Nation and Nationality

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The concepts of nation and nationality are extremely difficult to define. According to one important view, a nation is a sovereign peoplea voluntary civic community of equal citizens; according to another, a nation is an ethnic community bound by common language, culture, and ancestry. Civic nations and ethnic nations as defined here are ideals that do not exist in reality, for most nations combine civic and ethnic characteristics, and either civic or ethnic features may predominate in any given community. In national communities where citizenship is seen as a major unifying force, the term nationality usually denotes citizenship; in nations whose unity rests largely on common culture and ancestry, nationality generally refers to ethnic origin.

There is little agreement about the balance between ethnic and civic components within nations, or between subjective characteristics, such as memory and will, and objective elements, such as common language or territory. Most scholars hold that nations are modern sociopolitical constructs, byproducts of an industrializing society. But the nature of the links between modern nations and earlier types of communities (e.g., premodern ethnic groups) is hotly contested.

Several definitions of nation have existed in Russia since the late eighteenth century, and there was no serious effort to regularize the terminology for discussing the issue of nationality until the 1920s and 1930s. Although the concept of nation was developed in Western Europe and was not applicable to Russia for much of the nineteenth century, the question of what constituted a nation and nationality were debated passionately.

prerevolutionary period

In the prerevolutionary period, several different words were used in intellectual and political discussions of what constituted a nation in the context of the Russian Empire: narod, narodnost, natsionalnost, natsiya, and plemya. Despite some efforts to differentiate these terms, they were generally used interchangeably.

In the 1780s and the 1790s, under the impact of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, a few liberal Russian intellectuals began to use the word narod (people) in the meaning most closely approximating the French definition of a nation as a sovereign people. For literary figures like Nikolai Novikov and Alexander Radishchev, nobility and peasantry were united in the narod. They recognized, of course, that such a community was not a reality in Russia but an ideal to be achieved someday. Liberal periodicals of the time proudly printed the word with a capital N. The understanding of narod as referring only to the peasantry was a later invention of the so-called Slavophiles of the 1830s and the 1840s, whose ideas were strongly influenced by German Romanticism, which held that folk tradition was the embodiment of the spirit of the nation. The Slavophiles also explicitly separated and juxtaposed the narod and the upper classes, whom they termed "society" (obshchestvennost ), arguing that society, because Europeanized, was cut off from the indigenous national tradition.

In 1819, the poet Peter Vyazemsky coined the term narodnost in reference to national character. A search for manifestations of narodnost in literature, art, and music began. In 1832, the government responded to this growing interest in the national question by formulating its own view of Russia's essential characteristics. The future minister of enlightenment, Count Sergei Uvarov, stated that the three pillars of Russia's existence were Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality (narodnost, i.e., national character manifested in the folk tradition).

Whereas the Slavophiles looked for manifestations of narodnost in Orthodox Christianity and peasant culture, the Westernizer and literary critic Vissarion Belinsky insisted, in the 1840s, that the educated classesthe product of Peter the Great's Europeanizing policieswere the bearers of a modern national tradition. Belinsky was thus arguing against the Slavophiles as well as Uvarov. He also offered a more precise definition of the words used to describe nation and nationality. For him, narodnost referred to a premodern stage in people's development, whereas nationalnost and natsiya described superior developmental stages. Belinsky concluded that "Russia before Peter the Great had only been a narod [people] and became a natsiya [nation] as a result of the impetus which the reformer had given her" (Kara-Murza and Poliakov 1994, p. 25).

Other authors adopted Belinsky's distinction between narod and natsiya, but the interchangeable usage prevailed. Even the word plemya (tribe), which in the twentieth century was applied to primitive communities, often meant a nation in the nineteenth. Thus, in the 1870s and the 1880s, politicians and intellectuals justified government policies of linguistic Russification in the imperial borderlands by referring to the national consolidation of "the French and German tribes." Nor did Belinsky's search for Russian national tradition in the Europeanized culture of the educated classes have a significant following. Instead, the exclusion of the upper classes from the narod by the early Slavophiles was further developed by the writer and socialist thinker Alexander Herzen in the late 1840s and the early 1850s and by members of the populist movement in the 1870s. After the February Revolution of 1917, in the discourse of elites as well as in popular usage, the upper classes, termed burzhui (the bourgeoisie), were excluded from the nation.

The concepts of nation and nationality began to influence tsarist government policies around the time of Alexander II's reforms in the 1860s. At the turn of the twentieth century, the government began to use the language-based idea of nationality (narodnost), rather than religion, as a criterion to distinguish Russians from non-Russians and to differentiate different groups of non-Russians. Narodnost based on language was one of the categories in the all-Russian census of 1897.

