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Nationalities Policies, Tsarist


At the end of the nineteenth century the huge Russian Empire extended from western Poland to the Pacific Ocean, from the Kola peninsula in the Polar Sea to the Caspian Sea and to Central Asia. It comprised regions with different climate, soil, and vegetation and a heterogeneous population with different economies, ways of life, and cultures. Among its inhabitants there were adherents of Christianity (of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Armenian variants), Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Shamanism. In ethnic terms, Orthodox Eastern Slavs (Russians, 44%; Ukrainians, 18%; and Belorussians, 5%), which officially were considered as three branches of one Russian people, predominated with two-thirds of the total population. Nevertheless Muslims, mostly speaking Turkic languages (11%), Poles (7%), Jews (4%), and dozens of other groups represented strong minorities and (with the exception of the Jews and other diaspora groups) majorities in their core regions.

The tsarist government never formulated a consistent nationalities policy. The policies toward the non-Russians of the empire were of great diversity according to its heterogeneity and the respective time period. Before the beginning of the age of nationalism (i.e., in Russia before the nineteenth century), even the term nationality is highly questionable. In the premodern period, national and ethnic categories were not considered important by the tsarist government. Russia was a supranational empire marked by the official term Rossyskaya imperia, distinct from the ethnic term russkaya (Russian). Its main concerns were the loyalty of all subjects to the ruler and their social/estate status.

In the historiography on tsarist nationalities policies, these distinctions have not always been kept in mind. Historians of the non-Russian nationalities have drawn a rather uniform picture of an oppressive, colonialist, assimilationist, and nationalist policy that from the very beginning consciously aimed at destroying national cultures and identities. On the other hand the imperial Russian and later the Soviet historiography (after 1934) and some of Russian historiography after 1991 usually idealized tsarist rule and its "mission civilisatrice" among non-Russians. In Western historiography there are also controversies about the long-term aims of tsarist nationalities policies. One group advocates a general goal of cultural Russification, at least since the reign of Catherine II; others differentiate between epochs and peoples and usually restrict the term Russification to the short period between 1881 and 1905.

Although during the Middle Ages most Rus principalities, especially the city republic of Novgorod, had comprised non-Slavic groups (Karelians, Mordvins, Zyryans/Komi, etc.), it was the conquest of the Kazan Khanate in 1552 by Ivan IV that laid the ground for the polyethnic Russian empire and for a first phase of tsarist nationalities policies. In the war declared to be a crusade against infidels, the Russian troops killed or expelled all Tatars from their capital, and priests began to baptize Muslims by force. Violent protest movements of Tatars and Cheremis (Mari) were suppressed by military campaigns.

The broad resistance, however, caused a fundamental change of policies towards the population of the former Khanate. The tsar's main goalsthe maintenance of stability and loyalty and economic profitwere served better by pragmatism than by force. So the missionary efforts among Muslims and animists were stopped for more than a century. Moscow now guaranteed the status quo not only of the religions, but also of the land and duties of the taxable population (together with the Tatar tax, yasak ) and of the landed property and privileges of the loyal noble Tatars. Many Muslim Tatars were co-opted into the imperial nobility, which already since the fifteenth century had included Tatar aristocrats. Muslim Tatar landowners were even allowed to have Russian peasants as their serfs, whereas Russian nobles were strictly forbidden to have non-Christian serfs. So in opposition to the majority of Russian peasants, enserfed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Tatar, Mordvin, Chuvash, Cheremis (Mari), and Votiak (Udmurt) peasants remained personally free "yasak men" (yasachnye lyudi ) and later state peasants. The lands owned by the Tatar khan and Tatar nobles who were killed or had fled to the East were occupied by the Russian state, Russian nobles, and peasants. They settled in significant numbers in the southern and southeastern parts of the former Kazan Khanate, where, as early as the end of the seventeenth century, Russians outnumbered the native peoples. The towns of the Khanate were also populated by Russians, and the trade and culture of the Muslim Tatars were ruralized.

