With all the talk about Vladimir Putin trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union, it is only fitting that this effort to reverse engineer history comes from Russia. Many believe Russia was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union was Russia. Those who confuse the two are both right and wrong. It is difficult to distinguish between the two entities. Perhaps it is best to say that without Russia there would have been no Soviet Union. There still could have been a Soviet Union without a Ukraine or Belarus, the Baltics or Central Asian republics, but it would have been inconceivable without Russia. Even so, the Soviet Union beyond Russia was incredibly diverse and difficult to stereotype. The people and lands of these regions were integral to the Soviet state, so much so that they eventually helped bring this first communist empire to its knees.
A Soviet Jigsaw Puzzle
The Soviet Union was a multi-cultural state whose dominant majority was Russian, but it included a withering array of ethnic groups. This is to be expected from a nation that covered a large part of the Eurasian land mass, extending across eight different time zones. Most of these minorities lived in what were known as the Soviet Republics, though not all. For example, the Chechens, a Turkic people of Muslim faith, lived in the Russian part of the Soviet state.
Thus, even though the Russian Federative Soviet Republic (RFSR) contained 51% of the Soviet Union’s population, some of the 147 million people living in that republic were not ethnically Russian. To further confuse matters, there were no less than twenty-six Autonomous Republics at one time or another within the RFSR. One of the more significant achievements of the Soviet state was keeping all these disparate republics united under a single entity. This was mainly done through a highly centralized state utilizing violence and fear. Though this bonded the state together for a time, it turned out to be unsustainable in the long run. Nowhere was this truer than in the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.
Russia as the Soviet Union – A Geo-Political Oxymoron
Violence and fear could only go so far when it came to the fourteen other republics that made up almost half the Soviet Union. The majority ethnic groups in these republics were almost never Russian (Belarus being a notable exception), but their leadership largely was. For instance, future Soviet premiers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev cut their political teeth running the Ukrainian and Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither belonged to the majority ethnic group in the republic they were leading. Then again, Josef Stalin was a Georgian leading a majority ethnic Russian state. This shows that Russia as a pseudonym for the Soviet Union was always something of an oxymoron.
The fourteen other republics of the Soviet Union – besides Russia – made up 49% of the population. Some of these contained large ethnic Russian populations who were transplanted into the Baltic and Central Asian republics to Russify the population and counter balance nationalistic sentiments. One of the republics where this policy played a prominent role was Latvia. Prior to its incorporation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Latvians made up three-quarters of the population. By the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Latvians were a bare majority in their own land.
Little Lithuania Shatters the Soviet State
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were the smallest of the Soviet republics and the last to be incorporated in the Soviet Union. One of them, Lithuania, started the chain of events which brought the Soviet system to its knees. Following the liberalizing reforms of the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980’s, an anti-Communist independence movement was voted to power in the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania. In March of 1990, the representatives of this movement voted to re-establish the state of Lithuania. This was nothing more than a declaration of independence. The Soviet Union, led by Gorbachev, declared the Lithuanian’s actions illegal.
A Soviet economic blockade and sporadic violence followed. Nonetheless, this failed to halt the Lithuanian movement towards freedom and democracy. The Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in September 1991. Tiny Lithuania had set the precedent, other republics soon followed. By the end of that same year the Soviet Union had vanished. 15 republics became 15 different nations. The map of Eastern Europe and Central Asia would soon be re-drawn. New lines cut across ethnic and geographical fault lines. A geo-political Pandora’s box had been opened. The yearning for freedom shattered the Soviet state into fifteen uneasy pieces.
The Dustbin of History – The Future of the Soviet Past
The gigantic Soviet state, the largest nation in the world at the time and one of the biggest empires in human history, was brought down by one of its smallest members. The big, bad empire had been felled by the forces of nationalism and democracy. There was nothing the Russians could do, because at the time they wanted the same thing. Only later would nostalgia grow for the Soviet Union. The nostalgia has mostly been a creation of Putin-led Russia. It is notable that despite the fact that Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, not one of the 14 former Soviet republics which became nation states has united with Russia. Nostalgia is not the quite the same as reality.
The differences between the Soviet Republics were much greater than their similarities. What would a Turkmenistani have in common with a Russian, let alone an Estonian? Would Moldovans have any interest in Kirghiz affairs? The dissimilarities were, as they still are today, seemingly endless. The fact that the Soviet Union existed as long as it did shows the unifying power of the Communist ideology. Once Communism lost its allure the Soviet Union was no longer able to defy logic. The Soviet state was relegated to the dustbin of history. It is likely to remain there.