I have seen many of my foreign friends use words Soviet Union, Russia, Soviet, and Russian interchangeably. Moreover, I’ve seen huge publications like Vox mix those two terms, which eventually triggered me to write this. Consider this article as a kind explainer of what the Soviet Union means. It is about words and their meaning.
I understand that confusion comes from gaps in cross-culture knowledge rather than an attempt to diminish someone; however, it is still a false generalization that might easily offend people. If UK culture is closer to you, imagine how upsetting it would be for Scottish or Irish to repeatedly called English, only because they all are from the UK.
What was the Soviet Union?
The Soviet Union, or formally—Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a union of countries; it’s in the name. Russia, or formally—Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR, Russian SFSR) was just one of them. It gets additionally confusing because Russian SFSR is federation in itself too. Again, it’s in the name—Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. This is the case even today, complete name of modern Russia is Russian Federation. Word federation is pointing to Russias own republics (federal subjects) like Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, etc. These are analogous of US states (to some degree, and with much less independence) and are part of the Russian Federation, but not directly USSR.
Republics of the Soviet Union however, were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia (I’m from here), Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. All of them were Soviet republics and members of USSR, but not part of Russia (Russian SFSR). While all countries were equal, some were more equal than others, and only one of them had Moscow in it, so the fact that Russia had the most power of the fifteen is correct. Thus, words Soviet and Russian mean different things, so does Soviet Union and Russia. Word Soviet when used referring to USSR includes all fifteen nations, but Russian to just one. Those fifteen were legitimate states and nationalities, not ethnicities. You don’t want to dig into ethnicities involved USSR; it is a bottomless rabbit hole.
That’s pretty much it. But, me being Georgian, I’d like you to know a couple of things about USSR and Georgia too:
Trivia About USSR and Georgia
The formal name of Georgia during the USSR was Georgian SSR, or Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Before joining USSR in 1921, Georgia was a progressive democratic republic. It even had several women in government and equal voting rights. Only handful of countries in 1918 did that, and it took a couple of decades and a World War for most of Europe to get there.
While some countries joined USSR somewhat willfully, most were forced to join. Georgia was one of the later ones.
As far as I know, the Georgian language was sole in the union that held the status of primary language alongside with Russian. The rest had both native and Russian as official languages, but Russian was forced on all member states as a primary (some countries changed their native writing systems to Cyrillic too).
Today, Russian language in Georgia is fading very fast. I think I’m from the sole transitional generation that is trilingual (Georgian, Russian, and English). The generation born after the collapse of the union barely understands Russian at all.
English in USSR was like Japanese is in the west now, exotic and cool, although useless outside of its country. Today, English is de-facto second language in Georgia. While not officially recognized, all signs, banners and even official documents are bilingual—Georgian and English. I’d say a third of the post-soviet countries are like that, while others keep (due to multiple reasons) Russian as an essential language.
Georgian language doesn’t look like Russian and does not use Cyrillic. In fact, it doesn’t look like any other script on the planet.
Thanks for reading and accept my apologies if I came up like a slightly ticked-off teacher (soviet teacher?). Now you know that R in USSR doesn’t stand for Russia.