Long Teaching Module: Nationalities and the Breakup of the Soviet Union, 1989-2000
The Soviet Union was a multi-national empire from the revolution of 1917 through the final demise of Communism in 1991. Multi-national in this context meant that all Soviet citizens were defined by nationality, which was a category associated with birth, but also with native language, regional boundaries, and cultural traditions. While Russians always made up the largest single national group, they never comprised an absolute majority of the population. All Soviet citizens had their nationality stamped in their passport, which provided one marker of identity.
As indicated by the 1982 map included with the primary source materials, the territory of the Soviet Union was divided into fifteen republics and more than one hundred autonomous regions, each of which was defined at least partially by nationality. Soviet schools taught children in their "native" language, and newspapers, periodicals, and books were published in many languages other than Russian. While the Communist Party, the security police, and the military ensured that political power remained centralized, hierarchical, and dictatorial, the everyday experiences of people throughout this period always involved the dual identities that were both national and Soviet.
This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, guidance on executing the lesson, and additional essay prompts relating to the thirteen primary sources.
Nationalities and the Breakup of the USSR
Given this historical background, the key question becomes what role nationalities played in the final stages of the breakup of the Soviet Union. To explore this question, it is important to define the meanings of nationality and nationalism, as they apply to this historical situation. Nationality refers to a population that shares some key characteristics: language, culture, geography, political affiliation, religion, territory, or historical experience. Nationalism refers to an ideology, in which the identification with the nation becomes an important source of identity, a cause for mobilization, or a point of contention.
Throughout the twentieth century, the extent to which the many nationalities in the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union articulated and experienced a sense of nationalism depended on the historical context. Some nationalities developed a relatively strong sense of nationalism that was based on resentment against incorporation into the Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empire, dissatisfaction with subordinate status within this system, and some desire for autonomy and even independence. The three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) had the strongest sense of nationalism, because of the way they were incorporated into the Soviet Union as a result of the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany; other nationalities with a relatively strong sense of nationalism included the Ukrainians, Armenians, and Georgians.
At this same time, other nationalities were characterized by what might be called a weaker sense of nationalism, that did not attach such significance to historical, cultural, territorial, and linguistic differences. Examples of the weaker definitions of nationalism included Belorussia, Moldavia, and especially the predominantly Muslim populations in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, where religious and cultural identities that transcended territorial boundaries coexisted with patterns of economic underdevelopment.
Within each of these national republics and especially within the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, smaller nationalities also developed stronger or weaker definitions of nationalism. The Russian people, more than any other population, tended to identify their national identity with the overarching system of Soviet power. While the end of the Soviet Union resulted in the formation of 15 independent republics, both the process of dissolution and the subsequent history of these countries was shaped by these differences in nationalism as a political ideology.
National Independence Movements
Recognizing this spectrum of nationalism explains why the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to challenge the Soviet government's claim to be ruling with the consent of nationalities. During the first years of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, in fact, the leaders of the "popular fronts" in these Baltic regions were among his strongest supporters because they shared his goal of decentralizing power, creating opportunities for free expression, and acknowledging the errors and crimes of Soviet history. By 1988, however, these popular fronts moved ahead of Gorbachev in their demand for greater independence, a Western style market economy, and multi-party political systems with elected legislators. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, leaders in the Baltic republics pushed ahead even more quickly in their demands for independence, which also provoked a stronger response from the Soviet government as well as from ethnic Russians living in the republics.
During the course of 1990, all three Baltic republics declared their formal independence from the Soviet Union. Facing this direct challenge to the authority and integrity of the Soviet political system, Gorbachev responded by declaring these steps illegal. In January 1991, one of the most visible confrontations between central authority and regional autonomy occurred in Vilnius, Lithuania, when Soviet forces attacked a television station that had been outspoken in support of the popular front forces. The forces breaking up the Soviet system were strengthened when Boris Yeltsin, as leader of the Russian republic, declared his solidarity with the Baltic movements and even sought foreign support for this separatist push. The overwhelming support for independence was reflected in outcomes of the referenda held in February and March 1991 pushed these Baltic states even further from the Soviet system even before the failed August coup by anti-Gorbachev hardliners in Moscow and the subsequent end of the Soviet Union in December.
