The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was largely dominated by Russia, but also included a few republics such as the Ukraine and the Baltic countries. Overall, the USSR dates back to the Russian Revolution of 1917, although Lenin and the Bolshevik Party established it in 1922.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution ended the Romanov Dynasty. In October, Lenin and the Bolshevik Party seized the Winter Palace and began to establish the Bolshevik regime. Bread, peace and land became party policy as the Bolsheviks ended the war with Germany. A Civil War between the Reds and Whites followed, and the Red Army emerged victorious. As such, in 1922 the Bolsheviks established the USSR; and Lenin was the first Premier of the Soviet Union.
The failure of War Communism convinced the party that it needed a new policy. The New Economic Policy (otherwise NEP) replaced this policy. NEP introduced a degree of free market reform in the USSR, and a measure of economic recovery followed. Grain surpluses were recorded, and Russian rail-roads also expanded. The policy remained in place until Lenin's passing in 1924.
Lenin's passing left the Bolshevik party without a clear replacement. Lenin had never clearly stated whom his replacement should be in his final testament. However, Lenin did request that Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party. However, the testament was never widely published, and was further edited. By 1927, Stalin had clearly emerged as Communist Party leader.
Among Stalin's most notable policies was the Five Year Plan, which replaced NEP. The Five Year Plan set a variety of targets to expand Russian industry. Although some of these targets may have seemed somewhat unrealistic, the Five Year Plan did notably expand Russian industry by the early 1930s. New Five Year Plans would be introduced during the 1930s.
The USSR remained largely isolationist during the period. However, in 1936 the USSR supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Here the Soviets provided them with a variety of equipment and supplies. However, despite this the Republicans could still not win the Spanish Civil War as Franco emerged in Spain.
In 1939, Stalin was not in attendance at the Munich Conference. Although this conference did not ensure peace in Europe, so Stalin negotiated a pact with the Germans. The Nazi-Soviet Pact was a neutrality agreement by both sides, and provided the Germans with a clear path into Poland. As such, the German army advanced into and defeated Poland; and France and Britain declared war with Germany.
However, the pact would not last; and by 1941 German troop movements had been detected close to the Soviet border. For sure, Russian intelligence warnings had detected the German army, however they were largely ignored. The war did not begin well for the Red Army as they retreated, and retreated again. However, a freezing winter and fresh reserves stalled the German advance, and they never really recovered. From 1943 onward, the Red Army steadily advanced and by 1945 occupied Berlin.
The Red Army's victory ensured the Russians remained in much of Eastern Europe. New Communist regimes were established in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Germany was divided into Allied occupation zones at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, and the GDR would later be established in 1949. In 1946, Churchill made his Iron Curtain speech which included the following line: “an Iron Curtain has descended across Europe.” As such, the Cold War began here.
This Cold War that emerged between the USA and the USSR saw both sides expand their nuclear arsenals. In 1949 the USSR tested their first nuclear weapon. During the 1950s they would also be the first to develop ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles).
However, in 1953 Stalin's passing ensured a new era for the USSR. After this Khrushchev emerged as Stalin's successor. Khrushchev led an anti-Stalin bloc within the party which ensured the removal of many of Stalin's key politburo members such as Molotov. Khrushchev also introduced a number of reforms and innovations such as the 1961 monetary form.
Despite Khrushchev's emergence, the Cold War continued. The 1950s was a particularly notable era as the Soviet Union developed some of the most advanced ICBMs and rockets. This allowed for them to gain an advantage and launch the first satellite into orbit. In 1957 Sputnik became the first satellite in orbit. Then in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first cosmonaut in space.
In 1962, the USSR began to place nuclear warheads in Cuba. This was largely down to American missiles in Turkey. Their presence sparked a period of raised nuclear alert by both sides until the Soviet Union agreed to the withdrawal of nuclear warheads from Cuba. The Americans also began to remove missiles from Turkey.
After the Cuban Missile crisis, a period of Détente would follow. Détente was a Cold War period from the late 1960s and into the 1970s when the USSR and USA began to expand negotiation and signed a number of treaties. Among the signed treaties were the NNPT in 1970 and then SALT I in 1972.
This was the period of Brezhnev during the 1970s. Brezhnev expanded the Soviet military, although it was generally a period of relative economic stagnation for the USSR. Russian involvement in Afghanistan ultimately ended the period of Détente by the late 1970s.
Brezhnev remained in place until the early 1980s. His passing paved the way for the emergence of Gorbachev in 1985. By this time it had become clear that the Soviet economy required reforms, so Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced in 1987 to revive the USSR.
Gorbachev's policies also reduced the USSR's stockpiles. As such, in 1987 the USA and USSR signed the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. This effectively eliminated ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles of intermediate range.
By 1989, the reformist movement had gathered momentum in Eastern Europe. In Poland, the re-emergence of Solidarity, and their great success in the 1989 Polish elections removed the first Communist regime in the Eastern Bloc. They would be followed by much of the rest of the Eastern Bloc, and in Eastern Germany the Berlin Wall was gradually opened.
The demise of communism in the Eastern Bloc inspired a few of the Soviet Republics to also break away from the union. In the early 1990s, the Baltic states began the dissolution of the USSR as Lithuanian Latvia and Estonia broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In 1991, the rest of the union would follow as Gorbachev resigned and Yeltsin replaced him as the first president of Russia.
The USSR was effectively dissolved. Communism in Russia was over, and the Cold War too was also all but over. Undoubtedly, the Soviet Union had a great impact in Europe; and the West should always be grateful for the USSR's defeat of Germany in the 1940s.