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USSR 101: The New Russia in Europe After World War I


The USSR 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, while also analysing its relations with other countries and the factors that determined its collapse.

URSS 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

1. USSR 101: The Fall of the Tsarist and the Raise of Bolshevism

2. USSR 101: The New Russia in Europe After the World War I

3. USSR 101: From Enemy to Ally of Nazi German

4. USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa: The Turning Point of the World War II

5. USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block

6. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: The New Russia in Europe After World War I

Following the victory of the Bolsheviks and the declaration of the Revolution in Russia, the new government decided to withdraw from World War I. Due to the Triple Entente's restriction of signing separate peace treaties in 1914, Russia lost all legal rights to the tsarist empire's lands, as well as the right to sit as a winner at the Versailles Peace Conference and to be part of the League of Nations in 1919.

Figure 1. The Manifesto of the Fathers of the Soviet Revolution [Image] - Live Science
Figure 1. The Manifesto of the Fathers of the Soviet Revolution [Image] - Live Science

The USSR, which arose from the ashes of the tsarist empire, was officially established on December 30, 1922, five years after the October Revolution of 1917, which brought Lenin's Communist Party to power. The collapse of the Russian Empire and of the German occupation provided the opportunity for proclamations of independence from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The Caucasian provinces were proclaimed secessionist Republics and several centres of independent power arose in Central Asia and Siberia, also following the outbreak of the civil war that, from the summer of 1918, pitted the Red Army against the so-called White Russians (members of the old regime and members of parties suppressed after October 1917) (Suny, 1998). In July 1918, when the first Constitution was passed and the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) was proclaimed, the Bolshevik government controlled only the central part of the old Russian Empire. In the years of the Civil War, his policy was characterized by a rigid centralization of economic power: nationalisation of small businesses, prohibition of private trade, nationalization of land and requisition of grain surpluses. The Bolsheviks won the Civil War in 1920, but its aftermath lasted until 1922 (Kenez, 1999).

After the Germans retreated in November 1918, the Red Army re-established control of Soviet Russia's forces in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Caucasus between 1919 and 1921, occupying part of Poland. However, it was defeated in Warsaw, and the Treaty of Riga of March 1921 guaranteed Poland's independence. Moscow continued to claim Bessarabia, while the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic re-established its authority over Central Asia and Siberia between 1919 and 1922. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in December 1922 as a union of the RSFSR, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Transcaucasian Federation. The Union's central institutions obtained broad control not just over foreign policy and the military, but also in the fields of economic and trade union affairs, justice, education, and health care, so that the Russian Republic effectively dominated the Union. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan became republics in 1924, while Tajikistan became a republic in 1929. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were established in 1936, while the Transcaucasian Federation was disbanded, resulting in the Federated Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia (Sakwa, 1999).

Figure 2. A map of the USSR in its early ages [Image] - Il sole 24 ore
Figure 2. A map of the USSR in its early ages [Image] - Il sole 24 ore

Even though under the 1924 Constitution the highest organ of state power was the Union Congress of Soviets, which was replaced in 1936 by the Supreme Soviet, and although the executive functions were ad hoc, the Communist Party (CPSU) retained an unlimited monopoly of political power. Under the central direction of the Politbjuro, in fact, it controlled the central and local governments and was responsible for the elaboration and implementation of political decisions, as well as for the Council of People’s Commissar. During the civil war and famine of 1920-22, the country's productive structure was severely harmed, and the amount of victims numbered in the millions. The New Economic Policy (NEP), which was implemented in 1921, resulted in the partial restoration of market criteria while maintaining governmental control over heavy industries, finance, and foreign commerce (Nove, 1993).

After Lenin's death in January 1924, the debate over economic growth strategy became a struggle for control over the party itself. In the first phase the left opposition, led by Lev Trotsky and supported by Grigorij Zinov’ev and Lev Kamenev since 1926, advocated for the adoption of measures aimed at obtaining the necessary resources for industrialization from agricultural exploitation, emphasizing the importance of economic planning and of dismissing the NEP. In 1927, Trotsky was purged from the party, and in 1929 he was exiled. Following the loss of the left opposition, Josif Stalin, leader of the party's majority, openly clashed with Nicolaij Bukharin, who advocated for the continuation of the NEP (Ibidem). Through the collectivization of agriculture, forced industrialization, and the building of a formidable military industry, Stalin, the CPSU's General Secretary since 1922 and the party's unchallenged leader in 1928-29, supported a dramatic restructuring and bureaucratization of Soviet society.

Collectivization entailed the abolition of the kulaks, a wealthy peasant class, and the replacement of small private plots with huge collective farms. Peasants flocked out of the collectivized countryside in droves, and agricultural output plummeted. Collectivization bolstered centralized planning at the same time, providing labor reserves and grain stocks for city dwellers and factory workers. In terms of heavy industry expansion, the first five-year plan (1929-33) was a huge success. The second five-year plan (1933-37) maintained the same intense production cycles and gave heavy industries similar emphasis. Unions were turned into governmental agencies in charge of enforcing labor laws and promoting productivity (Ibidem). Labor legislation became increasingly stringent during the 1930s, culminating in a prohibition on workers changing occupations without authorization. This was accompanied by a wave of police repression that peaked in the mid-1930s, when Stalin used the assassination of Sergeij Kirov as a pretext to hold 'farcical trials', which resulted in the abolition of the party's elites (1936-39).

Figure 3. A portati of Lenin and Stalin [Photo] - Blesk
Figure 3. A portati of Lenin and Stalin [Photo] - Blesk

Following the revolution's success, the USSR remained largely alone on the international stage. Excluded from the League of Nations and the winners' table, it was forced to confront its former European allies on political and economic concerns without finding a common ground. The economic negotiations in Cannes and Genoa produced no real results in terms of the settlement of the Tsar's Inter-Allied debts incurred in the course of the war. The sole tangible result was a meeting between Soviet Foreign Minister Georgij Cicerin and German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau on the sidelines of the Genoa summit in Rapallo. As a result, Germany and Moscow developed diplomatic, commercial, and secret military connections in 1922. This mutual recognition and the cooperative connections with the German Republic of Weimar continued until 1933, when Adolf Hilter was elected German chancellor. Realizing the danger posed by his power, however, Stalin decided to reconsider the relations with the Western countries. In fact, while the relations between the USSR and former Entente allies remained strained in 1922 due to the latter's fear of revolution, a watershed moment happened in the early 1930s (Chamberlin, 1943). In 1934, the Soviet Union became a permanent member of the League of Nations, alongside the winners of World War I.

Meanwhile, as the Nazi government in Germany caught on, Stalin sought a defensive alliance for the USSR in the West and found his interlocutors in Benito Mussolini's Italy and Gaston Doumergue's France, particularly Foreign Minister Louis Bathou. Following the incident in Marseille in 1935, during which Barthou died, the desire to construct a treaty similar to that established in Locarno in 1925 with Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany was shipwrecked (Ibidem). As a result, Stalin continued to seek security for the USSR, but things were about to change.



  • Chamberlin, W. H. (1943). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9.

  • Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End.

  • Nove, A. (1993). An Economic History of the USSR, 1917-91. Penguin Books Ltd.

  • Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

  • Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment.

Image References

Author Photo

Federica Panico

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