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The challenge of Nationalism in the USSR

[November 1980; Socialist Outlook 28, 13-18]

The pre-1917 Bolshevik position on the national question, developed largely by Lenin, consisted of two key elements. Firstly, recognition of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination up to and including complete independence; secondly, a struggle against all forms of nationalism - and above all Great Russian nationalism. These were advanced with the aim of establishing the complete equality of all nations within the Tsarist empire, thus facilitating a free and voluntary union between them. This Holy Russian empire, declared, 'one and indivisible' by the Tsars, was to Lenin a 'prisonhouse of nations' and its revolutionary overthrow could not but have a national as well as a social content.

The February 1917 revolution aroused great expectations amongst the imprisoned nations, awakening many to conscious national life for the very first time. Yet in the national sphere the Provisional govemment did little more than annul some of the more archaic Tsarist laws. The voices of the oppressed nationalities grew louder as the months passed and these national movements contributed to the increasing instability of the regime. In this context the Bolsheviks' defence of the right of nations to self-determination contributed in no small degree to their victory in October.

Yet the national question presented a number of problems to the new government. The national movements might have hastened the downfall of the February regime, and in many cases actively opposed it; but this did not inevitably mean that they all supported the government of October. Social contradictions within the oppressed nationalities were generally less developed than in the centre. In addition the 'national bond' between the bourgeoisie and peasantry also tended to blur these social contradictions.

The class differentiation of the national movements in Latvia, Estonia, Belorussia and to a lesser extent the Ukraine was well developed by October. In other areas this was far from the case. Thus in many areas the Bolsheviks found themselves very weak outside the urban centres. The bourgeois nationalist Dashnaks were strong in Armenia, the Mussavat Party in Azerbaijan. After October the Georgian Mensheviks, staunch defenders of unity under Kerensky, declared themselves for independence.

Such nationalist developments were hardly surprising. The masses of the oppressed nationalities, awakening for the first time to political life, were doing so in their own languages. Predominantly peasant, they were overwhelmingly concerned with solutions to their national and agrarian plight. In such circumstances the new government had to show that not only 'formal' but also practical, material equality with the former ruling nationality was possible under the Soviet system. An attentive and serious attitude to their national demands was necessary to overcome suspicions and resentments arising from long years of oppression.

Another problem presented itself almost immediately - the civil war. A war launched by the counter-revolution aided by international imperialism with scant regard for any principles of self-determination. Waging such a war demanded the most ruthless methods for the new state to survive. These were not without their consequences in the national sphere. As Trotsky pointed out in a 1923 article for Pravda:

A harsh military regime cannot but bear heavily on cultural life ill general and national culture in particular. Contributing to this was the fact that in particular cases the backwardness of a Red Army unit, the iu wrn of certain elements in the Communist organisation in such a unit, and the inadequate efforts of the political conunissars concerned gave rise to ignoring and even rough trampling upon national feelings and moods.1

He describes these problems as 'isolated and passing' but the passage also illustrates a deeper problem within the Bolshevik ranks which existed before the rise of Stalinism. It can best be illustrated by the follow ing examples:

Russian Communist Party members on Ukrainian territory must put into practice the right of the working people to study in the Ukrainian language and to speak their native language in all Soviet in stitutions; they must in every way counteract attempts at Russification that push the Ukrainian language into the background, and must convert the language into an instrument for the Communist education of the working people.2

In Ukraine urban culture is Russian; Ukranian culture is rural. The proletariat has an urban, Russian culture. The future belongs to the proletarian culture, i.e. to the urban culture, i.e. to Russian culture. Life itself will effect an assimmilation of the Ukrainaian language to Russian ... though at present the Communist Parry helps the peasant to develop his rural Ukrainian culture, it ... must ... work towards the inevitable victory of Russian culture...3

Both statements are by Bolsheviks; both were written in 1919; the first is by Lenin, the second by Dmitrii Lebed, secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Such a 'struggle of two cultures' had been the unofficial policy of the Bolshevik administration in the Ukraine before 1919. It found an active expression in sometimes the most extreme forms. The communist Zatousky recounted how red guards had at times shot people for speaking Ukrainian, or professing Ukrainian nationality, considering this to be counter-revolutionary!

