Russia and the USSR 1905-1941

Shooting of the Romanov family

Overview of the shooting of the Romanov family

In the early hours of the 17th July 1918 the Russian Imperial Romanov family were shot dead in the basement of the Ipatiev House in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

Their death took place during the ongoing Russian Civil War, at a time when White Russian forces were approaching the house where the family were held captive. The execution was led by Yakov Yurovsky, a member of the Bolshevik secret police known as the Checka, and commandant of the house which had become known as The House of Special Purpose.

The Romanov family – Nicholas and his wife, and their four daughters and son, had first arrived in Ekaterinburg at intervals from the 30th April onwards. They were accompanied by a small number of servants. Their time inside the house was heavily regulated by the guards, who blocked all contact with the outside world.

As the White Army advanced on Ekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks became concerned that the royal family might fall into their hands and act as a rallying point for the White cause. Similarly, their release could encourage other European nations to view them as the legitimate rulers of Russia, and thus undermine the revolutionary Bolshevik government.

Shortly after midnight on the 17th July therefore, the family were woken and led to a small basement room in the house. A group of Bolshevik secret police then entered the room and read out the order for the deaths. All were shot or stabbed by bayonets, their bodies taken away in a truck and disposed of in a forest 12 miles north of the city.

Lenin shot

Lenin shot in failed assassination attempt, 30th Aug 1918

On the 30th August 1918, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the victim of a failed assassination plot.

Fanya Kaplan, a member of the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, believed that Lenin was a ‘traitor to the revolution’ for dissolving the Constituent Assembly and banning other left-wing political parties. She fired three shots at him as he left the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, of which one hit his arm and lodged in his shoulder while the other went through his neck and is reported to have punctured part of his left lung.

Made unconscious by the attack, Lenin was taken to his living quarters in the Kremlin from where he refused to move in case other would-be assassins attacked him. Without the medical facilities of a hospital, his doctors were unable to remove the bullets and, although Lenin did survive, the injuries he sustained may have contributed towards the strokes that led to his death in 1924.

In retaliation for the attack on Lenin barely two weeks after the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks issued a decree beginning the Red Terror. Designed to crush counter-revolutionary action against the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror is generally accepted to have lasted throughout the period of the Civil War until 1922. Meanwhile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda used the attack as a propaganda tool to promote Lenin.

Kaplan was executed on the 3rd September, but over the next four years tens if not hundreds of thousands of Bolsheviks opponents were killed.


The origins and activities of the Cheka under the Bolsheviks

On the 20th December 1917, the Russian Bolshevik secret police known as the Cheka was established. Led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the organisation’s name was derived from the Russian initials for its original full name – The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Hundreds of Cheka committees were formed across Russia, who went on to arrest, torture or execute many thousands of dissidents, deserters and other enemies of the state before it was dissolved on February 6, 1922.

Established following a decree by Lenin on the 19th December, the Cheka’s focus was on defending the revolution by removing internal threats to the Soviet regime. Lenin’s decree was purposefully vague, and this enabled Dzerzhinsky to recruit and direct his Chekists – the Cheka agents – in whatever way he saw best. With virtually unlimited powers, the growing number of agents soon began rounding up anyone identified as an “enemy of the people”. Although often referred to as the Bolshevik ‘secret police’, in reality the Chekists were easily identifiable from their long leather coats and a number of their activities were reported in official Soviet newspaper Pravda and Izvestia.

Known as the Red Terror, Cheka’s campaign of mass killings, torture, and systematic oppression grew more fierce as the Russian Civil War progressed. Their activities included a number of atrocities using torture methods that respected historian Orlando Figes says were “matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.”

Official Soviet figures placed the number of Cheka victims at 12,733. However, in reality the figure is probably significantly higher. Some historians place the actual figure at 200,000 or more.

History File – Bolshevik Russia


The Foundation of the USSR, 1922

On the 30th December 1922, the USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – was founded. The Treaty on the Creation of the USSR and the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, which were approved by delegations from the founding countries on the 29th December, formed the constitutional basis for the Soviet Union. However, they didn’t officially come into force until the 30th when they were confirmed by the 1st Congress of Soviets and signed by the heads of each republic’s respective delegation.


The Soviet Union in 1922 consisted of just four Soviet republics – the Russian SFSR, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR and Transcaucasian SFSR – although it’s important to note that the Russian and Transcaucasian SFSRs actually incorporated a number of separate Soviet Socialist Republics. The creation of the USSR therefore effectively created a centralised federal government.

This was an important step for the Bolsheviks who, having won the Russian Civil War, needed to consolidate their gains into a formal political entity. Stalin in particular argued that the New Economic Policy that followed war communism required centralised control, which threatened some national groups. At the same time, some Bolsheviks hoped for a world revolution that would overthrow capitalist governments around the globe.

The USSR’s founding documents therefore allowed Soviet republics to withdraw from the Union at any time, even though none of them actually did so before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Similarly new members were able to join the union at any time, which meant that by 1940 the USSR’s membership had grown from four republics in 1922 to 16.

Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party

Why was Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party in 1927?

Trotsky had been a key figure in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He soon became one of the members of the first Politburo that was founded to manage the transition to a communist state, alongside the Bolshevik founder Vladimir Lenin, and the USSR’s future leader Joseph Stalin.

As Lenin’s health began to fail in the early 1920s, it initially appeared as though Trotsky would be his successor. Following Stalin’s alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev in the troika, however, Trotsky soon found himself marginalised and he became the subject of rumours about his health and capability to serve in government.

Stalin subsequently emerged as the leader of the USSR following Lenin’s death in 1924. Trotsky’s Left Opposition faction was a vocal critic of many of Stalin’s policies but, with Trotsky himself being increasingly side-lined from government decisions, he was removed from his position as war commissar in 1925 and from the Politburo itself the following year.

Having organised a demonstration by the Left Opposition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky was accused of fomenting and organising a counter revolution. He, along with his recent ally Zinoviev, was expelled from the Communist Party on 12 November 1927 while 98 of his supporters met the same fate a month later.

Trotsky was soon exiled to Alma Ata, a small town in Kazakhstan, but within a year had left the USSR completely. He never returned, eventually being granted asylum in Mexico where he was assassinated with an ice pick by an NKVD agent.

Collectivisation in the USSR

First Five-Year Plan

The USSR’s first Five-Year Plan

On the 1st October 1928, the Soviet Union introduced Joseph Stalin’s first five-year plan.

The plan set a series of economic goals to be achieved between 1929 and 1934, with the intention of rapidly industrialising the country in case of war with the West. Based on Stalin’s policy of Socialism in One Country, the five-year plan called for a complete change in the culture of the Soviet Union that affected agriculture just as much as industry.

A vital ingredient in being able to fulfil the industrial goals of the five-year plan was increasing agricultural productivity, since this would release peasants and farm labourers from the land and allow them to become industrial workers. The first five-year plan is therefore probably most famous for the introduction of the policy of collectivisation, where hundreds of peasants were put together to work on enormous farms that covered thousands of acres.

The dramatic increase in food output per peasant as a result of mechanisation on these farms freed up former agricultural workers to move to the new factories instead, with the number of industrial workers almost doubling between 1928 and the end of the plan in 1932. However, significant opposition to the process of collectivisation meant that overall productivity remained low in many areas and caused famines as Party officials seized food for the cities and left the agricultural workers with nothing.

In the factories, however, production soared. Although the targets were constantly revised to the point where the targets would never be achieved, the first five-year plan firmly set the USSR on the road to becoming a world superpower.

Industrialisation and the Five Year Plans