In the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia itself emerged as another leading force in the movement to claim independence from the Soviet Union. These steps included a declaration that Russian law took precedence over Soviet law, preparation of a Russian constitution, and negotiations with the governments of other republics that bypassed the Soviet administrative system. In early 1991, when Gorbachev scheduled a referendum on the new federal union, the chairman of the Russian Communist Party, Yeltsin, added a question about whether voters favored a direct election of the Russian president. This provision passed overwhelmingly, and in June 1991, Yeltsin was elected President of Russia, thus acquiring a kind of democratic legitimacy never pursued by Gorbachev, who refused to subject his authority to any kind of electoral approval. When the attempted coup failed in August 1991, Russia was well positioned to declare formal independence, and to assume many of the governmental functions that the Communist Party was no longer able to provide.
In the Caucasus, the movement towards independence was complicated by the tensions among and within national groups. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan focused on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Armenians made up a majority of the population, yet the district was administered by Azerbaijan. As the Armenian republic government escalated its pressure for a union with this territory, the government of Azerbaijan as well as the Azeri population in and around Nagorno-Karabakh also escalated its resistance to Armenia's attempt to incorporate the region into its territory. In January 1990, a series of violent attacks on Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh provoked intervention by Soviet troops, which established order but further emboldened independence movements in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, even as both sides accused Moscow of showing favoritism to their rivals.
In Georgia, by contrast, the emergence of a nationalist movement also provoked one of the most violent incidents of this period, an attack by Soviet troops on demonstrators in April 1989 that resulted in 19 deaths. Even as the Georgian independence movement acquired a broad base of support, ethnic minorities within Georgia also began to press for more rights or even new unions across existing political boundaries. First the Soviet and then the Russian government repeatedly threatened to intervene in defense of minority rights in Georgia, even as Georgia itself assumed a leading role in asserting national sovereignty before the final collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
In Central Asia, one of the first manifestations of nationalism came, ironically, in opposition to Gorbachev's reforms, when he threatened to remove Communist Party officials implicated in systemic corruption and abuses of power in several Central Asian republics. Rather than perceiving these actions as signs of progress, Communists from the local nationalities rallied around their leaders, thus initiating (however inadvertently) challenges to Moscow's authority that would spread in the following years. As in the other regions, glasnost created possibilities for the articulation of nationalism as a collective ideology and movement. More significantly, however, a number of Communist officials from specific national groups redefined themselves and their networks of power in ways that positioned them to assume power as the Soviet system began to weaken. The post-Soviet rulers of the Central Asian republics thus shared a common trajectory, as they were all put into power by the Moscow-based Soviet Communist Party, but remained in power as leaders of newly independent national republics.
In Ukraine, where nationalists could point to moments of historical experience of self-rule and cultural independence, the evolution of a nationalist identity was complicated, as was true throughout the Soviet Union, by the multi-national and multi-ethnic composition of the population. While the western regions of Ukraine were increasingly confrontational in their demands for autonomy and independence, the more eastern regions, where a larger proportion of the population was ethnically Russian, were less supportive of this movement for autonomy and independence. While Ukraine was geographically closest too and thus strongly influenced by the rapid changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, these divisions within the territory and population complicated and compromised this nationalist challenge to Soviet power. Ukraine played a key role in orchestrating the final end of this drama. In mid-December 1991, the leaders of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine declared themselves independent, thus bringing to an end, on New Year's Eve, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Exploring the Documents
The documents provided in this module make it possible to explore the multiple histories outlined in the above narrative. Maps and population statistics for the Soviet and post-Soviet period provide some basis for situating and measuring the extent of changes in territory and population. Most of the other materials come from the year 1989, when the Soviet nationalities simultaneously exercised their own emerging sense of nationalism and also responded to the parallel changes in Eastern Europe. While the Soviet Union remained intact and the Communist Party retained power throughout this pivotal year, the changes in national identity represented one of the most important factors that contributed to the breakup of this system less than two years later.
