Soviet Union Table of Contents
In theory, the fifteen republics entered into a free and voluntary union of sovereign states when they joined the Soviet Union. The Constitution granted the republics the right to secede; nonetheless, as of 1988 the republics had exercised very little sovereignty. In 1989, however, the Lithuanian, Estonian, Moldavian, and several other republics sought greater national autonomy (see Manifestations of National Assertiveness , ch. 4).
Long-standing practice has established three nonconstitutional requirements for republic status. First, as stated by Stalin in supervising the writing of the 1936 constitution, the republics had to border on territory outside the Soviet Union, enabling them to exercise their theoretical right to secede. All republics met this requirement. Second, the national minority that gave its name to the republic was supposed to make up a majority of its population and to number more than 1 million people. In 1989 the Kazakhs, however, did not constitute a majority of the Kazakh Republic's population, constituting about 40 percent of the republic's population of 16.5 million people. Third, republics were supposed to have the potential to be economically viable states, should they secede from the union.
Over the course of Soviet history, the Supreme Soviet has created new union republics within the territory of the Soviet Union. In 1922 the Soviet Union comprised four republics: the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Republic, the Belorussian Republic, and the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. The Soviet government elevated Turkmenia (also known as Turkmenistan) and Uzbekistan to republic status in 1924, and Tadzhikistan split from the Uzbek Republic in 1929 to form a separate republic. Kazakhstan and Kirgizia became republics in 1936. (Turkmenia, Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, and Kazakhstan had been part of the Russian Republic.) In 1936 the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic split into the Armenian, Azerbaydzhan, and Georgian republics.
As the Soviet Union gained territory, the Supreme Soviet created new republics. Territory taken from Finland was joined in March 1940 with the Karelian Autonomous Republic to form the Karelo-Finnish Republic. (In 1956 this republic, which had never had a majority of the nationality whose name it bore, was demoted to the status of an autonomous republic and was renamed the Karelian Autonomous Republic.) Moreover, in 1940 Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were incorporated into the Soviet Union as republics. Finally, in 1940 Bessarabia, taken from Romania, was joined with the Romanian-speaking portion of the Moldavian Autonomous Republic in the Ukrainian Republic to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Data as of May 1989