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Authored by Sean Waite
Published on 18th August, 2020 14 min read

Assessing Soviet nationality policy: a state vested with the power to define, build and destroy nations

 Assessing Soviet nationality policy: a state vested with the power to define, build and destroy nations 

The concept of nations and nationalism within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was complex. The face of ‘Soviet nationality policy’ (SNP) shifted and changed multiple times throughout the history of the USSR, and was informed by a strange mix of Marxist ideals, nationalist theory and brutal pragmatism. Soviet nationality policy (SNP) must fundamentally be seen as being aimed at both nation-building in the short term, whilst maintaining the long term goal of phasing out nations. In practice, this manifested in ways that built nations, sometimes entirely from scratch, and also destroyed and ‘disappeared’ those same nations. For the purpose of this article, a nation will be defined as ”a social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions and customs, and a sense of homogeneity" (See Appendix A). Thus, ‘nation-building’, is firmly about fostering a shared sense of belonging in a group of people, without necessarily finding expression in a state (See Appendix B).

A black and white photo of Arka Svobody UkrayinsÊıkoho Narodu "Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people" monument in Kyiv.

The USSR came into existence in 1922 after a devastating period of World War and Civil War. In the 1917 October Revolution the Bolsheviks had seized power and with it inherited the sprawling, non-sequitur territory of the Russian Tsar’s Empire. This stretched from European based-Ukraine in the West to desolate arctic areas of Siberia in East Asia. Soviet leader Lenin knew he needed to restore order and deal with the issue of the many nations that had been conquered by the Tsarist regime and were now at a crossroads regarding their future. Any nation that had not been occupied by the West during World War II was dragged into a brutal civil war (Watson, 1956: 4), with large swathes of territory effectively becoming stateless. Surprisingly, the Bolsheviks were extremely successful in this civil war, and by 1922 had consolidated the old Russian Empire under the new Communist Party’s Soviet state. Lenin devised the ‘Soviet nationality policy’ in the early 1920s as an answer to the question of what would become of these subordinate nations. 

To its original ends, the SNP was designed around the concept of ‘nationalism in form, socialism in content’. This was the idea that through embracing nationalism within the ‘lesser’ nations that were attached to Russia proper, the content of socialism could be more favourably exported to local populations, which would eventually result in their induction to a harmonised communist state without national difference (Smith, 1986: 420). Part of this initial logic was that ‘lesser’ nations, with Lenin stressing equal sovereignty and national rights for them, would be distrustful towards the predominantly Russian-dominated Soviet state. After years of Russian Imperialism, the distrust of smaller nations would have to be overcome through engagement in national culture (Smith, 1986: 420), through which populations would eventually come to embrace the universal ‘high culture’ of communism (Martin, 2001: 353). 

As such, Lenin, at the head of the new Soviet state, set about defining and building nations. In practice, this meant the creation of many state-sponsored autonomous socialist republics, each with its own borders, language, alphabet, culture and national communist party. Autonomous regions blossomed in the 1920s and the fact that the USSR officially came to recognise 192 languages (Slezkine, 1994: 430) demonstrates the surprising encouragement of national difference in early SNP. In Soviet Central Asia, an area with little to no experience of national sentiment, huge investigations into ethnic, linguistic and cultural patterns of people were undertaken in order to distinguish which people and what territory belonged to specific nations (Northrop, 2001). This included investigations so thorough that one study of Uzbekistan included the cross comparison of every female body part as compared with other nations (Northrop, 2001: 202). Nations were quite literally, through the most painstakingly detailed methods, built from the ground up by the Soviet state. 

This meticulous process was not entirely an exercise in nation-building, and many socio-ethnic groups that might have been considered nations missed out on gaining their own autonomous regions. An emphasis on native language education meant that some groups without a formal alphabet were simply ‘decreed out of existence’ (Smith, 1986: 428). Smith outlines how several Pamir communities became “Tajiks” and the Uzbeks were radically redefined to include most of the Turkic speakers of Samarkand, Tashkent and Bukhara (1986: 428). This demonstrates the destructive potential of Soviet state policy. If your nationality was not deemed culturally significant or linguistically practical, it would likely be wiped from considerations. Many small potential nations succumbed to this fate as the Soviet state took as easily as it gave. This ultimately points to the inescapable power of the Soviet state, which acted as the hand of God for its new population. 

The early strive for nation-building was reinforced by the rhetorical family metaphor used extensively by Soviet officials. The Soviet state extensively used the fraternal metaphor during the early years of Bolsheviks power and Sanborn asserts that the model of fraternity was used between not just individual comrades, but entire nations of “brother peoples” (Sanborn, 2001: 104). Newly formed autonomous regions were framed as being part of a wider Soviet family.

