The Republics of the Soviet Union were, according to the Article 76 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution, Sovereign Soviet Socialist states that had united with other Soviet Republics to become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union, for short. Article 81 of the Constitution stated that "the sovereign rights of Union Republics shall be safeguarded by the USSR".
According to the European Court of Human Rights, , the United Nations Human Rights Council , the governments of the Baltic countries, the United States, and the European Union, the three Soviet Baltic republics (Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR) were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 under the provisions of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Russian government and state officials, however, maintain that the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states was legitimate.
In the final decades of its existence, the Soviet Union consisted of fifteen Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR), often called simply Soviet Republics. Within the USSR they were also called union republics (союзные республики, soyuznye respubliki). All of them were considered to be socialist republics, and all of them, with the exception of the Russian SFSR, had their own Communist parties, part of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. All of the former Republics are now independent countries, with twelve of them (all except the Baltic states) being very loosely organized under the heading of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Constitutionally, the Soviet Union was a federation. In accordance with Article 72 of the 1977 Constitution, each republic retained the right to secede from the USSR. Throughout the Cold War, this right was widely considered to be meaningless; however, Article 72 was used in December 1991 to effectively dissolve the Soviet Union, when Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus seceded from the Union.
In practice, the USSR was a highly centralised entity from its creation in 1922 until the mid-1980s when political forces unleashed by reforms undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in the loosening of central control and its ultimate collapse. Under the constitution adopted in 1936 and modified along the way until October 1977, the political foundation of the Soviet Union was formed by the Soviets (Councils) of People's Deputies. These existed at all levels of the administrative hierarchy, with the Soviet Union as a whole under the nominal control of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, located in Moscow.
Along with the state administrative hierarchy, there existed a parallel structure of party organizations, which allowed the Politburo to exercise large amounts of control over the republics. State administrative organs took direction from the parallel party organs, and appointments of all party and state officials required approval of the central organs of the party. General practice in the republics outside of Russia was that the head of state in a republic was a local official while the party general secretary was from outside the republic.
Each republic had its own unique set of state symbols: a flag, a coat of arms, and, with the exception of the Russian SFSR, an anthem. Every republic of the Soviet Union also was awarded with the Order of Lenin.
The republics played an important role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika were intended to revive the Soviet Union. However, they had a number of effects which caused the power of the republics to increase. First, political liberalization allowed the governments within the republics to gain legitimacy by invoking democracy, nationalism or a combination of both. In addition, liberalization led to fractures within the party hierarchy which reduced Soviet control over the republics. Finally, perestroika allowed the governments of the republics to control economic assets in their republics and withhold funds from the central government.
Throughout the late 1980s, the Soviet government attempted to find a new structure which would reflect the increasing power of the republics. These efforts proved unsuccessful, and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed as the republic governments seceded. The republics then all became independent states, with the post-Soviet governments in most cases consisting largely of the government personnel of the former Soviet republics.
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