The Fifth Line

5 October 2017, 10:28

Whoever lived in the Soviet Union knows which information was hidden in the section of the passport mentioned in the title. Anyone who had the "wrong" nationality indicated in their identity document suffered from anti-Semitism on the everyday and state level. Although it is true that during the Brezhnev era, when the Kremlin fell into economic dependence on the West, Jews gained a rather specific superiority over all other Soviet citizens: the right to emigrate to Israel for family reunification.


Learning Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem My Soviet Passport at school, I could not understand why the poet talked about his "red-skinned passport": the passport issued to me at the time was green. I eventually learned that Mayakovsky was talking about the passport that was issued to citizens only for crossing the international border. Internal passports came about after his death. I also could not understand why the line with the designation of nationality was called the fifth. After all, information about ethnicity was contained in the fourth line of passports, immediately after surname, name and, according to the Russian custom, patronymic. Eventually I learned that after the Bolsheviks came to power, nationality was indicated after social background in all forms, that is, it was in fifth place.

The highest body of Soviet power, the five-person political bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party formed in 1919, had a peculiar ethnic composition: Russian with carefully concealed information about the Jewish origin of his maternal line (Lenin), Ukrainian (Krestynskyi), Georgian (Stalin) and two Jews (Kamenev and Trotsky). Taking into account the widespread everyday anti-Semitism in society, Bolshevik leaders resorted to personnel policies that discriminated against persons with the "wrong" nationality indicated in the documents.

Today we hear some lamenting "Why don't our passports denote nationality? I'm proud of being born Ukrainian, so I demand that this information be in the passport!" It must be understood, however, that internal passports were a kind of millstone that the Soviet government put around citizens' necks. They, like many other day-to-day realities of our lives and mentality, remain a relic of the previous era. Consequently, it is worth looking at the national policy of the Soviet Communists that was born in Leninist times and persisted until the collapse of the USSR.

The titular nation and "Big Brother"

"Leninist national policy", which after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party began to be regarded as the apex of liberalism against the background of the Stalinist deportations of many nations, was made up of three components:

● Providing the ethnos that made up a majority in each administrative-territorial division the rights and benefits of a titular nation

● Promoting the culture of such titular nations, as well as the career advancement of its representatives through the levels of the Communist Party and Soviet power vertical

● Recording nationality in forms and identity documents (the "fifth line")

RELATED ARTICLE: Vladimir Lenin: A historian looks at the crucial cult of the Soviet Union

The concept of a titular nation was introduced in the late nineteenth century by the French writer Maurice Barrès and was subsequently reflected in constitutional law. This name was given to the part of the population whose nationality determined the name of the state. However, in the Soviet Union, the notion of "titular nation" acquired a different meaning. To show themselves as supporters of the most radical solution to the nationalities question, Bolshevik leaders declared all the ethnic groups that constituted the majority of the population in each administrative-territorial unit to be titular nations.

This revolutionary innovation was to have an impressive effect on the population of a country that half consisted of representatives of the dominant nation and half of disenfranchised minorities. In reality, everything boiled down to the establishment of a hierarchy of ethnic groups, defined by political and administrative divisions. At the top of the hierarchy, as expected, were the Russians. They were unofficially considered as the titular nation of the entire union. Those after whom the union republics were named were considered to be titular nations of the second tier, to autonomous republics – the third tier, to national regions – the fourth tier and to national districts – the fifth tier. Representatives of titular nations living outside their administrative units or people of nationalities who did not have such units in the USSR were considered to be national minorities.

The presence of many titular nations in no way undermined the privileged position of Russians, who did not consider themselves a national minority in any region. The Kremlin took care first of all of Russian national interests. This was evidenced by the Soviet government of Ukraine's unsuccessful attempts to increase the territory of the republic at the expense of borderlands in the Russian Federation inhabited predominantly by the Ukrainian population. At the same time, the Russian Federation was not allowed to develop Soviet and Party infrastructure in Moscow, similar to what existed in union republics, that would compete with the all-Union centre. The Russian Soviet hierarchy only controlled secondary facilities, and there was no Communist Party hierarchy in Russia proper – all the regional party committees were directly subordinated to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

