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There's an article listing many post-Soviet conflicts on Wikipedia, which indicates that there have been many wars between regions/countries that were once part of the USSR. The causes of the wars, such as ethnicity or religion, often seem timeless (i.e. they ought to have existed during Soviet times too). By implication, that would imply that the USSR itself was a very strained union since its constituents had deep grievances against each other.

Questions:

  • Were there regularly such intra-USSR wars before the union dissolved?
  • If no, how did the Soviet government stop the wars?

My research seems to show that there was violence, but for some reason it was less common than after the USSR dissolved. For example, there was fighting in Chechnya in 1940-1944, but nothing from 1944 to 1991.

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    How would that work, when the only military allowed is the Soviet (USSR) Army? – T.E.D. Dec 1 '20 at 3:16
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    @T.E.D. I don't know, but it seems that alone shouldn't be sufficient to have no wars - e.g. Chechnya was part of Russia which only had one military, yet two wars were still fought there in post-Soviet times. – Allure Dec 1 '20 at 3:23
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    I'm not sure if you're asking about revolts or rebellions as opposed to wars? – gktscrk Dec 1 '20 at 9:51
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    “Pax Romana”. Or in this case, Pax Russa. – RBarryYoung Dec 1 '20 at 23:36
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    This question seems to be predicated on a model of the USSR as an actual federation of republics; I don't think the evidence supports that model. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 2 '20 at 13:54
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Yes, there were insurgencies, wars and inter-ethnic conflicts. Not often.

First of all, the Yakut revolt which was part of the Russian civil war, lasted till June 16, 1923. The USSR was established on December 29, 1922. So, the Russian civil war continued in the USSR.

Second, consider the Basmachi movement, which lasted till 1934 but in the 1930s was mostly fought in Afghanistan.

The West Ukrainian and Baltic armed insurgencies lasted till the 1950s.

There was an Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict started in 1988 with deportations and pogroms, with first artillery involvement in 1990.

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    There were also military operations against civilians with dozens of deaths in Tbilisi in 1989 and in Vilnius in early 1991. There was of course the coup in 1991. Not sure if they count. – Jan Dec 1 '20 at 14:06
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    According to WP, armed conflict in South Ossetia brgan before the end of the Soviet Union: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991%E2%80%931992_South_Ossetia_War . Abkhazia had seen riots with more than a dozen deaths in 1989, but only escalated into a full-blown war in 1992. – Jan Dec 1 '20 at 17:04
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    Not the same as intended, which is armed conflicts between the various SSRs. Which were impossible as all armed forces were under direct control of Moscow (either the MoD or the KGB). – jwenting Dec 2 '20 at 8:19
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    @jwenting: Chechnya and Transnistria were not between different former Soviet Republics. Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s were not really, either. Or at least not officially. Or the civil war in Tajikistan. – Jan Dec 2 '20 at 10:26
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    @Allure: At the end of the 80s, nationalist propaganda became easier due to liberalization. In the early 90s, the security situation became less stable due to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting breakup of the Soviet Army and law enforcement. – Jan Dec 2 '20 at 10:32
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No, there weren't any civil wars in the Soviet Union. For a few reasons:

