100 Years Since the Birth of the Soviet Union, in Pictures

It is the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia says he wants to remedy by waging war against Ukraine; it is the legacy of Moscow’s dominance that Ukrainians hope to free themselves of by defeating Moscow.


It was supposed to be “a voluntary association of peoples with equal rights,” one that would guarantee the “peaceful coexistence and fraternal cooperation of peoples” while serving as “a faithful bulwark against world capitalism.”

It was to be called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

On Dec. 30, 1922, in a meeting at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater of Communist delegates from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasus region, the Soviet Union was born.

The result was the largest country by landmass in modern history, spanning two continents, which emerged victorious in 1945 with the Western Allies in the most destructive war known to man. The Soviet Union killed millions in famine and the Gulag prison camps, deported millions of members of ethnic minority groups from their homes, and kept Europe divided and unfree for two generations. It put the first satellite into orbit and the first person into space, while engaging in an arms race that created nuclear arsenals big enough to extinguish human life on Earth.

And it lasted less than seven decades, ending with the strokes of politicians’ pens in December 1991.

But a full century after the founding of the U.S.S.R., the shadow it cast has grown only deeper; its imprint on history only more tragic. It is the disintegration of the Soviet Union that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in his convoluted logic, says he wants to remedy by waging war against Ukraine; it is the legacy of Moscow’s dominance that Ukrainians hope to free themselves of by defeating Russia.

A rose-colored view of a Soviet Union globally respected, thriving and content has become part of Mr. Putin’s ideology in the war, driving a nostalgia for empire that the Kremlin’s propaganda is fueling not just among older generations who remember the Soviet era, but also among young people who do not. In Ukraine, where Soviet symbols and street names are now outlawed, that history is increasingly seen through the prism of the deprivations that Ukrainians endured.

“Ukrainians went through genocide,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in November, referring to the Holodomor famine of 1932 and 1933 that killed millions. “And today we are doing everything possible and impossible to stop Russia’s new genocidal policies.”

With the layered realities of the Soviet past looming over the war in Ukraine, editors of The New York Times pored over thousands of archival photographs to create a look back at the Soviet Union and its people. Here is their selection.

The Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin giving a speech in Moscow in May 1920 to men of the Red Army leaving for the front during the Polish-Soviet War.

A couple with their starving children during a famine in the Soviet Union circa 1922.

Soviet officials displaying the Russian crown jewels in 1922. Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, had been killed along with his family four years earlier.

Farmers marching to the collective fields in a Russian town in 1931. Forced collectivization of agriculture under Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor as the Soviet leader, drove a wave of famine in the early 1930s. It was particularly deadly in Ukraine, where it killed millions and became known as the Holomodor, meaning “death by hunger.” Many historians say Stalin orchestrated the famine there.

Leon Trotsky at his home in Turkey in 1931. A key revolutionary leader, he was exiled from the Soviet Union in the late 1920s after losing a power struggle with Stalin, and was eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940.

Members of a collective farm near Moscow, New Life, left their children in a nursery before going to work in 1931.

Stalin in his office in 1932. He would be the Soviet Union’s dictator for almost three decades, presiding over murderous repression and a ruthless drive to become a world industrial and military power.

Homeless peasants near Kyiv, Ukraine, in the 1930s..

Soldiers from the Soviet Union marching along the coast line of the Arctic Ocean in 1939.

Soviet soldiers distributing Moscow newspapers near Vilna, Poland, in 1939. Soviet troops entered the country from the east weeks after Nazi Germany invaded from the west, and shortly after the two powers signed a secret deal to divide the territory, alongside a public nonaggression treaty.

Russian prisoners of war taken during fighting in Ukraine on their way to a Nazi prison camp in September 1941. Hitler had begun his assault on the Soviet Union that June, casting aside his promises and, by forcing Stalin into an all-out conflict, transforming the prospects of the Allied side in World War II.

Women and men digging anti-tank trenches in Leningrad in 1941. The city, which after the Soviet era regained its original name, Saint Petersburg, endured more than two years of a siege that killed about a million civilians.

Soviet troops trench fighting during an attack in 1941.

Leaving a son to the partisans, Leningrad 1942.

The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942 or 1943. The monthslong struggle for the industrial city, now known as Volgograd, is ranked among the decisive confrontations of World War II, turning back the Nazi advance at an enormous human cost.

