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Glossary of Terms (U3)

Modern History (Year 12) - Overview of Russia

Ben Whitten

Throughout this course, there will be many terms and definition that you will have to familiarise yourself with; feel free to refer to this glossary at any point to clear up any confusion when learning the content.

Political Terms

  • Autocracy: A system of government where all power is concentrated in the hands of one person.

  • Decree: An order that acts as law.

  • Dual Power: The system of government in Russia between February and October 1917. Power was shared between the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government.

  • Duma: An elected parliament introduced in Russia after the 1905 Revolution.

  • Mutiny: A rebellion against those in charge, often in the army or navy.

  • Tsar: The leader of pre-1917 Russia, roughly equivalent to ‘emperor’.

Class Terms

  • Bourgeoisie: The wealthy class in a given society. In Russia, the bourgeoisie was a group of wealthy elites who represented a tiny proportion of the population. They were considered the “oppressors”.

  • Peasant: An agricultural worker in pre-industrial societies. In Russia, peasants made up 82% of the population, scattered across the countryside.

  • Proletariat: The working class in a given society. In Russia, the proletariat was made up of the peasants and the workers. They were considered the “oppressed”.

  • Serfdom: The status of many peasants under the feudal system. Serfs were essentially slaves but were bound to a particular plot of land.

  • Soviet: Political organisations aimed at supporting the interests of workers and soldiers.

  • Trade Union: An organisation of workers who aim to promote and protect labour rights.

Important Concepts

  • Capitalism: Capitalism is an economic ideology based on the idea of private enterprise, meaning that:

    • Goods and services are privately owned.

    • People make money by selling them.

    • They then spend this money, reinjecting money into the economy and creating more wealth.

  • The problem? Capitalism entrenches class differences because the idea of 'trickle down economics' doesn’t really work.

  • Communism: The economic and political ideology of the USSR, adopted in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In theory, communism is about breaking down class structures and working together for the greater good. You might have heard Marx’s famous quote:

  • [...] from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

  • In a communist state, everything is publicly owned and power rests with the people of the working class.

  • Communist Dictatorship: Under Stalin, the USSR was effectively a communist dictatorship. This meant that:

    • Social, cultural and political rights were limited.

    • The Communist Party was the only political party, making it impossible to challenge its authority.

    • The state owned all agriculture and industry, so people could not create wealth easily.

  • Ideology: A set of ideas that forms the foundation of a theory, policy or system. See: communism and capitalism.

  • Imperialism: The policy or practice of a nation extending their power and influence beyond their own borders through the taking of territory and imposition of control.

  • Marxism: The political and economic theories developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorised history as a series of stages that would culminate in communism.

  • Patriotism: A high level of devotion to and love for one’s nation.

  • Self-determination: The right of a country or group to shape its own political future.

  • Social Atomisation: A process in which the whole of society is broken down into the smallest possible unit—the individual.

  • Totalitarianism: A system of government where the state has total power and authority over its people.

Bolshevik Government

  • Red Guard: The Bolshevik militia that was instrumental to the success of the October Revolution.

  • Russian Communist Party: The supreme governing body in post-revolutionary Russia. Formerly the Bolshevik Party, the Russian Communist Party was originally led by Lenin.

  • Commissar: An official of the Russian Communist Party, usually charged with a certain set of duties (e.g. Commissar for War, Commissar for Foreign Affairs).

  • Politburo: The committee that ran the Communist Party. It became known as the highest institution in the USSR.

  • Pravda: The Bolshevik newspaper. Pravda became the official paper of the Russian Communist Party.

  • Red Terror: The activities of the Cheka during the Civil War, specifically Bolshevik-authorised executions, violence, intimidation and arrests.

  • Revolutionary Justice: The violent and arbitrary system of justice under the Bolsheviks, carried out under the guise of protecting the revolution. People were tried and arrested without concrete proof and could be executed for being an “enemy of the people”.

  • SOVNARKOM: Also known as the Council of People’s Commissars, the SOVNARKOM was the highest body in the government of the USSR.

  • Zhenotdel: The women’s department of the Russian Communist Party, disbanded by Stalin in 1930.

Important Groups

Political Parties

  • Kadets (Constitutional Democrats): A liberal political party pushing for a Constitutional Monarchy.

  • Liberals: Inspired by the development of constitutional governments across Europe, liberals wanted to give more political power to the middle class, challenging the Tsar’s autocratic system.

  • Populists (Narodniks): Intellectual elites who wanted to appeal to people who felt ignored or forgotten by the ruling class. They wanted to ‘go to the people’ to challenge the Tsar’s exclusive right to power.

  • Social Democrats: A party made up of industrial workers who supported Marxist ideology. They wanted the Tsar out of power and all power to the people of Russia. In 1903, the group split into the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks because of an ideological disagreement.

  • Social Revolutionaries: A political party that blended populist and Marxist ideology, advocating for an overthrow of the Tsar’s government and a concentration of power in the hands of the peasants.

The Secret Police

  • Okhrana: The secret police of the Tsar.

  • Cheka: The Bolshevik secret police force from 1917 to 1923. Also known as the Extraordinary Commission against Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Speculation.

  • OGPU: The secret police force from 1923 to 1934. Stands for the Joint State Political Directorate under the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR.

  • NKVD: The secret police from 1934 to 1946. Also known as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, it was responsible for enforcing Stalin’s Great Terror.

  • Armies in the Civil War

  • Green Army: An unofficial and poorly organised army of peasants who fought to defend their lands and livelihoods during the Russian Civil War.

