It’s a puzzle to know how to think about the Soviet Union, now that it is gone. Was it a Russian empire in disguise, which broke apart when its oppressed colonies finally liberated themselves? Was it a benevolent federation in which the Russian big brother generously subsidised its younger siblings and paid for their education? Or was it, perhaps, a multinational state in which the leaders of its constituent republics acquired so much freedom of action that in the end they could just walk out of the union and declare themselves presidents of sovereign nations?
The first version is understandably the most popular. It appeals to the new independent states, providing an origin myth suitable for building a sense of nationhood. It also fits the Cold War view of the USSR held in the West, which treated the Soviet policy of the ‘friendship of nations’ as mere window-dressing masking imperialist aims. The second version is the one that makes sense to Russians, though they have learned to keep this to themselves in the face of widespread scepticism. The third version is what an observer from Mars might see, or even – who knows? – a future political scientist.
We will probably have to wait until the dust settles to get a clearer overall picture. Meanwhile, the actual mechanisms of relationships between ethnic groups (called ‘nationalities’ in the Soviet Union) and between central and republican political leaderships remain to a large extent opaque. A plethora of different languages are involved, the territorial issues are obscure, and places and personal names are complicated, since different groups tend to have their own versions. Nothing is stable or certain, including how many Soviet nationalities there were, what they were called, and what territories were associated with them.
One thing is clear, however: not all Soviet nationalities were created equal. There was a hierarchy, with ‘titular’ nationalities (those with their own Soviet republic) on top and smaller ones (the so-called natsmen, shorthand for national minorities) in a lesser position, more or less well served depending not only on Moscow’s attitude but also on that of the republics in question. For most of its existence, the Soviet Union contained fifteen republics, with Russians as the titular nationality in the Russian federal republic (RSFSR), Armenians in Armenia, Ukrainians in Ukraine, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, and so on. Within these republics, some non-titular nationalities had their own territories, and some did not.
The familiar approach to understanding Soviet nationality issues is via Russia, and this is the path Jonathan Brunstedt follows. His book examines the long-running ideological debates among Soviet theorists and propagandists on Russia’s place in the Soviet Union. More particularly, it addresses the question of whether the Soviet victory in the Second World War should be seen as a great historical achievement of the Russians, or of the whole multinational union. Its focus is on constructed memory – the different ways the war was later remembered in texts and monuments – and its political uses, a topic which once might have seemed esoteric. But now that we are faced with the puzzle of what the Soviet Union was, and why and how it disintegrated, it acquires new relevance.
The Soviet Union was explicitly a multinational state, not a Russian empire, so the ‘correct’ Marxist-Leninist answer to Brunstedt’s question is that it was a multinational Soviet victory. But Western Sovietologists were always sceptical about Soviet multinationalism, for understandable reasons. After the collapse first of the tsarist autocracy and then of the aptly named Provisional Government which succeeded it, an ethnically mixed group of Marxist revolutionaries (the Bolsheviks) seized power in October 1917, built a Red Army from scratch, and, against most people’s expectations, won a civil war against the ‘Whites’ and set up what they called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As it happened, the territory of the USSR closely matched that of the imperial Russia of the tsars’ empire, with Russian still the lingua franca and a major Russian city its capital.
It was natural to ask whether this was the same old empire in new revolutionary packaging. The Bolsheviks certainly didn’t see it that way. As Marxist internationalists, enemies of capitalist ‘imperialism’, with as many Jews, Latvians and Georgians in the party leadership as Russians, their initial expectation was that revolution in Russia was the harbinger of an international wave that would sweep away Europe’s old order and make state boundaries meaningless. It was only after that wave of international revolutions failed, with the Soviet Union surviving to follow its own course, that it became necessary to work out what socialism in one multinational country might look like.
The Bolsheviks were staunch opponents of nationalism, but their reading of recent European history told them that there was no way of avoiding it. They therefore discouraged Russian nationalism, because of its historically conditioned imperialist tendencies, and set out to pre-empt the rise of other kinds (a story brilliantly told in Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire, published in 2001). The biggest non-Russian ‘nationalities’ or ethnic groups would have their own republics, using their own language alongside Russian in schools and administration, while smaller nationalities would have their own ‘autonomous regions’, or smaller ‘autonomous districts’, within republics. Where nationalist trends were already evident, as in Ukraine, the Bolsheviks did their best to embed them in the Soviet (as opposed to a ‘bourgeois’) framework provided in this case by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Where they were more or less absent, as in Belorussia, a republican territory was allocated anyway and efforts were made to foster a ‘national consciousness’. Where there was a messy situation in which proto-national claims were not yet clear, as in Azerbaijan, the most likely claimants were required to get their act together and agree on an origin story appropriate to a titular republican nationality.
Russians had their own federal Soviet republic, with lots of national autonomous regions within it: for Tatars, Chechens, Bashkirs and others. For the minorities, national expression was encouraged; for the Russians, it was under tight rein. But by the mid 1930s, in what the émigré sociologist Nicholas Timasheff called ‘the Great Retreat’, there were signs that the prohibitions on the celebration of Russian nationality were weakening. A more dramatic change came in May 1945, when – for his toast at a victory banquet in the Kremlin – Stalin singled out ‘the Russian people’ as ‘the decisive force that ensured the historic victory’. In the conventional Western telling of Soviet history, this marked an important ideological shift from a pretence of equality to the implicit recognition of Russian domination of the union.
