(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (more commonly known as the U.S.S.R. or the Soviet Union) was established following the social revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917. It was the first nation in history to be founded on the principles of socialist philosophy, which holds that the ownership of a nation's resources should not be owned solely by privileged individuals but by all its citizens.

During its existence (1922-91), the Soviet Union was the world's largest country in area and the third largest in population (after China and India). Spanning two continents, Europe and Asia, it extended from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in the south.

In February 1917 (March by the present-day calendar), Russia's last emperor, Czar Nicholas II, was overthrown and a provisional (temporary) government was formed. In October 1917 (November by the present-day calendar), the provisional government was itself overthrown by a group of Communist revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks. In 1922 they officially established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ruling as a one-party dictatorship, the Communists (as the Bolsheviks became known) exercised near-total control over all aspects of the country's political, economic, and intellectual life. They reorganized Russia's backward economy, emphasized industrial and scientific progress, and built up the world's largest army.

After World War II (1939-45), the Soviet government followed an expansionist foreign policy that frequently brought it into conflict with the United States, its only rival superpower among the world's nations. However, it was the failure of the Soviet economic system, along with growing ethnic nationalism, that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991.

The Union Republics

The Soviet Union was made up of 15 union (member) republics. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.) was by far the largest. It covered about 75 percent of the total Soviet land area, which made it about twice the size of the United States. It also contained the nation's two largest cities--Moscow, the capital, and Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg).

The other republics were Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea; Belorussia (present-day Belarus), Ukraine, and Moldavia (present-day Moldova) in the far west; Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Caucasus region in the southwest; and Kazakhstan, Kirghizia (present-day Kyrgyzstan), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

Life in the Soviet Union

The Soviet population was unevenly distributed over the land. The European part of the country was the most densely populated. It contained about two-thirds of the Soviet people, even though it contained only about one-quarter of its total area. By contrast, Soviet Asia, although much larger in area but less fertile, had vast stretches of land that were only thinly populated.

All together, more than 90 different national and ethnic groups lived in the Soviet Union. Slavic peoples made up about 75 percent of the total population. Russians were the largest Slavic group, with slightly more than half the total Soviet population, followed by the Ukrainians and Belorussians (now called Belarusians). Turkic peoples made up the second largest group. Most of the Soviet Turkic peoples lived in Central Asia. They included the Uzbeks, the Kazakhs, the Kirghiz (now Kyrgyzes), and the Turkmen (also called Turkmens or Turkomans). The Azerbaijanis, another Turkic people, inhabited part of the mountainous Caucasus region to the west of the Caspian Sea. Other non-Slavic peoples included the Moldavians (now Moldovans), Armenians, Georgians, Tajiks, and the Baltic peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.


 From the time of the 1917 revolutions, the Soviet government was strongly anti-religious. The Communist Party regarded religion as its enemy. Many churches were destroyed or turned into museums. But during World War II the government recognized the people's need for religion, and some freedom was restored. Years later, freedom of religion was limited once again. Despite the restrictions, many Soviet people continued to practice their faiths.

Most East Slavs traditionally belonged to the (Christian) Eastern Orthodox Church, the largest religious body. Other Christian peoples included Armenians (who belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church), Georgians (members of the Georgian Orthodox Church), Lithuanians (primarily Roman Catholics), and Estonians and Latvians (mostly Lutherans).

The Turkic peoples, who were chiefly Muslims, made up the second largest religious community. Buddhism was practiced by some peoples in Soviet Asia. The Soviet Union also had one of the world's largest Jewish communities. But after the nation dissolved, large numbers of Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States.


 The Soviet school system was controlled, indirectly, by the Communists. They believed that one of the primary functions of education was to train people to serve the state (nation). Because the Soviet Union put so much emphasis upon industrial and scientific progress, the training of skilled workers, technicians, engineers, and scientists was the main goal of the educational system.

Soviet children could begin their education in kindergarten when they were 3 years old. There were crèches (day nurseries) to care for children under 3 while their parents worked. These nurseries were always subject to state and Communist Party supervision.

