ONCE UPON A TIME there was a country called Soviet Union. An endless expanse covering more than one sixth of the dry surface of our planet, an unthinkable and unknown immensity stretching from the thick forests near the Polish border to the waves of the Pacific Ocean, from the iced coasts along the Arctic to the cruel sands of Central Asia and from the austere peaks of the Pamir mountains to the eternal flatness of the Siberian steppes. Despite being stereotypically associated with onion-shaped domes, drunk Cossacks and snow-covered steppes, this magnificent country was extremely diverse both in its sceneries and in its demographics. The Soviet Union was, in fact, inhabited by more than three hundred million people divided in more than one hundred different ethnicities speaking a similar number of languages.
Lenin, the great father of the USSR, saw both a possibility and a challenge in the intricate demography of the newly born socialist empire: each officially recognised ethnic minority, however small, was granted its own national territory where it enjoyed a certain degree of self-governance; autonomous regions and associated republics were created inside the fifteen states forming the Soviet Union. Very few people outside the Eastern Block - but a couple of Soviet-geeks, historians, anthropologists and CIA agents - seemed to be aware of the complexity hidden behind the gargantuan Soviet World. Most of us were, indeed, caught by surprise when in 1991 a puzzle of newly independent states and jigsawed boundaries came to light.
Until now the former Soviet republics (Russia included) have been somewhat of a terra incognita and just recently we are slowly beginning to familiarise with the reality that followed the fall of the USSR: a complex geopolitical mosaic of obscure nations, unpronounceable countries, secessionist regions and weird backwaters. To these bizarre places, to their people, to their cultures and to their strong will, we - at Soviet Tours - have devoted our entire work and passion.
We invite you to discover them with us and here is a our practical compendium for your first orientation into the post-Soviet labyrinth.
The departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by; a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.
- Alexander Herzen
15 constituent republics
According to Soviet Constitution, a Union Republic was a sovereign Soviet socialist state that had united with other Soviet Republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In the final decades of its existence, the Soviet Union officially consisted of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). All of them had their own local party chapters of the All-Union Communist Party. Outside the territory of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (aka Russia), the republics were constituted mostly in lands that had formerly belonged to the Russian Empire. 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 defence, allowing them to be recognised as de jure independent states in international law. All of the former Republics of the Union form now independent countries. Here they are:
Eastern Europe is a vague - and arguably controversial - geopolitical concept often used to define the territories and societies located on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Despite common misconceptions, not every country of the former Eastern European Block was part of the former Soviet Union. In fact, Soviet Europe encompasses "only" six out of the many countries that emerged in the post-Socialist European space and namely the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), the two Russia's little Slavic Brothers (Ukraine and Belarus) and obscure Bessarabia (Moldova).
Few are the places on Earth that can claim such a diverse amalgam of ethnicities, languages and cultures such as the one forming the intricate human puzzle of this little-known mountainous region at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the formation of three independent countries on the Southern side of the Caucasian range, the so called Transcaucasia: wine-loving Georgia, biblical Armenia, and oil-rich Azerbaijan.
The land of the 'stans sits at the crossroads of mighty empires that once thrived along and around the legendary Silk Road. This is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the former USSR and a place where old myths, timeless traditions and recent history blend together to form a curious mix of Islamic architectonic grandeur, out-of-the-world nomadic settlements and Soviet concrete melancholia. From the colourful minarets in Uzbekistan to the green summer pastures in Kyrgyzstan, from the high peaks of Tajikistan to the rolling steppes and the scorching sands of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the Soviet Stans have nothing to envy to much more famous corners of Asia such as Iran or the Himalaya.
Last but not least, Russia itself: by far the biggest constituent republic of the Soviet Union and its main political, cultural and economic heir. An entire encyclopaedia - and there is indeed a dedicated one - wouldn't suffice to encompass the boundless diversity of this cyclopean nation. Churchill used to say that Russia is a is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but we prefer domestic minds to the banal thoughts of a Western capitalist colonialist such as Winnie the British Bulldog was. Thus here's our favourite quote on Russia by Fyodor Tyutchev:
Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique.
In Russia, one can only believe.
During the first chaotic post-communist years both diplomatic and military battles were waged for the sake of a territorial sovereignty both in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe. The victory of the separatist forces lead to the internationally unrecognised independence of four secessionist regions: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. In more recent years, as a response to the dramatic events that stained Kiev with blood, three more rebellious regions had the dubious honour to join the list: Crimea, the Lugansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic. Regardless of UN-resolutions over their status these officially "non-existent" countries have now full control over their territory and for the sake of travelling can de-facto be regarded as separate states.
Here is a neatly arranged map of all the unruly splinters of the former Evil Empire, edited by E. W. Walker at UC Berkley.
27 Autonomous Republics
Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs) were created for certain nationalities mainly living in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. They had a status lower than the union republics of the Soviet Union, but higher than the regions. These republics are - to some extent - still there. Besides the new fifteen states that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union, there are, indeed, twenty-seven autonomous republics each of them representing a different ethnicity, a different language and different traditions and religions. Twenty-one are located within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. Most of them are obscure backwaters and even when they hit the headlines (as was the case for Chechnya) very few people would be able to place them on a map. There are autonomous republics in Siberia (Tuva, Altai, Khakassia, Buryatia, Yakutia, Karelia and Komi), in the Far North (Karelia and Komi), along the Volga (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Mordovia, Udmurtia, Mari-El and Chuvashia) and in the Russian Caucasus (Adygea, Cherkessia, Kabardia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan) as well as a couple of autonomous republics and self-governing regions located within other former Soviet states (Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, Gagauzia in Moldova, Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, Gorno-Badakashan in Tajikistan and Adjara in Georgia). These places are often bizarre and depressing at the same time, being a mixture of cultural oddities and post-soviet squalor. In these backwaters the catastrophic consequences of the Soviet disintegration are felt more than anywhere else around the former USSR, being their geopolitical and economic entity nothing else than a Soviet creation. Some of them like Chechnya can be considered de facto independent countries; others, like Tatarstan and Kalmykia, are trying to build a national identity playing on old traditions and religious values, while some, like the Nakhchivan or Karakalpakstan feel simply abandoned.
This is a map of the 21 Autonomous Ethnic Republics within the Russian Federation (Crimea, the 22nd autonomous republic, is not shown).
This is how the Russian Federation would look like if all the autonomous ethnic republics became independent.
∞ bizarre geopolitical Entities
In addition to the Autonomous Republics there is also a indefinite number of ethnic regions, which are not fully autonomous but do enjoy a certain degree of self-governance. Also in this case, still in line with Lenin's utopia, ethnicity has been the main border-drawing parameter. Most of these odd entities are located in Russia (the more famous probably being and Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the so-called Soviet Zion, and Chukotka) but some used to exist also in the other republics such as Polish National District in Belarus and the German National Districts in Ukraine. Here is a post-Stamp from the Soviet Zion.
BONUS - EPHEMERAL STATES of the russian civil war
In case all the above was not enough for the Soviet-geeks out there, here is a comprehensive map of all the proto-states, rogue nations and secessionist countries that emerged during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922).