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4 Historical Maps that Explain the USSR

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The eyes of the world are now fixed on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The motivations of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, are now the biggest unanswered question of this geopolitical event. One prominent line of thinking is that Putin is looking to reclaim the territory lost after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Russian leader’s own words appear to support this claim:

Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.

The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of Bolshevik and Soviet leaders […] the collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.

For anyone born after the 1970s, memories of that era range from hazy to non-existent, so it’s worth answering the question: What was the USSR anyway?

Below, we’ll use historical maps from three specific eras to build context for how the USSR was structured, which modern countries were a part of this sprawling country, and how its history relates to Russia’s present day pushes for territorial expansion.

Let’s dive in.

The Early Days of the Soviet Union

The USSR was first born in 1922, in the aftermath of the fallen Russian Empire. A civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and anti-Bolshevik forces across the region ended with the former coming out victorious. This resulted in the unification of a number of republics to form the Soviet Union.

After a number of tumultuous years during the reign of Joseph Stalin, which include a devastating famine which killed millions of people, we arrive at our first snapshot in time: the late 1930s.

ussr map 1939

For more detail, view the full-sized version of this map

The USSR was set up as a federation of constituent union republics, which were either unitary states, such as Ukraine, or federations, such as Russia.

Below, we can see how this organizational structure was laid out.

organization of the ussr

For more detail, view the full-sized version of this diagram

While nominally a union of equals, in practice the Soviet Union was dominated by the Russian Republic (RSFSR). This massive republic contained most of the country’s economic and political power, as well as the largest population and landmass.

ussr territorial conflict map 1938

For more detail, view the full-sized version of this map

The geopolitical history of the USSR is inexorably bound with territorial disputes with neighboring regions. In the map above, from 1938, we can see that Soviet troops are clashing with Japan on the eastern edge of the country. On the other end, Stalin had annexed half of Poland, the three Baltic States, and portions of Romania, following the pact with Adolf Hitler.

This sequence of events set the stage for World War II.

The Soviet Empire

The USSR achieved victory in WWII, but at a great cost. An estimated 14% of the prewar population perished in the conflict.

By the end of the 1950s though, the Soviet Union was riding high on a string of impressive achievements on the world stage, from launching the first satellite into space to developing missiles that were a credible threat to American cities. As well, the country’s GDP growth was outpacing its Cold War rival.

This map is a snapshot of the USSR just prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1962.

ussr map 1961

For more detail, view the full-sized version of this map

Above, in orange, we see how much territory the USSR ended up with after the war. This map is especially informative as it lists the populations of the territories at the time. Large portions of Eastern Europe—including more than 22 million people—were rolled behind the iron curtain.

The Waning Days of the USSR

After a prolonged period of stagnation, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reform the Soviet political and economic system with perestroika, which literally translates to “reconstruction”. This movement began a slow process of democratization that eventually destabilized Communist control through the late 1980s, hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The map below is a snapshot of the USSR two years prior to its official dissolution in 1991.

ussr administrative divisions 1989

For more detail, view the full-sized version of this map

Many of the republics, shown in various colors above, were already seeing independence movements and unrest by this time, and would eventually declare independence one by one.

Here’s a list of the major regions that seceded from the USSR:

USSR SubdivisionPresent Day CountrySeceded from the USSR
Estonian SSR🇪🇪 Estonia8 May 1990
Lithuanian SSR🇱🇹 Lithuania11 March 1990
Latvian SSR🇱🇻 Latvia4 May 1990
Azerbaijan SSR🇦🇿 Azerbaijan30 August 1991
Georgian SSR🇬🇪 Georgia9 April 1991
Russian SFSR🇷🇺 Russian Federation12 December 1991
Uzbek SSR🇺🇿 Uzbekistan31 August 1991
Moldavian SSR🇲🇩 Moldova27 August 1991
Ukrainian SSR🇺🇦 Ukraine24 August 1991
Byelorussian SSR🇧🇾 Belarus10 December 1991
Turkmen SSR🇹🇲 Turkmenistan27 October 1991
Armenian SSR🇦🇲 Armenia21 September 1991
Tajik SSR🇹🇯 Tajikistan9 September 1991
Kazakh SSR🇰🇿 Kazakhstan16 December 1991
Kirghiz SSR🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan31 August 1991

Since these regions seceded with their borders largely intact, a current map of this part of the world doesn’t look too different from the one above.

That said, even as borders remain static, the war in Ukraine demonstrates that power dynamics in this region are still very much in flux.

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Markets

Who Owns the Most Vehicles per Capita, by Country?

Here are the highest vehicles per capita by country as a growing global middle class is fueling car ownership rates around the world.

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This bar graph shows the number of vehicles per 1,000 people around the world.

Who Owns the Most Vehicles per Capita, by Country?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

In 2020, there were 289 million vehicles in use in America, or about 18% of the global total.

With one of the largest car ownership rates worldwide, the number of U.S. cars on the road have more than doubled since the 1960s. But how does ownership compare to other countries, and who is seeing the fastest growth rates amid a rising global middle class?