By the time Stalingrad was liberated, in 1943, its population had fallen from half a million to 35,000. In total, the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people in the war with Nazi Germany, a conflict still known across the post-Soviet region as the Great Patriotic War.

Prisoners in the Vorkuta Gulag, a major Soviet labor camp, in 1945.

Red Army soldiers hoisted the Soviet flag from a balcony of the Hotel Adlon in front of Soviet units gathering at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1945. The victory over fascism, and the collective struggle to achieve it, would become an enduring keynote of Soviet pride and propaganda, one that Mr. Putin has worked to revive and exploit.

Stalin met with his fellow Allied leaders, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the resort city of Yalta in Crimea in February 1945 to plan for the end of the war. The Yalta Conference laid out the contours of what would become the Cold War world, in which the Soviet Union came to dominate Eastern Europe, and has been a subject of controversy for decades.

Families of a collective farm gathered for a meal in Ukraine in 1947.

Stalin in his coffin in 1953.

An elementary school in Moscow in 1954.

In October 1956, a student protest in Budapest against Soviet domination of Hungary sparked an armed uprising that seemed briefly on the verge of achieving its aims, with a new prime minister promising liberalization. Instead, within days, Soviet tanks were sent to Budapest to crush the Hungarian revolution.

Practicing positions at the Bolshoi Ballet School in 1958.

During the height of Soviet-Cuban cooperation, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev welcomed the Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the Kremlin in 1961.

A U.S. patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. After the Soviet Union stationed nuclear-armed missiles on the island, the United States launched a blockade, in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile crossing Red Square in 1965, during a military parade in Moscow marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.

A parade of young Russian sportsmen during May Day celebrations in Red Square in 1969.

Soviet tanks rolled into another neighboring country in 1968 to crush the “Prague Spring” — a brief period of liberalization in Communist Czechoslovakia.

The crew of the Soyuz 9 spaceflight, Cmdr. Andriyan Nikolayev, right, and Vitaly Sevastyanov, a flight engineer, during training in a simulator at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 1970.

Visitors celebrating Saint George near the Alaverdi monastery in Georgia in 1972. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion without officially banning it.

A Soviet technician decontaminating clothes and equipment in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986. The explosion and fire at the plant had an initial death toll of more than 30 and spread radioactive contamination across Europe. It also shook the Soviet Union’s self-image as a scientific superpower.

Soviet soldiers crossing a bridge on the border between Afghanistan and then Soviet Uzbekistan in 1989. The withdrawal ended almost a decade of war that had become a costly humiliation for the Soviet Union.

Outside a state-owned television shop in Moscow in 1991. Customers had to wait many years for the day when they could visit this store for a prized black-and-white set. For most Russians, liberalization did not bring prosperity.

A long line outside the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union on its opening day in Moscow in 1990.

Soviet troops in Moscow in May 1990.

Soviet mothers who lost their sons in the Red Army holding photographs of their loved ones during a protest in Red Square in 1990.

A Lithuanian woman resting by a fire outside Parliament in Vilnius in 1991, after spending the night guarding the building with other pro-independence citizens. Here, after the Baltic nation declared its independence, civilians did face Soviet tanks.

A Moscow crowd celebrating in 1991 after reports that a coup against Mr. Gorbachev by hard-line Communist Party officials had failed.

Boris Yeltsin, seen here in Moscow in 1991 raising his fist to express solidarity with thousands gathered to pay their respects to the victims of the failed coup, became president of Soviet Russia in 1990 and became the face of opposition to the coup and of more radical liberalization. After Mr. Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mr. Yeltsin became the first president of the new Russian Federation.

Toppling the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police force that became known as the K.G.B., in Moscow in 1991.

Removing a portrait of Lenin in Baku in 1991. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic in 1920.

Bus commuters in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in 1991.

A Russian woman near a vandalized emblem of Communism, the Hammer and Sickle, in Moscow in 1990. The Yeltsin years would bring new freedoms but also economic shock therapy, chaos, corruption and hardship for many ordinary Russians. In 1999, he resigned in favor of Mr. Putin.

Produced by Craig Allen, Mona Boshnaq, Adam Dean, Sarah Eckinger and Mikko Takkunen, with introductory text by Anton Troianovski.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *