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History of the Soviet Union Study Guide

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  • I. Russia Under the Old Regime – 10%

    This section is going to focus on the conditions in Russia prior to the revolutions of 1917 that culminated in the establishment of the Soviet Union. Pay attention to important features of Russian society that contributed to the outbreak of revolution as well as those features that either remained part of Soviet society or were changed by the Soviet government.

    a. Governing institutions

    The most important governing institution was the tsar. The tsar, modeled after the Roman caesar, was a hereditary position with ultimate political power. Most tsars, and especially the occupant at the time of the revolution, Nicholas II, were not hands-on administrators, but rather deferred to a collection of nobles and state bureaucrats to formulate and develop economic policy. There was an elected Duma that had little power and local government councils called zemstvos that had some power.

    b. Economics

    The Russian economy was largely agricultural, with most people working as low paid peasants on large estates. Landowners had considerable power over the people who worked on their estates. Russia was industrializing but to a lesser extent than many of its geographic rivals like Germany, Japan, and the United States. Most of the country’s wealth was controlled either by the state or by large landowners with little remaining for capital investment in new industries and technologies.

    c. Culture and society

    Russian society was largely traditional and rural. Russian Orthodoxy was the predominant religion and much of the population was illiterate. The country was divided economically into a small group of landowners and a large mass of peasants who worked for meager wages on land owned by someone else. Most of these peasants were not political and considered themselves good Christians who were loyal to the tsar and their country. However, there were tensions between the peasants and their landlords that would eventually contribute to the growth of revolutionary movements in Russia.

    d. The Empire

    Russia was then, as it is now, the largest country in the world in terms of total land area. Russia’s military expansion throughout the 19th century placed it in conflict with its neighbors. Much of this conflict centered around Russia’s ongoing conflict with the Ottoman Empire, a declining empire to Russia’s south. Russia also came into conflict with Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. This resulted in a humiliating defeat for Russia that caused many Russians to question their leaders. It also led European rivals to see Russia as backward and unable to compete with modern militaries.

    e. Revolutionary movements

    Decades of repression produced a vibrant revolutionary movement in Russia. Some of these were anarchists seeking to destroy the power of the state. There was also a large- but divided- socialist movement, influenced by movements in Europe. While underground and constantly harassed by Russian authorities, these groups developed organized networks of activists- some in Russia and some in exile- who plotted and agitated to overthrow the Russian political and economic system.

  • II. The Revolutionary Period 1914-1921 – 12%

    a. The first world war

    Russia was largely unprepared for the outbreak of World War II. After its defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the Russians had done little more than aggressively pursue alliances with France and Britain, hoping that the threat of being encircled would keep Germany from attacking. Germany, meanwhile had its own treaty obligations, and in 1914, the Germany and Russia found themselves in a standoff. Russia supported the demands of Serbs who were trying to gain greater independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s closest ally. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Austro-Hungary demanded Serbia be punished, a demand supported by the Germans and opposed by the Russians. This led to a rapid cycle of declarations of war.

    The First World War did not go well for Russia. Although it had the largest territory and population of any of the countries involved in WW I, it was far less industrialized that Germany, France, Britain, the United States, and even Austro-Hungary. Its underdeveloped transportation network and its inadequate industrial capacity made it difficult for the Russians to produce sufficient military supplies or mobilize troops. Throughout the early years of the war, the Germans were able to advance deep into Russian territory, limited only by the limited manpower available to fight, since the Germans were also involved in a bloody stalemate with the British and the French on the western front.

    b. February/March revolution

    The war had a devastating effect on Russian society. Loss of territory and manpower led to declining food production resulting in food shortages throughout the country. The inability to produce sufficient weapons, ammunition, and military supplies led to massive casualties and disillusioned troops who deserted in high numbers. Meanwhile tsar Nicholas II appeared to many Russians to be out of touch, as he was preoccupied with family drama involving his hemophiliac son Alexander, his wife- a former German princess, and her bizarre spiritual advisor, Rasputin. During the winter of 1916-1917, these tensions boiled over, leading to massive protests and bread riots. Nicholas II decided to visit the battlefront in February 1917, believing that his presence might motivate the army to fight more effectively. Before he even arrived, protests shut down the capital and troop defections increased to the point that Nicholas’s advisors warned him that he had no choice but to abdicate, which he did.

    c. Interim

    The collapse of the Tsarist regime did not lead immediately to the establishment of the Soviet Union. After the tsar’s abdication, a provisional government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist, was established. Kerensky’s government did not have much support among either the radicalized workers or the conservative establishment that favored a continuation of the tsar’s government. The provisional government did not seek to withdraw Russia from the war nor was it able to address the problems of food shortages that were plaguing Russia. The return of Lenin in April and the growing radicalization of the urban workers led to an unstable political climate. During the summer of 1917, General Kornilov threatened to lead an army of troops to Petrograd, the revolutionary name given to St. Petersburg, which was then Russia’s capital, and restore the tsar to power.

    d. Bolshevik (October) revolution

    Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized the initiative in what has become known as Red October. By the fall, the provisional government had lost support among those who favored a return to the tsarist system as well as those who favored a more comprehensive overthrow of the system. Lacking identifiable support, Kerensky acted indecisively when faced with the growing threat from the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had gained considerable support from the public by focusing on repeating simple slogans like “Peace, Bread, Land,” “All Power to the Soviets” and “ End the War Now.” The Bolsheviks had also been stockpiling weapons, recruiting soldiers, and arming party members under the leadership of Leon Trotsky. On October 25, 1917, the Bolshevik Central Committee ordered loyal troops to take key government institutions and arrest members of the provisional government in Petrograd. They were met with little opposition and by January 1918, the Bolsheviks had essentially consolidated power over most of the key governing institutions.

