The Soviet Union

In the early 20th century, Russia transformed - its monarchy ended, and there were two revolutions and a civil war. Reborn as the Soviet Union (or the USSR), it became the world’s first communist state, believing that the government should take control of resources such as land and farms and share wealth created by these resources among the people.

From the 1940s, the Soviet Union occupied many countries in Europe, forcing them to become communist, too.

From czar to USSR

From the 19th century, Russians began to demand a better way of life. Huge famine led to multiple revolutions, in which the czar (emperor) lost power. The Bolsheviks, a communist political party, seized power. In the wake of this political upheaval, the Soviet Union was formed in 1922.

1905: Czar Nicholas II gives his people an elected government.

March 1917: Further mass protests force the czar to abdicate.

November 1917: The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seize power.

1918: The Bolsheviks execute anyone disloyal to them. They become the Russian Communist Party.

1922: The Russian Communist Party founds the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union

The rise of Stalin (1924)

When Russia’s communist leader Vladimir Lenin dies, Joseph Stalin takes over. Stalin has risen to power by murdering his rivals and putting his supporters in powerful positions.

Five-year Plan (1928-1932)

To industrialize the country, Stalin plans to increase coal, metal, and oil production over 5 years. Land is taken from peasants (kulaks) and combined into huge collective farms.

Great Famine (1932)

Collective farms prove a failure. Grain is taken from the countryside to feed people in the cities, and the peasants starve. It leads to a devastating famine in which up to 8 million people die, many in Ukraine.

The Great Terror (1936-1938)

Stalin gets rid of any Communist Party members, army leaders, or peasants who might oppose him. Around 20 million Soviets are sent to gulags (labor camps), and thousands die.

World War II (1939)

The USSR and Germany sign a pact and invade Poland, starting World War II. Soon, however, Germany turns on the USSR. Battles ensue between the two sides, but ultimately the Nazis in Germany are defeated. Germany and its capital, Berlin, are divided into four zones, each placed under control of the UK, the US, France, or the USSR.

Start of the Cold War (1948-1949)

The UK, US, and French zones of Germany unite into a new country, West Germany, and East Germany remains Soviet. The USSR cuts off transportation links to West Berlin to threaten West Germany. The West drops supplies into West Berlin by air, beginning the Cold War conflict between East and West.

Stalin dies (1953)

Stalin dies after a stroke. He was a ruthless dictator, responsible for millions of deaths, yet he made the Soviet Union very powerful across Central and Eastern Europe.

Economic stagnation (1970s)

Under leader Leonid Brezhnev, the economy stops growing. There is widespread corruption, little to buy in stores, and poor living conditions. This damages the public’s faith in the government.

Glasnost and perestroika (1985)

Leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduces policies of openness, or glasnost, and restructuring, known as perestroika. This encourages warmer relations with the West.

Revolutions of 1989 (1989)

Soviet-imposed communist governments are toppled in Central and Eastern Europe, beginning in Poland, as people seek independence from Soviet rule.

The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989)

The Berlin Wall, built to divide West Berlin from East Germany, is broken down on one momentous night, marking the end of communist rule in Europe.

The fall of the Soviet Union (1991)

Boris Yeltsin becomes the first popularly elected president of Russia and bans the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet Union is disbanded.