One hundred years since foundation of USSR

It is a hundred years since the establishment of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia – later known as the USSR – at the end of 1922. The first signatories represented the revolutionary new governments in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). They were followed by the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Kurdistan and Turkmenistan as Bolshevik emissaries convinced them of the huge advantages that would accrue from affiliation, including literacy in their own languages and the development of industry and agriculture now free from feudal barons and land-owners.

The founding of the Soviet Union came five years after the Bolshevik-led revolutionary victory over Czarism and capitalism and at the end of a bloody, counter-revolutionary civil war backed by imperialist armies across the vast area of the former Tsarist empire. It brought together, on an equal footing, people of more than 100 distinct nationalities and ethnic groups in a country occupying one-sixth of the world’s land surface – half of Europe and a third of Asia. The new republics were freed from the yoke of Russian imperialism which had oppressed and looted all its subject nations over centuries.

The revolution’s leaders – Lenin and Trotsky – always stood for the inviolable right of all oppressed nations to self-determination, up to and including separation. Finland, after various on-off relations with Tsarism, immediately took its independence from Russia in December 1917 (minus the Karelian Isthmus which remains inside Russia). But not one of the other former colonial states followed suit, even Ukraine, which had a complicated history of national as well as international relations. The headquarters of the new federation would be in Moscow but, as its founding documents spelled out:- “Representatives of all the uniting republics should take their turn in presiding at the Union Central Executive Committee”.

Joseph Stalin, first People’s Commissar for Nationalities of the Russian Federation of Socialist Republics, himself of Georgian origin, initially opposed the right of all nations to self-determination. He adopted violent methods to remove proponents of this right from Georgia’s ruling soviet. Lenin admonished him for supporting ‘autonomisation’ and a form of unification that would allow for ‘dominant nation chauvinism’. One of the cardinal principles of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics when it was formed was that it was a federation of equals, with the right of any participating nation to secede. There was also the idea that other countries could join the Union after carrying through their own socialist revolutions with the aim of “uniting the working people of all lands in a World Socialist Soviet Republic”.


Just over one year after the founding of the USSR, on 21 January, 1924, Lenin died. Within the same year, Stalin, already General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, changed his position completely on a key part of the Bolsheviks’ programme. Instead of advocating the spread of socialist revolutions to industrially-developed capitalist countries – vitally necessary for the survival and development of a workers’ state in the Soviet Union and always the policy of the revolution’s leaders – he now adopted a policy of building ‘socialism in one country’.

Stalin was already gathering around him a coterie of party officials who would police the so-called workers’ state and eliminate all political opposition. This took a period of time as a corrupt political regime crystallised and elements whom Stalin and his clique regarded as oppositional or unreliable were purged. Above all, they targeted the co-leader with Lenin of the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky, and his supporters who opposed the political counter-revolution that Stalin was carrying through. They were putting forward an alternative of how to strengthen the Soviet Union and maintain Soviet democracy while not giving up an internationalist perspective. Millions of the USSR’s citizens died in the famines and forced collectivisation that followed and millions more perished in Stalin’s prisons and concentration camps. Trotsky was hounded from the Soviet Union and his Left Opposition physically crushed.

Revolutions in Germany and China in the 1920s failed to bring the working class to power and workers’ revolutions in Spain and France in the ‘30s were actively sabotaged by Communist Parties in those countries on Stalin’s orders. Trotsky, in exile in Mexico, was murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist assassin, such was the threat to Stalin of his programme for establishing genuine workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union and beyond.

The Third International under Stalin had long ceased to be a force for world socialist revolution. The ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ was not operating on the basis of workers’ democracy and control in the workplace or in society as had been envisaged by Marx, Lenin and all genuine socialists. It was bureaucratically run by an army of privileged bureaucrats. But, something which is totally ignored by those who maintain that capitalism is the most efficient way of running society, the growth rates achieved by the USSR’s planned economy in the inter-war years far outstripped those of any so-called advanced capitalist country where private ownership and profit held sway.

Cold War

The Soviet Union lost up to 27 million of its people in the Second World War, yet it was able to rebuild its cities and industries at a phenomenal rate. On the basis of state ownership and planning, however bureaucratic and wasteful in its application, it continued to carry through historic achievements in science and technology and in sport and the performing arts. It won the race for manned space flight with Yuri Gagarin in April 1961. Its musicians, ballet dancers and sports champions were world-renowned.