At the age of 7, Soviet children were required to enter a regular school. The government aimed to provide ten years of free, compulsory education: three years of elementary school, five years of junior high school, and two years of secondary school. But in the farm districts, children did not usually advance beyond junior high school.

Education was carefully regulated, and there was little room for individuality on the part of students or teachers. Qualifying examinations were centrally prepared and were designed to allow only the brightest students to go on to further academic work. Many students went from junior high school to a labor reserve school, where they trained for jobs in industry. Students in the secondary schools often visited factories to observe, talk to the workers, or get some training. When they graduated at the age of 17 or 18, many were assigned to industrial jobs.

Admission to Soviet technical and professional colleges and universities was by competitive examination. The time spent varied from two years in teacher-training institutes to five or six years in engineering and medical institutes and universities. Students who did extremely well in their studies could go on for advanced degrees. The Communist Party also operated its own schools for training in the theories of Communism and in political work.

Village Life.

 Villages were long the home of the great majority of the people, most of whom were peasant farmers. The traditional Russian farm village consisted of a cluster of wooden houses made of logs. Ukrainian village homes were whitewashed and colorfully painted. Some of these log houses can still be seen in villages.

City Life.

 One result of the 1917 revolutions was the movement of people from the countryside to the cities. By 1991 about two-thirds of the Soviet people lived in urban areas. The movement was due to the need for workers in growing industries. However, many cities suffered from a severe housing shortage. A residence permit was required for those wishing to live in the cities. These were especially difficult to obtain for Moscow and Leningrad.

A typical city family in Soviet Europe lived in a two-room apartment of its own or shared one with another family. The apartment might be in an older building or in one of the newer high-rise housing complexes, usually built on the city's outskirts. Most of the housing was built and operated by the government, which charged low rents.

Often both parents in a family worked while their children attended school or a day nursery. Shopping was time-consuming, requiring stops at a number of different stores. Prices were set by the government, which operated most of the stores. Long waiting lines were common for sought-after items of food and clothing. Many consumer goods were in short supply and of poor quality.

Sports and Recreation.

 As in most other areas of Soviet life, sports were organized by the government. Soccer was probably the single most popular sport, although volleyball, basketball, and lapta--a traditional Russian sport similar to baseball--were also enjoyed. The Turkic peoples of Soviet Central Asia, many of them skilled horsemen, played games similar to polo. Chess, a national pastime, was played by young and old, and Soviet chess grand masters dominated most international matches.

The Soviets also excelled in track-and-field events, gymnastics, swimming, ice-skating, and ice-hockey. Government-supported teams and athletes regularly won medals in the Olympic Games and other international sports competitions.

Party-led organizations also played a very important part in the education and recreation of Soviet youth. Groups were known as the Young Octobrists (for 7- to 10-year-olds), the Pioneers (ages 10 to 14), and the Young Communist League, or Komsomol (ages 14 until admission to full party membership at 28). About half the students in the Soviet Union belonged to these organizations. They combined party training with the extracurricular activities provided by scouting in other countries. Sometimes the groups worked on special projects of economic value, such as bringing in the harvests. Membership in these groups was not required, but it was expected and was helpful to Soviet society.

Structure of the Soviet Government

Supreme political power in the Soviet Union was held by the general secretary of the Communist Party and other top party leaders. All important decisions were first made by the Communist leadership and then carried out by the government. Membership in the party long had been the main road to advancement in Soviet professional as well as political life.

The Supreme Soviet, or legislature, consisted of two houses, the Council of the Union, based on proportional representation, and the Council of the Republics, in which each republic had one vote. Both councils were appointed by the leaders of the republics. Legislation passed by the Council of the Union had to be approved by the Council of the Republics in order to go into effect.

At the bottom of the party organization were the local party officials. They elected delegates to the All-Union Party Congress, which was supposed to meet at least once every five years. The Congress, in theory, elected the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which supervised party affairs when the Congress was not in session. In truth, the Congress merely approved the choices of the party leaders.

