Founded in 1922 as a confederation of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Transcaucasia (comprised of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) eventually grew to 15 republics—and a world-wide superpower. Nearly 130 ethnic groups populated the vast country, which spanned 11 time zones.
According to Brigid O’Keeffe, professor of history at Brooklyn College, fears of nationalist revolts by non-Russians led the Bolsheviks in the early days of the Soviet Union to guarantee the right to national territories, native-language schools and cultural organizations while using those institutions to saturate the population with socialist values and practices. “In many ways, the Bolsheviks’ nationality policy worked as intended—in the sense that it helped to integrate non-Russian peoples into the evolving Soviet state, society, economy and culture,” she says. “But it also relentlessly demanded that Soviet people think about themselves in national terms, and it placed ethnicity at the center of Soviet politics.”
O’Keeffe says that when the Soviet Union broke apart along national lines in 1991, “politicians and ordinary people alike across Eurasia had been well prepared by their shared Soviet past to chart new, distinctively national trajectories for themselves as independent nation-states.” Some of those former republics transformed into pro-European democracies with market-based economics, while others remained aligned with Russia.
Here's what happened to the 15 republics in the decades after the USSR’s disintegration.
After the Soviet Union dissolved, its preeminent republic endured political dysfunction and struggled to privatize its central command economy. While oligarchs accumulated great wealth, most Russians faced high inflation and supply shortages. A year after Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin ended a 1993 constitutional crisis by ordering the army to shell the country’s legislative building, he launched a disastrous war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Following a cease-fire in 1997, Yeltsin’s government ordered a second invasion of Chechnya in 1999 after Russian authorities asserted that bombings in Moscow and other cities were linked to Chechen militants. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin led the military response against Chechnya.
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin announced his resignation and named Putin acting president. Since taking office and serving as president, prime minister and again as president, Putin has consolidated authority by controlling the media and removing presidential term limits while political opponents have been jailed, poisoned and killed. In seeking to re-establish Russia as a global power and limit Western influence in the former Soviet republics, Putin continued the war in Chechnya, annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and invaded Ukraine in 2022.
Once known as Europe’s breadbasket for its plentiful wheat fields, Ukraine accounted for a quarter of the USSR’s agricultural production. Since independence, the country’s politics have lurched between pro-Russian and pro-European governments. In 1994 Ukraine became the first former Soviet republic to peaceably transfer power through an election, and it transitioned toward capitalism over the next decade.
After pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych declared victory in a presidential election beset by fraud in 2004, the peaceful Orange Revolution forced a new vote that was won by pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When Yanukovych, who subsequently won the presidency in 2010, backed away from signing an association agreement with the European Union (EU) in 2014, the Maidan street protests forced him to flee to Russia as a pro-Western coalition took power. Weeks later, Russia annexed Crimea while pro-Russian rebels launched an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In 2019, a former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected the nation's new president.
In a televised address on February 21, 2022, Russian President Putin falsely claimed that Ukraine never had stable statehood and said the country was instead part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” Days later, Russia attacked Ukraine in the largest European military operation since World War II.
“From the Orange Revolution to the Maidan to the Ukrainian people’s extraordinary resolve to defend their nation against Russia’s military invasion, what we have seen is a sovereign people charting its own path against the backdrop of a complex Soviet legacy,” O’Keeffe says. “This is one of the reasons why Putin has been so obsessed, alarmed and repulsed by modern Ukraine as an independent nation-state on the other side of Russia’s border.”
Soviet vestiges such as the KGB and a highly centralized economy have endured in post-independence Belarus. The country’s only post-Soviet president, Alexander Lukashenko, consolidated near-absolute power through a repressive regime that has allegedly rigged elections, jailed political opponents and silenced the press. A founding republic of the USSR, Belarus has resisted privatization and maintains close ties with Russia.
The Moldavian SSR joined the Soviet Union in 1940 after the USSR annexed it following its secret 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. After independence, pro-Russian and pro-EU politicians have vied for control of Moldova. While political turmoil and endemic corruption have kept Moldova among Europe’s poorest countries, it has moved cautiously toward market capitalism and full EU membership.
Under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev, the Kazakh SSR, which became a republic in 1936, was colonized with Slavic settlers who farmed wheat on its grasslands and became the epicenter of the country’s space program. Following independence, Kazakhstan privatized its economy, which grew tenfold in two decades due to oil reserves larger than those of any former Soviet republic except Russia.