    e. Civil war

    This did not lead to peace. In early 1918, Lenin and the new Soviet government signed a treaty with the Germans, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which formally ended the war between Russia and Germany, ceding substantial territories to the Germans. Many officers, most of whom came from the nobility, had opposed the 1917 revolutions but were preoccupied with the war. Russia’s former allies, France, Britain, and the United States, were upset with the Bolshevik decision to withdraw from the war. The former officers, along with nobles who were losing land and power to the Bolshevik regime, and members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who were concerned with the Bolshevik’s hostility to religion, united to form an army to fight the Bolsheviks. Known as the “Whites”, as opposed to the “Red Army” under Trotsky’s leadership, was unable to form an organized and coherent alternative to the Bolsheviks. However, opposition to the communist takeover and the policies it intended to implement was strong enough to lead to a 4-year civil war that was not fully suppressed until 1922.

    f. New Economic Policy (NEP)

    During the civil war, the Bolsheviks had adopted a policy of “war communism” through which the government basically confiscated any resources it deemed necessary for defeating the enemies of the revolution. This led to some resentment but also allowed the government to survive by maximizing the efficient use of scarce resources. Once an area was considered to be safely under Bolshevik control, the land would be distributed to loyal supporters as a reward for their support and because the Bolsheviks were too preoccupied with the war to manage the economy effectively.

    After the war, Lenin decided to temporarily allow those who had gained land during the war years to maintain possession of this land. This was contentious among the leaders of the Bolshevik movement since communism called for the abolition of private property. Lenin argued that his New Economic Policy (NEP) was a temporary accommodation to the need to restore agricultural production. The NEP was largely successful in this regard and by the late 1920s, the Soviet Union was largely self-sufficient. Yet, this new class of landowners had become attached to their land and most were not interested in returning ownership to the Soviet state, a policy central to communist theory.

  • III. Pre-War Stalinism – 13%

    1929 marked a crucial turning point in Soviet history. After consolidating power by maneuvering around his rivals, particularly Trotsky, Stalin began to implement the centralized economic planning favored by the Bolsheviks and most socialists. The central planning model was best illustrated by the introduction of the Five Year Plan. These plans outlined economic priorities and strategies to achieve them.

    a. Collectivization

    Stalin’s first Five Year Plan had the central goal of pushing for the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. Stalin believed that in order to survive over the long term, the USSR needed to catch up to its geographic and political rivals, particularly Japan, Germany, and the United States. To achieve this, the First Five Year Plan sought to take surpluses from the agricultural sector and invest them in industrial development. This led to a program of collectivization in which all private farms were abolished and farm workers were concentrated on large, state-owned or communally owned farms. The goal was to reduce waste and free up land and workers for industrial expansion.

    The cost was alienating a large segment of the population that had once supported the Bolsheviks due to their promise of land reform and to the redistribution of land that resulted from Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). Many of these farmers and former peasants, a group Stalin began calling the “kulaks” had come from serf families that had dreamed for generations of owning their land rather than being forced to work for a landowner who kept all the profits from the work of others. Now, after having finally achieved the goal of owning their own land, and after a fairly successful decade for Soviet agriculture, collectivization threatened to upend the system again and many peasants- both Russian, and particularly in non-Russian territories like Ukraine, refused to comply with Stalin’s orders.

    The result of this was one of the most brutal and deadly mass starvations in the history of the 20th century. Scholars estimate that as many as 13 million people died in the early 1930s due to Stalin’s enforcement of this collectivization policy.

    b. Industrialization

    Although it came at considerable cost, the Five Year Plans did lead to the rapid industrial advancement that Stalin wanted. While still behind most of the great powers of the day, the Soviet Union had closed the gap a lot by the end of the 1930s. The primary focus of the industrialization push was to create weapons, buildings, and heavy machinery. Little emphasis was placed on producing consumer goods that many see as crucial to improving the quality of life of the average citizen. Nevertheless, the Soviet progress in industrializing in the 1930s is considered impressive by any measure, but particularly because it took place in the context of the Great Depression that was causing many of the wealthiest countries to regress while the Soviets were advancing.

    c. Reign of terror

    Perhaps the most identifiable feature of Stalinism was the extent of the police state. Originally known as the Cheka and eventually reorganized as the KGB, the Soviet Union became a truly “totalitarian” state under Stalin. The names and specific responsibilities of the organizations changed over the course the Soviet Union. During the height of Stalin’s “reign of terror” in the 1930s, the Interior Ministry, known as the NKVD, was the primary organization of state control although the far-reaching nature of the Soviet state was its distinguishing feature; it was a place where anyone and everyone lived in fear of the dreaded “knock at the door” that would as likely as not result in a family member never being seen again.

    One of the most notorious forms of punishment were the Soviet 
“gulags” which were prison and work camps, usually in a remote area like Siberia. Almost anything that could be seen or portrayed as disloyalty to Stalin and the state was punished in some way. Workers who did not meet their productivity quotas or did not cooperate with factory bosses, individuals who were critical of the Soviet regime, leaders who failed to motivate their ministry or department effectively, and most especially, anybody who might be seen as attempting to undermine the regime was all sent to these forced labor camps. Some have estimated that more than half of those sent to these camps died there.

    The 1930s also featured Stalin’s purge of the communist party through a series of “show trials” in which high-ranking communist party members confessed to treason. Many of them were executed. Stalin used this “trials” to remove rivals to his power and deter potential challengers. Stalin’s paranoia and ruthlessness made it virtually impossible to challenge his personal rule.

    d. Culture

    Soviet culture in the 1930s centered around state propaganda. The communist party, through posters, radio broadcasts, and films, promoted the values of service to the state, class equality, and loyalty to the leader. Stalin promoted a “cult of personality” in which he was seen as the “father figure” who was protecting the best interests of all Soviet citizens.