How could such positions arise? They clearly echo Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism and a formative influence on many of the Bolsheviks:

The abolition of serfdom, universal conscription, the development of commerce and industry, the steady growth of the homeless agrarian proletariat, the influence of the administration, railroads and schools ... have definitively merged the rural population of the Ukraine, even linguistically ... into a sphere of influences shared with Russia.4

Looking deeper they reflect the influence of Great Russian nationalism even within the revolutionary movement. Such positions were far less prevalent amongst the Bolsheviks then the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries or bourgeois Cadets, whose chauvinism was multiplied a thousandfold; but they nevertheless existed. Great Russian tendencies were further exacerbated by the national divide between town and country in the oppressed nations. The towns, including the working class, were largely Russified and nationalist consciousness was generally low. Thus the national question was easily downgraded or ignored due to chauvinism or impatience. Such national nihilism often cloaked its chauvinism in fine, fake-internationalist phrases.

Mistakes on the national question raised the possibility of losing the civil war in the Ukraine and a wrenching re-assessment had to be made. Trotsky's statement to the Red Army on the eve of their Ukrainian offensive against Denikin is resoundingly and genuinely internationalist:

The Ukraine is the land of the Ukrainian workers and working peasants. They alone have the right to rule in the Ukraine, to govern it and to build a new life in it ... Keep this firmly in mind: your task is not to conquer the Ukraine but to liberate it. When Denikin's bands have finally been smashed, the working people of the liberated Ukraine will themselves decide on what terms they are to live with Soviet Russia ... Long live the free and independent Soviet Ukraine.5

This position contributed not only to the victory against Deniken but also facilitated the fusion of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks with the Borotbist organisation. The Borotbists were the extreme left wing of the Ukranian Social Revolutionaries who had moved towards communism but favoured a completely independent Ukraine.

The nationalities problem took a more sinister turn in the Caucasus where the growing influence of the central bureaucracy became evident. Georgia was formally independent from 1918 to 1921 and served as a base for both the Germans and the British. It was invaded by the Red Army in 1921, a move authorised by the Politburo based on information from Stalin, Commissar of Nationalities, and Ordzhonikidze, military commander on the Caucasian front.

The Red Army was meant to assist a Bolshevik uprising, which according to Stalin and Ordzhonikidze would receive widespread support. The reality was very different and was seen as an act of aggression by much of the peasantry and even sections of the working class. Both Lenin and the Georgian Communists were very concerned about the status of the new republic and anxious to respect the rights of the Georgians as a formerly oppressed nationality. Lenin proposed a block with Jordania, whose Menshevik government had been overthrown, and cautioned the Georgian Communists:

I really want you to keep in mind that both the internal and international conditions in Georgia require that Georgian communists do not implement Russian formulas but develop skillfully and flexibly an original tactic based on a more conciliatory attitude towards petty-bourgeois elements of all sorts.6

Ordzhonikidze, Stalin's man in the area, paid little attention to these words or the pleas of the Georgian Communists, and continued to act in a heavy handed manner.

When in 1922 Stalin put forward his 'autonomisation' plan proposing 'entry' of the non-Russian republics into the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSPSR), opposition was centred in Georgia. At first Lenin sided with Stalin and Ordzhonikidze in the face of the Georgians' complaints, proposing at the same time that 'entry' should be amended to 'Formal union with the RSFSR in the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia'. He explained that:

The spirit of this concession is, I hope, clear: we see ourselves as equals in law with the Ukrainian SSR and the others and enter with them into a new union, a new federation.7

Lenin was obviously worried and soon afterwards he sent a note to Kamenev declaring, 'war to the death on Great Russian Chauvinism'. His fmal article on the question, and the last of his life, was suppressed until 1956 by the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is a textbook of revolutionary method on the national question. It shows how Lenin's position developed and changed through the experience of the Russian revolution.

He clearly sets the Great Russian chauvinist campaign of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky (who investigated the matter) in the context of the rising Soviet bureaucracy:

It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which ... we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?8

International isolation, civil war and famine had prevented the young Soviet state from developing an apparatus that was anything more than a 'bourgeois and Tsarist hotchpotch' and in such a situation:

the 'freedom to secede from the union' by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.9

How the non-Russian nationalities were to suffer at the hands of such rascals and tyrants, Lenin could never have imagined.