The two lines of military repression and of pragmatic flexibility following the submission of the non-Russian population served as a model for Russian premodern nationalities policies. Tsarist policies were based on cooperation with loyal non-Russians and a retention of the status quo, regional traditions, and institutions. This facilitated the transfer of power and the establishment of legitimacy. In order for non-Russian aristocrats to be co-opted into the imperial nobility, they needed to have a social position and a way of life that corresponded to that of the Russian nobility. So, among the elites of the Siberian native peoples, who were subjugated by force during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only a small group of western Siberian Tatars became nobles. Nevertheless, Russian officials sought cooperation with the chieftains of Siberian tribes, who became heads of the local administration and had to guarantee the delivery of the yasak. The main aim of Russian policies towards the Siberian native peoples was the exploitation of furs, especially the valuable sable. With a pragmatic policy the government tried to further these economic goals. The shamanist religion was not persecuted, and missionary efforts of the church were not allowed. However, the regional administrators and the Russian trappers, Cossacks, merchants, and adventurers often did not obey these instructions, and they committed numerous acts of violence against the native peoples.

After the conquest of Kazan and of Astrakhan (1556), Russia gained control over the Volga valley and began to exert pressure on nomadic tribes. Leaders of the Nogai Tatars, the Bashkirs, and (from 1655) the Kalmyks swore oaths of loyalty to the tsar, which were interpreted by Moscow (and by the imperial and Soviet historiographies) as eternal subjugation of their tribes and territories. From the perspective of the steppe nomads, however, these oaths were only temporary and personal unions that did not apply to other clans or tribes. These different interpretations caused diplomatic and military conflicts between the sedentary Russian state and the nomad polities.

Similar problems of interpretation occurred in the case of the Dnieper Cossacks who swore allegiance to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1654. The Russian government regarded the agreement of Pereyaslav as a voluntary submission and the definitive incorporation of Ukraine into Russia; in the late Soviet Union it was labeled as voluntary reunion of Ukraine with Russia. For Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his Cossacks (and for many Ukrainian historians), however, it was only a temporary military alliance and a temporary Muscovite protectorate. In 1667 Ukraine was divided between Russia and Poland-Lithuania, and its Eastern part on the left bank of the Dnieper (with Kiev on the right bank) became part of the Muscovite state. The so called Hetmanate of the Dnieper Cossacks retained much autonomy within Russia, with its sociopolitical structure under the rule of an elected hetman and its independent army guaranteed. As in the case of the loose protectorates over some of the steppe nomads, military-strategic concerns seem to have been decisive for the cautious policy of the Russian government.

The pattern of pragmatic flexibility that dominated tsarist "nationalities" policies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was fundamentally altered by the Westernization of Russia promoted by Peter the Great (r. 16821725). The goal of transforming Russia into a systematized, regulated, and uniform absolutist state based on the Western European model and the adoption of the Western concept of a European "mission civilisatrice" in the East left no room for special rights and traditions of non-Russians. In 1718 cooperation with Tatar Muslim landowners was ended, and they were required to convert to Christianity. The majority of them, remaining faithful to Islam, lost their (Russian) peasants and were degraded to state peasants or merchants. Following the example of Western missions, the majority of animists of the VolgaUral region and of Siberia were converted to Orthodoxy during the first half of the eighteenth century. Although conversion was enforced with the help of economic pressure and violence, the majority of the Muslims reacted with fierce resistance. In the 1730s and 1740s the Russian army subdued the Muslim Bashkirs in the Southern Ural. However, between 1773 and 1775 Bashkirs and Volga Tatars again were among the most important supporters of the Pugachev uprising. Simultaneously Russian pressure on the Kalmyks increased, and in 1771 more than 100,000 Kalmyks moved eastward, though only a small part of them reached their ancient homeland in western Mongolia.

While during the first half of the eighteenth century tsarist nationalities policies in the East became more repressive, in the Baltic provinces of Livonia and Estonia, conquered in 1710, Peter the Great continued to apply the traditional policy of preservation of the status quo and of cooperation with foreign elites. The privileges and corporate rights of the Baltic German landowners and townsmen were guaranteed, as were the Lutheran Church and the German language in administration and justice. The German Baltic nobles were co-opted into the imperial nobility and served the tsar as military officers, administrators, diplomats, and scholars. The Baltic provinces with their Central European structures and their educated upper class even constituted a model for a Westernized Russia.

