Communist dictatorship

Massive general strikes, hunger, and a loss of faith in Nicholas II led up to the Bolsheviks seizing control of Russia. Vladimir Lenin, the Communist Party leader, was a brilliant revolutionary. His leadership of the highly disciplined Communist Party, combined with the country-destroying events of 1917, enabled the Bolsheviks to overthrow the tsarist system. Immediately following their seizure of power, they established a government based upon Marxist ideology. Karl Marx, a German thinker and revolutionary, had written about how a Communist society might be created. He proposed a society that would have common ownership of all means of production and no social classes. In an ideal Communist society, there would be no want and no exploitation of working people. Lenin recognized, however, that Marx's model of a government system would have to be modified for use in Russia. Lenin replaced exploitative capitalism with a socialist economic system.

The Communist Party and the workers of former tsarist Russia would create the necessary preconditions for a true Communist society. The first step was to establish a dictatorship of socialist workers under the direction of a single political power—the Communist Party. The second step was to create a new centralized government that would bring all peoples together. The third step involved the elimination of differences based upon wealth, race, religion, and other sources of social conflict. In this step, the Communists did away with private property and nationalized all industrial and commercial activities.

The fourth step was to formulate a national social security and national welfare system for all the people of Russia. Soviet Russia and, later, the Soviet Union were to be socialist states working toward pure Communism. They hoped to eventually achieve Marx's goal in which all work and benefits would be distributed “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The fifth step was to formulate agencies within the government to rid society of those who would oppose Communism. To do this, the Communists created the dreaded secret police. Russia's new political system was brutal. It forced radical socioeconomic changes upon the country and its people. After a period of deprivation, famine, and a civil war, Russia became the foundation for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. With three other republics, it formed the Soviet Union in 1922. The constitution of the Soviet Union recognized ethnic diversity. It provided for the creation of 16 union republics. A soviet, or council, would govern each of the union republics (which were later reduced in number to 15). According to the constitution, all political power was in the hands of the people. In reality, however, the Communist Party controlled the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union was similar to the Congress of the United States. All of its members were elected to four-year terms. The Supreme Soviet was divided into two houses. The Soviet of the Union, made up of deputies elected on the basis of population, was similar to the U.S. House of Representatives. Members of the Soviet of Nationalities were elected from ethnic groups. A Presidium of the Supreme Soviet conducted governmental operations between sessions of the two houses (the two Soviets). A Council of Ministers, or cabinet, was the highest executive body. The council chairman, or premier, was the actual head of the government. Dictators, such as Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, held this position while they also headed the Communist Party.

Leaders of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union after Khrushchev (who was removed from power in 1964) attempted to ease the harshness of Soviet life. They tried to make the government more democratic. Despite their efforts, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko were unable to overcome the internal problems that were causing economic stagnation. In 1985, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the weaknesses and flaws of Soviet society. He predicted that social upheaval would result unless the country took care of its internal problems. He introduced policies of “openness” (glasnost) and “restructuring” (perestroika) to reform the stagnant Soviet system. Rather than solve problems, these reforms actually disrupted economic life, disappointed the people, compromised the government, divided Soviet society, and weakened the Communist Party. All of these dramatic changes led the Soviet Union to collapse in 1991. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the 15 constituent republics became independent nations. Because of its size, population, and natural wealth, Russia remained the most powerful of the ex-Soviet republics.