4 Historical Maps that Explain the USSR
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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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Demographics

Visualizing Population Density Patterns in Six Countries

These maps show the population density of several countries, using 3D spikes to denote where more people live.

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beautifully rendered population density maps of six major countries

As of 2022, Earth has 8 billion humans. By 2050, the population is projected to grow to 10 billion.

In the last 100 years, the global population more than quadrupled. But none of this growth has been evenly spread out, including within countries.

This series of 3D maps from Terence Teo, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, renders the population density of six countries using open-source data from Kontur Population. He used popular programming language R and a path-tracing package, Rayshader, to create the maps.

France and Germany: Population Density Spikes and Troughs

Let’s take a look at how the population spreads out in different countries around the world. Click the images to explore higher-resolution versions.

This image shows a map of France and its population spread.

France is the world’s 7th largest economy and second-most-populous country in the EU with 65 million people. But a staggering one-fifth of the French population lives in Paris and its surrounding metro—the most populous urban area in Europe.

Many residents in the Paris metropolitan area are employed in the service sector, which makes up one-third of France’s $2.78 trillion gross domestic product.

This image shows a map of Germany and its population spread.

Unlike France, Germany has many dense cities and regions, with Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne all having over a million residents. Berlin is the most populated at 3.5 million residents in the city proper, and 6 million in the wider urban area.

That said, the relatively recent reunification of West and East Germany in 1991 meant that post-WWII growth was mostly concentrated in West Germany (and West Berlin).

Italy and Chile: Coast to Coast

In Italy, another phenomenon affects population density and urban development—a sprawling coastline.

This image shows a map of Italy and its population spread.

Despite having a large population of 59 million and large metropolitan areas throughout, Italy’s population spikes are closer to the water.

The port cities of Genoa, Napoli, and Palermo all have large spikes relative to the rest of the country, as does the capital, Rome. Despite its city center located 15 miles inland from the sea, it extends to the shore through the district of Ostia, where the ancient port of Rome existed.

This image shows a map of Chile and its population spread.

Meanwhile in Chile, stuck between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, population spikes corroborate with its many port towns and cities.

However, the country is more concentrated than Italy, with 40% of its residents congregating around the capital of Santiago.

Turkey and Canada: Marred by Mountains and Climes

Though Chile has difficulties with terrain, it is relatively consistent. Other countries have to attempt to settle many different climes—regions defined by their climates.

This image shows a map of Türkiye and its population spread.

Mountains to the south and east, a large, semi-arid plateau, and even a small desert leave few centers of urban growth in Türkiye.

Predictably, further west, as the elevation comes down to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, population spikes begin to heighten. The largest of course is the economic and cultural hub of Istanbul, though the capital Ankara is also prominent with more than 5 million residents.

This image shows a map of Canada and its population spread.

In Canada, the Rocky Mountains to the west and freezing cold temperatures in the center and north account for the large country’s relative emptiness.

Though population spikes in Western Canada are growing rapidly, highly populous urban centers are noticeably concentrated along the St. Lawrence River, with the Greater Toronto Area accounting for more than one-sixth of the country’s 39 million people.

Increasing Urbanization

According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that trend is only growing.

By 2050, 7 out of 10 people are projected to live in cities. This congregation makes cities a beehive of productivity and innovation—with more than 80% of the world’s GDP being generated at these population centers.

It’s in this context that mapping and studying urban development becomes all the more important, particularly as policymakers try their hand at sustainable urban planning.

As Teo puts it:

“By showing where people are (and are not), they show us where political and economic power is concentrated, and perhaps where and who our governments represent.”

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