This was not pure subservience to a single Soviet nation, but the encouragement of different nations, each with a distinct part to play, all coming together under a wider socialist family. However, this fraternal system did not prevent the later destruction of some of those ‘brother-nations’, as many found out that in any fraternal system there is room for a malicious and totalitarian older brother (Watson, 1956: 5; Sanborn, 2001: 105). As such, failure to pay dues to Moscow, which was the sacred “citadel of the international revolutionary movement” (Smith, 1986: 434), was classed as a nationalist deviation and would be punished. 

For all the research commissions, scrupulous reports, and tireless efforts to form national units, the ultimate desire of the Communist Party was the withering away of national sentiment favour of allegiance to communism. As soon as national form had existed long enough to impose socialist content, loyalty to national units would weaken and people would instead be bound together by communism. This belief has parallels to Anderson’s idea of an ‘imagined community’ (Phillips, 2002), in which he argues nations are as much a product of ideas and belief, as opposed to being inherently tied to modernisation or primordialism. The Soviet high command appeared to have had a desire to impart a strong sense of class solidarity that would take on this ‘imagined’ quality. Although Uzbek Soviet citizens would probably never have met their Siberian counterparts, all citizens would forego national loyalty and be bound together by the ‘imagined’ communion of communism. In this sense, Soviet nationality policy was geared towards the creation of a grand single ‘imagined’ nation, that destroyed the petty ruminations of old national sentiment. 

In the mid-1930s, after Stalin’s rise to power and his ‘Great Transformation’, the Soviet regime performed a dramatic u-turn in nationalist philosophy. Officially recognised nations, manifested in autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics, many of which had been, quite literally, built in the early 1920s were now declared to be primordial, timeless and pre-dating any state activity (Martin, 2000: 349). From this new philosophy came new policies, largely geared, intentionally or not, towards Russification. Russian identity, which had previously been suppressed, was given a life of its own, with a national language and past, which increasingly came to dominate the whole of the USSR (Smith, 1986: 443). Cyrillic replaced Latin in all the literary standards created in the 1920s and Russian became an obligatory second language in all non-Russian schools (Watson, 1956: 7; Smith, 1986: 443).  

Additionally, an ethnic hierarchy began to emerge, and by extension a hierarchy of nations too. Russia increasingly dominated the previously egalitarian accommodation of Soviet nations. Unique ethnically based national cultures were still allowed to exist, but they had to stress their natural and special national link to Moscow (Watson, 1956: 7), which had become a volatile paternal figure in its nation-building program. This was largely born from the realisation that increased Stalinist centralisation in all walks of life was not compatible with the existence of diverse nationalities with their own republics (Watson, 1956: 5). As such, Stalin sought to solidify control over the nations his party had created, by increasingly Russifying the younger brother nations, who he feared might be more disloyal to the Soviet state.  

This new primordial view would later go on to fuel the dark and destructive power of the Soviet state. Due to the predominant belief in the late 1930s that the highest form of loyalty for nationalities was to their homeland (Martin, 2000: 358), many national groups were deported from perceived high-risk border areas. In the late 1930s, at the height of the ‘Great Terror’ and amongst rising tensions in Europe,  “ethnically and socially suspect elements” in the USSR’s border regions were arrested and forcibly moved. The rationale behind this was that they had secret and potentially dangerous allegiances to enemy nations (Werth, 2010: 399). Although many of these targets were citizens with foreign heritage, such as Polish, German, Finnish, Baltic, it still demonstrates a willingness to destroy the primordial nationalities it had assigned to its own citizens. This would demonstrate the destructive potential of the USSR’s totalitarian statism and would be a precursor to even more extreme state violence a few years later.  

In a similar vein, the Soviet nationality policy took on a hyper-destructive role towards its nations during WWII. Between 1941 and 1944, three waves of deportation occurred, aimed at removing whole national minorities that had been declared “enemies of the Soviet regime” (Werth, 2010: 400). These nationalities were accused of collaborating with the Nazi regime during occupation, and became ‘unpeople’ in the eyes of the Soviet state. Entire nations of people, including the Kalmyks, the Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans, and the Ingush-Chechen, were forced into a ‘journey of lingering death’ to inhospitable regions of Siberia (Kreindler, 1986: 390-391). Beyond just the physical removal of these national populations, the hammer was also taken to their now deviant culture. Books in their native languages were burned and cultural institutions shut down (Kreindler, 1986: 393) these stigmatised nationalities were forced into the ‘backwardness’ that the Soviet state had once lifted them from (Northrop, 2001). The Kalmyk capital of Elista became a Russian city of Stepnoi as history was revised and nations that were built quickly dismantled.  

