- 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
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; his eventual successor Joseph Stalin enforced five-year plans for industrialization and collectivization of farms which were followed by starvation, most infamously the Holodomor 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.
- 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, Yugoslavia (which went neutral in 1949), 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; 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 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.
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.
- Crimea (including the Federal City of Sevastopol) is disputed between Russia and Ukraine, but since 2014 de facto controlled by Russia. Since Soviet times, the majority population is Russian, and the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based here.
- Kaliningrad Oblast is a Russian exclave in Central Europe. At the end of World War II, Russian SFSR annexed the northern part of German province 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, 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. In spite of vast natural resources, Ukraine remains one of Europe's poorest countries. While the current Ukrainan 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, Russia has grabbed the Crimea and supported an armed insurrection in Eastern Ukraine.
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.
- Estonia. Due to its strategic location on the Gulf of Finland, parts of the country are littered with various abandoned Soviet military installments. Estonian is closely related to Finnish and during the Cold War many Estonians would tune 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, Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to proclaim (or rather, "restore", according to the Lithuanian view) its independence from the Union.
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.
- Kazakhstan: 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, which resulted in enormous dust storms), the draining of the Aral Sea, the cosmodrome in Baikonur which launched Gagarin onto the orbit, and a site the size of Wales that many of the test of the Soviet nuclear programme was carried out, this is the most prosperous nation in the 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 factions every now and then, although things rarely rise to the level of posing safety risks for the average traveller. Despite having the most liberal visa regime in Central Asia (the only country in the region that doesn't require a visa from most Western passport holders, for example), independent travel is still something of an adventure in the country.
- Tajikistan: A mountainous backwater and the poorest part of the Union, Tajikistan is plagued by civil war (that is characterized by clan loyalties that even the Soviets were not able to suppress) and remains one of the world's poorest nations.
- Turkmenistan: The bizarre cult of personality around (now deceased) president for life and "father of all Turkmens" Turkmenbashi may remind you of Stalinism, the book 1984 or the portrayal of some fictitious banana republic.
- 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. 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.
- Azerbaijan: Relations with Armenia are tense, but relations with Turkey tend to be cordial.
- Georgia : The birthplace of Stalin is now one of the more anti-Russian (and arguably pro-Western) countries in the region, which might have played a role when Russia supported the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia 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, you have to make the Russian border guards believe that you have a very good reason to visit this region to get in (and good luck with that).
- Moldova: the majority population is culturally and linguistically similar to Romania, but it has important Russophone and Turkic minorities. This 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.
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.