Tuesday, February 7
Укр Eng
Log In Register
5 February, 2016  ▪  Stanislav Kulchytsky

Illusion of a Federation

Russia broke up in 1917, but the Bolsheviks intended to restore the empire – as a springboard to create a "Global Soviet Republic"

Speaking to navy sailors in December 1917, Lenin said, "We are told that Russia will disintegrate and fall apart into separate republics, but we have nothing to be afraid of. No matter how many independent republics there are, we will not fear. For us, the location of the state border is not important, rather the preservation of the alliance between the workers of all nations for the fight against the bourgeoisie of any other nations." Establishing Soviet power in the national regions, the Bolshevik leaders were even prepared to give them the status of independent states. Although this did not radically change the situation, as every Soviet state was subordinated to the centre through the Party. Lenin knew that his strategy was more effective than the White generals' straightforward strong-arm tactics.

The Union, formal and informal

Immediately after the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, the former Russian Empire that they had seized was a country without a name. It consisted of nine formally independent states: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Far Eastern Republic, Bukhara and Khorezm, as well as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, united as the Transcaucasian Federation. This conglomeration was connected with Moscow in two ways: 1) by the Party – through the committees of the rigidly centralised Bolshevik Party, 2) by the Soviet councils – security and economic structures on the periphery were directly controlled by the Kremlin.

Richard Pipes wrote the following about the tremendous possibilities of the Soviet political system's dual structure in creating ostensibly independent nation states that were fully dependent on the Kremlin: "Territories were reconquered and reintroduced into a new Soviet empire. They were given the functions of statehood, provided that their institutions were also controlled by the Communist Party. As for the party, Lenin had absolutely no intention of splitting it up on a national basis. The result was federalism with all the attributes of statehood, supposedly capable of meeting the basic requirements of the non-Russian population, but which concealed a rigidly centralised dictatorship with its centre in Moscow."

RELATED ARTICLE: Why Ukrainian independece was an imperative

Pipes concluded that it was a "fiction of statehood", as he considered the soviet councils and party committees to be two separate political forces. But in reality, these two political forces did not exist. In Lenin's framework, the soviets were the part of the Bolshevik Party that disposed of full executive powers. The dictatorship was exercised by the Politburo of the Party's Central Committee, but the Council of People's Commissars stood at the top of the Soviet power vertical. Incidentally, it was headed by Lenin himself.

This meant that the soviets in the national republics were not fictitious, but a source of real power, controlled, of course, by the Central Committee. Nevertheless, life in the republics was not easy for the leaders of the centralised and disciplined party: they had to make sure they did not lose control of the national soviets and that the local branches of the Party maintained their loyalty to the centre. The party chiefs paid particular attention to Ukraine – the largest Soviet Republic by human and material resources.

Moscow saw only one way of turning a country without a name into a country with one: "absorbing" the independent republics into the borders of the Russian Federation, i.e. depriving them of national statehood. Such an attempt was made in autumn 1922, in the absence of Lenin, who was then hit by the first bout of his terminal sickness. The author of the "autonomisation" plan is considered to be the RSFSR People's Commissar for Nationalities and General Secretary of the Party – Joseph Stalin. However, Lenin described it as a "fundamentally wrong and untimely venture" in a letter on December 30, 1922. The provincial leaders were against autonomisation too, but not because they wanted to preserve the non-existent sovereignty of their independent Soviet republics. No wonder Lenin ironically called them the "independents", since he realised that they simply did not want their status to be lowered. He was worried about the long-term implications of "the notorious issue of autonomy, which, it appears, is officially called the issue of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics". Since the question of establishing a single centralised state had already arisen, he offered his own plan for solving the problem and achieved its adoption. Analysing it today, we understand, first of all, the ingenuity, flexibility and treachery of Leninist national policy and, secondly, the mechanism of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1990-1991.

The conversion of independent republics into autonomous republics of the RSFSR de facto revived a "single and indivisible" Russia. The only difference was that some provinces were autonomous republics. However, there was a fundamental ambiguity for Ukraine under these conditions: would it become part of Russia as a single autonomous region not divided into provinces, or would the already announced approach for administrative-territorial division be respected, the republic vanishing from the map altogether. Soviet Russia found itself face to face with the ghost of the liberation movement: peoples who had gone through the furnace of national revolutions would sooner or later rise in defence of their gained and then lost rights of statehood.

