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Nationalism in the USSR
Lenin’s Nationality Policy

Marxist theory paid little attention to nationality questions. Nationalism was felt to be a bourgeois phenomenon, which capitalism was reducing in importance, particularly among the proletariat. (Smith, 3) Ethnic divisions were dismissed as essentially irrelevant complicating factors - typical of Marxism’s habit of dismissing uncomfortable realities. Smith noted that Marx and Engels believed in large unitary states, which they saw as having both the critical mass to support rapid economic growth, and avoiding the ‘backwardness’ of federalism. (Smith, 3)

This Western contrasted with the experience of Marxists in Austria-Hungary and Russia, for whom ethnic relations were a key issue, and where nationalism, rather than declining, was increasing in salience. (Smith, 4) Bauer and Renner, two Austrian Marxists, believed in granting nations cultural and educational autonomy within a federal framework - however, this autonomy was not to be linked with territory - a key issue for winning Jewish support. (Smith, 4) Lenin reacted against this, seeing it as regressive, and supported a centralised state. Although the Bolsheviks supported the right of national secession, he likened the right to secede as that of a woman in divorce proceedings - i.e. only either with the consent of the other partner or wit due grounds. Lenin largely agreed with Marx’s over-optimistic assessment which assumed that the nation would gradually wither away, as the proletariats came together and merged - sblizhenie and sliyanie. (Graham, 5)

What is remarkable is that the Russian Empire stayed largely intact after the revolution, and only the Georgians had to be ‘reconquered’ - as Evan Mawdsley said, "The multi-national Russian Empire, the famous ‘prison of people’ did not break up, a remarkable development in an age of nationalism." (cited in Steele, 159) In the immediate post-revolutionary period, Bolshevik nationality policy went through a period of confusion, with different factions: many of the regional politicians naturally wished to see a federal structure, while the centralisers led by Stalin wanted to see a tightly knit federation. (Smith, 6) Lenin steered a middle course, creating a compromise whereby the larger nationalities were to be given their own republics with rights of secession, at the cost of abandoning their sovereign status and much of their independent decision making capacity. Ponton (31) notes that Lenin desired a loose Soviet confederation which included the right to secede from the USSR. At the same time he assumed that nationalism, like the state, would wither away as Communism was gradually achieved. This inherent tension between an ideological belief in the transience of nationalism and its structural reinforcement shaped nationalities policy throughout the history of the USSR. (Lapidus, 433)

Indeed, the mid-1920s were something of a golden age for nationalities in the Soviet Union with state encouragement of cultural self expression and ‘native’ development. (Smith, 7) Service notes that there was some justification in Soviet Russia’s claim to treat its nationalities in a way that put central and eastern European governments to shame. At the extreme end, the state provided the 635 members of the Laz people with not only a school building but an alphabet. (Service, 132) The Reds’ commitment to national pluralism was a key factor in securing acquiescence or support from the ethnic peasantry against the Great Russian nationalism of the Whites. Indeed it even appeared to indulgent to many contemporary Bolsheviks, many felt that "if the Belorussians had not been told that they were Belorussians, nobody would have been any the wiser." (Service, 130) However, Steele feels this was merely a temporary tactic, given Lenin’s earlier feelings on the matter. (Steele, 160) Moreover, he notes that many of the republican boundaries were deliberately gerrymandered (e.g. the placement of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan rather than Tajikistan) in order to weaken local nationalisms. (op. cit. 161)

From Stalin to Brezhnev

Stalin reversed this process, and despite being a Georgian he pandered to Great Russian nationalism, began a process of intensive Russification, purged ‘bourgeois nationalist’ elements from the Party and even deported en masse those nationalities on the USSR’s borders who were perceived as suspect, from the Poles in the West right through to the Koreans in the Far East. (Smith, 8) Stalin, although he used Russian national chauvinism for his own ends during World War Two, was not actually a national chauvinist. His agriculture policies meant that the more nomadic peoples suffered more - Service estimates that between 1.3M and 1.8M Kazakh peasants died during collectivisation. At the same time there is no evidence that he picked on one ethnic group rather than another - in the Ukraine, excessive grain requisitioning quotas did not discriminate between peasants who were ethnic Russians and those who were ethnic Ukrainians. (Service, 201-2)

Khruschëv, as always, was more complex. At one level, he gave greater economic decision making powers to local bodies. On the other hand, he began a process of further Russification and no longer required Russian children in other Republics to learn the local language. (Smith, 9)

