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International Socialism, Spring 2002


Dave Crouch

The seeds of national liberation


From International Socialism 2:94, Spring 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Jeremy Smith
The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917–1923
Macmillan 1999, £45

About the time that the Soviet Union ceased to be a union ten years ago, historians became more interested in the origins of the forces tearing apart the world’s largest state. How successful had the Bolsheviks been in resolving national tensions? Was there ever any hope that the USSR could survive as a stable multinational unit? Or were the seeds of its collapse present from the very start? What was the significance of disagreements among the Bolsheviks, in particular Lenin and Stalin, over the national question? After a decade that has seen appalling massacres of one national group by another in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kurdistan and East Timor, and during which governments like Tony Blair’s have resorted to racist vilification of immigrants and asylum seekers, these questions have lost none of their pertinence.

For almost 50 years the standard work on this aspect of Soviet history has been Richard Pipes’s The Formation of the Soviet Union. Pipes analysed vast quantities of Russian language literature from this period, and his book is still a valuable reference. But Pipes was starting out on a career as the foremost Cold War historian of Russia. His thesis was that Lenin’s slogan of ‘the right of nations to self determination’ was nothing but a bait with which to lure the non-Russian peoples, ‘a tactical device intended to win over the minorities’. [1] As soon as the regime felt sufficiently stable, according to Pipes, it moved to reconquer the borderlands and renege on its promises to the minorities. The formation of the Soviet Union in December 1922 was a decisive turning point in the resurrection of the Russian Empire. Pipes takes the extreme Russian chauvinism of the late Stalin period and reads it straight back to October 1917.

Nonetheless, the book retains an element of ambiguity. Reviewing Lenin’s attack on Stalin in his ‘testament’, Pipes goes as far as to say that, had Lenin lived, his ‘conciliatory attitude to dissident nationalism in the republics’ would have meant that ‘the final structure of the Soviet Union would have been quite different from that which Stalin ultimately gave it’. [2] A similar observation led Moshe Lewin in Lenin’s Last Struggle to argue that Lenin’s dispute with Stalin over the national question in 1922 was evidence of a deep divide between the libertarian goals of the Bolshevik Revolution and conservative, Stalinist reaction. [3]

Pipes’s book concentrates almost exclusively on the political aspects of Bolshevik national policy, to the exclusion of culture and economics. French historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse attempted to fill this gap, and it is significant that she rejects the Machiavellian interpretation prefered by Pipes. For Carrère d’Encausse, Lenin was neither a chauvinist nor an imperialist – his political principles were ‘cogent and consistent’, and in its early years the Bolshevik regime made genuine attempts to restore national rights and atone for the crimes of Tsarist colonialism. [4]

But if his intentions were good, Lenin’s theories did not survive the test of concrete events: ‘His earlier convictions crumbled in the face of a reality that could not be ignored.’ Like Pipes, Carrère d’Encausse sees a contradiction between Lenin’s centralism, on the one hand, and his defence of national rights on the other – in the end centralism was inevitably dominant. [5]

By shifting the focus to cultural and economic policy, however, Carrère d’Encausse began to reveal a picture very different from the straightforward imperialist conquest proposed by Pipes. More recent scholars have also been impressed by Bolshevik achievements in the national sphere in the 1920s. Yuri Slezkine, Russian specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, argues that ‘Soviet nationality policy was devised and carried out by [non-Russian] nationalists’, while Harvard historian Terry Martin characterises the USSR as an ‘affirmative action empire’. [6] This history was hidden from Russians themselves: ‘The fact that the Soviets covered up the extent of pre-Stalinist nation-building and its anti-Russian thrust proves how politically volatile party leaders considered the rediscovery of what the 1920s were really like.’ [7]

Despite the fact that Stalin, as Commissar for Nationalities, was the government minister responsible for national policy until 1923, his biographers (with the exception of Trotsky) are also oddly silent over the Bolsheviks’ record on the national question. One historian calls this ‘the myopia of professional Sovietology regarding the nationality question’. [8]

It is in this context that Jeremy Smith’s book The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917–1923 is a welcome contribution to rediscovering the Leninist legacy in this sphere. Based on copious archive research, Smith sets out to challenge many of Pipes’s assumptions. This review will draw on his findings to help paint a broad picture of Bolshevik national policy after the revolution. It will then briefly examine his more important and controversial conclusions.

Autonomy and independence

The Tsarist Empire stretched from Finland, the Baltic states and Ukraine through the Caucasus and Central Asia to the nomadic tribes of the far north. Imperial conquest had created a multinational state in which Russians made up just 43 percent of the population. National oppression of the non-Russian peoples was extreme, which gave the national question a gigantic explosive force. For Lenin this was the second most important issue for Marxists after the agrarian question. [9]

Towards the end of the First World War there were spectacular examples of the revolutionary potential of movements demanding national rights, evidenced in Trotsky’s words that their nationalism was ‘the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism’. [10] In the summer of 1916 the Kazak-Kyrgyz revolt against conscription was a massive and violent expression of popular dissatisfaction with the Tsarist regime. In May 1917 Russian Muslims became the first in the world to vote to free women from the restrictions to which they had traditionally been subjected in Islamic societies. In Kiev and several other Ukrainian cities nationalists aided the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Provisional Government in October. [11]

But across the empire Russians were feared as colonisers and oppressors. So how was the new Soviet government to establish relations of trust with the non-Russian peoples?

In its Declaration of Rights the new government invited each nation in Russia ‘to decide independently at its own plenipotentiary Soviet Congress whether and on what basis to participate’ in federal government. The constitution adopted in July 1918 clarified that district soviets ‘distinguished by a particular way of life and national composition’ could come together and choose whether to enter the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR). [12]

While those arrangements were being worked out, refined and formalised, national minorities enjoyed representation in central government and a certain amount of decision-making power through the newly created People’s Commissariat of Nationality Affairs, or ‘Narkomnats’ for short. Here national representatives could examine central decrees, and take their comments and proposals directly to the government. Narkomnats therefore had a dual role – as an executive of central government on the one hand, and as a representative organ for the minorities on the other.

Narkomnats included subordinate commissariats for each of the main non-Russian national minorities. Smith comments:

Organised in a fairly ad hoc manner, left largely to their own devices by the higher organs of Soviet power while only under the loose supervision of the Narkomnats collegium, and frequently staffed by nationalists who had come over late to the Bolsheviks, there was considerable scope for these departments to play a major role in the evolution of national policy. They were to emerge as the political leaderships of a major portion of the Soviet population which were to spearhead the drive to national autonomy. [13]

From 1917 to 1923 some 17 autonomous regions and republics were established within the Russian federation, and five independent republics outside it. The success of autonomy depended on placing authority in the hands of representatives of native peoples. But the regime faced an immediate problem – most national minorities were under-represented in the Communist Party and the soviets. Outside the Russian heartland the soviets were for the most part overwhelmingly Russian in composition and often exhibited racist hostility to the native populations. Native leaders were on the whole politically inexperienced and usually came from one of two extremes – conservative-religious or radical-nationalist, neither of which fitted comfortably with Bolshevik aspirations. Two possible courses of action offered themselves to resolve these contradictions – allow the Russian-dominated soviets to govern in the name of the national minorities, with strong supervision by Moscow to ensure a correct approach to the national question, or grant the national leaderships authority above that of the soviets, within negotiated limits. [14] The first approach is characterised by Turkestan, the second by Bashkiria.