According to the Constitution, the titular nations of union republics had strong state rights, up to the right of withdrawing from the Union and forming an independent state. However, in the structure of the USSR, the principle of politicising ethnicity was combined with the principle of "democratic centralism", according to which the lower tiers of any organisational structure were always entirely subordinated to higher ones. Therefore, the position of titular nations in the Soviet political system cannot be interpreted in isolation from the political reality that was not described by the Constitution. The cumulative effect of combining the principles of "democratic centralism" and the politicisation of ethnicity transformed the Soviet Union from a federation of equal republics into an imperial country with the highest degree of centralised power. The Kremlin did not depend either on the party, which it had subjugated to itself, or on a society that had only the right to elect "Communist and non-aligned" candidates recommended by Party committees to Soviet bodies of power.

RELATED ARTICLE: The purpose of decommunization in urban space in Ukraine

The concept of a titular nation mounted into the structure of the Soviet Union foresaw the implementation of a campaign of korenisation [also "korenizatsiya", "nativisation", "indigenisation", literally "putting down roots"], which gave each majority community the opportunity to develop within its own administrative-territorial unit. It must be admitted that the korenisation campaign contributed to the development of the culture of titular nations, although the state primarily aimed to enroot its own power. This approach vindicated itself. Soviet power, which had to be established three times in Ukraine between 1917 and 1919, lost its occupational character precisely because it managed to find common ground with local political forces, even before the 12th Party Congress proclaimed an official focus on korenisation (in particular, Ukrainisation) immediately after the formation of the USSR.


Soviet Ukrainisation and the Ukrainisation of the national governments between 1917 and 1919 had a common denominator: derusification. Despite the identical name, these campaigns were quite different. After all, the main purpose of Soviet korenisation in Ukraine was to force "local people" (in the words of Joseph Stalin) to serve the Kremlin faithfully and loyally. For decades, Soviet Russia did not dare to appoint a "local man" to the highest position in Ukraine, General (First) Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine: Oleksiy Kyrychenko, a Ukrainian, occupied the post only in the Khrushchev era.

At the same time, Soviet Ukrainisation provided a huge boost to Ukrainian culture. Feeling like not a titular ethnic group, but a real nation in the European sense of the word, Ukrainians sought to replace their fake constitutional statehood with a real one. In February 1931, a statement signed by some delegates and guests at the 12th All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets – factory workers in Kharkiv – was received by the Presidium. The signatories were indignant that the budget of Ukraine, with its population of 30 million, was no bigger than that of the 5 million strong Moscow Region. They pointed to the terrible state of the countryside ("barefoot, naked, hungry, humiliated, suppressed, downtrodden and robbed worse than they were robbed by the tsarist government – a hundred times worse than the greediest capitalist country robs its colonies"). The conclusion was as follows: "It is necessary to build Ukrainian Soviet statehood, because the time has come. The population has grown up: it is not saying much about broken fences or seized apartments anymore, but it is speaking about a State. Ukrainian Soviet statehood needs to be built, because it has only just begun, and in our country so far there has only been talk of language and culture, although this is also an element of statehood."

RELATED ARTICLE: Why the Bolsheviks needed a Global Soviet Empire and what they did to accomplish it

The Kremlin responded to such demands with repression. People who embodied the highest level of national culture found themselves in the epicentre. They were crushed or subdued in horrible ways. By decree of the Central Committee of the Communist Party "On Grain Purchases in Ukraine, the North Caucasus and the Western Region", the Ukrainisation campaign was stopped everywhere outside Ukraine on December 14, 1932. It continued In Ukraine itself, but the authorities began to clearly distinguish between Bolshevik and the Ukrainisation pursued by the Symon Petliura-inspired concept. In the eyes of the Bolsheviks, their version of Ukrainisation entrenched a political regime, whereas its "Petliurite" equivalent was regarded as an undesirable side effect that contributed to national enthusiasm, in other words, acting against the intentions of the regime to turn a nation into an ethnic group.

