Nationalities Policies, Soviet

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The centerpiece of Bolshevik nationality policy before they came to power in 1917 was the right of nations to self-determination. As outlined by Vladimir I. Lenin in his 1916 work The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, this constituted the "right to free political secession" for all nationalities without qualification. In the same work, Lenin distinguished between different types of national movement, characterizing the Russian Empire as one of the areas where "the twentieth century has especially developed bourgeois-democratic national movements and sharpened the national struggle"(Lenin, 1964,p.151). Therefore national movements could play an important role in the democratic movement to overthrow tsarism, but at the same time Lenin explicitly argued that the right to secede ought in itself to be sufficient to persuade national minorities of the security of their national rights in a democratic state. While supporting the right of nations to self-determination, the Bolsheviks would not necessarily argue in favor of the right of secession being exercised. In any case in a socialist state, the clear economic and political advantages of remaining part of a larger state combined with the guarantees provided by the right to secede and the natural international class unity of the proletariat would ensure that, in most cases, national minorities would choose to remain within the larger state. This argument has led many historians to conclude that the right of nations to self-determination was purely a slogan designed to attract the maximum support from national minorities for Lenin's aim of socialist revolution, and was meaningless when it came to the practicalities of a multinational Soviet state.

self-determination to federalism, 19171923

The principle of self-determination was invoked by the Soviet government in recognizing the independence of Finland at the end of 1917, but was not applied in its literal form thereafter. Nevertheless, it continued to dominate debates on the national question at Bolshevik Party conferences and congresses up until 1921. These arguments were a continuation of long-standing objections to Lenin's policy on the part of a significant group in the party leadership led by Yuri Pyatakov, Nikolai Bukharin, and Karl Radek. They argued that the internationalism of the working class meant that the continued existence of nations in a socialist society was inconceivable, that in the short term they were purely a distraction from the class struggle, and that recognition of national rights simply gave succor to divisive bourgeois nationalists. A particularly heated debate between this group and Lenin at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 led to a compromise resolution that introduced a new qualification to the right to self-determination: The question of who should represent the will of the nation on this matter would depend on the level of historical development of that nation. The implication was that for more developed nations, especially those already within the Soviet system, the national will would be expressed by the proletariat through their representative bodies, the Soviets themselves. Even in this qualified form, no nation was given the opportunity to exercise self-determination, and by 1920 the commissar (equivalent to minister) for nationality affairs, Josef Stalin, had declared selfdetermination a counterrevolutionary slogan.

Nevertheless, these debates were highly significant. The internationalist arguments of Bukharin and Pyatakov were deployed by substantial numbers of Russian communists working in non-Russian areas and enjoyed widespread support among both leading and rank-and-file Bolsheviks. In fact, it is doubtful whether Lenin ever enjoyed majority support for his policy within his own party. In the non-Russian regions, disputes between Russian and local national administrators and Party officials were frequent. Although these disputes more often than not centered on practical matters such as land distribution or the status of languages, the latter group frequently invoked the spirit of self-determination in support of their demands, while the former were often ready to dismiss their opponents as bourgeois nationalists. Underlying all the arguments about self-determination, then, was disagreement over whether separate national rights should be recognized in any form. Lenin's aversion to Great Russian Chauvinism meant that when the center was called on to intervene in such disputes, as often happened, it was more often than not the local nationals who received the more favorable decision. The predominance of Russians in the regional Bolshevik Party structures, however, ensured that even these interventions could be ignored.

Lack of clarity as to the status of national minorities helped to perpetuate these divisions. Initially the Bolsheviks had no clear blueprint for the organization of their multinational Soviet state. The principles behind Lenin's policy provided some sort of framework: national minorities who had been oppressed under the tsars must be assured that they would not continue to be treated in the same way; they should as far as possible run their own local institutions and be responsible for cultural matters, and they should enjoy the same linguistic and educational rights as Russians, assisted by the center where needed. Lenin also agreed with the need for some kind of national autonomy, various forms of which had been proposed by European Marxists since the beginning of the twentieth century. Within these broad parameters, policy was largely improvised in the key period between the end of the civil war in 1920 and the formation of the Soviet Union in 1924.

