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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Misc

The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized

Just how powerful are nuclear bombs? Here’s a look at the top 10 largest nuclear explosions.

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infographic comparing the top 10 largest nuclear explosions

The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized

Just how powerful are nuclear explosions?

The U.S.’ Trinity test in 1945, the first-ever nuclear detonation, released around 19 kilotons of explosive energy. The explosion instantly vaporized the tower it stood on and turned the surrounding sand into green glass, before sending a powerful heatwave across the desert.

As the Cold War escalated in the years after WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested bombs that were at least 500 times greater in explosive power. This infographic visually compares the 10 largest nuclear explosions in history.

The Anatomy of a Nuclear Explosion

After exploding, nuclear bombs create giant fireballs that generate a blinding flash and a searing heatwave. The fireball engulfs the surrounding air, getting larger as it rises like a hot air balloon.

As the fireball and heated air rise, they are flattened by cooler, denser air high up in the atmosphere, creating the mushroom “cap” structure. At the base of the cloud, the fireball causes physical destruction by sending a shockwave moving outwards at thousands of miles an hour.

anatomy of a nuclear explosion's mushroom cloud

A strong updraft of air and dirt particles through the center of the cloud forms the “stem” of the mushroom cloud. In most atomic explosions, changing atmospheric pressure and water condensation create rings that surround the cloud, also known as Wilson clouds.

Over time, the mushroom cloud dissipates. However, it leaves behind radioactive fallout in the form of nuclear particles, debris, dust, and ash, causing lasting damage to the local environment. Because the particles are lightweight, global wind patterns often distribute them far beyond the place of detonation.

With this context in mind, here’s a look at the 10 largest nuclear explosions.

#10: Ivy Mike (1952)

In 1952, the U.S. detonated the Mike device—the first-ever hydrogen bomb—as part of Operation Ivy. Hydrogen bombs rely on nuclear fusion to amplify their explosions, producing much more explosive energy than atomic bombs that use nuclear fission.

Weighing 140,000 pounds (63,500kg), the Ivy Mike test generated a yield of 10,400 kilotons, equivalent to the explosive power of 10.4 million tons of TNT. The explosion was 700 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

#9: Castle Romeo (1954)

Castle Romeo was part of the Operation Castle series of U.S. nuclear tests taking place on the Marshall Islands. Shockingly, the U.S. was running out of islands to conduct tests, making Romeo the first-ever test conducted on a barge in the ocean.

At 11,000 kilotons, the test produced more than double its predicted explosive energy of 4,000 kilotons. Its fireball, as seen below, is one of the most iconic images ever captured of a nuclear explosion.

iconic image of the castle romeo nuclear explosion of 1954

#8: Soviet Test #123 (1961)

Test #123 was one of the 57 tests conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. Most of these tests were conducted on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in Northwestern Russia. The bomb yielded 12,500 kilotons of explosive energy, enough to vaporize everything within a 2.1 mile (3.5km) radius.

#7: Castle Yankee (1954)

Castle Yankee was the fifth test in Operation Castle. The explosion marked the second-most powerful nuclear test by the U.S.

It yielded 13,500 kilotons, much higher than the predicted yield of up to 10,000 kilotons. Within four days of the blast, its fallout reached Mexico City, roughly 7,100 miles (11,400km) away.

#6: Castle Bravo (1954)

Castle Bravo, the first of the Castle Operation series, accidentally became the most powerful nuclear bomb tested by the U.S.

Due to a design error, the explosive energy from the bomb reached 15,000 kilotons, two and a half times what was expected. The mushroom cloud climbed up to roughly 25 miles (40km).

As a result of the test, an area of 7,000 square miles was contaminated, and inhabitants of nearby atolls were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout. Traces of the blast were found in Australia, India, Japan, and Europe.

#5, #4, #3: Soviet Tests #173, #174, #147 (1962)

In 1962, the Soviet Union conducted 78 nuclear tests, three of which produced the fifth, fourth, and third-most powerful explosions in history. Tests #173, #174, and #147 each yielded around 20,000 kilotons. Due to the absolute secrecy of these tests, no photos or videos have been released.

#2: Soviet Test #219 (1962)

Test #219 was an atmospheric nuclear test carried out using an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with the bomb exploding at a height of 2.3 miles (3.8km) above sea level. It was the second-most powerful nuclear explosion, with a yield of 24,200 kilotons and a destructive radius of ~25 miles (41km).

#1: Tsar Bomba (1961)

Tsar Bomba, also called Big Ivan, needed a specially designed plane because it was too heavy to carry on conventional aircraft. The bomb was attached to a giant parachute to give the plane time to fly away.

The explosion, yielding 50,000 kilotons, obliterated an abandoned village 34 miles (55km) away and generated a 5.0-5.25 magnitude earthquake in the surrounding region. Initially, it was designed as a 100,000 kiloton bomb, but its yield was cut to half its potential by the Soviet Union. Tsar Bomba’s mushroom cloud breached through the stratosphere to reach a height of over 37 miles (60km), roughly six times the flying height of commercial aircraft.

The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had devastating consequences, and their explosive yields were only a fraction of the 10 largest explosions. The power of modern nuclear weapons makes their scale of destruction truly unfathomable, and as history suggests, the outcomes can be unpredictable.

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Politics

Mapped: The State of Global Democracy in 2022

We map the state of global democracy, as the Democracy Index hits its lowest point since the inception of the index in 2006.