Genocide in an embroidered shirt

The central Soviet government hid its repressive actions behind a mask of underlined Ukrainophilia. Pavlo Postyshev, Stalin's governor in the Ukrainian SSR, exterminated the national intelligentsia while wearing vyshyvankas, traditional embroidered shirts. When local apparatchiks understood the 1932-1933 repressions as the end of the Ukrainisation campaign, he immediately stopped their attempts to limit the rights of the titular nation in the Soviet sense of the term. Another demonstration of hypocritical Ukrainophilia was the 1934 transfer of republican authorities from Kharkiv to the national capital of the Ukrainian people, Kyiv. After the Holodomor, the Soviet authorities obtained space for the demonstration of liberalism in ethnic issues. In 1936, pronouncedly Ukrainian institutes for Ukrainian history, the history of Ukrainian folklore, and Ukrainian literature were created at the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR.

The authorities presented themselves as internationalists. Yet they always distinguished citizens on the basis of their ethnic origin. This was not significant in itself, as in the case of the Jews, but gained significance when coupled with the fact that a given person belonged to the titular nation. Persecuted in Ukraine for "bourgeois nationalism", Ukrainians often escaped to the Russian Federation. There they ceased to be representatives of the titular nation, meaning they lost their political status. Only in that position they were no longer dangerous to the Soviet authorities.

The state tried to transform the country's population into an atomised mass by eliminating horizontal ties in society. But the citizens of the Ukrainian SSR and USSR perceived themselves as not a faceless ethnos, but a state-forming nation. The social explosion of the first half of the 1930s was a natural protest from villagers against collectivisation that epitomised communisation, but the slogans of the Ukrainian Revolution could be heard there constantly. In 1931-1932, a new social explosion was brewing, which was immeasurably more dangerous for the authorities, as a famine had already started in the country, most acutely in the Ukrainian SSR. Stalin prevented upheaval by creating a situation of absolute starvation. At the same time, he organised a terrible famine in the North Caucasus, where almost half of the districts had been Ukrainised. It was thus dictated to Ukrainians of the North Caucasus, who sought to obtain titular nation rights by reuniting with the Ukrainian SSR, that they should be Russian.

RELATED ARTICLE: Love, pride and class prejudice: The authors, the readers and the anti-bourgeois persecutors of romance novels in the 1920s Ukraine

After the introduction of internal passports in December 1932, the Soviet authorities launched a campaign against "personal opinions" when determining the nationality of a citizen. When applying for a passport, it was necessary to prove the real nationality of parents using documents. From 1937, employees of institutions that recorded civil status were obliged to note the parents' nationalities in birth certificates. On April 2, 1938, the Central Police Department of the NKVD issued the following order: "When issuing passports to persons born to parents of different nationalities, the nationality field should not be filled in according to what the applicant says, rather the nationality of the parents should be indicated, not specifying the nationality of the passport holder".

Persons who gave false information about their nationality were exposed to great troubles. The report "On the progress of verifying party documents in the Mykolayiv City Party Organization as of August 10, 1935", reads about "Volodymyr Kaminskyi, head of the workshop group at Plant 61. He is accused of concealing his nationality, He is a Pole, but wrote that he is a Ukrainian".

The fruits of Leninist policy

What is left of "Leninist national policy" now? Not as little as it may seem at first glance. The process of forming a civil society in post-Soviet countries began from scratch after they gained independence. Civil society is, when looked at in another dimension, a political nation which unites the holders of passports that say "citizen of Ukraine" of any ethnic origin. In Soviet times, a political nation could not be formed from the conglomerate of titular nations on different levels, either on a countrywide scale or inside the rather arbitrary borders of union republics. It is also clear that after the collapse of the USSR, many Russians in Ukraine habitually feel like a titular nation of the first tier, which fuels inconveniences and complications. Instead, a significant number of Ukrainians once affected by homo soveticus syndrome have started to see themselves as a titular nation of the first tier, and Russians as a nation of the second tier.

Putin's practice of protecting his "compatriots" and the ultra-right nationalism of some Ukrainian activists form an explosive mix that impedes the formation of a Ukrainian political nation and promotes the formation of a strategic enemy's fifth column in Ukraine. Consequently, we must understand the danger of "Leninist national policy" not only as a historical phenomenon, but also as a factor affecting the present.

Translated by Anna Korbut

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

This is Articte sidebar