The Soviet Union, as heir to the former territory of the Russian Empire, was exceptionally diverse in its national composition. Its 1989 census identified 113 ethnic communities, or “nationalities” (Russian natsional’nosti), having populations of 1000 or more, as well as several dozen groups numbering in the hundreds. Almost all had their own languages, customs, and religious traditions, although in many cases national consciousness was weak until the 20th century. Twenty-two Soviet nationalities had at least 1 million members.
The 145.2 million ethnic Russians, the largest nationality by a lopsided margin, came to a bare majority (50.8 percent) of the entire population. Their fellow Eastern Slavs, the Ukrainians and Belorussians, came second and fourth in size, with 44.2 million people (15.5 percent) and 10 million people (3.5 percent), respectively, and several smaller Slavic nationalities were also represented. Ethnic groups of Turkic extraction, based primarily in Central Asia, the Azerbaijan republic, and the middle Volga River valley of the RSFSR, accounted for about 17 percent of the population. Of them, the 16.7 million Uzbeks were the third largest Soviet nationality, the 8.1 million Kazakhs fifth, the 6.8 million Azerbaijanis sixth, and the 6.6 million Tatars seventh. In eighth, ninth, and tenth place were the Armenians (4.6 million), in the South Caucasus; the Tajiks (4.2 million), in Central Asia; and the Georgians (4 million), also in the South Caucasus.
Soviet nationality policy had two defining and at times discordant aspects. On the one hand, it singled out the Russians as the foremost ethnic group and placed the Soviet Union firmly in the line of Russian states going back to the Russian Empire and to the medieval principality of Muscovy. All heads of the Communist Party except Stalin, a Georgian, were of Russian descent. On the other hand, the state acknowledged the worth of the minority nationalities and demarcated a territorial homeland for most of the largest of them.
The area’s government and party committee were normally headed by persons from the titular ethnic group. For 15 of the 22 biggest nationalities (Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Belorussians, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Tajiks, Georgians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Turkmen, Kirgiz, Latvians, and Estonians) the homeland was a union republic, or SSR.
Several dozen smaller groups were assigned lesser units labeled, depending on their size and location, autonomous soviet socialist republics (ASSRs), autonomous oblasts (regions), or autonomous okrugs (areas). Twenty autonomous republics (all but four of them in the RSFSR), eight autonomous oblasts, and ten autonomous okrugs existed in 1989. Three nationalities with more than 1 million members each—the 2 million Germans, 1.4 million Jews, and 1.1 million Poles—had no localized territorial base. "USSR" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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