Useful Terms

Russian Dictatorships: Key Terms and Vocabulary

Here is a list of key terms and vocabulary that you will encounter throughout your course. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the list because you will learn these terms as you go along. However, this may be useful for revision purposes or as a reference when you do some wider reading or write practice essays. Many of these terms are essential for your exams but there are others that will just be helpful to know. Although they are sorted into categories, some terms will span a number of themes in the course for, as you will, see there are some suspicious similarities between the Tsars and the Commissars!

Under the Tsars


– a form of government where one person rules with unlimited authority.


–  a “Caesar” or King. The Tsarist regime in Russia lasted from 1547-1917.


– The family name of the Tsarist dynasty from 1613-1917.


– to resist change.

Divine Right of Kings

– as the embodiment of God on Earth, the Tsar’s will should be unrestrained by laws or bureaucracy and he should be left to country according to his own consciousness of duty and right.


– a labourer not allowed to leave the land where he works. Do not use the term slave as interchangable..


– under Alexander III, a policy of forcing non-Russian communities to adopt Russian culture.


– a proclamation of the Tsar, government or religious leader. The tsar’s word was law. After 1917 these were commonly known as decrees.


Mir/ Obschina

– peasant land communes. The Mir (a “world”) was the name given to the peasant community. Collective decisions about land use were made by the peasant elders who were also responsible for the community’s redemption payments and obligations to the state.


– the state Duma was the elected lower house of the Russian parliament from 1906-17.


– elected assembly of local government dominated by the gentry at the provincial and district level (1864-1917).  They were an unintentional lateral reform from the Emancipation Edict.

The Russian Orthodox Church

– the dominant state religion under the Tsars. A strict adherent of Tsarist values, it was a strong element of repression over the masses. Hans Rogger calls it one of the three “props” of tsarist system (the others were the landlords and the army).


– giving up (the throne) voluntarily.

 Third Section

– a small organisation of secret police created in 1825 by Alexander I. Replaced by the Okhrana in 1880s.


– the secret police under Alexander III and Nicholas II.


Under the Communists


– Where one ruler and party, often unelected, has complete control of all aspects of public life. The term usually infers an ideological aspect to governance (in our case Marxism-Leninism).


– Bureaucrats of Soviet Russia who held great power. Hence the title of Oxley’s text “From Tsars to Commissars.”


– Council of the workers. The term is used in different ways in the Communist period of the course.

War Communism

– the combination of policies the Bolsheviks introduced to meet the needs of the Civil War was retrospectively labeled a “War”.


– Soviet secret police under Lenin 1917-22; the Cheka’s full title was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. It would then be known as the OGPU until it expanded and became the NKVD in 1934.

NEP (New Economic Policy)

– Introduced by Lenin in 1921, it replaced War Communism by allowing private trade amongst peasants. Ownership of small industrial businesses was also allowed. It was seen as a betrayal of the revolution by hard-line communists but it was a necessary short term solution to appease a riotous countryside and stimulate the economy after the Civil War. As Lenin himself stated, it was “one step backwards, for two steps forward.”


-a term (of abuse originally – like Puritan in our Elizabethan course) derived from the word a “fist”. Kulaks were originally those wealthier than the average peasant because they owned small pieces of land or produced enough to sell for profit or hire labour. Under Lenin these men were sometimes known as NEPmen. Stalin would later use the term to describe any peasants who resisted his drive for collectivisation in the countryside.


– Also known as the “Ural-Siberian method”, this was Stalin’s quest to have the Kulaks ˜liquidated as a class” and their property seized by the state. As many as 25 million Kulaks were bludgeoned into new collective farms while others were deported or executed. It was the first purge of Stalin’s rule.

Planned/ Command economy

– where the state controls industry, deciding which goods and services are a priority. Planners decide what should be produced and direct lower-level enterprises to manufacture those goods in accordance with national and social objectives.


– a collective farm

 Five Year Plans

– Stalin’s economic revolution. In agriculture, the NEP was replaced by Collectivisation. In industry, huge production targets were assigned to factories, mines and construction sites. Private companies vanished. Force was used on an unmitigated scale; kulaks were extinguished, managers persecuted and the great terror began throughout society. This was a means of modernising the country quickly.