This graphic shows vehicles per capita by country, based on data from the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA).

Highest Car Ownership Rates Worldwide

Below, we rank countries based on the number of registered vehicles in use per 1,000 people, including both passenger cars and commercial vehicles as of 2020:

CountryNumber of Vehicles in Use
per 1000 Inhabitants
Average Annual Growth Rate
2015-2020
🇳🇿 New Zealand8693%
🇺🇸 U.S.8602%
🇵🇱 Poland7614%
🇮🇹 Italy7561%
🇦🇺 Australia7372%
🇨🇦 Canada7073%
🇫🇷 France7041%
🇨🇿 Czechia6583%
🇵🇹 Portugal6402%
🇳🇴 Norway6351%
🇦🇹 Austria6322%
🇬🇧 UK6322%
🇩🇪 Germany6272%
🇪🇸 Spain6272%
🇬🇷 Greece6171%
🇯🇵 Japan6120%
🇨🇭 Switzerland6041%
🇧🇪 Belgium5901%
🇳🇱 Netherlands5882%
🇫🇮 Finland5771%
🇸🇪 Sweden5441%
🇩🇰 Denmark5402%
🇮🇪 Ireland5403%
🇲🇾 Malaysia5356%
🇸🇰 Slovakia5133%
🇱🇾 Libya4904%
🇧🇬 Bulgaria485-1%
🇭🇷 Croatia4743%
🇸🇾 Syria4727%
🇭🇺 Hungary4634%
🇰🇷 South Korea4582%
🇷🇴 Romania4387%
🇮🇱 Israel4044%
🇷🇺 Russia3892%
🇧🇾 Belarus3871%
🇲🇽 Mexico3584%
🇹🇼 Taiwan3441%
🇦🇪 UAE3438%
🇷🇸 Serbia3304%
🇦🇷 Argentina3110%
🇹🇭 Thailand2775%
🇨🇱 Chile2461%
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan226-1%
🇨🇳 China22314%
🇹🇷 Türkiye2204%
🇧🇷 Brazil2141%
🇺🇦 Ukraine192-1%
🇮🇷 Iran1832%
🇿🇦 South Africa1761%
🇪🇨 Ecuador1523%
🇻🇪 Venezuela149-1%
🇩🇿 Algeria1443%
🇲🇦 Morocco1124%
🇨🇴 Colombia1111%
🇮🇶 Iraq1114%
🇵🇪 Peru884%
🇮🇩 Indonesia785%
🇪🇬 Egypt644%
🇳🇬 Nigeria565%
🇻🇳 Vietnam5017%
🇵🇭 Philippines383%
🇮🇳 India3310%
🇵🇰 Pakistan207%

Clinching top spot is New Zealand, a country known for its love of cars.

With nearly nine cars on the road to every 10 people, this figure is notably high considering that children make up about 20% of the population. The majority of cars are imported second hand from Japan thanks to a wave of deregulation in the 1980s along with the country being a major producer of right-hand drive cars.

The U.S. falls close behind, with a clear preference for trucks and SUVs. In fact, the Ford F-1 Series has been the best-selling vehicle in America for 42 consecutive years.

In Europe, Poland has the highest number of vehicles per person, but one of the lowest share of electric vehicles (EVs). While EVs make up nearly 16% of all cars in top-ranking country Norway, they comprise 0.1% in Poland. On average, EVs account for 0.8% of passenger cars in the European Union.

Driven by an expanding middle class, Vietnam has seen the fastest growth in ownership. Between 2015 and 2020, the motorization rate grew by an astonishing 17% each year. Additionally, China witnessed 14% growth while India’s vehicles per 1,000 people increased 10% annually over the period.

The Top EV Markets, by Country

As EV sales gain momentum, here are the biggest markets worldwide, based on the number of all-EV cars in use as of 2022:

CountryEstimated Number of EVs in Use
2022
🇨🇳 China11,000,000
🇺🇸 U.S.2,100,000
🇩🇪 Germany1,000,000
🇫🇷 France620,000
🇳🇴 Norway590,000
🇬🇧 UK550,000
🇳🇱 Netherlands340,000
🇰🇷 South Korea300,000
🇨🇦 Canada250,000
🇯🇵 Japan210,000

Source: IEA Global EV Outlook 2023

China is home to over half of the world’s EVs.

Its foothold on the global EV market can be explained by its close proximity to the raw materials used in EV batteries. In fact, China produces roughly 70% of the world’s rare earth metals and has more battery production capacity than all other countries combined.

Adding to this, China developed key government policies that specifically tackled operational hurdles, such as battery constraints, leading to innovation in core technologies. In 2023, EVs made up 31% of all car sales in China, boosted by government incentives and strong consumer demand.

Norway is another leader in the EV market, whose government began introducing EV policies as early as 1990. By 2025, the country aims to phase out internal combustion engine vehicle sales completely. About 80% of all vehicles sales in Norway were EVs in 2022, the highest in the world.

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