Fallen colossus: USSR’s terror, triumphs began 100 years ago

Dec 28, 2022, 10:12 AM | Updated: Dec 29, 2022, 12:20 am
FILE - The first mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, who dead in Jan. 21, 1924 is set at Re...

FILE - The first mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, who dead in Jan. 21, 1924 is set at Red Square next to the Kremlin Wall in Moscow, Russia on Feb. 25, 1924. Lenin was already in poor health when the USSR was formed and he died of a stroke little more than a year later. Josef Stalin outmaneuvered rivals in the ensuing battle for power. (AP Photo/File)

(AP Photo/File)

              Visitors look at the painting, "The signing of the treaty on the formation of the USSR on December 30, 1922 in the Bolshoi Theater" by Stepan Dudnik at the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. The Soviet Union cast a long shadow after it was founded 100 years ago, but its lifespan was short – dying just a few days short of its 69th birthday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
            
              FILE - The Soviet flag flies over the Kremlin at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 21, 1991. After Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down on Dec. 25, 1991, people strolling across Moscow's snowy Red Square on the evening of Dec. 25 were surprised to witness one of the 20th century's most pivotal moments — the Soviet red flag over the Kremlin pulled down and replaced with the Russian Federation's tricolor. (AP Photo/Gene Berman, File)
            
              FILE - People kick the head of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in front of the KGB main headquarters on the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 23, 1991. When a group of top Communist officials ousted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago and flooded Moscow with tanks, the world held its breath, fearing a rollback on liberal reforms and a return to the Cold War confrontation. But the August 1991 coup collapsed in just three days, precipitating the breakup of the Soviet Union that plotters said they were trying to prevent. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
            
              FILE - Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, makes a speech from atop a tank in front of the Russian Parliament building in Moscow, Russia on Monday, Aug. 19, 1991. The Soviet prime minister, defense minister, KGB head and other top officials, alarmed growing separatism and economic troubles, on August 19, 1991, put the first Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation dacha and ordered a halt to all political activities. Tanks and troops ground through the streets of Moscow, but crowds turned out to defy them. Boris Yeltsin clambered onto a tank outside the parliament building to denounce the coup plotters. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - A convoy of Soviet tanks holds its position near Moscow's central airfield less than two miles from the Kremlin, Aug. 20, 1991. The Communist hardliners who ousted Mikhail Gorbachev sent the army's tanks rolling within a mile of the Russian Parliament building where populist President Boris Yeltsin has been since Monday's coup. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko, File)
            
              FILE - A Soviet woman reaches for one of the last packs of butter from a nearly empty refrigerator in a local shop in Moscow on June 1, 1990. Food shortages, always a common occurrence in the Soviet Union, have become worse recently. Over the next four months, the USSR disintegrated with the slow drama of a calving glacier. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
            
              FILE - This photo shows an aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Chernobyl showing damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26, 1986 that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere in Ukraine. Gorbachev's esteem in the West was undermined when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in 1986, spewing a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe for a week before the fire could be put out. Despite Gorbachev's advocacy of glasnost, the Soviets did not inform the outside world of the disaster for two days. (AP Photo/Volodymyr Repik, File)
            
