A country comprising the greater portion of eastern Europe and northern Asia. The northern and central portions of European Russia was ruled by Norse dynasties until the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. The southern areas were ruled by a succession of Central Asian peoples. After the 16th century, Muscovy (Moscow) became the center of a resurgent Russian state, which for several hundred years steadily expanded its borders. A major European power after 1700, Russian strength deteriorated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mounting frustrations with the autocratic rule of the tsars and military defeats in World War I brought the fall of the monarchy in March 1917. In November, the liberal Kerensky regime was overthrown by the Bolsheviks (communists) who made peace with Germany and began expanding their power. Anti-Bolshevik forces (the "White Russians") quickly formed throughout the country. White Russian regimes were established in western and southern Russia and throughout Siberia. Bolshevik control was limited to northern and central Europe and Russia. Britain, France, Japan and the United States became involved in the civil war, but the inability of the various White Russian governments to cooperate with each other, or to meet the legitimate needs of the people, made it possible for the Bolshevik Red Army to have generally established Soviet authority by the end of 1920. During the Civil War, these warring governments, along with many municipalities, issued distinctive stamps. During 1920-23, the government consolidated its position. Although a number of border provinces (Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia) were lost, the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics included almost all of the territory of the old empire. Lenin's death in 1924 precipitated a power struggle within the communist leadership, with Josef Stalin ultimately emerging as the absolute ruler of the country. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin exiled his opponents within the party.
From the mid-1930s through 1953, he purged any suspected opposition through show trials and executions. Millions of Russians died. Following World War I, when both Germany and Russia were ostracized by the powers, the two countries worked closely and secretly, the Russians supplying Germany with armaments forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, while German officers trained the Red Army. Alarmed by the German threat after Hitler's rise to power, the Soviet Union at first attempted to take a strong stand against German expansionism in the 1930s. By 1938, however, Russia was convinced that the Allies would not fight, and in 1939 the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed. A few months later, Germany invaded Poland, while the Soviets occupied southern Poland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia. In 1941, Germany attacked Russia, and the Soviet Union joined the Allies. At first successful, the Germans were pushed back after the end of 1942, and during 1944-45, Soviet forces occupied most of Eastern Europe. With the peace, the Soviets retained their 1939-40 acquisitions, and Soviet troops forced the establishment of satellite regimes in the rest of the region during 1945-48.
After World War II, the Soviet Union concentrated on economic and military development. It exercised an aggressive foreign policy and focused its energies on developing a modern industrial base. After 1956, the brutal policies of Stalin were officially denounced, and under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the government was less harsh. Khrushchev was himself deposed in 1964, and his successors were more rigid and totalitarian. Increasingly, though, the Soviet system began to show strain. During the 1980s, an unsuccessful and unpopular intervention in Afghanistan, the inability of a Second World economy to support a First World military machine, and the great and growing gap in standards of living between Western and communist societies undermined the Soviet regime.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev, a younger and more liberal communist, became premier. He quickly set about liberalizing the party and the government, hoping to transform the rigid Soviet state along more liberal and flexible lines. Ironically, his goal was to create the sort of humanistic communism that had been attempted by Czechoslovakia in 1968, an experiment that had been cut short by Soviet tanks. In any case, the party soon split between reactionary elements, alarmed by the prospect of loosening government control, and a radical wing, led by Boris Yeltsin, which urged faster reform. Yeltsin's group resigned from the party in 1991 and in July of that year, Yeltsin was elected Russian president. An attempted coup by communist hard-liners in the following month was unsuccessful and discredited the party. Gorbachev resigned as general-secretary of the Communist Party and recommended that its Central Committee be disbanded. Yeltsin had led resistance to the plotters and emerged a national hero. He initiated the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which effectively dissolved the Soviet Union.
In 1992 he launched
a program to rapidly privatize the Russian economy and pushed through a
new constitution to remove the last traces of the Soviet system. With
the support of the military, he overcame armed resistance by supporters
of the old legislature. Russia is struggling to emerge from the effects
of decades of Soviet rule. It has enormous natural resources and a
highly educated populace but lacks the basic economic infrastructure and
experience to move easily into a free market system. This has resulted
in wrenching economic adjustments for the average Russian, while a small
number of entrepreneurs, mafiosi and former Soviet officials have become
quite wealthy from the dispersal of state assets. Opponents of reform
range from unredeemed communists, eager to restore the old system, to
reactionary right-wing parties, whose politics would be at home in
pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia. While the government, directed by a
sometimes ineffective and unpopular Yeltsin, remains committed to
maintaining democracy and creating a free-market economy, the political
situation in Russia remains unstable.