Soviet Russia, Ukraine, and So On
Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik (СССР in Cyrillic)- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Also known as the Soviet Union, the USSR, or (almost always incorrectly) Soviet Russia. The last designation will be our first subject.
In Soviet Russia, Americans Get Your Name Wrong
You will hear hundreds of Westerners in Cold War contexts (even all sorts of people who should and do know better) calling the place Russia and its inhabitants Russians. In fact, Russia was only one of the fifteen Soviet Republics that comprised the USSR, and was officially called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Yes, the RSFSR was by far the largest state in the USSR, covering over three quarters of the total land area of the Union and containing about 60% of its population. And Russia was dominant politically and culturally. But it was by no means all of the USSR.
While Russkie certainly ran the show, many of the most famous and infamous Soviets weren't Russian. Yakov Smirnoff (he of "In Soviet Russia"- when he was most famous he just used "Russia" since it was very much around then) is from Ukraine (and he was also Jewish - in the USSR Jews were considered an ethnic group, separate from Russkie, Ukrainians and others). Khrushchev was not in fact Ukrainian, but having moved there at 14, he was percepted as one. Stalin was Georgian (although he somewhat renounced that one when ruling the upper echelons of the country, his economic policy still favored Georgia, which led to magnificient rise of popularity in the region - with statues of Stalin being protected even after the Destalinization) and so was his chief of the NKVD, Lavrenty Beria. The popular singer-songwriter Bulat Okudzhava was also Georgian (although he was born in Moscow and some of his most famous songs are about the Arbat), politician Anastas Mikoyan and his aircraft designer brother Artem Mikoyan (of the Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG design bureau) were Armenian and the novelist Chinghiz Aitmatov was Kyrgyz.
Calling many Ukrainians (especially from the Western Ukraine) Russians tends to annoy them a lot. Calling Estonians that (if they're not Russkie) probably annoys them too, since they're not even Slavs. Same goes for the Latvians and Lithuanians (also not Slavs) who spent quite a bit of time trying to fight off the Russians. It is just like calling an Irishman English. This was true even back in Soviet times. And calling Georgians Russians is a pretty good way to make them dislike and threaten you. Especially since recent events. Officially, the Soviet Union was a multinational state, with no nation given preference over any other (notice the word "Russian" does not appear in the name of the USSR). In practice, it was inevitable that Russians would mostly run the show, given that they vastly outnumbered all the other ethnic groups. On the other hand, because the Soviet constitution had the rights of the republics to secede, even if only on paper, the authorities tended to give much more leeway in running them to avoid problems, especially in the latter periods. During the Stagnation of The Seventies, with its famous shortages, the official state policy was to first fund and supply the national republics to avoid problems, and for Russia proper, especially in the "Flyover Country" provinces, to get the remains and the seconds. Which also contributed to the national tensions, even if from the other side. Other groups also never lost their separate ethnic identities. Some Soviet leaders encouraged these separate identities, while others (most notably Stalin) tried to make everyone Russian.
- However, Stalin's native Georgia was always one of the least Russified Republics - its Russian minority was negligible and the local Party branch conducted all of its business in Georgian, unlike Belarus or Kazakhstan, where the Russian language almost completely displaced the local ones.
- Of course even without Stalin, there was a lot of forced and encouraged relocation of Russians to other SSR states. Without actively forcing Russification, it served to whittle down the majorities of the major ethnic groups. The legacy lives on today in some areas, notably Latvia, where the number of Russians nearly outnumber the actual Latvians. It's considered a bit of a problem.
There Ain't No Party But A Communist Party- Running The Whole Thing
(This only covers stuff pre-glasnost, when things changed very quickly)
Only one party was permitted in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The Soviet government was essentially the means through which the decisions of the CPSU were implemented. This situation arose largely through a process of elimination (literally). Before the October Revolution, there were many different parties. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they began suppressing all the rest. Civil war broke out, becoming an excuse to annihilate opposition in general. When the smoke cleared, the Communist Party was the only faction left standing.
The Soviet political system had two separate bureaucracies - the Party and the State. Holding a position in the CPSU was not the same as holding a public office in the State, people could advance in one bureaucracy or the other, and there was some degree of rivalry between the two. Nevertheless, throughout all of Soviet history (except a few years at the beginning and the end), the CPSU held more power than the State.
The legislature, the Supreme Soviet ("soviet" means "council" in Russian), only met a few days a year and was a rubber stamp body. Decisions were made by the leadership of the CPSU - the Secretariat (bureaucracy) and the Central Committee (policy forum), most particularly the Politburo, which was head of the Party Central Committee. Officially the Central Committee was elected by the Party Congress, then elected a General Secretary, although official and actual were not the same in the USSR in most cases. The General Secretary did not usually hold the Prime Minister or President position, these being held by valued other members. The General Secretary was considered by everyone the actual guy in charge and Soviet history is grouped by General Secretaries. All the people you've heard being called Soviet "leaders" or "premiers" were in fact General Secretaries of the CPSU. Sometimes they also took the office of President or Prime Minister, but most often they gave it to a trusted political ally.