That is why Lenin proposed to create a second-level federation, which would include "together and on an equal footing" the Russian and Transcaucasian Federations, as well as Ukraine and Belarus. This meant that the constitutional sovereignty enjoyed by the independent republics would remain in the newly minted Soviet Republics. Obviously, there could be no real sovereignty with the party dictatorship in place – it does not matter if a republic was independent or became Soviet.

When the Soviet Union was formed, a separate article in national constitutions declared the right to freely leave the union state. The Kremlin saw no danger in this, and it remained a part of all Soviet constitutions, including the 1977 Constitution of the USSR. However, this article took on real meaning in the late 1980s, when confrontation began between the Union and republican centres.

The formation of the USSR put the question of finding a centre for the union on the agenda. No new state arose in December 1922 – it was merely a ceremonial event, described in advance by the rules of the Central Committee's Organising Bureau. New power centres were not formed, rather the names of existing ones were changed: the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party became the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, the RSFSR Council of People's Commissars turned into the USSR Council of People's Commissars. It is clear that the Bolshevik leaders did not want to create yet another seat of power in Soviet Russia, so they rejected the idea of uniting Russian party committees into a republican party organisation and simply placed them directly under the union centre. An RSFSR Council of People's Commissars nevertheless emerged, but it only had control over minor matters. Therefore, the formal status of Russia as a union republic was lower than the other republics.

RELATED ARTICLE:The Rise and Fall of Russian Wannbes

The principle of "democratic centralism" on which the existing organisations were built ensured reliable control for the centre over daily life across the huge country, including the national republics. However, it was necessary to convince non-Russian residents, who felt like second-class citizens in pre-revolutionary Russia, that the Soviet regime would promote the development of their culture and language. In December 1919, Lenin prepared a resolution entitled "On Soviet Power in Ukraine", which was adopted by the 8th All-Russian Party Conference resolution. It stated that "Members of the Russian Communist Party in Ukraine should ensure the right of the working masses to study and speak in their native language in all Soviet institutions, strongly opposing attempts to artificially push the Ukrainian language into the background by trying, on the contrary, to make the Ukrainian language an instrument of communist education for the working masses. Measures should be taken immediately to make sure there is a sufficient number of employees who speak Ukrainian in all Soviet institutions, and that all employees are able to continue speaking the Ukrainian language".

In October 1920, Stalin developed this thesis in his article "The Policy of the Soviet Government Regarding the National Question in Russia". In order to strengthen Soviet power in the national regions, he considered it necessary for all party and government institutions, educational and cultural establishments, and media to function in the language of the local people. Combining the national republics and Central Russia "in one state body" would be, in his opinion, "impossible without the widespread organisation of local schools, as well as the creation of courts, administrations, government authorities and so on with people who know the language and way of life of the population".

The policy articulated by party leaders in 1919-1920 did not yet have a name. One first appeared at the first Bolshevik Party Conference after the formation of the Soviet Union: korenizatsiya.


The goal of this policy was to involve the non-Russian population of the USSR in the building of communism. Meaning "nativisation" or "indigenisation", its literal translation – "putting down roots" – betrays the true intent: to embed the Communist Party in the republics as a carrier of dictatorial power, constructing a power structure of interrelated verticals: Party, State Security, soviets. Alongside korenizatsiya, other terms were derived from the name of the titular nation in each national republic or region (e.g. "Ukrainisation").

In the Soviet Union, the opposition between"titular nation” and “national minority" took on a qualitatively different meaning. Leninist national policy, as already stated, used the dual structure of Soviet power to transform the national liberation movements of oppressed peoples from an enemy to an ally of the Bolsheviks. For this purpose, Communist leaders renounced provincial divisions and adopted the principle of politicising ethnicity as the basis of their administrative division. National administrative units were created in all non-Russian provinces. They were given, apart from the district level, the name of the nationality that was in the majority there. Wanting to look like supporters of the most radical solution to the national question, Bolshevik leaders declared all such majority ethnic groups to be titular nations.

