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Glossary of Cold War Terms

Remember the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics? Or pen pals Yuri Andropov and Samantha Smith? Even if you do, you’ll want to consult our glossary of terms in order to understand terms like glasnost and what the acronym KGB stands for. Learn more about the Cold War with this glossary of terms.

Image of Cyrillic Text

Image of Cyrillic book, (c) Flickr: Ashley R. Good/Creative Commons


1980 Summer Olympics: The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow in protest of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan. Most Soviet children were evacuated from the city during the Olympics to avoid their having contact with foreigners.

Yuri Andropov: Became general secretary after Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, but died fewer than two years after taking office.

Arms race: Perceiving a need to have more firepower than each other, the United States and USSR began building and stockpiling nuclear weapons after World War II.

Bolsheviks: Communist revolutionaries who led the October Revolution in Russia; the Communist Party would be born from this faction and would go on to establish the Soviet Union, the first socialist state in the world.

Leonid Brezhnev: Became the leader of the USSR after Nikita Khrushchev; in power from 1964 until 1982; his 18-year rule was second in length only to Joseph Stalin's.

Konstantin Chernenko: When Andropov died after a short time in office, Chernenko took over leadership of the USSR. He died one year later.

Cold War: This term, coined by Bernard Baruch, referred to the tense, wary relationship between the communist East and democratic, capitalist West.

Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): A regional organization formed by former Soviet republics; members include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan (associate member) and Ukraine as a founding and participating country but not a legal member; the organization possesses coordinating powers in trade, finance and security.

Communist Party: Political party that grew out of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian revolution, founded the USSR and followed an economic and political system that became known as Marxism-Leninism.

Containment: A U.S. foreign policy meant to prevent communism from spreading outside of the Eastern Bloc states; this policy led to a quadrupling of U.S. defense spending, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.

Détente: Policy adopted by Richard Nixon in 1972 that called for a more relaxed approach toward the Soviet Union to ease the tension from the Cold War; Ronald Reagan would later abandon this policy in favor of a vigorous anti-communist policy.

Eastern Bloc: A group of countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union) that united under the Warsaw Pact, intended to serve as a counterpoint to NATO; also referred to as the countries "behind the Iron Curtain."

February Revolution: Russian revolution that deposed the tsar and the government in place; set up a provisional government that served until the Bolsheviks staged the October Revolution.

First of September or "Day of Knowledge": A national holiday in Russia that marks the first day of the school year and especially the start of education for first graders'. Festive ceremonies and events are held, and one child in each school is chosen to ring a bell to mark the opening of school.

Glasnost: Literally "openness," this policy, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, increased political transparency of Soviet institutions and freedom of information.

Mikhail Gorbachev: 'Leader whose time in office most contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain; adopted the policies of glasnost and perestroika.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF): By signing this treaty, Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Iron Curtain: A term coined by Winston Churchill for the physical, military and ideological barriers that isolated citizens living in the Eastern Bloc and kept them from freely communicating with or traveling to Western nations (members of the NATO alliance).

KGB (Committee for State Security): Established in March 1954, this committee sought to suppress religion, gain foreign intelligence, assist in governing the Soviet Union, suppress internal resistance, protect leaders, ensure economic efficiency, investigate criminal allegations, enforce Soviet morals, punish political criminals, inform leaders and diminish foreign influence and threat, as well as to perform secret operations and lead propaganda efforts.

Nikita Khrushchev: Came to power after the death of Stalin in 1953; began a process of liberalization and denounced Stalin's brutality and abuse of power in his "secret speech" to the 20th Party Congress; ruled until 1964, when Brezhnev had him ousted.

Komsomol: Youth organization for older children; anyone who was not a member had difficulty getting into university or obtaining a good job.

Vladimir Lenin: Leader of the Bolsheviks during the revolution; established the Soviet Union and was the first leader of the USSR Communist Party; his model of communism would become known as Marxism-Leninism.

Dmitry Medvedev: The current president of the Russian federation.

October Revolution: Uprising that saw the Bolsheviks capture government buildings; in retrospect, after the Communist Party was formed and the USSR created, recognized as the moment when Bolshevik power solidified.

Octobrists: Youth group for the youngest children in the USSR.

Perestroika: Literally "reconstruction" or "rebuilding." Series of political and economic reforms adopted by Gorbachev that moved the country away from centralized state control. Established that multiple candidates could run for office (though all were Communist Party candidates) and legalized private ownership of businesses. The policy backfired and led to a food shortage, but it also became a vehicle for citizens to criticize their country and examine their theretofore unacknowledged history.

Pioneers: Soviet youth organization for kids in middle grades; members wore iconic red neck scarves.

Politburo: Executive committee of the 'Communist Party in the USSR and the body that selected the general secretary of the Communist Party.

Vladimir Putin: The second president of the Russian federation and the current prime minister.

Samantha Smith: Young American girl who toured Russia and visited a Pioneer camp after she wrote a letter to Andropov asking if he was going to start a nuclear war; she was dubbed the United States' "youngest ambassador."

Joseph Stalin: Dictator of the Soviet Union from Lenin''s death until 1953; Stalin drove out Leon Trotsky and other people he perceived as part of the "old party" system and instated a plan of massive economic growth to position the USSR as a superpower, but his brutality ran counter to the ideals of the Communist Party and would lead communism to be associated with cruelty and oppression.

Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT): SALT I, signed by Nixon and Brezhnev, prohibited the manufacturing of nuclear missiles in order to reduce the threat of nuclear war. SALT II was signed by Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev and sought to limit strategic launchers on both sides. The treaty was never formally ratified, and Reagan officially withdrew from SALT II, claiming that the Soviet Union had violated the terms of the treaty.

Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START): START I, signed by Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, further reduced arsenals and helped ease tensions raised as part of the arms race during the Cold War. START II, signed by Bush and Boris Yeltsin, banned the use of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Leon Trotsky: A pivotal figure in the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky was expected to succeed Lenin. When Stalin took power, he exiled Trotsky, who was then murdered in 1940.

USSR: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics originally was comprised of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Transcaucasian Federation (which was divided in 1936 into the Georgian, Azerbaijan and Armenian republics) and eventually grew to encompass 15 republics: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Warsaw Pact: The USSR''s response to the NATO treaty established a defense-friendship alliance between Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany,Hungary, Poland, Romania and the USSR.





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My Perestroika gives you a privileged sense of learning the history of a place not from a book but from the people who lived it. Watching it is a little like attending a party in an unfamiliar city and discovering the place's secrets from the guests.”

— Stephen Holden,
The New York Times

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