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Mapped: The State of Democracy Around the World

The world’s (almost) eight billion people live under a wide variety of political and cultural circumstances. In broad terms, those circumstances can be measured and presented on a sliding scale between “free” and “not free”—the subtext being that democracy lies on one end, and authoritarianism on the other.

This year’s Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is one such attempt to apply a score to countries based on how closely they measure up to democratic ideals.

According to EIU, the state of democracy is at its lowest point since the index began in 2006, blamed in part on the pandemic restrictions that saw many countries struggling to balance public health with personal freedom.

In this year’s report, the EIU reported a drop of the average global score from 5.37 to 5.28, the biggest drop since 2010 after the global financial crisis. This translates into a sobering fact: only 46% of the population is living in a democracy “of some sort.”

Let’s dive a bit deeper into what this means.

Percentage of Population by Regime Type

In 2021, 37% of the world’s population still lived under an authoritarian regime. Afghanistan tops this list, followed by Myanmar, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria. Of course, China has a big share of the population living under this style of regime.

On the other side of the spectrum we have full democracies, which only account for 6.4% of the population. Norway tops this list, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

Regime TypeNo. of CountriesShare of countriesShare of World Population
Full democracies2112.6%6.4%
Flawed democracies5331.7%39.3%
Hybrid Regimes3420.4%17.2%
Authoritarian regimes5935.3%37.1%

Let’s explore the characteristics of each of the four types of regime according to the EIU:

Full democracies are nations where:

  • Civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected
  • Valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist
  • There are limited problems in democratic functioning
  • Media is diverse and independent

Flawed democracies are nations where:

  • Elections are fair and free
  • Basic liberties are honored but may have issues
  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Hybrid regimes are nations where:

  • Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly
  • Pressure is applied to political opposition
  • Corruption is widespread and rule of law tends to be weak
  • Media is pressured and harassed
  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Authoritarian regimes are nations where:

  • Political pluralism is nonexistent or limited
  • The population is ruled by absolute monarchies or dictatorships
  • Infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common
  • Elections are not fair or free (if they occur at all)
  • Media is state-owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling regime
  • The judiciary system is not independent
  • Criticism of the government is censored

Global Democracy Index by Region

As mentioned earlier, in 2021, the global democracy score declined from 5.37 to 5.28. This was driven by a decline in the average regional score, but every region has a different reality. Let’s take a look at the democratic state of each region in the world.

Americas

North America (Canada and U.S.) is the top-ranked region in the Democracy Index with an average score of 8.36, but this dropped significantly from 8.58 in 2020.

Both countries have dropped their positions in the global ranking, however, Canada still maintains the status as a full democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in north and south america

The U.S. is still classified by EIU as a flawed democracy, and has been since 2016. The report points to extreme polarization and “gerrymandering” as key issues facing the country. On the bright side, political participation in the U.S. is still very robust compared with the rest of the world.

Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the largest decline in regional scores in the world. This region dropped from 6.09 in 2020 to 5.83 in 2021. This decline shows the general discontent of the population about how their governments have handled the pandemic.

In this region, the only country that falls under a full democracy is Costa Rica. On the other side of the spectrum, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba fall under the authoritarian regime classification.

Europe

In 2021, Western Europe is the region with the most full democracies in the world.

In fact, four out of the top five full democracies are in this region: Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. A notable downgrade in this region happened in Spain; the country is now considered a flawed democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in europe

Eastern Europe paints a different picture, where there is not a single full democracy. Three countries (Moldova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) were upgraded from being considered hybrid regimes to flawed democracies.

Ukraine’s score declined to 5.57, becoming a hybrid region. Russia’s score also declined to 3.24 keeping the authoritarian regime status. It’s important to note that this report by the EIU was published before the invasion of Ukraine began, and the conflict will almost certainly impact scores in next year’s report.

Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has the most countries at the bottom of the Democracy Index rankings.

The fact is that 23 countries are considered “authoritarian regimes”. Meanwhile, there are 14 countries that are hybrid regimes, six countries under flawed democracy, and only one country, Mauritius, is considered a full democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in africa

In North Africa, four countries are considered authoritarian regimes: Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Only Morocco and Tunisia fall into the hybrid regime classification.

Middle East and Central Asia

This region concentrates a substantial number of countries classified as authoritarian regimes. In fact, the region’s overall democracy score is now lower than what it was before the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in the middle east

There are no countries falling under the category of full democracy in this region. Only Israel (7.97) and Cyprus (7.43) are considered flawed democracies. Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Pakistan fall under the category of hybrid regimes, and the rest of the countries in the region are considered authoritarian regimes.

East Asia and Oceania

This is broad region is full of contrasts. Aside from Western Europe, East Asia and Oceania contains the most full democracies: New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. There are also a high number of countries that fall under the category of flawed democracies.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in east asia and oceania

It’s worth noting that some of the most contentious geopolitical relationships are between neighbors with big differences in their scores: China and Taiwan, or North and South Korea are examples of this juxtaposition.

Decline in Global Democracy Levels

Two years after the world got hit by the pandemic, we can see that global democracy is in a downward trend.

Every region’s global score experienced a drop, with the exception of Western Europe, which remained flat. Out of the 167 countries, 74 (44%) experienced a decline in their democracy score.

As pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted, will democracy make a comeback in 2022?

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