Twenty-Five Years After 1991: Revisiting the Soviet State of Nations

By Matthew Gauthier


Photo:  Belovezhskaia pushcha (1991).

Soviet nationality policy is a perfect microcosm for the history of the Soviet Union itself. The original policy was created by Lenin and Stalin, and was as unique as it was radical. It was also contradictory, at times leading to senseless violence and at others lending itself to sincere progressivism (sometimes simultaneously). It might have sown the seeds for its own end, but nonetheless had settled into an uneventful groove by the 70s. By 1992 it was gone, leaving more questions than it did answers, but also having irreversibly and incomparably altered the world.

For members of the Soviet Union’s diverse population, nationality was perhaps the most important aspect of their identity—at least when it came to interactions with the State. In the mid-1920s, being Kazakh, or Ukrainian, or Polish, or Korean in the Soviet Union meant opportunity—jobs, education, political power. By the early 1930s, being any one of these meant one could be the victim of political violence—arrest, deportation, or execution. This would continue until Stalin’s death in 1953. On Christmas day 1991, being Kazakh, or Ukrainian, or Polish, or Korean abruptly meant independence. Indeed, a lot of weight was carried by a little label in section five of one’s Soviet Passport.

The nationality question took on grave importance right from the beginning. Casting itself as the very antithesis of imperialism and the Russian empire that had recently been overthrown, the Bolshevik Party championed “self-determination,” leaving it the difficult task of trying to build an international revolution while avoiding the “oppression…unprecedented in its cruelty and absurdity” that had characterized the tsarist regime’s treatment of its national minorities.

The theoretical answer, of course, was to replace nationally-based identities with class-based ones. As Lenin said, “It is not the state frontiers that count with us but a union of toilers of all nations ready to fight the bourgeoisie of any nation.”[1] This was easier said than done.

Although the Marxist line holds that nationalism arises as a salient force as a result of capitalism’s inequities, the Bolsheviks realized that simply instituting socialism would not eliminate dangerous national consciousness. And so rather than turning their backs on minority nationalism, the Party embraced it. This was truly revolutionary: the Soviet Union became “the first of the old European multiethnic states to confront the rising tide of nationalism and respond by systematically promoting the national consciousness of its ethnic minorities.”[2]

This policy, however, had a clear goal in mind: transcending nationalism to create proletarian internationalism. The idea was that (1) nationalism would increase class conflict, creating a proletarian base; (2) nationalism was a natural byproduct of modernization, an important Soviet goal, and thus would be a necessary consequence of the drive to industrialism; and (3) nationalism was an inevitable response to the previous tsarist oppression. Essentially, nationalism would help accelerate (and would be an unavoidable byproduct of) the ultimate drive to communism.[3] If that seems perfectly logical in theory but seems a bit too overly-utopian to work in reality, that’s because it’s communism. As such, it was the course the Soviets would take.

This logic informed the nationality policy that Lenin and Stalin would jointly create. National identity would become the defining factor in the organization of the Union and in State policies. Large national minorities were made into republics (SSRs). Smaller minorities were made into smaller entities, autonomous republics (ASSRs). And even smaller minorities were given oblasts. In any case, administrative boundaries were drawn according to populations of national minorities—ensuring that each republic or oblast was made up of mostly (or entirely) members of a single nationality.

With this administrative framework in place, the State would embark on its quest to achieve equality among nations. This would take the form of what historian Terry Martin calls an Affirmative Action Empire, living up to Lenin’s claim that “nothing so retards the development and consolidation of proletarian class society as national injustice” by seeking not only “formal equality” of nationalities, but equality in practice.[4] This meant the Soviet system would “systematically promote the distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness in its non-Russian populations… through the formation of national territories staffed by national elites using their own national languages, [and] also through the aggressive promotion of symbolic markers of national identity.”[5] When all nationalities had achieved equality, national consciousness would dissipate naturally, giving way to a unified class consciousness.

It was a radical policy, but it was par for the Soviet Union’s course. Nationality was now endowed with great importance. In every administrative entity (each matched to a single nationality), efforts were made to promote the national language, to create schools (which would educate citizens in their national language), to ensure that the workforce consisted mainly of nationals, and to put in place local governments led by members of each administrative entity’s nationality.