Lenin also addressed the question of how revolutionaries should approach nationalism:

... an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.10

He also modified his previous position which favoured a formal equality between nations in the union:

... internationalism on the part of the oppressors or 'great' nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.11

Trotsky expanded on this theme in his Pravda article, by drawing a powerful parallel with women's oppression:

A feeling of national resentment has been accumulated in the formerly oppressed nations over decades and centuries. And this heritage, as with the oppressed position of women it should be said, cannot be disposed of merely by declarations, however sincere they may be and even if they are given legislative character. It is necessary that a woman should feel, in ordinary life, in everyday experience, that there are no external restrictions upon her and no contemptuous or condescending attitude is being taken towards her ... It is necessary that a small nation should feel that a radical and irreversible change has taken place in the consciousness of the former 'ruling' nation.12

This is much more than an accommodation or appeasement to nationalism: it goes to the root of what is really meant by international working class solidarity. Lenin and Trotsky did not propose separatism, they remained in favour of strengthening the union: but only through whining the voluntary agreement of the other republics. The question also had an international, strategic importance, given the Bolsheviks' perspective of developing national, anti-colonial revolutions in the East. As Lenin explained:

It would be unpardonable opportunism if, on the eve of the debut of the East, just as it is awakening, we undermine our prestige with its peoples, even if only by the slightest crudity or injustice towards our own non-Russian nationalities.13

These positions won the day at the 12th Congress of the Communist Parry, but the ascendant bureaucracy had little intention of carrying them out. The petty-bourgeois outlook of this social stratum naturally drew it to the culture of the old bourgeoisie and Tsarist Bureaucracy. Great Russian Chauvinism rose like a scum on the tide of the Stalinist counter-revolution and came naturally to the bureaucracy's social base of ex-Tsarist bureaucrats and professional functionaries in the non-Russian republics.

It fell to the Left Opposition to continue the struggle for a revolutionary policy on the national question. The Platform of the Left Opposition argued that the key task was not to suppress national awakening, but to direct it along socialist channels. This meant promoting the development of local languages and schools and 'nationalising' the state machinery ('Nationalising' was an official policy of transforming the local party, state, trade union and co-operative structures to use the local language and staff). This Ukranianisation, Turcification, etc., could not succeed by bureaucratically relying on experts, but by relying on the working class and the lower stratum in the countryside, in a struggle against Kulak and chauvinist elements. The Left Opposition also proposed a special 15 year plan to address the economic needs of the non-Russian republics.14

The consolidation of the bureaucracy bought dire consequences for the national minorities. Whilst it is true that the 'regime of the guardhouse' weighed heavily on the whole of the USSR, it weighed disproportionately on the non-Russian nationalities, just as it did on Soviet women. Imposition of Russian methods, particularly forced collectivisation, caused massive devastation and widespread famine, with millions dying in the Ukraine alone.

Resistance was met with mass deportations and the elimination of virtually all the local communist leadership. In the Ukraine for example, ex-Borotbists won the leadership of the party and carried out Ukrainianisation policies until the late 1920s. They were driven from the parry and most were killed in the purges. The scale of repression in the Ukraine reflected the scale of opposition to it; leading Trotsky to call for an independent Soviet Ukraine in a series of articles in the late 1930s. Anti-religious persecution was also particularly brutal amongst non-Russian nationalities, in an effort to prevent the Churches or Mosques from acting as national unifiers. The USSR extended its borders in 1939 by occupying Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland and parts of Poland.

The Great Russian chauvinism of the Soviet bureaucracy reached new heights during the Second World War. This was portrayed as a 'Great Patriotic War' to defend the 'socialist motherland' against the Germans, who were condemned, as a people, as reactionary and fascist. This chauvinism was no mere rhetoric, however, and during and after the war the bureaucracy punished those peoples whom it considered had betrayed the USSR with mass executions and deportations. The Crimean Tartars are still campaigning to this day for the right to return to their homeland in the Ukraine - a demand supported, to its credit, by the Ukrainian Popular Front, since its implementation would mean at least a partial evacuation of the present population.

Since the war the non-Russian nationalities have to varying degrees faced a policy of cultural and linguistic assimilation, along with discrimination in the allocation of jobs, housing and land. Assimilation was openly advocated by Khrushchev and adopted as a goal by the 22nd Party Congress in 1961. The consequences of this policy for the Ukraine were well documented by the communist dissident Ivan Dzuba in his book Internationalism of Russification?, for which he was jailed and later forced to recant. A similar fate faced others who raised their voices against the cult of the 'Soviet nation', a term adopted by the 24th Party Congress. It is significant that the largest single group of political prisoners in the pre-Gorbachev USSR were Ukrainians jailed for the 'crime' of nationalism.

The present situation in the USSR must be analysed in the light of this long and sorry history of national oppression under Stalinism. It is little wonder that mass nationalist movements have emerged in the space provided by Glasnost, expressing extreme dissatisfaction on the part of these oppressed nations with their national fate.

