Nationalism in the Soviet Union

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The triumph of the October Revolution and collapse of the Russian empire increased national movements among the different nationalities that lived in the country. The Bolshevik government based its nationalities policy on the principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology. According to these principles, all nations should disappear with time, and nationalism was considered a bourgeois ideology. However, the Bolshevik leaders saw that the revolutionary potential inherent in nationalism could advance the revolution, and thus supported the ideas of self-determination of the nations.

The Declaration of the Rights of the People of Russia, proclaimed one month after the October Revolution on November 21, 1917, recognized four major principles:

  1. equality and sovereignty of the peoples of the Russian empire;
  2. the right of nations to self-determination;
  3. abolition of all privileges based on nationality or religion;
  4. freedom and cultural development for national minorities (i.e., dispersed nationalities and those living outside their historic territories).

But, after the official declaration of the principles, the Soviet government resisted the realization of these ideals. Even in the cases of Finland and Poland, whose right to independence was acknowledged by Vladimir Lenin before the revolution, acceptance of their independence was given by the Bolsheviks only reluctantly, after several attempts to reverse independence failed. During the Soviet-Polish war of 1920, Bolshevik leaders tried to install a pro-Soviet Polish government, however, they lost the war and thus did not achieve their goal. Of all the different nations which coexisted uneasily in the Russian empire, only Poland, Finland and Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) received independence after the October Revolution. However, the Baltic countries remained independent only until 1940, when the Soviet Army occupied their territory.

After the October Revolution, Soviet leaders had hoped for the sparking of a socialist revolution throughout the world. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky proposed the doctrine of "Permanent Revolution" that would spread from country to country. However, this was not to be the reality. By the beginning of the 1920s it became obvious even to the Soviet leaders that autonomous nations would remain.

The final goal of the Soviet national policy was the integration of all national groups into a universal (communist) empire. However, their short and medium-term strategies were completely different, so far as they encouraged the emergence of sub-imperial nationalities, in hopes that such maturation was a necessary historical stage which had to be traversed before proletarian internationalism could become fully effective.

international resistance to the soviet regime

Different nations of the former Russian empire believed that the collapse of the monarchy gave them a chance for independence. The establishment of Soviet power in the national republics was strongly resisted. The Russian empire had the reputation as the "prison of nations," thus, nationalities that were newly liberated from the one yoke after the February 1917 revolution did not rush into another bondage. But the resistance of the various nations was not strong enough to defend their independence. When the Ukraine National Republic declared independence in 1918, Soviet Russia began its aggression against the newly minted country. The resulting civil war in Ukraine continued for more than three years and ended with the annexation of Ukraine by Russia.

As the Soviet regime was established in Central Asia, native military units called Basmachi reclaimed those territories from the communists. During the fall of 1921 most of eastern Bukhara was under control of the Basmachi rebels. The Basmachi movement was divided, and its lack of unified leadership contributed to its defeat. But the resistance of the Central Asian nations against the Soviet regime continued until the middle of the 1920s.

formation of the soviet union

The Soviet Union was formally established on December 30, 1922. The largest nations of the Soviet Union were allowed their own national republics while the smaller nations had either autonomy or national districts in the territory of national republics and were considered national minorities.

The Soviet Constitution of 1924 established the various levels of national-territorial autonomy and a two-chamber Supreme Soviet (Parliament). The Soviet of the Union was elected from the equally populated electoral districts. The Soviet of Nationalities was formed of delegates elected from the national republics and regions, with each national-territorial unit having equal status and electing the same number of delegates.

the policy of korenizatsia

From the 1920s to the first half of the 1930s the main thrust of the national policy in the Soviet Union was of korenizatsia (indigenization, from the term korennoi narod, meaning "indigenous people"). This policy focused on the promotion of each nation's leadership cadre and support for development of national languages and cultures. The high authorities believed that the policy of korenizatsia would encourage non-Russian nationalities to support the Soviet regime. The plan had some limited success. The Soviet central government received support from the national communists and part of the non-Russian population. After their poor treatment in the Russian empire, national minorities favored the internationalism and national equality in the Soviet Union. The policy of korenizatsia had long-lasting effects and promoted national cultures and national consciousness among the different nations. Thus in the national republics the national languages were made compulsory in schools and offices, national theaters were opened, and books and newspapers were printed in local languages. However, many nations were more or less assimilated into Russian culture and resisted the policy of korenizatsia. Many parents resisted sending their children to the national schools and in the national republics there was considerable resistance to the official use of the national languages. Korenizatsia was especially difficult for the Russian population of the national republics considering that they were used to being the politically dominant population in the Russian empire. Furthermore, Russian nationalists could not tolerate their new status as equals of the other nationalities of the Soviet Union.

the rise of russian nationalism in the soviet union

From the second half of the 1930s the national policy of the Soviet Union lost its internationalist coloring. The Soviet leaders enhanced the role of the Russian nation and diminished the relative importance of all others. However, during the Soviet era, all nations became of the victims of sovietization and even Russians were not exempt from this policy. Peasant communities were destroyed, religious institutions devastated, and even the best of the national literatures, music, and art were forbidden for their "anti-socialist contents."

Many Soviet political campaigns affected specific nationalities more than others. For example, the collectivization and mass deportations of rich peasants to Siberia devastated the Ukraine. There the local population had more severely resisted collectivization, and Soviet authorities forcibly took all crops from the peasants. The result of this policy was horrible starvation in Ukraine in 19321933 that took the lives of six to seven million people. Another example was the forced settlement of the nomadic population, which decimated the Kazakhs. Also, purges of the national cadres greatly affected the Jews. By the end of the 1930s almost all Jews were dismissed from leading positions in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and in the government.

