proclaimed premier. The event is called the October Revolution because Russia still used the old calendar, but according to the calendar now in use, the event took place on November 7. The October Revolution itself was over in a week, and fighting was limited to the major cities. Eight months later the former czar and his entire family were executed near the city of Ekaterinburg.

The new government assumed ownership of all land and took control of industry. In March 1918 a treaty of peace was signed with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. By the terms of the treaty Russia recognized Germany's claims to the Caucasus and Ukraine. In addition, Russia agreed to give up Poland and the Baltic states and pay huge indemnities.

Civil war and famine. Between 1918 and 1922 the Bolsheviks were confronted with civil war, intervention by foreign troops, and terrible famine. "White" armies of soldiers loyal to the czar challenged the Bolshevik "Red" armies, which where reorganized by Trotsky. The White armies were supplied by foreign interventionists including British, American, and Japanese and were quite successful at first. Having finished with Germany, the victorious Western Allies wanted to use troops to try to defeat the Soviet revolution. Most of these troops arrived in the far north at Archangel. After the surrender of Germany in 1918 Poland invaded Belorussia (now Belarus), Ukraine was recovered in 1919, and the Caucasus in 1922. In Russia the Reds finally defeated the Whites, the interventionists withdrew, and Lenin made peace with Poland. On Dec. 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially established.

In 1921 Lenin inaugurated the New Economic Policy (NEP), encouraging individual initiative in the farm sector. The NEP temporarily reinvigorated the Soviet economy by providing sufficient food for everyone.


Brezhnev to Gorbachev

Leonid I. Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev as first secretary.

During the Brezhnev years there was emphasis on detente with the West along with a massive arms buildup. Although Brezhnev had singled out Konstantin Chernenko as his successor, Yuri Andropov became general secretary after Brezhnev's death in 1982. Chernenko, who had replaced Andropov as second secretary, succeeded Andropov, who died in 1984. When Chernenko died in 1985, the second secretary was Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

In March 1988 Gorbachev signed a bilateral arms reduction agreement known as the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty with the United States. He called for the elimination of all nuclear arms by the year 2000 and withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Also in 1989 Gorbachev visited Cuba. He and Cuban President Fidel Castro signed a friendship treaty in which they pledged to work toward relieving Third World debt.

Gorbachev also met that year with Deng Xiaoping, China's senior statesman, in the first summit between the two countries since 1959. The meeting formally normalized relations between China and the Soviet Union, which had been broken in 1960.

Gorbachev radically changed the structure of the government and was determined to reform the domestic economy. His policies of glasnost and perestroika had wide-ranging effects, both abroad and within his own country, though in later years his commitment to reform seemed to waver.

There were nationalist protests in various republics beginning in 1987, with demonstrators demanding independence or greater autonomy for their republics. Political perestroika involved taking the power out of the hands of the Communist party leaders and setting up parliament, the presidency, and the justice system under the rule of law. The Supreme Soviet the Soviet parliament made numerous fundamental changes in the constitution and the laws, including approval of a private property law. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev assumed the Soviet Union's new executive presidency and pledged to use his broadened powers to speed economic reform, but shortages of food, housing, and medical supplies continued. In August 1991 Gorbachev and leaders of seven of the Soviet Union's constituent republics were scheduled to sign a treaty to decentralize power and change the country's name to the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics, but an attempted political coup prevented adoption of the treaty and led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Revolution of 1991

On August 18 Gorbachev and his family were detained by military authorities at their home in the Crimea. In Moscow the next morning, an eight-man junta calling itself the State Committee for the State of Emergency announced that it had seized power. The committee was headed by Gorbachev's vice-president, Gennadi Yanayev. Soviet troops in tanks quickly moved into Moscow. The coup was badly planned, however, and it was immediately opposed by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation. Standing atop a tank (just as Lenin had done in 1917), he called for a general strike and resistance to the takeover, and he demanded that Gorbachev be returned to power. Leaders of Western nations and Japan immediately suspended aid to the Soviet Union. As parts of the army turned against the coup, it collapsed within 72 hours, and its leaders fled the city.

Upon Gorbachev's return, on August 22, events moved quickly. The coup leaders were soon arrested. Others who had supported them were driven from power. On August 24 Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist party and disbanded the party itself. The party was forbidden any role in governing the country, and its assets were seized by the Soviet parliament. One republic after another declared independence. Statues and pictures of Lenin and other Soviet founders were removed from public places. But perhaps most significant of all was the shift in power from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, hero of the resistance during the coup.

The 74-year-old Soviet Union was no more.

Enviado por:Javier Tejada
Idioma: inglés
País: España

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