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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Russian Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik), the original Communist dictatorship, the West’s principal adversary in the post-1945 hostility of the Cold War, and a dominant force in international affairs until its collapse in 1991. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was commonly known as the Soviet Union (Sovetsky Soyuz). Occupying most of the far-flung lands of the former Russian Empire in Eastern Europe and Asia, it had its capital in Moscow, the ancestral seat of the Russian emperors, or tsars. Its title alluded to the soviets, or workers’ councils, of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that catapulted Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks (later renamed Communists) to power. The first state the Bolsheviks established bore the name Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). It was the largest of the many political entities of the former Russian Empire that proliferated during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921).

The Soviet Union was formed in December 1922 as a federal union of the RSFSR and those neighboring areas under its military occupation or ruled by branches of the communist movement. Initially it consisted of four Soviet states, or union republics: the RSFSR, the Transcaucasian SFSR, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR; also known as Ukraine), and the Belorussian SSR (now Belarus). The number of union republics and exact boundaries of the USSR shifted over time. The Turkmen and Uzbek republics (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were carved out of the Central Asian part of the RSFSR in late 1924. In this same region, the Tajik republic (Tajikistan) was demarcated from Uzbek territory in 1929, and the Kazakh and Kirgiz republics (now Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) were likewise formed from RSFSR territory in 1936. Also that year the Transcaucasian republic was dissolved, and its three constituent republics—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—each became union republics of the USSR. The westward extension of Soviet borders in 1939 and 1940 enlarged Ukraine and Belorussia and annexed five areas as distinct republics: the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Moldavia, most of which was taken from Romania; and the Karelo-Finnish republic, which included territory taken from Finland. The defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II (1939-1945) allowed the Soviet Union to solidify and round out its European conquests, although not all were recognized by Western countries, and to adjust its Pacific frontiers at the expense of Japan. The Soviet government transferred the Karelo-Finnish republic to the RSFSR in 1956, paring the number of union republics to 15.

In geographic extent, the Soviet Union was by far the largest country in the world. Its gross area in its post-1945 limits, counting island possessions and inland seas, was 22,402,000 sq km (8,649,500 sq mi), or nearly one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Three-quarters of Soviet territory was in the RSFSR (two-thirds of that in Siberia and the Russian Far East) and 12 percent in Kazakhstan. From its westernmost point on the Baltic Sea to its easternmost island in the Bering Strait, the Soviet Union spanned more than 10,000 km (6200 mi) and 11 time zones; the maximum distance from Central Asia in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north was almost 5000 km (3110 mi). The Soviet Union bordered 12 countries, more than any other. The bulk of it consisted of flat plains broken only by the low-slung Ural Mountains, the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and drained by large rivers flowing north to south or south to north. Chains of rugged mountains ringed it in the south and east.

Lenin and the zealots who founded the Soviet system saw it as a political and economic prototype other countries would soon copy. As prospects for world revolution dimmed in the 1920s, Lenin’s lieutenant and successor, Joseph Stalin, governed in an increasingly tyrannical manner. His three decades in power were memorable for the development of the Soviet Union’s state-owned economy, for its emergence as a nuclear-armed superpower, and for its acquisition of satellite states in Eastern Europe. They were known also for the regimentation of society, the deprivations of World War II, and the bruising political purges and repressions that killed or imprisoned millions of people.

Nikita Khrushchev, the main leader from 1953 to 1964, and his successor, Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), blunted the Stalinist terror but shied away from fundamental reforms. While its military strength and accomplishments in outer space and athletics won the Soviet Union world attention, domestic institutions stagnated and the economy stumbled under the competing demands of the army, industrial investment, and the consumer. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, loosened political controls in the 1980s and touched off freewheeling debate about the scale and pace of change. Conflict over constitutional and economic issues brought the Soviet Union to the brink of civil war and prompted its disintegration into 15 volatile successor states in 1991.


Russia: History

Bachrach, Deborah. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Lucent, 1996. Account of the British army's charge against the Russian army at the Battle of Balaklava in October 1854. For middle school to adult readers.

Moynahan, Brian. The Russian Century: A Photographic History of Russia's 100 Years. Random House, 1994. A stunning photographic record of 20th-century Russia.

Pipes, Richard. Russian Revolution. Random House, 1991. This general study by a prominent historian covers the period from 1899 to 1919.

Raymond, Boris, and Paul Duffy. Historical Dictionary of Russia. Scarecrow, 1998. A reference work especially useful for understanding Russian terminology and institutions.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas Valentine. A History of Russia. 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999. An authoritative history.

Simes, Dimitri K. After the Collapse: Russia Seeks Its Place as a Great Power. Simon & Schuster, 1999. Offers insights into Russia's geopolitical thinking.

Thompson, John M. Russia and the Soviet Union: An Historical Introduction from the Kievan State to the Present. Westview, 1998. A brief and lucid account from ancient Russia to Yeltsin's dispersal of the anti-reform parliament.

Thompson, John M. Revolutionary Russia, 1917. 2nd ed. Waveland, 1989, 1996. Introductory volume that clarifies events, personalities, and theories of the period.

Vronskaya, Jeanne. Biographical Dictionary of the Soviet Union, 1917-1992. 2nd ed. Saur, 1992. Up-to-date biographical information on prominent Soviets and people in the newly independent states.