    Civil society, the collection of organizations like churches, civic clubs, newspapers are typically independent of the government in a free society, was heavily regulated by the Soviet state. Legal organizations were created by the state and regulated by it. All other clubs, societies, and organizations were illegal. Some did exist, but almost entirely underground. Organizations that challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet state were always illegal and dissidents were punished routinely.

    e. Nationalities

    The Soviet Union was technically a state that consisted of 15 separate national republics, in some ways similar to the how the United States consisted of 13 independent states that united to create a new country. In theory, each of these 15 republics was based around a different identifiable national grouping within the USSR and had some independence from the central government. This is misleading, however, because these republics never had much independence from the Soviet state. Russia was by far the largest of these states, accounting for 70% of the land and 60% of the population of the USSR. The official business of the Soviet state was conducted in Russia and most outsiders did not distinguish between Russia and the USSR when referring to the country. Stalin himself was not Russian but Georgian. Nevertheless, under Stalin, the Soviet Union pursued a policy of Russification, which sought to break down allegiance to non-Russian identities, promote the use of the Russian language, and move peoples within the Soviet Union to increase the influence of Russians in each of these republics.

  • IV. The Second World War – 14%

    a. Pre-war foreign relations

    Prior to the war, the Soviet Union’s primary concerns were ending its global isolation and strengthening its domestic political and economic situation. The Soviets did try to promote socialist causes and support communist revolutionaries, but its domestic transformation took priority and left the USSR as a relatively minor player globally. Despite the sharp ideological clashes between fascists and communists in the pre-war years, Stalin and Hitler surprised in 1939 when they announced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. This treaty essentially divided up Eastern Europe between the two countries, and led directly to Germany’s invasion of Poland later that year.

    The Soviet Union was not seen as a trustworthy ally by most of the countries that were fighting fascist aggression. The Soviets did send money and supplies to help the Popular Front movement that was resisting fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, but it refused to coordinate its efforts with potential allies France and Britain. The United States and the USSR had only opened diplomatic relations in the mid-1930s when the US finally recognized the communist government as legitimate and, with the US remaining staunchly anti-communist and mostly isolationist in the pre-war years, there was little room for growth in the relationship.

    b. The course of the war

    Having watched Hitler’s actions throughout the 1930s and his hostility toward communism expressed throughout his life, Stalin would have likely known that the treaty with Hitler would not last over the long term. He was nevertheless surprised by Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. Operation Barbarossa, its German codename, was initially very successful, quickly pushing the Soviets back hundreds of miles. By the winter of 1941, the Nazis- greeted as liberators by some in the western provinces, had advanced hundreds of miles into Soviet territory, while also having gained control of the western front. The United States, not yet having entered the war, began to realize that time was running out to prevent the Nazis from consolidating control over almost all of Europe. The US, which had already begun assisting the British, extended financial assistance to the Soviets as well upon officially entering the war against the Nazis in December 1941.

    The German advance on the eastern front stalled in the summer of 1942 and in the fall of 1942, the Germans and Soviets fought the pivotal battle of WWII in the European theater, the battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet victory, which resulted in 90,000 German troops being forced to surrender and an even greater number having been killed in action, ended the Nazi advance and marked a crucial turning point in the war. From January 1943 until Hitler’s final defeat in the May 1945, the Soviet armies were on the offensive, pushing the Nazi’s back and slowly occupying almost all of eastern Europe.

    Despite US assistance for the Soviets during the war, there had been considerable tension between the Soviets and their British and American allies. One issue that troubled the Soviets was their perception that the US and Britain delayed opening a “second front” against the Nazis in western Europe to alleviate some of the pressure on the Soviets. Although the US had entered the war in late 1941, it was not until June 1944 that the US and British directly attacked Nazi strongholds in France. The Soviet view was that its allies had deliberately delayed opening a second front in the west so that the Soviets would bear the brunt of the casualties and make it easier for the US, Britain and France to take over Germany at the end of the war. This controversy greatly affected the Soviet approach toward negotiating post-war agreements.

    c. The impact of the war

    The impact of World War II on the Soviet Union was massive, albeit difficult to characterize. In terms of lives lost, no country has ever been more devastated by a single war as the Soviet Union was by WWII. While the total number of Soviet deaths, combined military and civilian, is disputed, 20 million dead is considered a mid-range estimate. By comparison US casualties during the war were less than ½ million.

    Economically, the war’s effects were more mixed. Much of the land in the western part of the Soviet Union was decimated by four years of fierce fighting, particularly since both the Soviets and the Nazis had adopted scorched earth tactic when retreating- the Soviets early in the war and the Nazis toward the end. And the almost exclusive focus on supplying the military, most people suffered through severe deprivation during the war.

    However, as was the case with the US, the ramped up military production during the war, contributed quite a bit to the industrial capacity of the USSR. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had emerged as an industrial and technological giant, still far below the productivity of the US, but relatively stronger compared to other European powers than it had been before the war.

    Politically, the war further cemented Stalin’s position within the Communist Party hierarchy and the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. Rather than promote the war as an ideological struggle between communism and fascism, the Soviet regime had promoted the war as the “Great Patriotic War.” The Soviet victory and prominent role played by Stalin at the post-war peace conference helped bolster Stalin’s image on both the global stage and within the Soviet Union. While Stalin is still- and justifiably- seen as one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century outside of Russia, he is a popular figure in Russia even today and the Soviet successes in WWII had much to do with this.

    d. Settlements of WWII and the origins of the Cold War

    The conclusion of WWII brought many challenges to the winning allies. The “Big Three,” as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin, were known in the press, met three times- at Tehran in 1943, in Yalta in February 1945 and at Potsdam in July 1945. At the latter conference, Harry Truman represented the US as Roosevelt had died in April, and Clement Atlee replaced Churchill during the conference after being elected prime minister in mid-July.

    One issue of immediate concern was how governments were post-war boundaries, particularly in Europe. The Soviets wanted to keep territories that they had gained from negotiations with the Nazis in the pre-war years. They also wanted to ensure that they had a buffer against further aggression from Germany and other western countries. The US, in particular, advocated self-determination to allow the peoples of the region to determine their own borders through democratic elections, a principle that Stalin felt left too much uncertainty and instability to ensure Soviet security.

