Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.3 (2005) 567-582
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Stalinism and Nationality
Theodore R. Weeks
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale IL 62901-4519 USA
From the start, the Soviet state was unlike any other. Bursting onto the international scene in the midst of World War I, Lenin and company made haste to point out that in Russia there would be no more "politics as usual." Among other things, the Bolsheviks announced that there would be no ethnic or national discrimination within the new Soviet state. Shortly after the Revolution, in November 1917, Lenin set up the People's Commissariat for Nationality Affairs, or Narkomnats. Thus from the very beginning it was understood that the Soviet state would continue as a multinational entity, [End Page 567] and the Bolsheviks fought hard against the secession of non-Russian regions.1 Long before the Revolution, Lenin had made clear to other socialist parties in the Russian empire—in particular the Jewish Bund—that he opposed "bourgeois nationalism" in any form and valued a strong central party over autonomous rights for non-Russians. This is not to say, of course, that the Bolsheviks were merely replacing one form of Russian overlordship with another. Rather, after November 1917 the Revolution came first, before social classes, civil rights, or national autonomy. At the same time, Lenin tempered his strong centralism with a willingness to compromise on issues of language and culture—as long as the political supremacy of the (Russian) center was acknowledged.
The activist policies pursued by the Bolsheviks on the nationality question contrasted starkly with the much more muddled and reactive tsarist "nationality policy." Where tsarist officials felt uncomfortable with the very concept of "the nation" (which did not exist as a legal category before 1917), the Bolsheviks directly confronted nationality and attempted to lure "toiling non-Russians" onto the communist bandwagon. As all the books under review here demonstrate, frictions almost inevitably arose when the centralizing and mainly Russian-speaking Bolsheviks attempted to spread Soviet power and encourage the formation or "normalization" (written language, accepted "national" customs, etc.) of national groups. These conflicts arose all the more readily because for many non-Russians, "nationality" had little meaning, while religion played a much more important role in determining identity. How, then, to form a "modern communist Azeri" (or Kazakh, or Kyrgyz, or Tatar) identity divorced from Islam? As tsarist officials knew well, even trying to draw a line between Catholicism and Polish identity was difficult enough. But the Bolsheviks were in many ways far more sure of themselves and of the justice of their cause than had been tsarist chinovniki. This quasi-absolute belief in communism allowed a much quicker and much more brutal recourse to violence than had been the case under the tsars.
One of the greatest clashes between Lenin and Stalin arose over policy in the Caucasus. The brutal behavior of Stalin and his lieutenants (in particular Sergo Ordzhonikidze) in crushing anti-Bolshevik resistance among Caucasian socialists drew harsh criticism from Lenin, who feared that such incautious behavior would only stiffen resistance to...