  • Red Army: The Bolshevik Army during the Russian Civil War. A strong fighting force led by Leon Trotsky and made up of former members of the Red Guard, volunteer workers and peasants, ex-Tsarist officers and Kronstadt sailors.

  • White Army: The anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War. It comprised rival political parties (such as the Social Revolutionaries), monarchists, liberals, national separatists and international forces.

Other Groups

  • Apparatchik: Party bureaucrats who emerged as a separate social class under Stalin.

  • Black Hundreds: A staunch nationalist group in Russia who supported the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and a continuation of autocracy in Russia.

  • Komsomol: The youth division of the Russian Communist Party, created in 1918 and known officially as the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League.

  • League of Militant Atheists: A strongly anti-religious organisation in the USSR.

  • Nepmen: Small-time capitalists, middlemen and private traders who were products of the New Economic Policy.

  • Octobrists: Russian officials who supported the reforms mapped out in the October Manifesto of 1905.

  • Petrograd Soviet: A workers’ and soldiers’ council made up of elected representatives who served the interests of Petrograd’s soldiers and workers.

  • Provisional Government: A temporary civilian government led first by Prince Georgy Lvov then Alexander Kerensky.


  • Grain Requisitioning: The practice of forcibly taking grain from peasants. This was common practice during the Russian Civil War (under the policy of War Communism) and during collectivisation.

  • New Economic Policy (NEP): A set of reforms designed to rescue the Russian economy after the Civil War. Introduced in March 1921, the NEP allowed for a controlled return to capitalist practices while the Bolsheviks retained control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy.

  • Order No. 1: An order issued after the 1917 February Revolution giving the Petrograd Soviet control over the city's armed forces.

  • Russification: A policy used by both the Tsar and Stalin where all national minorities were expected to speak Russian and identify with Russian values. Tsar Nicholas II also forced all minorities to adhere to the Russian Orthodox Church.

  • Socialism in One Country: An idea put forward by Stalin that aimed to consolidate socialism within the USSR.

  • State Capitalism: An early Bolshevik policy that gave peasants and workers permission to seize land and factories.

  • War Communism: The economic policies introduced by the Bolshevik Party from the spring of 1918, all the way up until 1921. These reforms were designed to bring the economy, and the country in general, under tighter Bolshevik control, effectively creating a one-party state.

The USSR under Stalin

Modernisation of the Soviet Economy

  • Centrally Planned Economy: An economy that is controlled and shaped by the state.

  • Collectivisation: The creation of large state-run or collectively-run farms that were forced to produce grain for urban populations.

  • Five Year Plans: A series of economic plans introduced between 1928 and 1941 that directed the modernisation and development of the Soviet economy.

  • Gosplan: The State Planning Committee. Responsible for creating and overseeing the Five Year Plans.

  • Industrialisation: The transformation of a society so that manual labour is replaced by factories, machines and industry.

  • Modernisation: The movements towards a developed, industrial society.

  • Prestige Project: Massive building works designed to show-off the USSR’s industrial prowess on the world stage.

  • Urbanisation: The movement of rural populations into urban areas, like cities.


  • Censorship: Suppressing or controlling information about a particular subject.

  • Cult of personality: A system which seeks to portray a leader as legendary and heroic.

  • Official Culture: State-approved culture in the USSR. The art, music, and general way of life that supported Stalin and his vision for the Soviet Union.

  • Propaganda: Information deliberately designed to convince people of a certain point of view.

  • Social Realism: An artistic trend common in the early years of Bolshevik rule where Russian artists sought to challenge the oppressive features of Tsarism.

  • Socialist Realism: The official artistic style in the USSR from the 1930s onwards. Artists were only permitted to paint, draw or sculpt happy and optimistic depictions of Soviet life that emphasised the successes of socialism.

The Great Terror

  • Gulag: A forced labour camp (usually located in isolated rural areas) used to punish political prisoners.

  • Purge: The systematic removal of anyone viewed as a ‘threat’ from various elements of Soviet society.

  • Show trial: A carefully staged public trial where suspects were forced to confess to crimes that they usually hadn’t committed. Stalin used show trials to weed out real and imagined enemies of his regime.

  • Yezhovshchina: Another name for the Great Terror, stemming from the leader of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov. This was a bloody period of Soviet history beginning in 1937. It was defined by the fear, tension, violence and suspicion that existed when Joseph Stalin was at the height of his power.

Foreign Affairs

  • Appeasement: A foreign policy whereby one country makes concessions to another to avoid conflict.

  • Collective Security: An agreement that several different countries will act to protect each other's security.

  • Comintern: The Communist International. A global organisation designed to promote communism outside the USSR. It was created in 1919 and dissolved in 1943.

  • Grand Alliance: An alliance between the UK, USA and USSR. These nations worked together in WWII to defeat their common enemy, Germany.

  • Great Patriotic War: The Soviet name for World War II.

  • Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact: A treaty signed between Germany and the USSR in 1939, guaranteeing that neither Russia nor Germany would intervene if the other found itself at war.

  • Operation Barbarossa: The German invasion of the USSR in June 1941.

  • Sphere of Influence: A group of countries that are sympathetic to a given political ideology, especially communism.

  • Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: The treaty signed between Russia and Germany that secured Russia’s early withdrawal from WWI. The treaty was signed in March 1918 and had a huge impact on Russia’s population, land, industry and economy.

  • Treaty of Rapallo: A friendship treaty signed between Russia and Germany in 1922. It included the promise of economic cooperation, restoration of diplomatic relations, cancellation of all reparations and the granting of “most-favoured nation” status to Russia.

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