In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Soviet Union) was established by the leaders of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). It was comprised of the four entities: the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian republics. By the late 1930s, there were 11 republics, all with government structures and ruling communist parties identical to the one in the Russian Republic. The 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) that existed at the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 were established by 1940.

The giant Central Asian territory was given republic status piecemeal, beginning with the inclusion of the Turkmen and Uzbek republics in 1924 and concluding with the separation of Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1936. The Tajik ASSR was created within the Uzbek SSR in 1924. The Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) was officially proclaimed and added the Soviet Union in 1929.

The Transcaucasus was later divided into Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1922, Georgia became part of the Soviet Union as part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (TSFSR) and became the separate Georgian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic in 1936. Armenia was set up as a Soviet republic on August 2, 1921. It joined Georgian and Azerbaijan SSR on March 12, 1922 to form the Transcaucasian SFSR, which became part of the USSR on December 30, 1922. Armenia became a constituent republic of the USSR on December 5, 1936. Independent Azerbaijan lasted for only 23 months. In April 1920, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and ousted the elected parliament. Azerbaijan joined USSR in December 22. 1922 and became separate republic in 1936.

In 1940, the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) and Moldavia were incorporated as new republics in 1940, bring the total of republics to 15. This came about after the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) of August 23, 1939, which was accompanied by a secret protocol that partitioned Poland and assigned Romanian territory as well as Estonia and Latvia (and later Lithuania) to the Soviet sphere of influence.

Background Behind Creation of the Soviet Union

Russia's pullout of World War I and ill-planned Treaty of Brest-Litovsk gave Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, other territories and nearly all of Russia's coal and iron reserves to Germany. During the Russian Civil War, Russian won back parts of Belarus and the Ukraine it had lost.

In December 1917, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland as a gesture of support to the Finnish Reds. However, that strategy failed when Finland became a parliamentary republic in 1918. Poland, reborn after World War I, fought a successful war with Soviet Russia from April 1920 to March 1921 over the location of the frontier between the two states. *

After World War I—and the collapse of the Ottoman Turkey and Germany—Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were independent nations. Transcaucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1922 and their borders were drawn by Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Vladimir Lenin. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were reclaimed in 1940.

During the Civil War, the Soviet regime had to deal with struggles for independence in regions that it had given up under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which the regime immediately repudiated after Germany's defeat by the Allies in November 1918). By force of arms, the communists established Soviet republics in Belorussia (January 1919), Ukraine (March 1919), Azerbaijan (April 1920), Armenia (November 1920), and Georgia (March 1921), but they were unable to take back the Baltic region, where the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been founded shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Consolidation of Power in the Soviet Union

About the time that the party sanctioned partial decentralization of the economy, it also approved a quasi-federal structure for the state. During the Civil War, the non-Russian Soviet republics on the periphery of Russia were theoretically independent, but in fact they were controlled by the central government through the party and the Red Army. Some communists favored a centralized Soviet state, while nationalists wanted autonomy for the borderlands. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A compromise between the two positions was reached in December 1922 with the formation of the USSR. The constituent republics of this "Soviet Union" (the Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian, and Transcaucasian republics — the last combining Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) exercised a degree of cultural and linguistic autonomy, while the communist, predominantly Russian, leadership in Moscow retained political authority over the entire country. *

The party consolidated its authority throughout the country, becoming a monolithic presence in state and society. Potential rivals outside the party, including prominent members of the abolished Menshevik faction and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, were exiled.

Soviet Foreign Policy in the 1920s

In the 1920s, as the new Soviet state temporarily retreated from the revolutionary path to socialism, the party also adopted a less ideological approach in its relations with the rest of the world. Lenin, ever the practical leader, having become convinced that socialist revolution would not break out in other countries in the near future, realized that his government required normal relations with the Western world for it to survive. Not only were good relations important to national security, but the economy also required trade with the industrial countries. Blocking Soviet attainment of these objectives were lingering suspicions about communism on the part of the Western powers and concern over foreign debts incurred by the tsarist government, which the Soviet government had unilaterally repudiated. In April 1922, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Georgiy Chicherin, circumvented these difficulties by achieving an understanding with Germany, the other pariah state of Europe, in the Treaty of Rapallo. Under the treaty, Germany and Russia agreed on mutual recognition, cancellation of debt claims, normalization of trade relations, and secret cooperation in military development. Soon after concluding the treaty, the Soviet Union obtained diplomatic recognition from other major powers, beginning with Britain in February 1924. Although the United States withheld recognition until 1933, private American firms began to extend technological assistance and to develop commercial links in the 1920s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Toward the non-Western world, the Soviet leadership limited its revolutionary activity to promoting opposition among the indigenous populations against "imperialist exploitation." The Soviet Union did pursue an active policy in China, aiding the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), a non-Marxist organization committed to reform and national sovereignty. After the triumph of the Guomindang in 1927, a debate developed among Soviet leaders concerning the future status of relations with China. Stalin wanted the Chinese Communist Party to join the Guomindang and infiltrate the government from within, while Trotsky proposed an armed communist uprising and forcible imposition of socialism. Although Stalin's plan was finally accepted, it came to naught when in 1927 the Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Chinese communists massacred and Soviet advisers expelled.

Military in the Early Soviet Era

The imperial army and navy disintegrated after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Although the Bolsheviks quickly signed a peace treaty with Germany, there was soon a need for a military force to defend the new state against the anticommunist Whites in what became a bloody, three-year civil war. In April 1918, the Red Army was established when the Soviet government announced compulsory military service for peasants and workers. The army's chief organizer was Leon Trotsky, the new nation's first commissar of war (1918-24); Trotsky's initial officer cadre was made up of about 50,000 former tsarist officers. Trotsky was able to mold his peasant and worker recruits into an effective force that eventually prevailed over five separate White armies, with the benefit of access to Russia's industrial heartland and concentrated lines of supply and communications. Under Trotsky, political officers were attached to all military units to ensure the loyalty of all individuals — a practice that persisted throughout the Soviet era. *

When the Civil War ended in 1921, General Mikhail Tukhachevskiy led an extensive program of reorganization and equipment modernization; he also established several military schools. In the first fifteen years of the Red Army, communist party membership increased rapidly among the enlisted ranks and, especially, among the officer corps. By the mid-1930s, training schools and academies had turned out a generation of young officers and noncommissioned officers with strong political indoctrination, thus ensuring the ideological loyalty of the entire armed forces. Beginning in 1931, Tukhachevskiy began a large-scale rearmament program based on the industrial development of the five-year plans, and the armed forces and their supplies of equipment were enlarged greatly as the shadow of war began falling over Europe in the mid-1930s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1937 the purges instigated by Joseph V. Stalin (in office 1927-53) reached the army. Tukhachevskiy, now first deputy commissar of war, was executed for treason together with seven top generals. As many as 30,000 other officers were imprisoned or dismissed, leaving the Red Army without experienced commanders at the end of the 1930s. The first campaign that revealed this weakness was the so-called Winter War against Finland (1939-40), in which an estimated 100,000 troops of the Red Army died while defeating a small Finnish army. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.