Ethnic Problems in the Soviet Union

by James Graham

The Soviet Union was the last great world empire. Its borders stretched from Europe to Asia, from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Within these borders lived 120 different ethnic groups divided into fifteen republics and various autonomous regions. Lenin believed nationalism would disappear under communism and a Soviet people would emerge. This proved to be fundamentally false and Russian nationalism and beliefs of superiority set the stage for ethnic conflict within the USSR.


The USSR was built on roughly the same territory as the Tsarist Russian empire. Joseph Stalin through brute force and the slaughtering of national elites welded together the different ethnic groups. The map shows that although a vast country over half the USSR was sparsely settled or uninhabited. During World War Two whole races were moved to uninhabited areas on suspicion of co-operating with the Nazis. This can be seen on the map by Germans (number 33) living in Central Asia. A total of 60 million people lived outside their republics. The roots of the Armenian - Azerbaijani conflict over the territory of Nagorno - Karabakh can also be seen clearly from the map. A pocket of Armenian people (31) is surrounded on all sided by Azerbaijani. The Soviet Union had a diverse range of ethnic peoples between its borders.

With a multicultural society, individual republic's demands for independence where always going to cause chaos in the USSR. Gorbachev could not let one territorial adjustment take place as there were 120 changes wanted by various ethnic groups. He often allowed the groups to fight it out sending in the army only when the demonstrators started demanding independence. It was to stop anti Soviet demonstrations that the military entered Baku leaving over 100 dead. Stained with the blood of its own citizens the military lost much moral authority. The violence only hardened the resolve of the republics to break away from Moscow. Independence demands often followed a pattern. Problems of language and culture were first followed by the truth about the past, then the environment, then the economy, then political autonomy, then the goal of sovereignty and finally independence. In this way the republics could build support for independence without having to face the full wrath of Moscow.

With a large number of people and entire races living outside their homelands ethnic conflict in the USSR only needed a spark to ignite. The spark was the economy's collapse. People became jealous and selfish of what other republics enjoyed. Russians realised they were one of the poorest people and started to complain. As did wealthier republics like the Baltic states who correctly suspected that they were being dragged down by the rest of the union. Such realisations could only in the long run lead to demands for independence.

The Collapse of The Soviet Union

  1. Introduction
  2. Glasnost
  3. Perestroika
  4. Democratisation
  5. Ethnic Problems
  6. Baltic Independence
  7. The Conservative Coup