    Another crucial issue concerned how to treat Germany. The Soviets wanted Germany punished, as it had been after WWI, in order to help reimburse allies for their losses during the war and to ensure that Germany would not be strong enough to invade again. The US eventually chose a path of rebuilding Germany through the Marshall Plan, arguing that support for extremism was a consequence of despair and that Germans would turn to a democratic capitalist system if one was allowed to succeed. Faced with the inability to resolve this difference of opinion, the allies initially divided Germany into 4 occupation zones- one each controlled by Russia, the US, the UK, and France. Eventually the latter three combined their zones into one. By 1950, this had led in effect to the creation of two different countries- East and West Germany with Berlin, located in the middle of East Germany- similarly divided into East and West Berlin. Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War in Europe for over 40 years.

  • V. Postwar Stalinism – 11%

    a. Reconstruction

    The Soviet government was already mobilized for post-war reconstruction. The devastation from the war and the uncertain global political situation made the challenges extraordinary. Yet, the stability of the Soviet political system and the weakness of potential adversaries- both foreign and domestic- made it possible for the Soviet government to concentrate on rebuilding. This was assisted by the Soviet decision to make East Germany pay for some of the effects of the war through forced reparations. The Soviets confiscated resources in areas that it occupied after the war and used these to help compensate for resources lost during the war.

    b. Nationalism

    During the war and post-War, the Soviet government increasingly relied upon promoting Russian and Soviet nationalism to gain domestic support. Focusing less on the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, the Soviet government sought to portray everything as a struggle for the survival of the Soviet state and foment an “us vs. them” mentality in order to gain support and legitimacy among its citizens. Part of this approach included a more aggressive approach toward Russification. This policy continued to cause tensions between Russians and non-Russians, particularly in the 14 republics that had been established as homelands for non-Russian national groups. Particularly aggrieved were the newly acquired Baltic Republics, which had been independent countries between WWI and 1939. The peoples of these republics had expected that the defeat of the Nazis would restore their independence but they were instead officially incorporated into the Soviet state.

    c. Arms Race

    The Soviet Union was deeply concerned about the technological advances made by the US during the war and the intentions of the US regime in the post-war world. The Soviets knew that the communist ideology on which their state was built was deeply unpopular and that many in the west did not see the Soviets as being much different than the Nazis. Consequently, few in the Soviet regime were comfortable allowing the US technological advantages to go unchallenged. The Soviets adopted a two-fold strategy of investing heavily in scientific, military, and space research while also ramping up its foreign espionage networks to acquire information from US and British agencies.

    By the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union had closed the technological gap with the west to the point that many in the west feared, incorrectly, that the Soviets were ahead. They did make some impressive achievements, particularly in the space race, and dramatically improved scientific education in Soviet schools and universities. The launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to be successfully launched into orbit around the earth was a monumental event that brought great pride in the Soviet Union and great fear elsewhere.
    The arms race and space race ultimately became one of the ways that people “kept score” during the Cold War.

    d. Cold War in Europe

    The failure of the US, the Soviet Union and their respective allies to resolve post-war issues led to the seemingly permanent frosty relationship between the two countries that came to be known as the Cold War. Concerned about the Soviet refusal to allow truly democratic elections in areas under its control and the Soviet efforts to support communist groups seeking to gain control of other countries, the US became more aggressive in attempting to stop what it perceived as the Soviet “menace.” In 1947, partially in response to a memo he received from the US ambassador to the USSR George Kennan, President Harry Truman issued a statement outlining the US strategy of containment, which ultimately came be known as the Truman Doctrine.

    Issued in response to communist uprisings against US-backed governments in Greece and Turkey, the Truman Doctrine stated that it was now US policy to actively resist the spread of communism. Given the devastation of WWII and the lack of public support for engaging in another major war, it was unreasonable to think that the communists could be dislodged from power in places already under their control without another very costly war. Truman’s approach was to contain communism in those places where it was already in power but to stop it from spreading to places where it was not. He pledged material support- a vague concept that could mean money, military support, or other resources like technology or expertise- to governments that were facing communist aggression.

    This policy became formalized with the creation of new institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Marshall Plan. NATO was a formal alliance that included almost all of the countries in western and southern Europe along with the US and Canada. Its clear intent was to protect these places from communist aggression. The Marshall Plan offered financial assistance to countries struggling to rebuild from WWII as long as they maintained democratic elections and a capitalist economic system. The USSR, which was actually invited to participate in the Marshall Plan, along with its allies, refused due to the restrictions placed on receiving the assistance. Eventually, the Soviet Union and its allies created the Warsaw Pact to counter what they perceived to be US aggression.

    Berlin soon became the focal point of the Cold War in Europe. In 1948, the USSR cut off western access along roads, railways and waterways into West Berlin. Since Berlin was in East Germany, this cut off all supplies in and out of West Berlin. Truman responded by airlifting in supplies to West Berlin for 15 months before the Soviet Union finally lifted the blockade. By the 1950, Germany was formally divided by the creation of two independent countries. They were eventually united under the West German government in 1990.

    e. Cold War in Asia

    When accused by the Soviets of having to failed to open up a second front in Europe, the US responded by pointing out that it had been also fighting in Japan and that the Soviets had failed to provide any assistance with the war against Japan. As negotiations over post-war Europe wore on, many in the US were glad that the Soviets had not been involved. Yet, while the US was somewhat willing to commit to the defense of its European allies, it was more reluctant to invest in propping up countries facing communist expansion in Asia. Toward the end of WWII, the Soviets did move some troops into Asia, resulting in communist-controlled governments coming to power in North Vietnam and North Korea.

