The USSR is unique among the “regions” comprehended by this directory, in that the “region” is constituted by only one State. However, the scale and complexity of the USSR, with 15 Union Republics, Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics and Autonomous Regions, a population approaching 300 million, an enormous geographical spread of nationalities and minority groups, makes it appropriate to consider the whole unit separately. The scale of ethnic complexity resembles an Empire. The tendency of the structure of the USSR is to accommodate particular nationalities/ethnic groups in an appropriate republic or region, though these are also inhabited, almost inevitably, by various other ethnic minority groups. The Russians undoubtedly represent the most prominent ethnic group in the USSR, though the population balance is changing in favour of other groups, most notably non-European peoples.

While it is impossible to adopt too “reductionist” an approach to an organization of such intricacy, the principal types of minority may be tentatively summarized. The Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are Republics which recently enjoyed an independent statehood. This was destroyed through the machinations of Hitler and Stalin, though a number of Western states, including the USA, recognize only the de facto incorporation of the Republics into the USSR, and not their incorporation de jure . The Baltic States themselves were subjected to the League of Nations regime for the protection of minorities, as an aspect of their emergent statehood. The Estonian laws on cultural autonomy were widely admired. Statehood was consolidated, but proved to be short-lived.

The Baltic people represent an economically advanced region within the USSR with a very clear sense of national identity, different to that of Russians and other peoples within the USSR. The Muslims of the USSR represent another, more widespread, antidote to the secular orthodoxy of the USSR. They are concentrated in Central Asia and are mainly Sunni in affiliation. They are a growing minority and have sometimes been influenced by contemporary movements of a fundamentalist nature within Islam. Religious groups as a whole function as a specific type of minority within the USSR. Religion can provide a transcendental and (in some cases) transnational challenge to a State such as the USSR which explicitly bases itself on a materialistic, atheist philosophy in which religion is seen as a relic of the superstitious practices of a pre-revolutionary age. Whatever guarantees of religious freedom may exist in the USSR, all religious organizations have been, to a greater or lesser extent, curtailed.

A third category of minority is constituted by deported groups such as the Crimean Tatars and the Volga Germans. Mass deportations have been a feature of Stalinist totalitarianism. The excuse in the above cases was that of collaboration with the Nazis. Whatever other human rights violations may be practised against such groups, the continuing structural violation is severance from their homeland, and repatriation is the principal demand.

The USSR has claimed in the past to have “solved” the nationalities problem; under current conditions the ideal of rapprochement of nationalities seems further away than ever. This ideal was sullied by the methods used to achieve it, and many groups throughout the USSR harbour deep historical resentments. Perestroika now has an ethnic dimension: group demands for a self-determination and autonomy have been invested with tremendous force by recent political changes. Mutations of political structure and practice may follow from the new ethnic consciousness in the USSR; the capacity of the system to adapt to change will be tested to the full.

Instruments on Minority Rights

Despite the initial hesitations over post-UN Charter developments in human rights, the USSR has signed and ratified all the major treaties relevant to minorities — in strong contrast to the USA which has been unwilling to undertake such commitments. On the other hand, the USSR interprets the process of implementation of treaties in its own manner, exhibiting a preference for national over international procedures. Resistance to international scrutiny of its human rights performance has been maintained, but is gradually eroding: the Helsinki process (see Introduction to Eastern Europe) is particularly significant in this respect. Another significant move is the acceptance by the USSR in 1989 of the compulsory jurisdiction of the World Court in disputes over important human rights treaties.

The 1977 Constitution of the USSR makes various commitments to its citizens, and ethnic/national issues are addressed (see Appendix 5.1). Article 36 provides that “citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights”. The Article describes a policy for nationalities: the exercise of these rights “is ensured by a policy of all-round development and drawing together of all the nations and nationalities of the USSR”. Article 72 provides the startling right of each Union Republic “freely to secede from the USSR”. Of course, as both Lenin and Stalin warned, the granting of a right is one thing, its exercise is another, and the exercise of self-determination may be counter-revolutionary. There is, however, sufficient in the Constitution for the various nationalities to draw inspiration from, and great potential for friction between, the State and Republics: for example, a corollary to “all-round development” is provided by Article 19, whereby the State “shall promote the intensification of the social homogeneity of society; the eradication of differences . . . between town and countryside, intellectual and physical labour and the all-round development”, etc. In this context, the way to achieve development is by homogeneity rather than respect for difference.

The Constitution contains a full range of rights and duties for individual citizens, including “classic” freedoms such as freedom of conscience. Article 4 is crucial: “The Soviet Union and all its agencies shall operate on the basis of socialist legality and ensure the protection of the legal order, and the rights and freedoms of the citizens.” Article 34 states that “Citizens in the USSR shall be equal before the law irrespective of origins, social and property status, racial and national affiliation, sex, education, language, attitude towards religion, type and nature of occupation, place of residence and other circumstances. The equality of citizens of the USSR shall be ensured in all areas of economic, political, social and cultural life”.

Besides the Constitution of the USSR, there are separate constitutions, along specific patterns, for Union Republics and Autonomous Republics, and a great deal of sub-constitutional legislation dealing with human rights and nationality issues. These evince widespread respect for local language use in official and educational matters. Set against this to some degree are the Rules of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: a Party Member shall be “an active conductor of the ideas of socialist internationalism and Soviet patriotism [and shall] . . . wage a struggle against survivals of nationalism and chauvinism . . .”. However, the Communist Party organizations are required to follow the principle of friendship and fraternity of all peoples of the USSR. In the legislation as a whole there is a tension between centralization and devolution, homogeneity and heterogeneity of culture, respect for local characteristics and a concern for “progress” that is difficult to resolve.

Treatment of minorities

The individual profiles of groups largely speak for themselves on the impact of ideology and legislation on minorities. Like Yugoslavia, the USSR represents a notable structural experiment for the accommodation of national differences within a single framework. Like Yugoslavia, the constituent elements are newly assertive, to an unprecedented degree. The USSR carries the heavier burdens of complexity, and a history of injustice to peoples from the heavy hand of totalitarian rule. Grave injustices are still perpetuated. There is some way to go before constitutional freedoms are a reality for citizens. Human rights, rather than purity of ideology, set contemporary standards for the well-being of minorities and all Soviet citizens. It is to be hoped that ethnic ferment in the USSR will not create a backlash, stifling the implementation of rights and freedoms purchased at such cost to human life.




Deported Nationalities

Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians of the Soviet Baltic Republics

Ethnic Religious Minorities





Native Peoples of the North and Siberia

Other Muslim Peoples

Roma in the USSR