The question of how to define the boundaries and membership of a nation or nationality was as much debated by intellectuals, scholars, and government officials in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries as it is in the early twenty-first century. The bibliographer Nikolai Rubakin's survey of the debate on the national question in Russia and Europe (1915) divided the definitions of a nation into three categories: psychologicalnations are defined by a subjective criterion, such as the will to belong voluntarily to the same community, as exemplified by the French tradition; empiricalnations are defined by objective characteristics, such as language, customs, common history, sometimes common religion and laws, as exemplified by the German tradition; and economic materialistnations are a modern construct typical of capitalism, as maintained by Marxists. Rubakin also separately mentioned two other definitions, one equating nation and state, and the other defining nation racially as a community of individuals related by blood. In his view, all of the definitions, except for the psychological one, were expounded in the writings of Russian thinkers. The most influential of them were the concept of nationality based on language and the view that the Europeanized upper classes did not rightfully belong to the national community.

soviet period

How nation and nationality were defined became exceedingly important in the Soviet period, because, from the earliest days of the communist regime, nationality became a central category of policy-making for the new government. The founders of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, followed Karl Marx's perception of nations as historically contingent and modern rather than primordial communities. In 1913, Stalin affirmed that "a nation is not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people" (Hutchinson and Smith 1994, p. 18). Yet the Soviet leaders admitted the reality of nations and recognized their aspiration for self-determination. Although Lenin and Stalin followed Marx's belief in the eventual disappearance of nations in the post-capitalist world, they accepted that nations would continue to exist for some time and that their aspirations would need to be satisfied during the construction of socialism. In an unprecedented experiment, the Bolshevik government institutionalized ethnoterritorial federalism, classified people according to their ethnic origins, and distributed privileges as well as punishments to different ethnically defined groups.

These policies required criteria for defining nations and nationalities more specific than those in effect before the October Revolution. The new criteria were developed in the 1920s and 1930s in preparation for the all-union censuses of 1926, 1937, and 1939. In 1913, Stalin had described a nation (natsiya) as "a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture" (Hutchinson and Smith 1994, p. 20). In the 1920s, it became apparent that the application of this definition would exclude certain distinct groups from being recognized and recorded in the census. Therefore, in 1926 the less precise category of narodnost was accepted for the census. Given that various groups were seen as denationalized (i.e., they used Russian rather than the original native language of their community), a narodnost could also be defined by customs, religious practices, and physical type. At the same time, people's self-definitions in relation to nationality were taken into account. By 1927, 172 nationalities had received official status in the USSR. Policies aimed at satisfying their "national aspirations" were central to the communist reconstruction of society.

In the 1930s, the number of officially recognized nationalities was drastically reduced, on the grounds that the adoption of the narodnost category had allowed too many groups to receive official recognition. The 1937 and 1939 censuses used a different category, nationality (nationalnost); in order to qualify for the status of natsionalnost, communities had not only to possess a distinct culture and customs but also to be linked to a territory and demonstrate "economic viability." In turn, narodnost began to refer only to smaller and less developed communities. By 1939, a list of fifty-nine major nationalities (glavnye natsionalnosti ) was produced.

In an another important development, the 1930s were marked by a departure in official discourse from the view of nations as modern constructs toward an emphasis on their primordial ethnic roots. This development was a result of the government's "extreme statism." By using sociological categories as the basis for organizing, classifying, and rewarding people, the communists were obliged to treat as concrete realities factors that, as they themselves recognized, were actually artificial constructs. This approach, in which nationality was not a voluntary self-definition but a "given" determined by birth, culminated in the introduction of the category of "nationality" (meaning not citizenship but ethnic origin inherited from parents) in Soviet passports in 1932.

The view of nations as primordial ethnic communities was reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s by the new theory of the "ethnos," defined by the Soviet ethnographer Yuly Bromlei as "a historically stable entity of people developed on a certain territory and possessing common, relatively stable features of culture and psyche as well as a consciousness of their unity and of their difference from other similar entities" (Tishkov 1997, p. 3). For Bromlei, the ethnos attains its highest form in the nation. Only communities with their own union or autonomous republics were considered socialist nations.

The same period was marked by a debate about the "Soviet narod," whose existence as a fully formed community was postulated by Leonid Brezhnev in 1974. The Soviet narod was defined as the historical social unity of the diverse Soviet nationalities rather than a single nation. Some ethnographers claimed, however, that a united nation with one language was being created in the USSR.

In the post-communist period, the view of nations as primordial ethnosocial communities continued to be strong. Also widespread was the perception that only one nation can have a legitimate claim on any given territory. Views of this kind are at the root of the ethnic conflicts in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, a competing definition of the nation as a voluntary civic community of equal citizens, regardless of ethnic origin, is gathering strength. Constitutions and citizenship laws in the newly independent states of the former USSR reflect the tensions between these conflicting perceptions of nationhood.

See also: enlightenment, impact of; ethnography, russian and soviet; language laws; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; slavophiles


Hirsch, Francine. (1997). "The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926, 1937, and 1939 Censuses." Slavic Review 56 (2):251278.

Hutchinson, John, and Smith, Anthony D., eds. (1994). Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kara-Murza, A., and Poliakov, L., eds. (1994). Russkie o Petre I. Moscow: Fora.

Martin, Terry. (2000). "Modernization or Neo-Traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism" In Stalinism: New Directions, ed. Sheila Fitzpatrick. London: Routledge.

Suny, Ronald, and Martin, Terry, eds. (2001). A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tishkov, Valery. (1997). Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in and After the Soviet Union. London: Sage.

Tolz, Vera. (2001). Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vera Tolz

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Nation and Nationality

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