20 years under Putin: a timeline

The end of December marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, resulting in the emergence of 15 new states, formerly Soviet republics, on the territory of the former superpower. The first line of the Soviet anthem—“Unbreakable union of free republics”—was only partially true. While formally free to secede from the Union, no Soviet republic ever attempted to exercise that right until Gorbachev’s reforms. And at the first attempt, the Union categorically refused to acknowledge the independence of the republics that sought to leave the “brotherly family of peoples.” Even at the dusk of its existence the Soviet Union firmly believed in remaining unbreakable, even in violation of its own Constitution.


December 8, 1991: accords forming the agreement that declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union and creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States are being signed at a Belarusian government residence in Viskuli, Belovezh Forest. Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk (second left), chairman of Belarusian Supreme Soviet Stanislav Shushkevich (third left), and Russian president Boris Yeltsin (second right). Photo: RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons.


December 30, 1922, marked the creation of the first ever federation of socialist republics, titled the Soviet Union. The factors that led to the Union’s creation are described in detail in the 1924 Soviet Constitution [1]. For example, it was said that the world was split into two camps—capitalist and socialist. The capitalist camp was supposedly characterized by national conflict and inequality, colonial slavery and chauvinism, national oppression and pogroms, imperialistic atrocities and wars. The socialist camp, however, enjoyed mutual trust and peace, national freedom and equality, peaceful coexistence and brotherly cooperation of peoples [2], which the bourgeoisie had proven unable to provide for.

The Constitution also specified the economic reasons for the USSR’s formation: imperialist attacks from all over the world, both inside and outside the newly created country, had been successfully thwarted, but years of war had left their mark, and the restoration of the people’s national economy would be impossible if the republics continued to exist separately. Foreign policy reasons were mentioned as well: the instability of the international situation and the threat of new attacks made unavoidable the creation of a unified front of Soviet republics to face the surrounding capitalists. There were additional ideological reasons: the Soviet power system, international in its class-based nature, incentivized the working peoples of the Soviet republics to unite into a single socialist family [3]. 

Having amply explained the necessity and unavoidability of the USSR’s creation, the Constitution  proceeded to emphasize that “the Union… is a willing union of equal peoples, that every republic’s right to freely secede from the Union is provided for.” The republics’ right to freely secede from the Union was deemed so important by the Constitution’s authors that it was enshrined twice—in the text of the Declaration on the Creation of the USSR, and in the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR (Article 13). This constitutional norm was noteworthy, as federative constitutions almost never enshrine the right of individual subjects to leave the federation.

According to the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR, the single Union state encompassed one socialist federative Sovietrepublic—Russia (RSFSR), three Soviet socialist republics—the Ukrainian SSR, the Belarusian SSR, and Zakavkazye (ZSFSR), which, in turn, included three more Soviet socialist republics—Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. That way, the newly formed USSR resembled a kind of a nesting doll: two smaller federations inside a bigger one. 

The founding republics entered the Union with a constitutional “dowry,” namely their own socialist constitutions which were already in place at the time of the USSR’s creation—they were mostly based on the 1918 RSFSR Constitution. Ukraine and Georgia’s “dowry” was especially opulent and included acts that provided for more traditional forms of government. On April 29, 1918, the Central Rada of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) signed a constitutional document that established a parliamentary republic and stated the principle of separation of powers, every citizen’s right to vote and to run for office, equality of social and political rights, and a ban on capital punishment. In particular, the list of rights and freedoms included: equality before courts, freedom of movement, inviolability of the home, habeas corpus, and the court’s right to impose pre-trial restrictions involving deprivation of freedom. This draft constitution, however,never came into force due to the revolutionary turmoil and civil war that were unraveling in Ukraine at the time. However, the very fact that a Basic Law providing for a parliamentary republic was adopted against the backdrop of these events is an important milestone in Ukraine’s constitutional development.