  • While the USSR consisted of hundreds of ethnic groups, the Soviet ethos put a damping cloth on ethnic conflict. People were Soviets and therefore in some sense also equals. Not unlike how the US is held together by American patriotism.
  • The USSR dissolved before political Islam became a driving force. The war in Afghanistan was a precursor of things to come, but by 1991 political Islam had apparently not penetrated the USSR. Most likely, because the secular state worked well-enough for the people in the Muslim provinces. Had the USSR survived beyond 1991, perhaps the Chechen war would have been its first civil war since then 1920s. Update: No, political Islam isn't new; tensions between the secular and the religious have existed in Muslim countries for the last hundred years. However, due various events - the failure of secular Arab regimes, the Iranian revolution, American-Israeli belligerency, etc - it metastasized in the 1980s and became more dominant. This led to greater unease among Central Asian and Caucasian Muslims to live under secular rule, which in turn lead to demands for autonomy and/or sovereignty, ethnic conflicts, and civil wars. While it is contrafactual history, it is obvious that the same ethnic conflicts would have afflicted the USSR had it survived past 1991. For details, see Sebastien Peyrouse's article about political Islam in the USSR and John Esposito's article about political Islam in general.
  • In some sense, the USSR was a colonial empire and the Russians its colonial masters. Often not thought of in that way because its territory was contiguous, but the enormous distances proves it; the distance from Moscow to Vladivostok is roughly the same as from London to Mumbai. However, unlike Britain's relationship with India, the USSR's relationship with its provinces weren't as exploitative. Before the Russian colonization the Far East was impoverished. The Russians brought technology and developed the infrastructure.
  • World War II deeply affected everyone in the Soviet Union. The war, and "the great leader", the Georgian Josef Stalin, were unifying forces.
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    It's also worth noting that the USSR had a big army and for most of its existence wasn't afraid to use it. Once it developed a bit of a conscience and declined to crush, e.g., Solidarity, it fell apart. This was only a factor in the collapse, but not a small one, I think. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Mark Olson Dec 1 '20 at 13:59
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    "The Russians brought technology and developed the infrastructure" - that was true to British and French colonies as well, so that's not a difference. And speaking of exploitation, so much food was confiscated from Ukraine by the Soviets that several millions died of starvation. – vsz Dec 1 '20 at 14:17
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    @vsz: While it is true that the British and French also brought technology to their colonies, the Soviets integrated the local population into the Soviet system. If we think of the experience Ghandi had within the British Empire; I suspect that the Soviet Union was a more inclusive society. – Dohn Joe Dec 1 '20 at 16:40
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    Force, yes, "reckoned with", no. Up until the Iranian revolution, Islamists generally lacked popular support and abstained from politics. Western obliviousness is demonstrated by the fact that Israel supported Hamas and the US the Afghan Mujahideen. Islamism that grew up in the 1980s is qualitatively different from earlier periods. And, of course, the USSR propped up the Islamists opponents. – Björn Lindqvist Dec 1 '20 at 18:01
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    "the Soviet ethos put a damping cloth on ethnic conflict. People were Soviets and therefore in some sense also equals" - you clearly haven't lived in Caucasus during the USSR. Sure, armed conflicts would have been suppressed, but nationalism and xenophobia were ubiquitous. And, not sure about Caucasus, but the Baltic republics definitely regarded USSR as the occupant. – IMil Dec 1 '20 at 23:49
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Answering Allure's sub-question:

Any idea why these wars and insurgencies were less common during Soviet times as opposed to post-Soviet times? It seems there was nothing from the 1950s to late 1990s too

The period of 1950-1990 was the "cold war", and was characterised by a high level of militarisation. The security and integrity of the state and Party - and the satellite states such as Hungary - was the top priority.

In order to have a civil war two things are required: something to fight with (weapons), and something to fight for (organisation and ideology). Both of these were subject to incredibly heavy levels of control.

Military discipline was strong, so there was little leakage of weapons into private hands. In the post-Soviet period, many weapons were simply sold on the black market by the officers that were supposedly responsible for them. Also, since the USSR was extremely concerned about Western infiltration, and escaping dissidents, the borders were very tightly controlled making it difficult to infiltrate weapons. "The Iron Curtain" described the seemingly-impenetrable border between the West and the Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe.

Ideological and informational control was also very strong. The opportunities for samizdat publication of political material were limited. Anyone attempting to organize a faction that might fight would be likely to be caught and severely punished.

Finally, to fight you must have an enemy, and two enemies readily existed: for those that believed the propaganda, they could unite against the West. For those that didn't, the biggest and most immediate omnipresent enemy was the state of the USSR itself. In both cases fighting one's immediate neighbors looks like less of a priority.

The risk of individual military units going rogue was mitigated by the usual tactic of empires: conscripts were split up and geographically distributed producing multi-ethnic units that had no particular loyalty to the region they were stationed in.

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    Yes, it's a valid point. Many who were in prison/Gulag and left memoirs (Solzhenitsyn, Ginzburg, Bukovsky) remember a distinct section of militant "nationalists" (Ukranian, Baltic, etc.) - true ones, not just someone accused of nationalism (which was a popular conviction at times). For all of them, the enemy was the USSR itself, not their neighbours. / I wouldn't call military discipline "strong", but "leakage of weapons" was indeed minimal. – Zeus Dec 3 '20 at 1:52
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Sorry for bad English. I am Russian and live in Russia. The USSR consisted of 1/7 of the Earth and included a huge number of peoples of both Europe and Asia. Despite this, there were no serious conflicts during the Soviet regime. It's all about total control over society and anti-religious policy. The USSR was an atheistic state, where a struggle was waged against all religions. Also, the words "Russian", "Uzbek", "Armenian", "Ukrainian" and others were replaced with one word - "Soviet". The state pursued a policy of equalizing people not only in the social sphere, where everyone had almost equal rights, regardless of nationality, but in national issues it carried out education of equality between people of different ethnic origins (although some small nations had more rights than large ones). With the collapse of the USSR, all internal politics and ideology collapsed, parts of the USSR ceased to be different from the rest of the World. The socialist glue, with the support of the Russian nation, ceased to hold back historical conflicts. And some conflicts between nations have more than 800 years of history.

