The Russian Empire and the USSR each had to deal with a specific set of social, political, and cultural challenges posed by ethnic groups and nation states on their periphery. These included the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Russian North, Siberia, and the Steppe, the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Adygeia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Georgia, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Karbardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Nakhichevan, North Ossetia, South Ossetia), and the Western Borderlands (Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, and Moldova). Russia’s ‘Periphery’ must be viewed not merely as a collection of states, ethnic, national or otherwise, but contextualized as parts of broader regions and concepts as well, including riparian cultures, and sea-based cultures around the Baltic Sea, the Aral Sea, Black Sea, and Caspian Sea, even notions of ‘The West’ and ‘The East.’ The tsarist and Soviet regimes dealt with what it saw as challenges on its periphery in a variety of ways. Sometimes their policies resembled the policies used in the 18th century by multiethnic states in Europe, at other times, they resembled the colonial practices commonly seen in European colonial empires in the mid-late 19th century. Policies of outright Russification sometimes coexisted with more complex efforts to foster regional ethnic or national identities.
Dealing with the Past in the Post-Soviet World
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the former Soviet Republics on Russia’s periphery and the newly independent autonomous regions were presented with something of a dilemma. They each had to decide how to deal with the tsarist and/or Soviet pasts. Should they reject the Communist experience in toto as a historical aberration, or did it represent a step on a circuitous but nonetheless progressive path of development for modernizing states? Oddly perhaps, many of these small formerly tribal groupings owed whatever sense of protean national identity they now possessed to the Soviet era, and yet now in the late twentieth century they had to find their own national stories, just as many states a century or two earlier had done. As states emerged from the multi-ethnic empires of the 18th century, their elites, inspired by the contradictory strands of Enlightenment rationalism, French revolutionary messianism, and Romanticism, began to chart nationalist paths into the uncertain future. This could take highly unusual, even esoteric form, as in the case of partitioned Poland and its survival in the minds of poets like Adam Mickiewicz as an act of cultural memory. It could take far more concrete, territorial form, as in the case of Bismarck‛s Germany or Cavour‛s Italy, and their emergence onto a world stage defined by imperialists’ desires for their ‘place in the sun.’ Nationalism could also become biologically racialized, leading to its most grotesque and ghastly incarnation in Hitler‘s Third Reich.
Recent scholars have argued that these new nation-states engaged in complex processes of imagining or constructing the past, processes that were both conscious and unconscious. “‘Invented tradition,’” writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, “is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past” (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1). Writings, symbols, events, traditions, folklore, architecture, celebrations can all become tools in this process of construction. For these ‛new pasts‛ to become useable for a new state or nation, they must be articulated and disseminated in ways that draw in large parts of the population into their construction. This can happen in multiple and accretive ways, at all kinds of ‘sites of memory,’ to invoke the dean of memory studies, Pierre Nora: mass media; museums; official and unofficial commemorations of past events; monuments, and so on. Only through such routes can a new nation acquire legitimacy for its new past, even if the very issue of legitimacy may be ethically or morally troubling to others. Inevitably, perhaps, most nations will hear competing and sometimes contradictory voices in this process, and the useable past(s) that emerges (sometimes very slowly) can be a process of conflict, negotiation, and often violence. It includes not only acts of memory but always also acts of forgetting, not only acts of rationality but acts of nostalgia, as past events deemed illegitimate for all kinds of reasons may be difficult to accommodate in a new past for a new present.
The Tsarist Empire: Colonizing the Periphery [Chris Burks, Aaron Chivington, Max Gordon and Kate Mrkvicka]
Any empire must deal with several conflicting and intertwined issues. The nationalistic or otherwise separatist tendencies of its constituent parts conflict with the assertion of imperial control. The hierarchy that must be maintained for efficiency within an imperial bureaucracy also conflicts with the uniformity needed to promote stability. Thus, ruling the various parts of the Russian Empire was a constant balancing act. Since its inception Russia has been a multi-ethnic entity. Its first leaders, the Varangians, were themselves foreign. During Russia’s first wave of expansion, the “gathering of Russian lands,” the tsars extended their influence into the periphery, but granted local elites significant autonomy in their territories and allowed the continuation of local traditions among non-Russian minority groups. In this way, the rulers, the Russians, were distinct from the ruled. Local elites were often co-opted with gifts of land or title, or coerced into submission to Russian control. However, increased influence of Enlightenment ideas resulted in a significant shift in imperial policy, beginning around the time of the rule of Catherine II.
