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the national question

No one should have been surprised that the Stalinist regime in the USSR shattered on the reefs of the national question. Despite a rollback of the rights of the nations and nationalities under Stalin and the re-imposition of national oppression, the bloody dictator and his heirs were unable to totally liquidate the heritage of revolutionary years with respect to national rights.

In 1978, when the Stalinist rulers tried to push through new constitutional provisions reducing the status of the languages of the non-Russian republics, they faced mass demonstrations in the Georgian and Armenian capitols, and were forced to back off. Before the present breakdown of bureaucratic control, however, it would be hard to find another example of the mass mobilizations dealing a direct defeat to the totalitarian regime.

The very existence of the republics with their formal right to sovereignty (and even to secede from the USSR) represented a historic defeat for Stalin. At the Twelfth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922, he tried to have all the republics reduced to the status of the autonomous units of the Russian federation. A dying Lenin’s last efforts defeated this project.

In fact, Lenin’s last letters attacking Stalin’s “autonomization” proposal and other violations of national rights – such as the breaking of the Georgian Communist Party – were not published in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.

Stalin had used the argument that the Communist Party needed to combat all forms of “nationalism” equally – the national feeling of small nations as well as large. He adopted this stance particularly in attacking communists among oppressed nationalities who defended the national rights of their peoples against the growing Great Russian chauvinism of the increasingly bureaucratized Soviet Communist Party.

Stalin’s repression in Georgia

The case of Georgia was symptomatic. After the occupation of Georgia by the Red Army in 1922, Stalin proceeded to crush the Georgian Communist Party under the guise of suppressing what he called “bourgeois nationalism.”

In his article “The Question of Nationalities or Autonomization,” in December 1922, Lenin opposed Stalin’s rationalization for his policies:

“In my writings on the national question I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.

In respect of the second kind of nationalism, we – nationals of a big nation – have nearly always been guilty in historic practice of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it.

That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies) must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.

Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question; he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.”
(Quoted in “Internationalism or Russification” by Ivan Dzyuba. English translation from Ukrainian original, published by Monad Press, New York, 1968, p.60.)

Stalin’s repression in Georgia led Lenin to break with him and propose an alliance with Trotsky.

Self-determination in the East

Two national questions were posed with particular acuteness during the period of the Russian civil war (1918-1922) – that of the Ukraine and that of the peoples of Muslim tradition, then mainly grouped in the province of Turkestan.

The base of the Soviet government in Turkestan was mainly among the Russian-speaking population of the cities, in particular in Tashkent. The danger arose that the Russians would attempt to maintain colonial domination in the name of revolution.

This threat was denounced in the Bolshevik congresses. At the Tenth Congress, a delegate spoke in the following terms:

“The colonization of the borderlands is not simply the work of a few months, but of whole decades, Russian imperialism colonized these borderlands. If we admit that economic development is reflected and manifested in various spheres of social and economic life, we must admit that the colonization of the borderlands by Russian imperialism created a colonialist ideology and a definite colonialist attitude of mind among Russian elements living in these borderlands. … And until we rid ourselves of this ideology . . . we will not achieve anything. We must launch a struggle against colonialism as such.” (Quoted in “Internationalism or Russification,” p.62.)

Espousing the cause of the oppressed nationalities in Central Asia won over to the Bolsheviks the most radical fighters for national liberation – such as Sultan Galiev, who rebelled later against the revival of Great Russian chauvinism under Stalin.

Bolsheviks’ policy gained allies

Objective pro-bourgeois nationalists, such as the Tatar Tamurbek Davletshin, admit that once the Bolsheviks won the confidence of the oppressed peoples with their recognition of their national rights, the latter followed them on social questions, leaving the mere nationalists high and dry. (“Sovetskii Tatarstan, Teoriiya i Praktika Leninskoi Natsionalnoi Politiki,” Our Word, London, 1974.)

Davletshin also points out that the Bolshevik decision to grant full rights of self-determination, up to and including secession, to the nationalities – while the Provisional Government headed by Alexander Kerensky refused to do this – was the decisive turning point of the struggle in favor of the Bolsheviks.

This was also a crucial factor in the civil war, in which the Whites alienated the non-Russian peoples with their project of restoring the unity of the Russian empire.

Furthermore, the bourgeois and pro-bourgeois nationalists tended not to be very nationalistic. The Bolsheviks actually went beyond the nationalists with their support for the right of the oppressed peoples to the fulfillment of their national aspirations and their right to adhere or not to the Soviet Union.

The Ukrainian nationalists, for example, called only for autonomy and adopted a program of independence only when the Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, headed by Alexander Kerensky, refused to give it to them.