    The success of the Chinese Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong in gaining power and driving the former US ally Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party off the Chinese mainland changed this dynamic 1949. The US began to apply its containment doctrine to Asian conflicts. Like the US, the USSR was reluctant to commit resources to fighting in Asia and saw the Asian theater as more of an opportunity to weaken the US than anything else. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in attempt to unify the country under its communist government. At the time, the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations because it continued to recognize the Nationalist Government based on the island of Taiwan rather than the Communist government that controlled the mainland as the official government of China. The US used this as an opportunity to seek a UN resolution authorizing a military action to protect South Korea from this invasion. The Soviet Union wanted to avoid a direct military confrontation with the US but was unable to stop the resolution from passing due to its absence from the voting. The US and its UN allies were ultimately able to secure South Korea’s independence. But this episode brought the Cold War into Asia.

  • VI. The Khrushchev Years – 10%

    a. Succession struggle

    Stalin’s death in 1953 brought with it a power struggle. On one side were those who had risen to power due to their allegiance to Stalin. On the other side were those who believed that Stalin’s consolidation of power in the hands of a single individual was dangerous and contrary to the goals and principles of the communist revolution. Initially, Gregory Malenkov, Stalin’s loyal ally toward the end of his life, inherited all of his titles. But there were many within the Communist Party who wanted to use the opportunity to change the system. Among these was Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged to challenge Malenkov. By 1955, he had replaced Malenkov as premier and by 1957, Malenkov was exiled to Kazakhstan and later expelled from the party. Khrushchev, however, was never able to establish the same level of control over the party as either Lenin or Stalin had done and was distrusted by those who had supported Stalin.

    b. De-Stalinization

    Khrushchev believed that Stalin’s totalitarian tendencies endangered the long-term success of the Soviet experiment by alienating Soviet citizens and allowing foreign adversaries to portray the communist system as a brutal dictatorship. He tried to put a more positive face on the country by publicly denouncing Stalin and the police state he had created. Along with his supporters, the Communist Party reduced its use of labor camps, reformed the domestic security services, allowed for some dissent against the regime to go unpunished, and renounced some of the human rights abuses under Stalin’s regime. This did not result in fundamental changes in the operation of the system or the freedoms afforded to Soviet citizens but it did soften the image of the USSR. Khrushchev, despite his occasional bluster, generally provided a more jovial and personable public face for the Communist Party.

    c. Soviet Relations with U.S under Khrushchev

    Although Khrushchev distanced the USSR from Stalin in terms of his domestic policy, his tenure involved more international tension than almost any other period of the Cold War. He famously engaged in a televised “Kitchen Debate” with US Vice President Richard Nixon to promote the superiority of the Soviet system. He famously slammed his shoe on a table at the UN, promising the US and its allies that the Soviet Union and its communist allies would “bury” them. He presided over- or least acquiesced to- the construction of the Berlin Wall to divide East and West Berlin. Despite a number of initiatives to improve relations with the US, the tension got worse while he was in power. In 1960, he canceled a scheduled summit with US President Dwight Eisenhower over an incident in which a US pilot was shot down over Soviet airspace while flying a spy mission.

    These tensions blew up most dramatically during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US discovered that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba and US President John Kennedy ordered them removed. After days of negotiations and threats, both public and private, the USSR agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the US agreeing to remove nuclear warheads that had been deployed in Turkey, a NATO ally. The two leaders also agreed to install a direct phone line that would allow them to have direct contact in the future if a similar crisis were to arise. However, Kruschev’s perceived weakness vis-a-vis the John Kennedy eventually led to his replacement as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964.

    d. Rift with China

    Although China and the USSR were both communist, their relationship was always tense. They had disputed borders and differences of opinion concerning the priorities of the global communist movement. Leaders of communist countries like China had often been deferential to Stalin due to his reputation and past leadership of the global communism. However, few saw Khrushchev as a leader to whom they needed to defer. Mao Zedong, China’s communist leader, saw himself as the true leader of global communism after Stalin’s death. He believed that the USSR was bullying China and taking it for granted as an ally. He felt that the Soviets asked for China for too much to gain its support and failed to support China on initiatives that were most important to the Chinese state, particularly its modest support for both the North Korean and North Vietnamese communist governments. All of these complaints led to the growing tension between the two countries. While there was never a formal rupture in their diplomatic relations, both China and the USSR would regularly pursue objectives that angered the other throughout the remainder of the Cold War.

    e. Proxy Wars

    The arms race and the continued development of increasingly powerful nuclear arsenals made direct conflict between the global superpowers a risky enterprise. Leaders of both the USSR and the US were wary of provoking a crisis that might lead to all-out war between the two sides, and what many experts believed would be “mutually assured destruction.” At the same time, however, both sides were also concerned about appearing weak or acquiescent to the expansion of the other side. This led to each side participating indirectly in conflicts by supporting groups across the globe who were struggling for power within their own countries. In some cases, as was the case for the US in Vietnam for example, and later for the USSR in Afghanistan, one side had troops deployed and the other side assisted groups fighting to repel them. In most other cases, each side funded or assisted groups that fought as “proxies” of the two great superpowers. This trend emerged during the Khrushchev years and continued throughout the Cold War.

  • VII. The Brezhnev – 10%

    a. Growth and stagnation
    The end of Stalin’s reign of terror brought mixed effects for the Soviet economy. On the one hand, there was more emphasis placed on consumer goods and using the gains in productivity achieved over the years to raise the standard of living of the average Soviet citizen. Although the pace of growth slowed, most Soviet citizens experienced improvements in their material conditions in the decades following WWII.