Imperial policy during the reign of Catherine II was characterized by cameralism coupled with Cartesian rationality, particularly in terms of Catherinian policy towards the Western Borderlands. In cameralism, the state is viewed as a discreet entity in which the governing body exists for the purpose of maximizing prosperity, power, and general well-being of the state (Raeff, 141-142). Cartesian rationality assumes the uniformity of human nature, significant in its implication that the same rule of law that is good in one place should, more or less, be good in any other given place (Raeff, 145). Differences between peoples are thus ascribed to differences in social development. This idea lends itself to ‘social modernization’ as a justification for imperialism.
This Enlightenment-era theoretical framework informed the imperial governance and defined the core-periphery relationship during the reigns of Catherine II and her successors, such as Nicholas I. Building upon the system established by Peter I in the early 18th century, Catherine II enhanced the bureaucratic methods of provincial governance. These reforms divided the Russian state into provinces of equal size based on arbitrary population figures, irrespective of geography or history. These administrative regions were often lorded over by Russian bureaucrats seated in artificial provincial capitals (Raeff, 147). In true mercantilist fashion, the empress oversaw the abolition of internal tariffs and removed trade barriers with the Ukraine and incorporated Poland with an aim to furthering political control through the increased trade (Raeff, 144). Similarly, Catherine promoted, and in some cases mandated agricultural settlement. This was done in accordance with the cameralist notion that settled agriculture is the highest stage of development, allowing for maximization resources, self-sufficiency, and population growth (Raeff, 144). Striving for uniformity, the state persecuted religious extremism, particularly amongst the Old Believers, an Orthodox sect, as well as amongst Freemasons and other non-Orthodox groups. The legal system was codified and russified, however russification was not unique to the courts. Internal migration was encouraged, both to maximize distribution of agricultural labor units and to increase the population of ethnic Russians in peripheral regions. Furthermore, Russian became the language of primary school instruction with an intent to incorporate the non-Russian populations through the education system. Nicholas I aimed to forge a group identity through his adoption of a ‘National Ideology’ consisting of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality [pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost'] – the former two being the traditional pillars of the Russian State, and the latter being a sense of popular nationalism derived from the people (Suny, 47).
These policies, aimed at maintaining and consolidating the growing empire, often proved to be insufficient for the long-term formation of an inclusive Russian nation-state. The hierarchical nature of imperial governance was contradictory with the formation of a equitable nation-state (Suny, 25). Rulers remained distinct from the ruled, with Russian Orthodoxy functioning as the key unifying factor of the elites’ poorly articulated concept of ‘Russianness’ (Suny, 44). The ruling classes needed to continually reaffirm their distinction from the masses in order to maintain the empire’s hierarchical structure by, for example, adopting French as the language of the court and nobility (Suny, 33).
The state was largely successful in co-opting local elites, but integration was rarely successful outside the upper echelons of Russian society. It neglected the masses, who became frustrated by the lack of horizontal and vertical mobility in a corrupt, arbitrary, and exclusionary system (Suny, 42). Additionally, where the imperial state did turn its attention towards the non-Russian masses in an attempt to encourage settled agriculture on the periphery, its heavy-handed actions disrupted the traditional lifestyles of these regions and created conflict (Raeff, 145). Finally, due to Russia’s vast expanses and underdeveloped infrastructure, the distance between the core and peripheral regions made administration exceedingly difficult (Suny, 43) Thus, the difficulty of controlling fragmentary peripheral regions became the justification for repressive measures and consolidation of power. The result was a major question of, legitimacy as the Russian state derived it not from the will of the people, as is theoretically the case in a modern nation-state, but from physical power over them. In retrospect, it seems that the Russian Empire never was able to transition to a more widely based legitimacy based on popular consent. This resulted in perpetual problems of governance, and, finally, to the eventual fracture of the Russian Empire.
