Fallen Giant: Soviet Terror, Triumph Begins 100 Years Ago

MOSCOW (AP) — With its brutality, technological feats and ossified ideology, the Soviet Union loomed over the world like an immortal colossus.

It took humanity into outer space, detonated the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built, bloodied its own citizens and brutalized labor camps, while portraying itself as the vanguard of an enlightened revolution.

But it had a shorter-than-average lifespan; it was born 100 years ago and died just days short of its 69th birthday.

The Soviet Union inspired both loyalty and frustration among its 285 million citizens. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who served in the notorious KGB security agency, summed up this dichotomy.

“He who does not regret the demise of the Soviet Union has no conscience,” he said. “Anyone who wants to restore it is a no-brainer.”

On the centenary of the treaty that established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, The Associated Press looks back at the events of the treaty’s rise and fall.


Five years after the overthrow of Tsarist Russia, the treaty establishing the Soviet Union was signed on December 30, 1922 by four socialist republics: Ukraine; Belarus; Transcaucasus, spread across Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan; and Russia, including the old Imperial possessions in Central Asia. The Soviet Union was later expanded to include Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, giving the republic its own government and national language, but all subordinate to Moscow.

lenin died

The first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, was already in poor health when the Soviet Union was founded and died just over a year later. Joseph Stalin prevailed over his opponent in the ensuing power struggle.


Stalin merged private land into state farms and collective farms. Resistance to collectivization and policy inefficiencies exacerbated famines; Ukraine’s “Great Famine” of 1932-33 killed an estimated 4 million people and was described by many as outright genocide.


Because of Stalin’s fear of his opponents, Soviet authorities in the 1930s held public trials of prominent figures accused of being enemies of the state and carried out widespread arrests and executions, often based solely on condemnation from neighboring countries. It is estimated that as many as 1.2 million people died during the height of the purges in 1937-38.

World War II

World War II brought great suffering to the Soviet Union, but it consolidated its status as a superpower, and also strengthened the kindness and indomitable national beliefs in the hearts of the people.

An estimated 27 million Soviets died. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest battles in history. The Nazis and their affiliated forces besieged Leningrad for more than two years. The Red Army retreated tenaciously and advanced slowly until it reached Berlin, ending the European theater of the war.

The war sees Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia incorporated into the Soviet Union, as well as the area that later became Moldova. Stalin used the wartime conference to ask the Soviet Union to establish a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, eventually bringing Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and East Dela into the “Iron Curtain”.

stalin died

Stalin’s death in 1953 was traumatic for his adoring Soviets. Huge crowds gathered to pay their respects, with more than 100 people reportedly killed in the crush. He has left no designated successor and the country’s leadership has been embroiled in a power struggle. In 1955, Nikita Khrushchev consolidated his place at the top.

Khrushchev thaw

Khrushchev had been a loyal worker before, but his predecessor was once firmly in power. In a speech at a Communist Party congress, he spent hours denouncing Stalin’s brutality and the “cult of personality” he had created. He later removed Stalin’s body from the Red Square mausoleum where Lenin’s remains were located.

The speech was a pivotal moment in what became known as the Khrushchev Thaw, a period of loosening repression and censorship.

In 1964, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, led by Leonid Brezhnev, voted to oust Khrushchev. He became the leader of the Soviet Union.

space race

The launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, in 1957 caused great concern in the United States that the Soviets were advancing technologically too fast. The United States accelerated its space program, but the Soviet Union sent the first human into outer space, Yuri Gagarin, four years later. A 15-minute suborbital flight by American Alan Shepard next month only underscores the gap in space.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Perhaps the closest the world came to an all-out nuclear war was the 1962 confrontation between the US and the USSR over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, which Khrushchev sent in response to US nuclear-capable missiles deployed in Turkey . Tensions rose when the United States ordered a naval blockade of the island, but the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for the United States removing them from Turkey. A positive result was the establishment of a US-Soviet hotline to facilitate crisis communication.


During the Brezhnev era, Washington and Moscow were in a period of so-called “détente,” which saw the signing of several arms treaties, improved trade relations and the docking of the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft, the first joint mission in outer space . This ended after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Brezhnev died in 1982, and relations between the two countries deteriorated under his successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who He died of ill health less than 15 months after taking office.

War in Afghanistan

Despite Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” the Soviet Union sent troops to assassinate the country’s leader in 1979 and installed a submissive successor. The fighting lasted for nearly a decade. Soviet troops – 115,000 at the height of the war – were battered by resistance fighters accustomed to the rough terrain. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began the withdrawal in 1987 and completed it in 1989. More than 14,000 Red Army soldiers were killed in a conflict that eroded the Soviet Union’s image of military superiority.


“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The ironic line became popular during the Brezhnev era, when the economy faltered amid low or even negative growth. The rigidity of central planning, along with high defense spending, is seen as the main cause.

The Rise of Gorbachev

The dreary stupor of the late 1970s eased when Gorbachev was elected leader of the Communist Party following Chernenko’s death. Gorbachev, a personable and relatively young 54-year-old accompanied by his sassy wife Raisa, brought a strong human touch to a ruthlessly opaque government, sparking outrage in the West. A fervor known as “Golby Mania.” Within months, he launched a campaign to end economic and political stagnation, using “openness” or openness to pursue the goal of “reform”—restructuring.

He signed two landmark arms deals with the United States, freed political prisoners, allowed public debate, multi-candidate elections and freedom of travel, and ended religious oppression.

But the power he unleashes quickly escapes his control. Long-simmering ethnic tensions have erupted into clashes in regions such as the South Caucasus. Strikes and labor unrest have been accompanied by price hikes and severe shortages of consumer goods, leaving even Moscow’s boutiques empty.


Gorbachev’s standing in the West was damaged when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, spewing radioactive fallout over much of Europe within a week. Despite Gorbachev’s bragging about his openness, the Soviets did not inform the outside world, or even their own citizens, of the disaster for two days. Despite elevated radiation levels, they allowed a large May Day event in Kyiv.

fall of the berlin wall

Although the Soviet Union sent troops to suppress uprisings in the satellite states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, it did not intervene when a wave of democratization and dissent swept through the Eastern Bloc in 1989. East Germany opened the way to West Germany: Jubilant demonstrators flocked to the Berlin Wall that had sealed off the city’s Soviet quarter since 1961 and hammered away chunks of it.

coup attempt

Alarmed by growing separatism and economic problems, the Soviet premier, defense minister, KGB chief, and other senior officials placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation dacha on August 19, 1991, and ordered that all political activity. Tanks and troops marched through the streets of Moscow, but crowds rallied against them. Russian President Boris Yeltsin climbed onto a tank outside the parliament building and denounced the coup plotters. The attempt failed within three days, and Gorbachev returned to Moscow, albeit severely weakened in power.


Over the next four months, as several republics, including Ukraine, declared their independence, the Soviet Union disintegrated, accompanied by a slow calving of glaciers. Yeltsin banned Communist activities in Russia.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed an agreement in early December declaring that the Soviet Union ceased to exist. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

Debate continues over what brought down the giant: its repressive methods, poor decisions by ailing leaders, adherence to an ideology that was arguably unviable — all of which likely played a role.

Thirty years later, analyst Dmitry Trenin, then director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told the Associated Press: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of those events in history that were considered unthinkable until they became unthinkable. avoid.”

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