Brezhnev imposed a greater level of centralised administrative control, but also allowed the different republics in the matter of appointments, and allowed a greater proportion of natives to be appointed. (Smith, 10) Alongside this, official doctrine increasingly referred to the ‘Soviet people’ (Smith, 11) - in essence showing the degree of complacency which was characteristic of the Brezhnev years. Although there was a degree of awareness that inter-nationality relations were far from perfect, there was a satisfaction that things were much better than before and there was no need to push things. However, at this very period, the gap between the richer and poorer Republics started to grow as the economy stagnated. Linguistic russification was further advanced throughout the Brezhnev years, while there was concern in the centre that affirmative action in the republics had gone too far, to the detriment not only of Russians, but non-titular nationalities in the republics. (Smith, 12) It was during this period that the republican élites, often corrupt and in Central Asia normally based on clan networks, were allowed to secure their power. (Sakwa, 232)

Soviet nationality policy, born during the early period of the state’s history, often fuelled rather than quenched ethnic identity. Sakwa (232) notes that not only were the titular nationalities in the 15 republics given a substantial measure of autonomy, so were many of the other 100+ peoples in the USSR - 38 autonomous regions with varying degrees of autonomy were based on ethnic groups, some of them being shared by more than one. For all the talk of sliyanie, national identity was always seen as being categorically different from citizenship in the USSR, even being listed in internal passports. (loc. cit.)

Gorbachëv’s Reforms

Initially Gorbachëv followed the traditional Brezhnevite line on nationality, on occasions even confusing the terms USSR and Russia - not a good idea when one is in Kiev. (Smith, 13) Jonathan Steele notes that "Gorbachëv’s failure to understand the nationalism of non-Russians stemmed from…[a] lack of democratic instincts." (Steele, 31) At the XXVIIth Party Congress (February 1986), Gorbachëv however began to change tack. While he continued to refer to the Soviet people, he more expressly referred to difficulties in ethnic relations than any previous leader had, although he made no specific proposals as to how it might be overcome, merely re-treading the usual vague proposals for national coming together. (Smith, 14) Even as late as that year (1986) the Party Programme asserted that "the nationalities question inherited from the past has been successfully solved by the Soviet Union." (Sakwa, 259)

By the end of 1986, the first serious ethnic violence erupted in Kazakhstan by the end of 1986. Although directly related to the appointment of a Russian as First Party Secretary, it reflected more deep seated grievances at the parlous state of the Central Asian economy, which threatened to deteriorate further as Gorbachëv’s economic reforms threatened the large scale infra-structure projects upon which these areas depended. Smith (15) argues that Gorbachëv merely staggered from nationalities crisis to nationalities crisis, and at no time managed to come up with a coherent nationalities policy. Gorbachëv called for better education for the young, rather than examining inter-national relations within Soviet society. Not until the special XIXth party congress (June 1988) was it announced that their would be a re-examination of nationalities policy, in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabach crisis, and even after this Gorbachëv re-affirmed his commitment to the maintenance of existing state structures, by definition frustrating those nationalities which either demanded the upgrading of the autonomous status of their homeland, or whose scattered geographical base (e.g. the Jews) meant that they demanded an extra-territorial autonomy. (Smith, 15) By 30 November 1988, the gravity of the situation could no longer be concealed, and Gorbachëv stated in a speech to the Supreme Soviet that, "perestroika has exploded the illusory peace and harmony which reigned during the years of stagnation." (cited in Sakwa, 257)

Still, to Gorbachëv redefining centre/periphery relations was only a matter for the second stage of political reform, after that of reforming the electoral system and restructuring the system of Soviets. (Sakwa, 258) Sakwa too is forced to conclude that "Gorbachëv never really understood the force non-Russian national democratic movements." (Sakwa, 258) Sakwa notes that Gorbachëv seemed more at a loss here than in other policy areas, and perhaps he was a victim of the very propaganda of success that he condemned in other areas.