In Turkestan – a vast south eastern territory bordering Afghanistan, Iran, China and Mongolia – national territorial autonomy was imposed by Moscow in a move explicitly designed to support native Muslims against the chauvinism of the Russian colonists. In many of the outlying parts of the empire Bolshevik organisation in October 1917 was virtually non-existent. In December 1917 the Bolshevik cell in Tashkent, capital of Turkestan, numbered just 64. Moreover, the small numbers of workers in these areas were often Russians deeply imbued with colonial attitudes. For them the Bolshevik slogan of proletarian dictatorship could be conveniently employed against the overwhelmingly rural native population. As a result, large numbers of colonists declared for the Bolsheviks in Turkestan after October and expressly excluded Muslims from the organs of Soviet power. According to a Bolshevik observer at the time, Soviet power in Tashkent in 1917 and early 1918 was largely in the hands of ‘adventurers, careerists and plain criminal elements’ determined to preserve the privileged position enjoyed by the Russian settlers. [15]

This led to vigorous intervention by the Bolshevik leadership to redress the situation – an ‘extraordinary commissar’ and other leading cadres were dispatched to sort out the chauvinists. In Smith’s words, in spring 1918 ‘autonomy was fairly forced down the throat of Turkestan by Moscow’ as a first step towards undermining the colonists. Turkestan was then cut off from Moscow by the civil war, after which Lenin once again intervened decisively to smash the Russian chauvinists. [16]

By contrast, in Bashkiria – a small territory in the western Urals – national feeling among the local population was more developed, and Bolshevik policy concentrated on wooing local nationalists and granting them widespread powers. Native leader Zeki Validov and his Bashkir National Council sided with the Whites at the start of the civil war. But Admiral Kolchak’s hostility to the Bashkirs led Validov in February 1919 to bring his forces – 6,500 men – over to the Reds, shifting the strategic situation on this part of the front decisively in favour of the Bolsheviks. In return Moscow negotiated the creation of a Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Republic. This was to have full power over the region – excluding major economic installations such as railways, factories and mines – its own armed forces (subordinate to the Red Army command) and a full amnesty for the Bashkir leaders, who governed the republic through the Bashkir Revolutionary Committee or Bashrevkom.

From the start, however, there was friction between the Bashrevkom and local Bolsheviks: ‘It was generally accepted that, if it had not been for the influence of Moscow, local Bolsheviks would have done away with Bashkir autonomy altogether.’ [17] In March 1920 Trotsky held several conferences in the Bashkir capital, Ufa, at which he condemned local Bolshevik interference in Bashkir affairs and backed the Bashrevkom.

With power in the hands of the Bashkir nationalists, however, there was a danger that a crisis of relations between Ufa and Moscow could lead to a Bashkir counter-revolution. Despite vigorous intervention from the centre, local Russian Communists continued to cause problems, and there was mounting concern in Moscow over the possible military implications. In the summer of 1920 these fears led Moscow to curtail Bashkir autonomy, which in turn provoked a fierce Bashkir revolt.

Nonetheless, the creation of the Bashkir republic firmly established the principle of autonomy for the national minorities of Russia. From 1920 to 1922 a string of new autonomous republics and regions were established in the Russian Federation for the Karelian, Chuvash, Kyrgyz, Tartar, Votiak, Kalmyk, Mari and North Caucasian peoples. Smith notes:

The creation of autonomous territories was usually accompanied by extensive research and discussion of the status of the nationalities involved. This was particularly the case with the lesser known groups whose definition as a distinct national group was not fully established, such as the Yakuts. [18]

Of the eight autonomous republics in existence by the end of 1922, all except one had non-Russian populations that were predominantly Muslim – evidence that the Bolsheviks were particularly sensitive to the demands of Muslim peoples, who had suffered appalling treatment under the Tsars. Moscow was also acutely aware of the international impact of its national policies on the anti-colonial movements in the East, and wanted to be seen to be firmly on the side of the colonies in their struggle against European imperialism. [19]

Undermining local Russian chauvinism was a major factor in Moscow’s encouragement of territorial autonomy. In each case, however, concrete material and subjective factors shaped relations between centre and periphery. For example, when in 1920 a keen, experienced and energetic Finnish comrade arrived in Moscow, convinced of the need for Karelian autonomy, that was sufficient for Lenin to give it the go-ahead. Smith’s detailed discussion of the autonomous regions of Karabakh, Nakhichevan and Zangezur in Azerbaijan and Armenia, however, shows how complex the political equation could be. Factors included a recent history of racial massacres, diplomatic relations with Turkey, the ripening revolution in Armenia, economic considerations, the international situation, and the need to create beacons for Muslim peoples of the East. [20]

Establishing republics meant long and frequently contentious discussions over borders, in particular in the case of nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz-Kazaks. The separation of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (the basis for present day Kazakstan) from Turkestan in August 1920 was the first move towards dividing the population of Central Asia into major national groups, each with its own language and territory. This process led in 1924 to the end of Turkestan and the establishment of Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik and Kyrgyz autonomy.

Several authors have accused the Bolsheviks of artificially separating the peoples of Central Asia in a deliberate policy of divide and rule aimed at undermining pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic aspirations in the region. [21] Smith notes, however, that ideas of Islamic or Turkic unity had little influence outside intellectual circles. Moreover, his discussion makes clear that the 1924 delimitation was ‘approached in a thoroughly scientific manner’, the result of work on language and culture that began immediately after the revolution and applied equally to small native populations who posed no threat to Bolshevik rule. Indeed, rather than building up Slav unity – as might have been expected if the Bolsheviks had really perceived a threat from Islam – Moscow went to great lengths to establish a Belorussian national identity distinct from Russia. In 1919 it even acknowledged nationalists’ nostalgia for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by fusing the Belorussian Soviet Republic with the Lithuanian. This brief experiment in Belorussian-Lithuanian unity was brought to an end by the Polish invasion a few months later. [22]

Fledgling national states were further strengthened by Narkomnats’ policy of encouraging the victims of Tsarist deportations, as well as refugees from war and famine, to settle in areas where their presence would bolster the titular peoples. A concomitant to this policy of voluntary migration were measures to forcibly remove Russian and other Slav colonists from the lands they had seized. In the North Caucasus the local population, with Bolshevik support, conducted a bitter campaign to evict 65,000 Cossack settlers, and turn over their land, livestock and belongings to the local Chechens and Ingush. As Pipes notes, this became the cornerstone of Bolshevik policy in the region for many years to come: ‘It accounted for the loyalty shown by the Chechen and Ingush toward the Communists during the civil war.’ [23]

In the Crimea and Central Asia, however, the natives were not strong enough to eject the Russian kulaks (wealthy peasants) without support from the central Russian state. In March 1921 the Politburo in Moscow resolved to evict troublesome Russian settlers from Turkestan, and pursue a more general policy of reversing colonisations and removing Russian kulaks from the region. Owing to famine and the political dangers inherent in the policy, forced evictions were fairly limited. In 1921–1922, for example, 7,000 native families were resettled onto former kulak land in Turkestan. Smith is at pains to point out that, unlike Stalin’s mass deportation in the 1930s and 1940s, these compulsory migrations were not punitive of nations as a whole, but were seen as a means of righting past wrongs and promoting national peace in the long term. [24]

The Bolsheviks also began to redress the relative economic backwardness of Russia’s borderlands:

The Soviets embarked on a massive programme of industrial development in the non-Russian areas, including the movement of whole enterprises from the central Russian region. Thus, according to Soviet sources, in Central Asia between 1918 and 1923 the following measures were taken: in 1918 50 million roubles were earmarked for construction work in the Golodniy steppe and 502 million for the restoration of the cotton industry in Turkestan; in 1922 a stationery and textile factory and a leather and soap works were moved to Bukhara, and a stationery and cellulose plant to Turkestan; two large factories from the Moscow region were also moved to Turkestan; in 1918 a new soda plant was erected in Tashkent, and in 1919 a metalworking plant, a mechanical-transport plant and a foundry were also built ... These projects were disproportionate to the general level of industrial investment in the RSFSR for this period. [25]

One obvious effect of this policy of ‘urbanising nations’ was to boost the number of workers in favour of native peoples and away from the Russians, who predominated almost everywhere before the revolution. Thus, for example, before 1914 Ukrainians in industry were a small minority, but by the end of the 1920s they nearly equalled the Russians – 41 percent and 42 percent of waged workers respectively. [26]

