What was the Soviet Union and how did it come to exist?

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), more commonly known as the Soviet Union, was a vast country that spanned much of northern Eurasia. For most of its existence during the 20th century, it was a multinational federation of 15 Union Republics and numerous subdivisions, each based on ethnicity and culture. The largest by far was Russia, where the Soviet capital, Moscow, was located. As a self-proclaimed “socialist state”, the Soviet Union became the template for other such countries and served as the fulcrum for communism throughout the world.


The origins of the Soviet Union lay in the October Revolution of 1917 when Marxist leader, Vladimir Lenin, and his Bolshevik Party seized power in Petrograd (now St Petersburg). They named their new state the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (RSFSR), in honour of the organisations – the soviets (councils) – convened by workers, peasants and soldiers during the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

Lenin deduced that Russia would be the tinderbox of an imminent worldwide socialist revolution, which would mark the demise of capitalism. However, the Russian empire’s implosion into civil war proved a greater priority, as ‘Reds’ (Bolsheviks and other radical leftists) and ‘Whites’ (groups loyal to Russia’s deposed tsar) fought each other across its immense terrain.

The Bolsheviks conspired to establish kindred regimes in the former empire’s newly independent nations. By 1922, Soviet republics had been installed in Ukraine, Belorussia and the Transcaucasian Federation (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). On 30 December, delegations from these republics and Russia ratified a treaty that unified them as the Soviet Union.

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 orbit
of Earth was a triumph for Soviet science. (Image by Getty Images)

How was it governed?

In practice, the Soviet Union was a highly centralised state, with the Communist Party (which the Bolsheviks renamed themselves in 1918), controlling all aspects of Soviet politics, economics and culture.

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Its ideology was Marxism-Leninism, based on an adaptation by Lenin of Marxist theory to suit Russia’s specific circumstances, through which it aspired to realise a communist utopia. Leadership was exercised collectively between state officials, though the party’s leader, the general secretary, acted as de facto head of state.

Marxism-Leninism rejected parliamentary democracy, considering it rigged to serve capitalist interests. Instead, the Supreme Soviet became the Union’s chief law-making institution in 1936, electing its collective leadership and assembling representatives of the Union’s nationalities at state level. Effectively, though, it functioned simply to rubberstamp party policy.

What was Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union?

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a power struggle convulsed the party from which Joseph Stalin, a Georgian Bolshevik, triumphed. Moving to demonise his rival, Leon Trotsky, he inaugurated a cult of personality and replaced Moscow’s commitment to world revolution with “socialism in one country”.

Through a series of five-year plans, Stalin sought to rapidly industrialise the Soviet Union and collectivise agriculture, bringing private farms under state control. These policies inflicted enormous suffering across the Union – notably in Ukraine, where a human-made famine, the Holodomor, killed up to 4 million people between 1932 and 1933. Stalin then launched the Great Purge in 1936, in the paranoid belief that officials in the regime were conspiring to supplant him. Old Bolsheviks were subjected to show trials, tortured into confessing, and summarily executed. Others vanished into a network of forced labour camps, known as gulags. His grip on power secured, Stalin ended the carnage in 1938.

What was the Soviets’ role in World War II?

In 1939, Stalin baffled communists around the world by signing a non-aggression pact with his ideological foe, Adolf Hitler. Together, they divided Poland, while the Soviet Union later annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940. Nevertheless, on 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his long-planned invasion of the Soviet Union. The speed of the German advance shocked Soviet leaders as vast swathes of territory were lost. Leningrad (formerly known as Petrograd) was encircled and endured a brutal siege lasting over two years. Moscow evaded capture. The turning point was the battle of Stalingrad, with Soviet soldiers repelling the Germans and finally reaching Berlin in April 1945. Losing over 27 million military personnel and civilians, the war proved a major formative experience for the Soviets.

The defeat of Nazi Germany is proclaimed by a Soviet soldier raising the ‘banner of victory’ over the Reichstag
In a possibly staged photo, the defeat of Nazi Germany is proclaimed by a Soviet soldier raising the ‘banner of victory’ over the Reichstag. (Image by Getty Images)

How did the Soviet Union evolve during the second half of the 20th century?

After 1945 the Soviet Union emerged as a global superpower, which led to a nuclear arms race unfolding against the US. Meanwhile, Moscow nurtured socialist regimes across eastern Europe and welcomed nations like China and Cuba into the fold.

Stalin’s crimes were denounced by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, after the dictator’s death in 1953. Nonetheless, anti-Moscow uprisings in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were suppressed in the ensuing decades.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, followed by the first human being in outer space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. It was a coup for the Soviets in the Space Race and state propaganda acclaimed communist innovation and science.

Yet the 1970s saw popular support for Marxism-Leninism wane as the promise of the Khrushchev years soured during Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure. Long queues for dwindling consumer products and the Soviets’ international status as a pariah, brought by the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, took their toll.

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader. The first general secretary born after the October Revolution, he introduced a series of reforms designed to rejuvenate the Soviet Union: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). Ironically, these policies enabled long-repressed grievances against Moscow to spill out. In 1986, a disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in Ukraine, dealt a heavy blow to Soviet probity. Belarus, hardest hit by the fallout, felt aggrieved that Moscow could have so recklessly underestimated such awesome technology. From Poland to Romania, Soviet-backed regimes toppled in 1989, and Moscow withdrew its forces.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev aimed to reform the Soviet Union, but ended up being its last leader. (Image by Getty Images)

By 1990, Gorbachev’s reforms were yielding unintended consequences closer to home. Nationalism stirred in the Union Republics, with Lithuania becoming the first to declare independence in March. The other Baltic states soon followed suit.

Communist Party hardliners staged a coup in August 1991, hoping to prevent total collapse, but thousands of Muscovites thwarted its progress. Ukraine broke away later that month, and, in December, Russia denounced the 1922 Union Treaty and quit the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned via a televised address on 25 December and the Supreme Soviet dissolved the Soviet Union the following day.

What is the Soviet Union’s legacy today?

Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin has blamed Lenin for implanting “artificial” national identities in lands that were long under Russia’s yoke.

He has described the Soviet collapse as a “genuine tragedy” for Russia and consistently speaks of protecting “ethnic Russians” living across the former Soviet Union.

Ukraine has witnessed the destruction of Soviet-era monuments, such as this statue of Lenin
Ukraine has witnessed the destruction of Soviet-era monuments, such as this statue of Lenin, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. (Image by Getty Images)

In 2014, Moscow annexed Crimea when Ukraine made its aspirations for EU and Nato membership known. This year (2022) saw an escalation of the invasion, with Putin denying Ukraine’s right to statehood while curtailing dissent in Russia. The Soviet Union’s legacy is still very much playing out.

Read more | Russia-Ukraine crisis: 9 milestone moments in history that explain today’s invasion


Watch | Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone, a series of films by Adam Curtis that explore what it felt like to live through the USSR’s collapse and aftermath, is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)