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The Downfalls of 1917 and 1991



Striking parallels exist between the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 and the downfall of tsarism in 1917. The peasant emancipation of 1861 under Alexander II inaugurated the era of the “great reforms” of a liberal nature that, instead of reinvigorating autocracy, sped it to its collapse. Because much of Russian life had been constructed around the institution of serfdom, its abolition inevitably necessitated liberalizing changes in areas including local government, the judicial system, and the military. The “great reform” laws of 1861–65 fundamentally altered the structure of the empire, launching Russia’s transition from a semifeudal to something approaching a modern capitalist society.

In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the tsarist government sponsored a massive modernization program that boosted the development of capitalist relations across the empire and gave birth to modern classes of the bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat. In the six decades between the peasant emancipation and the collapse of tsarism, the process of modernization of the country’s social and economic structures brought about a more open, dynamic, and politically mature society.

The First World War and revolution caught the tsarist empire in the middle of a process of transformation (industrial, agrarian, educational, and military), when most of the reforms were beginning to produce their first results. Yet the tsarist empire’s political evolution could not keep pace with its rapid socioeconomic progress. The failure to adapt Russia’s antiquated government structure to the fast-changing social, economic, and international conditions was among the principal reasons for the downfall of tsarism.

The Soviet regime picked up the torch of modernization and, in the late 1920s, launched its “socialist onslaught” that also lasted for six decades. Like the tsarist government before it, the Soviet Union collapsed not because its modernization efforts had taken it to the periphery of contemporary civilization or into a historical cul-de-sac. Both regimes crumbled under the burden of the contradictions that developed within an increasingly involved and complex modern society.

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The Soviet Period


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

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