Catherine II (r. 17621796) furthered the administrative homogeneity of the empire and curtailed the autonomy of the Baltic provinces, but her successors again guaranteed the traditional rights and privileges of the Baltic Germans. Catherine also abolished the autonomy of the Ukrainian Hetmanate and destroyed the host of the formerly independent Zaporozhian Cossacks on the lower Dnieper. Russia had begun to integrate the Hetmanate into the empire after the alliance of Hetman Ivan Mazepa with the Swedish king Charles XII, defeated by the Russians at Poltava in 1709. Nonetheless the tsars continued to cooperate with the loyal Cossack elite, which became a landowning nobility and in 1785 was partially co-opted into the imperial nobility. After a century of Ukrainization of Russian culture through graduates of the Kievan Mohyla Academy, Ukrainian culture was Russified from the end of the eighteenth century. After the victory against the Ottoman Empire in 1774, the subjugation of the Khanate of Crimea in 1783, and the annexation of the steppe regions north of the Black Sea, Russia no longer required the military skills of Ukrainian Cossacks. The former Hetmanate was now integrated into the administration, social structure, and culture of Russia. The fertile Southern steppe was first colonized by privileged German and Orthodox South Slav settlers, and in the following decades by Ukrainian and Russian peasants.

The three partitions of Poland (17721795) brought large numbers of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, and Lithuanians under tsarist rule. After having abolished the political structure of the nobles' republic and incorporated the large territory into the imperial administration, Catherine II followed the traditional pattern of cooperation with loyal non-Russian elites. She co-opted many of the numerous loyal Polish nobles into the imperial elite and confirmed their landholdings (with many Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian serfs) and their social privileges. She granted self-administration to the towns and recognized the Roman Catholic Church and the Polish language. The tolerance of enlightened absolutism, however, did not apply to the Uniate Church, which was officially dissolved in 1839.

After 1772 Russia had to deal with a great number of Jews for the first time in its history. In the first years the politics of enlightened absolutism proclaimed tolerance and granted equality to the Jews, who were incorporated into the estates of townspeople. But from the 1780s on, and especially from 1804, the Jews of Russia faced discrimination. They were allowed to settle only in the so-called pale of Jewish settlement in the west of the empire and had to pay double taxes. Under Nicholas I (r. 18251855) the Jews lost other former rights.

In 1815 the Congress of Vienna established a Kingdom of Poland, often referred to as Congress Poland, which embraced the central provinces of former PolandLithuania and was united with the Russian Empire. The new hereditary king of Poland, Tsar Alexander I (r. 18011825), granted the kingdom a constitution that was the most liberal in Europe at the time, an almost complete autonomy with a separate army and self-government and a guarantee for the Polish language and the Catholic religion. These were unusual concessions that are explained by the international situation, the striving for independence of many Poles, and a possible role of the kingdom as a model for reforms in Russia. However, conflicts soon arose between the Russian government and Polish nobles who aimed at restoring the old kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. The Polish uprising of November 1830 and the following war with Russia put an end to the Kingdom of Poland. After the defeat of the Poles, Russia gave up cooperation with the "traitorous" Poles and integrated Poland into Russian administration.

In 1809 and 1812, respectively, Finland and Bessarabia were annexed by Russia. The Grand Duchy of Finland was granted a great measure of autonomy through guarantees of the status quo, the Lutheran religion, and the rights and privileges of the population. The Swedish nobility of Finland was co-opted into the imperial nobility, and many of its members served in the Russian army and navy. In contrast to the Polish nobility, they remained loyal to the tsar during the nineteenth century and maintained their social position within the empire. The large autonomy Finland was granted for the first time in 1809 laid the groundwork for the creation of a Finnish nation-state. Bessarabia, the territory between Dniester and Pruth, annexed in 1812 from the Ottoman Empire, was also guaranteed wide autonomy, which, however, was considerably curtailed in 1828. Although St. Petersburg co-opted the Romanian elite into the imperial nobility, the legal and administrative status quo of the former Ottoman province did not fit into the Westernized model of rule in Russia.

In its western peripheries, the tsarist government had to deal with societies that were influenced by the Renaissance, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and by Western legal systems and traditions of estates and urban and regional autonomysocieties that were usually more advanced in terms of education and economic development than the Russians. The empire profited from the special skills of its subjects; for instance, of the Baltic Germans, Poles, and Finns in the army, navy, and bureaucracy; of the Jews and Armenians in trade; and of all of them in education and scholarship.

As pressure on non-Russians in the West became greater under Catherine II, the repressive policy toward non-Christians in the East was lifted, and Russia again looked for cooperation with Muslim elites. Volga Tatar and Crimean Tatar aristocrats were co-opted into the nobility, and Catherine II tried to use Volga Tatar merchants and mullahs as mediators in the relations with Kazakhstan and Central Asia. She also created special religious administrations for the Muslims of the empire.