As a result, a hierarchy arose that was defined by the political and territorial administrative division. The Russians were at the top by default. To hide the key role of Russians in the creation of the multinational Soviet state, the name of this state was devoid of any indications of ethnicity (as was the name of the state party that served as its supporting structure). Second level titular nations created Soviet republics, the third – autonomous republics, the fourth – national regions and the fifth – national districts. Ukrainians were the titular nation within the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, whereas Moldovans held this position in the Moldavian Autonomous Republic that was part of the UkSSR. People of one nationality were considered representatives of the titular nation within the borders of their administrative units, but representatives of national minorities outside them. The status of Russians in Ukraine was ambiguous. Officially, they were considered a national minority in the republic and the titular nation within the borders of their national districts. Unofficially, Bolshevik leaders positioned Russians as the titular nation of the entire Union. As a result, Russians had a specific view of their own national status: they did not consider themselves a minority in any of the national republics. Party leaders encouraged this belief, in so far as it reduced the danger of liberation movements springing up in the national republics by lowering the proportion of the titular nation in the population and increasing the share of Russians.

When Russians were treated as a national minority in the national republics, this was unusual for them and unpleasant for many. Many Russians asked themselves a question that was first formulated before the revolution: does the nation that considers itself titular in Ukraine exist at all? Is there a separate Ukrainian language? Here is a letter, dated May 7, 1926, from Maxim Gorky to Oleksa Slisarenko, director of the Ukrainian State Publishing House, with a protest against the abridgement of his novel The Mother in its Ukrainian language edition. The writer and democrat expressed himself so frankly that it is worth quoting his arguments in full: "I think that a translation of this story into the Ukrainian dialect is not necessary either. I am very surprised by the fact that people with the same goal ahead of them do not only claim there is a difference between the dialects – trying to make a dialect into a 'language' – but also oppress the Great Russians who have found themselves a minority in the area of this dialect."

Recognition of titular rights for all ethnicities and the korenizatsiya campaign were not popular among the Russian intelligentsia. With great persistence, which, however, did not develop into political opposition, the Russian intellectual elite protested against the recognition of Ukrainians and Belarusians as individual nations. The presence of Ukrainian national statehood, no matter how ephemeral, returned to Ukrainians their own history, which had been usurped by the imperial nation.

RELATED ARTICLE: Former UPA fighter shares his story of struggle

But the Bolshevik leaders emphasised their internationalism and in the 1920s called Great Russian chauvinism the main danger for Party and state. In 1921, the five-person Politburo, in which all political power was concentrated, included only one Russian – Lenin. Does this mean that the Russian, and from 1923 Union, centre implemented its national policy from a non-national platform? It is appropriate to take a close look at the debate on national issues in the post-Soviet Russian Federation, which inherited its ethno-territorial division from the Soviet Union, but was freed of Communist Party dictatorship.

After the collapse of the USSR, the autonomous republics of Russia essentially obtained a national and state status that they had never had before. Pointing out the official status of national minorities and the lack of something similar for Russians, some politicians and political scientists proposed equalising their status. This could have been achieved either by leaving the autonomous republics responsible for nothing but cultural and language issues, or by creating a Russian republic within the federation. As is well known, Vladimir Putin's government chose the path of cutting the autonomous republics' powers.

The leaders of the Soviet Communist Party in its various guises were not faced with this dilemma, as their power structures were derived from the dictatorship of the party. Therefore, the Bolsheviks could claim to be internationalists. They branded the nationalism of oppressed nations "bourgeois" and even publicly talked about the danger of the Great Russian chauvinism that former bourgeois professionals, now Soviet officials, were imbued with. Nevertheless, Communist Party leaders in fact limited the powers of union and autonomous republics to matters of language and culture from the very beginning. Whenever functionaries or the national intelligentsia went beyond what was permitted, the "competent authorities" resorted to repression. Imperial ideology was implanted into all the chains of command that controlled non-sovereign populations.

The Russian people was also deprived of sovereignty, but was seen by the Kremlin to be the titular nation of the entire union, i.e. the social base for the communist state.

