For most of the twentieth century the word Russia was often used synonymously with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. The Soviet Union emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in which Vladimir I. Lenin and his followers took over the vast but tottering Russian empire and imposed a totalitarian system of communist rule. Russia became the core of the USSR’s fifteen republics. Lenin and his successors maintained and expanded the multiethnic empire they inherited, banned private property and forcibly collectivized farms (a process that resulted in the deaths of millions), and embarked on programs of rapid industrialization. The Soviet Union became a global superpower during and after World War II when it turned back Germany’s attack, achieved military domination over Eastern Europe, developed atomic weapons, and engaged in a military and diplomatic competition with the United States in what became known as the Cold War. Throughout this time the Soviet Communist Party maintained a tight control over people’s lives that restricted their freedoms of movement, family life, work, expression, and religion. A privileged elite of bureaucrats and party officials ran the country.
Then, following a remarkable series of events, the Soviet Union was no more. In the second half of the 1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms providing greater political and economic freedoms to people that were meant to strengthen the nation’s economy and revitalize public support for the communist regime. Instead, Gorbachev’s reforms revealed the extent of economic stagnation in the USSR and unleashed pent-up dissatisfaction with the system. In 1990 several Soviet republics declared their independence from the Soviet Union, and the parliament of the Russian Republic declared Russian law took precedence over Soviet law. In 1991, hard-line Communists attempted to seize control of the government from Gorbachev—and failed in the face of public resistance led by newly elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and was replaced by fifteen independent states, including Russia.
Yeltsin’s government inherited Moscow (the USSR’s capital), three quarters of the former USSR’s territory, and twothirds of its people. However, it also inherited significant challenges in replacing the communist ideology that had provided economic and political direction over the previous decades. Columbia University political scientist Alexander J. Motyl has argued that two enormous challenges confront Russia and other former Soviet states: the need to build effective economic, legal, and political institutions from the ground up to replace the collapse of the Soviet system—and the need to do these all at the same time. Failure in one area hampers progress in another. During the 1990s Russia’s new leaders sought to end state control of its economic resources, including its factories, mines, and farms, and replace them by a system of private ownership. At the same time Russia’s system of laws and government had to be reformed to replace the pervasive control of the now-defunct Soviet Communist Party. The challenge in creating a market economy and a democratic political system is further complicated by weaknesses in Russia’s public sphere; the actual functioning of Russia’s government has been severely weakened by widespread tax evasion, lawlessness, organized crime, capital flight, and political corruption. While a few Russians have grown enormously rich, many have suffered from the loss of social welfare provisions of the former communist system. Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell to 12 percent of what was produced by the Soviet Union at its peak, according to some estimates.
The Soviet collapse also had significant repercussions for Russia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Russia inherited the Soviet Red Army, most of its nuclear stockpiles, and the diplomatic ties and obligations of the Soviet Union. However, Russia’s neighbors, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, are now independent states who are often fearful and hostile toward Russia. Ethnic conclaves within Russia itself—notably Chechnya—have been the site of military conflict. Russia’s influence over Europe has declined, and its relationship with the United States—its ideological and military rival during the Cold War—now embraces some elements of cooperation as Russia’s government seeks to embrace Western-style democracy and capitalism.
Russia’s loss of its former territories and superpower prestige has not proceeded without some misgivings. “The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of imperial possessions has left a mental and psychological vacuum that Russians have great difficulty filling,” argues Russia expert Richard Pipes. He argues that there is a “battle for Russia’s soul” between those who seek a Western model of capitalist democracy, and an older generation “suspicious of . . . Western ways and nostalgic for the more secure Soviet past.” Pipes and others fear that Russia’s leaders will be tempted to engage in aggressive foreign policy ventures rather than work on the difficult challenges of reforming Russia’s government and economy.
Although Russia is not the superpower it once was, it remains a pivotal nation in world affairs. Russia remains the largest country in the world in surface area and in the length of its border, which stretches from Europe to Asia. It is the world’s second leading nuclear power, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons. It retains a seat on the Security Council in the United Nations. Russia’s geostrategic importance ensures that other nations—including the United States—will continue to have a vested interest in Russia’s political and economic evolution. Russia in Crisis: Opposing Viewpoints examines some of the leading issues concerning Russia in the following chapters: What Are the Sources of Russia’s Domestic Problems? What Are the Prospects for Democracy in Russia? Does Russia Pose a Threat to the Rest of the World? What Should U.S. Foreign Policy Be Toward Russia?