Specifically, the Russian Empire used a wide variety of methods to control and administer the ethnic groups encountered during expansion, which included Tatars, Chuvash, Mordvinians, Cheremis, Votiaks, Nogai Tatars, Bashkirs, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, Iakuts, Buriats, Koryaks, and Chukchi. Imperial administrators utilized these varied methods and policies to advance Russian imperial policy in newly annexed regions, while also trying to maintain stability and avoid resistance. The policy enacted by the Russian Empire depended on a variety of factors, including the ambitions of the current tsar, the particular culture of the various ethnic groups, and the degree of resistance encountered by the Russian Empire in attempting to carry out its administrative policies. Furthermore, the tsars enacted these policies based on the sometimes contradictory influences of the Golden Horde‘s legacy and contemporary European imperial models. For example, initially, the Empire adopted the iasak (tribute) tax system from the Golden Horde and seemed committed to working within the context of traditional steppe politics, but as its imperial ambitions increased, so did the likelihood that it would use coercion (Kappeler, 53). Generally, the Russian Empire utilized more brutal methods to quell initial resistance, but turned to more flexible policies to incorporate the ethnic group into the Russian Empire, both socially and economically. Central to Russian imperial policy was the maintenance of the status quo in newly incorporated regions, often achieved by co-opting ethnic elites into the Russian nobility, which entailed military or civil service. The utilization of this “flexible and pragmatic” policy resulted in the acknowledgement and preservation of pre-existing societal hierarchies while simultaneously ensuring loyalty to the Russian Empire.
It was not always easy to mesh the imperial philosophy of the Russian Empire with traditional steppe politics, particularly in regards to the oaths of loyalty, which were so important to the Empire at this time. While Russian administrators viewed the oaths as binding contracts, most tribal leaders viewed them as temporary and contingent. For this and other reasons, Russian imperial policy did encounter resistance in certain areas. On one hand, Kappeler argues that resistance, or the possibility of resistance, effectively shaped imperial policy and made it more accommodating to non-Russian ethnic groups (Kappeler, 161). However, the tsars occasionally abandoned the flexible and pragmatic model in favor of more aggressive efforts to assimilate ethnic groups into Russian society, as demonstrated by the approaches of Ivan IV and Peter I.
The USSR: Colonizing the Periphery [Annie Mosher and Laura Tourtellotte]
Upon the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, the new Bolshevik government was faced with the task of administering the many ethnic groups within their territorial boundaries. In order to bind these peoples together, the Soviet intelligentsia employed tsarist tactics and socialist ideology. The following discussion will trace the development of various campaigns used within the Soviet Empire until its collapse. After “gathering the lands of Tsarist Russia,” Soviet policy encouraged nationalism among ethnic minorities until growing discontent among ethnic Russians led to a change of policy in the 1930s. Previous policies were modified to reflect the new slogans of “friendship among nations” and the preference of Great Russians as “first among equals” replaced the earlier “nationalist in form, socialist in content.”
Subsequent to the Civil War and the loss of both Finland and Poland, the center of the Empire shifted east, as demonstrated by Moscow’s replacement of Petrograd as capital city. With the refocusing of the Union’s ethnic composition, Bolsheviks took the Mongol precedent of maintaining the status quo and non-interference in peripheral regions of their empire step further by encouraging nationalism within ethnic minority groups. This strategy also operated to decrease any correlation of the Soviet Union with a Great Russian Empire, for a number of reasons. The recent collapse of empires within post-WWI Europe amply demonstrated the dangers of imperialism. Ideologically, Bolsheviks disagreed on how to best to carry out Marxist theory. Lenin and Stalin, who supported nation-building, drafted the Greater Danger Principle, which argued that Great Russian Chauvinism was more dangerous than local nationalism. Their opponents Georgii Piatakov, leader of the Left Communists in the Ukraine and denounced later as a Trotskyist, and Nikolai Bukharin, President of the Communist International (Comintern) argued for immediate internationalist socialism without the intermediate step of a nation-state.