The State took these policies very seriously. In 1930 one Soviet newspaper recounted glowing examples of the nationality policy’s achievements: “Take Uzbekistan… Whereas before the Revolution the Republic had less than 10 secondary schools, attended by the offspring of the colonial officials, it now has four higher educational establishments, which train dozens of indigenous engineers, doctors, chemists, agronomists and so forth. Fifty per cent of the workers of Uzbekistan are [now] from the indigenous population.” Similar successes in the field of education, employment, and economic infrastructure were noted in Kazakhstan.[6]

Indeed by the end of the 1920s the Soviet Union was well on its way to eradicating illiteracy, was in the process of industrializing its national republics and oblasts (promoting indigenous workers in the process), had created governing structures made up of local (indigenous) elites, and was fostering national cultures, occasionally conjuring them up where they hadn’t really existed. “[T]he culture of the nationalities, which [was] national in form and proletarian in content, [was] growing and developing,” aided by the State which was essentially acting as the “vanguard of non-Russian nationalism.”[7]

The progressivism of these policies, however, would soon be accompanied by the Soviet Union’s most conspicuous legacy: political violence. Stephen Lovell’s short introduction to the Soviet Union characterizes the 1930s as a “decade or so of state-sponsored violence.” And given the fact that administration and nationality were so closely tied in Soviet governance and policy, this meant that the state violence of the 1930s was often tied to nationality.[8] When Soviet policies failed, or were deemed to be in danger, the nationally-defined administrative districts bore the blame, leaving the consequences to fall upon national populations.

One example: The man-made famine that struck the Ukraine in 1932-33 became a national tragedy because the Soviet Union’s grain requisition policy operated according to its nationally-defined administrative basis. When the Ukrainian Republic wasn’t able to meet the production demands, yet the State still requisitioned its slated amount, there wasn’t enough food to feed the Ukrainian population. As such it was Ukrainians who suffered, reflected in the repressed census of 1937: the Ukrainian population dropped from almost 31.2 million in 1926 to 26.4 million by 1937.[9]

Paranoia also took on a national coloring. And because nationality was tied to administration, populations would feel the wrath of State violence along national lines in the terror-ridden decades of Stalin’s rule. It started with diaspora nationalities, those populations residing in the Soviet Union but sharing a national heritage with populations having their own independent states. The diverse Soviet Union was rife with such populations: Poles, Germans, Jews, Iranians, Koreans, Chinese, etc. These populations often inhabited border regions, and when paranoia began to run high in the early-30s, they started being subject to forced relocation.

By the late 1930s, the Great Purge was in full swing. Stalinist paranoia resulted in mass arrests, deportations, and executions. And much like the Soviet economy, the state violence during the Stalinist Purge was not based on supply and demand (i.e. number arrests of being directly dependent on the number of crimes), but was set by the state—a command economy of political violence. NKVD officials were ordered to meet arrest quotas for each administrative district—administrative districts that were, again, based upon nationality. Basically arrest quotas were assigned to nationalities. Calling for the arrest of 1,500 First Category criminals from the Azerbaijan SSR, or 300 Second Category criminals from the Kalmyk ASSR essentially meant arresting 1,500 Azerbaijanis and 300 Kalmyks.[10]

Thus, beginning with deportations of diaspora nationalities in the early 1930s and continuing until Stalin’s death in 1953, political violence along ethnic lines became commonplace in the Soviet Union.[11] It took many forms: institutional oversights (like in Ukraine), arrests according to ethnic quotas, and national deportations.

The State’s demographic impact is startling. In the Soviet Union’s history, millions of citizens were forcibly relocated, generally along ethnic lines and often as entire national populations. In the pre-War years it was typically diaspora nationalities—notably Koreans and Poles—who faced mass deportations. But deportations weren’t limited to diaspora, technically non-Union, nationalities. During and after the Great Patriotic War, Union nationalities also faced mass deportations. In 1943-44 nearly one million people in the territory of the Northern Caucasus were collectively accused of treason and deported. Chechens and Ingushetians (496,460), Karachaevs (68,327), Balkirs (37, 406), and other national minorities were crammed into cattle cars and relocated to Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan.[12] The paranoia and political violence that characterized much of Stalin’s rule was combined with the nationality policy that had tied ethnic identity to institutional administration and had made national identities more conspicuous. The result: “entire villages [and sometimes entire ethnic populations] were deported on the principle of collective responsibility and collective guilt.”[13] As such, nationality carried grave importance.