Stalin, in his paranoid state, did not trust the nations that his own party had imbued with such a strong sense of belonging during the 1920s. Ultimately, extreme totalitarian statism, which came to inform almost all policy in the USSR, became these nations undoing as the state systematically destroyed them. Perhaps this reveals a fundamental truth about nations’ place in the USSR, that they were only tolerated insofar as they were willing to demonstrate subordination to the Soviet state. This is best expressed by Watson, who states that the regime would not be content until the link of loyalty between nationalities was weaker than the bond between citizens and the totalitarian power system (1956: 9). 

Finally, what illuminates this debate more than any other factor is to assess whether the nations as defined by the USSR in the 1920s, actually sustained beyond its dissolution in 1991. If the SNP had been geared towards ‘nation-building’, then we can expect the nations that it built in the 1920s to still have a legacy today. The amount of literature that mentions the idea of ‘nation-building’ in the post-1991 territories of the USSR seems to imply that conceptions of nations were weak (see Tolz, 1998). However, often in these texts ‘nation-building’ is wrongly conflated with ‘state-building’ (see Linz, 1993). In actuality, if you look at the modern day states of the former USSR, many are almost identical to the autonomous-republics that the Soviet’s crafted in the 1920s, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, who had no prior experience of independence. This demonstrates the legacy and resonance that SNP ‘nation-building’ had for many regions, with the Soviet state imparting such a sense of belonging to those nations of people that they succeeded the death of their paternal authority figure, and took on a new form of independent life.  

In conclusion, Soviet nationality policy was a multifaceted approach to nations and ended up both creating nations from scratch, whilst later submerging those nations to the dominance of Russia or even destroying them completely. Perhaps the most important evidence is the longevity of the nations that were initially created, with many surviving beyond the USSR itself. This is the ultimate testament to the, somewhat unintentionally, strong nation-building credentials of the Soviet state. Indeed, the Bolsheviks imparted such a strong sense of belonging to these nations of people that they refused to wither away and bend to the universal identity of communism or the totalitarian fueled destruction that often came, unintentional of the wider aims of Soviet nationality policy, which was to bind citizens together under the ‘imagined community’ (Phillips, 2002) of communism. Ultimately, what is evident in all these considerations, is the massive power of a Soviet state which could define, build and destroy nations of people in whatever way it saw fit. 

Appendix A

To investigate SNP properly, it seems sensible to demonstrate what ‘nation-building’ is. This can be achieved through the important distinction of what a ‘nation’ is and what a ‘state’ is. A ‘nation’, according to Walker, is "a social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions and customs, and a sense of homogeneity" (1972: 334). This is not to be confused with a ‘state’, which according to Smith, is “a set of differentiated, autonomous and public institutions, which are territorially centralised and claim jurisdiction over a given territory, including a monopoly over coercion and extraction” (1986: 235). Thus, the main distinction is a ‘nation’ is about social sentiment, whilst a ‘state’ is about the more tangible institutional structure of a territory. 

 Appendix B

‘Nation-building’, ignoring the contemporary literature which confuses ‘nations’ and ‘states’ (Smith, 1986: 228-229), is firmly about fostering a shared sense of belonging in a group of people, without necessarily finding expression in a state. Aside from the distinction between nation and state, the definition of ‘nation-building’ is also influenced by one’s persuasion regarding theories of nationalism. What matters more than any personal view of this is the official Soviet philosophy in relation to nations. SNP had at its core two different theories at two different times. Initially, during the early period of Bolshevik power, SNP was premised on this belief that nations were not primordial entities, but rather by-products of modernisation (Martin, 2000: 348). This mirrors Gellner’s belief that nations are born from industrialisation (Linz, 1993: 363), as the destruction of peasants' local culture and the birth of a new high culture which is solidified through universal education. From this perspective, ‘nation-building’ occurs most prominently and effectively during   industrialisation. Nevertheless, a dramatic turn occurred in the 1930s, away from the view of nations as modern constructs, and towards an emphasis on the deep primordial roots of modern nations (Martin, 2000: 349). In this later view the Soviet’s imply that nations cannot be built at all. Despite this, the former view and crucial time period of the 1920s largely disproves this latter embrace of primordialism.


Authored by Sean Waite

Sean Waite

Sean Waite is a Political Science graduate of Birmingham and Aarhus University.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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