The first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia was adopted by the Constitutional Assembly in Tbilisi on February 21, 1921, and is considered a major achievement of Georgian political thought. The document was developed in accordance with the experience of the forerunner democracies at the time. The parliament, elected by universal equal secret vote organized on a proportional system, was recognized as the supreme body of legislative power. The republic’s Constitution did not provide for the office of president, as executive power was invested in the government, whose chairman (prime minister) was elected for a one-year term and acted as the highest representative of the country in international relations. The Constitution also acknowledged full independence of the courts and electiveness of local self-government bodies, confirmed inclusive, mandatory, and free primary education, and protected the interests of ethnic minorities residing in Georgia. This Constitution stayed in force for just four days—until Georgia lost its independence on February 25, 1921. Still, its adoption is of enormous significance to the country’s history.

It became clear that the Soviet Union would not simply let the republics out of its embrace: it refused to recognize the “rebellious” republics’ independence despite the constitutional norm.

If the course of history had run differently, there could have been more founding republics. On December 17, 1918, the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic was created—it existed for a little more than a year, until January 1920. Soviet Latvia was the first state, after the RSFSR, to adopt its own constitution, which was drawn up in an amazingly short time frame—just two days. On January 13, 1919, the Constitutional Commission was formed, and as early as January 15 the Congress of Soviets approved the Latvian SSR’s Basic Law. 

On February 3, 1919, Soviet Belarus followed in Latvia’s footsteps and adopted its own constitution. In addition, the idea of uniting Belarus and Lithuania into a single republic was approved at the first Belarusian Congress of Soviets. A new constitution to that effect was drafted shortly, but the “Litbel republic” was not fated to be, due to the advance of the White-allied Poles during the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1920). The Belarusian SSR was reinstated in 1920 [4]. 

By the time of the ratification of Stalin’s 1936 Constitution, the USSR included 11 republics. ZSFSR, one of the two federative nesting dolls, was transformed into three separate Soviet socialist republics—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Union, which now included the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tadjik, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz Soviet socialist republics, was said to have been created by means of “a voluntary association of Soviet socialist republics, equal in their rights” (Article 13 of the 1936 Constitution). Just like the 1924 Soviet Constitution, the new Basic Law stated that “every Soviet republic preserves its right to freely secede from the USSR.”

On August 2, 1940, the Moldovan SSR was formed. At the same time, in early August 1940, following the Soviet Union’s June ultimatums and the speedy formation of pro-Soviet people’s assemblies, the formerly independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were forcefully integrated into the USSR and became the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Soviet socialist republics.

The 1977 USSR Constitution defined the Soviet Union as an “integral, federal, multinational state formed on the principle of socialist federalism as a result of the free self-determination of nations and voluntary association of equal Soviet socialist republics” (Article 70). The same article stated that “the USSR embodies the state unity of the Soviet people and draws all of its nations together for the purpose of jointly building communism.”

Article 72 reinforced the free secession norm with a single difference: the word “Soviet” was replaced with “Union”: “Each Union republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR.” 

Despite the fact that the right to freely secede from the Union was enshrined in all three Constitutions of the USSR, using that right turned out to be a challenge. The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian SSRs were the first to learn that. Initially, Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms gave them a hope for independent statehood, and in 1987 all three republics saw a wave of demonstrations in support of the national liberation movement. One after another (Estonia in November 1988, Lithuania in May, Latvia in July 1989) all three declared sovereignty, emphasizing  their statehood and constitutional continuity. During their twenty years of independence between the two world wars, Estonia had adopted three constitutions (1920, 1934, 1938), Latvia one (1922) and Lithuania six (the first three, passed in 1918, 1919, and 1920, were provisional; they were followed by the Constitutions of 1922, 1928, and 1938). This historical experience of independent statehood and constitutionality made these three republics’ secession from the USSR not only highly desirable, but also much simpler in terms of organizing their future lives as independent states.