Media reports published within the Soviet Union thus represent voices and movements of individuals and groups struggling to to define their common interests, pursue shared objectives, account for differences within and between national groups, and respond to the authority of the central government. These media sources are taken from the published daily reports of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a U.S. government agency that monitored broadcasts and publications from within the Communist bloc throughout the later stages of the Cold War. As this bloc began to disintegrate, American policy makers used these translated documents, in combination with other reports, to determine the intentions of actors and the implications of events. Re-reading these documents as historical sources makes it possible to follow unfolding developments and explore perspectives of those who truly "made" the history of 1989.
Virginia Tech University
This table provides population information for the fifteen successor states of the Soviet Union. While these figures do not provide a breakdown by national composition within each independent state, they do reveal the range in the sizes of these new states. The break up of the Soviet Union presented each population and government with unique challenges that were also shaped by the common history of the Soviet empire.
This source is a part of the Nationalities and the Breakup of the Soviet Union, 1989-2000 teaching module.
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Given the nature of the Module and the associated sources, the teaching of the documents are normally best handled in combination. To use primary sources with confidence, students should be alert to potential causes of bias, distortion, and inaccuracy in the sources. As with any primary source, there are some generalized questions your students might want to focus on, such as:
1. Who wrote the document, and for whom was it written? What does this suggest about the point of view reflected in the document?
2. Why was the document written, and what form does it have? A document’s purpose and form (e.g. legal opinion, prohibition, instruction manual) will affect the sorts of material it contains and might cause a systematic bias.
3. How do author, audience, purpose, and form relate to the event or phenomenon that the document describes? Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon? Does the form permit accurate reporting? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it?
4. In conclusion, how reliable do you think this document is? What other kinds of documents would you want to examine to corroborate its claims?
Group 1: Documents 2 (Russia, 1994), 12 (Soviet Administrative, 1989) 13 (Soviet Nationalities, 1989) & 14 (Soviet Map, 1982:
Review the four maps: what do each portray? What problems (politically, socially, etc.) does the maps imply for governing this vast area? Use the maps to show how the Commonwealth of States (1994) naturally evolved out of the Soviet pattern of organization and governance. Can the students notice any issues of nationality based on the political realities reflected in the maps?
Group 2: Documents 4 (Uzbek), 5 (Turkmen), 8 (Gorbachev’s TV address) & 9 (Ukraine Ethnic Issues).
All of these documents reflect the “official” Soviet line on the pressures facing Soviet control in the emerging nationalist debates in the early 1990’s throughout the Soviet state. Questions might include: How did Soviet authorities characterise nationalist movements in this areas? What specific threats did they appear to represent to the Soviet system? Were solutions are answers given to those threats? Why might the Soviet positions and attitudes have been unsuccessful?
Group 3: Documents 3 (Lithuania), 6 (Latvia) & 7 (Estonia’s Fate)
These are examples of anti-Soviet, nationalist voices within the disappearing Soviet state. Similar questions might be asked of these "contrary" voices. Thus, one might ask students to examine how these areas characterize nationalism? What benefits did it present to the “new” countries? What do you think the country sought to gain in independence?
Another exercise could easily involve combining the last two grouping to compare and contrast the ideas and positions in the pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet groupings. Having students examining the contrasting ideas would be a good exercise to allow them to question how the Soviet government might solve this conflict. Of course, each document might also be more closely investigated. An example of that might look like this:
Ukranian Central Committee on Ethnic Issues
Why does this statement claim that "public initiative has increased"? What does this statement reveal about Communist Party perceptions of the meaning of dialogue, cooperation, and democratization? Why does the statement warn against the efforts of "nationalist-minded political extremists"? Would this statement have been perceived positively or negatively by those advocating greater autonomy for Ukraine at the start of 1989?