    Yet, this masked many problems within the Soviet economy. While the Soviets invested heavily in scientific research and development for military purposes, there was very little investment in consumer products. With guaranteed employment and a shortage of goods to purchase, workers had few incentives to become more productive, particularly after the relaxation of coercive methods resulting from Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. Within the system, bureaucrats and managers routinely falsified reports to make their factories or organizations appear to be more productive than they were in order to gain promotion within the Communist Party. Yet these false reports were then used to produce the Five Year Plans which over time became increasingly disconnected from economic reality. When Brezhnev died, many Soviet economists understood that reform of the centrally planned economic system was needed but nobody in power had either the incentive to change or the knowledge on which reforms would be most effective.

    b. Ideological dissent

    De-Stalinization also encouraged more Soviet intellectuals to speak out against the human rights abuses within the Soviet system. This trend was also present in eastern European communist countries as well. Within the Soviet Union, prominent authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, and nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov, winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, gained an international reputation for their public critiques of the Soviet regimes abuses of human rights. While these men were not executed or sent to prison camps as they would most likely have been under Stalin, the regime did attempt to silence them. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the USSR in 1974 and Sakharov was exiled within the USSR in 1980, but they effectively raised awareness both within the Soviet Union and in the international community to some of the abuses of human rights within the Soviet system.

    c. Detente

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, which was widely seen as being the closest the world has come to an all-out nuclear war, coupled with the increasingly expensive arms race, space race, and proxy wars, led both sides to try to reduce Cold War tensions. Both sides continued to insist that each was steadfast in promoting their ideologies and protecting their systems and their allies from attacks from the other. But both sides also recognized that there was some advantage to working peacefully to resolve areas of difference. This led to a number of treaties between the two countries to reduce the threat of nuclear war including a treaty to stop testing nuclear weapons above ground, an agreement not to deploy weapons in space, and two agreements (SALT I and II) to limit the number of nuclear weapons that each built. The two countries also agreed to work together on certain human rights issues and to cooperate on several joint-space exploration ventures.

    d. Proxy wars in the Third World

    This did not stop the two sides from engaging in indirect conflict through their proxies. The US and USSR found themselves supporting opposing sides in civil wars and other conflicts across the globe, most notably in Angola and Nicaragua. The US claimed it was containing communist aggression while the Soviet Union claimed that it was fighting capitalist imperial aggression. In most cases, neither US nor Soviet troops were directly involved but the two sides provided money, weapons, and technical expertise. The casualties from these wars, which were often quite large, and the economic, political and environmental devastation wrought by them were almost exclusively felt in the country where the war was fought.

    e. War in Afghanistan

    With the end of the Vietnam War and the development of detente in the late 1960s and 1970s, direct conflict between the US and USSR appeared to be waning. This changed dramatically in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Throughout most of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had been allied with Afghanistan, providing weapons, money, and other forms of material support. In exchange, the Afghan government remained a reliable ally of the Soviet Union. In 1978, a Soviet-backed general staged a coup and established himself as a dictator. Rebellions, some of which were supported by US ally Pakistan, erupted and the Soviet-backed communist dictator was assassinated in the fall of 1979. The Soviet invasion was intended to restore stability to the country and secure the continued support of this ally.

    The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had significant short-term and long-term implications for the Soviet Union. Over the short term, the invasion reignited Cold War tensions. The US condemned the invasion and US president Jimmy Carter called for the US to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic games which were to be held in Moscow. (The Soviet Union responded by boycotting the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.) The invasion also contributed to the eventual victory of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 US presidential election who promised a more confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union. Over the long term, the expense of the war and the high rate of fatalities undermined the legitimacy of the communist regime and put greater pressure on its already challenging economic situation. Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of a predominantly Muslim country exacerbated existing anxieties among Muslims within the Soviet Union, particularly those who lived in areas close to Afghanistan. These tensions would eventually lead to many Muslims favoring the independence efforts that would eventually bring down the Soviet state.

  • VIII. Reform and Collapse – 20%

    By the early 1980s, the Soviet economy was stagnating and the political system was so rigid that it seemed incapable of reforming itself. Brezhnev died in 1982. After the next two leaders died in quick succession, Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen as the General-Secretary of the CPSU, setting off a series of reforms that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    a. Global Challengers (Thatcher, Reagan, Pope John Paul II)

    In addition to the internal problems facing the Soviet economy and political system, the Soviet Union was being challenged by new world leaders who were adopting new approaches to addressing traditional Cold War issues. Thatcher and Reagan were elected in 1979 and 1980 respectively, each calling for a more aggressive posture in confronting Soviet military expansion and reducing the size of the government domestically. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, emphasized the importance of human rights and, being from Poland, became a symbol of resistance to communist rule among many Poles.

    b. External factors (Afghanistan, Islam)

    The war in Afghanistan was disastrous for the Soviet Union. It was expensive and damaged the regime’s credibility at home and abroad. Unable to win but unwilling to concede defeat, the Soviet government continued to pour resources into the war until finally withdrawing its troops in 1989. This war alienated many Muslims, causing two problems for the Soviet government. The perception of the Soviet government among Muslims deteriorated, providing fresh opportunities for the US and its allies to gain support among Muslim states. The large population of Muslims that lived in the Soviet Union became increasingly agitated and began seeking independence from the regime.

    c. Perestroika and glasnost

    Gorbachev sought to revitalize the Soviet system through an aggressive reform program. His first reform was to make Soviet society more open to honest public discussion. Fear of repression meant that most people were reluctant to report corruption or incompetence. His policy of glasnost, openness, encouraged open public discussion of problems in Soviet society. His second goal was to increase economic productivity by restructuring the Soviet economy. With guaranteed employment, the limited availability of consumer goods, and widespread corruption, nobody had any incentives to work harder or more efficiently. Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, or restructuring, sought to introduce incentives to reward workers, managers, and enterprises that were more productive.

    d. Reemergence of the nationalities issue

    Gorbachev was not prepared for one of the most significant challenges caused by his glasnost policy. He expected that most people would complain primarily about economic problems or government corruption. But the most vocal critics of the Soviet system were non-Russian nationalities who had grown weary of the Soviet policy of Russification. Starting in the Baltic Republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and later spreading to the Caucuses and finally coming to dominate political discussions in almost all of the 15 republics, the demands for greater autonomy, self-determination, and ultimately independence from the USSR distracted from Gorbachev’s other reform efforts.

    e. Revolutions in Eastern Europe

    Individual countries within the Soviet “sphere of influence” in eastern Europe had experienced periodic reform efforts but the Soviet government had typically responded to those by sending in troops to quash any group or movement that threatened to distance that country from the Soviet troop. In the years following WWII, a number of countries in eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia attempted to distance themselves from the USSR or chart an independent path. In each of these cases, the USSR sent in troops to suppress these efforts. This became known as the Brezhnev doctrine, which stated that the USSR would intervene to protect socialist countries from “backsliding” to western-style, capitalist democracies. Gorbachev’s new approach suggested to reformers and potential revolutionaries that he might be willing to change this approach. By the late 1980s, he clearly signalled that he would not use force to influence the political directions of countries in eastern Europe.