Shortly after the October 1917 revolution, a Commissariat for Nationality Affairs (or Narkomnats) was formed under Stalin's leadership. Narkomnats was responsible only for the smaller nationalities located within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR); until 1924, the larger nationalities of Ukraine, Belorussia and Transcaucasia had formally separate Soviet republics, linked to the RSFSR by treaties but in practice all dominated by the centralized Bolshevik Party. In a 1913 article, "Marxism and the National Question," Stalin had argued for territorial national autonomy, opposing the nonterritorial cultural autonomy espoused by the Austrian Marxists Otto Bauer and Karl Renner. The first autonomous republic, the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Republic, was created in February 1919 and eventually provided the model for a series of autonomous republics and autonomous regions that proliferated across the RSFSR between 1920 and 1922. Their status was formally defined in separate treaties, but in general the republics and regions were responsible for matters of local government, education, culture, and agriculture, while the center retained authority over industry, the military, and foreign affairs.

In 1922, the unsatisfactory constitutional status of the Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Transcaucasian Soviet Republics was addressed. As Stalin argued, the formal separate status of these republics meant that they could pass their own laws, but if the leadership in Moscow objected, they could have these laws repealed by recourse to the disciplinary procedures of the Bolshevik Party, whose members controlled all the republics. The solution proposed by Stalin was to incorporate these republics into the system of autonomous republics of the RSFSR, which he himself had been instrumental in creating. In September 1922, Lenin objected that it was unacceptable to incorporate such important nationalities on the same basis as the smaller ones of the RSFSR and to subject them to the authority of a state whose title implied they would become a part of Russia. Instead, he proposed that they should join a new formation on the same footing as the USSR, in a federative union of equals. The title of the new federation was eventually decided on as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Lenin was by this time almost entirely incapacitated by illness, but had time to win this argument and then had to rely on others to carry his policy through. Until recently, most historians have taken this episode as evidence that Lenin stood for a more liberal position in regard to the non-Russians, while Stalin was a ruthless centralizer. More recently it has been argued either that in reality there were no significant differences between the two, or at least that they were not so far apart on this particular point.

The USSR officially came into being on January 1, 1924, consisting of the RSFSR, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Belorussian SSR, and the Transcaucasian Federation, itself made up of the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani SSRs (which were later given entirely separate status). In 1925 Central Asia, previously part of the RSFSR as the Turkestan and Kirghiz Autonomous Republics, was divided into separate republics, with further later reorganizations resulting in the five Central Asian SSRs, the Kazakh, Uzbek, Tadzhik, Turkmen, and Kirghiz. Following World War II, newly acquired Soviet territory formed the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Moldovan SSRs, making a total of fifteen union republics and dozens of autonomous republics and regions for the remainder of the Soviet period. Federalism between a number of national territories, which had been rejected outright by Lenin and others before 1917, thus became the central organizing principle of the Soviet state by 1924.

Within this constitutional framework, for most of the 1920s the Soviets pursued a range of policies aimed at promoting the national, economic, and cultural advancement of the non-Russians: priority to the local language, a massive increase in native language schools, development of national cultures, and staffing the Soviet administration as far as possible with local nationals. Collectively, these policies were known as korenizatsiya, or "rooting." Although widely opposed by local Russian (and some non-Russian) communists, these policies were generally successful in establishing local national leaderships and strengthening national identities associated with particular territories that formed the basis for what later became the post-Soviet independent states.