According to Brunstedt’s researches, however, this story is misleading. Even Stalin wasn’t consistent in preferring the ‘Russocentric’ paradigm to the ‘pan-Soviet’ one after May 1945. Still less did all the relevant political actors and propagandists jump into line behind Russocentrism, even when Stalin appeared to favour it. Russians may have liked it, but communists who took their ideology seriously were likely to be disoriented and the non-Russian republics annoyed. The new party programme issued under Khrushchev in 1961 noted the emergence of a ‘Soviet people’ with a common purpose, ideology, economic system and psychology. This Soviet identity was not, or at least not yet, a full replacement for particular national identities – Uzbek, Georgian, Kyrgyz or anything else – but a complement to them. During the drafting of the programme, suggestions that mention should be made of Russia’s leadership role in the union, especially during the Second World War, were voted down.
Brunstedt’s is largely a Moscow story, with Kazakhstan the only republic whose discussions about Russian primacy are examined, though rather inconclusively. To find out how things worked in the republics, you have to go to Krista Goff’s fascinating story of the Caucasus, the product of dauntingly difficult research in recalcitrant archives and with oral history informants inclined to look anxiously over their shoulders. Refreshingly, this is not primarily a study of the resistance to Moscow’s dominance on the part of the region’s three big republics – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – but rather of the assertion of dominance by the republics’ own titular nationalities over their non-titular ‘younger brothers’.
Of the Caucasus republics, Azerbaijan is the most egregious example of the Soviet invention of tradition with regard to nationality, and Azerbaijanis were particularly ruthless in dealing with the republic’s lesser, non-titular nationalities. This was despite, or perhaps because of, the exceptional fuzziness of their own national identity claims. ‘Azerbaijani’ became the preferred term for a particular set of Turkic people of Islamic faith in the region only in the mid 1930s: previous variants had included ‘Tiurks’ (as distinct from ‘Turks’), ‘Azerbaijani Tiurks’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Azerbaijani Tatars’, ‘Caucasian Tatars’ and ‘Azeris’. Whatever their name, this Turkic people had earlier been seen by historians as arriving in the region between the 11th and 13th centuries, but now it was discovered that they had ancient roots there. From 1933 onwards, the top political job in the republic was always held by an Azerbaijani.
But lesser nationalities abounded. In pre-revolutionary schools in Azerbaijan, four language regimes were available: Russian, Russian-German, Russian-Tatar and Armenian. By the late 1920s the number of defined nationalities – now including ‘Tiurk’ as well as Greek and Persian – had grown to ten, and by 1933-34 to fourteen, including four new minorities: Talysh, Lezgin, Kurdish and Uzbek. Claims for autonomous territorial status were also on the rise, though they were often unsuccessful. The Kurds wanted to have the status of ‘autonomous region’ in Azerbaijan – as the Armenians had with the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh (allocated to Azerbaijan in 1921 after an earlier decision in Moscow to put it in Armenia) – but never achieved it. In terms of status upgrades, it was often an advantage to have a neighbouring Soviet titular republic behind you (Armenia in the case of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh), and it was a distinct disadvantage to have a large co-ethnic population outside the Soviet border (as was the case with the Kurds, numerous in Iran as well as Azerbaijan).
The Great Purges of the late 1930s brought horrific bloodletting to Azerbaijan, but as implemented by Mir Jafar Bagirov, the republic’s leader, they also served a nation-building function, putting strong pressure on national minorities to assimilate to the Azerbaijani identity. Legislation reducing instruction in minority languages, emanating from Moscow in 1938, is generally seen as Russifying in intent; in Azerbaijan, however, the effect was what Goff calls ‘Azerbaijanifying’. The impact in Georgia seems to have been similar, with Abkhazia, an anomalous ‘autonomous republic’ within the Georgian republic, being subject to strong pressures to Georgianise.
Some national minorities suffered deportation as a group to other areas of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. This started in the border regions, with the ‘cleansing’ of ethnic groups that might prove unreliable in time of war, especially Poles, Finns and, in the Far East, Koreans, who might feel loyalty to another state. Volga Germans underwent a similar fate. The practice continued after the war with the deportation and resettlement of ‘traitor’ nationalities – Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tartars and others – held to have collaborated with the Germans. The deportations are generally understood as Moscow initiatives. But the person largely responsible for executing them was Lavrenty Beria, who was Georgian republican leader before he was called to Moscow in 1938 to head the Soviet security police. Goff concludes that, in general, the local leaderships played more of a role in the deportation and resettlement of minorities than is usually supposed. In his Georgian days, Beria evidently resettled tens of thousands of Georgians and Mingrelians in Abkhazia as part of the Georgianisation effort. The Georgian leaders who succeeded him seem to have been deeply involved in the wartime expulsion of Kurds. Goff concludes that they, along with Beria, ‘with his dual power base in Moscow and the Caucasus’, ‘share responsibility for these deportations with Stalin, who signed expulsion orders as chairman of the Council of Ministers’. Later, in a three-way deal between Moscow, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijanis were resettled from Armenia to their titular republic – in theory voluntarily, but in practice often not.