Lovell does well to capture the effects of the Soviet nationality policy in the first three decades of the Union’s existence: “One of the legacies of indigenization was primordialism: the sense that nations were not recent political constructs but rather had deep roots in a particular homeland, language, and culture. In the 1920s, this meant that dozens of Soviet ‘nations’ deserved administrative recognition. In the 1930s and 1940s, it meant they deserved mass arrest and deportation.”[14]

However, Lovell slightly misrepresents the disconnect between the 1920s on one hand and the 1930s and 1940s on the other. There was not a shift in policy from indigenization based on nationality in the 1920s to political violence based on nationality in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, in the 1930s and beyond, the two policies essentially co-existed. Martin describes this succinctly as the “simultaneous pursuit of nation-building and nation-destroying.”[15]

This helps to explain how the deportations of Chechens, Ingush, and Balkirs, along with the violent suppression of nationalist guerrillas in Ukraine,[16] could have happened more or less concurrently with celebrations of nationalism in Estonia. In 1947 the Soviet Union permitted the return of the Estonian Festival of Song and Dance (it had been discontinued during Nazi and then early-Soviet occupation). And although the expressions of Estonian nationalism were highly regulated by Soviet authorities, “the Soviet language of nationality,” i.e. the nationality policy, “[still] gave Estonians a powerful vehicle for their own national aspirations.” Gathered in the Estonian capital Tallinn, Estonians “sang of [their] love for the homeland [rodina]… all within the bounds of Soviet discourse… [T]he entire audience understood the homeland to be Estonian, and not Soviet, [and thus] the experience was one of overwhelming national solidarity.”[17]

The terror and ethnic violence of the Stalin era thus did not destroy nationalism by any means; the nation building and nation destroying were happening simultaneously. And so when Stalin died and his successor Nikita Khrushchev ended state-sponsored political violence, the Soviet Union’s nationality policies were still in place. The promotion of nationalities in schools, industry, and political structures had for the most part remained, and the flourishing national cultures hadn’t disappeared either. In fact, nationalism emerged from the Stalin era as a firmly entrenched aspect of Soviet society—a result of the Soviet nationality policy.

The staying power of nationalism vexed post-Stalin Party leadership, which was still dedicated to the Leninist idea of achieving transcendent internationalism through national equality. A 1972 Pravda article on the theory behind communist construction and nationality policy urged that with the necessity of devoting energy to overcoming backwardness having “long since passed… [and with] the former inequality of peoples ha[ving] been eliminated… the drawing together of nations is increasingly acquiring fundamental importance.”

The article offered a number of possible methods for drawing the nations together including: striving for “the even fuller equalization of the levels of economic development in the republics”; “the voluntary learning of the Russian language – the language of communication between nationalities”; and “increasing unity through mutual spiritual enrichment and reciprocal exchanges.” However the article, essentially speaking for the Party, still remained dedicated to its promotion of nationalism: “Socialism does not eliminate national special features, it eliminates the social causes that pit one nation against the other. Thanks to this, the national factor in our country is not a barrier that separates peoples.”[18]

Try as it might to achieve socialist internationalism, it became clear to the Party over the course of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras that “the original goal of Soviet nationality policy – to create the conditions for ‘backward’ nationalities to catch up and ultimately transcend nationalism – was remaining elusive.” Nations were there to stay; nationalism would have to be managed rather than transcended.[19]

But the fact that nationalism was by then firmly entrenched in Soviet society didn’t mean that there was necessarily largescale conflict between the State and its national minorities. In the reigns of both Khrushchev and Brezhnev the most spectacular displays of nationalism came from outside the Union—in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.[20] Within the Union itself there was some agitation by nationalists—Estonians, Crimean Tartars, the ever-irascible Ukrainians—however, these nationalist movements gained very little traction before 1985—certainly not enough to imply that nationalism could in any real sense result in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

From Stalin’s death until Gorbachev’s attempt to breathe new life into the Union, nationalism existed conspicuously but settled into an uneventful status quo. Sure there were displays of nationalism from some citizens, and occasionally an indigenous leader would be removed from power for failing to keep national expression at an acceptable level, but for the most part “party functionaries remained loyal to the system that fed them,” and the Union trudged on.[21] This was more or less the situation until the mid-1980s. Call it mature socialism or call it stagnation, but either way it was steady. Nationalism was there, but it wasn’t causing any unsolvable problems.

