Republics of the Soviet Union

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Coat of arms of the Soviet Union.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the Soviet Union

The Republics of the Soviet Union or the Union Republics (Russian: союзные республики, soyuznye respubliki) of the Soviet Union were ethnically based administrative units that were subordinated directly to the Government of the Soviet Union.[1] For most of its history, the Soviet Union was a highly centralized state; the decentralization reforms during the era of Perestroika ("Restructuring") and Glasnost ("Openness") conducted by Mikhail Gorbachev led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.


According to the Article 76 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union, a Union Republic was a sovereign Soviet socialist state that had united with other Soviet Republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Article 81 of the Constitution stated that "the sovereign rights of Union Republics shall be safeguarded by the USSR".[2]

In the final decades of its existence, the Soviet Union officially consisted of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). All of them, with the exception of the Russian Federation (until 1990), had their own local party chapters of the All-Union Communist Party.

Outside the territory of the Russian Federation, the republics were constituted mostly in lands that had formerly belonged to the Russian Empire and had been acquired by it between the 1700 Great Northern War and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.

In 1944, amendments to the All-Union Constitution allowed for separate branches of the Red Army for each Soviet Republic. They also allowed for Republic-level commissariats for foreign affairs and defense, allowing them to be recognized as de jure independent states in international law. This allowed for two Soviet Republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia, (as well as the USSR as a whole) to join the United Nations General Assembly as founding members in 1945.[3][4][5]

All of the former Republics of the Union are now independent countries, with eleven of them (all except the Baltic states and Georgia) being very loosely organized under the heading of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

However, most of the international community did not consider the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) to have legitimately been part of the USSR. The Baltic states assert that their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 (as the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian SSRs) under the provisions of the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was illegal, and that they therefore remained independent countries under Soviet occupation.[6][7] Their position is supported by the European Union,[8] the European Court of Human Rights,[9] the United Nations Human Rights Council[10] and the United States.[11] In contrast, the Russian government and state officials maintain that the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states was legitimate.[12]

Constitutionally, the Soviet Union was a federation. In accordance with provisions present in the Constitution (versions adopted in 1924, 1936 and 1977), each republic retained the right to secede from the USSR. Throughout the Cold War, this right was widely considered to be meaningless; however, the corresponding Article 72 of the 1977 Constitution was used in December 1991 to effectively dissolve the Soviet Union, when Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus seceded from the Union.

In practice, the USSR was a highly centralised entity from its creation in 1922 until the mid-1980s when political forces unleashed by reforms undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in the loosening of central control and its ultimate dissolution. Under the constitution adopted in 1936 and modified along the way until October 1977, the political foundation of the Soviet Union was formed by the Soviets (Councils) of People's Deputies. These existed at all levels of the administrative hierarchy, with the Soviet Union as a whole under the nominal control of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, located in Moscow within the Russian Federation.

Along with the state administrative hierarchy, there existed a parallel structure of party organizations, which allowed the Politburo to exercise large amounts of control over the republics. State administrative organs took direction from the parallel party organs, and appointments of all party and state officials required approval of the central organs of the party.

Each republic had its own unique set of state symbols: a flag, a coat of arms, and, with the exception of Russia until 1990, an anthem. Every republic of the Soviet Union also was awarded with the Order of Lenin.

A hall in Bishkek's Soviet-era Lenin Museum decked with the flags of Soviet Republics

The republics and the dissolution of the Soviet Union

In the later decades of its existence, the Soviet Union consisted of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, openness and restructuring were intended to liberalise and open up the Soviet Union. However, they had a number of effects which caused the power of the republics to increase. First, political liberalization allowed the governments within the republics to gain legitimacy by invoking democracy, nationalism, or a combination of both. In addition, liberalization led to fractures within the Communist Party which resulted in reduced ability to effectively govern the Union. The rise of nationalist and right-wing movements, notably led in Russia by Boris Yeltsin, in the previously homogeneously Communist political system led to the crumbling of the Union's foundations. With the central role of the Communist Party removed from the constitution, the Communist Party lost its control over the political system and was banned from operating after an attempted coup d'état.

Throughout the unravelling of the Restructuring, the Soviet government attempted to find a new structure which would reflect the increasing power of the republics. These efforts proved unsuccessful, and the republics began to secede from the Union. On 8 December 1991, the remaining republic leaders signed the Belavezha Accords which agreed that the USSR would be dissolved and replaced with a Commonwealth of Independent States. On 25 December, President Gorbachev announced his resignation and turned all executive powers over to Yeltsin. The next day the Council of Republics voted to dissolve the Union. Since then, the republics have been governed independently with some adopting significantly more liberal policies while others, particularly in Central Asia, retain leadership personnel from the Soviet time to this day.