Tensions continued to build, and in April 1989 force was required to stop violent clashes between Georgians and Abkhazians. (Smith, 16) By the summer of 1989, some real reform was promised - by looking back to Lenin’s earlier belief in a confederated Soviet state, however this did not meet the nationalist demands of some republics - notably the Baltics and Georgia - who wanted full independence. The Lithuanian Communist Party split off from the CPSU in December 1989, while Lithuania declared formal independence in March 1990. (Smith, 17)

As tensions increased, Gorbachëv became more hard-line on the issue, possibly partially in order to satisfy Ligachëv and the hard-liners as to his determination to keep the USSR together. Anti-reform forces, Lapidus (431) notes, viewed the rise of nationalism as proof positive that the reform had gone too far, and indeed they were right insofar as nationalism eventually did force the overthrow of Soviet rule, although it was the abortive coup which gave the fillip to nationalism which it needed in many republics. Reformers, on the other hand, believed nationalities tensions proved the need for reform - the existing structures for management of ethnic relations had failed, and they noted also that ethnic tensions were nothing new, but had merely been suppressed during the ‘era of stagnation’. (Lapidus, 431)

Gorbachëv appealed to the vast economic and social bonds linking the Republics together. However, this was a weak argument compared with the emotional and moral arguments of the nationalist movements, and it emerged in a piecemeal fashion, as unconvincing as much of Gorbachëv’s other rhetoric in this area. It also proved unconvincing to voters in the Baltic states and parts of Transcaucasia who voted heavily for nationalists in the Congress elections of 1989 and local elections of 1990. (Sakwa, 264) "Rather that a bold and voluntary reconstitution of the union through some form of constituent assembly, the new federalism emerged in a piecemeal and not altogether convincing way." (Sakwa, 261)

In an attempt to stem this final threatened exodus of Republics from the USSR, Gorbachëv gained approval for the retention of the USSR in a referendum, and later ten republics signed the New Federal Treaty, which was to give a wide variety of powers to the republics, including the right to determine exactly how much authority to transfer to Moscow. This proved too much for the hard-liners, who staged a coup rather than see what they perceived to be the break-up of the USSR. Ironically, it was they who finally killed off hopes of a survival of the Soviet Union. They’re coup ‘spooked’ many of the republics and their citizens that the USSR in any form would be open to take-over from dictators, and most importantly gave Boris Yeltsin the opportunity to declare Russia’s secession from the Union. (Smith, 19) Moreover, the new civil society had a distinctly nationalist tinge, providing a further centrifugal stress on the Union - "The alternative to command socialism appeared to be…chauvinistic nationalism." (Sakwa, 265)

Nationalism in Different Regions

Nationalism was pursued to a different extent in each area. In the Baltic republics, the claim for independence had always been strongest as these areas had been forcibly incorporated into the USSR only in 1940, which followed after they were secured in the War by mass deportations possibly amounting to over a tenth of the regions population. The area saw mass Russian immigration during the post-war years and fears of the peril from the East abounded among the indigenous population. Moreover, despite political, religious (the Roman Catholic Lithuanians and Protestant Latvians and Estonians suffered the same religious persecutions under Khruschëv as other denominations) and cultural repression, in economic terms the Balts were the wealthiest peoples in the USSR, better off even than the Russians themselves, with none of the economic grounds for remaining in the Union which applied in the Caucasus or Central Asia. The Baltics provided the model for other regions, with the Popular Fronts, notably in Lithuania, providing the model for mass independence movements in other regions. (Sakwa, 234)

One of the common factors was the ecological disaster impending in many areas of the Soviet Union - for example dirty oil exploitation in Azerbaijan, the drying up of the Aral Sea in Turkmenistan/Kazakhstan, military pollution in Latvia, the trans-caucasian railway in Georgia, and the obvious case of Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. In all these cases (and in other east European states) ecology became used as an ersatz nationalism, as the blame for ecological catastrophes could be blamed on the centre which had control of the economy - i.e. Moscow.

While in the Baltics, the independence struggle remained largely peaceful, in the Caucasus in turned bloody. While both were still part of the USSR in 1990, the Armenian and Azeri Supreme Soviets declared war on one another - one of the most absurd situations in the absurd final years of the USSR. In Georgia too, the Georgians were unwilling to grant autonomy or independence to their own sizeable national minorities, and conflict inevitably resulted.