By 8 December 1991, however, the Soviet Union found itself in the following position: three nationalist leaders from Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia were signing the Belavezha Accords, declaring the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. By this time all three Baltic republics had already declared their independence from the Union. How did the Soviet Union arrive at this point in just over half a decade? To answer this question is to understand the tremendous impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s short tenure as General Secretary/President of the Soviet Union.

Regarding the unbounded nationalism that was unleashed in the latter half of the 1980s, Lovell locates the cause not in the members of minority nationalities, but in Gorbachev himself: “What changed in the mid-80s was not the behaviour of national elites, and still less the behaviour of peoples, but rather that of the leadership in Moscow.”[22] With his policies of perestroika and glasnost, Gorbachev sought to restructure and open the ailing Union. He did just that, opening and restructuring the Soviet Union into fifteen independent countries!

Like Brezhnev and Khrushchev before him, Gorbachev dealt with problems of nationalism among the Union’s diverse populations. But unlike his predecessors Gorbachev did so in a political climate—one of his own creation—that encouraged openness, that encouraged citizens to address the Union’s problems and voice their concerns out loud. And so in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and the 1986 replacement of a Kazakh Party official with a Russian one, and the 1989 Solidarity movement in Poland, Soviet citizens in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and the Baltics were able to express their nationalistic sentiments. The people in Ukraine seethed over the Soviet system’s continuous disregard for Ukrainian suffering (recall the man-made famine of 1932-33); the people of Kazakhstan rioted in the streets of Alma-Ata; the people in the Baltics created a human chain spanning the three capitals of the republics. Gorbachev could and did respond with force, but it was too late.

Despite having opened the floodgates with regard to nationalism, Gorbachev still naively clung to the idea of socialist internationalism. In a 1988 speech at the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Party he said as much: “Life has shown the correctness of the idea laid down in the organization of our great union, that the joining, the unification of efforts permitted every nation and society as a whole to sharply accelerate its movement, to advance to new frontiers of historical progress.” That “idea” was the Leninist nationality policy, and “historical progress” was internationalism. At the same time, however, he admitted that “[r]ecently we have seen with our own eyes how tangled the problems of internationality relations can become.”

Maintaining full commitment to both the Leninist nationality policy and the integrity of the Union was by this time an untenable position. Gorbachev could see only one path for the resolution of the Soviet Union’s nationality problems, and believed that it must come from “within the framework of the existing structure of the union republic to guarantee maximum consideration of the interests of every nation and national group and of the entire society of Soviet peoples. Any other approach,” he argued, “[was] simply impossible.”[23] Tellingly, Gorbachev either couldn’t or didn’t want to see the clear solution to the nationality problem: the dissolution of the Union.

But the Soviet Union’s national groups surely saw it. And the blows came quickly: over the course of 1990-1991, beginning with the Baltics, Soviet republics began asserting their sovereignty within the Union, and later their independence from it. Political elites declared their rights to national independence and the people would follow suit, turning in clear affirmations of independence in overwhelming referendum votes. By the 21 December Alma-Ata Protocol, all of the former Soviet republics had declared themselves independent and affirmed their territorial sovereignty. On 25 December 1991 the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist.

Gone was the Soviet Union, but its impact would persist. The boundaries of the fifteen nations that succeeded the Union were the exact ones drawn by the Union itself, and those have persisted almost exactly to the present.[24] For the Baltic republics, it was a return to the boundaries of the past. For many others, however, like the Central Asian countries, these new nations were entirely creations of the Soviet Union; nothing like them had existed before. Indeed as Lovell notes, the Soviet Union “had been a maker, not breaker, of nations.”[25]

Desiring to transcend nationalism and achieve socialist internationalism, the Soviet Union’s nationality policy, by promoting national and indigenized infrastructure and culture, had in fact laid the groundwork for stronger senses of nationalism that would culminate in the eventual creation of independent nations. As Lovell quips: “The law of unintended consequences has rarely been so richly illustrated as by the history of Soviet nationalities.”[26]

