Russia: Communist government in the USSR, 1917-85


Establishing Communist Party Control 1917-24

  • February 1917 Revolution- led to the downfall of the tsar 
  • Creation of Provisional Govt introduced freedoms and democracy
  • The creation of the one-party state:
  • Lenin promised a radical democratic govt. workers, soldiers and peasants would govern themselves
  • Lenin, a Marxist, socialism only way to create an advanced industrial economy
  • October 1917, Congress created Sovnarkom, replaced the provisional govt.
  • Passed: Decree of land (gave peasants land from nobility)
  • Decree of Peace (withdrawal of WW1)
  • Workers Decree (Max 8 hour work day & min wage)

Civil War 1918-21: Communist vs Tsarists vs Left Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)

  • Political Centralisation, power passed to Politburo (made up of a highly centralised party)
  • Bureaucracy, com nomenklatura bureaucratic, educated middle class
  • Used terror against opponents, Feb 1921 authorised Cheka 
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Nature of Govt under Lenin

The party congress of 1921:

  • War communism had created famine, Red terror created a backlash to the oppression
  • Autumn 1920Tambov peasants revolted against War communism & Cheka (50k rebel force)
  • Early 1921 strikes, Red Army opened fire on unarmed workers
  • Kronstadt sailors rebel, demand an end to war communism
  • Lenin responded by replacing war communism w/ NEP

Ban on Factions 1921, banned factions within the party, strengthening Lenin's position 

Lenin dies in 1924 leaving an authoritarian legacy:

  • Sovnarkom ceases to exist 1920, politburo effectively becomes govt of Russia
  • By 1921, govt was based on Party & State, Party dominated and became known as the one-party state, through the destruction of the opposition
  • By 1920s it was becoming clear the party was becoming a new elite 
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Stalin in Power 1928-53

1923-28 Stalin removed: Trotsky, Bukhari & Zinoviev using:

  • Changed nature of party by establishing a new ideological orthodoxy
  • Stalin expelled rivals from politburo
  • General Sec and head of Rabkrin, could remove/investigate opponents 
  • Trotsky defeated 1925 (Trotskyite) by Triumvirate
  • Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky (left) defeated 1928 by Duumvirate
  • Bukharin (right) Defeated 1929 

Purges of the 1930s

  • Many opponents within party, Kirov emerged as a popular figure
  • Launched Great Terror, at height between 1935-38 killed 10mil, 10% of the population
  • Show Trial of 16, 1936- Zinoviev & supporters
  • Show Trial of 17, 1937- Trotsky supporters
  • Show Trial of 21, 1938- Bukharin & supporters 
  • 1937 Secret trials of Red Army Leaders (37,000 officers purged)

By 1935 Personal Dictatorship. 

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Stalin's power over Party & State


  • Complete control of the economy
  • Widespread political terror
  • Complete control of media
  • Extensive propaganda to win over hearts of people

Stalin used vagueness between party and state to encourage competition between the two:

  • Rivarly, Zdhanov (Beria's key rival) supervised Beria's secret police
  • Shifting Powerbases: 1938 Politburo, 1942, state of defence committee, After WW2 war council of ministers more powerful. Ensuring no one rivalled Stalin 

Ended mass terror during WW2, state power grew, created State Defence Committee (GKO)

  • Leningrad affair 1949: purged Leningrad party, 100 killed 2,000 arrested
  • Imprisoned Molotov's wife to test loyalty, Moloto did nothing

Stalin Died 1953.

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Khrushchevs attempt to reform

Beria MVD reforms 1953, reduced power of MVD:

  • Population of Gulags dropped from 2.3million to 1.6million by 1956
  • K and Malenkov arrested Beria under suspicion of treason, removed by mid-1953
  • K comes out on top of Malenkov due to power base 
  • De-stalinisation:
  • Ending Terror, March & April 1953 amnesties. 4,620 prisoners rehabilitated
  • K replaced 44% of Central Committee 
  • 1956 Secret Speech, Criticised Stalin particularly his personality cult
  • K backtracked after news of speech was leaked
  • Democratisation: membership grew from 6.9mil 1954 to 11mil 1964, 60% members peasants or workers
  • Decentralisation: abolition of central ministries, devolved power to 105 economic councils 
  • 1957 anti-party group tried to out K, he survived due to support of central committee
  • 22nd Patry Congress October 1921: 
  • Party divided, ag & ind
  • Fixed terms of central committee members 16 years (prevent stagnation)
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Stability and Stagnation, Brezhnev 1964-82

  • Restoration: Reversed decentralisation 
  • ended split between ag & ind
  • Controlled party through stability of cadres (promising job security)

1970-85 Stagnation 

  • Gerontocracy, 1964-71 two people promoted to Politburo
  • 1982 average age of politburo had risen from 58 (1966) to 75 (1982)
  • No incentives for hard work lead to inefficiency
  • Corruption- Black Market, job role advantages

Andropov Nov 1982- Feb 1984 

  • Abandoned stability of cadres 
  • anti-corruption campaign, media exposure of officials

Chernenko February 1984- March 1985

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