People's Commissariat of Nationalities

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While the tsarist empire had no specific ministry to deal with the non-Russian peoples, upon coming to power the Bolsheviks established a People's Commissariat of Nationalities, with Josef Stalin at its head, in its first government. Soviet policy toward the nationalities was based on both ideology and pragmatism. Both Vladimir Lenin and Stalin upheld the Marxist (and liberal) principle of the right of nationalities to self-determination, even in the face of opposition from many of their comrades. Lenin and Stalin believed that nationalism arose from non-Russians' distrust (nedoverie ) of an oppressive nationality, such as the Russians. Secure in their faith that "national differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day" and that "the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster," the Bolshevik leaders were prepared to grant autonomy, cultural and language rights, and even territory to non-Russian peoples in order to stave off separatism and chauvinist nationalism. Even as national Communist leaders in Ukraine, Transcaucasia, and elsewhere took over the development of their national populations, the Commissariat of Nationalities (abbreviated as Narkomnats) managed the affairs of dozens of peoples in the Russian Soviet Socialist Federation and beyond.

Immediately after taking power, the Bolsheviks issued a series of declarations on "the rights of the toiling and exploited peoples," "to all Muslim toilers of Russia and the East," and on the disposition of Turkish Armenia. Most importantly, with little real ability to effect its will in the peripheries, the Soviet government made a strategic shift in response to the growing number of autonomies and accepted by January 1918 the principle of federalism. In each national area the government promoted programs to favor the local indigenous peoples, a kind of cultural affirmative action. Not only were native languages supported, but indigenous leaders, if they were loyal to the Communist enterprise, were also supported. Within the Commissariat there were separate sub-commissariats for Jewish, Armenian, and other nationalities' affairseven a Polar Subcommittee for the "small peoples of the north." The newspaper Zhizn' natsional'nostei was the official house organ of the Commissariat.

As commissar, Stalin was often absent from the affairs of his Commissariat. Yet on important occasions he settled decisive issues, as in 1921 when he supported the inclusion of the Armenian region of Mountainous Karabakh in the neighboring state of Azerbaijan. Stalin favored the formation of a Transcaucasian Federation of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, against the desires of many local Bolsheviks, particularly among the Georgians. On this issue, and the even more important question of how centralized the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would be, Stalin came into conflict with Lenin, who was far more suspicious of the "Great Power chauvinism" of the Russians and favored more rights for the non-Russians. Both men, however, supported the general line known as korenizatsya, which sought to indigenize the areas in which non-Russian peoples lived by developing local cultures, political elites, and national languages.

Activists from Narkomnats were involved in setting up autonomous regions for non-Russian peoples, establishing newspapers, publishing pamphlets, and fostering literacy. Many of them saw themselves as protectors of the weak, a bulwark against the potential destruction of native cultures. But at the same time the government's policies betrayed a kind of paternalism directed toward "backward" or "primitive" peoples who were, in many cases, not considered able to run their own affairs. Officials in Moscow acknowledged at times that they knew little about the peoples in more remote reaches of their vast country. Much linguistic and ethnographic work had still to be done to evaluate just which group belonged to which nationality, and Narkomnats assisted in developing Soviet anthropology and ethnography. In a real sense government intervention and the work of intellectuals helped draw the lines of distinction that later took a reality of their own between various peoples.

With the formation of the Soviet Union in early 1924, the Commissariat of Nationalities was dissolved, and its activities shifted to the new Soviet parliament. But by that time the broad and lasting contours of Soviet nationality policy had been worked out. Only during the 1930s, with the growing autocratic power of Stalin, the radical social transformations of his "revolution from above," and the fear of approaching war in Europe was the policy of korenizatsya moderated in favor of a more Russophilic and nationalist policy.

See also: korenizatsya; nationalities policies, soviet


Blank, Stephen. (1994). The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities, 19171924. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Martin, Terry. (2001). The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 19231939. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press.

Slezkine, Yuri. (1994). Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Jeremy. (1999). The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 191723. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Suny, Ronald Grigor. (1993). The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ronald Grigor Suny

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People's Commissariat of Nationalities

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