All the Russias

J. Arch Getty

  • Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR by Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda
    Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp, £20.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 241 12540 5

I recently asked two first-time Soviet visitors to the United States for their most vivid impression of America. Both are perceptive scholars and both had spent several weeks touring and studying. Without knowing the other’s answer, each replied that he was surprised to find that, in contrast with his native country, the US had solved its racial problems. Anyone familiar with racism in America will be struck by this comment on the depth of the ‘nationalities problem’ in the USSR.

At the last count, there were 102 officially recognised nationalities in the Soviet Union. They speak dozens of mutually unintelligible languages and have strikingly different histories and cultures. They range from desert pastoralists to Arctic herdsmen, from Slavic Europeans to Aleut fishermen, from Romanians to Eskimos: Russians comprise only 50 per cent of the Soviet population. The main national groups are variously organised into a complicated system of Union Republics, Autonomous Republics and Autonomous Regions, all scattered across 11 time zones from the Carpathian Mountains to the Pacific. Everything else being equal, the sheer diversity of the Soviet population would make for great difficulty in governing the country. But everything else is never equal, and three additional problems have produced a situation in which the disintegration or radical transformation of the Soviet Union now seems inevitable. First, a legacy of Russian domination of other nationalities has left bitter tastes and fuelled centrifugal tendencies. Second, uneven population growth threatens, and is already producing, social instability. Third, most of the constituent nationalities hate each other.

The national problem is an inextricable part of Soviet and Communist Party history. It is worth remembering that Lenin’s only serious political dispute with Stalin was over the latter’s handling of national problems (Stalin and his henchmen were too brutal for Lenin’s taste on one occasion). National issues, moreover, have been the stuff of Soviet development and disintegration. In 1917, Lenin and his victorious Bolsheviks inherited a ‘prison of nations’ from their Tsarist predecessors. The Russian Empire had forcibly incorporated dozens of non-Russian peoples and it ruled them with an iron hand. National customs and languages were brutally suppressed as the empire sought to ‘Russify’ its conquests: in one obscure corner of the empire, the angry young boy who would become Joseph Stalin was forbidden to use his native Georgian language in school. The Bolshevik platform before the Russian Revolution had stressed national rights and self-determination, and many non-Russian radicals such as Stalin were attracted to Lenin’s group for this reason. The early Bolshevik leaderships included large numbers of Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Poles, Balts, Jews and others.

Immediately after taking power, the Bolsheviks made good on their promise to allow national self-determination and even secession, but only for some. Finland and the Baltic states were allowed to go their own way, as was Poland. The Caucasian peoples (Georgians, Armenians and Azeris) and Ukraine, however, were conquered by the Red Army in the course of its struggle with the anti-Bolshevik Whites. Caucasians and Ukrainians, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, were subsequently annexed first to a Russian and then to a new Soviet state. In the Twenties, relations between and among the various national groups were generally good. Although it did not disappear, the Great Russian chauvinism that had characterised Imperial rule was suppressed as ideologically unacceptable. In this liberal period of Soviet history, union republics and minorities were, within rather wide limits, allowed to control their cultural life, education and language.

But from the late Twenties, the rise of Stalin, and the Bolsheviks’ swing in the direction of intolerant radicalism, worked to destroy the benign ‘national contracts’ that had characterised relations between Russians and others. Ultra-leftist Stalinists were out to eliminate capitalism and all its vestiges after 1929: they collectivised agriculture, nationalised industry and business. For them, nationalism was a relic of the capitalist past; the smaller nationalities should display a proper internationalism by giving up their archaic peculiarities and fusing with the more ‘progressive’ amalgamated Soviet culture. In practice, this meant a Stalinist assault on the rights and prerogatives of minority nationalities and a return to intolerant Russification, which lasted with ups and downs into the Eighties. Stalinist repression fell heavily on minority nationalities. Political, cultural and educational leaders in the national areas were arrested, imprisoned and shot. During and after the Stalin era, periodic purges swept through these areas, decapitating the potential national leadership and ensuring the continued ‘affiliation’ of the nations with Moscow. During and after the Second World War Stalin deported entire national groups, including the Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans and others. Khrushchev’s liberalising ‘thaw’ seems to have given the nationalities few tangible benefits. Although physical terror was ended, compulsion and Russification remained, and concessions to national groups were largely symbolic: Crimean Tatars were exonerated of the charge of collaboration but were not allowed to return to their homeland. Khrushchev’s ‘benign neglect’ was replaced by renewed Russification under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev. Always simmering, national conflict then erupted in the Eighties, as Gorbachev’s glasnost permitted action and articulation in respect of national grievances.

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