Theories Relating to Nationalism

Smith claims that "The ‘revolution from above’ had by 1990 become a ‘revolution from below’ in which the nationality republics…[put the question] of whether the Soviet Union was to remain as a territorial entity." (Smith, 17) Steele comments "Gorbachëv often said he wanted a revolution ‘from below’ but when it happened he could not accept it." (Steele, 31) Graham Smith notes three factors which helped the republics assert their independence - that they were already in theory capable of secession, their de jure if not de facto constitutional position was one of quasi-independence where Byelourssia and the Ukraine enjoyed representation in their own right in the Ukraine, that the republics had built up a series of grievances against Moscow, and finally under glasnost were able openly to voice them, and finally that the republics now had an indigenous leadership (largely a consequence of Brezhnev’s nationality policy) who were capable of mobilising political support to challenge the constitutional status quo. (Smith, 18)

Smith claims that glasnost inadvertently caused ethnic strife as minorities seized the opportunities for greater freedom of expression to re-assert nationalist claims. (Smith, 2) He claims that "What ultimately proved the Soviet Union’s undoing was the inability of its reform-minded leadership to recognise until it was too late that political institutions that had enabled the Soviet Union to function as a near perfect system of control - notably the federal system - had finally outlived their usefulness." (Smith, 2-3) However Sakwa counters this. He argues that "For many years prior to Gorbachëv’s accession there had been a perceptible strengthening of national self consciousness among Russian and non-Russian alike." (Sakwa, 232) However, he later agrees that, "perestroika was only the gateway through which the nationalist movements tried to bolt from the Soviet stable." (Sakwa, 257) Lapidus agrees with Steele that

Steele counters that Gorbachëv’s main mistake was not to treat the three Baltic republics differently - he saw their election of pro-independence governments in 1990 as test cases rather than exceptions. Gorbachëv did not come round to the confederalist point of view until pressured into doing so by Yeltsin in April 1991. By this stage, the battle lines had already hardened in centre-local conflicts. The delay of eighteen months allowed frustrations to build in the republics and among anti-Party reformers while a concomitant strengthening of conservative forces within the Party and army who wished to retain hegemonic control by Russia. (Steele, 32-3)

Steele also notes that the process of imperialism in Russia was categorically different than that of western European states. The Russian Empire developed in tandem with the Russian state. Russians living in ‘colonies’ in the Baltic states or Central Asia had no special privileges, whether over their prosperous Baltic neighbours or poverty stricken Asian ones. Therefore Russians could not understand the resentment other nationalities, especially fellow Slavs such as the Ukranians, had against Russian domination - with their huge dominance in numbers and economic power, it seemed natural to most Russians that they should be the ‘leading’ nation in the USSR. (Steele (154-9)

Sakwa, claims that "The rise of separatist nationalism can be seen to be a consequence of the inadequacies of the unreformed Soviet state." (Sakwa, 257) Sakwa points out that Marxist theory presupposed a utopia where the unity of all working-class people would overcome national tensions. However, the hypercentralised Soviet state failed to provide opportunities for the healthy development of all the country’s peoples. As the peoples of the USSR, particularly those with a history of resentment against it, saw the Red Army leave first Afghanistan, and later Poland, the began to wonder could it not also leave Lithuania, Georgia or Ukraine. (Sakwa, 260) This was heightened, as noted above, by the economic crisis. Traditional strategies to co-opt local élites into the administrative-command system failed as the economy contracted, opportunities shrank and competition for scarce resources increased. (loc. cit.) The ability to use a compliant local élite to stifle nationalist demands failed as these élites, notably in Lithuania where the Communist Party defected en masse, joined the new ‘popular fronts’.

Lapidus, notes a division between those who wished to give greater political recognition to national identity, and those who wished to see the individual, rather than the group, be the repository of rights. (Lapidus, 431) This struggle was not unique - the same cleavage exists within, for example, Northern Ireland politics, with more moderate ethnic politicians following the Western European model of individual rights to a large extent, while ‘ultras’ focus on group rights.

She also notes two distinct trends among the nationalist movements themselves - the national élites, who were focused on greater national autonomy, and the poor, unskilled and often young under- and un-employed whose hostility was based on seeing ‘outsiders’ as competitors for scarce resources. (Lapidus, 432)

She further notes three aspects of Gorbachëv’s reform programme which exacerbated ethnic tensions: firstly, glasnost brought many previously muted issues to the fore; secondly, the increasingly radical critique of Stalin also encouraged a reassessment of any policies which he gave birth to, including the over-centralisation and Russification which he promoted; and finally, the Russians also became infected with national self-consciousness. The Russians were not the richest nation in the USSR, and became increasingly resentful of the perceived sacrifices they made for the good of the Union. However the key issue, in her view, was the permissiveness towards political movements within and without the Communist Party which glasnost brought into being - "In sum, a complex and volatile process of political mobilisation was underway in the USSR, which thrust the nationalities question to the top of the political agenda." (Lapidus, 436)

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