According to Marxist theories about history, society goes through several stages of development before finally achieving the socialist ideal. Tribal societies become feudal, then progress from capitalism to imperialism to socialism. Lenin and Stalin struggled to define the role of nationalism in the dialectical model of history. They believed that nationalism coincided with imperialism and capitalism, making it necessary for history to unfold according to Marx’s theories. To this end, Lenin chose to encourage nationalism within the many ethnic groups comprising the Soviet Union. By promoting their development into nation-states, Lenin hoped to fast-forward these minorities through the stages of Marxist history so that the entire Soviet Union would be ready to reach communism together.
Based on his assessment of Marxist history, Lenin’s early policies encouraged nationalism within Soviet ethnic minorities. With the aid of former Imperial ethnographers, Lenin divided the Soviet Union into territories defined by language and nationality. Within these territories, schools and publications used local languages and local culture was encouraged. This policy was referred to as indigenization (korenizatsiia). Despite the use of local languages, Lenin ensured that curriculum and content asserted communism as the best possible form of governance. He encapsulated this policy in the slogan “National in Form, Socialist in Content.” Borrowing from an old tsarist technique, the early Soviet Union also co-opted local elites into its administrative structures and encouraged Party membership at the local level. With this policy of indigenization Lenin hoped to foster communism within minority groups and hasten the progression of those same minorities through Marx’s vision of history.
The goals of indigenization were not limited to the promotion of communism. In the short term, encouraging nationalism among minorities would distinguish the Soviet Union from oppressive Western Empires. The policy eliminated discrimination against non-Russians, diffusing national tensions and ensuring the stability of the vast multi-ethnic empire. Meanwhile, the local schools and newspapers spread communism to non-Russians. Outside the Soviet Union, these liberal policies in regards to minorities served as a positive advertisement for revolution, encouraging the international spread of communism. In the long-term, the entire population of the Soviet Union would be able to achieve communism together, thanks to Lenin’s acceleration of non-Russians through the Marxist progression of history. Lenin hoped that nationalist policies would secure both the present and the future of the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, unifying the vast lands of the former tsarist empire did not always occur smoothly. First of all, some argued that internationalist Marxist ideology opposed nation-building. As the populations were neither homogeneous nor unilingual, the Soviet government and ethnographers were pressed to invent a unifying ethnicity and language within individual territories. Secondly, the demographic realities of the Russian Empire, specifically those of natural geographic boundaries, were overlooked for the sake of a perceived homogeneity of peoples. The famines occurring both in Central Asia as a result of the former nomads’ protest against incursions of agriculture on their lands and in the Western states because of the forced grain requisitions further destabilized this system. Mass purges that supported the “liquidation of kulaks as a class” destroyed communities as wealthier peasant families were executed or deported. These difficulties convinced the Soviet intelligentsia to abandon state-building and the notion of a federation; by the end of the1930s, republics were under the full control of the central government.
The intelligentsia developed the new slogan “first among equals” to reflect the change in official ideology from an emphasis on minority nationalism to “Soviet” nationalism, which was a de-facto stand-in for Great Russian nationalism. In this ideological shift, the perceived danger of nationalism changed from that of “Russian Chauvinism” as that of an oppressor nation to that of “Local Nationalism” as a divisive internal threat to the Soviet Empire’s integrity. Appeals were thus made to love of one’s fatherland and of promotion of the patriarchal cult of Stalin. As Soviet patriotism replaced Russian nationalism, Cyrillic replaced Latin alphabets in the local languages, Russian language instruction became required curriculum in school, and the Soviet Union experienced a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
Integral to the development of the Soviet empire was the Great Patriotic War, which allowed for the completion of the “gathering of the lands of Rus’.” In direct opposition to Nazi racial theory based on beliefs in certain races’ biological inferiority, the Soviets promoted Great Russian chauvinism. Their ruling over the different ethnicities was based on advantages given to them historically, and justification was made for being the “first among equals” in that the Russians, through russification, were helping “backward” and historically disadvantaged ethnicities progress. Another strategy, however, to battle against Nazi incursion, both literal and ideological, was to banish entire ethnicity groups who were viewed as either a threat to the Soviet nation (such as German Russians) or as punishment to Nazi collaborators.