Three 90 minute block periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.
- Sufficient copies of the introductory essay for all class members
- Primary Source Worksheet for each student
- Index cards
- Sufficient copies of all of the primary sources for all of the class
- Debate Guidelines for each student
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
- understand the concepts of nationalities and nationalism within an overreaching
concept of empire.
- understand the characteristics of the Soviet Union as an empire.
- understand the concept of totalitarianism as employed by the government
of the Soviet Union which allowed for control of nationalist divisions in
multiethnic Soviet republics until unleashed by Gorbachev’s introduction
of glasnost and perestroika.
- demonstrate understanding of the historic reasons for separatism related
to the subjugation of nationalities within their own borders by the Soviet
- demonstrate understanding that nationalities lived as second-class citizens
under Russian domination within the Soviet Union despite the fact that they
comprised a majority within their individual republics.
- demonstrate understanding of the role of religion in the nationalities move
for separation from the Soviet Union.
- demonstrate understanding that the nationalities sometimes worked against
their own economic self-interest in pursuing dissolution of the Soviet Union.
- demonstrate understanding that that the Soviet Union responded differently
to nationalist uprising in 1989 and 1991 to their response in 1968 in Czechoslovakia
and other earlier uprisings.
- analyze primary source documents to understand the role of nationalities
in pressuring the Soviet Union to set individual republics free.
- analyze primary source documents to see the Communist party responses to
nationalist demands for separatism.
- utilize research and debate techniques to come to a fuller understanding
of the role of nationalities in breaking with the Soviet Union.
1.(Day 1) Opening Activity: Discuss
the following questions:
- In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious region, is an empire with vast, centralized
power the best form of government possible? Why or why not?
- What allowed for long-term success and then for ultimate failure of some
of the historical multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires such as the Hapsburg’s
- In what ways was did the Soviet Union exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses
of earlier historical empires?
- Is the world moving in the direction of globalization and Supranations (EU,
NAFTA, UN) or is it breaking up into small nations through “tribalism”
(dissolution of Yugoslavia, USSR, African nations)? Which direction is preferable
for the future of the world and why? Cite examples.
2. Small Group Activity: This lesson will provide research-based
debate to illuminate the role of nationalities in the breakup of the Soviet
Union. After the introduction, each group will spend the remainder of the first
90 minute block reading the introduction, Nationalities in the USSR,
found in this module. All students will work in groups of two to compare two
primary sources: Post-Soviet population table (2006) and Commonwealth of Independent
States map (1994). They will answer the following questions based on information
in the introductory essay and from the maps:
- Which republics broke away from the Soviet Union and why?
- Which major ethnic groups stayed within the new Russia and why?
- Following the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991, which republics
were the most diverse? Which were the least diverse? Which have the best chances
of economic success and why?
Next, students will be assigned to one of the following six groups and given
Analysis of primary documents: Students will choose one of
the following themes so that all themes are covered within their group. They
will write the theme at the top of their index cards. On the cards, they will
record the following relevant information for one theme:
- ETHNICITY: Ethnic makeup within their assigned republic. Include percentages
of top groups.
- RELIGION: Major religious groups within the assigned republic and the extent
to which religion was practiced before and during the Soviet period.
- HISTORY: Date and general circumstances of the region’s incorporation
into the Russian or Soviet empire.
- ECONOMY: Essential economic facts such as primary natural resource or industrial
3. (Day 2) Report: At the beginning of the
second 90 minute block, students will report to the class by region and theme.
Individual students will briefly (no more than three minutes each) report out
their findings to the class. Students will record findings on the group report
4. Jigsaw: Regardless of previous group placement, students
will then jigsaw out into groups based on their assignment to a “Soviet
Union” group or a “Nationalities” group.
