Teaching

Long Teaching Module: Border Changes of the Soviet Union

Susan Grunewald
Inset of Ukraine from larger map of 1918 Europe Map of Europe with countries shaded based on membership in NATO, the Warsaw Pact or nonaligned. Map of Europe with countries shaded based on year they joined NATO. Image of text in Ukrainian of Declaration. Transcription and translation provided with source.

Overview

Border changes have been a central part of 20th century European history. This lesson will examine a few key maps and documents that explore the creation, expansion, and dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union arose from the First World War, was expanded by the Second World War, and was destroyed by the Cold War. With its collapse, 15 new independent states formed across the territories of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This lesson will explain some of the context for the major border changes that affected the Soviet Union as well as the roots and enduring legacy of its collapse. Using maps and primary source documents, it directs readers to think about different perspectives about border changes. 

Essay

Border changes and warfare were two key aspects of everyday life for much of the European continent in the 20th century. One place that saw profound transformation, both in terms of society and borders, was Eastern Europe. The Russian Empire entered the First World War in July 1914 as a result of its alliance with Serbia. Tsarist Russian forces warred for over two and a half years before the home front erupted into revolution amidst failing military campaigns, heavy loss of life, inflation, and food shortages. In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated after protests swelled to riots and a revolution. A Provisional Government attempted to stabilize the home front as well as the military situation, but it failed to do so. A second revolution in October 1917 brought the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, to power in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg) and Moscow. 

The Bolshevik government worked on quickly ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War. Although unpopular, the Bolshevik government signed a separate treaty with the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires in March 1918 to withdraw from the war and prevent losing any more territory. By signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Bolshevik government defaulted on its commitments to the Entente Powers and lost control of nearly all of Ukraine and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These territories became independent states in the post-war restructuring of Eastern European borders. Some of these border changes were short lived, though.

Following a successful revolution in Petrograd and Moscow, the Bolsheviks had to fight to gain control of other territories of the former Russian empire and to create a new state. The subsequent Russian Civil War lasted from 1917 to 1922. During this Civil War, Bolshevik forces recaptured part of the territory that they had ceded to Germany under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In December 1922, the Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republics signed the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which formed the constitutional basis for the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union). The Soviet Union continued to grow and by 1939 the Armenian, Azeri, Belorussian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, Tajik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics comprised the USSR.  

As was the case with the First World War, the Second World War ushered in a series of border changes in Europe and Eurasia. The Soviet Union acquired new territories in the conflict, which became official republics of the Soviet Union: the Estonia, Latvia, Lithuanian, and Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republics.

While the Soviet Union joined forces with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to defeat Nazi Germany, tensions quickly rose towards the end of the war over the future of Europe. The massive destruction of the Second World War shaped how Soviet officials approached the European post-war order. The Great Patriotic War, as it was known in the USSR and is known to this day in Russia, caused tremendous damage to the Soviet Union. The USSR lost about 27 million citizens in the conflict. The Soviet economy was also greatly damaged by the war. The USSR lost one quarter of its total physical assets during the war. Hundreds and thousands of cities, villages, schools, factories, and farms lay in complete ruin. The human and economic costs of the war led to disagreements between Soviet and other Allied officials about the future course of Europe. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, wanted to ensure that Germany could never again attack. 

As Soviet and Allied diplomats failed to reach an agreement over the future of Europe, Soviet officials moved towards a new alignment for post-war Europe as a means of security. Territories liberated by the Soviet Red Army as it moved to Berlin to defeat the Nazis essentially remained under Soviet control as satellite states of the USSR. Communist regimes ruled these states, which were allied with the Soviet Union. In part, Soviet officials wished for these regions to remain under their control as buffer zones so that any conflict with Western powers would not be fought on Soviet soil. As tensions between the USSR and Western powers rose, a new conflict emerged, the Cold War. The Western allies formed a military collective security alliance in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania formed their own military alliance, known as the Warsaw Pact.

The Warsaw Pact crumbled with the collapse of communism and the Revolutions of 1989. In the 1970s, the Soviet economy stagnated and became increasingly weakened by its massive defense budget. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He enacted major policies hoping to reform and improve the Soviet Union. His two major policies of glasnost’ (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring) had the unintended consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union as admissions of problems with the system and the ability to criticize it led Soviet citizens and politicians to looks for new paths forward. Gorbachev also promised that the Soviet Union would not interfere in the actions of the satellite nations, where anti-communist dissident movements increasingly grew in popularity and strength. In 1989, communist regimes fell in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. 

By 1991, Soviet collapse was imminent. The costs of the Cold War overburdened the Soviet economy, which continued to falter. With the increasing freedom of speech that glasnost’ brought to the Soviet Union, Soviet citizens lost confidence in the state to lead society. Nationalist movements across the USSR also arose as Gorbachev’s new openness allowed them to be elected to leadership positions. In 1991, the popularly elected governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the last states to join the USSR, declared their independence from the Soviet Union to overwhelming support. Hardline communist leaders and military elites tried to overthrow Gorbachev in August 1991 but failed.

The Soviet government recognized the secession of the Baltic states in September 1991. In early December 1991, leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan to sign the Belovezh Accords, which mutually recognized the independence of these states and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organization meant to facilitate close ties between former Soviet states. 