Petliuran vs Communist Ukrainisation

As Soviet power took root in the national republics and regions, the campaign of korenizatsiya was scaled back, as it was starting to threaten the government. From the start, the Bolsheviks knew that this policy did not only have a positive side (embedding Soviet power), but also a negative one (the rise of national consciousness, which threatened an increase in separatist sentiment). At the beginning of June 1923, so almost immediately after the focus on korenizatsiya was proclaimed at the 12th Bolshevik Party Congress, secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee Emanuel Kviring bluntly referred to the danger of communist Ukrainisation growing into its Petliuran equivalent. However, only 10 years later Ukrainisation was officially divided into Bolshevik and Petliuran variants in the Communist Party resolution "On grain requisitions in Ukraine, North Caucasus and the Western Region" dated December 14, 1932. The Ukrainian Bolshevik Party and Council of People's Commissars were obliged by this resolution to ensure "systematic party management and supervision of the Ukrainisation process". This required, according to the authors of the resolution – Stalin and Kaganovich – "the removal of Petliuran and other bourgeois nationalist elements from party and soviet organisations". A campaign was launched to combat the work of Education Commissar and leader of the Ukrainisation effort Mykola Skrypnyk, which in 1933 drew tens of thousands of representatives of the Ukrainian national intelligentsia into its maelstrom. A remark was made to the North Caucasian Regional Committee and Regional Executive Committee that the "frivolous and un-Bolshevik 'Ukrainisation', not resulting from the cultural interests of the population, of almost half of the districts in the North Caucasus, due to a complete lack of control over Ukrainisation of schools and the press on behalf of regional authorities has given a legal form for enemies of Soviet power to organise resistance to the activities of the Soviet government with kulaks, officers and re-emigrants – Cossacks, participants in the Kuban People's Republic and so on".

It was required to "immediately switch the paperwork of Soviet and cooperative authorities in 'Ukrainised' districts of the North Caucasus, as well as all published newspapers and magazines, from Ukrainian into the Russian language, as it is more understandable for people in the Kuban region, and prepare for Russian-language instruction in schools by the autumn".

At the time of Lenin, Great Russian chauvinism was seen as the main threat to the national question. However, during the acute crisis of 1932-1933, party leaders started to see nationalism as the main danger, providing it with a class-based definition – "bourgeois". At a ceremonial meeting of senior party and state leaders at the Kremlin on May 2, 1933, Stalin stood on his chair (there were no microphones then) and pronounced a toast that included the following sentence: "The Russians are the main nationality in the world, the first to raise the banner of the Soviets against the whole world".

The third component of the politicisation of ethnicity (alongside the concept of the "titular nation" and the korenizatsiya campaign) was the legal recording of a person's nationality by the state (the "fifth box" on Soviet forms). In passports, which were introduced from 1933 for the population of cities and new buildings, this information was moved to fourth place, right after the surname, name and patronymic. To keep society under tight control, the state had to know two basic characteristics of each citizen: social background and nationality. Distinguishing citizens on grounds of nationality was not important in itself, but in order to establish their belonging to a titular nation. Ukrainians persecuted in Ukraine for "bourgeois nationalism" frequently fled to Russia, where they stopped being representatives of the titular nation, thus losing their political status.

The communist state was able to eliminate the horizontal links between people, deeply penetrate three verticals of power into society and prevent the emergence of any uncontrolled organisations. With millions of eyes and ears in the community, it knew about the real attitudes of citizens and responded to them by creating fictitious organisations with dissidents who were repressed. Ukrainians, however, perceived themselves as a nation even without organisational ties and demonstrated a particular hostility to socio-economic transformations of a communist nature. The social explosion in the first half of 1930, which forced Stalin to put collectivisation on hold for six months, was spontaneous, but in Ukraine it was constantly accompanied by the slogans of the 1917-20 national revolution. A new social explosion in the republic, which was brewing in 1931-1932 against the backdrop of famine across the Soviet Union, was neutralised by the creation of a state of absolute starvation – the Holodomor.

The central government tried to mask its repressive actions against the Ukrainian people with pronounced Ukrainophilia. A demonstration of this was the transfer of republican authorities from Kharkiv to the national capital – Kyiv – following the Holodomor.

Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter and The Ukrainian Week on Facebook

Related publications:

Copyright © Ukrainian Week LLC. All rights reserved.
Reprint or other commercial use of the site materials is allowed only with the editorial board permission.
Legal disclaimer Accessibility Privacy policy Terms of use Contact us