National Communist leaderships

The existence of autonomous national territories could not continue without friction as long as political and administrative leadership remained in the hands of Russians. Events in Turkestan demonstrated what this could lead to, while Bashkiria showed the dangers of entrusting nationalists with power. Outside the Russian heartlands the Bolsheviks were generally weak, and therefore the need to recruit ‘natives’ to the Soviet state apparatus and to build non-Russian national leaderships became a recurrent theme in Bolshevik statements on the national question, especially after 1919. This was the policy of korenizatsiia, or ‘indigenisation’. Smith demonstrates that the Bolsheviks pursued ‘a deliberate long term strategy of placing political and especially cultural leadership in the hands of local non-Russians’. [27]

The Jewish socialist parties were among the first to indicate their willingness to work in co-operation with the Bolsheviks and move towards full unity with them. Although at first he opposed separate Jewish organisation within the Bolshevik Party, in January 1918 Lenin became concerned at the distance between the assimilated minority of Jews in the Russian Communist Party and the mass of non-assimilated Jews. Thus the Jewish Section of the Russian CP was established for Yiddish speakers for whom language was a barrier to active party membership. [28]

Although Western Jewish historians concentrate on the role of the pogroms in driving Jews over to the Bolsheviks, Smith points out that there were also many positive reasons for Jewish people to become Bolsheviks. For example, the Jewish socialist organisations, such as Poale Zion and the Bund, continued to operate openly. The Jewish Section concentrated its criticisms on the Zionist and right wing Jewish parties, not the Jewish socialists – in sharp contrast with the Bolsheviks’ attitudes to the Russian socialist parties. [29]

Non-Bolshevik Jews played a major role in Narkomnats. Of the six-member collegium of the Jewish Commissariat of Narkomnats, only one was a Bolshevik. At a conference of the Jewish Commissariat and the Jewish Section in 1918 nearly half the delegates were non-Bolshevik Yiddish educationalists. Of 15 central committee members of the Bund in April 1917, seven joined the Communists and by 1920 two were on the Central Bureau of the Jewish Section. In Ukraine the Bund split and the left faction joined the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) in 1919, where ‘it dominated the new Jewish sections’. Smith notes that ‘of the early national communists, the Jews remained in positions of importance the longest’. [30]

In Ukraine the Bolsheviks were very short of native cadre. Disagreements over the national and agrarian questions, combined with the intensity of the civil war in Ukraine, had led to splits within the Bolsheviks and major conflict with Ukrainian nationalists, causing Lenin to demand a sharp change in policy in 1919. The Ukrainian Bolsheviks, however, had marched side by side with nationalists in 1917, and the latter had helped them overthrow the Provisional Government in Ukraine. [31] In 1918 and 1919 the peasant armies of the Ukrainian anarchist leaders Makhno and Hrihoriev fought alongside the Reds.

The Borotbists were the Ukrainian equivalent of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia – a peasant party which had backed the October Revolution. A large section of the Borotbists were more than ready to lend their support to the Bolsheviks, arguing that there was more to unite the two parties than divide them. Highly confident of their legitimacy as a genuinely Ukrainian organisation, in April 1919 the Borotbists applied for separate membership of the Comintern, and asserted their claim to being the leading party of the Ukrainian Revolution. In March 1919 the Kiev Borotbists called on their central committee to apply to join the CPU, and later that month their congress voted for merger. After long and intense negotiations with the Borotbists, the CPU voted to accept the merger in March 1920 – 4,000 out of 5,000 Borotbists joined the CPU, and two were appointed to the central committee. [32]

Smith compares the policy here with the disaster of the Bashrevkom. Co-opting the Borotbists, whose policies on national culture dovetailed with the Bolsheviks’, was a middle way between the nationalists and Russian chauvinists.

In Central Asia the Bolsheviks managed to make alliances against the Whites with a range of nationalist groups: the Kazak pan-Islamic group the Ush-Zhuz, which joined the Communist Party in 1920; the Crimean Tartar radicals in the Mili Firqa; the Persian, pan-Islamist guerrillas in the Jengelis, who fought with the Red Army and the Communist Party of Iran; the Vaisites, a mystic Sufi brotherhood. The most significant of these alliances was with Enver Pasha, leader of the former Young Turk government, who in 1920 backed the Bolsheviks on the basis of opposition to Western imperialism. His defection to the Basmachi guerrillas in November 1921 was a serious setback for Moscow’s pursuit of nationalist allies. [33]

In those nations where Islam was the dominant religion the equivalents of the Bund and the Borotbists were the Muslim Socialist Party, the Hummet, and the Persian Communist Party, or Adelet, in Azerbaijan. In 1920 these merged with Baku Communists to become the nucleus of the Azeri Communist Party, with a membership of 4,000 and a widespread network of organisation among trade unions, workers’ clubs and co-operatives. The first Communist government of Azerbaijan consisted almost entirely of native Azerbaijanis from the left factions of the Hummet and Adelet. [34]

There was a left shift in Russian Islam after 1917, and by 1920 the Bolsheviks had secured the neutrality or support of most radical national elites in the Muslim East. In Narkomnats, the leadership of the Muslim Commissariat, or Muskom, was largely in the hands of non-Bolshevik Muslims. Smith notes:

The Muskom was staffed almost entirely by committed former Jadadists [a Muslim intellectual current] and given real authority, which was backed more often than not by the Bolshevik leadership whenever the Muskom came into conflict with the Narkomnats collegium. As well as the Muskom, Muslims with few Communist credentials were granted leading positions in the departments and sections of Narkomnats for the Kyrgyz, Caucasian Highlanders, Turkestan, Kalmyks, and so on. [35]

There were strenuous efforts to involve native people in local soviets and party organisations. In those nations where Islam was the main religion, the proportion of party members among locals therefore rose dramatically. [36]

The Bolsheviks also set out to prepare a new generation of national Communists, primarily through the network of party schools and universities: ‘European non-Russians received much more training at party schools than Russians ... Clearly an intensive effort was made to train communists in Ukraine, Belorussia and Transcaucasia.’ [37] The Communist universities also turned out ‘significant numbers’ of cadres from the Muslim nations. In Moscow in 1921 a majority of places were reserved for entrants from Central Asia.

Out of ten Communist universities in 1924, five were ‘national’: the Central Asia Communist University (established in 1920); the Communist University of Labourers of the East (1921); the Communist University of Labourers of the National Minorities of the West (1921); the Tartar Communist University (1921); and the Transcaucasian Communist University (1921). By 1924, of 6,073 students attending Communist universities, over half were at these five. This corresponded to the proportion of non-Russians in the population, but it was at a time when 65 percent of party members were Russian. By 1933 Communist universities had been set up in Russia for a whole list of minorities. The training was general and technical, rather than political, and few of the teaching staff were Communists. For example, in Kazan, the capital of the Tartar Autonomous Republic, in 1924 only 19.4 percent were Communists. Smith writes:

[The universities] were intended to provide the party with national Communists who had both the technical and literary skills needed to head the national Soviet administrations, the necessary understanding of their own national cultures, and a sufficiently internationalist Communist outlook to ensure a smooth implementation of socialist principles in the national republics. The Bolsheviks made no real attempt to ‘Bolshevise’ their recruits from the nationalist movements, relying instead on the long term development of a new generation of national Communists. [38]

Smith gives detailed figures demonstrating the high percentage of natives in national Communist parties by the mid-1920s, especially in leadership positions: ‘Although Russians were still over-represented in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1926, their dominance was far less than it had been in 1917.’ [39] These national Communist leaders were murdered almost to a man by Stalin in the 1930s.