Lenin on the Ukraine

Despite the spiteful language he employs about the Bolsheviks in his classical nationalist history of Ukraine, Mikhailo Hrushevsky, a member of the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist government ousted by the Bolsheviks, reveals that “Bolshevik agitation” had largely “demoralized” the Ukrainian nationalist forces. (“Istoriia Ukraini z Dodatkom Novoho Periodu Istori Ukrainy za roky vid 1914 do 1919,” Shkol’na Rada, New York, undated.)

The Bolsheviks came not only to defend Ukrainian sovereignty as a principle. They understood a program of imposing Ukrainian as the language of culture and public life in the republic, which lasted from 1925 to 1932. For the first and last time, the Ukrainian language was raised from its minority, marginal position on its own territory. The reversal of this policy by Stalin in the early 1930s was marked by the suicides of the Ukrainian Communist intellectual, the writer Mikola Khvylovy.

Stalin developed such hatred for the Ukrainians that Khrushchev was led to say in his “secret speech” of 1956 that Stalin would have liquidated the Ukrainians entirely if there had not been so many.

The Bolshevik nationalities policy was to a large extent hardened up and consolidated by the experience of the civil war in the Ukraine. At the time of the November revolution, the major front between the German and Austrian armies and those of the Russian empire ran through the Ukraine. This entire area included major industrial regions and sources of food and raw materials. In the course of the civil war, control of the Ukraine changed hands eight times.

The Bolshevik forces were mainly centered in the Russian-speaking proletariat, who had little sympathy with Ukrainian national feeling. Moreover, the Bolshevik political and military commanders were led by the pressures of the civil war, in which the Germans intervened, to disregard Ukrainian national aspirations and feelings. These tendencies threatened to lead to the defeat of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine. The central leadership had to intervene directly to force their own local followers to change their approach.

In late 1919, following the Red Army victory over the White general Denikin, Lenin wrote in an open letter to the Ukrainian workers and peasants:

“We Russian Communists must repress with extreme rigorness the least manifestation of Russian nationalism that arises among us, because such manifestations are a betrayal of communism. They do us enormous harm, separating us from our Ukrainian comrades, and this plays into the hands of Denikin and his policy.” (Retranslated from the Spanish; quoted in “Lenin y las naciones,” Javier Villanueva, Editorial Revolucion, Madrid, 1987, p.384.)

The Ukraine also became the principal victim of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s regression on the national question. This led Trotsky in 1939 to write that it was necessary, most fundamentally, for the republic to recover real independence in order for the Ukrainian people to be able to reassert their right to self-determination and a national future. (See in particular, “Ukrainian Independence and Sectarian Muddleheads.” “Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40,” New York, Pathfinder, 1973.)

Ukrainians’ fight bureaucracy

Armed struggle for Ukrainian independence spread eastward in the Ukraine after the post-World War II annexation of the western part of the country, which had been under Polish rule and where the nationalist movement had not been so effectively suppressed. These fighters were led to make a distinction between the Stalinist bureaucracy and nationalized ownership and to adopt the goal of building a classless society.

The largest single category of political prisoners in Stalin’s gulag were Ukrainian fighters for national rights. They were a major force in the concentration camp revolts that followed Stalin’s death, and were later able to pass on their tradition to the leaders of the Ukrainian literary renaissance of the 1960s, who were jailed in the 1970s. Some of the latter have now re-emerged as leaders of the Ukrainian national democratic movement, called Rukh. Thus, among Ukrainians the tradition of radical opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy remains unbroken. . . .

The victorious workers’ movement in Russia in the revolutionary period showed more understanding and offered greater perspectives for achieving the aspirations of oppressed peoples than any other major force in history.

The collapse of Stalinism has now opened the way for the oppressed peoples of the Soviet Union to resume their advance towards achieving their aspirations. They will find, as their grandparents and parents did, that revolutionary working class movements are the only reliable allies of movements for national freedom.

Already the rise of the mass national movements in the Soviet Union has put the question of ending national oppression and achieving democratic collaboration of nations to the fore again, as it was in the period of the Russian Revolution and the wave of revolutions that followed it.

This is hardly something that the capitalist rulers wanted. They have too many problems of their own with oppressed nationalities in their own countries or under their domination elsewhere.

It is a safe bet that the Soviet peoples’ pursuit of their national aspirations will cause more and more problems for Washington’s dreamed of “new order,” as well as for Stalin’s heirs.

This article originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Socialist Action newspaper under the title “Lenin’s Policy vs. Stalin’s: How the Bolsheviks Defended Rights of National Minorities.” Youth for Socialist Action has reprinted the article here in its entirety, minus a section covering a 1990 speech by a Ukrainian nationalist leader due to length. The author of this article is Gerry Foley, the International Editor of Socialist Action.

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