    Most countries in eastern Europe had existing reform movements that had been challenging communist control. These movements gained strength throughout the 1980s and boiled over in 1989, as individual communist governments, first in Poland, then Hungary, Czechoslovakia and others announced accommodations with reform groups to make their political systems more democratic. The countries like East Germany and Romania that did not cooperate with reformist groups began to face mass uprisings against their rule. By the fall of 1989, protesters in both East and West Berlin were tearing down the Berlin Wall and the East German government had announced its resignation. The collapse of communist governments in eastern Europe signalled a fundamental change in the trajectory of the Cold War and suggested that the survival of the Soviet Union itself could no longer be assured.

    f. End of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

    By the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of economic collapse. The fall of communist governments throughout Eastern Europe strengthened reformers. Growing opposition to Russian domination in the non-Russian republics presented a challenge to Gorbachev who, for the most part, tried to work with the leaders of these republics to give them more independence. Hardline conservatives in the Communist Party believed that this approach would result in the collapse of communism in the USSR as well. In August 1991, they attempted to remove Gorbachev from power in a coup d’etat to stop him from implementing a new constitutional framework that would decrease the power of the central government and give more autonomy to the individual republics. Boris Yeltsin, then the President of the Russian Republic, led a massive public protest against the coup, which ultimately forced the hardliners to back down and release Gorbachev. This event pushed the reformers to demand even more change. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev signed a treaty formally dissolving the Soviet Union and granting independence to each of the 15 republics.

    g. Gorbachev’s legacy

    Gorbachev’s legacy is complicated one. He is not widely loved or respected in Russia. Most polls show that current Russian president Vladimir Putin is far more popular. Similarly, Stalin and Lenin have much greater respect among Russians today than Gorbachev. Gorbachev is not necessarily popular in the west either, outside of academic circles. He was a communist and therefore considered an enemy. Many Americans credit US President Ronald Reagan- not Gorbachev- for the end of the Cold War.

    Nevertheless, Gorbachev deserves credit for a number of outcomes. First, along with Reagan, he fostered international peace by working seriously to work toward arms reduction and cooperating with the US to make nuclear holocaust less likely. Through the 1987 INF Treaty, Gorbachev and Reagan negotiated a treaty to eliminate a class of nuclear weapons- medium-range nuclear-armed missiles that many experts believed were most likely to lead to nuclear war. Other treaties were to follow and by 1991 the Cold War was effectively over. Gorbachev certainly played an essential, and probably the primary role in creating this outcome.

    Gorbachev almost certainly deserves credit for the courage he showed in attempting to reform the entrenched Soviet state. Paralyzed by decades of a paranoid management style and full of party members and bureaucrats who had risen to their position by not questioning or challenging leadership, any reform program was certain to meet resistance. He was risking much when he sought to take on this established order and many in his position would have accepted the role that they were elevated into and sought to maintain power. Gorbachev chose to risk losing power in order to improve the lives of Soviet citizens and ended up losing power because of it.

    Gorbachev also knew that there were going to be many who wanted him to go much further than he could go without losing power. Gorbachev was caught in the middle between those who wanted to maintain the status quo and those who wanted to pursue dramatic reform. Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet state as constructed was not sustainable. He knew that the USSR needed to modernize its technology and reform its economy in order to keep pace with the rapidly changing global economy. But he was also a communist at heart. Born and raised in the Soviet Union, he was educated as a communist and believed in the values he was taught. He frequently stated that he was not trying to destroy communism, but save it.

History of the Soviet Union Practice Quiz

Do you feel confident to give the practice test a try? The format of the test will be nice and familiar for most as it will be multiple-choice with only one correct answer. When you write your answer make sure to tap (or hover over) the question to give you the answer and an explanation.

All test questions are in a multiple-choice format, with one correct answer and three incorrect options. The following are samples of the types of questions that may appear on the exam.

Please do keep in mind that we can’t guarantee the accuracy of this quiz, so we do recommend you also run through a full-length practice exam.  We’ll recommend some good options in the resources section at the bottom of this page.

Question 1: Following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Tsar Nicholas II was
pressured to create a(n) ___________________________, which he did in 1906.

a. centrally planned economy
b. a democratic constitution
c. representative legislature
d. independent judiciary


After Russia’s defeat to Japan in 1905, widespread protests broke
out across Russia’s major cities, advocating further reforms to hold the Russian imperial government more accountable. The most important of these was the establishment of the State Duma, a legislature that would be elected by voters. Ultimately this reform stopped far short of establishing a democratic government. A centrally planned economy was not introduced until Stalin introduced the first 5-year plan in 1929. An independent judiciary was not created at that time.

Question 2: In the months preceding the Bolshevik (October) Revolution of 1917, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party focused on gaining control of the

a. provisional government
b. soviets
c. schools and universities
d. major news outlets


The Soviets were worker-controlled councils within factories and
other places or production. The Bolshevik strategy for coming to power was to get as many of its supporters as possible and then claim that these councils were the only legitimate authority to represent the interests of the Russian people. They did not try to take control of the other institutions but rather to discredit them. They did attempt to take control of armories and recruit members of the military to their side but did not try to gain control of these organizations but sought to replace them with their own institutions.