Education and language

Education was central to raising the population’s cultural level, and the Bolsheviks set out to ensure, where possible, that education of non-Russians took place in the language of their choice. The thinking behind this approach was summed up by a delegate to the First All-Russian Congress on Pre-School Education in the summer of 1919: ‘An international spirit is not achieved by lumping together children who cannot understand each other, but rather by introducing in the native tongue the spirit of worldwide revolution.’ [40]

In October 1918 Narkomnats published its proposals on schools for national minorities, namely that 25 pupils for each and every age group was sufficient to warrant a native language school. These schools would also study the language of the main local population, although at this stage ‘no consideration was given to the possibility of catering for the needs of different national groups within the same school’. Smith finds that numbers of pupils educated in two languages by 1927 were still very small. [41]

But the approach to native language schools was flexible and depended on local factors, such as: the compactness of the national groups or their degree of assimilation, so there were very few native language Ukrainian and Belorussian schools in RSFSR, for example; the political complexion of republican leaderships (e.g. SR and Bundist influence in Ukraine and Belorussia); and tactical considerations regarding how best to neutralise hardened nationalists by moving them away from more important political and economic structures.

The same policies were adopted in other republics. In Ukraine, after an initial decrease, the number of Ukrainian language schools soared after the appointment of the Borotbist Shumskii as Commissar of Education in 1921: ‘From hardly any Ukrainian language teachers in 1917, by 1923 there were 45,000 out of the 100,000 deemed necessary, and the printing of Ukrainian language textbooks increased sharply from 1924 onwards.’ [42] In 1925 in Armenia 80 percent of elementary school teachers and all those who taught in seven-year or secondary schools were Armenian. In 1923 the Politburo in Moscow authorised ‘Muslim spiritual schools’, relaxing the separation of church and state in order to encourage Muslim parents to educate their children. [43]

A major problem was the attitude of local officials, typified by Dimanshtein, head of the Jewish Commissariat of Narkomnats and also Russia’s chief spokesperson on education, who argued that national schools would undermine proletarian internationalism. Nativisation of higher education was further held back by the dominance of conservative Russians in higher academic posts. The Institute of Oriental Studies, established in Moscow in 1920, was largely an attempt by Narkomnats to combat these attitudes and involve more non-Russians in higher education. [44]

Despite this, and the shortage of finance and teachers, the regime made astonishing strides towards nativising education. By 1927 native language education for national minorities outside their own republic or region was widespread, while in their own republic it was almost total. Smith sums up this achievement: ‘Given the scale of the task, the success of the Communists in nativising schools was truly remarkable.’ [45]

The result was a massive expansion of learning. According to Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, ‘The statistics demonstrate a new ideological reality – the right to education, no longer the privilege of a minority, was a right applied to all, without distinction as to national origin.’ [46]

The spread of native language education was impossible, however, without an enormous expansion of printing and publishing in scores of different languages. By 1924, 25 different languages were being published in the Soviet Union, rising to 34 the following year and 44 by 1927. In the Russian Empire many language groups were split into numerous dialects, some close to each other, others more differentiated, and many languages still had no written forms. If children were to be educated in their native languages, then agreement had to be reached on a standard version of a language which might have many dialects.

This choice was often problematic. Such was the case with Uzbek, for example, where initially a rural dialect was preferred as the basis for a standard language, but was later dropped in favour of the dialect of the central urban areas. In general, however, the priority for choosing a dialect was not so much the extent of its spoken use as its role in the literary traditions of written languages, or in the case of previously unwritten languages its suitability for adapting to a written form. [47]

Intimately connected to language was the issue of which alphabet it should be printed in. Russian imperial scholars had adapted the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the languages of the empire. Many nationalist reformers, with the backing of Muslim religious leaders, sought to restore the Arabic script, while rival reformers believed the Latin alphabet was more democratic and more effective in teaching people to read and write, and that the invention of new scripts based on the Latin would help propel their nations into international economic and cultural discourse. These issues were argued out on a background of fevered debates among rival linguistic schools over the future of language in general – how fast could socialist nations move towards a universal hybrid language? How could languages and scripts be purged of the influence of class society? Both Lenin and Lunacharsky, for example, were in favour of the eventual Latinisation of the Russian language.

Unfortunately Smith’s discussion of Bolshevik language and alphabet planning is brief and his conclusions – that these policies were ‘idealistic, utopian and even bizarre’, and that ‘the most practical solution would have been the universal use of Russian’ – are hardly supported by the facts. [48] As Michael Smith’s excellent Language and Power in the Creation of the USSR makes clear, the adoption of a new Latin-based alphabet with no capital letters or punctuation marks by the Yakuts people in Siberia after 1917 was ‘a conscious act of national liberation’. [49] The Yakuts were followed during the civil war by several peoples in the North Caucasus, but it was Soviet Azerbaijan that saw the most powerful movement for a Latin script. Azerbaijani Communists spearheaded the movement for Latinisation among Turkic-speaking peoples, leading in the most celebrated case to the successful conversion to a Latin script of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish republic after 1928. Michael Smith remarks on Moscow’s ‘hands off’ approach to policies being pursued in the republics:

During these years, amid the civil war and its legacy, the authorities in Moscow were content to leave the matter of alphabet reform to the nationalities themselves. This relative detachment stemmed from their drive to ally with the ‘national progressive intelligentsia’ against the ‘reactionary clerics’ of the established Muslim hierarchy. The Bolsheviks could ill afford to alienate their neo-Arabist allies ... Leading Russian Bolsheviks avoided the subject for fear of inciting opposition among devout Muslims. [50]

It was only later in the 1920s, when Stalinist reaction was in full swing, that Latinisation became a visible public sign of loyalty to the regime. Universal forced Russification began in the early to mid-1930s. [51]

Theory and practice

Jeremy Smith’s dismissive attitude to Bolshevik language policies is symptomatic of his interpretation of Lenin’s approach to the national question, the consequences of which surface continually throughout his book. Thus Smith makes a dubious distinction between ‘internationalists’, who opposed native language education as perpetuating national divisions, and ‘nationalists’ who were in favour of it. He frequently accuses Lenin and the Bolsheviks of ditching their previous positions and accommodating to nationalism. So Lenin, he states, was originally in favour of Russian becoming the universal language of the former empire, only to switch to support of native language education. [52]

Furthermore, Smith sees almost any concession to national feeling among the minorities as proof that the Bolsheviks were adopting the approach of Austrian Marxists Renner and Bauer, against whom Lenin had polemicised so bitterly and for so long. So according to Smith, the creation of Narkomnats was an Austro-Marxist solution, as was the admission of the Borotbists and the Bund into the Ukrainian Communist Party in 1921. [53] Here Smith follows Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, for whom recognising a minority’s right to use its own language was ‘tantamount to the hitherto rejected idea of extra-territorial cultural autonomy’. [54]

When unable to make the Austro-Marxist label stick, Smith argues that the various solutions to the national question adopted at different points and at different times simply show that Bolshevik national policy was in fact ‘based on ambiguous and frequently inconsistent theories’, was ‘neither foreseen nor planned’, ‘haphazard and inconsistent’, the result of ‘on the hoof’ and ‘ad hoc’ decisions. Bolshevik policy on the status of national territories ‘was evolving in an improvised manner influenced by several impulses, which included not just Marxist ideology and the beliefs of the Communist Party leadership, but also factors on the ground’. [55]

But this is to miss the point. Marxist doctrine on the national question is precisely that policy must take into account specific ‘factors on the ground’. Starting from the goal of conscious and voluntary unity of workers of different nations, Lenin arrived at the need for workers in oppressor nations to defend national rights for the oppressed. But he did not elevate ‘national rights’ to a supra-historical principle – they were subordinate to, and dialectically in harness with, the need for international workers’ unity. [56]

To argue that Bolshevik policy was simply haphazard is an unfortunate concession to Pipes, for whom Lenin picked and chose whatever policies he wanted, regardless of principle. For example, Pipes argues that despite his polemics against federalism Lenin was quick to jettison his former rhetoric:

Before November 1917 the Bolsheviks, like the Mensheviks, had opposed the federal idea, but now that the state had fallen apart, the pre-revolutionary arguments against this concept were no longer valid. Federalism [became] an instrument for welding together the scattered parts of the empire. For this reason ... the Bolsheviks reversed their old stand and took over the Socialist Revolutionary programme of a federated Russia. [57]

On the contrary, it is straightforward to demonstrate that the federation conceived by Lenin was a means and not an end. Transitional in nature, it would enable Russia to await world revolution as a viable state. Federation was a necessary phase on the road to unity and to the transcendence of national differences. Lenin frequently harked back to this basic orientation. ‘The federation of nations’, he wrote in March 1918, ‘is a stage towards a conscious and closer unity of the workers, who will have learned voluntarily to rise above national conflicts.’ Subsequently he referred to ‘federation as a stage on the way to voluntary fusion’. [58] As Carrère d’Encausse rightly observes, ‘Federation was seen [by Lenin] above all as a pedagogical instrument, a school of internationalism.’ [59]

In other words, one can only argue that Lenin was inconsistent in his attitude to federalism if one quotes him with no reference to the context in which his arguments were made. Similarly, with regard to native language education, it is a misrepresentation of Lenin’s views to cite general remarks about language in a classless, communist future as if they were applicable to a society still in the throes of revolution and civil war.

