The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were territorial juggernauts that expanded in every direction from the capital in Moscow. As Russian power and territory grew, many different non-Russian peoples found themselves subjects of Russia. When the Communist superpower finally collapsed in 1991, many of these peoples—Ukrainians, Turkmen, Georgians, and others—tasted independence for the first time in centuries. However, millions did not. The Russian Federation is merely the latest incarnation of Russia’s long list of empires, and despite its reduced size, it still encompasses a vast array of ethnicities and cultures. This article explores how Russia became so big and diverse, the structure of its republics, and what the future might hold for these unique regions.

Historical Expansion of Russia

The Early Days: Kievan Rus and the Mongol Invasion

The roots of the Russian state can be traced back to the medieval state of Kievan Rus, the first unified East Slavic state that emerged in the 9th century. Four centuries later, the Mongol Empire invaded Kievan Rus, subjugating the already divided nation for two centuries. Gradually, the principality of Moscow emerged as the most powerful due to its strategic location and smart political maneuvering with the Mongols.

The Rise of the Tsardom of Russia

Under Ivan the Great, Moscow expanded significantly from 1300 to 1533, annexing most of the other principalities around it. By defeating the Mongols, Moscow declared independence, laying the foundation for the Tsardom of Russia in 1547. This marked the beginning of Russia’s transformation into a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire.

Expansion into Siberia and Beyond

From 1550 to 1700, Russia grew by an average of 14,000 square miles per year through military campaigns. The conquest of the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan brought the Volga River region under Russian control, opening up trade routes to Persia and the Middle East. Russia began colonizing Siberia, integrating it fully into Russian territory, unlike European colonial powers. By 1639, Russian settlements had reached the Pacific coast.

Wars and Annexations

The 13 Years’ War with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gained Russia parts of Ukraine and Belarus, and the Great Northern War against Sweden secured territories of Estonia, Livonia, and parts of Finland. By 1700, Russia had expanded from a small principality to a vast empire. The transformation continued under the Russian Empire, which annexed Finland, parts of Poland, and territories near the Black Sea from the Ottomans.

The Soviet Union and Its Legacy

National Delimitation and Autonomy

After the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union inherited most of the Russian Empire’s territories. Lenin and the Bolsheviks implemented national delimitation, granting various ethnic groups autonomy within the USSR to manage diversity and prevent separatism. This led to the creation of numerous federal subjects, including republics, autonomous oblasts, and autonomous okrugs, many of which exist today within the Russian Federation.

Post-Soviet Russia

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly formed Russian Federation retained a diverse array of ethnicities and regions. President Boris Yeltsin, fearing secession movements, allowed the regions to gain broader powers. However, Vladimir Putin later centralized control, creating large districts to monitor regional laws and appointing regional governors directly from the Kremlin.

The Structure of the Russian Federation

Federal Subjects

The Russian Federation consists of 83 federal subjects, divided as follows:

  1. Republics (21): Each with its own constitution, language, legislature, and national anthem, but represented by the federal government in international affairs.
  2. Oblasts and Krais (55): Equivalent to US states, with their own state governments. Krais are traditionally located near borders and in the east.
  3. Autonomous Okrugs (4): Governed by oblasts or krais, these protect the rights of smaller indigenous populations.
  4. Autonomous Oblast (1): The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, designed to support minority populations.
  5. Federal Cities (2): Moscow and St. Petersburg, functioning independently from surrounding oblasts.

The Republics

Focusing on a few notable republics showcases the diversity within Russia:


Home to the Bashkir people, Bashkortostan has a population of 4.1 million. The republic is mineral-rich, with significant oil reserves, and known for its beekeeping traditions and high-quality honey.


Kalmykia is unique as the only place in Europe where Buddhism is the main religion. The Kalmyks, of Mongolian origin, have a strong chess tradition, with the city of Elista hosting major chess events.

Sakha (Yakutia)

The largest republic by area, Yakutia covers almost 1.2 million square miles. Known for extreme cold, with towns like Oymyakon being the coldest inhabited places on Earth, it has a vibrant cultural scene, including an emerging film industry dubbed “Sakhawood.”


The most diverse republic, Dagestan has over 30 ethnic groups and 81 nationalities. It is predominantly Islamic and known for its rugged terrain, martial arts champions, and the ancient city of Derbent.

The Future of Russia’s Republics

Potential for Secession

Many republics have had secession movements, driven by their unique ethnic identities. The difference between “russki” (ethnic Russians) and “rossiiski” (all Russian citizens) is significant in this context. While Putin has worked to centralize power and promote a Russian identity, ethnic minorities have faced disproportionate impacts from the war in Ukraine, leading to increased tensions.

Hypothetical Collapse

If Russia were to collapse, the republics might seek independence. The Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum predicts new countries would generally follow current oblast and republic borders. However, the reality would likely be more complex, with potential for new alliances and conflicts.

Global Implications

The collapse of Russia would have significant global implications, including the handling of nuclear weapons, potential territorial claims by neighboring countries, and shifts in geopolitical alliances. NATO would remain crucial in this context, potentially gaining new members from the former Russian republics.


Russia’s republics are as diverse as they are numerous, each with its own unique culture, language, and history. Whether they remain part of the Russian Federation or seek independence in the future, their rich heritage and distinct identities will continue to shape the region. Understanding this diversity is key to comprehending the complexities of Russia’s past, present, and potential future.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What are the main republics featured in this article?