It is hard, however, to categorically label the Soviet Union’s nationality policy as a failure. Sure the Union collapsed and proletarian class consciousness failed to usurp national consciousness, but it is hard to put the blame for this solely on the nationality policy. For one, the original nationality policy was obviously corrupted by the state-sponsored violence along national lines that incredibly existed as a companion to the promotion of national consciousness. Also, given that nationalism’s salience derives from capitalistic inequities, the fact that Soviet governance became an elite oligarchical-gerontocracy rather than a proletarian dictatorship (or even a benevolent vanguard) might have something to do with nationalism’s continued salience. Perhaps had the Soviet Union remained more closely to its founding principles, nationalism might have withered away, a communist utopia might have emerged…

But such considerations are obviously ridiculous. And therein lies the difficulty in regarding the Soviet Union: essentially everything can be labelled a failure—because the Soviet Union collapsed—but at the same time one can say that the practical failures all resulted from perversions of the theoretical concept, which if followed correctly would, scientifically, rationally, logically, lead to communist utopia.

Perhaps then the best thing to do is to look at Soviet nationality policy as emblematic of communism and the Soviet Union itself, and to keep in mind Lovell’s admonition that “to say that [the Soviet Union (or communism, or Soviet nationality policy)] ‘failed’ is meaningless: complex societies are not amenable to one-word assessments.”[27] In any case, Soviet nationality policy was radical, revolutionary, and appears today to be unparalleled in its impact on Eastern Europe, Asia, and the world. Just like the Soviet Union.

Photo Credit:

[1] Vladimir Lenin, “Speech at the All-Russian Navy Congress,” 5 December 1917:

[2] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1.

[3] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 4-8.

[4] Vladimir Lenin, « On the Question of the Nationalities or of Autonomization, » 30 December 1922 :

[5] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 13.

[6] P. Rysakov,  « Practice of Chauvinism and Local Nationalism, » 1930 : (italics mine).

[7] Ibid.; Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 15. For a stark example of the way that the Soviet Union promoted national identity as a way of trying to transcend nationalism and achieve socialist internationalism see Document 5, which concerns the Jewish autonomous oblast of Birobidzhan, which was created by the Soviet Union in 1934. There, in a national oblast, Jews in the Soviet Union became toilers, perhaps becoming Soviets in the process—as illustrated by the image of the Jewish man standing beneath the Soviet sickle.

[8] Stephen Lovell, The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 104.

[9] “Nationalities of the Union and Autonomous Republics of the USSR, According to the Censuses of 1926 and 1937”:

[10] Class handout: “Document 170” – NKVD operational order ‘concerning the punishment of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements,’ 30 July 1937, in The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, eds. J. Arch Getty and Olga V. Naumov, trans. Benjamin Sher (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 473-480.

[11] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 326.

[12] Lavrentii Beria, « From the Report of L.B. Beria to I.V. Stalin, V.M. Molotov, and A.I. Malenkov ,» July 1944 :

[13] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 327.

[14] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 104-105.

[15] Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 312.

[16] Lavrentii Beria, “Report on the Battle with Guerillas in the Ukraine” 11 August 1945:

[17] “Days of Our Lives” (1967):; also see accompanying subject essay: James von Geldern, “Estonia Sings,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History,

[18] E. Bagramov, “Questions of Theory:  The Drawing Together of Nations is a Law of Communist Construction” 22 June 1972:

[19] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 107 (italics mine).

[20] See Imre Nagy, “Radio Announcement” 4 November 1956:; and Sergei Kovalev, “The International Obligations of Socialist Countries” 25 September 1968:

[21] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 111.

[22] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 112.

[23] Mikhail Gorbachev, “Report of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party” 29 June 1988:

[24] The major exception being Crimea, which was gifted to Ukraine in 1954, but then occupied by Russia in the recent years.  See Pravda 27 February 1954, pg. 1:

[25] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 116.

[26] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 116.

[27] Lovell, The Soviet Union, 142 (parenthetical implication mine).

Matthew Gauthier is a junior majoring in History at Miami.  This essay was his final paper for HST 375, A History of the Soviet Union.

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