In the decades following the Great Patriotic War, nationalism again became an important factor in the Soviet Union. The population experienced growing discontent and saw the emergence of an underprivileged majority to rival the privileged minority. Especially following Gorbachev’s policies of openness, the new intelligentsia sought to revive non-Russian scholarship, studying languages and cultures which had long been ignored. This encouraged the growing national sentiments among non-Russians leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. These ethnic peoples and identities had been suppressed for so long that the West was shocked when the Soviet Union fractured along national boundaries. During the Cold War, many perceived “Russians” and “Soviets” as synonymous. In many of these successor states a post-colonial narrative has been created, which leads to many questions about the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic empire. The most important of theses is not why the Soviet Union collapsed, but how is survived for as long as it did.
In conclusion, although the collapse of the Soviet Union was in part brought about by increasingly divisive national tensions that it had itself fostered, the nationality and minority question has not been neutralized. Instead, the issue of minority rights and the nationality question has been deferred to a national level. Moreover, although upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian empire lost much of its territory, it still spans an entire landmass and encompasses a plethora of minorities. In further analysis of the lands of the former Soviet Union, further questions should be addressed, specifically its East/West identity crisis, discussion of whether or not the Soviet Union was, in fact, an empire, and an interpretation of history with concepts of memory, nostalgia, and the invention of tradition in mind.
‘Making’ Nations in the Soviet Context [Jan-Pieter Verheul]
The question regarding national identity in the post-Soviet republics sparks as much of a heated debate today as it did in the early days of the Soviet Union. Although censuses and nationality policies were originally a means for various groups to discover and assert their identity, Stalin’s relocation programs induced ethnic instability in the post-Soviet period because it created artificial conglomerates in unfamiliar areas. Francine Hirsch explains the creation and progress of the All-Union Censuses in 1926, 1937, and 1939 as major tools in the Union’s evaluation of its ethnic composition.
The search for identity began with mapping out the Union’s different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions. There were certainly ulterior motives to such a census. First and foremost was the notion that “each nationality had its own productive potential that needed to be studied and exploited” (Hirsch, 252). On a more human level, there was the advantage of networking; such data would provide a foundation on which the political center of the Union could build relationships with local administrations through a common cultural understanding. As in the earlier tsarist administration, the Soviets hoped to co-opt local elites to govern the emerging national communities. It was necessary to understand how even the most obscure ethnic groups functioned in order for the state to control them. After all, 65 million of the 140 million people in the Soviet Union were non-Russians (Hirsch, 254). Information gathered on all these people would give the Soviet regime the means by which to form their desired “federation of titular nations.” The “nation-builders” in the Communist Party, Lenin and Stalin, believed that it was necessary to understand and support national identities because nations would foster the development of class consciousness. Class consciousness would give rise to class conflict, the ultimate engine of history that would propel these national republics into the Communist future.
The first census, conducted between 1926 and 1927, officially recognized 172 national groups. Ethnographers determined that the leading determinant of nationality should be language, with religion and culture as secondary factors. There were, of course, questionable categories, such as the Jews, who were determined to be an ethnic group classified geographically. There was also marked differentiation between the terms narodnost’ (ethnicity) and natsional’nost’ (nationality) which caused tension between groups, as some desired one status over the other because they implied different levels of development. Stalin used his definition of nation, a “historically developed stable community with a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture,” (Hirsch, 257) to help create “population points,” which were designated regions based on respective ethnic groups. This data, including ethnic maps, was used to consolidate ethnic groups and relocate them while creating newly demarcated ethno-territorial borders. The result of this was the coerced mass mobilization of many peoples who were forced to adopt cultures and languages respective to their new home, simply because they were registered as a certain nationality.