The conquest of the Caucasus region in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century brought new Muslim and Christian groups under Tsarist rule. The Muslim khanates and Georgian kingdoms lost their political selfgovernment and were integrated into the administrative structures of the empire. After the final annexation of southern Caucasia in 1828, Russia began to cooperate with its elites. Many of the very numerous Georgian and Muslim aristocrats were co-opted into the imperial nobility, and the Armenian merchants into the urban estates. So the social and economic status quo was respected. While the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church was abolished, the privileges of the Armenian Gregorian Church and the (mostly Shiite) Muslims were guaranteed. The mountaineers (gortsy ) of the Caucasus rose up against tsarist rule and under Imam Shamil fought a holy war of more than thirty years against Russia. The tsarist armies that fought the Caucasian wars with great brutality succeeded only in 1864 "pacifying" the ethnic groups of Dagestan, the Chechens, and the Circassians. Hundreds of thousands of Caucasians were killed or forced to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. After the conquest of the North Caucasus, the Russian government respected the religious and social status quo and cooperated with loyal non-Russian Muslim elites. On the other hand the government promoted Russian and Ukrainian colonization in the northern Caucasus, which became a source for new conflicts.

The evolutionist thinking of the European Enlightenment led to a new classification of peoples according to their alleged degree of civilization. Non-sedentary ethnic groups were regarded as inferior subjects, and they were combined in the new legal estate category of inorodtsy (aliens, allogenes) in 1822. During the first half of the nineteenth century most Siberian indigenes and the recently subjugated Kazakh nomads were integrated into the category of inorodtsy. They retained their social organization, their belief systems, and certain rights of local autonomy, but were second-class subjects only. After the military conquest of Central Asia from the 1860s to the 1880s, other Muslim nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen), as well as the sedentary Muslims of its south, were integrated into the estate of inorodtsy (here called tuzemtsy ). Here, for the first time, the tsarist government did not accept sedentary foreign aristocrats and merchants as equals. In Central Asia, Russia followed a policy of noninterference, and the Muslim population retained many of its administrative, legal, social, and religious rights. Russia's main interests in Central Asia were strategic (the "Great Game" with Great Britain) and economic (such as the cultivation of cotton). While most of the Central Asian territory was integrated into the imperial administration, the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva were not annexed to Russia, but formally kept their independence as a Russian protectorate.

The tsarist policy in Central Asia followed a typical colonial pattern. The region was a supplier of raw materials and a market for finished products. The fertile soils of the northern Kazakh steppe in the last decades of tsarist Russia were colonized by millions of European (mostly Russian and Ukrainian) settlers, and the nomads were driven away from their summer pastures. This caused many conflicts, which culminated in an armed uprising in Central Asia in 1916. There was a great cultural gap between the indigenous population of Central Asia and the Russians. The native peoplesnot only the nomads, but also the settled Muslimswere segregated from Europeans and regarded as inferiors by Russians. This policy reflected the influence of European colonialism and imperialism. Russia as a European power had to fulfill its "mission civilisatrice" among the "uncivilized" Asians, who in reality were the heirs of a high civilization much older than the Russian.

In the west of the empire, the traditional pattern of rule was altered after the 1860s. First, this change was caused by the Great Reforms aiming at systematization and homogenization of the administrative, juridical, social, and educational structures. The reforms clashed with traditional privileges and rights of autonomy of the regional elites, who often perceived them as measures of Russification. Second, as a result of the growing number of educated Russians, the government was no longer dependent on the special services of non-Russians in the army, bureaucracy, education, and trade. Third, it was nationalism that undermined the foundations of the Russian empire and changed the character of tsarist policy.

The crucial problem from 1830 to 1914 was the Polish question. It heavily influenced tsarist policies in general and especially nationalities policies. Poland was strategically and economically important, and the Poles were the most numerous non-Russian (i.e., nonEast Slavic) and non-Orthodox nationality of the empire. The Polish rebellions destroyed the traditional bases of tsarist policies. After 1863 Russia renounced cooperation with the Polish nobility and began to rule over Poland without its assistance. The subsequent repressive policy not only against disloyal Polish rebels, but against all signs of Polishness, including the language, the Catholic Church, and even the name Poland, can be interpreted both as punishment and as measures to ensure law and order. Tsarism did not aim at a full assimilation of the Polish nation, but the repressive Russification policy severely hampered the development of Polish culture and society in the Russian Empire.