              FILE - Members of the crowd hold up 3,500 cards to create an image of Misha the Bear Cup, the mascot of the Moscow Olympic Games at the Lenin Stadium in Russia on July 19, 1980. Above burns the Olympic flame. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow brought much attention to the Soviet Union, for better and for worse. The Games did show that the USSR could be comfortable, high-spirited and welcoming to visitors despite laborious visa procedures. But dozens of countries, including the United States and sports powers Canada and West Germany, boycotted the event in protest of the invasion of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - Soviet spaceman Yuri Gagarin waves after arriving at the London Airport, for a private visit as the guest of the Russian Trade fair, July 11, 1961. The successful one-orbit flight on April 12, 1961 made the 27-year-old Gagarin a national hero and cemented Soviet supremacy in space until the United States put a man on the moon more than eight years later. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - The Vostok type spaceship such as Yuri Gagarin and other cosmonauts orbited the Earth, is on public display in Moscow, April 29, 1968 for the first time. Cosmonauts ride in the Dome at left ahead of the instrument section. Last stage of launching rocket is cylinder at rear which detaches after firing. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - Josef Stalin, secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and premier of the Soviet state, poses at his desk in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia in Feb. 1950. Stalin's death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953 was traumatic for Soviets who venerated him. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - Captured German and other Axis soldiers huddle against the wind at Stalingrad, now Volgograd, Russia in Feb. 19, 1943. World War II inflicted colossal suffering on the Soviet Union, but cemented its status as a superpower and swelled citizens' hearts with the conviction that it was a virtuous and indomitable nation. An estimated 27 million Soviets died in the conflict. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in the history of warfare. (Soviet Newsreels Picture via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Workers of the Ivanouvsk region enjoy a respite from labor while holding a production meeting in the fields in December 1931 at Russia. Stalin implemented collectivization, in which private landholdings were incorporated into state and collective farms. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - A tractor is used in the farming district of Russia, 1923. Stalin implemented collectivization, in which private landholdings were incorporated into state and collective farms. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - A group of peasants, who work in the fields of their collective farm, read magazines and newspapers during rest hour, at an unknown location in the Soviet Union, on May 28, 1930. Stalin implemented collectivization, in which private landholdings were incorporated into state and collective farms. (AP Photo/File)
            