A few powerful members of the Central Committee formed the Politburo, which guided the party. In general, the Politburo led by consensus, or agreement. The everyday activities of the party were handled by the Secretariat, which also included some Politburo members. The general secretary served as head of the Politburo and the Secretariat and was, in effect, the real leader of the country.

The Soviet Economic System

The Soviet economic system was based on public rather than private ownership of property. The government owned and controlled the land, natural resources, factories, and the means of production--all of which were formally subject to central planning from Moscow. The government dictated the country's economic goals, directed what goods and services to produce, in what amounts and at what prices, and allotted the necessary resources accordingly.


 During most of the Soviet period, the government stressed the growth of heavy industry. In 1913, Russia was primarily an agricultural country. By 1978 the value of industrial production and transportation was more than five times that of agricultural production. To bring about these rapid changes, many people had to learn new skills and accept new jobs. At times Soviet citizens were told where to live and what type of work to do. Even students often had to accept the jobs given them when they left school. This helped transform the country into the world's second leading industrial nation, after the United States. Great factories were built in the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus, Western Siberia, Central Asia, and the Far East. To transfer workers from the farms to the factories and to feed them when they got there, Soviet agriculture was organized into the collective system (see below). As a result of this great movement from farms to factories, cities grew rapidly. New cities such as Magnitogorsk in the Urals, Rustavi in the Caucasus, and Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East sprang up almost overnight.

Due to the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry, other areas of the economy were neglected. Heavy spending for military defense also absorbed much of the country's resources. The Soviet Union lagged far behind other industrialized nations in the production of consumer goods and in its standard of living. Under the highly centralized system, the economy suffered from inefficiency, low worker productivity, waste, poor quality of goods, and shortages of many foods.

Industrial Growth.

 The Soviet Union ranked either first or high among world leaders in the production of iron ore, coal, crude petroleum, and natural gas. It also had large reserves of manganese, copper, lead, chromium, zinc, bauxite (aluminum ore), nickel, uranium, gold, and other minerals.

The Soviet Union began the large-scale development of heavy industry in 1928, with the first of its so-called Five-Year economic plans. Manufacturing eventually employed about 30 percent of the labor force. The chief industrial products included iron and steel, machinery, machine tools, tractors and other motor vehicles, electrical equipment, construction materials, and mineral fertilizers. Other important manufactured goods were textiles and processed foods. Most of the major industrial areas were located in the western part of the country and in the Ural Mountain region. The Soviet Union produced more steel than either the United States or Western Europe.

The Farm System.

 Soviet agriculture, like industry, was highly centralized, with two basic types of farms--the state farm and the collective.

The state farm (sovkhoz) was owned and operated by the government and organized like an agricultural factory. State farmworkers received salaries from the government.

The collective farm (kolkhoz) included several villages and the surrounding farmland. The government leased the land to the collective. Farmers on a collective worked the land together, pooling their equipment and other resources. Produce was sold to the state, which set the prices.

A third and vital area of Soviet agriculture consisted of the small private plots of land each citizen was allowed to cultivate. Although these made up only about 3 percent of the total land cultivated, they produced about one-third of the country's meat, eggs, milk, and vegetables.

Soviet agriculture had to produce not only food for the city population but also materials for industry. Fibers for textiles were especially important. Flax, used to make linen, was grown in Europe. Cotton was grown by irrigation in Central Asia. Wool was produced in large quantities by the collectivized shepherds (formerly nomads) of Central Asia and the Caucasus region. The sheepskins made warm winter hats and coats.


 Within the Soviet Union, almost all trade was in the hands of the government. State planning agencies controlled the exchange of materials and products among factories in different parts of the country. Retail sales were made by cooperative and state stores. Only a small part of the trade in meat, fruits, and vegetables was handled directly by collective farms and farmers. By controlling distribution and the prices of industrial and consumer goods, the government could determine who received the goods, as well as where and when.