The Austro-Marxists believed nations were permanent and positive, and that socialism would refine and develop national differences to the maximum. Their views were popular in Russia and threatened to divide the workers’ movement by stressing and reinforcing national distinctions. [60] Lenin’s pre-revolutionary polemics against them therefore concentrated on the temporary, transitory and historical nature of national culture, and the need for socialists to insist on workers’ unity across national divides. But it is quite another matter to suggest that the Bolsheviks’ recognition of the rights of minority peoples to govern issues of education, language and culture was a concession to Austro-Marxism. For example, in 1913 Lenin argued:

It would be inexcusable to forget that in advocating centralism we advocate exclusively democratic centralism... Far from precluding local self government, with autonomy for regions having special economic and social conditions, a distinct national composition of the population, and so forth, democratic centralism demands both ... It is beyond all doubt that in order to eliminate all national oppression it is very important to create autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations, towards which members of the respective nationalities scattered all over the country, or even all over the world, could gravitate, and with which they could enter into relations and free associations of every kind. [61]

Support for autonomous or independent government, creating native leaderships, building up national economies, developing native languages, and strengthening national culture and identity among the non-Russian people of the former empire – these were not ‘nationalist’ policies, but attempts at concrete application of Lenin’s internationalist principle that the right to self determination ‘implies the maximum of democracy and the minimum of nationalism’. [62] Exactly how this principle was applied depended on a host of factors specific to the peoples in question. The development of capitalism and the general level of culture was often higher in the non-Russian border regions than in the centre, so national movements were stronger. These nations were granted full republican status and maximum independence from Russia – reflected mainly in that they had nominally independent foreign ministries. In other borderlands and within the Russian federation itself, agreements on the extent and limits of autonomy were negotiated with Moscow in the light of the history of different peoples under the empire, the strength of national movements, the size of Communist forces on the ground, the consequences for Bolshevik international policy and for the civil war.

For the first four years of the revolution the last of these was frequently dominant. As Carr puts it, ‘The choice was not between dependence and independence, but between dependence on Moscow or dependence on the bourgeois governments of the capitalist world ... Everywhere, and in whatever guise the battle was fought, the real issue was the life or death of the revolution.’ [63]

It is indisputable that mistakes were made by the Bolsheviks in applying internationalist principles to the non-Russian peoples, and that there were deep divisions within the party on this question – of which more below. But as the above discussion has shown, it is also indisputable that, consistent with their policy of reversing and compensating for Tsarist oppression, the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to protect, nurture and celebrate important aspects of national culture in Russia’s former colonies, and that they saw this as a necessary first step towards building trust and strengthening unity between the ex-colonies and the centre. These policies bore fruit in terms of a relative flowering of national culture in the borderlands of the fledgling USSR. As Smith notes, ‘While Proletkult and other artistic and historical movements were trying to establish a clear break with the past in Moscow, in the non-Russian regions the trend was towards promoting the nations’ historical roots.’ [64]

Historians hostile to the Bolsheviks have remarked on the sharp contrast between the brutal Russification of the late 1930s and the national liberalism of the 1920s. This was particularly the case in Ukraine:

The 1920s were a time of extraordinary growth, innovation and ferment in Ukrainian culture. Some writers even refer to it as a period of cultural revolution or renaissance. [65]

Elsewhere, in Kyrgyzia,’the 1920s also saw the beginnings of a truly national literature, based in the first instance on the rich traditions of Kyrgyz epic poetry and the formation of a vernacular standard language’. In Armenia ‘Armenian art and culture were promoted, and until the late 1920s the Communists showed caution in their relations with the Armenian church.’ In Central Asia in 1922 Moscow introduced wide-reaching reforms: waqf lands confiscated by the state were returned to the mosques, religious schools were reopened and shariat courts brought back. The Chechen historian Abdurahman Avtorkhanov compares ‘the genocide of Stalin and Zhdanov’ against the Muslim nations of the Caucasus in the 1940s with the ‘most prudent and flexible policy’ pursued by the Bolsheviks in the period 1921–1928, which ‘was a period of maximum political peace and harmony between the various Caucasian nations and popularity of the Soviet government ... everything was done to reinforce the belief of the North Caucasians that they had really achieved their long desired independence.’ On Russia’s furthest borders, notes Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, ‘Russian linguists and ethnologists were instrumental in the creation in 1922 of institutions to protect, rather than destroy or assimilate, the aborigines of the far north and the far east ... Soviet policy rejected the alternative of Russification, enabling them to preserve their identities and folklore.’ [66]

After the victory of state capitalist counter-revolution under the five-year plans, Stalin did his best to exterminate all memory of national sentiment beneath the weight of a monolithic, bureaucratic Russian culture. The independence of the republics in 1991 and the astonishing resistance in Chechnya are proof that he did not succeed. The disintegration of the USSR should therefore not be seen as the failure of Lenin’s national policy – it had been decisively defeated many decades ago. [67] The roots of resistance to Stalinist national oppression were deep, however, and they were strengthened by Lenin and his followers during the brief years of revolution.

Lenin’s last struggle

Within ten years of Lenin’s death his legacy of struggle for national liberation lay in ruins. Throughout the latter part of the 1920s the attacks on the non-Russian republics grew more and more strident, and any demand for autonomy in cultural, linguistic or economic spheres came to be branded as a ‘nationalist deviation’.

However, it took a few years after the decisive break with the October regime – ‘the great leap forward’ of the first five-year plan and forced industrialisation – for it to be reflected in the reinstatement of Great Russian nationalism as the dominant ideology. Gerhard Simon notes that during these crisis years of the early 1930s Stalin ‘managed not to establish another front against the non-Russian peoples. Although political and police actions against prominent national Communists had become more frequent since the late 1920s, the party line on the national issue did not change until 1933 – after the conclusion of forced collectivisation’. [68] Between 1930 and 1934 there were even local show trials of workers and officials accused of Russian chauvinism. [69]

When the bloody struggle against the peasantry had been won, however, and workers’ solidarity fatally undermined, the bureaucracy found that a Russian nationalism that stressed the continuity between Stalinism and the Tsars was a powerful ideological tool for cementing workers of the main national group – the Russians – to the regime, and for justifying its new, and no less bloody, imperial conquest of the non-Russian republics. The native elites in the non-Russian republics were brutally purged, their scripts were changed back to Cyrillic, and forced Russification took place in schools, culture and all spheres of public life.

One man presided over Bolshevik national policy from 1917 onwards – Joseph Stalin, first as Commissar for the Nationalities from 1917–1923 and then as general secretary of the Communist Party. In perhaps no other field of policy does continuity between Lenin’s regime and its successor appear to be so obvious and direct. However, it was also on the national question that Lenin began a sharp attack on Stalin in the last few months of his political life. Moshe Lewin paints a vivid picture of a desperate struggle between the two men, played out over the issues of the status of non-Russian territories within the USSR and the treatment of Communists in Georgia. It reached its climax in the last days before Lenin’s third stroke removed him from the scene in March 1923. [70] The Twelfth Party Congress in April that year and the subsequent trial and expulsion from the party of leading Tartar Communist Mir-Said Sultan Galiev in the summer are usually cited as proof that Stalin was victorious and had effected a decisive shift in national policy against the non-Russians.