              FILE - The first mausoleum of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, who dead in Jan. 21, 1924 is set at Red Square next to the Kremlin Wall in Moscow, Russia on Feb. 25, 1924. Lenin was already in poor health when the USSR was formed and he died of a stroke little more than a year later. Josef Stalin outmaneuvered rivals in the ensuing battle for power. (AP Photo/File)
            FILE - Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, left, and Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet premier and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union clasp hands at the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square on May Day in Moscow, Russia in May 1, 1963. Many observers say the closest that the world has come to full nuclear war was in the 1962 confrontation between the United States and the USSR over the presence in Cuba of Soviet nuclear missiles, which Khrushchev sent in response to the US placing nuclear-capable missiles in Turkey. (TASS via AP, File) FILE - President Jimmy Carter, center left, and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, center right, wave to the waiting crowd outside the U.S. Embassy after both heads of state finished their first round of talks prior to the Monday Salt II Treaty signing, June 16, 1979, in Vienna, Austria. In the Brezhnev years, Washington and Moscow engaged in the so-called "detente" period that saw several arms treaties signed, improved trade relations and the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft docking, the first joint mission in outer space. (AP Photo/File) FILE - In this undated photo, Soviet soldiers receive newspapers and mail as a convoy stops somewhere in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union completed its troops withdrawal from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, it was widely hailed as a much-anticipated end to a bloody quagmire, but public perceptions have changed and many Russians now see the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan as a necessary and largely successful endeavor. (Leonid Yakutin, Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File) FILE - Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, left, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin sit in a park at Gorki residence in 1922 just outside Moscow, Russia. With its brutality, technological accomplishments and rigid ideology, the Soviet Union cast a huge shadow on the world like that of a colossus that would loom forever. Lenin was already in poor health when the USSR was formed and he died of a stroke little more than a year later. Josef Stalin outmaneuvered rivals in the ensuing battle for power. (AP Photo, File) FILE - A naval rocket is exhibited in Moscow's Red Square past a banner of Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx during the annual May Day parade in the Soviet Union in May 1, 1963. Under the shadow of the Cold War's threat of "mutually assured destruction," 1963 was the year of dawning arms control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. (AP Photo/File) FILE - A smile and a wave from a Soviet soldier, as his armoured convoy makes its way back to the Soviet Union along a north Afghanistan highway, Feb. 7, 1989. Despite Afghanistan's reputation as "the graveyard of empires," the Soviet Union sent in troops in 1979, quickly assassinating the country's leader and moving to install a compliant successor. More than 14,000 Soviet Army troops died in the conflict that seriously eroded the image of Soviet military superiority. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko, File) FILE - An abandoned horse grazes among the ruins of the Russian city of Stalingrad, now Volgograd, on Dec. 18, 1942, about four months into the battle for the city on the Volga River between Axis forces and the Soviet army. In the background, at right, Russian women leaving their battered homesteads make their way through the ruins. World War II inflicted colossal suffering on the Soviet Union, but cemented its status as a superpower and swelled citizens' hearts with the conviction that it was a virtuous and indomitable nation. An estimated 27 million Soviets died in the conflict. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest in the history of warfare. (AP Photo/Alvin Steinkopf, File) FILE - Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev rubs his eyes, during the special session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow, Russia, Aug. 27, 1991. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in early December signed an accord stating the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Because other constituent republics hadn't signed, its effect was in legal doubt. But on Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president and the USSR's flag was lowered at the Kremlin after his announcement. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File) FILE - Russians gather in front of the Lenin mausoleum with the names reading "Lenin, Stalin" on the top after completion of alterations involving the removal of stone bearing Stalin's name in Red Square in Moscow, Russia in March 7, 1962. In a speech to a Communist Party congress, he railed for hours against Stalin, decrying his brutality and denouncing the "cult of personality" he engendered. He later ordered Stalin's body removed from the Red Square mausoleum where Lenin's body also lay. (AP Photo/Reinhold Ensz, File) FILE - U.S. Navy guided missile ship Dahlgren trails the Soviet Leninsky Komsomol, Nov. 10, 1962, as the Russian vessel headed from Casilda, Cuba, through the windward passage between Haiti and Cuba. The freighter, loaded with military equipment and missile-like objects covered with canvas, was later intercepted by the destroyer leader Norfolk. After the missiles were detected by reconnaissance flights over Cuba, the US ordered a naval blockade of the island. Tensions soared, but the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missiles and for the US to remove its missiles from Turkey. The positive offshoot was establishment of a US-USSR hotline to facilitate crisis communications. (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs, File) FILE - U.S. President Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet for the first time at the villa Fleur D'Eau at Versoix near Geneva, Nov. 19, 1985. Gorbachev signed two landmark arms agreements with the United States. He freed political prisoners, allowed open debate and multi-candidate elections, gave his countrymen freedom to travel and halted religious oppression. (AP Photo/Scott Stewart, File) FILE - Soviet soldiers hoist the red flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany in May 1945. The photo was made by Yevgeny Khaldei, a veteran photographer whose pictures of Soviet soldiers hoisting the red flag over the Reichstag in Berlin are among the best-known images of World War II. The Red Army doggedly pushed back the Nazis and slowly advanced until reaching Berlin, ending the war's European theater. (Yevgeny Khaldei, ITAR-TASS via AP, File) FILE - Thousands gather outside of the Parliament in a show of solidarity with Latvians who are mourning those killed by Soviet "Black Berets", an elite force of Soviet Interior Ministry troops in Vilnius, Lithuania, Jan. 26, 1991. The most vivid consequence of its standing back came in November when East Germany opened passage to West Germany and jubilant demonstrators swarmed the Berlin Wall that had blocked off the city's Soviet sector since 1961 and began hammering chunks out of it. Although Soviet forces violently put down demonstrations in Lithuania and Latvia two years later, the fall of the wall indicated that the USSR's will to imperial power was sapped. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File) FILE - Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet premier and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, gestures with his fist to emphasize a remark during his address before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 23, 1960. Many observers say the closest that the world has come to full nuclear war was in the 1962 confrontation between the United States and the USSR over the presence in Cuba of Soviet nuclear missiles, which Khrushchev sent in response to the US placing nuclear-capable missiles in Turkey. (AP Photo/File) FILE - Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, second right, Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk, second left, Belarus' leader Stanislav Shushkevich, third left, Russia's State Secretary Gennady Burbulis, right, Belarus' Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, third right, and Ukraine's Prime Minister Vitold Fokin, left, sign an agreement terminating the Soviet Union and declaring the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Viskuli, Belarus on Dec. 8, 1991. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus declared the USSR dead and announced the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance joined two weeks later by eight other Soviet republics. (AP Photo/Yuri Ivanov, File) FILE - A participant in a pro-democracy rally shows his disgust for the Soviet system by ripping apart a portrait of its founder, Vladimir Lenin in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 25, 1990. With its brutality, technological accomplishments and rigid ideology, the Soviet Union cast a huge shadow on the world like that of a colossus that would loom forever. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