How then should revolutionary socialists respond? The first thing to appreciate is that in the oppressed nations all questions, those of democracy, the environment, anti-militarism and the economy, have a national colouring. In Moscow the demands are for greater democratic rights, in Vilnius they are for greater national democracy - the right to decide their own national future. Thus the struggle of the oppressed nations must be seen as an important, and advanced, component of the inevitable struggles around democratic demands that can pave the way for political revolution. We must be careful to avoid the idea that the political revolution is something that will be centred in Moscow or Leningrad and be fought around purely 'class' demands. The revolutionary struggle of the oppressed nationalities against their oppression will be a key component of any political revolution in the USSR.

The declaration of independence by Lithuania, followed by Latvia and Estonia, has placed their national struggle firmly at the centre of the world stage and demands a response. The key question for socialists must be: have the Stalinist bureaucracy and the present Gorbachev leadership convinced the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian massed of the superiority of Stalinist centralism over Baltic independence? The answer is clearly no.

This must be our point of departure, and socialists have to not only support but advocate independence for these countries. Any other option will leave us by-passed by events and completely isolated from a dialogue with the masses. We must avoid any worthless, abstract schemas of defending self-determination whilst arguing for the Baltic states to remain within the USSR on the basis of some common anti-bureaucratic fight. The Baltic peoples do not want an improved form of union - they want independence! To offer them self-determination on paper whilst arguing that they should not secede is to do nothing more than to parrot the positions of the bureaucracy for the last 60 years. As Trotsky pointed out when dealing with the Ukraine in the 1930s:

We must proceed from facts and not ideal norms. The Thermidorean reaction in the USSR ... must be paid for in genuine currency in all spheres, including that of the Ukrainian question.15

We must admit to the fact that the national dignity of the oppressed peoples has been fundamentally and systematically trampled upon by the bureaucracy, and develop our positions accordingly. Of course our task as socialists is not merely to comment on or analyse a situation but to develop a strategy to take it forward. To move from the power of the bureaucracy to the power of the elected Soviet - that is our goal. The key to such developments in the oppressed nations will be the struggle around national rights and self-determination. The revolutionary left, both internationally and within the USSR should actively advocate an independent soviet Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. It is only through an unambiguous commitment to such positions that socialists can hope to gain a hearing within the national movements.

Such a position is not a sop to nationalists, or a 'trick' to get them to support socialism, but an honest recognition of their national rights. We have to show by our actions that the aim of our socialism is not to 'abolish' the oppressed nations but to give them the fullest space for their national development. Our failure to champion these demands leaves the field open to fundamentalist, clerical and pro-bourgeois forces whose voices are growing louder by the day.

Some will argue that to advocate independence is in effect to advocate independent capitalist states, given the nature of the Popular Fronts. Such positions reveal both a profound pessimism and a lack of clarity on how socialists should support national movements. Of course we have something to say on the nature of post-independence states; we are for nationalised property relations and the rule of democratic workers' councils (not least because genuine independence under capitalism is a fiction). But we can only win the masses to such a position if we adopt a correct attitude to the question that justifiably preoccupies them - the national question. It should also be emphasised that none of the Popular Fronts that exist have a finished, finalised pro-capitalist programme. Only the Azeri front has succumbed to chauvinism, and there the demand for independence has even greater potency since it points the finger at the real enemy: the Moscow bureaucracy and its local allies, not the Armenian people.

Many socialists, including an editorial in Socialist Outlook, have pointed to the illusions of the Baltic fronts that Western imperialists will defend them. The last months have shown the imperialists themselves going out of their way to destroy any such illusions. It should be increasingly clear to the Baltic peoples that the USA is no more concerned with self-determination in the USSR than it is in its Central American 'back yard'. The capitalist press has been full of warnings to the hasty Baltic that they are endangering Gorbachev's rule. Such an unholy alliance gives revolutionary socialists clear space to advance a different position - that of a common struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy and imperialism - through building active solidarity with the struggle for independence. It is only in this way that we can show in practice who the best allies of the Baltic republic are.

Events are also clarifying the positions of the Soviet Left, many of whom were initially extremely sectarian and antagonistic to the national movements. The Lithuanian declaration of independence has forced them to take a clear stand: either for Gorbachev and blockade, or for independence. At the 1990 May Day demonstration they overwhelmingly chose the correct position. This shows most clearly how the different struggles within the USSR run parallel to end other and exert influence upon each other, in this case in positive direction. Important links have been established between radical deputies in Moscow and Leningrad and the Front leaderships. A recent conference of independent workers' movements and organisations held in Novkuznetsk adopted a resolution of support for independent Lithuania and called on workers' collectives to break the blockade. The Supreme Soviets of Moldavia, Georgia and the Russian republic have also begun to make encouraging overtures to the Baltic republics.

