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Nationalities Policy Under Lenin

The Tsarist Empire was a vast prison house of nations. The victory of the revolution over autocratic tsarism led to the collapse of the Prison House of Nations. The subsequent creation of the Soviet Union sought to end the jailbreak from the Prisonhouse of Nations.

Since coming to power in 1917, the Soviet regime failed to develop and apply a consistent and lasting policy toward nationalities and religions. Official policies and practices not only varied with time but also have differed in their application from one nationality to another and from one religion to another. Although all Soviet leaders had the same long-range goal of developing a cohesive Soviet people, they pursued different policies to achieve it. For the Soviet regime, the questions of nationality and religion were always closely linked.

Although Vladimir I. Lenin believed that eventually all nationalities would merge into one, he insisted that the Soviet Union be established as a federation of formally equal nations. In the 1920s, genuine cultural concessions were granted to the nationalities. Communist elites of various nationalities were permitted to flourish and to have considerable self-government. National cultures, religions, and languages were not merely tolerated but in areas with Muslim populations were encouraged.

Lenin astutely recognized the latent power of ethnic consciousness, and cynically used nationalist sentiment to attract the support of ethnic groups suppressed by Tsarist rule. The right of nations to self-determination was the cornerstone of the Bolshevik program between the end of the firstWorld War and 1917. Lenin not only opposed forcing non-ethnic Russians to adopt the Russian language but, in contrast to Bukharin, persistently defended nations' right tosecede.

Lenin [and Stalin] implemented a number of policies to increase regions' dependenceon the center, weaken ethnic power blocs, and crush secessionist aspirations. The first strategy was to organize the Soviet Union as a confederation of fifteen union republics, most of which were dominated by a single ethnic group. The term "union republics" refers to the fifteen Soviet republics, while the term republic refers to autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. The union republics were granted asemblance of autonomy including, as mentioned above, the right to secede -- a tight that wasnever expected to be taken seriously[when the party began to weaken in 1990, the union repubhcs used the paper autonomy Lenin gave them to demand more independence and, ultimately, to secede]. All real power in this Soviet form of federalism was held by the center -- by the Communist party, the KGB, and the planners of the command economy

Lenin professed the desire that Communism correct and even make up for Tsarist policies of oppression of non-Russian nationalities. In 1922 Lenin claimed, "A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation andthat of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and a small nation...[W]e nationalists of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historical practice, of an infinite number of causes of violence... That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or 'great' nations... must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation."

Critics argued that the Lenin's policies of granting the appearance of autonomy to national groups (including "nativization" policies, which granted special privileges to minorities and promoted regional cultures and languages) were devised to appease separatism, rather thanto make up for the sins of the "oppressor nation."




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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:15:24 ZULU