There were elections in the USSR, but all candidates had to be approved by the CPSU. This was how the CPSU came to be more powerful than the State: in order to become a State official, you had to be elected... but before you could run for election, you needed CPSU approval. Note that, strictly speaking, candidates did not have to be CPSU members—they just had to be approved by the CPSU. But, in practice, non-members were almost never approved to run. Also, in practice, the CPSU only approved one candidate to run for each office. So the voters most often had the choice to either vote for the one CPSU candidate or abstain. Strangely enough, the Soviet government sometimes ran propaganda campaigns to encourage people to vote... largely because it looked good and democratic on paper (consider the fact that American elections are often criticized for their low voter turnout). After all, saying that 90% of the population voted for Comrade Ivanov sounds great - even if he was literally the only candidate.
Children Of The Revolution
The CPSU had a youth movement, Vsesoyuzny Leninskiy Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodyozhi (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League), better known as Komsomol. Age limit was 14-28.
They were often used as an emergency labour source (to repair damage caused by natural disasters, for example), being able to move in at short notice.
Younger children could join the Young Pioneer movement, found in other Communist countries as well. Nearly all the children of the Soviet era ended up in this one, being rather akin (at least in style) to the Scouting Movement, which was banned in the USSR. They could be recognised by their red scarves. Quite a number fought against the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet part of World War 2).
The United States of Soviet Russia
The fifteen states of the USSR and their independent names-
- Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR)- Russia
- Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR)- Armenia
- Azerbaijan SSR- Azerbaijan
- Byelorussian SSR- Belarus
- Estonian SSR- Estonia
- Georgian SSR- Georgia
- Kazakh SSR- Kazakhstan
- Kirghiz SSR- Kyrgyzstan
- Latvian SSR- Latvia
- Lithuanian SSR- Lithuania
- Moldavian SSR- Moldova
- Tajik SSR- Tajikistan
- Turkmen SSR- Turkmenistan
- Ukrainian SSR- Ukraine
- Uzbek SSR- Uzbekistan
There were some other republics, but they were fairly short-lived, such as the Transcaucasian SFSR (one of the four founding republics, broken-up into the Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijan SSRs in 1936), the Karelo-Finnish SSR (created in 1940 from conquered Finnish land, incorporated into Russia in 1956) and a number of republics that were proclaimed during the Civil War but did not survive until the establishment of the Soviet Union. There was even a government plan on creating a Jewish SSR, but then Israel was established in the Middle-East and the Soviet Jews moved there instead.
The Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Federation were the first four republics when the USSR was proclaimed in 1922. All the others were either carved out of them or established on annexed territories. Constitutionally every SSR had the right to secede, but in practice secession was not a real option before the Perestroika. At first the creation of new republics followed three rules: the republic had to have an international border or a seashore (hence Tatarstan did not qualify, even though the USSR had more Tatars than Armenians), a population of at least one million with a clear indigenous ethnic majority (hence Yakutia did not qualify, despite being one of the largest subnational entities in the world) and a strong enough economy to survive as an independent nation. However, the creation of the Karelo-Finnish SSR broke rules two and three, the possible reason being that Stalin may have been planning to annex Finland after the Winter War. Also, Kazakhstan did not lose its SSR status after Kazakhs became a minority in their own republic, the most likely reason being it's huge territorial size, and that Status Quo Is God.
What did not happen to Kazakhstan, but had long-standing repercussions, were the numerous autonomous republics, regions and areas (oblasts). Defined by geographic size and population, Tatarstan, Chechnya and Abkhazia are the famous autonomous SSRs, and Ossetia is probably the most famous oblast in the west. Depending on their size, they had smaller but symbolically very important representation than the SSR's in the Supreme Soviet. When the USSR ended, the status of autonomous republics and regions almost immediately became a serious point of contention — they didn't become independent countries like the republics, but part of their nearest neighbors. Seeing them as interference from Moscow, the non-Russian republics frequently struck away the autonomy the regions and republics had become accustomed to or considered merging them with other countries (considered in the case of Transnistria), leading the residents to resist—usually successfully, strangely enough.
Ukraine and Belarus had membership in the United Nations, but this was just a diplomatic concession to ensure "balance" in the General Assembly, as the US had many, many more allies than the USSR in 1945; Ukraine and Belarus both toed the Moscow line perfectly. Stalin had originally wanted to have all sixteen (at the time) Union Republics admitted to the UN, on the grounds that they were sovereign states, until Harry Truman pointed out that by that logic, all forty eight United States (and, by implication, all six Australian states, all ten Canadian provinces, all twenty-five Brazilian states, etc., etc., etc....) would have to be members, as well.
- To be fair, the difference is the US didn't let its member states secede, and Brazil did the same for its southern states. The Soviet Union had that in its constitution though.
- Interestingly enough, the US started out as 13 independent republics that eventually became more centralized. This was the basis for the US allowing their own states into the UN if the USSR was allowed to do the same (constitutionally, the Soviet Republics were allowed to secede. However, as mentioned above... On the other hand, they ultimately did secede!). Also, interestingly enough, Canada's provinces tend to have far more autonomy in international affairs than other similar subnational entities, and would likely have pushed for the same status if America and the Soviet Union were allowed to.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were independent between 1918 and 1940, before being annexed by the USSR. The United States never recognized (and much of the rest of the western world merely de facto rather than de jure) the annexation of the Baltic states, and considers their current governments to be continuations of the inter-war republics.