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Introduction

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The Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a socialist federation in Eurasia that existed from 1922 to 1991. Nominally a union of multiple national Soviet republics, its government and economy were highly centralized. The country was a one-party state, governed by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital in its largest republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR). The Russian nation had constitutionally equal status among the many nations of the union, but exerted de facto dominance in various respects. Other major urban centres were Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Alma-Ata and Novosibirsk.

Extending across the entirety of Northern Asia and much of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had spanned eleven time zones and incorporated a wide range of environments and landforms. From northwest to southeast, the Soviet Union shared land borders with Norway, Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia and North Korea. It shared its maritime borders with Japan by the Sea of Okhotsk and the U.S. state of Alaska across the Bering Strait. With an area of 22,402,200 square kilometres (8,649,500 sq mi), the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world by area, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, and the third most populous, with over 288 million people as of 1989, with the 80% of the population live in the western, European part of the country.

The Soviet Union had its roots in the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Russian Provisional Government which had replaced Tsar Nicholas II during World War I. In 1922, the Soviet Union was formed by the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR which legalized the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics that had occurred from 1918. Following Lenin's death in 1924 and a brief power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin committed the state's ideology to Marxism–Leninism (which he created) and constructed a command economy which led to a period of rapid industrialization and collectivization. During this period of totalitarian rule, political paranoia fermented and the late-1930s Great Purge removed Stalin's opponents within and outside of the party via arbitrary arrests and persecutions of many people, resulting in over 600,000 deaths. Suppression of political critics, forced labor were carried out by Stalin's government. In 1933, a major famine that became known as the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine struck multiple Soviet grain-growing regions, causing the deaths of some 3 to 7 million people.

In August 1939, days before the start of World War II, the USSR signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact agreeing to non-aggression with Nazi Germany, after which the two countries invaded Poland in September 1939. In June 1941, the pact collapsed as Germany turned to attack the Soviet Union, opening the largest and bloodiest theatre of war in history. Soviet war casualties accounted for the highest proportion of the conflict in the effort of acquiring the upper hand over Axis forces at intense battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk. The territories overtaken by the Red Army became satellite states of the Soviet Union and the postwar division of Europe into capitalist and communist halves would lead to increased tensions with the West, led by the United States of America.

The Cold War emerged by 1947 as the Eastern Bloc, united under the Warsaw Pact in 1955, confronted the Western Bloc, united under NATO in 1949. On 5 March 1953, Stalin died and was eventually succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1956 denounced Stalin and began the de-Stalinization of Soviet society through the Khrushchev Thaw. The Soviet Union took an early lead in the Space Race, with the first artificial satellite and the first human spaceflight. Dissatisfied with Khrushchev's policies, the Communist Party's conservative wing led a coup d'état against Khrushchev in 1964, quietly ousting him without any bloodshed. In the early 1970s, there was a brief détente of relations with the United States, but tensions resumed with the Soviet–Afghan War in 1979. In the mid-1980s, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to reform and liberalize the economy through his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Under Gorbachev, the role of the Communist Party in governing the state was removed from the constitution, causing a surge of severe political instability to set in. The Cold War ended during his tenure in 1989 as Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and overthrew their respective communist governments.

With the rise of strong nationalist and separatist movements inside the union republics, Gorbachev tried to avert a dissolution of the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era. A March 1991 referendum, boycotted by some republics, resulted in a majority of participating citizens voting in favor of preserving the union as a renewed federation. Gorbachev's power was greatly diminished after Russian President Boris Yeltsin played a high-profile role in facing down an abortive August 1991 coup d'état attempted by Communist Party hardliners. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the remaining twelve constituent republics emerged as independent post-Soviet states. The Russian Federation—formerly the Russian SFSR—assumed the Soviet Union's rights and obligations and is recognized as the successor state of the Soviet Union. In summing up the international ramifications of these events, Vladislav Zubok stated: "The collapse of the Soviet empire was an event of epochal geopolitical, military, ideological and economic significance".

Throughout its existence, the Soviet Union was a powerhouse of the most significant technological achievements and innovations of the 20th century, including the world's first human-made satellite and the launching of the first humans in space. The country had the world's second largest economy and the largest standing military in the world.. The Soviet Union was recognized as one of the five nuclear weapons states and possessed the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It was a founding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council as well as a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the leading member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) and the Warsaw Pact.

September's selected article

The full understanding of the history of the late Soviet Union and of its successor, the Russian Federation, requires the assessment of the legacy of Leonid Brezhnev, the third General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and twice Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the CPSU from 1964 until his death in 1982, whose eighteen-year reign was recognised as the time of social and economic stagnation in the late Soviet Union.

Despite his failures in domestic reforms, his foreign affairs and defence policies consolidated the position of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as a superpower. His popularity among the citizenry waned during his last years, and the Soviet people's belief in communism and Marxism–Leninism slowly withered away but support still continued to be evident, even on the eve of his death. Following his death, political wrangling led to harsh criticism of both him and his family. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, drew support from hardline communists and the Soviet population by criticising Brezhnev's rule, and referred to his rule as the "Era of Stagnation". (more...)

Selected biography

Pável Dimítrievich Turchanínov (Russian: Павел Дмитриевич Турчанинов) (died September 21, 1921), known by the pseudonym Lev Chernyi (Лев Чёрный), was a Russian anarchist theorist, activist and poet, and a leading figure of the Third Russian Revolution. His early thought was individualist, rejecting anarcho-communism as a threat to individual liberty. In 1917, Chernyi was released from his political imprisonment by the Imperial Russian regime, and swiftly became one of the leading figures in Russian anarchism. After strongly denouncing the new Bolshevik government in various anarchist publications and joining several underground resistance movements, Chernyi was arrested by the Cheka on a charge of counterfeiting and in 1921 was executed without trial. (more...)

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Two statues of people.
Credit: Deutsche Fotothek

Statues of Joseph Stalin often portrayed him as a person very close to Vladimir Lenin

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Georgy Zhukov, reported in "TOP GENERAL: ZHUKOV". Time. 1955. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 

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