- 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. One of its successor states, Russia, is still the world's largest at about 15 million km2.
Many traces of this superpower can be seen today, and many of its former citizens have strong feelings for as well as against it.
From the end of World War II in 1945 to its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union was a global superpower, and the main geopolitical rival to the United States. See Cold War Europe for sites related to that competition.
|“||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.||”|
The Russian Revolution was actually three events: the revolution of 1905, which led to limited reforms, was replaced by a tenuous "dual government" of the elected Duma and the workers' councils (called "Soviets" in Russian) in February 1917. 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; his eventual successor, Joseph Stalin, enforced five-year plans for industrialization and collectivization of farms which were followed by famine, especially in Ukraine where it's known as the Holodomor.
World War II
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 invasions in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Moscow, and the infamously bloody battle at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). This turned the tide of the war, and the Soviets managed to liberate much of Central Europe and the Balkans from the Nazis.
As the war ended in 1945, the Soviet Union became a superpower, controlling most of Eastern Europe: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia (which became neutral in 1949), Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Mongolia in Asia were Soviet satellite states. While North Korea, North Vietnam and East Germany came under Soviet influence in opposition to the US-backed South Korea, South Vietnam and West Germany, socialist revolutions following in the wake of the Soviets occurred around parts of the developing world, such as in China, Cuba, Laos, Cambodia, Yemen, Angola and Mozambique. These states were generally aligned with the Soviet Union in international politics, though China would split off from the Soviet sphere of influence in 1961, even aligning with the United States against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
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; a total of 12 Americans landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972. Ultimately the Soviet Union scrapped their moon program and focused on their (hugely successful) space stations, claiming that had been their intention all along. The Soviet Union would also proceed to dominate the Olympics along with the United States, with both nations fighting for bragging rights by topping the medal tables. During the era of official amateurism the Soviet Union dominated even some sports that Western European nations usually excel at due to officially not having professional athletes. In general the Soviets and many of their satellites also engaged in large scale systematic doping.
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) and the increasing penetration of information, culture and propaganda from the West brought a wave of revolutions across the Eastern Bloc from 1989. In 1991, a referendum was held on whether to preserve the Soviet Union. The Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia boycotted the referendum, as they were holding their own independence referendums around the same time. Every other participating republic voted to remain, but despite this the USSR was officially dissolved on December 26 1991.
Although the dismantling of the Soviet Union was widely hailed as a triumph for freedom, democracy and human rights among the Western Allies, the reality on the ground is far more complex. While the Baltic states saw their standards of living rapidly rise to Western European standards after independence, the opposite has largely been true in the other former Soviet republics, and even many parts of Russia, leading to many people being nostalgic for the Soviet era. The fall of the Soviet Union also brought many simmering ethnic conflicts to the surface, resulting in civil wars, ethnic cleansings, genocides, terrorism and disputed borders that have never been resolved — Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh are some of these examples. Similarly, some of the progress made in women's rights and gay rights have been rolled back in some of the former Soviet Republics.
Many of the former Soviet countries continue to be home to large ethnic Russian communities. These communities generally maintain close ties with Russia, resulting in tensions between them and the governments in the more Western-aligned countries.
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.
Russia was the dominant republic of the Soviet Union, and its natural successor, with half of its population, and most of its land area, and the country still has some political and cultural influence on most other ex-Soviet countries. Russia itself is, and was, a federation of sub-national republics and oblasts (counties/provinces), 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. Ethnic Russians tend to be very proud of the military achievements of the Soviet Union and view that era with some degree of nostalgia, and tend to be very fervent supporters of Vladimir Putin as he has pledged to restore the glory days of the former Soviet Union.
- Crimea (including Sevastopol) is disputed between Russia and Ukraine, but since 2014 de facto controlled by Russia. Since Soviet times, the majority population has been Russian, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based here. The peninsula was among the most popular holiday resorts, where any hard-working Soviet citizen would dream of spending time by a voucher paid for by the trade union. In the outskirts of Gurzuf, Artek, the earliest and the most prestigious Young Pioneer camp, is alive and well, although the focus is now on guiding the youth towards self-actualization rather than communist indoctrination.
- Kaliningrad Oblast is a Russian exclave in Central Europe. At the end of World War II, the Russian SFSR annexed the northern part of the German province of East Prussia, with its capital Königsberg, renamed Kaliningrad. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Kaliningrad became isolated from the rest of Russia, bordering Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. While the city is one of the most cosmopolitan in Russia, and the territory is undisputed, the border situation complicates travel to and from neighboring countries, as well as mainland Russia.