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Because of the examples of what happened to anyone who tried

It's easy to forget just how repressive the Soviet regime was.

In the Baltic states, a guerrilla insurgency operated throughout WWII and into the 1950s. Fighters attempted to kill themselves rather than be captured, because anyone captured by the Soviets would usually be tortured to death.

In 1953, East Germans protested against Soviet rule. The USSR sent the army in. The protests mostly crumbled before serious bloodshed happened, although there were "example" executions of leaders.

In 1956, the Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule was crushed by overwhelming military force. This time the Soviets didn't hold back and thousands died.

In 1968, the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia to stamp out political movements for increased autonomy. Mostly the Czechs did not resist violently, because the lessons from Hungary were clear.

And throughout the span of the USSR, any dissent was generally punished with forced labour in gulags, and a general loss of what rights you did have. This often extended to families as well.

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    Using French colonial rule as a point of comparison, they were certainly willing to execute dissidents and militarily crush revolts. Some explanation is needed for why western European use of violence was so much less effective at deterring revolt. It's certainly not a reluctance to kill their subjects; compare the Algerian war with 300k-1.5 M estimated dead to the Hungarian revolution with 3k. – timeskull Dec 2 '20 at 18:27
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    It's not exactly a good comparison though - first, East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia weren't part of the USSR, and second, wars have happened where the dissenters know they will probably die if caught, but are hoping not to get caught (e.g. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev from the Chechen wars). Was the USSR a lot more effective than the post-Soviet states at catching dissenters? – Allure Dec 2 '20 at 21:39
  • @Allure USSR didn't just punish dissenters - it also punished their families, sometimes to quite a big extent. It's quite a different proposal to throw away your life for an ideal, and to throw away your future (i.e. kids), and all the people you care about. And people were quite ready to tell on their neighbours and even family if they did or planned something anti-state. That probably isn't enough on its own to explain the relative stability, but add all the other things (e.g. USSR trying to stamp out nationalism and religion etc.)... – Luaan Dec 4 '20 at 10:29
  • @Luaan hmm I know imperial China also punished dissenters' families, but there were lots of revolutions in China's history. It could be just a matter of perspective though, since China has over 2000 years of recorded history, while the Soviet Union's relative peace lasted only ~40 years. – Allure Dec 6 '20 at 2:53
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Just quick addition to Anixx answer

  • There was a conflict in 1990 between Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz population in Osh Kirghiz SSR
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There were not too many wars and inter-ethnic conflicts inside of the USSR just because anyone who has dissent thoughts was immediately killed or imprisoned during repression years. Also, there were about 10 kgb agents per 100 citizens. So almost all citizens knew enough to be ok with the regime especially not to have any thoughts about ethnic conflicts. But everyone hates another, that appear after the USSR fall.

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Holodomor of 1932-33, the Soviet government simply decided to kill the Ukrainians by starvation, taking everything, and closing all borders. All wars in the USSR were resolved by sending all the unwanted to the GULAG. (The Main Directorate of Camps and Places of Detention, emerged in 1930, existed for thirty years, and was liquidated by 1960) The GULAG system in the USSR consisted of 30 thousand places of detention: from the Arctic Circle to Kazakhstan, from the western borders to the Far East. The USSR is a prison power with completely closed borders. The number of prisoners was equal to the number of people living in about two European countries combined, and this does not include prisons. What wars?

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  • One could argue that taking prisoners (for non-criminal reasons) is an act of war in itself. – Kevin Keane Dec 2 '20 at 17:17
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    Although these are indeed horrible atrocities, they are not really wars where two armies are fighting each other. And the question was asking about wars, not merely the oppression of civilians outside of a shooting war. – vsz Dec 4 '20 at 6:52

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