Proclaimed the “father of the nation,” Nursultan Nazarbayev held the presidency for nearly 30 years. In addition to suppressing political opposition, the autocrat revived Kazakh culture and engineered construction of a new national capital, now named in his honor. Kazakhstan maintains strong relations with both the West and Russia, which it called upon to help quell mass protests in 2022 over liquefied gas prices and widening inequality.
The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
As part of its secret 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union seized the independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and absorbed them as new republics in 1940. Following a three-year occupation by the Nazis that left hundreds of thousands of citizens, most of them Jewish, dead, Baltic suffering continued after the USSR regained control in 1944. The Soviets banished hundreds of thousands of people from the Baltics to prison camps and agricultural collectives in Siberia and central Asia while encouraging large-scale Russian immigration.
After the fall of Eastern European communist governments, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence in March 1990. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted an economic blockade and deployed the Red Army in January 1991 but could not quash the independence movement. Weeks after a failed coup by communist hard-liners in Moscow in August 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of the Baltics.
The Baltic states turned toward Western Europe as they transformed into stable democracies and embraced market capitalism. All three received full membership in the EU and NATO in 2004; Estonia adopted the euro as its currency in 2011, followed by Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015.
Central Asian Countries: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
The Turkmen and Uzbek SSRs joined the Soviet Union in 1925, followed by the Tajik SSR in 1929 and the Kirghiz SSR in 1936. Soviet leaders transformed the majority-Muslim region through forced collectivization of agriculture, which produced devastating famines in 1930s, and the encouragement of Russian immigration.
Following independence, strongmen have ruled these mountainous, energy-rich countries. Although economically dependent on Russia, the former republics permitted American and NATO forces to use their airspace and military facilities during the war in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Kyrgyzstan initially stood out as one of central Asia’s most democratically oriented countries after the 1991 presidential election of Asakar Akayev, who espoused liberal policies. As the country experienced a sharp economic decline, however, Akayev grew increasingly authoritarian until anti-corruption, pro-democracy protests forced him from power in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Similar protests led Akayev’s successor to resign in 2010.
Following independence, a five-year civil war erupted in Tajikistan in 1992 between communists and an alliance of pro-Western democratic reformers and Islamists. Backed by Russian troops, current president Emomali Rahmon took power in November 1992 and has tightened control by suppressing political opponents and the press. Beset by widespread corruption, the authoritarian regime is heavily dependent on Russia for economic aid.
Fueled by large natural gas reserves that have attracted foreign investment, Turkmenistan has been among the most repressive of the former Soviet republics. Communist Party boss Saparmurat Niyazov maintained power after the Soviet Union’s collapse and perpetuated a cult of personality in which statues were erected in his likeness and days of the week and months of the year were renamed after himself and family members. After Niyazov’s 2006 death, successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov maintained authoritarian rule.
In Uzbekistan, Communist Party leader Islam Karimov easily won the country’s first presidential election and ruled Central Asia’s most populous country for a quarter-century until his 2016 death. Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has continued to consolidate power and limit political opposition—while deepening ties with Russia.
Transcaucasian Countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia
After joining the Soviet Union as part of the Transcaucasian SSR, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia became separate union republics in 1936. Soviet rule brought urbanization and industrialization to the formerly agricultural region.
As the Soviet state weakened in the late 1980s, tensions flared between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an overwhelmingly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. War between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out when Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence in 1991. An uneasy peace took effect after a 1994 cease-fire, although periodic outbreaks of violence have still occurred, including a six-week war in the autumn of 2020.
Since independence, soaring oil revenue and contracts with Western petrochemical companies have brought prosperity—and corruption—to Azerbaijan. While former Communist Party leader Heydar Aliyev and his son, Ilham, have been Azerbaijan’s sole leaders since 1993, Armenia has experienced more political turbulence, including the assassination of its prime minister inside the parliament in 1999.
Georgia became the first Soviet republic to hold a democratic election in 1991 when Soviet dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia won the presidency. His tenure was brief, however, and a military coup brought former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to power in 1992. Widespread corruption and economic instability led to the peaceable Rose Revolution in 2003 that drove Shevardnadze from power.
Secessionist movements in the ethnic Russian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have led to tense relations with Russia. After Russian forces crossed the border to join separatist fighters in South Ossetia in a brief war in August 2008, Georgia turned increasingly to the West and signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014.