Economic investment in the non-Russian regions, with the aim of creating or reinforcing a native proletariat and raising the general level of development of the minorities, was one of the key elements of policy emerging from the discussion at the Twelfth Congress of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in April 1923. During the period of the New Economic Policy (19211929), some progress was made in this direction, with the construction of a number of factories and processing plants in Central Asia providing an important impetus to the industrialization of the region. Over-all, however, levels of economic investment in the borderlands did not significantly exceed those in central Russia. During the more rapid industrialization of the 1930s, a pattern emerged of concentrating the production of raw materials in the republics, such as cotton in Central Asia and coal in Ukraine, which were then processed in plants and factories in the RSFSR before the final goods were distributed across the Soviet Union. Some commentators have interpreted this as evidence of a deliberate colonial policy, based on comparisons with British practices in India, which served to tie the republics irrevocably into a state of economic dependency on the Soviet Union.

the stalin era

Stalin did little to change this system during the early years of his power. However, there were early signs of a change in policy direction. In 1928 and 1929 a series of show trials and purges affected leading intellectuals and politicians in Ukraine, Belorussia, Tatarstan, Crimea, and Kazakhstan. Many of those arrested or demoted had been beneficiaries of the policies of korenizatsiya, and were now charged with fuelling anti-Soviet nationalism directly or indirectly. A more profound shift was evident in 1930 and 1931 when two leading historians, the Marxist Mikhail Pokrovsky and the Ukrainian national historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, were discredited. Both were associated with an approach to history that had portrayed the Russian Empire as the unremitting oppressor of the non-Russians. As the 1930s progressed, the official version of history shifted to one where the Russian Empire had brought progress and civilization to backward peoples, and where for the first time former Russian tsars and military leaders could be portrayed as national heroes. Whereas previously nationality policy had discriminated against Russians and frequently denied them national rights allowed to others, now the superiority of the Russian culture and people was increasingly celebrated. This ideological shift was reflected on the ground in the partial abandonment of korenizatsiya policies from 1932 onward and an increasing dominance of Russians in the non-Russian regions. By the end of the decade all of the national leaders of the 1920s had been purged and in many cases replaced by Russians. The semiofficial position of Russian as the lingua franca of the Soviet Union was acknowledged by a law of 1938 that made the study of Russian as a second language compulsory in all non-Russian schools.

These changes have often been interpreted as evidence for a policy of outright Russification. But national cultures continued to be celebrated, albeit in a more "folky" form, the constitutional status of republics remained untouched, and local national politicians and the national language continued to play a major role in the life of the republics. In fact, the historian Terry Martin (2000) has identified a shift to a "primordial" view of nations during the 1930s, which implied that nations were permanent and could therefore never merge or be subsumed by the Russian nation. The emphasis in propaganda was rather on a Brotherhood of Nations in which the Russians would play the leading role. This emphasis gained ground during and immediately after World War II, when Stalin famously proposed a toast to "the health of our Soviet people, and in the first place the Russian people the most outstanding nation of all the nations of the Soviet Union" (Stalin, vol.16, p.54).

The shift in nationality policy of the 1930s has to be seen in the broader context. It was a period of massive upheaval for all the peoples of the USSR. The collectivization of agriculture meant the destruction of traditional peasant cultures, most keenly felt by those such as the Kazakhs who had previously been nomadic and were now forced to settle. Huge numbers of people moved from the countryside to the towns and from one region to another in the course of industrialization, with the consequence that territories where one nationality had earlier been dominant in the overall population now found their numbers diluted by an influx of people from other national backgrounds, particularly Russians and other Slavs. In addition, the threat of a major war raised the fear among the leadership of the Soviet Union splitting along national lines in the event of an invasion, which required a propaganda shift emphasizing the unity rather than the diversity of Soviet nations. A final factor in the change was the clearly expressed disillusionment of Russians living in non-Russian areas, who had felt discriminated against in the allocation of jobs and land.

The new identification of nations as primordial had further implications. If nations were primordial, then all members of a particular nation shared collective traits and characteristics, which could be positive or negative. In the tense international situation of the late 1930s these traits could include a tendency to be unreliable or treacherous in the event of war. Already in Stalin's Great Terror, specific actions had been targeted against Poles, Germans, and Finns. In 1937, as tensions with Japan rose, every single ethnic Korean was deported from a large area of the Far East. Between 1941 and 1944, the Germans of the Volga region and the Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and Meshketian Turks of Transcaucasia, together with the Tatars of the Crimea, were labeled as treacherous and were deported from their homelands. Every man, woman, and child was loaded into cattle trucks and transported by train to Siberia or Kazakhstan where they were deposited with little provision for their livelihood. Some one and one-half million people in all were treated in this way. Lacking food, water, and sanitation for days or weeks on end, up to half died during the journey, while others perished of disease or hunger soon after arrival at their new destinations. The territories from which they had been deported were simply renamed or disappeared, as if these nations had never existed. But far from eliminating these nations, the experience provided them in many cases with a deeper identity and a myth of survival and hatred of the Soviet system that characterized them later on. Many were rehabilitated by Khrushchev in 1956 and gradually returned to their homelands, while others, like the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, and Volga Germans had to wait longer and could only return illegally.