Watson, William E. The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Greenwood, 1998. A resource that combines narrative, biographic profiles, and the text of key primary documents; designed for student research.

Russian Revolution of 1905

Ascher, Abraham. The Revolution of 1905. 2 vols. Stanford University Press, 1988-1992. Examines the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1907 and the tsarist regime's response.

Harcave, Sidney. First Blood: The Russian Revolution of 1905. Macmillan, 1964. A classic, straightforward narrative history.

Pipes, Richard. Russian Revolution. Random House, 1991. This general study by a prominent historian covers 1899 to 1919.

Verner, Andrew M. The Crisis of Russian Autocracy: Nicholas II and the 1905 Revolution. Princeton University Press, 1990. The events, personalities, and issues of this revolutionary period.

Weinberg, Robert. The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps. Indiana University Press, 1993. The role of Russian labor in the making of the revolution.


Babinka, M. A., ed. New Political Parties and Movements in the Soviet Union. Nova Science, 1991. Essays on the new politics with the decline of communism.

Diuk, Nadia. The Hidden Nations: The People Challenge the Soviet Union. Morrow, 1990. Identifies the causes of the discontent in the various ethnic republics that made up the USSR.

Forest, James H. Religion in the New Russia: The Impact of Perestroika on the Varieties of Religious Life in the Soviet Union. Crossroad, 1990. Religious life and churches in the era of glasnost (openness).

Korotich, Vitaly, ed. The Best of Ogonyok: The New Journalism of Glasnost. Beacon, 1991. Thirty-two expose articles that appeared in the Russian weekly illustrating current problems and freedom of the press.

Richards, Susan. Epics of Everyday: Encounter in a Changing Russia. Viking, 1991. Scenes of daily life and current concerns as expressed by ordinary men and women.

Roberts, Paul Craig. Meltdown: Inside the Soviet Economy. Cato, 1990. Readable critique with lurid anecdotes of what went wrong with the Soviet planned economy.

Smith, Hedrick. The New Russians. rev. ed., 1991. Random. The effects of perestoika on social life and politics.

Soloman, Andrew. The Irony Tower: Soviet Artists in a Time of Glasnost. Knopf, 1991. The effects of sudden artistic freedom and the free market on the Soviet art world.

Spulber, Nicholas. Restructuring the Soviet Economy: In Search of the Market. Michigan, 1991. The struggle involved shifting from a socialist to a free market economy.

Vronskaya, Jeanne. Biographical Dictionary of the Soviet Union, 1917-1992. 2nd. ed. Saur, 1992. Most up-to-date biographical information available for prominent Russians and those in the newly independent states.

Soviet Union: History and Politics

Clark, Ronald W. Lenin. Harper, 1990. Popular biography of the Soviet Union's first Communist leader.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Reprint, Oxford University Press, 1991. Nature and extent of Stalin's purges, first published in 1968.

Diuk, Nadia. The Hidden Nations: The People Challenge the Soviet Union. Morrow, 1990. Identifies the causes of discontent in the various republics that made up the USSR.

Farber, Samuel. Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy. Blackwell, 1990. Early days of the Communists in power, from 1917 to 1921.

Laqueur, Walter. Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations. Scribner, 1990. Reexamination of Stalin's career and Stalinism in the light of new knowledge.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. McKay, 1991. Outstanding general study by a prominent historian.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. Reprint, St. Martin's, 1998. Eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution by an American Communist; first published in 1919.

Remnick, David. Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Vintage, 1994. Easy-to-read history of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. Prima, 1996. An account of Stalin's life and times.

Von Laue, Theodore. Why Lenin? Why Stalin? Why Gorbachev?: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet System. 3rd ed. HarperCollins, 1992.

Central Asia

Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance. 3rd ed. Duke University Press, 1994. Essays on all aspects since 1865: history, populations, nationalism, industrialization, literature, and more.

Geyer, Georgie Anne. Waiting for Winter to End: An Extraordinary Journey Through Soviet Central Asia. Brassey's, 1994. Well-written political and historical background mixed with personal travel narrative.

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. Kodansha, 1992. Reprint, Kodansha International, 1994. Power politics of the 19th century among monarchs, shahs, and Sherpas mixed with tales of spies and adventurers.

Khazanov, Anatoly Mikhailovich. After the USSR: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Politics in the Commonwealth of Independent States. University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. Informed analysis that details the histories and politics of a volatile region.

Manz, Beatrice E. Central Asia in Historical Perspective. Westview, 1998. Detailed discussion of the historical impact that Islamic, Russian, and Soviet cultures have had on the new nation states.

Thubron, Colin. The Lost Heart of Asia. HarperCollins, 2000. Everyday life in Central Asia.

Whitell, Giles. Extreme Continental: Blowing Hot and Cold Through Central Asia. Gollancz, 1995. Accounts of contemporary life in the newly independent states of Central Asia.

Wimmel, Kenneth. The Alluring Target: In Search of the Secrets of Central Asia. Trackless, 1997. Profiles of 11 travelers to Central Asia, from 1890 to 1935.


Colton, Timothy J., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of Government and Director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Harvard University. Author of The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union, 2nd Edition, and Moscow: Governing the Socialist Metropolis.

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