Soviet ≠ Russian

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 meanings.

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 somewhat 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.

Soviet Map of Soviet Union. Thick red line denotes borders of USSR. Thinner red lines are borders between member states.

What was the Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union, or formally — Union of Soviet Socialist Republics1 — was a union of countries. Russia, or formally — Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic2 — was just one of them. It gets additionally confusing because Russia 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 Russia’s own republics (federal subjects) like Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia. Those are analogous of US states (to some degree, and with much less independence) and were and are part of the Russia, but not directly USSR.

Republics of the Soviet Union however, were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia3, 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.

Flag of Soviet Republics with the Union flag on the top. Russian flag is bottom left. Georgian—top right. (via u/i_sell_you_lemons)

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.

Now let’s put everything together:

  1. Word ‘Soviet’ when used referring to USSR includes all fifteen nations. Russia is just one them.
  2. 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.

Thus, words Soviet and Russian mean different things, same rules apply to words Soviet Union and Russia.

That’s pretty much it. But, me being Georgian, I’d like you to know a couple of things about USSR and Georgia too.

  • The formal name of Georgia during the USSR was Georgian SSR, or Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
  • While some countries joined USSR somewhat willfully, most were forced to join. Georgia was one of the later ones.
Georgian National Council (Parliament) meeting in 1919.
  • Before joining USSR in 1921, Georgia was a progressive democratic republic. Country had several women in government and equal voting rights for all. Only handful of countries in 1918 did that, and it took a couple of decades and a consequences of WWII for most of Europe to get there.
  • Georgian language was one of very few in the union that held the status of primary language. The rest had their native and Russian as official languages, but Russian was forced on all member states as a primary (some countries even changed their native writing systems to Cyrillic.) Moscow tried to replace Georgian with Russian for years, but failed every single time.
  • Because of that, 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.
Word “script” written in Georgian.
  • English in USSR was like Japanese is in the west now, exotic, cool, and useless outside of its country. Today, English is de-facto second language in Georgia. While not officially recognized, all signs, banners and even official state forms 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 language on the planet.

Now you know that that R in USSR stands for republics, not Russia.

  1. Same as USSR 

  2. Same as RSFSR, Russian SFSR. 

  3. I’m from here! 👋