With access to the archives, in the last two chapters of his book Smith revisits this history. His account is very well written and full of fascinating detail. His evidence that the policies outlined above were not decisively overthrown in 1923 is a useful explanation of the absence of any large-scale purges after the Sultan Galiev affair [71], and a necessary corrective to those who wish to hurry the story on to the camps, the deliberate famine and the mass national deportations – in 1923 we are still politically a long way from the 1930s. [72]

However, in stressing the elements of continuity in Bolshevik policy in the 1920s, Smith overlooks the danger signs that indicated to Lenin and others that national rights were in peril. Like other recent authors who recognise the relative liberalism of Bolshevik national policy in the 1920s, Smith plays down the extent of disagreement between Lenin and Stalin in 1922–1923. With regard to Lenin’s attack on Stalin’s plan to make the independent republics part of the Russian Federation, Smith writes, ‘The different approaches of Lenin and Stalin were seen to be over matters of detail rather than deep matters of principle ... Major principles were not at stake.’ Yuri Slezkine too sees the dispute as merely ‘another acrimoniously fruitless affair’, while Terry Martin concludes, ‘One hopes we can finally lay to rest the myth, cultivated by Khrushchev and endorsed by Lewin, that Lenin and Stalin promoted fundamentally different national policies in 1922.’ [73]

These conclusions, however, are based on questionable scholarship. Firstly, Smith constantly refers to ‘Lenin and Stalin’s ideas’ as if Stalin shared the same status as a thinker on this issue. But it is wrong to suggest that Lenin and Stalin shared a single common set of ideas on the national question. Stalin’s sole theoretical work on the national question was an article written in 1913 – this was praised by Lenin on two occasions in that same year, but after that it seems he never mentioned it again. [74] The article’s approach to the national question differs fundamentally from Lenin’s, ironically borrowing from the Austro-Marxists whom it spends most of its time attacking. For Lenin it was useful to have a non-Russian battering ram in his feud with Renner, Bauer and the Bund, but the article had little significance beyond tactical expedience. Indeed, Stalin’s remarks on the national question before 1917 pay only lip service to Lenin’s insistence on the right of nations to secede. [75]

Furthermore, in key debates on the national question among Bolsheviks after 1917, Stalin played either a minor role or none whatsoever. His reports on the national question at a party conference in March 1917 and at the Seventh Party Conference in April, where Lenin locked horns with Piatakov and Dzerzhinskii over self determination, argued that national oppression was first and foremost the product of feudalism rather than imperialism. Just five weeks after the October Revolution he narrowed down the population who could have the right to exercise self determination to the workers. When this point was taken up by Bukharin and argued for bitterly against Lenin at the Eighth Party Congress in March 1918, Stalin stayed silent – and later removed the reference to his name from Bukharin’s speech when it was published in the journal of Narkomnats. [76]

Within the collegium of Narkomnats Stalin was an isolated figure, unable to win over his closest co-workers. In his articles, reports and negotiations he committed major errors and inconsistencies, and often had to be corrected by Lenin. Until his 1913 article was republished in 1922 – almost five years after the revolution – he was unknown outside Russia. Stalin’s stubborn, dogged character, his cunning in negotiations, even his ruthlessness, were qualities that Lenin found useful in prosecuting the revolution – but in no sense was Stalin an independent figure in the development and implementation of Bolshevik national policy. [77]

Secondly, one cannot understand the significance of the disagreement between Lenin and Stalin over the national question in 1922–1923 simply by analysing what was written and said at the time – we have to see it within the broad context of the revolution. This is the main weakness of Smith’s book, which discusses national policy in almost hermetic isolation from pre-revolutionary society, 1917, the civil war and Stalinist counter-revolution.

The year 1921 found the Bolshevik regime isolated and exhausted by seven years of war. Numerically the working class had shrunk to a small fraction of its former size, barely able to feed itself, while its political leaders lay dead on the battlefields of the civil war. Throughout the state apparatus the Bolsheviks relied on former functionaries of the Tsarist regime, whose influence grew with each new concession to the peasantry and every setback for the world revolution. The Russian nationalists among them raised their heads – anti-Bolshevik émigrés observed the regime’s evolution and hoped that Mother Russia was reasserting herself after the chaos of revolution. ‘There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great Russian riff-raff like a fly in milk,’ said Lenin in December 1922. [78]

The Bolsheviks’ efforts to combat the rise of Great Russian chauvinism were weakened by deep divisions over the national question within their ranks. While the revolutionary wave was in full flood these disagreements were submerged by the flow of events, but when the ebb set in their significance came to the surface.

The revolution found the party largely unfamiliar with Lenin’s arguments on the national question. Speaking during the heated debate on the national question at the Seventh Party Conference in April 1917, the experienced Georgian Bolshevik Filipp Makharadze warned the party not to rush into a decision:

The national question is a serious issue, but also a highly complex and confusing one. Unfortunately I have to say that the conference has not had an opportunity to sufficiently clarify this matter ... In the way that it has been posed by comrades Lenin and Zinoviev, the question has still not been discussed in the legal press.

Similarly, in March 1919 the longstanding Russian Marxist Riazanov told the Eighth Party Congress:

Our party is completely unprepared to sort out the issue of the right of nations to self determination. I propose we open a discussion on this question in the party and clarify all the disagreements there have been ... We have done so little politically that, with a sudden attack on this slogan, we are taking a risk not only on an international scale but also internally within Russia. [79]

Large numbers of Bolsheviks, including members of the Bolshevik Politburo, central committee and those in leading positions in Narkomnats, reasoned as follows: national oppression is merely one aspect of the oppression of workers by the ruling class; the October Revolution has overthrown the ruling class; therefore there is no need to set up national republics or autonomous territories within Russia; territorial division should be on the basis of economic efficiency; any territorial autonomy is a concession to petty bourgeois nationalism. These comrades made no distinction between the nationalism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed. So the Polish Bolshevik Dzerzhinskii said in April 1917, ‘If comrade Lenin accuses Polish comrades of [Russian] chauvinism, then I can accuse him of sharing the same position as Polish, Ukrainian and other chauvinists. I don’t know which is better.’ [80] State autonomy or independence was nothing but an obstacle to economic centralisation, as the leading Bolshevik Piatakov said in March 1919: ‘Given that we are economically uniting ... all this notorious self determination is not worth one rotten egg ... [We must] stick firmly to the path of strict proletarian centralisation and proletarian unity.’ [81] Supporters of this position talked of subordinating the interests of any one nation to those of the world proletariat as a whole, of the stupidity of recognising national rights for the bourgeoisie, and of the impossibility of independence in the epoch of imperialism.

Very early on Lenin recognised that this abstract opposition to national rights could dovetail with Russian chauvinism. ‘Scratch a Communist,’ he said, ‘and you’ll find a Russian chauvinist.’ In Ukraine, for example, in the first two years of the revolution, the results of widespread rejection of Lenin’s position by leading Bolsheviks were disastrous. [82]

This was the context in which in 1923 Lenin and Stalin fell out over the national question. Stalin’s plan – supported in essence by almost all the republican leaders – to expand the RSFSR to include all the independent republics totally overlooked the danger of Great Russian chauvinism. The crisis in Georgia, where Stalin’s henchman Ordzhonikidze had gone so far as to punch a supporter of Georgian independence, shone a bright light on the extent to which Russian chauvinist attitudes had taken root in the state apparatus, assisted by the ultra-left attitudes of many Bolsheviks. The dispute between Lenin and Stalin over the nature of the USSR was therefore no subtle tactical disagreement about whether there should be a little more or a little less centralism in relations between Moscow and the republics. It was about a key political principle. In practice, Stalin’s position – whether he realised it or not – was one of centralism on the basis of Russian dominance of the USSR. Lenin’s was that of centralism on the basis of democracy, which demanded that Russia did not impose itself on its former colonies.

