What exactly was the Soviet Union?
The former USSR and its constituent republics
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was an immense country that spanned from Europe all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It was one of the largest countries in history and included people of more than 100 ethnicities and 130 different native languages.
The Soviet Union was made of the following present-day countries. Next to each country, you can see the date that they joined the USSR.
In addition, immediately following World War II, there were a handful of countries that served as buffer states and although they weren't part of the Soviet Union itself, they made up the Eastern Bloc. These countries included Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia), Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Romania. The USSR also had control of East Germany with the exception of a small section of Berlin divided from the Soviet section by the Berlin Wall.
How It Worked
Officially, the USSR was a federal union of all of the different soviet socialist republics (hence the "U" before "SSR"). There were the main Union Republics, which represented different ethnic majorities, and there were the Autonomous Republics that represented ethnic minorities. The republics all had their own flags and anthems. Technically, the republics had the right to secede from the USSR. In reality this was not an option. The USSR was highly centralized in terms of day-to-day functioning, and the Politburo of the Communist Party had uncontested influence in all of the republics.
The Soviet Union began after the fall of the Romanov Dynasty and the Russian Revolution in 1917. First the Czarist government fell, then the provisional liberal government was overthrown by the local communist parties. A civil war followed and the Red Army which was backed by the Bolshevik government was able to seize power and either executed or imprisoned the people who had supported the monarchy and Russia's upper class. In 1919, the Communist International, also known as Comintern, was founded to promote the spread of Communism around the world and seven congresses were held in Moscow from 1919 until 1935. By the time that it was dissolved in 1943, it had been involved in revolutions in Hungary, Germany, and Estonia.
In 1922, a treaty was signed between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to form the USSR led by Vladimir Lenin. Joseph Stalin took over control of the state in 1924 and set forward a number of policies that cost the lives of millions of people including 13% of Ukrainians due to famine and terrorized the country. During the Great Purge alone, it is believed that 600,000 Soviets were executed and millions more were put in gulags or deported between 1936 and 1938.
During this time period, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan became part of the USSR and in 1940, the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), which had previously been independent, were annexed.
Through the late 1940s, the Soviet Bloc began to take shape with the inclusion of the above mentioned buffer states to the Soviet Union. Many of these countries had puppet governments in place. Although some of these countries voted to become Communist, such as the case in Czechoslovakia, ultimately, their fate had been decided long beforehand during the Yalta Conference in early-1945 where the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States decided where the continent would be divided amongst the war's victors and recognized the Soviet's sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
The Global Impact
The relationship between the Western countries and Soviet Union became strained and then was completely severed by 1949. NATO was formed to combat the USSR's influence and the spread of Communism. In turn, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact to serve as an opposing alliance and the Cold War officially began. Although the USSR and United States never directly fought against one another, this animosity led to a series of proxy wars between the United States and Soviet Union including the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as well as geopolitical quagmires in Cuba and Afghanistan. Millions of people lost their lives throughout the conflicts as a result of this power struggle.
How It All Fell Apart
By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet Union was falling apart. In an attempt to save the country, he instituted a series of political and economic reforms. Although the Glasnost period was meant to open the economy to the rest of the world, it was too little, too late. As with many huge countries, the Soviet Union was overstretched financially and was strained because of the ethnic and ideological identities of its territories.
The dissolution of the USSR that began in 1989 was surprisingly peaceful considering the nation's violent past. Poland was the first to begin its own revolution against the Soviets and the rest of the Eastern European countries followed. By December 31,1991, the Soviet Union as a sovereign state was completely gone and Boris Yeltsin became the first President of Russia. The other territories each declared their independence and became their own countries.