The second census, presented in 1937, was preceded by a wave of propaganda claiming that the primary goal of these censuses was to develop an industrial and cultured society in order to “fight the war on backwardness.” While this census focused on ethnic groups and cultural identities, it was also used as evidence of the Union’s progress in terms of literacy, standard of living, and economic development. The ethnicity census put a strong emphasis on self-determination, allowing the census-takers to actively select their official identity. Further definition of terminology regarding ethnicities, nationalities, non-territorial nationalities, etc., in the census also introduced a new hierarchical class component in which acknowledged those peoples who were “developed” versus those who were still in the process of developing their own nation. Such developing nations were usually smaller, non-territorial ethnic groups. The completion of this census saw the reduction of nationalities down to 106 recognized nationalities; this was the result of eliminating the status of some groups and combining others to produce new nationalities (Hirsch, 267-270).
By 1938 Stalin’s definition of a nation had become “those peoples making up the main population of a union and autonomous republics,” and narod’nosti were defined as “peoples making up the main population of autonomous oblasts and national regions,” and “peoples of a significant number, living compactly in defined regions and having literacy in their own language” (Hirsch, 272). The process of national identification had become less involved with gathering data and more involved with demarcating ethnic territories within the Union and reordering the relationship of the various national groups to the state. The 1939 census was a standardized questionnaire presented to all members of the Soviet Union and continued to allow for self-determination of nationality, claiming that the conscious choice of nationality was “part of being Soviet” The census data was published between 1939 and 1940, recognizing a total of 57 recognized nationalities, 39 ethnographic groups and 28 national minorities. This decrease resulted from either combining people without distinct respective national territorial areas with surrounding groups of “similar cultural, ethnic, or linguistic origins,” or by simply reducing the status of smaller groups to that of “national minority” (Hirsch, 274). The Soviets finally determined that national identity was not just about ethnic origin, but was derived from the current culture and language experienced in the Soviet Union; to be “Russian” was simply to have command of the language and to have been raised in a Russian environment, and therefore to have an appreciation of that respective culture (Hirsch, 274).
The state in 1940 was certainly multinational and socialist, but the notion of unity within the federation seems questionable. While the information gathered on the nationalities in the Soviet Union may have been proposed under the banner of ethnic group identification, Stalin used this information to completely uproot entire national groups and reorganize the state based on ethnicity. The question of Soviet national identity was not so much answered by the research put forth by these three censuses, but by redefining ethnicities and in some cases completely reconstructing territories for ethnic groups. This process had gross ramifications in some of those redistributed territories after the collapse of the Union.
The Wreckage of the Soviet Experiment [Kris Mcclellan]
The construction of national identities and the gathering of peoples in the early decades of the Soviet Union followed a deliberate effort to transform society. Ideological necessity drove the various censuses and the nationality policies that the Soviets used to achieve their vision of a socialist paradise. The newly organized structure of peoples and identities would aid the vanguard party in its revolutionary quest to bring the light of the Communist future to the here and now; with its citizens properly organized and mobilized, Stalin could proceed with collectivization, industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization. The first phase of the Soviet project may have been brutal, but it was at least orderly. In contrast, the break-up of the Union was sudden and chaotic. There was no grand plan, no ideological goal, only a desire to break with the past and survive the turbulent transition. The rapid and disorganized fragmentation of the Soviet Union had severe consequences for all of its former members, which continue to suffer both the effects of Soviet rule and unprepared independence.
Stephen Kotkin’s 2002 article, “Trashcanistan: A tour through the wreckage of the Soviet Union,” provides a good overview of the former Soviet republics a decade into their independence. The Soviet Union held these diverse states together for seventy years, fostering a common “Soviet-ness” that continues to plague the republics today. The Soviet Union and the Communist Party were responsible for the development of the many component nations, but the common future that haunts the independent republics today is far from a Communist paradise. Instead, they face ethnic, religious, and political conflict, massive corruption, and economic disaster.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union differed from most periods of imperial collapse. European metropoles usually remained physically and ethnically separated from the rest of their territories, but the USSR was a contiguous entity which forced its various national groups to combine in new ways. By the time the Union was dissolved, 70 million Soviet citizens (1 in 4) were left outside their “national homelands” and became “immigrants overnight” (Kotkin, 3). The Soviets played a conscious role in shaping the constituent “nations” of the federation, creating a unifying Soviet culture that continues to retard development and sustain massive corruption (Kotkin, 9).
