Soviet Union

See also: European history

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991. Many, but not all, of the former Soviet republics are now part of a looser union called the Commonwealth of Independent States. At over 22 million km2 (8.5 million mi2), it was by far the largest state on Earth during its existence, covering more than one sixth of the planet's land area.

Many traces of this superpower can be seen today, and many of its former citizens have strong feelings for as well as against it.


People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. Vladimir Putin


See Russian Empire and World War I for background.

The Russian Revolution was actually three events: the revolution of 1905 led to limited reforms and the one in February 1917 replaced the czarist monarchy with a tenuous "dual government" of the elected Duma and the workers-councils (called "Soviet" in Russian). However, it was the 1917 October Revolution that brought the Bolshevik Party to power, led by Vladimir Lenin. The people of the imperial capital Petrograd (St Petersburg) were weary of the government's involvement in World War I, and an early decision of the Bolshevik government was a truce with the Central Powers, led by Germany. Both the remnants of the czarist and the "bourgeois" provisional regime were quickly wiped out (including the execution of the czar his wife and children), but this met with resistance which led to a civil war.

The Russian Soviet Republic was attacked by the Whites; an alliance of counter-revolutionaries (of all shades from moderate leftist social revolutionaries to czarists and ultra-nationalists) and foreign armies. This war was called the Russian Civil War. Finland and the Baltic States became independent during the war, but Belarus, Ukraine and other republics joined the Soviet Union. Lenin died in 1924, and was seceded by Joseph Stalin, who enforced five-year plans for industrialization and collectivization of farms, followed by starvation, especially in Ukraine.

World War 2

The people of the Soviet Union were once again decimated during the second World War. Soviet losses of more than 25 million exceeded the deaths of all other European and American nationals in aggregate. In secret collusion with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and eastern Poland in 1939. The Germans broke the pact in 1941, invaded Soviet territory, and carried out the Holocaust, a campaign to exterminate Jews and other perceived enemies of the Nazi regime. After millions of casualties on both sides, the Soviet Army held back the invasion at Leningrad (now renamed St Petersburg), Moscow, and Stalingrad (Volgograd today), turned the tide of the war, and managed to capture much of Central Europe and the Balkans.

Cold War

See also: Cold War Europe

As the war ended in 1945, the Soviet Union became a superpower, controlling most of Eastern Europe: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were Soviet satellite states. The following decades were called the Cold War, where the Soviet Union competed against the United States and their allies in a nuclear arms race and the Space Race. The Soviets were successful, launching the first satellite into orbit in 1957, and the first man in space in 1961. Later the United States and its western allies got the upper hand, sending a manned expedition to the Moon in 1969, and following it up with a total of 12 people landing on the moon until 1972. As a result the Soviet Union scrapped their moon program and focused on their (hugely successful) space stations instead, claiming that had always been their intention all along.

The Soviet Union stagnated during the 1970s, and became unstable during the 1980s. The failed war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reform programs, as well as dwindling prices of oil and other raw materials (which make up much of the Soviet economy) brought a wave of revolutions in Soviet satellite states from 1989. During 1991, the Soviet Republics seceded from the Union one after another, marking the end of the Soviet Union.

Countries and territories

The Soviet Union consisted of fifteen Soviet Republics, which are now independent countries. More than two decades since the Soviet Union broke up, many conflicts in the region remain unresolved, and there are four, largely unrecognized, de facto independent states, shown in italics below.

Post-Soviet states in English alphabetical order:
1. Armenia; 2. Azerbaijan; 3. Belarus; 4. Estonia; 5. Georgia; 6. Kazakhstan; 7. Kyrgyzstan; 8. Latvia; 9. Lithuania; 10. Moldova; 11. Russia; 12. Tajikistan; 13. Turkmenistan; 14. Ukraine; 15. Uzbekistan


Russia was the dominant republic of the Soviet Union, and its natural successor, with half of its population, and most of its land area. Russia itself is, and was, a federation of sub-national republics and oblasts (counties), many of them with other mother tongues than Russian. However, power has always been centralized to Moscow ever since the government moved back from St Petersburg in 1924. There are more or less violent secessionist movements within Russia, especially in Chechnya in the North Caucasus.


With close cultural ties to Russia, Belarus has mostly been Moscow's closest ally. It is led today by Alexander Lukashenko, a man considered to be Europe's last dictator.


Kiev was the capital of the Rus nation, considered the predecessor of Russia. However, Ukrainian relationships with Muscovy (which later became Russia) have been tense for centuries. Ukraine was tried hard during the Soviet era; devastated by two World Wars and the Holodomor starvation campaign during the 1930s, though being Europe's most fertile farmland, followed by the Holocaust during German occupation. Perhaps the most far-reaching Soviet legacy can be observed in the exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear plant at Chernobyl, infamous for the 1986 meltdown. Since 2014, Russia has grabbed the Crimea and supported an armed insurrection in Eastern Ukraine.

Baltic states

Abandoned military buildings in Paldiski, formerly a major Soviet navy base

The Baltic states belonged to the Tsarist Russian Empire, but after the revolution then enjoyed independence until World War 2, when they were invaded three times; by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Nazi Germany in 1941, and again by the Soviet Union in 1944-45. They maintained a strong national identity throughout the Soviet era, with a resistance movement against the Soviet occupation named Forest Brothers going on for decades, and were the first Soviet republics to break away, staying outside the CIS. Today they are European Union and NATO members, and more integrated with Western Europe than any other ex-Soviet countries. Relationships with Russia, and with their domestic, Russian-speaking minorities, are tense, especially since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis.

Central Asia

This region was taken by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century, despite fierce resistance. There was considerable immigration of ethnic Russians (some of whom left after independence) and the Russian language is widespread, but the local languages, culture and Islamic religion are alive and vigorous.


Due in part to its difficult geography, the Caucasus has always been ethnically diverse and the Soviet policy of relocating big groups of people (sometimes forced, sometimes voluntarily) has exacerbated some of the ethnic conflicts some of the countries deal with to this day. There is also a rather tense locally bipolar situation with Turkey on the one hand and Russia on the other fighting for control and being mistrusted for past events (notably the Armenian genocide in 1915 and the Russian atrocities under Stalin) in the region.



Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. Most people born before 1980 have studied Russian at school, and many countries have a Russian-speaking minority. However, most ex-Soviet countries have a complicated relationship with Russia, and the domestic Russian-speaking minority.

Even in Russia itself, many ethnic groups have a mother tongue other than Russian.

See also

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