However, growth rates slowed as the sclerosis in the planned economy worsened. Political crises faced the regime in the 1950s, with the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s later revelations about his terror regime. The ‘70s and ’80s saw economic crises develop and a series of ‘Soviet’ presidents come and go.

Even as the vast bureaucratically-controlled economy of the Soviet Union began to unravel, almost miraculously, many of the gains of the Russian Revolution survived – free health care and education at all levels, the right of all women to abortion on demand and state-funded nursery facilities, cheap centrally-heated housing, low cost local and long-distance travel.

For several decades, the USSR and countries elsewhere in the world which had ended the rule of capitalism and landlordism (China, Eastern European countries, Vietnam, Cuba…) represented an alternative economic and social system. A ‘Cold War’ between countries that had different social systems but had developed nuclear weapons actually maintained a certain sense of security – “Peaceful Coexistence”.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of state ownership and planning is well documented in the material of the Committee for a Workers’ international. Smug, pro-capitalist commentators today turn a blind eye to the catastrophic results that followed the ‘triumph’ of capitalism in the former USSR. The economies of all the former ‘Soviet’ republics, so keen to leave the USSR even before its official demise, suffered dramatic collapses of their economies. Georgia suffered a 75% decline and even Russia’s economy shrank by 50%. Unemployment, unknown in the planned economies, afflicted every new country as it took the capitalist road.

Looking back

A US television programme has been shown on British TV recently entitled “The hundredth Anniversary of the Soviet Union”. Produced by Dominic Saville, for PBS America, it has some fairly familiar film footage accompanied by almost as familiar comments from various academics and politicians who have a clear bias against the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. They refer to it as “a tragedy”. They lazily lump Lenin and Stalin together as cultivating a ‘cult of personality’ and talk of Lenin’s ‘autocratic character’, when nothing could be farther from the truth! They sneer at Leon Trotsky, without evidence, calling him arrogant and ‘hysterical’, even though capable of leading the Red Army and defeating the intervening imperialist foreign armies on all fronts.

These predominantly pro-capitalist ‘Talking Heads’ include writers Max Hastings, Giles Milton, Donald Rayfield and historians Simon Sebag Montefiore and Professor Diane Koenker.

Inevitably these ‘worthies’ will try to rubbish attempts in any country to pursue the goal of socialism – to finish with private ownership and the pursuit of profit which lie behind the poverty, wars and global warming that all threaten the future of the planet today. They, of course, touch on the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921 against the Bolshevik government. They fail to explain, however, the massive change in consciousness that had developed amongst these peasants’ sons in uniform during the gruelling civil war, or the economic and social crises caused by the imperialist=backed attempt to overthrow the revolutionary government.

The programme points to the death of between 10 and 15 million people in the 1930s due to the treacherous agricultural policy of forced collectivisation and the purge trials of revolutionaries. It mentions that both Christopher Hill, the communist historian, and Bernard Shaw, the socialist playwright, were convinced that those who were killed in the purges were actually guilty of crimes against the socialist state rather than simply criticising Stalin’s regime of terror.

But almost accidentally, the producers let slip some interesting pieces of information which give the lie to the ‘received wisdom’ which most commentators peddle. They say the Bolshevik leaders of the Soviet Union wanted to emulate the USA, yet they quote a figure which indicates that the Soviet Union’s economy grew at a phenomenally faster rate than that of the USA. “Between 1928 and 1941 there was a growth of more than 300% in GDP”, the programme itself exclaims.

World War

The makers of the PBS film say the USSR seems to “define the whole of the 20th Century”. It goes into the way the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact ‘confused’ communists world-wide and how the massive slaughter of Poles was carried out before the Western powers had any idea what was happening. Then, it reports, six million Soviet citizens – army and civilian – were lost in the first year of German imperialism opening up its second front in June 1941 with its invasion of the Soviet Union.

One of the ‘miracles’ performed by the Soviet Union during the war was the dismantling and rebuilding of whole industries, moved thousands of miles ‘inland’. The programme shows how millions of ‘Soviet’ citizens were ‘fantastically motivated’ to serve in what was described by the authorities as the ‘People’s War’ to defend the ‘socialist homeland’.

Once the war was over, there was the rising power of China to contend with and the beginnings of a slowing down in the economy of the USSR. The PBS programme touches on the zig-zags in economic policy and the quite rapid succession of Party secretaries after the death of Stalin in 1953, including Khrushchev and his revelations about Stalin’s murderous purge trials.