By December 21, 1991, every Soviet state had declared independence and all but the Baltics and Georgia joined the CIS. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and turned his presidential powers over to Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation. On December 26, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Republics formally dissolved the Soviet Union. In its place were fifteen independent states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Although relatively bloodless, the post-Soviet transition has not been an easy one. Russia entered a period of economic chaos and instability, from which it only emerged under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Some states such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia remain close to Russia, while others have moved as far away from Russian influence as possible and have attempted to secure other means of security. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have joined NATO, for example. Other satellite states that formerly belonged to the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, have also joined NATO. From the Russian perspective, this is increasingly worrying as its leadership interprets this as an encroachment on what has historically been Russia’s sphere of influence. The reorganization of post-Soviet alliances and borders have resulted in numerous tensions and conflicts in Eastern Europe and will likely remain a source of conflict for the former Soviet states.
 

Primary Sources

Map of Europe, 1918

Inset of Ukraine from larger map of 1918 Europe
Annotation

This map illustrates European borders prior to the start of WWI in 1914 with black lines and new states formed by the First World War in red. As the map illustrates, a number of states became independent from Tsarist Russia. What new states were these? Do you think that newly found independence had an affect on nationalist movements in these areas? Take a look at this source, which is a map of European borders after WWII. Do you think the borders after WWI helped to prevent nationalist movements and tensions between neighbors in the interwar years? For states that lost territory, do you think independence was accepted by the former controlling empire? For states that remained independent for only a fraction of time or the duration of the interwar years, do you think that they voluntarily became incorporated into new states? Might these two periods of rapid and substantial border changes have had lasting consequences to the present day? 

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

Cold War Europe Military Alliances Map

Map of Europe with countries shaded based on membership in NATO, the Warsaw Pact or nonaligned.
Annotation

This map illustrates which states in Europe belonged to NATO or the Warsaw Pact military alliance. The white states were neutral. This map illustrates the infamous Iron Curtain and the split between West and East. Which of these states belonged to the Warsaw Pact? For the states that belonged to the Warsaw Pact, were they satellite states or republics of the Soviet Union? Compare your list of Warsaw Pact states with the new NATO states illustrated on this map. Which states had been Warsaw Pact states and now belong to NATO?  

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

History of NATO Expansion Map

Map of Europe with countries shaded based on year they joined NATO.
Annotation

This map shows the expansion of NATO over time. Have students identify the most recently states to join NATO. Which states have joined NATO after the collapse of communism? Which of these newer NATO states had been Soviet satellite states as opposed to full republics of the Soviet Union? Which countries of interest do these newer members of NATO border? What are current relations like between the two types of former Warsaw Pact nations, those that joined NATO and those that have not? Is there any correlation between a breakdown of relations between nations over the transition from Warsaw Pact to NATO? Why might this be the case? Could those states that have not joined NATO be worried about neighbors joining their former foes? Do they feel threatened or that a foreign power in intervening in their sphere of influence? If so, why? What historical justifications might these nations have, perhaps related to the borders as shown the 1918 map of Europe?

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine

Image of text in Ukrainian of Declaration. Transcription and translation provided with source.
Annotation

This source is one example of a former Soviet republic declaring its independence from the Soviet Union. Who created this document? What reasons does the document creator give for wanting to secede from the Soviet Union? What does this document suggest and what is the most telling language in this document that supports its main claims? Do the authors of the document have any justification for the claims they make? Are they historical and if so, how far back in time do they go? Looking at the map of NATO and current post-Soviet state borders, can you identify the borders of Ukraine? How long as Ukraine had these borders? 

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

The Alma-Ata Declaration

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Annotation

This document is a translation of the Belovezh Accords, the agreement which essentially declared that the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Those who signed it agreed to form a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Which states were signatories of the Belovezh Accords? Were these all of the former Soviet republics or not? Which states did not sign? What did signing the accords declare the end of? What did signing the accords create? What did signatories promise in relation to one another? Do you see any evidence of these accords existing to this day? To what extent do you see a major break from these accords to this day? Do you think the CIS still exists, and if so, who do you think is still part of it? Do you think some states might have left the CIS in recent years? If so, who might they have been and why? 

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Resignation Speech

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Annotation

This is a transcript of Gorbachev’s resignation speech. This speech signified the complete end of the Soviet Union. According to the speech, what reasons does Gorbachev give for his resignation? What is the overall tone of this document? Why do you think Gorbachev uses this tone? Look again at the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and the Alma-Ata Declaration, how are the events captured in these two documents referenced by Gorbachev in this document? Do you think that Gorbachev’s actions were accepted? How might different countries that had been part of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union have reflected upon Gorbachev’s resignation at the time? Do you think some of these countries might reflect differently about this event over 30 years later? If so, why? For another perspective on this speech view this contemporary news report on YouTube

This source is part of the teaching module on border changes of the Soviet Union. 

Credits

Susan Grunewald is an Assistant Professor of 20th Century European History at Louisiana State University. She recently completed a three-year term as the Digital History Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Pittsburgh World History Center. Her research focuses on German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union during and after World War II. She frequently utilizes digital humanities methods such as GIS mapping and text analysis in her research. You can find her on Twitter: @SusanGrunewald1

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Border Changes of the Soviet Union," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-border-changes-soviet-union [accessed July 2, 2022]