With the spread of Soviet control over Eastern Europe after World War II, a series of satellite nations (nations within a more powerful nation's sphere of influence) entered the Soviet economic and political bloc. Cuba entered this trading group after 1960. Almost three-fifths of all Soviet foreign trade was with these nations. The Soviet Union traded petroleum and raw materials (iron ore, grain, and lumber) for machinery and consumer goods from industrial Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Soviet machinery and manufactured goods were exchanged for raw materials (ores and fibers) and food products from the less developed nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, including India. Soviet trade with its satellites was controlled by a Soviet-led organization known as the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).



 For hundreds of years before the Soviet Union was created, Russia--by far the largest of the Soviet republics--had been ruled by emperors, called czars. The Russian economy was based almost entirely on agriculture, and its labor force was made up chiefly of peasants, known as serfs. Serfs enjoyed no personal liberties and were bound to live and work on the lands owned by the nobility.

Russia's concentration on agriculture had caused it to lag behind Western nations in industrial development. And the impoverished conditions of the serfs inevitably led to their discontent. In 1861, Czar Alexander II emancipated (freed) the serfs and initiated other social changes. But many people--notably a rising number of socialists--believed his reforms were vastly inadequate, and in 1881, Alexander was assassinated by revolutionaries. But his successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II, were even less accepting of reform.

Discontent among the people, therefore, was already high when Russia went to war against Japan in 1904. The Russo-Japanese War ended the following year in a decisive victory for Japan. With the country humiliated by the defeat, the socialists found their first opportunity for revolutionary action. They organized Soviets (or councils) of Workers' Deputies, which prepared striking workers for action and cooperated with other groups that opposed the czar. This Revolution of 1905 was put down, but only after much bloodshed. Czar Nicholas II was forced to agree to the creation of an elected legislature, the Duma, and to grant certain civil rights. By doing so, he saved his throne. But the seeds of a future revolution had been planted. They would bear fruit in the disorder caused by World War I (1914-18).

Reformers and Revolutionaries.

 Opponents to czarist rule included three main groups. The Social Revolutionaries aimed at overthrowing the czar through a peasant revolution. The Social Democratic Labor Party, which had been founded in 1898, saw the growing number of workers in the cities as a means of achieving a revolution. Middle-class liberals simply sought to establish a parliamentary form of government based on a Western-style constitution.

Members of the Social Democratic Labor Party were followers of Karl Marx, a German economic and social philosopher, who called for a workers' revolution in order to create a Communist society. The party was itself divided into two branches: the Mensheviks (minority group) and the Bolsheviks (majority group). The Bolsheviks were led by Vladimir I. Ulyanov, who took the name Lenin.

The Revolutions of 1917.

 When World War I began in 1914, Russia entered the conflict on the side of the Allies, which also included Britain and France. Their opponents, the Central Powers, included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.

The war went badly for Russia. Its army suffered disastrous defeats and enormous casualties. At home, food shortages led to unrest among workers in the cities. In February 1917 (March by the new calendar), strikes and demonstrations erupted in the capital, Petrograd (the renamed St. Petersburg). Soldiers who had been called out to stop the demonstrators joined them instead, taking control of the city.

The Czar Abdicates.

 On February 15, 1917, Nicholas II abdicated (gave up the throne), and the Provisional Government was established by members of the Duma. The Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies was also formed in Petrograd. Additional soviets, including those representing peasants, were soon established in other parts of the country. The result was that Russia, in effect, now had two governing bodies competing for the loyalty of the people.

The Provisional Government had promised political freedom, land reform, and the election of an assembly to draw up a constitution for a new democratic government. Under pressure from Britain and France, it also pledged to continue the war on the side of the Allies.

The decision to carry on with the war won the approval of most middle-class liberals. But it was unpopular among workers, soldiers, and peasants, who wanted peace. The slow pace of economic and political reform and new military defeats further weakened the political position of the Provisional Government. Following Bolshevik-led demonstrations in July 1917, Aleksandr Kerensky, a Social Revolutionary, was named prime minister. An attempt to overthrow Kerensky was put down, partly with the aid of the Bolsheviks. This won the Bolsheviks support among workers at the expense of more moderate political groups.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks Take Power.