With close cultural ties to Russia, Minsk has mostly been Moscow's closest ally. It is led today by Alexander Lukashenko, a man considered to be Europe's last dictator. Many of the aesthetics and values of the Soviet Union still remain alive here.
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 famine during the 1930s, though being Europe's most fertile farmland, followed by the Holocaust during the 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. In spite of vast natural resources, Ukraine remains one of Europe's poorest countries. While the current Ukrainian government has revolted against Russian influence and made steps towards the European Union, much of the population of eastern Ukraine are ethnic Russians, and some of them are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Since 2014, following the toppling of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych by pro-Western opposition protesters, Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea and supported an armed insurrection in Eastern Ukraine.
The three Baltic states became independent in the last year of World War I. The area that today constitutes the Baltic states were previously divided into governorates of the Russian Empire, and the 1917 Russian Revolution had an immense influence on the independence process of the Baltic states. The Baltic states enjoyed independence until World War II, 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 called the 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. They also generally have the highest standards of living among the former Soviet republics, and are the only ones to be recognised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as having successfully advanced to developed country status. Relationships with Russia and with their domestic Russian-speaking minorities are tense, especially since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. All three Baltic states consider their independence to be de jure continuous with the proclamation of independence in 1918.
Since 2015, all three Baltic states have used the euro as their currency.
- Estonia. Due to its strategic location on the Gulf of Finland, parts of the country, e.g. Paldiski and East Estonia, are littered with various abandoned Soviet military and industrial installations. Estonian is closely related to Finnish and during the Cold War many Estonians tuned in to Finnish radio.
- Latvia. The destination of most of the Russian immigration to the Baltics during the Soviet period, almost half of the population of some of the largest Latvian cities, including the capital, Riga, is Russian-speaking.
- Lithuania. The most religious of the trio, where the Soviets couldn't manage to destroy the Hill of Crosses despite several attempts, Catholic Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to regain its independence from the Union.
This region was taken by Imperial 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 vibrant. As a result of the history of atheist Soviet rule, Muslims in Central Asia tend to be more secular and relaxed in their religious observances than those in the Middle East. These countries maintain close ties with Russia, some more so than others.
- Kazakhstan: The largest Central Asian country in terms of land area. Home of the Soviet projects that lead to much alteration of the environment such as the "virgin lands campaign" (which had the natural steppe landscapes ploughed into cereal fields, resulting in enormous dust storms), the draining of the Aral Sea, the cosmodrome in Baikonur which launched Gagarin into orbit and is still used as Russia's space launchpad, and a site the size of Wales where many of the tests of the Soviet nuclear programme were carried out, this is the most prosperous nation in post-Soviet Central Asia, thanks to its large hydrocarbon reserves.
- Kyrgyzstan has a volatile political climate in which the national government changes hands between fiercely contesting pro-Russian and pro-Western European factions every now and then, although things rarely rise to the level of posing safety risks for the average traveller. Despite being the most tourist-friendly country in Central Asia, independent travel is still something of an adventure in the country.
- Tajikistan: A mountainous meeting-point of Persian and Russian influences and the poorest republic of the Union, Tajikistan bears the scars of years of civil war (that is characterized by clan loyalties that even the Russians were not able to suppress) and remains one of the world's poorest nations. Nonetheless, visitors are greeted with characteristic Tajik warmth, and miles of some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet.
- Turkmenistan: The bizarre cult of personality around president for life and "father of all Turkmens" Turkmenbashi (d. 2006) may remind you of Stalinism, the book 1984 or the portrayal of some fictitious banana republic. The current regime has eased up slightly on tourism, but human rights abuses and political repression are still widespread.
- Uzbekistan: Once featured in Soviet tourism posters for its "exotic" Silk Road appeal, Uzbekistan is ruled by an authoritarian government (although in a less peculiar way than neighbouring Turkmenistan) wary of western tourists with a Soviet-style bureaucracy still in place. It has the largest population and second largest economy after Kazakhstan among the Central Asian countries, and is locked in a heated rivalry with its northern neighbour on several fronts including sports. However, as of 2019, travel restrictions are easing and more of the country is opening up to curious tourists. Ironically, the remote desert city of Nukus in western Uzbekistan, far from the main centres of the Soviet policy, was where the painter Igor Savitsky found freedom for his avant-garde art at a time when the deviants from the officially sanctioned socialist realism were condemned as "enemies of the people."