The article highlights four of Russia’s diverse republics: Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Sakha (Yakutia), and Dagestan.

What makes Bashkortostan unique?

Bashkortostan is known for its mineral wealth, significant oil reserves, and high-quality honey. The republic is home to the Bashkir people, who speak a Turkic language and primarily follow Islam.

What is Kalmykia known for?

Kalmykia is unique as the only place in Europe where Buddhism is the main religion. It has a strong chess tradition, with past president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov being a significant figure in the chess world. The capital, Elista, hosted major chess events and features a chess-themed complex called City Chess.

Why is Sakha (Yakutia) significant?

Sakha, also known as Yakutia, is the largest republic by area in Russia and is known for its extreme cold. It is home to the Yakut people, who celebrate vibrant cultural festivals and have a growing film industry dubbed “Sakhawood.”

What are the notable features of Dagestan?

Dagestan is the most ethnically diverse republic in Russia, with over 30 ethnic groups and 81 nationalities. It is predominantly Islamic, known for its rugged terrain, martial arts champions, and the ancient city of Derbent.

How did Russia become so diverse?

Russia’s diversity stems from centuries of territorial expansion, starting from the medieval state of Kievan Rus, through the Tsardom of Russia, and into the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Each expansion incorporated various ethnicities and cultures, which remain part of the Russian Federation today.

What is the structure of the Russian Federation?

The Russian Federation consists of 83 federal subjects, including republics, oblasts, krais, autonomous okrugs, an autonomous oblast, and federal cities. Each has varying degrees of autonomy and local governance.

Are there movements for independence within Russia’s republics?

Many republics have had secession movements due to their unique ethnic identities. However, the central government has worked to maintain control and prevent secession, particularly under Vladimir Putin’s leadership.

What could happen if Russia were to collapse?

If Russia were to collapse, republics might seek independence. The Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum predicts new countries would generally follow current oblast and republic borders. However, the reality would likely be more complex, with potential new alliances and conflicts.

How are ethnic minorities affected by the current Russian government?

Ethnic minorities in Russia’s republics have faced disproportionate impacts from policies such as mobilization for the war in Ukraine. This has led to increased tensions and opposition from various republics.

What is the difference between “russki” and “rossiiski”?

“Russki” refers to ethnic Russians, while “rossiiski” refers to all citizens of Russia, regardless of ethnicity. This distinction is significant in understanding the diversity and national identity within the Russian Federation.

Liked it? Take a second to support Ryan Hite on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Ryan Hite

Ryan Hite is an American author, content creator, podcaster, and media personality. He was born on February 3, 1993, in Colorado and spent his childhood in Conifer, Colorado. He moved to Littleton in 2000 and spent the remainder of his schooling years in the city. Upon graduation from Chatfield Senior High School in 2011, he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated from the university in 2015 after studying Urban Planning, Business Administration, and Religious Studies. He spent more time in Colorado in the insurance, real estate, and healthcare industries. In 2019, he moved to Las Vegas, NV, where he continued to work in healthcare, insurance, and took his foray into media full time in 2021. His first exposure to the media industry came as a result of the experiences he had in his mid to late teens and early twenties. In 2013, he was compelled to collect a set of stories from his personal experiences and various other writings that he has had. His first book, a 365,000-word epic, Through Minds Eyes, was published in collaboration with Balboa Press. That initial book launched a media explosion. He learned all that he could about creating websites, marketing his published works, and would even contemplate the publication of other works as well. This book also inspired him to create his philosophy, his life work, that still influences the values that he holds in his life. Upon graduating college, he had many books published, blogs and other informative websites uploaded, and would embark on his continued exploration of the world of marketing, sales, and becoming an influencer. Of course, that did not come without challenges that would come his way. His trial-and-error approach of marketing himself and making himself known guided him through his years as a real estate agent, an insurance agent, and would eventually create a marketing plan from scratch with a healthcare startup. The pandemic did not initially create too many challenges to the status quo. Working from home did not affect the quality of his life. However, a series of circumstances such as continued website problems, social media shutdowns, and unemployment, caused him to pause everything between late 2020 and mid-2021. It was another period of loss of momentum and purpose for his life as he tried to navigate the world, as many people may have felt at that time. He attempted to find purpose in insurance again, resulting in failure. There was one thing that sparked his curiosity and would propel him to rediscover the thing that was gone from his life for so long. In 2021, he started his journey by taking on a full-time job in the digital media industry, an industry that he is still a part of today. It was at this point that he would also shut down the rest of the media that he had going at the time. In 2023, he announced that he would be embarking on what has become known as PROJECT30. This initiative will result in the reformation of websites, the reinvigoration of social media accounts, the creation of a Youtube channel and associated podcast, the creation of music, and the continued rediscovery of his creative potential. Unlike past projects, the purpose of this would not expound on the musings of a philosophy, the dissemination of useless news and articles, or the numerous attempts to be someone that he was not. This project is going to be about his authentic self. There are many ways to follow him as he embarks on this journey. Most of all, he wants everyone to be entertained, informed, and, in some ways, maybe a little inspired about the flourishing of the creativity that lies within the mind and soul of Ryan.

Leave a Reply