 With upheaval at home and many Russian troops at the front refusing to fight, the Provisional Government faced a crisis. Bolsheviks had already gained control of the Petrograd Soviet. Their slogans "Peace, Land, and Bread!" and "All Power to the Soviets!" appealed to many ordinary Russians. Deciding that this was the time to seize power, Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. In October 1917 (November, new style), soldiers, sailors, and armed workers captured key points in Petrograd and arrested members of the Provisional Government. Kerensky fled the country. Having won the capital, the Bolsheviks quickly extended their control over much of Russia.

The success of the Bolsheviks was due largely to Lenin's leadership, the party's disciplined organization, and the lack of unity among their opponents. They came to power without the support of a majority of the people. When elections for a constituent assembly were held, Bolsheviks received less than one-quarter of the votes cast. The assembly met only once, before it was disbanded by troops loyal to the Bolsheviks.

The new government was named the Soviet of People's Commissars. It was headed by Lenin, with other top Bolshevik officials. A secret police force, the Cheka, was organized to protect the government against opposition. The name Communist Party was adopted by the Bolsheviks in 1918. That same year the capital was moved to Moscow. Lenin announced that private property would be abolished, land redistributed, and workers given control of industry.

Peace and Civil War.

 One of Lenin's first goals was to end Russia's participation in World War I. To gain peace, he was forced to accept a costly treaty with the Central Powers. Under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918), Russia agreed to independence for the Baltic states and Finland and gave up its territory in Poland and Ukraine.

Opposition to the Bolsheviks had begun soon after they took power. By 1918 a full-scale civil war raged through much of Russia, between the armies of the Communist government (the "Reds") and anti-Communist forces (the "Whites"). Troops from Britain, France, the United States, and other countries intervened on the side of the Whites and occasionally took part in the fighting. But they had little effect on the final outcome. Russia also fought a brief war (1920) with Poland over territorial claims.

Execution of the Czar.

 The civil war ended in 1921 with a victory for the Red Army, which had been organized by Leon Trotsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders. Among the many casualties of the conflict was the former czar, Nicholas II, and his family, who were executed by the Communists in 1918.

The New Economic Policy.

 Years of war, revolution, and civil war had devastated Russia. Famine and disease had killed millions. Others, unwilling to live under Communism, had emigrated. In 1921, in order to restore the economy, Lenin adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP, some small manufacturers and shopkeepers were allowed to do business again, and farmers were able to market their own produce. Lenin saw this as only a temporary step while building a Communist society.

The Rise of Stalin.

 Lenin died in 1924. Joseph Stalin, who was general secretary of the Communist Party, gradually took over leadership of the Soviet Union by killing or imprisoning those who opposed him. One of his chief opponents, Leon Trotsky, was expelled from the country and later assassinated. By 1929, Stalin had made himself the absolute ruler of the Soviet Union. He began the first Five-Year Plan for the development of Soviet heavy industry and forced the peasants onto collective farms. Peasant resistance to forced collectivization led to a sharp drop in agricultural production. A resulting famine killed millions of people in rural areas during the early 1930's.

Stalin's Purges.

 In the mid-1930's, during the time known as the Great Purge, Stalin had most of the remaining old Bolshevik leaders executed, after staged trials on false charges of trying to overthrow the government. Millions of ordinary people were also arrested and sent to forced-labor camps called gulags. Many of these were located in the remotest regions of Siberia.

World War II.

 In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact, under which each pledged not to attack the other. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, setting off World War II, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland. In 1940 the Soviet Union took over part of Finland after a short war (1939-40) and annexed the Baltic states--Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

In 1941, in spite of their pact, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. German armies swept quickly across Soviet territory, nearly capturing Moscow. Despite their ultimate victory, the Soviet people suffered crushing personal losses. As many as 27 million Soviet people--soldiers and civilians--died in the war, which ended in 1945.

The Cold War.

 After the war, Soviet troops liberated most of Eastern Europe from the retreating Germans. Stalin thus was in a position to dominate the region. Communist governments soon came to power in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and eastern Germany. The Soviet Union's chief wartime allies, Britain and the United States, felt that the Soviet Union had violated agreements, under which the peoples of Eastern Europe were to be free to choose their own governments. Because of this and other disagreements, a period of hostility developed between the nations of the West and the Soviet Union, which became known as the Cold War.