– meaning “truth”, this was the central party newspaper of the Bolsheviks. When they were in power, it would become a key vehicle for propaganda and selling the quest for a ˜communist utopia”.


– Under Stalin, an honour given to the most productive workers that could lead to material reward after the miner who increased his productivity greatly. Stakhanovites were often resented by other workers.


– A city with considerable iron and steel production, east of Moscow. It has significance because it was built from scratch during the 1930s at an incredible pace, with the use of voluntary and forced labour. The bleak, industrial city therefore symbolic of Stalinist modernisation at all costs.

Cult of personality

– similar to hero worship but facilitated by mass media. Propaganda was developed rapidly throughout the early years of the Soviet Unionand it was used particularly to foster the image of Stalin as an admirable father figure.


– to rid an organisation or party of unacceptable or undesirable members. It is a general term but is associated closely with the Great Terror, where there were mass sackings and executions, instigated by Stalin, throughout the Communist party and society as whole.

Show Trial

– a highly public trial where dependents have very little opportunity to justify themselves as the verdict has been decided in advance. They are held for appearances sake and to act as a warning to the rest of the public. Famous during Stalin’s purge of the party.


– to inform against or accuse publicly. It was common during Stalin’s Great Terror for rivals to denounce each other as ˜saboteurs” or ˜wreckers”. The victim could then be punished for supposedly being hostile to the regime and attempting to hinder its progress.


– from 1930 onwards this was the popular term for the Soviet labour camp system in general. Labour camps did exist before 1930 but on a much smaller scale.

The Soviet Government

USSR- Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Central Committee

– CC, the party’s governing body between congresses, though in practice the politburo came to dominate all other institutions in government.


– small body at the top of government making key political decisions.


– or ˜Third International”, the organisation of foreign communist parties based in the USSR.


– Young Communist League. The party’s youth wing, and good evidence of the totalitarian state..


– responsible for state industry.

Marx and Lenin


– a theory or system in which all property is owned by all of the people equally, with its administration vested by them in the state or in the community.

The Communist Manifesto

– written by Marx and Engels in 1848, their work is an analysis of the inequality in society caused by capitalism. It lays out a program for an alternative structure in society called ˜communism”, and famously states “we have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.”  


– the term given to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism for Russia. It focused on a dictatorship of the proletariat, the use of terror to achieve revolution, hierarchy, discipline and centralism and the inevitability of world communist revolution. The key text here is the April Theses


– the urban working class.

The Bourgeoisie

– the capitalist middle class.

Other terms you may encounter

The Russian Civil War

-from 1917-1921, the Bolsheviks succeeded in defending their regime by defeating the “Whites”, who were a disparate selection of small armies fighting for those who were against the revolution. These included old loyalists of the Tsarist regime, minority nationalities within the Russian Empire and forces from other, capitalist nations.

The Great Patriotic War

– the Soviet term for the war between the USSRand Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Due to the catastrophic destruction and loss of human life endured their victory gave the Russian people an immense sense of pride that still exists to this day. McCauley estimates that 70,000 villages and 19% of the pre-war Soviet population were lost in the fight against Nazi Germany.


– a theory or system in which property and investment in business; are owned and controlled by individuals directly or through ownership of shares in companies.


– the disposition to retain what is established and to practice a policy of gradualism rather than abrupt change. The rejection of new ideas.


– a social and political philosophy asserting the equality of all men, especially in their access to the rights and privileges of their society.


– absolute, central control over citizens. Mussolini first used the term (incorrectly) about Fascist Italy, stating that it meant “everything within the state; nothing outside it.”


– A small, educated group in Russian society with largely hostile views to regimes before and after the revolution.


– an agricultural worker. Not be confused with the proletariat, who are specifically the urban working classes. The peasants make up the majority of Russiapopulation until Stalin’s rapid industrialisation (and thus urbanisation) in the 1930s.


– someone working in the administrative apparatus of the party-state.


– key party members or generally key members of any organisation.


– attacks on technical specialists, engineers and managers by disgruntled workers.


– a work group in a kolkhoz or factory.

Former people

– a term used during the 1920s and 1930s to describe the remaining remnants of social classes from the tsarist regime who here considered hostile or unwelcome to the new regime.

One Response to Useful Terms

  1. Michael says:

    These terms will be very useful.

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