Azerbaijan was deeply involved in the Soviet-British occupation of Iran in 1941, with Bagirov playing a key role as the republic’s leader, and Soviet operations in northern Iran (or ‘Iranian Azerbaijan’) became a ‘school of patriotism’ for a whole generation of Soviet Azerbaijanis. After the war, large-scale repatriation of Armenians who had emigrated to the Middle East and Europe added to Armenia’s prestige as well as its population. All in all, the war left the titular nationalities of the Caucasus republics stronger and more nationally assertive than before, and their minorities took the brunt. In the 1939 census, Azerbaijanis made up 58 per cent of ‘their’ republic’s population. Twenty years later the figure had risen to 68 per cent, and by 1970 it was 74. Resettlement and deportation played some part in this, as did a reduction in the Russian portion of the population, but the main cause seems to have been the assimilation of minorities to the titular nationality.
This was achieved through various kinds of pressure. In 1939 there were almost ninety thousand Talysh in Azerbaijan, but within twenty years they had virtually all disappeared: informants told Goff that in 1959 ‘the census workers sat in the regional or village office and filled in the national composition of the population ahead of time,’ then told the householders what nationality they were expected to claim. The Talysh were particularly disadvantaged in having no relationship to any titular nationality in the region. And when such relationships did exist, the Azerbaijanis did their best – with the help of compliant experts in the fields of history and demography – to undermine them. One of Azerbaijan’s minorities, the Georgian Ingilois, were discovered to be descended from Albanian tribes which had been aggressively Georgianised in ancient times. Other Albanian tribes, it seemed, had been similarly pressured by the Armenians, meaning that the so-called Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, subject of the running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, were not Armenian at all, or so Azerbaijani historians insisted.
One of the advantages of the union structure, from the standpoint of minority nationalities, was that Moscow constituted a possible court of appeal against repression by titular nationalities. Sometimes such appeals were forwarded back down to the republic for investigation, which essentially meant burying them, but in other cases Moscow sent its own man to investigate. Responding to the complaints of the Georgian-Ingilois in the 1980s, Moscow’s emissary found that local Azerbaijani officials were at best indifferent to the group’s dissatisfaction and at worst had ‘rudely violated their legitimate interests’. During Gorbachev’s reforming period, which raised the possibility of remedying old abuses, the agitation of non-titulars increased; not surprisingly, the vexed issue of Nagorno-Karabakh was back at the top of the agenda.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia all became independent nations, with governments that often showed strong continuity of personnel with their Soviet predecessors. According to the official formula, there had been a ‘friendship of nations’ in Soviet Azerbaijan, and now it was claimed that the bonds were even closer: ‘Everybody lives like one family in Azerbaijan,’ the country’s president said in 2011. This was Ilham Aliyev, the son of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s top communist official in the 1970s, who had himself become president when the republic gained its independence in 1990. In fact, in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and elsewhere, conflict between titular and non-titular nationalities in the Caucasus were never fiercer than in the decades following the Soviet Union’s end. Protests in Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijan’s suzerainty led to two wars between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops, the first (in the early 1990s) leading to Armenian gains, the second (in 2020) to an Azerbaijani revanche culminating in another uneasy ceasefire.
For some non-titular minorities in Azerbaijan, Goff concludes, ‘the “big brothers” that they most resented or distrusted were representatives of Soviet Azerbaijan rather than of Moscow.’ As the Soviet foundations started to shift under Gorbachev, all national claims tended to escalate towards demands for secession, even those of small nationalities which would in earlier times have been satisfied with an ‘autonomous region’. Brunstedt does not bring his story up to the present, perhaps prudently, as there would be another whole book to be written about the different ways in which the post-Soviet states have incorporated the Second World War into their new national histories. His appropriately dialectical – if not altogether satisfying – conclusion is that the Soviet regime’s ongoing efforts to resolve the contradictions between a Russocentric and pan-Soviet approach to the war ‘lent a certain dynamism to the Soviet repertoire of rule, and probably did much to hold the “unbreakable union” together, even as this logic contained the seeds of its own destruction’.
After the ‘unbreakable union’ broke, ethnic wars and conflicts have become endemic to the region. The new Russian Federation drew a line in the sand with regard to its own secessionist minorities; there were two wars with Chechnya in the 1990s. Ukraine has had trouble with its own largest minority, the Russians, fighting independence attempts in its Russian-dominated eastern provinces. Belarus has had trouble with its Poles. In Georgia, attempts at secession by Abkhazian and South Ossetian minorities have led to violent clashes with the country’s authorities, adding to the disarray caused by the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Perhaps the old Soviet set-up had some advantages for minority nationalities. In any case, one thing seems sure: in the region that used to be the Soviet Union, Russians are not the only people capable of repressive and ‘imperialist’ behaviour.