Nationalities in the USSR

Lesson Plan

Time Estimated

Three 90 minute block periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.



  • Sufficient copies of the introductory essay for all class members
  • Primary Source Worksheet for each student
  • Index cards
  • Sufficient copies of all of the primary sources for all of the class
  • Debate Guidelines for each student



By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • understand the concepts of nationalities and nationalism within an overreaching concept of empire.
  • understand the characteristics of the Soviet Union as an empire.
  • understand the concept of totalitarianism as employed by the government of the Soviet Union which allowed for control of nationalist divisions in multiethnic Soviet republics until unleashed by Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost and perestroika.
  • demonstrate understanding of the historic reasons for separatism related to the subjugation of nationalities within their own borders by the Soviet Union.
  • demonstrate understanding that nationalities lived as second-class citizens under Russian domination within the Soviet Union despite the fact that they comprised a majority within their individual republics.
  • demonstrate understanding of the role of religion in the nationalities move for separation from the Soviet Union.
  • demonstrate understanding that the nationalities sometimes worked against their own economic self-interest in pursuing dissolution of the Soviet Union.
  • demonstrate understanding that that the Soviet Union responded differently to nationalist uprising in 1989 and 1991 to their response in 1968 in Czechoslovakia and other earlier uprisings.
  • analyze primary source documents to understand the role of nationalities in pressuring the Soviet Union to set individual republics free.
  • analyze primary source documents to see the Communist party responses to nationalist demands for separatism.
  • utilize research and debate techniques to come to a fuller understanding of the role of nationalities in breaking with the Soviet Union.



1.(Day 1) Opening Activity: Discuss the following questions:

  • In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious region, is an empire with vast, centralized power the best form of government possible? Why or why not?
  • What allowed for long-term success and then for ultimate failure of some of the historical multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires such as the Hapsburg’s Austria-Hungary?
  • In what ways was did the Soviet Union exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses of earlier historical empires?
  • Is the world moving in the direction of globalization and Supranations (EU, NAFTA, UN) or is it breaking up into small nations through “tribalism” (dissolution of Yugoslavia, USSR, African nations)? Which direction is preferable for the future of the world and why? Cite examples.

2. Small Group Activity: This lesson will provide research-based debate to illuminate the role of nationalities in the breakup of the Soviet Union. After the introduction, each group will spend the remainder of the first 90 minute block reading the introduction, Nationalities in the USSR, found in this module. All students will work in groups of two to compare two primary sources: Post-Soviet population table (2006) and Commonwealth of Independent States map (1994). They will answer the following questions based on information in the introductory essay and from the maps:

  • Which republics broke away from the Soviet Union and why?
  • Which major ethnic groups stayed within the new Russia and why?
  • Following the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991, which republics were the most diverse? Which were the least diverse? Which have the best chances of economic success and why?

Next, students will be assigned to one of the following six groups and given index cards:

  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Ukraine
  • Uzbekistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Russia
  • Estonia

Analysis of primary documents: Students will choose one of the following themes so that all themes are covered within their group. They will write the theme at the top of their index cards. On the cards, they will record the following relevant information for one theme:

  • ETHNICITY: Ethnic makeup within their assigned republic. Include percentages of top groups.
  • RELIGION: Major religious groups within the assigned republic and the extent to which religion was practiced before and during the Soviet period.
  • HISTORY: Date and general circumstances of the region’s incorporation into the Russian or Soviet empire.
  • ECONOMY: Essential economic facts such as primary natural resource or industrial product.

3. (Day 2) Report: At the beginning of the second 90 minute block, students will report to the class by region and theme. Individual students will briefly (no more than three minutes each) report out their findings to the class. Students will record findings on the group report worksheet.

4. Jigsaw: Regardless of previous group placement, students will then jigsaw out into groups based on their assignment to a “Soviet Union” group or a “Nationalities” group.

Each student in the Soviet group will be given Primary Sources: Soviet population table by nationality (1970), Ukrainian Central Committee on Ethnic Issues, Gorbachev’s TV Address on Interethnic Relations, Turkmen Party’s Niazov Discusses Ethnic Issues, Uzbek Minister on Restoring Order in Tashkent, and the Commonwealth of Independent States map (1994).

The Nationalities group will be given Primary Sources: Soviet population table by nationality (1970), Communist Party’s Role in Estonia’s Fate Revealed, Latvian Group Wants Full Political Independence, Lithuanian Communist Party Declares Independence, and the Commonwealth of Independent States map (1994).

5. (Day 3) Analysis: Within the groups assigned previously, students will be given 45 minutes to analyze each of the documents. They may divide the documents between members of the group. They will be looking for arguments within the documents pertaining to why the Soviet Union may have been the best form of government for a multi-ethnic and religious region or whether regions should be given freedom to find their own best solutions. Each group will complete a primary source analysis sheet for each document they have been given.

6. Debate: Teacher- conducted debate (45 minutes)

Students will be given a debate guidelines sheet and will be given three minutes to make their point, two minutes for counter-point. They may incorporate the key points in the primary sources AND the research information.

Resolved: In 1991, the future of the Soviet republics and their multiple nationalities and ethnicities would have been better served by remaining under the reformed empire of the USSR.


Document Based Questions:

To what extent did divergent nationalities play a role in the break-up of the Soviet Union? Use three different republics to illustrate your answer.


To what extent did divergent nationalities play a role in the break-up of the Soviet Union? Use the examples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to analyze the extent to which nationalist and anti-Soviet sentiment supported division and undermined the republic’s economic and political self-interest.



Advanced students may be given all of the documents and select the ones which support their argument for pro-soviet or pro-nationality/free republics. Their research should reflect greater depth of information and analysis.

Enrichment activities include a look at the Eastern European breaks with the Soviet Union and comparisons to events in 1981 when the Soviet republics broke away from the Soviet Union. Students can research and evaluate events in Chechnya and explain the reasons that separation was not allowed for Chechnya whereas it had occurred in these republics in 1981.

Less advanced students will be assigned an essay which explains why many of the republic states joined eastern European nations in breaking away from the Soviet Union. They may also be asked to formulate their ideas of a “perfect government” for a multi-national, multi-ethnic nation. Finally, they may summarize their ideas following the lesson that best answer the questions in the “hook”.