The very nationalism that the Soviets encouraged to accelerate the methods of history and class conflict became a central tool for the leaders of the republics post-independence, when the “checkerboard of parasitic states and statelets, government-led extortion rackets and gangs in power” were just emerging (Kotkin, 3). Nationalism is the essential ingredient in what Kotkin deems “Trashcanistan logic,” the belief that every national group deserves its place in the sun. The idea of national self-determination espoused by President Wilson, wielded by Lenin, and half-advanced by the Soviet Union is now part of a formula for ceaseless manipulative warfare and the perpetuation of illiberal regimes. In the name of the nation, all sins are forgiven. As long as political leaders are convinced that their first duty is to establish and protect their nation (and as long as their citizens believe them or are unable to alter their priorities), other goals-economic development, human rights, education, infrastructure, responsible and effective government-can be delayed or forgotten. The all-consuming quest to attain nation-statehood can be “among the foremost obstacles to a people’s genuine exercise of self-determination and economic well-being” (Kotkin, 7).
Despite the focus on “the nation,” nationalism in the new republics doesn’t carry the “mass political weight” that many politicians hoped it would (Kotkin, 10). Kotkin asks “if nationalism brought down the multinational USSR, what accounts for the weakness of nationalism now in the new republics?” (Kotkin, 3). The nationalisms created during the Soviet era were often the result of state-directed conglomeration for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Rather than mobilizing this nationalism to build new nation-states on the foundations left in the wreckage of the Union, most of the former Union republics expressed their Soviet character after independence. The nominal ideas of nation-statism, however, have been used by elites to assert their power by “consolidating and even extending the illiberal hyper-executive branches and shadow economies inherited from Soviet times” (Kotkin, 14). By defining threats against “the nation” and allegedly working to eliminate them, post-Soviet governments have delayed essential reforms and dodged accountability for the political and economic ruin of their nations. The rallying cry of the nation has not been forceful enough to shake the republics from continuing on the same path they traveled prior to 1991. Nationalism, when manipulated as it has been in many of these states, may actually be responsible for maintaining the old order despite the clear need for change.
As the Soviet Union came together, the Party fostered the growth of “nationalities” (natsional’nost’) to accelerate the process of history toward the ultimate goal of a communist society. The Soviets’ top-down nation-building strategies are the most obvious reminders that “all national myths are ‘false,’” but the consequences for the national republics after independence demonstrate that malignancy and effectiveness, not falsity, are the most critical aspects of the national history (Kotkin, 12). As the republics continue to struggle to assert their own identity, history, and future, they must confront the enduring Soviet people (sovetskii narod), the Soviet people with an identity designed for a trans- or supranational ideology. Unless these would-be nation-states figure out what to do with their imperial legacy beyond rhetorical posturing, they may find themselves condemned to the trashcan of history.
- Francine Hirsch, Empire Of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge & The Making Of The Soviet Union (Cornell University Press, 2005).
- ________, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category of Nationality in the 1926, 1937, and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (1997), 251-78.
- The Invention of Tradition. Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History (New York: Longman, 2001).
- Stephen Kotkin, “Trashcanistan – A Tour Through the Wreckage of the Soviet Empire,” The New Republic Online 226 (15 April 2002).
- Terry Martin, “An Affirmative Action Empire: The Soviet Union as the Highest Form of Imperialism,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. Edited by Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin (Oxford University Press, 2001).
- Marc Raeff, “Uniformity, Diversity, and the Imperial Administration in the Reign of Catherine II,”in Political Ideas and Institutions in Imperial Russia, edited by Marc Raeff (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994), 141-155.
- Ronald Suny, “The Empire Strikes Out: Imperial Russia, ‛National‛ Identity, and Theories of Empire,” in A State of Nations: Empire and Nation Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, edited by Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin (Oxford University Press, 2001), 23-66.