Each student in the Soviet group will be given Primary Sources: Soviet population
table by nationality (1970), Ukrainian Central Committee on Ethnic Issues, Gorbachev’s
TV Address on Interethnic Relations, Turkmen Party’s Niazov Discusses
Ethnic Issues, Uzbek Minister on Restoring Order in Tashkent, and the Commonwealth
of Independent States map (1994).
The Nationalities group will be given Primary Sources: Soviet population table
by nationality (1970), Communist Party’s Role in Estonia’s Fate
Revealed, Latvian Group Wants Full Political Independence, Lithuanian Communist
Party Declares Independence, and the Commonwealth of Independent States map
5. (Day 3) Analysis: Within the groups assigned previously,
students will be given 45 minutes to analyze each of the documents. They may
divide the documents between members of the group. They will be looking for
arguments within the documents pertaining to why the Soviet Union may have been
the best form of government for a multi-ethnic and religious region or whether
regions should be given freedom to find their own best solutions. Each group
will complete a primary source analysis sheet for each document they have been
6. Debate: Teacher- conducted debate (45 minutes)
Students will be given a debate guidelines sheet and will be given three minutes
to make their point, two minutes for counter-point. They may incorporate the
key points in the primary sources AND the research information.
Resolved: In 1991, the future of the Soviet republics and their multiple
nationalities and ethnicities would have been better served by remaining under
the reformed empire of the USSR.
Document Based Questions:
To what extent did divergent nationalities play a role in the break-up of the
Soviet Union? Use three different republics to illustrate your answer.
To what extent did divergent nationalities play a role in the break-up of the
Soviet Union? Use the examples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to analyze the
extent to which nationalist and anti-Soviet sentiment supported division and
undermined the republic’s economic and political self-interest.
Advanced students may be given all of the documents and select the ones which
support their argument for pro-soviet or pro-nationality/free republics. Their
research should reflect greater depth of information and analysis.
Enrichment activities include a look at the Eastern European breaks with the
Soviet Union and comparisons to events in 1981 when the Soviet republics broke
away from the Soviet Union. Students can research and evaluate events in Chechnya
and explain the reasons that separation was not allowed for Chechnya whereas
it had occurred in these republics in 1981.
Less advanced students will be assigned an essay which explains why many of
the republic states joined eastern European nations in breaking away from the
Soviet Union. They may also be asked to formulate their ideas of a “perfect
government” for a multi-national, multi-ethnic nation. Finally, they may
summarize their ideas following the lesson that best answer the questions in
Document Based Question
Using the primary sources in this module, answer ONE of the following prompts:
1. To what extent did divergent nationalities play a role in the break-up of the Soviet Union? Use three different republics to illustrate your answer.
2. Some scholars argue that, like any other multi-national empire throughout history, the Soviet state was "doomed" to fail as a coherent entity, given the vast number of competing nationalities and nationalisms. Do you agree or disagree? Defend your answer. Identify the elements that worked in support of the continuation of the Soviet State and those that worked against it. Include whatever other historical examples you feel are relevant.
About the Author
E. Thomas Ewing, Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech, is author of The Teachers of Stalinism: Policy, Practice, and Power in Soviet Schools of the 1930s and editor of Revolution and Pedagogy: Interdisciplinary and Transnational Perspectives on Educational Foundations. He has received numerous grants and fellowships. Dr. Ewing is the Project Director for History Survey Online: Digital Resources for United States and European History—an NEH Exemplary Education multimedia source that provides historical data and inquiry-based learning structures for major topics in college survey courses.
About the Lesson Plan Author
Cynthia Szwajkowski is the Teaching American History Grant Coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, a one million dollar federal grant program. Dr. Szwajkowski also taught Advanced Placement U.S. History and Government to high school students in northern Virginia. She was awarded the Virginia Social Studies Teacher of the Year (2005) and, additionally, has experience teaching U.S. History to Loudoun County teachers.
This teaching module was originally developed for the Making the History of 1989 project.