Question 3: After Lenin’s death in 1924, the primary struggle for power within the Soviet Union was between…

a. Russians and non-Russians
b. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
c. Stalin and Trotsky and their respective supporters
d. Nazi sympathizers and devout Marxists


Trotsky was assumed to be the heir apparent to Lenin as leader of
the Communist Party, but Stalin used his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party to install loyal supporters in key positions. With his allies in place, Stalin was able to outmaneuver Trotsky for control of the CPSU, eventually having Trotsky exiled to Mexico. Answer B reflects an earlier tension and Answer A was a tension that emerged primarily in the 1980s. The Nazis never had substantial support in the Soviet Union and the Nazi movement was not strong anywhere until the 1930s.

Question 4: Which of the following was the primary goal of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan?

a. To revive Soviet agriculture and increase the food supply.
b. To encourage greater harmony in Soviet society by reducing government control over
the economy.
c. To promote rapid industrialization by shifting resources from the agricultural sector to industrial production.
d. To compensate victims of the tsarist regime and civil war with reparations.

Answer: C.

The first Five Year Plan sought to take the gains made in agriculture in the preceding decade and use those agricultural surpluses to help finance rapid industrialization. Centralized planning greatly increased state control over economic activity and led to food shortages, resistance, and repression.

Question 5: By 1937, Stalin’s primary focus during the purges and show trials was to ______.

a. capture and execute spies that were working for the US and its allies.
b. demonstrate the power of the Soviet regime to Hitler and other potential foreign aggressors
c. remove Communist Party officials who were too extreme in implementing Soviet economic policies.
d. eliminating all opposition within the Communist Party to Stalin’s rule.


Preoccupied with the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis, the
US and other western countries were not focused on events in the USSR and Stalin was not focused on them. Hitler was not acting aggressively toward the Soviet Union at that time. Stalin favored those who were extreme in implementing his policies. His primary concern was on eliminating potential rivals to his power within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Question 6: The pivotal battle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during WWII was

a. the Battle of the Bulge
b. Stalingrad
c. the Battle for Berlin
d. D-Day


The Battle of the Bulge and D-Day were both fought on the Western
front and did not directly involve the Soviet Union. By the time Soviet troops captured Berlin, the war had been effectively over. Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle in WWII and was crucial because the Soviets, at great cost, were able to stop the Nazi advance into Soviet territory.

Question 7: In the decade following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union considered all of the following to be within its “sphere of influence” EXCEPT

a. Poland
b. China
c. East Germany
d. Hungary


Stalin’s primary focus was on securing the western border of the Soviet Union against aggression from either Germany or other western powers. He considered Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, along with other Eastern European countries as “buffer states” under indirect Soviet control. China was mostly an ally of the Soviet Union after Mao and the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, but Stalin did not want to become formally involved in any conflict in Asia and did not intervene directly in Chinese domestic politics.

Question 8: The Soviet leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis was

a. Josef Stalin
b. Nikita Khrushchev
c. Leonid Brezhnev
d. Yuri Andropov


Stalin preceded Khrushchev, whereas Brezhnev and Andropov came later. After succeeding Stalin and pushing through a de-Stalinization program, Khrushchev felt that he needed a high profile public victory over the United States to save credibility at home. After being forced to back down and remove Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba in 1963, he was soon removed from power by the Soviet leadership.

Question 9: The Brezhnev era was characterized by all of the following EXCEPT

a. the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
b. efforts to reduce Cold War tensions with the United States.
c. a reform program that sought to make Soviet society more open and the Soviet economy more productive.
d. economic stagnation as production dropped and the Soviet Union fell behind technologically.


The reform program of glasnost and perestroika was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985. Brezhnev did preside over a period of detente, or thawing of Cold War tensions which lasted until 1979 when they invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet economy struggled throughout the 1970s due to stagnant production and the failure to upgrade its technology.

Question 10: During the late 1980s, the “nationality question” emerged most strongly in…

a. Russia
b. Ukraine
c. Georgia
d. the Baltic Republics


About 60% of the population of the USSR was Russian, which left a large minority of non-Russians within its borders. In response to Gorbachev’s glasnost policy, many non-Russians began demanding better treatment, more political control, and eventually independence from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which had only been incorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II, were the first to challenge Soviet sovereignty over them.

Question 11: Boris Yeltsin was a

a. a former member of the Communist Party, and president of Russia, that led opposition
to the hardliners trying to stop Gorbachev’s reforms.
b. a leader who helped bring down the communist government in Poland
c. the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who instituted the
glasnost and perestroika reform programs
d. a Soviet dissident who defected to the United States and wrote a series of books
criticizing the Soviet government


Lech Walesa was the leader who helped bring down the communist government in Poland. Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for the perestroika and glasnost reform initiatives. There were a number of Soviet dissidents, most of whom did not defect, that were critical of the Soviet government but this description does not match Yeltsin. Yeltsin was a former communist party official who advocated reform and was elected president of Russia in 1991. He publicly resisted an attempted coup d’etat by communist hardliners trying to remove Gorbachev in 1991.

More DSST Study Resources

Are you at the beginning of your study process, or just looking for a couple more practice questions to finish prepping for your exam? In either case, you can find some of my favorite resources below. Some of the links below are affiliate (Amazon for instance), which means they’ll pay us a few bucks for every purchase through the link. Feel free to use those links if you want to support the site, but you can also just Google the title or pick the book up at your local library.

Official DSST Practice Test: Ok, so the DSST website isn’t the most inviting, but it will give you the best approximation of the real exam experience. Also, the official practice test is quite affordable (currently just $5 per practice exam).

Passbooks – DSST Rise And Fall Of The Soviet Union: Textbooks are great as far as they go, but I’d generally recommend you opt for this exam guide instead. It tends to cut through the confusion and help you accelerate your learning process.

InstantCert Academy: Another website with a very dated design, but as ancient as it looks, this is actually an incredibly valuable resource. Basically, you get a massive set of flashcards that you can use to learn Soviet Union history and to really solidify that knowledge so you’re ready for the exam.

Plenty of other resources exist – just do a quick internet search – but these are a fantastic start, and probably all you really need. I’ve personally done some exams with just InstantCert and the official practice test.

Congrats on starting your DSST study journey! Study hard, earn credit, and most of all remember to have fun.