The key question was this – were concessions to national rights stoking the fires of non-Russian nationalism, or was that nationalism a defensive reaction to Great Russian chauvinism, which was growing ever stronger as reaction set in? In the debates on the national question at the Twelfth Party Congress in March 1923, and again at a meeting of leading party workers from the republics in June, supporters of strict measures to combat ‘national deviations’ in the republics repeatedly ignored the question of Great Russian chauvinism. Supporters of Lenin, Trotsky and the Georgian Communists, on the other hand, insisted on Russian nationalism as the main threat to Soviet power. [83]

Moreover, the dispute was seen as a matter of fundamental political principle by many of its participants at the time. Lenin said, ‘I declare war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism.’ In his Testament he talked about a ‘campaign of truly Great Russian nationalism’, for which Stalin and Dzerzhinskii were responsible, and demanded that Ordzhonikidze be expelled from the party. Trotsky demanded that the Georgians should not be labelled ‘deviationists’, and told Kamenev, ‘On the national question the Stalin resolution is good for nothing. It places the high-handed and insolent oppression by the dominant nation on the same level with the protest and resistance of small, weak and backward nationalities.’ The Bulgarian Bolshevik leader Christian Rakovskii said that Stalin’s proposals would mark ‘a turning point in the entire national policy of our party’, comparing them to the New Economic Policy – i.e., a major retreat from Communist principles – on the national question. The Georgian ‘old Bolshevik’ Mdivani warned that ‘a certain part of the central committee directly denies the existence of the national question and is entirely infected with [Russian] Great Power tendencies’. [84]

Stalin, on the other hand, accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’ and of falling under the influence of ‘a couple of Georgian Mensheviks’. [85]

History has proved that Lenin’s dire warnings in 1922–1923 were right. A qualitative change was taking place in the party as Stalin and the bureaucracy consolidated their power. Having been a pliable mouthpiece for Lenin’s national policies in the early years of the revolution, Stalin became the spokesperson for the bureaucracy as it began to cut itself free from workers’ control. The divisions within Bolshevik ranks on the national question helped him to effect a gradual transition from a defender of national rights to the champion of Great Russian chauvinism.


Lenin’s policy on the national question can be summed up as follows. Where it was desired, national populations who had suffered under Tsarism were granted wide-ranging territorial autonomy by Moscow – from local soviets up to and including political independence from Russia at a state level – as far as this was feasible in conditions of foreign intervention and international revolutionary war. Land was confiscated from Russian colonists and returned to native peoples, while refugees displaced by Tsarist deportations, repression and war were given a genuine choice to return to home. The remnants of Russian colonial outposts were politically disenfranchised and, when necessary, repressed.

As a result, these autonomous and independent territories were able to spread their cultural wings and indulge the fullest possible freedom to speak their own languages, write in their own chosen alphabets, worship their own gods and celebrate their own cultural heritage. On the basis of this trust, Moscow endeavoured to strengthen genuine democratic unity between the workers of these nations and Russian workers by building native Communist cadres, spreading education to the masses, raising the proportional and absolute numbers of native workers in urban centres, undermining the power and influence of reactionary religious and political leaders, encouraging native units in the Red Army to wage civil war on their own bourgeoisie, and holding up the ex-colonies freed from oppression by socialist revolution as an example to colonial peoples all over the world.

These polices were implemented to a varying degree and with varying success. They met with obstacles in the form of large-scale foreign intervention on the side of conservative native elites, the residual strength of Russian chauvinism, the weakness of Communist cadres, and divisions in the Bolshevik ranks over national policy. They encountered the greatest difficulties in far-flung areas cut off from Moscow, where Bolsheviks were few in number and lacking in experience. After a few short years Lenin’s bold beginnings foundered on the rocks of the revolution’s isolation in a backward country and the rise of a chauvinist Stalinist counter-revolution.

Smith’s book provides much raw material from which a true picture of a revolutionary national policy emerges – a picture very different from that painted by Cold War historians of the Soviet Union. On the basis of Smith’s research we can confidently conclude that tens of millions of non-Russian workers and peasants rallied to the Bolshevik flag not because they were cunningly deceived or saw it merely as the lesser of two evils, but because Bolshevik policy offered real and positive benefits to the victims of racism and colonialism.

The sliver of truth on which anti-Soviet historians feed, however, remains the manner in which Lenin was obliged to subordinate the self determination of nations to the urgent demands of international revolution. By hiding the fact that this was a clear and explicit policy on Lenin’s behalf, enemies of Bolshevism claim that Russia’s leader jettisoned his principles in favour of imperialist conquest. Any full investigation of Bolshevik policy in this field must therefore examine specific episodes where the Red Army is alleged to have invaded sovereign territory and trampled on national rights – most notably in Ukraine and Georgia. A full refutation of Pipes’s book demands case by case treatment of the experience of Sovietisation in different republics.

Any discussion of the Bolsheviks and the national question is incomplete without a comparison of Bolshevik policies with those of the Tsars and Stalinism. The Bolsheviks’ achievements stand out in sharp relief on the background of Tsarist despotism, but they can be overlooked altogether if they are not juxtaposed to the full extent of Stalinist reaction. Bolshevik national policy must also be judged in the context of civil war and Lenin’s battle for the revolution to spread abroad. The sheer size and diversity of the Soviet Union, however, mean that the records of Bolshevik debates and policy are a rich source of experience on which revolutionaries can draw. They open up a realistic vision of a future for humanity free of national prejudice and division.


I am grateful to Gennady Poberezhni, Ildar Rismukhamedov, Alexander Savchenko and Nicolai Gentchev for comments on the draft. I would welcome further comments at

1. R. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism 1917–1923 (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1997), p. v.

2. Ibid., pp. 280, 276.

3. M. Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (London 1973).

4. H. Carrère d’Encausse, The Great Challenge: Nationalities and the Bolshevik State, 1917–1930 (New York 1992), p. 67. In contrast, Nigel Harris in National Liberation (Reno 1990) devotes just a single sentence to the Bolsheviks’ ‘genuine efforts to be respectful and protective of national cultures’ (p. 98), and therefore paints a very one-sided and negative picture of Bolshevik national policy. According to Harris, ‘The record in practice seemed appalling’ and ‘hypocritical’ – albeit the hypocrisy ‘was no more extreme than in other sectors of policy’ (pp. 96, 98). Harris therefore gives a misleading account of Lenin’s approach to the national question.

5. H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 149.

6. Y. Slezkine, The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism, Slavic Review 53:2 (1994), pp. 414–452; T. Martin, The Russification of the RSFSR, Cahiers du Monde Russe 39:1–2 (1998), pp. 99–118; T. Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1929 (New York 2001). In correcting Pipes’s account, however, Slezkine in particular disregards the sharp break with the 1920s that took place under Stalin and the systematic national oppression suffered by non-Russian peoples from the mid-1930s.

7. G. Simon, Nationalism and National Policy Towards the Nationalities in the Soviet Union: From Totalitarian Dictatorship to Post-Stalinist Society (Oxford 1991), p. 6.

8. S. Blank, The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin as Commissar of Nationalities, 1917–1924 (Westport, Connecticut 1994), p. 285.

9. L. Trotsky, Stalin, vol. 2 (Moscow 1990), p. 29.

10. L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London 1985), p. 902.

11. See R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 84, 77, 73.

12. J. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917–1923 (London 1999), p. 29.

13. Ibid., p. 41.

14. Ibid., pp. 93–94.

15. R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 89, 86, 93.

16. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 46, 47; R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 181–183. Lenin recommended ‘sending to concentration camps all former members of the police, military, security forces, administration etc. [in Turkestan] who were products of the Tsarist era and who swarmed around Soviet power because they saw in it the perpetuation of Russian domination.’ Quoted in H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 96.