The KGB.

 In the Soviet Union, postwar living conditions were harsh. Because of the war's destruction and Stalin's determination to strengthen Soviet industry, food and other necessities were often scarce or unobtainable. Order and security were maintained by the Cheka (later called the Soviet People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD). In 1954 this widespread organization of secret police was incorporated into the larger Committee for State Security, a government intelligence agency commonly known as the KGB.

Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

 Stalin's death in 1953 led to a struggle for power. Nikita Khrushchev eventually emerged as the Soviet leader. Soon after taking office, the new premier admitted that there were fewer cattle, sheep, and goats in the Soviet Union than there had been in 1928, before collectivization began. To remedy this, he provided higher payments to the collectives for products delivered to the government. He also authorized more frequent payments to the farmers. Under his leadership the collectives were consolidated into fewer and bigger farms. The farmers were given a voice in deciding what they would grow, when, and on what fields.

In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes and began a process known as de-Stalinization. Portraits and statues of the former leader were removed, and places named after him--such as Stalingrad (now Volgograd)--were renamed. The Soviet people enjoyed somewhat more freedom of expression under Khrushchev, who called for peaceful co-existence with the West. But at the same time, Khrushchev expanded Soviet influence in Africa and Asia. He also sent Soviet tanks into Hungary in 1956 to crush a revolt against Communist rule.

The Soviet Union won world acclaim when, in 1957, it launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. But Khrushchev was criticized by other Communist leaders for his handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the United States, for the breakdown in Soviet relations with Communist China, and for the failure of his agricultural policies. In 1964 he was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union also continued its dominance of Eastern Europe by putting down a reform movement in Czechoslovakia by force in 1968. Relations with the United States improved under a policy of détente (easing of tensions). But U.S.-Soviet relations worsened after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a locally unpopular Communist regime.

Brezhnev died in 1982. He was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who held power until his death in 1984. Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985 and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev as Communist Party head. /p>

The Gorbachev Era.

 The most far-reaching changes in the history of the Soviet Union were undertaken in the late 1980's by Mikhail Gorbachev. Sweeping reforms of the traditional economic system were begun in 1987. They limited government planners to setting national economic objectives and gave industrial managers wider leeway in deciding what to produce and in what amounts. Prices were more closely related to supply and demand, and some small businesses were allowed to be operated for profit. But although the number of private companies increased, industrial changes bogged down, while more radical measures met conservative resistance.

Gorbachev fostered better relations with Western countries, notably by signing arms-reduction treaties with the United States in 1987 and 1991. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988-89 and then re-established relations with China. He accepted the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, agreed to the reunification of Germany in 1990, and recognized the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1991.

At home, Gorbachev began far-reaching political, social, and economic reforms under the name of perestroika (restructuring). He called for glasnost (openness) in discussions of Soviet domestic problems, greater involvement of citizens in the government, and a major reorganization of the economy. In 1990 he was elected Soviet president by the Congress of People's Deputies.

The Fall of the Soviet Union.

 Gorbachev's reforms resulted in fundamental changes in Soviet domestic and foreign affairs. But his economic reforms failed to revive the economy, which was close to collapse.

In 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union's existence, Gorbachev tried desperately to negotiate a new union treaty between the central government and the remaining republics. His efforts, however, antagonized Communist hard-liners, who sought to overthrow his government in August 1991. Although the coup failed, Gorbachev, who was briefly held captive, saw his prestige and power diminished. At the same time, the popularity of his chief rival, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic (now the Russian Federation), had been greatly enhanced by his defiance of the leaders of the coup.

In December 1991, in the wake of the failed coup, Yeltsin proclaimed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as the successor to the Soviet Union. The loosely knit Commonwealth now includes all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which had claimed their independence in September 1991.

On Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev formally announced his resignation. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

Reviewed by Ilya Prizel
University of Pittsburgh