In this context it is not so helpful to suggest that the Fronts should tactically curb or moderate their demands. Such a move would be disastrous, giving breathing space and new confidence to Stalinist organisations in the Baltic and demoralising those who look to the Baltic for a lead. Revolutionary socialists would never give such 'moderating' advice to oppressed nationalities in difficult or minority positions under imperialism, such as the Palestinians within the Israeli state, the six county Irish republicans or the Kanaks of New Caledonia. Rather we would advocate a strategy to build solidarity and spread and deepen the struggle. The same should be true of the national question in the USSR and we should be careful not to apply a double standard.

A defeat for Baltic independence would be a defeat for the whole multiform, multi-national process of radicalisation and struggle within the USSR. The Baltic peoples may be numerically small but they have an important influence. This is particularly true of the developing national movement in the Ukraine, a national question with decisive significance for the whole USSR. It is inconceivable that a mass national movement will not develop here given the history of repression and the high level of resistance to it, right through to the dissidents of the l960s and 1970s.

The national question is of strategic importance within the USSR. Seventy years of Stalinist rule have not solved the national question but exacerbated it. In addition the remnants of the early Leninist policy and subsequent industrialisation have created significant, nationally conscious, working classes in most oppressed nations. This reality has to be addressed by any international revolutionary left which seriously wishes to see an anti-bureaucratic political revolution in the USSR. Our starting point in this must be to learn from and popularise the revolutionary heritage of the Bolsheviks and the Left Opposition on the question. It is a heritage of which we can be proud.

We must guard against ignoring these movements for the bright lights of the simpler, more obviously 'socialist' anti-bureaucratic fight in Moscow and Leningrad. The struggle of the oppressed nationalities for self-determination will be a key element of the unfolding political revolution. The attitude of revolutionary socialists, both internationally and within the USSR, will be decisive in deciding whether the national current flows towards reaction or revolution. An immediate international campaign of solidarity with the Baltic states is needed, through existing solidarity structures or by creating new ones, around the demands of: 'Self-determination for the Baltic states!', 'All Union troops out!' and 'Workers' organisations - break the blockade!'

The question also has domestic relevance. The British labour movement is heavily influenced by Stalinist and Great British chauvinist ideas. The Mid Glamorgan Labour councillor who recently declared the Welsh language; 'a nauseating irrelevance to an international socialist like me', stands in a long line of 'socialists' who cloak chauvinism in internationalist rhetoric. Our attitude to the national movements in the USSR and the lessons we learn from them can help to show that nothing could be further from genuine revolutionary internationalism. Trotsky summarised this internationalism with the following analogy when advocating an independent Soviet Ukraine in the l930s:

The Kremlin bureaucracy tells the Soviet woman: Inasmuch as there is socialism in our country, you must be happy and give up abortions (or suffer the penalty). To the Ukraine they say: Inasmuch as the socialist revolution has solved the national question, it is your duty to be happy in the USSR and to renounce all thoughts of separation (or face the firing squad).

What does the revolutionary say to the woman? 'You will decide yourself whether you want a child; I will defend your right to abortion against the Kremlin police'. To the Ukrainian people he (sic) says: 'Of importance to me is your attitude toward your national destiny and not the 'socialist' sophistries of the Kremlin police; I will support your struggle for independence with all my might!16


1 'The National Question and the Education of the Party Youth', Russell Block (ed.), Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism (New York, 1975), 143.

2 V I Lenin, 'Draft Resolution Of The C.C., R.C.P.(B.) On Soviet Rule In The Ukraine', Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Vol. 30 (Moscow, 1965), 164.

3 Dmitrii Lebed, cited by Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the 'Nonhistoric' Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848 (n.p, 1987), 142.

4 Ibid.

5 Leon Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed Itself, vol. 2 (London, 1979), 439.

6 'Letter To G. K. Orjonikidze', Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Vol. 32 (Moscow, 1965), 160.

7 'Letter to L. B. Kamenev for Members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)', Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism, 130.

8 'The question of Nationalities or "Autonomisation"', Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism, 133.

9 Ibid, 134.

10 Ibid., 135.

11 Ibid.

12 'The National Question and the Education of the Party Youth', 143-4.

13 'The question of Nationalities or "Autonomisation"', 138.

14 Leon Trotsky, 'Platform of the Left Opposition', Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27) (New York, 1980), 344-9.

15 Leon Trotsky, 'Independence of the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads', Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939- 40), (New York, 1973), 48.

16 Ibid.


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