Policy towards other nationalities was more positive during the war years, although Jews, Ukrainians, and Belorussians suffered disproportionately from the Nazi invasion and occupation. The need to mobilize the entire Soviet population for the war effort led to a number of concessions. National units in the Red Army, abolished only in 1938, were restored, and the heroic exploits of some of them were particularly prominent in propaganda. National heroes, especially military ones, who had been discredited in the official histories of the 1930s, were praised. A looser attitude to religion and culture restored the symbols and practices associated with many nationalities. In general Soviet propaganda stressed the unity and brotherhood of all the nations of the Soviet Union, but with the important qualification that the leading role was assigned to the Russians.

The settlement agreed by the Allies at the end of the war brought substantial new territory under Soviet control. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been independent since the Russian Civil War of 19171922, were first occupied by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 under the terms of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. Rapid steps towards the Sovietization of these republics were taken, and were resumed after the interruption of the Nazi occupation of 19411945. The nationalization of industry, redistribution of landed estates followed by collectivization, introduction of Soviet school and university curricula, and imposition of the Soviet political system were all carried out with no regard for the independent traditions of the region. The process involved the deportation or execution of more than 300,000 individuals of suspect back-groundsformer members of political parties, army officers, high-ranking civil servants, clergymen, estate owners, or political opponents from the pre-independence period. These deportations were followed up by a deliberate policy of immigration of Russians into Latvia and Estonia in particular, significantly shifting the demographic makeup. In response to Sovietization, national partisan units, some of which were formed to fight against the Nazi occupation, continued to trouble the Soviet authorities until as late as 1952.

During the postwar years, appeals to Russian national sentiment took a further twist in the form of overt anti-Semitism. In 1948 a propaganda campaign against "cosmopolitanism" made little secret of the identity of the real targets. Over the next five years, thousands of Jewish intellectuals, cultural figures, and political leaders were arrested and imprisoned or executed. In 1953 a number of leading doctors, most of them Jewish, were arrested and charged in the so-called Doctors' Plot to kill off Soviet leaders. There is some evidence that at the same time plans were being laid to deport Jews from the western parts of the Soviet Union in an operation similar to, but on a larger scale than, the wartime national deportations. These plans were shelved, and most of the doctors' lives spared, only by the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953. The rapid abatement of anti-Jewish activities and propaganda from this date gives some persuasiveness to the argument that the campaign was based primarily on Stalin's personal anti-Semitism, but Soviet policy in the Middle East and the suspicion that Jewish organizations would gain in influence at home and abroad as a result of the sympathy arising from the Holocaust have also been offered as explanations. In any case anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in large sections of Russian society, and could easily be mobilized again, as it was during the 1960s and 1970s, though to a lesser extent than during the late Stalin years. During the Brezhnev period, the status of Soviet Jews received international publicity through the fate of the refuseniks those Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel.

