[OPE] Nationalism in the USSR: is there a simpler explanation for apparently baffling phenomena?

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Tue May 19 2009 - 17:04:34 EDT

Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the
Soviet Union, 1923-1939. The Wilder House Series in Politics, History, and
Culture. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. xvi + 496
pp., 4 maps, 46 tables, glossary, bibliography, index. ISBN: 0801486777
(paper), 0801438136 (cloth). $27.50 paper.

Reviewed by: Tomasz Kamusella, Jean Monnet Fellow, European University
Institute, Florence, Italy and Opole University, Opole, Poland.

CENTRAL EURASIAN STUDIES REVIEW, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall 2002 pp. 19-20

The late Ernest Gellner famously disagreed with received opinion and stated
that Austria-Hungary was a kindergarten, not a prison of nations. The
Habsburg Empire was the first to fully appreciate the centrifugal force of
ethnic nationalisms. Austro-Marxists (e.g., Otto Bauer, Karl Renner)
developed various solutions to the national question, none of which were
ever applied. The young Joseph Stalin picked up their ideas when he was sent
to Vienna on a short study tour in January and February of 1913. He wrote
there his seminal essay, "Marxism and the National Question," the tenets of
which he later would implement in the Soviet Union. Lenin learned his lesson
observing the rise of numerous national movements in Central and Eastern
Europe. This contradicted Marx's opinion that in class struggle workers of
various ethnicities would unite against their ethnic kin of different
classes. As Roman Szporluk noted in his 1988 book Communism and Nationalism:
Karl Marx versus Friedrich List, the fight was not to be only between the
proponents of communism and capitalism. Marxists wrongly imagined
nationalism as an epiphenomenon of capitalism. Soon enough it proved to be a
third party on the battlefield where Marxism met capitalism.

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution Lenin promised to do away with the
excesses of "tsarist colonialism" and "Great Russian chauvinism," in favor
of the principle of the self-determination of nations. The revolutionaries
were anxious not to be outdone by President Wilson and Western Europe's
initiative of the League of Nations. Although Lenin hoped his concession
toward nationalism would be a short-lived instrument, such as NEP, the
Soviet Union functioned as school and university in one, from which numerous
nations graduated upon its break-up.

To my knowledge, Martin's work is the first full-length and archive-based
treatment of the question of why communism lost out to nationalism. Why,
having received the chance to develop in form (because in accordance with
Stalin's dictum the content had to be uniformly socialist), did nationalisms
not wither away, leaving ideological room for the flourishing of communism?
The book does not provide a straightforward answer, but does imply the
answer in its narrative. The early clamp-down on any expression of Russian
nationalism distanced the emergent Soviet Union from the denigrated tsarist
empire and colonialism, while at the same time legitimizing it in the eyes
of the ethnically non-Russian inhabitants. The "affirmative action"
mentioned in the title was for them, not the Russians.

Moscow allowed limited self-rule of the extant national movements in the
"developed" West of the Soviet Union (including the Caucasus) as long as
they did not oppose the Bolshevik state. They were even given their own
national territories. This line could not be immediately followed in the
East, where nationalism still had to develop roots. Traditionally, religion,
family, village, clan and occupational group prevailed as the loci of group
loyalty. Modernization meant to change this. Hence, Soviet ethnologists and
linguists were charged with the task of identifying distinctive ethnic
groups and transforming their dialects into written languages. As
"culturally backward," these groups could not do that on their own, and so
needed outside help. Stalin propounded the Herderian definition of nation,
in which a nation must be grounded in its distinctive culture tied to a
specific language. Eventually the USSR established over 170 of these
nations. As of 1932 the largest of them obtained their own federal republics
(2), union republics (7) and autonomous republics (15). Smaller nations or
minorities were granted status as autonomous oblasts (16), autonomous okrugs
(10), national districts (290), national village soviets (7,000) and even
national kolkhozes (10,000) (p. 413). Eventually every citizen's obligatory
attachment to one and only one of these nations was noted in his/her
internal passport.

This preferential treatment excluded the Russians, who were seen as
over-privileged in the past and still dominant over the rest of the Soviet
population. Even the Cyrillic script of the Russian language seemed
incurably tainted with tsarist colonialism and the Orthodox Church's
aggressive proselytism. In this paradigm the Latin alphabet equaled freedom
and modernity. So between 1922 and 1932 more than sixty languages were
alphabetized in or shifted to the Latin script (p. 203). Russian, Ukrainian
and Belorussian only narrowly escaped latinization.

A change of heart came in 1932. Successful indigenization [korenizatsiia]
policies, i.e., ukrainization of Ukraine and belorussianization of
Belorussia, were curbed. "Affirmative action" did not attract Ukrainians and
Belorussians from across the border in Poland. Actually, influences from
without spread among the Soviet Ukrainians and Belorussians, to the
detriment of Soviet security. Too much of korenizatsiia seemed anti-Russian,
while the Russians and their language were increasingly seen as the
necessary glue to keep the Soviet Union together. In the latter half of the
1930s this elevated them to the rank of "first among equals," while other
Soviet nations were expected to cooperate. For those perceived to be "enemy
nations," mass repression and ethnic cleansing awaited. Because it was no
longer "imperialist" the Cyrillic script replaced the Latin one. The number
of recognized nations was limited to some sixty, and national districts,
village soviets and national kolkhozes were excised from the system.
Korenizatsiia ceased to be a priority apart from the East, where it was
expected to produce badly needed indigenous cadres skilled in medicine,
engineering, communication, pedagogy and the arts.

It was a "soft" policy which subsided in the face of collectivization or
terror, but eventually fossilized the Soviet national-cum-administrative
structure. The recently constructed nations were projected into the distant
past, and primordialism became the de rigueur of Soviet nationalisms. I look
forward to reading a follow-up study, equal in its breadth to Martin's, that
would cover the outcome of this policy in the years 1940-1991.

It is a pity that in an otherwise excellent introduction Martin did not
discuss Soviet terminological choices of ideological and practical meaning.
First of all, why "nationality" rather than "nation" (perhaps nationality
was less than a nation and, thus, not eligible to become an independent
nation-state)? Second, why the interchangeable use of "peoples" and
"nationalities," which was ideologically fuzzy? In view of the
excruciatingly hard access to post-Soviet archives, I can hardly criticize
the author for using only those located in Moscow. I trust that his
brilliant work will open the way to similar thoroughly researched studies on
specific Soviet nationalisms, especially in the scholarly neglected East,
where conjectures are rife and socio-cultural studies (such as Olivier Roy's
The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations) have to fill in the gap in
historical knowledge. Last but not least, Martin's book should become a
basis for the comparative study of Eurasian nationalisms. It would be
fascinating to trace influences and parallels between Austro-Hungarian and
Soviet national policies, as well as between the latter and those in
independent India. The Austro-Hungarian experiment in the liberal approach
to nationalism wound up in a multitude of ethnic nation-states in East
Central Europe. Indian affirmative action aimed at the caste system led to
the proliferation of linguistically-based ethnic nationalisms complete with
their own administrative states. One wonders whether, somehow, the Soviet
Union did not function as a conveyor belt of ethnic nationalism from Central
Europe to Asia.

E-mail message checked by Spyware Doctor (
Database version: 5.10260
ope mailing list
Received on Tue May 19 17:06:58 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Sun May 31 2009 - 00:00:03 EDT