On February 2, 1990, Estonia adopted its Declaration of Independence, followed by the Act on the Restoration of the Independence of the Lithuanian State on March 11, 1990, and the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Latvian Republic, on May 4, 1990. It was then that it became clear that the Soviet Union would not simply let the republics out of its embrace: it refused to recognize the “rebellious” republics’ independence despite the constitutional norm. The so-called “war of the laws” was already in full swing, prompted by the fact that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania consecutively declared the All-Union legislation ineffective on their territory. The Soviet authorities were swift to push back, declaring the three republics’ legislation contradictory to that of the Union and therefore void [5]. However, Moscow’s refusal to recognize their independence could not stop the process of restoration of statehood that had already begun. One after another, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared constitutional continuity, recognized the priority of the principles and norms of international law, and voided the constitutional provision on the Soviet Union Communist Party’s governing role. Elections to the Supreme Soviets of these republics became another important milestone on the way to a complete revival of independence. Estonia formally left the Soviet Union on August 20, 1991, and on September 6, 1991, the USSR officially recognized Latvia and Lithuania’s independence.

On April 9, 1991, members of Georgia’s Supreme Council and Soviet government signed the Act on the Restoration of the State Independence of Georgia, which highlighted that the country’s centuries-long federal statehood was first lost in the aftermath of the Russian Empire’s annexation, then reinstated in 1918, before being lost again due to occupation and another annexation—this time by Soviet Russia—despite the latter’s earlier recognition of the independent Georgian state. The Act noted that “Georgia entered the Soviet Union unwillingly, its statehood exists to this day, and the 1918 Act on Georgian Independence and its 1921 Constitution still have legal force as of today.” Shortly before the Act was signed on March 31, 1991, Georgia held a referendum on the restoration of the country’s state independence, which was supported by 98 percent of the population.

After the failed August 1991 coup, other Soviet republics started leaving the crumbling Union. Ukraine proclaimed its independence on August 24, 1991, Belarus followed suit the next day, and Moldova on August 27. On August 30, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan adopted the Declaration “On the Restoration of State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan”—the country’s independence was originally declared in 1918 by its National Council. On October 18, 1991, the relevant Constitutional Act of the Republic of Azerbaijan stated that independent Azerbaijan was occupied by Soviet Russia in 1920, and the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR of December 30, 1922, was void with regards to Azerbaijan. The Declaration on the Independence of Armenia, adopted on August 23, 1990, proclaimed  the “start of the process of establishingindependent statehood,” and just over a year afterwards, on September 21, 1991, a referendum returned 99 percent in favor of Armenia’s departure from the Soviet Union. 

Among the five Central Asian Soviet republics, only Uzbekistan had a prior, sufficiently lengthy history of independent statehood. Unlike other Soviet republics that had past experience of independent statehood and sought its reinstatement, none of the five Asian Soviet republics pushed for it. Still, Kyrgyzstan was the first to proclaim independence on August 31, 1991, Uzbekistan followed the next day, Tajikistan on September 9, and Turkmenistan on October 16. The absolute record holder was Kazakhstan, whose leader Nursultan Nazarbayev hoped for the preservation of the Union state until the very end. The Declaration on the State Sovereignty of the Kazakhstan SSR was less an expression of the will to leave the USSR than a “basis to form a Union Treaty” (Article 17 of the Declaration). Eventually, Kazakhstan proclaimed its independence only after the Belovezh Accords had been signed on December 8, 1991: the constitutional law “On the state independence of the Republic of Kazakhstan” was adopted on December 16, 1991.


Notes and references   

  1. The USSR Constitution of 1924 consists of two sections: Declaration on the Creation of the USSR and Treaty on the Creation of the USSR
  2. Declaration on the Creation of the USSR, Constitution of the USSR, 1924. http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/cnst1924.htm
  3. Declaration on the Creation of the USSR. http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/cnst1924.htm
  4. Chistyakov, O.I. First Soviet Constitutions//Jurisprudence.-1968. №5. P 7-14 (RUS)
  5. Сaroline Taube. Constitutionalism in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: A Study in Comparative Constitutional Law. Skrifter Fran Juridiska Fakulteten, Uppsala, 2001.


Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.