stalin succession and the khrushchev and brezhnev eras, 19531985

The non-Russian nationalities of the USSR played an important role in the competition to succeed Stalin as leader. NKVD (secret police) head Lavrenti Beria, like Stalin a Georgian, gained the ascendancy initially, and one of his first acts was to privately condemn Stalin for departing from Leninist principles in nationalities policy. He replaced the Russian Konstantin Melnikov with the Ukrainian Aleksei Kirichenko as party leader in Ukraine, and made several other personnel changes that established the principle that the first Party secretary in each Union republic should belong to the local nationality, a policy that was generally observed until 1986. "Activating remnants of bourgeois-nationalist elements in the Union republics" was one of the charges laid against Beria on his arrest during the summer of 1953, but nevertheless the republics continued to enjoy a position of relative advantage. Nikita Khrushchev, as general secretary of the CPSU, used his powers of appointment to promote former colleagues from Ukraine, where he had served during the 1930s, into important positions at the center. He also showed favoritism toward Ukraine in granting it control of the Crimean peninsula in 1954, and increased the number of Ukrainians on the Central Committee of the CPSU from sixteen in 1952 to fifty-nine in 1961. Their votes ultimately proved important in defeating Khrushchev's rivals in the Politburo. Khrushchev also gave all of the republics more say over economic matters by decentralizing a number of economic ministries, as well as the Ministry of Justice, to the republic level.

Having beaten off his rivals in 1957, Khrushchev turned many of these reforms on their head. Economic ministries were reorganized once more to the detriment of the republics. A new form of words creeping into the regime's Marxist-Leninist ideology signaled a clear shift in nationalities policy. Instead of describing relations between the nationalities of the USSR as a "Brotherhood of Nations," Khrushchev now began to talk about the "merger of nations" into one Soviet nation. This nation would be based around Slavic culture and the Russian language. Khrushchev took care not to alienate entirely the Ukrainian population, who were easily the second largest nationality, by including them (and to a lesser extent Belorussians) alongside Russians as the more important of the nationalities.

An important policy change was taken in this direction in the context of a general reform of the education system, which Khrushchev introduced in theses announced in November 1958. Article 19 of the theses, while acknowledging the longstanding Leninist principle that each child should be educated in his or her mother tongue, insisted that the question of which languages children should learn or be instructed in was a matter of parental choice. This move was widely opposed in the republics, especially those of Transcaucasia and the Baltics. It meant that Russian immigrants into the republics no longer had to study the local language as a second language, while it also opened the door to Estonians, Azerbaijanis, and others to send their children to Russian schools. Nevertheless, Khrushchev insisted on all the republics introducing legislation to reflect this change. In those republics that failed to do so, Latvia and Azerbaijan, broad purges of the Communist Party leadership were carried out on Moscow's instructions and new legislation forced through.

What the republican leaders feared was that the status of the republic's language would be eroded, provoking an initial popular backlash and opening the door in the long term to the abolition of the national federal system. It is perhaps no coincidence that the republics that displayed most opposition to the reformLatvia, Estonia, and Azerbaijanwere those where the numerically dominant position of the local nationality in the population as a whole had come under the most pressure. Following the first major period of internal migration in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, several further waves of migration occurred. Immediately after World War II, as thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were deported from their republics, even greater numbers of Russians moved the other way over a number of years, especially into Latvia and Estonia, where the proportion of Estonians in the total population fell from 88 percent in 1939 to 61.5 percent in 1989. Under Khrushchev, large-scale internal migration was associated with the Virgin Lands campaigns and other policies, while the dominance of republican nationalities was further undermined by later waves of migration.

The changing demographic structure of the USSR might help to explain Khrushchev's new emphasis on the "merger of nations." If particular policies and the demands of modernization entailed a geographically more mobile population, it made sense for everyone to have command of a single language and to owe their primary loyalty to the Soviet state rather than to a particular republic or nationality. The sum total of Khrushchev's policies, then, could be regarded as aiming at a more systematic Russification of the entire population than had ever been attempted by Stalin.

If this was the intention, at least in the short term the actual impact of Khrushchev's policies was minimal in the Union republics. Schools continued to operate much as they had before. For the smaller nationalities of the RSFSR, the impact was more telling. The number of languages used in schools in the RSFSR declined from forty-seven during the early 1960s to seventeen by 1982, most of which were only used in the early grades before instruction switched to Russian. In the longer term, mother-tongue education eventually declined in the larger republics as well, especially Ukraine and Belorussia, and the constitutional status of republican languages was also undermined in a number of cases.