Republics of the USSR.svg
Map of the Union Republics from 1956-1991
Soviet Socialist Republic Capital Member
Pop./USSR pop.
Area (km²)
Area/USSR area
Flag of Russian SFSR Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Moscow 1922 147,386,000 51.40 17,075,400 76.62  Russia 1
Flag of Ukrainian SSR Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic Kiev
(Kharkiv before 1934)
1922 51,706,746 18.03 603,700 2.71  Ukraine 2
Flag of Uzbekistan SSR Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic Tashkent
(Samarkand before 1930)
1924 19,906,000 6.94 447,400 2.01  Uzbekistan 4
Flag of Kazakhstan SSR Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic Alma-Ata 1936 16,711,900 5.83 2,717,300 12.24  Kazakhstan 5
Flag of Belarusian SSR Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic Minsk 1922 10,151,806 3.54 207,600 0.93  Belarus 3
Flag of Azerbaijan SSR Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic Baku 1922 7,037,900 2.45 86,600 0.39  Azerbaijan 7
Flag of Georgian SSR Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic Tbilisi 1922 5,400,841 1.88 69,700 0.31  Georgia 6
Flag of Tajikistan SSR Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic Dushanbe 1929 5,112,000 1.78 143,100 0.64  Tajikistan 12
Flag of Moldovan SSR Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic Chisinau
(formerly Kishinev)
1940 4,337,600 1.51 33,843 0.15  Moldova 9
Flag of Kyrgyzstan SSR Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic Bishkek
(formerly Frunze / Pishpek)
1936 4,257,800 1.48 198,500 0.89  Kyrgyzstan 11
Flag of Lithuanian SSR Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republica Vilnius 1940 3,689,779 1.29 65,200 0.29  Lithuania 8
Flag of Turkmenistan SSR Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic Ashgabat 1924 3,522,700 1.23 488,100 2.19  Turkmenistan 14
Flag of Armenian SSR Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic Yerevan 1922 3,287,700 1.15 29,800 0.13  Armenia 13
Flag of Latvian SSR Latvian Soviet Socialist Republica Riga 1940 2,666,567 0.93 64,589 0.29  Latvia 10
Flag of Estonian SSR Estonian Soviet Socialist Republica Tallinn 1940 1,565,662 0.55 45,226 0.20  Estonia 15

^a The annexation of the Baltic republics in 1940 is considered an illegal occupation by the current Baltic governments and by a number of Western countries, including the United States and the European Union.[6][8][9][10][11][13][14][15] The Soviet Union considered the initial annexation legal, but officially recognized their independence on September 6, 1991, three months prior to its final dissolution.

Other Soviet republics of the Soviet Union

  • The Abkhazian SSR, soon after its establishment in 1921, belonged as a contractual republic to the Georgian SSR and by extension to the Transcaucasian SFSR in 1922. Its status was changed to an autonomous SSR of the Georgian SSR in 1931. It is now the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, which is not recognized by Georgia or most of the international community.
  • The Transcaucasian SFSR was formed from the Armenian, Azerbaijan and Georgian SSRs. It was divided back to the three SSRs in 1936.
  • The Khorezm SSR (1923–1925) was divided between the Turkmen and Uzbek SSRs.
  • The Bukharan SSR (1924–1925) was divided between the Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen SSRs.
  • The Karelo-Finnish SSR (1940–1956) was restored to the Karelian autonomous SSR which belonged to the Russian SFSR. Its successor state is the Republic of Karelia within the Russian Federation.

The leader of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, suggested in the early 1960s that the country should become a Soviet socialist republic of the USSR, but the offer was rejected.[16][17][18]

Autonomous Republics of the Soviet Union

Several of the Union Republics themselves, most notably Russia, were further subdivided into Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs). Though administratively part of their respective Union Republics, ASSRs were also established based on ethnic/cultural lines.

See also


  1. Hough, Jerry F (1997). Democratization and revolution in the USSR, 1985-1991. Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 0-8157-3749-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Federalism and the Dictatorship of Power in Russia By Mikhail Stoliarov. Taylor & Francis. 2014. p. 56. ISBN 0-415-30153-X. Retrieved 2014-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Walter Duranty Explains Changes In Soviet Constitution,". Miami News. 1944-02-06. Retrieved 2014-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "League of Nations Timeline - Chronology 1944". Retrieved 2014-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "United Nations - Founding Members". Retrieved 2014-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 The Occupation of Latvia at Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia
  7. Estonia says Soviet occupation justifies it staying away from Moscow celebrations - Pravda.Ru[dead link]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Motion for a resolution on the Situation in Estonia by the EU
  9. 9.0 9.1 European Court of Human Rights cases on Occupation of Baltic States
  10. 10.0 10.1 "UNITED NATIONS Human Rights Council Report". Retrieved 2014-02-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 "U.S.-Baltic Relations: Celebrating 85 Years of Friendship" (PDF). U.S. Department of State. 14 June 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Russia denies Baltic 'occupation' by BBC News
  13. European parliament: Resolution on the situation in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (No C 42/78) (1983). Official Journal of the European Communities. European Parliament.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Aust, Anthony (2005). Handbook of International Law. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-53034-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Ziemele, Ineta (2005). State Continuity and Nationality: The Baltic States and Russia. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 90-04-14295-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Elster, Jon (1996). The roundtable talks and the breakdown of communism. University of Chicago Press. p. 179. ISBN 0-226-20628-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Held, Joseph (1994). Dictionary of East European history since 1945. Greenwood Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-313-26519-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Gökay, Bülent (2001). Eastern Europe since 1970. Longman. p. 19. ISBN 0-582-32858-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>