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The constitutional structure of the Soviet Union and many elements of the early policies remained largely unchanged until 1991. The nineteenth century was the high-point of nation-building in Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe minorities began to articulate national demands. The Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 marked, for many national leaders, the end of any hope of autonomy or federalism within a democratic Russian state. In the 1960s and 1970s, a flourishing Ukrainian culture circulated in the form of samizdat underground publications, and in 1970 a nationalist journal, Ukrainian Herald, appeared secretly for the first time. Most non-Russians enjoyed a relatively privileged position in their republics, could use their mother tongue at school and in public and had controlled access to their national cultures. For many non-Russians, the introduction of market-style economic reforms led to particular hardship as it meant that relatively underdeveloped regions such as Central Asia and the Caucasus could no longer rely on unconditional central investment.
Joseph Stalin's personality left a giant imprint on the Soviet system. This chapter describes Stalin's relations with his deputies and their evolution into four phases. The first phase begins by assessing the rise of the Stalinist faction from the end of 1923 to 1924, when a solid majority formed within the Politburo against Leon Trotsky, whose impetuous behaviour and poor political judgement stoked up widespread unease within the leadership. The consolidation of dictatorship from the 1920s to the late 1930s and the operation of the Stalinist dictatorship at its peak, following the Great Purges, is the subject of the second phase. The third phase examines Stalin and his entourage during the war years, a period of marked decentralisation. The fourth phase discusses Stalin's last years, as the decision-making structures of the post-Stalin era. Although an important staging post on the road to dictatorship, the leadership system of the early 1930s is best viewed as a phase of unconsolidated oligarchic rule.
The immediate afterglow of the failed coup attempt in August 1991 must rank as one of the more optimistic periods in Russian history. In August 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was the most popular figure in Russia. Yeltsin's priority was not the creation or consolidation of a new democratic political system. Rather, Yeltsin turned his attention to dismantling the command economy and creating a market economy. Yeltsin's greatest achievement as president was the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation and their allies, the Agrarian Party of Russia, won less than 20 per cent of the vote, while new 'centrist' groups combined for nearly a quarter of the vote. In early August, a multi-ethnic force headed by Chechen commander Shamil Basaev invaded the Russian republic of Dagestan, claiming Dagestan's liberation from Russian imperialism as their cause. Russian armed forces responded by launching a major counter-offensive against the Chechen-led 'liberation' movement.
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