The Former Soviet Union (1917-1989)
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The Former Soviet Union (1917-1989). Presentation Outline. Nations of the Soviet Union Legitimacy in the Soviet Union Political Institutions The Command Economy Gorbachev’s reforms (perestroika, glasnost, and novoye mneniya ) The collapse of the Soviet Union.

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The Former Soviet Union (1917-1989)

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The Former Soviet Union (1917-1989)

Presentation Outline

  • Nations of the Soviet Union

  • Legitimacy in the Soviet Union

  • Political Institutions

  • The Command Economy

  • Gorbachev’s reforms (perestroika, glasnost, and novoyemneniya)

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union

1) Nations of the Soviet Union

  • The Soviet Union was a federal state with 15 republics in total

  • However, in reality it was run by the Communist Party and administered centrally from Moscow

A multi -nation state

Russians were the largest nation within the Soviet Union, though they only made up just over half the population. Russian was also the official language of the Soviet Union.

2) Legitimacy in the Soviet Union

  • Charismatic legitimacy

  • Attempt at rational-legal legitimacy

Charismatic legitimacy

  • Stalin created a cult of personality. He had complete control over the media and press and portrayed himself as the wise and caring leader.

  • Soviet citizens were forced to worship Stalin, Some did so genuinely, while others did so out of fear. Nonetheless, even after his death , and despite his ruthlessness, he is still rated quite favorably by Russians even today.

Ruled from 1927-1953

Propaganda posters which fueled the cult of personality

Below: Stalin supporters marching in Moscow’s Red Square in 2010

Attempts at rational-legal legitimacy

  • The 1936 Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, the right to work, rest, and leisure, the right to health, and the right to education

  • In practice, the right to work, education, and health were realized

  • All Soviet citizens were guaranteed employment and all were provided free state medical care

  • Freedom of religion was not fully practiced in the Soviet Union- Churches, mosques, and synagogues remained closed throughout the 1950s and 1960s

Elections in the Soviet Union

  • The Soviet Union was officially a one party communist state

  • Nevertheless, there were regular elections to the Soviet Assembly from 1936-1991

  • In order to be eligible to run candidates had to be nominated by the Communist Party

The results of the 1979 Legislative elections show that the Communist Party won 549/767 seats, a large majority. It was possible to vote for “independent” candidates as long as they did not belong to another political party.

Were these really competitive elections?

Soviet citizens voting in a non-competitive election

3) Political Institutions

  • The Communist Party

  • The Soviet Legislative Assembly

    (The Supreme Soviet)

  • The Politburo (Central Committee)

Real power resided with the Communist Party and the Central Committee

The Communist Party

The Party controlled all three branches of the government, all interest group activity, and supervised elections. All access to power was through the Party. The Party used nomenklatura to nominate and choose Party members for promotion.

The Supreme Soviet

The Supreme Soviet was a rubber stamp legislature with little real power. The decisions were made by the Central Committee.

The Politburo (Central Committee)

Members of the politburo salute during a military parade. The politburo consisted of 15 top party officials who ran the Central Committee. The General Secretary of the Communist Party was the head of the politburo. All major policy decisions were made by this group.

4) The Command Economy

  • The Soviet economy was centrally planned in Moscow

  • Full employment was assured and the government set production quotas (how much should be produced)

  • The emphasis was on heavy industry such as steel and coal

Below: Soviet steel workers

Consequences of a command economy

Limited choice of consumer goods: Soviet car below (1975)

Above: bread lines were common during the Soviet Union as production was not connected to demand.

There were often bare shelves and little selection in Soviet supermarkets.

5) Gorbachev’s reforms

Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was young reformer who wanted to democratize and improve the Soviet Union. Little did he know at the time that his reforms would unravel the Soviet empire.

The three big reforms



Allowed limited free enterprise

Attempted to reform state enterprises towards greater efficiency

Created an elected legislature with real power


new thinking

Increased communication with Western powers

Increased arms reduction



Allowed free speech and open debate in newspapers, discussions and gatherings

Allowed publication of facts about Stalinist regime

6) The collapse of the Soviet Union

  • Gorbachev’s reforms had gone too far too quickly

  • The Soviet Union was rapidly losing legitimacy

  • One by one the major republics of the Soviet Union began declaring their independence and separating

  • Communist hardliners staged a coup to get rid of Gorbachev

Ukrainians demonstrating in the streets demanding independence from the Soviet Union. This was confirmed by referendum in 1991.

Backed by the people, former Communist party member Boris Yeltsin declares a new democratic Russian republic in 1991.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991:

15 separate states!

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