17. R. Pipes, op. cit., p. 166.

18. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 54.

19. Ibid., p. 51.

20. Ibid., pp. 54, 55–64.

21. See E.H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., for example, and A.A. Bennigsen and S.E. Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World (Chicago, 1980).

22. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 84, 70–78.

23. R. Pipes, op. cit., p. 198.

24. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 90.

25. Ibid., pp. 104–105.

26. Ibid., p. 104; H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 198.

27. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 133. Characteristically, korenizatsiia is mentioned only twice by A.A. Bennigsen and S.E. Wimbush, op. cit., and even then only in passing.

28. H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., pp. 149–150.

29. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 113.

30. Ibid., pp. 113–115. Pipes completely ignores the treatment of Jewish people by the Bolsheviks.

31. R. Pipes, op. cit., p. 71.

32. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 116–125.

33. Ibid., pp. 126–127; R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 256–260.

34. R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 218–220, 229. Smith, unfortunately, has very little to say about the Hummet. For a history of the short-lived Bolshevik commune in Baku in 1918, see R. Suny, The Baku Commune, 1917–1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princetown 1972).

35. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 131. Note that Smith, in common with most of the literature in this field, often refers to ‘Muslim peoples’ as a shorthand for peoples in regions where Islam was the dominant religion.

36. Ibid., p. 132.

37. Ibid., p. 137.

38. Ibid., pp. 139–140.

39. Ibid., p. 140.

40. Quoted ibid., p. 152.

41. Ibid., pp. 149, 161. Unfortunately Smith does not elaborate on this point and does not investigate whether Narkomnats’ proposals were implemented.

42. Ibid., p. 155.

43. H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 189; J. Smith, op. cit., p. 156.

44. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 146, 151–153.

45. Ibid., pp. 156–157, 145–146. A sense of just how far Stalin went to smash these achievements is given in the memoirs of the Bolshevik linguist Lytkin, who returned from the camps after the Second World War to the Komi republic, where he found that native children were forbidden to speak their native language at school even during playtime – which was the case before 1917. See V. Alpatov, 150 Iazykov i Politika, 1917–2000 (Moscow 2000), pp. 99–100.

46. H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 191.

47. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 162–164.

48. Ibid., pp. 167, 165.

49. M. Smith, Language and Power in the Creation of the USSR, 1917–1953 (Berlin 1998), p. 122.

50. Ibid., p. 124.

51. It is interesting to note that since 1991 all the ex Soviet republics of Central Asia, plus Tatarstan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, have officially reverted to the Latin script.

52. J. Smith, op. cit., p. 162. In a separate article Smith goes further and says that Lenin made ‘serious political errors from the point of view of Marxist theory’. See The Georgian Affair of 1922: Policy Failure, Personality Clash or Power Struggle?, Europe-Asia Studies, May 1998.

53. J. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, op. cit., pp. 43, 28.

54. Ibid., p. 174.

55. Ibid., pp. 241, 64, 30.

56. See the articles collected in V.I. Lenin, Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism (Moscow 1977).

57. J. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, op. cit., p. 111.

58. Quoted in H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., p. 114.

59. Ibid., p. 137.

60. C. Harman, The Return of the National Question, International Socialism 56 (Autumn 1992).

61. V.I. Lenin, op. cit., pp. 38–39, 42. Emphasis in original.

62. Ibid., p. 84.

63. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923, vol. 1 (London 1966), p. 273. Trotsky’s book on the national question in Georgia, published as Social Democracy and the Wars of Intervention in Russia, 1918–1921 (London 1975), reveals the full truth of Carr’s words.

64. J. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, op. cit., p. 169.

65. O. Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (Toronto 1988), p. 394. It should be noted that Ukraine had hitherto seen some of the worst errors in Bolshevik national policy.

66. S. Crisp, Kirgiz, in G. Smith (ed.), The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union (London 1990), p. 248; E.M. Herzig, Armenians, ibid., p. 151; R. Pipes, op. cit., p. 259; A. Avtorkhanov, The Chechens and the Ingush During the Soviet Period and its Antecedents, in M. Bennigsen Broxup (ed.), The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance Towards the Muslim World (London 1996), pp. 192, 155; H. Carrère d’Encausse, op. cit., pp. 186–187.

67. Some of the consequences of this defeat for Russian politics today are outlined in The Crisis in Russia and the Rise of the Right, International Socialism 66 (Spring 1995).

68. J. Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, op. cit., p. 9. Trotsky makes the same point about the ultra-left ‘third period’ of Stalinist policy at the time in L. Trotsky, Stalin, vol. 2, op. cit., p. 224. For an interesting discussion of how the Russian leadership groped its way towards Russian chauvinism at this time, see D.L. Brandenberger, The People Need a Tsar: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931–1941, Europe-Asia Studies, July 1998.

69. T. Martin, The Russification of the RSFSR op. cit., p. 103.

70. M. Lewin, op. cit.

71. A fact which mystifies Bennigsen and Wimbush, for example. See A.A. Bennigsen and S.E. Wimbush, op. cit., p. 86.

72. Pipes is the obvious example here, although Nigel Harris is also inclined to exaggerate wildly about 1923: ‘It was 1914 all over again ... The historic position of the Bolshevik Party had thus, without any change of programme, been completely reversed.’ N. Harris, op. cit., pp. 99, 113.

73. J. Smith, op. cit., pp. 188–189; Y. Slezkine, op. cit., p. 417; T. Martin, review of Jeremy Smith’s book in The Russian Review 59:1 (January 2000), p. 143.

74. J. Stalin, Marksizm i Natsional’nyi Vopros (Moscow 1949). E. van Ree, Stalin and the National Question, Revolutionary Russia 7:2 (December 1994), pp. 214–238. Van Ree summarises the extensive research on the history of Stalin’s article.

75. E. van Ree, op. cit.

76. E.H. Carr, op. cit., pp. 267, 271; L. Trotsky, Stalin, op. cit., p. 42.

77. See the relevant chapter in Trotsky’s Stalin, op. cit., and pp. 174, 178, 189.

78. Quoted in T. Cliff, Revolution Besieged: Lenin, 1917–1923 (London 1987), p. 409.

79. Sed’maia (Aprel’skaia) Vserossiiskaia Konferentsiia RSDRP (Bolshevikov): Protokoly (Moscow 1958), p. 224; Vos’moi S’ezd RKP(b): Protokoly (Moscow 1959), p. 69.

80. Sed’maia, op. cit., p. 219.

81. Vos’moi, op. cit., pp. 80–81.

82. Ibid., p. 106. At the Eighth Party Conference in December 1919 Yakovlev talked about how a great mass of chauvinist Russian workers had descended on Ukraine ‘like locusts’ and behaved like ‘conquerors’. Striving to bend the stick to correct the situation, Lenin talked about the need for all Ukrainian Communists to become Borotbists. See Vos’maia Konferentsiia RKP(b): Protokoly (Moscow 1961). Further discussion of the strength of ultra-left views on the national question among Bolsheviks can be found in J.D. White, National Communism and World Revolution, Europe-Asia Studies 46:8 (1994), pp. 1349–1369.

83. Tainy Natsional’noi Politiki TsK RKP: Stenograficheskii Otchet Sekretnogo IV Soveshchaniia TsK RKP, 1923g (Moscow 1992).

84. Arkhiv Trotskogo: Kommunisticheskaia Oppositsiia v SSSR, 1923–1927 (Moscow 1990), vol. 1, p. 51; L. Trotsky, My Life (Harmondsworth 1985), p. 506; Nesostoiavshiisia Iubilei: Pochemu SSSR ne Otprazdnoval svoego 70-Letiia? (Moscow 1992), pp. 118, 123.

85. Nesostoiavshiisia, op. cit., p. 114.

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