During Leonid Brezhnev's tenure as general secretary of the CPSU (19641982), the republics were nonetheless subjected to less drastic policy and personnel changes than under Khrushchev. Typically, republican leaders remained in office for much longer, as illustrated by Uzbek first secretary Sharaf Rashidov, who retained his position from 1959 to 1983. This longevity allowed the republican leaders to build up their own networks of power, which were often associated with endemic corruption, but also meant they could pursue the interests of their republics without interference, so long as they did not cross acceptable boundaries. This happened in Ukraine in 1963, when First Secretary Petr Shelest was dismissed for allegedly pursuing a policy of over-zealous promotion of Ukrainian identity and culture. The regime continued to pursue Russification policies to an extent sufficient to provoke the creation of numerous underground nationalist groupings, which were to emerge at the head of much broader movements at the end of the 1980s.

gorbachev and the collapse of the soviet union

Shortly after assuming the general secretaryship of the CPSU in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that the Soviet Union had decisively resolved the national question. Events were to disillusion him quickly. When he tried to replace the Kazakh first secretary, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, with a Russian, Gennady Kolbin, in December 1986, the response was widespread rioting on the streets of Alma Ata, the capital of the Kazakh Republic. Gorbachev's reaction was to tread a more cautious line, repealing a number of unpopular language laws, and reforming the Council of Nationalities, which represented the republics at the highest level. Initially, he even gave encouragement to national-minded intellectuals in the Baltic republics, hoping to use them to help force through experimental market reforms in the region. But his failure to instigate an overall consistent policy towards nationalities only served to fuel the explosion of national unrest, which erupted in violent conflict between Azeris and Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1988, and the emergence of national "Popular Fronts," which arose in the Baltic republics during the same year and spread across almost all major nationalities by the end of the decade.

This eruption led to varying responses from Gorbachev, who at times seemed to be making concessions to the national movements, but at other times resorted to repression, leading to bloodshed by government forces in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (although Gorbachev's direct involvement in these events has never been established). The Popular Fronts won spectacular successes in Soviet elections and came to dominate the government in Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia. These republics declared first sovereignty, then independence. Other republics followed with declarations of sovereignty (meaning that their own republican laws would take precedence over the laws of the USSR). The decisive blow against the federal USSR came during the summer of 1990 when the RSFSR itself, led by Boris Yeltsin, declared sovereignty. In his rivalry with Gorbachev, Yeltsin was prepared to give every encouragement to national movements, including the Russian one.

Although a referendum organized by Gorbachev early in 1991 showed overwhelming support for maintaining some form of Union among most non-Russians, and Gorbachev himself was working on the terms of a new, much looser, Union Treaty aimed at holding the republics together at the time of the failed coup in August of that year, he was probably already resigned to the independence of the Baltic republics, and it was likely that other republics would follow them. The coup proved the final nail in the coffin as it encouraged other republican leaders to pursue their own paths, and the USSR was formally dissolved at midnight on December 31, 1991.

While the Bolsheviks and their successors were guided by general principles in their treatment of non-Russian nationalities, no single coherent nationalities policy existed for the Soviet period as a whole. Not only did the guiding principles change over time, but they were applied to different degrees to different nationalities, creating a picture far more complex than it is possible to describe here in detail. The size of the nationality, its proportion in the overall population of each republic, the historical strength of national identity, the existence of co-nationals or coreligionists outside the borders of the USSR, and their proximity to Moscow or strategic borderlands were all factors contributing to these differences. Perhaps most important of all, especially in the later Soviet period, was the closeness of individual leaders to the key figures in Moscow and their adeptness at the kind of bargaining that characterized the later years. Ultimately, one of the reasons for the demise of the USSR was the attempt to apply general nationalities policies to the three Baltic republics, which had a quite different historical experience from the other nationalities. But from the earliest days there was an inconsistency in the application of policies that favored national development on the one hand and the demands of a centralized, ideologically and culturally unified state on the other, causing tensions that contributed in no small part to the instability that preceded the downfall of the system.

See also: commonwealth of independent states; empire, ussr as; korenizatsya; nationalism in the soviet union; nationalities policies, tsarist; official nationality; russian soviet federated socialist republic; russification; stalin, josef vissarionovich


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