During and after World War II, Soviet authorities encouraged the rise of Russian nationalism. In a victory speech, Josef Stalin talked about the special qualities of the Russian people that achieved victory in the war. The new Soviet national anthem emphasized the role of the Great Russia in the creation of the Soviet Union. By the beginning of the 1940s all leaders of the national republics and regions were merely puppets of Moscow and showed complete obedience to the general national policy of the Soviet government.

At the same time there was an increase in chauvinism in the Soviet Union. In the official Soviet ideology there appeared the term "unreliable" nationalities. Accused nationalities were the subject of deportation and collective punishment, based on allegations of collaboration with the Nazis. As the result of this policy, the Volga Germans, Chechens, Crimean Tartars and dozens of smaller nationalities were deported from their homelands to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Under Stalin, fifty-six nationalities, involving about 3.5 million people, were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

After World War II the Jewish intelligentsia was persecuted during the political campaign of struggle against "cosmopolitanism." Almost all those who were accused of cosmopolitanism and pro-Western orientation were Jewish. This accusation was followed by loss of employment and by imprisonment. In 1952 the elite of the Jewish intelligentsia, including prominent scientists and Yiddish writers and poets, were secretly tried, convicted, and executed. The anti-Jewish campaign reached its height in the Soviet Union in 1952 with the investigation of the "Jewish doctors' plot." Jewish doctors were accused of intentionally providing incorrect treatments and poisoning the leaders of the Communist Party. These political campaigns provoked mass hysteria and the rise of anti-Semitism among the local population. The growing anti-Semitism was supposed to be a prelude to the planned deportation all Soviet Jews to Birobidzhan in the Far East. Only the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953, saved the Jewish population from deportation.

nationalities policy in the soviet union: post-stalin period, 19531991

First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev rehabilitated the repressed nationalities and allowed most of them to return to their original homes. The main exceptions were the Crimean Tartars and Volga Germans, because their lands had been taken over by Russians and Ukrainians. However, the national policy of Khrushchev was not consistent. In 1954 he presented the Crimea to Ukraine as "a gift" in spite of the fact that the majority of the population in Crimea was Russian.

During Leonid Brezhnev's leadership the slogan Friendship of Nations became the rule and all national conflicts were explained as hooliganism. Further, all publications about national conflicts were forbidden in the Soviet Union. However, the friendship of nations existed more on paper than in reality. After some liberalization and decreasing repression during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, the national intelligentsia attempted to discuss national problems and explore their histories and cultures. However, the Soviet leaders continued to consider nationalism as a bourgeois phenomena and many representatives of the national intelligentsia, who called for national independence, were arrested and exiled in Siberia. Soviet leaders had a double standard toward Russian nationalism versus the nationalism of the other nations of the Soviet Union. Thus the expression of Russian superiority over other nations was permitted. Movies, paintings, and novels were created about the heroic Russian past. The official Soviet ideology called the Russian nation the "older brother" of all nationalities of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile expressions of national feelings by the non-Russian nations were suppressed. Even demonstrations of respect for some distinguished national figures from the past were forbidden. Thus Soviet authorities forbade gatherings near the monument of the distinguished nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, nor could flowers be put on his monument on anniversary of his birth. Many members of the Ukrainian national intelligentsia spent years in prison and in exile during Brezhnev's time in power. Ukraine was the second largest republic of the Soviet Union in population after the Russian Federation, and a significant part of the Ukrainian population wanted independence. During World War II Ukrainian nationalists organized military units that fought against both the Nazis and the Soviet Army. Thus Ukrainian nationalism was considered by the Soviet rulers as one of the most serious threats to national unity and was severely suppressed.

The population of the Baltic republics, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, often expressed their anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev times. Soviet authority used a "stick and carrot" policy toward these countries. The active nationalists from these countries were imprisoned and sent to exile. At the same time the Soviet government made larger investments in the economic development of the Baltic countries compared with those of the other national republics. The authorities attempted to maintain higher standards of living in these countries and thus decrease the dissatisfaction of the population. However, the people of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia looked at Russians as occupiers and were usually hostile toward the Soviet regime. The Baltic countries were the first to declare their independence during the time of perestroika (19851991).

The nationalist-oriented part of the Jewish population participated in the Zionist movement and fought for the right of emigration to Israel. A small percentage of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union emigrated to Israel, the United States, and other countries during the 1970s and early 1980s. However, this emigration was severely restricted by Soviet authorities, who treated the emigrants as traitors to the Motherland.

In the last years of the Soviet Union national conflicts increased in the Caucasus republics. Bloody anti-Armenian pogroms occurred in the Nagorno Karabakh region and in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In Georgia violent conflict occurred between the Georgian and Abkhazian population.

The Soviet nations never harmoniously coexisted. Brezhnev's slogan of Friendship of Nations was an empty propaganda claim. The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics was cemented by the military power of the communist government, and by fear of repression and persecution of the most active national elements in the Soviet regime. As soon as liberalization appeared with Gorbachev's perestroika policy, the Soviet republics one by one declared their independence. Still the central Soviet government strongly resisted decentralization of the country during the late 1980s. By the order of Soviet leaders, troops were used against civilians in Latvia and Lithuania. But the end of the Soviet empire was fast approaching. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 and many nations of the former union began a new chapter in their history as independent countries.

See also: empire, ussr as; language laws; nationalities policies, soviet; nation and nationalities; russification


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Victoria Khiterer

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Nationalism in the Soviet Union

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Nationalism in the Soviet Union