The USSR and the world

With barely a mention of the 1956 workers’ revolution in Hungary, drowned in blood by ‘Soviet’ tanks, the programme touches on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (including at least a reference to the hypocrisy of the US with its missile bases in Italy and Turkey). It mentions in more detail the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’ and the demand for ‘socialism with a human face’.

The death of Chernenko, president for just over a year (from February ’84 to March ’85) brings the more recognisable Mikhael Gorbachev onto the scene, described by Montefiore as a Leninist who wore a leather jacket and by Hastings as someone who was to ‘break the mould’. He weathers the Chernobyl crisis and begins a campaign against the corrupt and rich bureaucrats. Not willing to break from one-party rule, Gorbachev zig-zags from ‘openness’ and ‘re-structuring’ to clamping down on what is a growing revolt against centralised control and the one-party state.

“The Hundredth Anniversary of the Soviet Union” shows Gorbachev courted by Thatcher and Reagan – “Loved abroad; loathed at home” as they put it. But it was Gorbachev who initiated the popular decision to withdraw ‘Soviet’ troops from Afghanistan, after nearly ten years of occupation and bloody fighting with 15,000 mostly conscripts killed. The programme points to the Baltic States beginning to push for a break from the USSR well before its actual break-up at the end of 1991. It also touches on the long-running conflict in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Ngorno Karabach.


Like all pro-capitalist commentators on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the PBS America programme points to the failed coup by hard-liners in Gorbachev’s government in August 1991 and Boris Yeltsin’s victory then as marking the beginning of the end for the USSR. It shows Gorbachev being ‘rescued’ from his holiday in Crimea on Yeltsin’s orders. But it also shows Gorbachev being excluded from the Belovezhski talks in a hunting lodge in Belorussia that dissolved the ‘Soviet Union’, and established the Russian Federation as its successor. A Commonwealth of Independent States was agreed on in Almata, Kazakhstan by the leaders of all the USSR’s member states, recognising that each of the 16 former republics would go its own way.

Saville’s programme fails to go into the bloody way that capitalism came back into the life of the Russian people, raw in tooth and nail. As the CWI has pointed out on many occasions, the former party bureaucrats, including KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, amassed vast fortunes to become the oligarchs of today, employing professional gangsters to eliminate rivals.

As the CWI had predicted, there was not a new-found prosperity for all, but, instead, horrific economic collapse, mass unemployment and poverty for most. There was hyper-inflation and in most of the successor states, dictatorships operating only in the interests of local oligarchs and their henchmen. While populations have declined in most of these ex-USSR states, their economies have experienced some economic recovery, albeit fragile, yet new conflicts develop.

The end of the USSR was formally announced by Mikhael Gorbachev on 25 December 1991. The Yeltsin years that followed failed to bring peace and prosperity to Russia – still the largest (geographically) country in the world. Limited economic recovery enriched a small minority and left the majority in poverty.

The warmongering president of Russia today, Vladimir Putin, has increasingly held sway in Russia through terror and oppression while elections are barely even superficially democratic. Political opponents languish in jail, and Russia’s youth, who have sometimes come onto the streets against Putin’s dictatorial regime, have been arrested. Since the widening scope of the army call-up for Putin’s ‘Special Operation’, thousands flee the country rather than fight in Ukraine.

Putin claimed, at the beginning of the disastrous invasion in February 2022, to be re-establishing historic Russia. What he meant was Russian rule over areas previously formally independent, constituent parts of the ‘Soviet Union’. Some say he is aiming to reconstitute the whole Russian-dominated empire of the Czars or the USSR itself, but even he can see this could be far more difficult than it might seem.

Socialist ideas

It is true that workers in the republics of the former Soviet Union saw it as dominated by the ‘Communist’ Party elite in Moscow. Many had the illusion that the Union’s break-up and the adoption of capitalist economic relations would benefit them. The idea of state ownership with democratic workers’ control and management had been almost unheard of.

Today opposition to Putin and his ‘Special Operation’ in Ukraine is growing across the former USSR as well as in Europe and the USA. (It is, in the process, enabling the NATO powers to pose as defenders of ‘democracy’, burying the memory of their defeat in Afghanistan.)

A far more complex balance of power exists in the world today than during the ‘Cold War’ between different social systems. Lessons must be learnt by a new generation about the past. Conclusions will be drawn about genuine socialism and a determination will grow to finish with capitalism and achieve a safe and peaceful world.

See articles on about the collapse of the USSR and on Putin’s ‘justification’ for invading Ukraine.




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December 2022