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

It led humankind into outer space, exploded the most powerful nuclear weapon ever, and inflicted bloody purges and cruel labor camps on its own citizens while portraying itself as the vanguard of enlightened revolution.

But its lifespan was less than the average human’s; born 100 years ago, it died days short of its 69th birthday.

The Soviet Union both inspired loyalty and provoked dismay among its 285 million citizens. The dichotomy was summarized by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who served in its notorious KGB security agency.

“Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart,” he said. “Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”

On the centenary of the treaty that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, The Associated Press reviews the events of its rise and fall.

ESTABLISHMENT

Five years after the overthrow of Russia’s czarist government, four of the socialist republics that had formed in the aftermath signed a treaty on Dec. 30, 1922 to create the USSR: Ukraine; Byelorussia; Transcaucasia, which spread over Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Russia, including the old empire’s holdings in Central Asia. The USSR, which later expanded to include Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, left the republics with their own governments and national languages, but all subordinate to Moscow.

LENIN DIES

Vladimir Lenin, the first Soviet leader, was already in poor health when the USSR was formed and died little more than a year later. Josef Stalin outmaneuvered rivals in the ensuing power battle.

COLLECTIVIZATION

Stalin incorporated private landholdings into state and collective farms. Resistance to collectivization and the policy’s inefficiencies aggravated famines; Ukraine’s 1932-33 “Holodomor” killed an estimated 4 million people, and many term it an outright genocide.

GREAT PURGE

Driven by Stalin’s fear of rivals, Soviet authorities in the 1930s launched show trials of prominent figures alleged to be enemies of the state and conducted widespread arrests and executions often based on little more than denunciation by neighbors. Estimates say as many as 1.2 million people died in 1937-38, the purge’s most intense period.

WWII

World War II inflicted colossal suffering on the Soviet Union, but cemented its superpower status and swelled citizens’ hearts with the conviction that theirs was a virtuous and indomitable nation.

An estimated 27 million Soviets died. The Battle of Stalingrad was among the bloodiest in history; Nazi and affiliated forces besieged Leningrad for more than two years. The Red Army doggedly pushed back and slowly advanced until reaching Berlin, ending the war’s European theater.

The war left Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia incorporated into the Soviet Union, as well as what later became Moldova. Stalin used wartime conferences to demand a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, eventually drawing Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany behind the “Iron Curtain.”

STALIN DIES

Stalin’s death in 1953 was traumatic for Soviets who venerated him. Huge crowds gathered to pay their respects and more than 100 people reportedly died in the crush. He left no designated successor, and the country’s leadership became embroiled in jockeying for power. Nikita Khrushchev cemented his position at the top in 1955.

KHRUSHCHEV THAW

Formerly a loyal functionary, Khrushchev turned on his predecessor once firmly in power. In a speech to a Communist Party congress, he railed for hours against Stalin’s brutality and the “cult of personality” he engendered. He later had Stalin’s body removed from the Red Square mausoleum where Lenin’s body also lay.

The speech was a key point in what became known as the Khrushchev Thaw, a period of relaxed repression and censorship.

Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 in a vote by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which was led by Leonid Brezhnev. He became the USSR’s leader.

SPACE RACE

The 1957 launch of Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite, sparked enormous concern in the United States that the Soviets were speeding ahead technologically. The U.S. accelerated its space program, but the USSR sent the first human into outer space, Yuri Gagarin, four years later. American Alan Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital flight the next month only emphasized the space gap.

CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS

Perhaps the closest the world ever came to full nuclear war was the 1962 confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR over the presence in Cuba of Soviet nuclear missiles, which Khrushchev sent in response to U.S. nuclear-capable missiles placed in Turkey. The U.S. ordered a naval blockade of the island and tensions soared, but the Soviets agreed to pull back the missiles in return for the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. The positive offshoot was the establishment of a U.S.-USSR hotline to facilitate crisis communications.

DETENTE

In the Brezhnev years, Washington and Moscow engaged in the so-called “detente” period that saw several arms treaties signed, improved trade relations and the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft docking, the first joint mission in outer space. That ended after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Brezhnev died in 1982, and relations withered under successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who were in ill health and died after less than 15 months in office.

AFGHANISTAN WAR

Despite Afghanistan’s reputation as “the graveyard of empires,” the Soviets sent in troops in 1979, assassinating the country’s leader and installing a compliant successor. Fighting dragged on for nearly a decade. Soviet troops — 115,000 at the war’s height — were battered by resistance fighters used to the rough terrain. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began a withdrawal in 1987 and completed it in 1989. More than 14,000 Red Army troops died in the conflict that eroded the image of Soviet military superiority.

STAGNATION

“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” This sarcastic line became popular in the Brezhnev era as the economy staggered through low and even negative growth. The rigidity of central planning was seen as a major cause along with high defense spending.

GORBACHEV RISES

The dour torpor that set in during the late ’70s lifted when Gorbachev was chosen Communist Party leader after Chernenko’s death. Personable, a relative youngster at 54 and accompanied by his fashionable wife, Raisa, Gorbachev brought a strongly human touch to a grim and opaque government, sparking enthusiasm dubbed “Gorbymania” in the West. Within months, he was campaigning to end economic and political stagnation, using “glasnost,” or openness, to pursue the goal of “perestroika” — restructuring.

He signed two landmark arms agreements with the U.S., freed political prisoners, allowed open debate, multi-candidate elections and freedom to travel, and halted religious oppression.

But the forces he unleashed quickly escaped his control. Long-suppressed ethnic tensions flared into strife in areas such as the southern Caucasus. Strikes and labor unrest followed price increases and consumer good shortages so severe that even showpiece Moscow stores were bare.

CHERNOBYL

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

BERLIN WALL FALLS

Although the USSR had sent troops to put down uprisings in the satellite states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, it did not intervene when democratization and waves of dissent spread through East Bloc countries in 1989. The most vivid consequence of standing back came when East Germany opened passage to West Germany: Jubilant demonstrators swarmed the Berlin Wall that had blocked off the city’s Soviet sector since 1961, and hammered chunks off it.

COUP ATTEMPT

The Soviet prime minister, defense minister, KGB head and other top officials, alarmed at growing separatism and economic troubles, on August 19, 1991, put Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation dacha and ordered a halt to all political activities. Tanks and troops ground through the streets of Moscow, but crowds gathered to defy them. Russian President Boris Yeltsin clambered onto a tank outside the parliament building to denounce the coup plotters. The attempt collapsed in three days and Gorbachev returned to Moscow, albeit with his power severely weakened.

COLLAPSE

Over the next four months, the USSR disintegrated with the slow drama of a calving glacier, as several republics, including Ukraine, declared independence. Yeltsin banned Communist Party activities in Russia.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in early December signed an accord stating the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. On Dec. 25, Gorbachev resigned and the USSR’s flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

Debate persists on what felled the colossus: its repressive ways, poor decisions by ailing leaders, adherence to an arguably unviable ideology — all could have played a part.

Thirty years later, analyst Dmitri Trenin, then-director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told The Associated Press: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of those occasions in history that are believed to be unthinkable until they become inevitable.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Fallen colossus: USSR’s terror, triumphs began 100 years ago