The change of nationalities policies after 1863 had severe impact on the Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Lithuanians. Their national movements, which had just begun to develop, were thought to be a "Polish intrigue" organized by Polish and Jesuit agitators. In reality they were directed primarily against the social and cultural dominance of the Polish nobility. The printing of publications in Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian (in the last case in Latin letters) was prohibited, and the (moderate) activities of the national movements were stopped.

Thus, after 1863 the tsarist government openly pursued the goal of linguistic Russification for the first time. In the case of the Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were regarded as Russians, it aimed at strengthening their genuine Russianness against Polish influences. This policy on the whole was successful, and the Ukrainian and Belorussian national movements were severely hampered. In the case of Poles and Lithuanians, however, the extreme measures, especially against the Catholic Church, led to protest and contributed to the national mobilization of the Lithuanian and Polish peasants.

The Polish uprising of 1863 was also an important catalyst of Russian nationalism. Although the tsarist government regarded Russian nationalism with suspicion, because it called into question traditional legitimacy and the autocratic monopoly on power, nationalism not only mobilized great parts of educated society but made its way into the bureaucracy and had increasing influence on policy making. After 1863, in a spiral of mutual challenge and response, Russian nationalism and tsarist repression escalated.

In the following decades the repressive policy was extended to elites who for a long time had been models of great loyalty to the dynasty. Now their non-Russianness came to be regarded as potential disloyalty. During the reign of Alexander III (18811894) a policy of standardization and administrative and cultural Russification was initiated in the Baltic provinces and provoked the resistance of the Baltic Germans. During the 1890s Finland became the object of the policy of forceful integration, which unleashed national mobilization not only of the old Swedish-speaking elite, but of the broad Finnish masses. From 1881 on, the government enforced discriminatory measures against Jews, who were suspected of being revolutionaries and traitors and who were scapegoated. Anti-Semitism became an important part of Russian integral nationalism, although the tsarist government did not organize the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1881 and of 1903 to 1906. In Transcaucasia from the 1870s Russification measures alienated the Georgian noble elite and, after the 1880s, the Armenian Church and middle class.

In the last third of the nineteenth century, the tsarist government renounced cooperation with most of the co-opted loyal nobilities (Poles, Baltic Germans, Finlanders, Georgians) and loyal middle classes (Jews, Armenians). With the rise of ethnic nationalism and growing tensions in foreign policy, loyalty was expected only from members of the Russian nation and not from non-Russian elites, who were regarded with growing suspicion. On the whole the repressive measures against non-Russians in the western and southern periphery had counterproductive results, strengthening national resistance and enlarging national movements.

However, the tsarist policy toward most of the ethnic groups of the East remained basically unchanged. It is true that state and church tried to strengthen Orthodox faith and "Russianness" among the Christianized peoples of the Volga-Ural-Region, but the so-called Ilminsky system, which introduced native languages into missionary work, was above all a defensive measure against the growing appeal of Islam. By creating literary languages and native-language schools for many small ethnic groups, it furthered in the long run their cultural nationalism. In the last fifty years of tsarism, there were only cautious missionary activities and virtually no Russificatory measures among the Muslims of the empire.

In 1905 peasants and workers in the western and southern peripheries were the most active promoters of the revolution. The revolution unleashed a short "spring of nations" that embraced nearly all ethnic groups of the empire. The removal of most political and some cultural restrictions and the possibility of political participation in the first two State Dumas (19061907) caused widespread national mobilization. Although the tsarist government soon afterward restricted individual and collective liberties and rights, it could not return to the former policy of repression and Russification. The violent insurrections of Latvian, Estonian, and Georgian peasants and of Polish, Jewish, Latvian, and Armenian workers made clear that turning away from cooperation with the regional elites had proved to be dangerous for social and political stability. The tsarist government tried to split non-Russians by a policy of divide and rule and partially returned to the coalition with loyal, conservative forces among non-Russians. On the other hand it was influenced by the rising ethnic Russian nationalism, which was used to integrate Russian society and to bridge its deep social and political cleavages. Despite the many unresolved political, social, economic, and ethno-national problems, the government managed to hold together the heterogeneous empire until 1917. The national questions were not among the main causes for the collapse of the tsarist regime in February 1917, but they became crucial for the dissolution of the empire after October 1917.

See also: ilminsky, nikolai ivanovich; nationalismin the tsarist empire; nationalities policies, soviet; nation and nationality; official nationality; russification; slavophiles


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Andreas Kappeler

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