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. The Caucasus is involved in an ongoing conflict between Russia and Turkey, which are both mistrusted for past events (notably the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and the Russian atrocities under Stalin) in the region.
- Armenia: The genocide of 1915 as well as the Armenian diaspora that was one result of this sad event still dictate foreign policy (e.g. strained relations with Turkey) as does the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The most pro-Russia country in the region.
- Azerbaijan: Relations with Armenia are tense, but relations with Turkey tend to be cordial. Anti-Armenian sentiment is so high that entry is banned not only for Armenian citizens, but also for anyone of Armenian descent regardless of country of birth or citizenship.
- Nagorno-Karabakh: Predominantly ethnically Armenian, only accessible via Armenia, de facto independent but internationally considered a part of Azerbaijan, small-scale skirmishes happen frequently between the local forces and the Azerbaijani army in the border zones of this region, where many communities once inhabited by the Azeris are little more than ghost towns.
- Georgia: The birthplace of Stalin is now one of the more anti-Russian (and increasingly pro-Western European) countries in the region since Russia has supported the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including by military intervention in 2008.
- Abkhazia: Although the Russian tourists have started to return to this "Soviet Riviera" in numbers, many towns and resorts in this self-proclaimed republic feature empty and derelict parts due to the ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of the local Georgians carried out during the first Abkhaz-Georgian War that took place in the early 1990s, within the wider context of the Soviet break-up.
- South Ossetia: Sharing the same nation with the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia just to the north, this is now one of the least populated and least accessible "countries" of the former Soviet Union.
- Moldova: the majority population is culturally and linguistically similar to Romania, but it has important Russophone and Turkic minorities. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
- Transnistria is a nation-state with limited recognition, where much of the Soviet aesthetics still survive. The independence movement and continued de facto existence are mostly due to Russian support and the markedly different ethnic makeup from Moldova (large Russian and Ukrainian minorities). Transnistria is or was the seat of most heavy industries in the region.
Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union. Most people born before 1980 have studied Russian in 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. While Ukrainian and Belorussian are mutually intelligible with Russian, most Soviet republics are becoming more linguistically isolated from Russia. In some cases it might make sense to ask in the local language whether someone speaks Russian to try and avoid the tricky relationship many people have to the Russian language and the things it signifies. In areas where anti-Russia sentiment is high such as the Baltic States and Georgia, English has largely supplanted Russian as the main foreign language among the younger generation.
Even in Russia itself, many ethnic groups have a mother tongue other than Russian. Historically speaking, many countries in the region also had German speaking minorities as well as people who spoke it as a second language, but after the Cold War ended almost all ethnic Germans who weren't expelled in the 1940s left the area and language policy has shifted towards English to a large degree with German now hardly taught in schools any more.
- Architecture: Buildings built during the Soviet Union often have a distinct style, and many are still standing today. Spectacular Stalinist architecture can be seen in buildings especially in Moscow, such as Moscow State University. Monolithic concrete apartment blocks are common in smaller cities established or developed during the Soviet Union. Metro stations in larger cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg are also known for their grand architectural styles.
- Monuments: There are countless statues and monuments of Lenin and Stalin around the former USSR, including the huge Lenin head at Ulan-Ude. Monuments in Eastern bloc countries that were not actually part of the Soviet Union tend to be less positive, often memorialising victims of Stalinism, famine or simply displaying Soviet monuments in a more historical context. Notable monuments include the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague, and Memento Park in Budapest.
- Stalin's hometown of Gori contains a museum dedicated to him, and a few other notable sights relating to the (in)famous Georgian leader.
- Gulags: These Stalin-era forced labor camps were common across the USSR, but most closed in the 1950's onwards. Dneprovsky Mine in the far east of Russia is a well preserved gulag open to visitors as a museum. There is also the more accessible State Gulag Museum in Moscow.
- Transnistria: This tiny unrecognised republic has an ethnic Russian plurality, and never really gave up its Soviet roots. Cold War-era propaganda posters, images of Stalin and Lenin and pro-Russian sentiment are all more common here than other post-Soviet states.
- Soviet chic: Many bars, cafes and hotels either never changed, or have adopted Soviet-style decorations to appeal to communist nostalgia and tourists.
- To go by rail from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway would be an obvious proposition. The Baikal Amur Mainline — built in Soviet times as a "backup" of the Transsiberian, which lies uncomfortably close to China from the point of view of Moscow is a less obvious activity, with a lot of Soviet flair. Truly hardy adventurous travellers may consider quests like Kolyma Highway and Sakhalin Island.