Nationality policy

Nationality policy. A government’s treatment of nationalities in a multiethnic state. Soviet nationality policy determined Ukraine’s national development and defined its relationship with the all-Union center in Moscow. The goal of the policy was to obliterate Ukrainian national identity and to subordinate Ukrainian to Russian interests.

The nationality policy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was referred to as the ‘Leninist policy on the national question.’ As recently as 1986 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Program claimed that ‘the nationalities question, which was inherited from the past, has been successfully resolved in the Soviet Union,’ implying that interethnic harmony and equality had been achieved, and that national allegiance had been subordinated to communist internationalism. In fact the Leninist approach was a strategy to suppress national consciousness. It has failed not only to eradicate national distinctions but even to overcome ethnic conflict.

Impressed by the revolutions of 1848 (see, e.g., the Revolution of 1848–9 in the Habsburg monarchy), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels realized the value of harnessing the growing aspirations of national groups in support of the proletarian socialist revolution. They advocated the ‘self-determination’ of nations but did not explain what would happen to nations after the revolution. Nor did they treat all nations as equals; nonhistoric nations, according to them, had no future. For Engels the question of national independence for the Ruthenians (Ukrainians) and other peoples was absurd.

Vladimir Lenin inherited the Marxian conception of national consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the economic processes associated with the bourgeois period in history and as a propellant for the communist revolution. In addition he inherited a fundamental ambivalence toward nationalism: he spoke of it as secondary to the class struggle but treated it as a primary political force.

Lenin had little appreciation of the nationalism of the dominant nationality (the Russians), although from time to time he inveighed against its ‘great-nation chauvinism.’ He saw nationalism mainly as a response to prejudice and oppression. Once these were lifted, nationalism would disappear. Meanwhile it could be used to promote the revolution. His strategy for dealing with nationalism can be summarized in three rules: (1) before taking power, promise ethnic minorities self-determination and equality; (2) on assuming power, terminate the prospect of self-determination altogether and assimilate the minorities; and (3) the Party must be organizationally centralized and ethnically undifferentiated. This approach may appear opportunistic, but it is consistent with Lenin’s understanding of nationalism.

Bolshevik promises of self-determination and the right of secession for the various nationalities of the Russian Empire were critical to the outcome of the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War (including the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917–21). But their implementation was conditional: if the interests of the proletarian revolution and the socialist state demanded it, self-determination for the national minorities would have to be set aside by the Party. Instead of appealing to the principle of voluntary association the Bolsheviks turned to military force to reassemble the Russian Empire, which they had sworn to dismantle. Having established their control of the former Russian Empire, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks encouraged the ‘flourishing’ of national cultures, which they expected would then ‘draw together.’ It was assumed that important components of nationhood, such as language and statehood, were mere ‘forms’ that could be separated from the national content and filled with international and communist content. In 1925 Joseph Stalin introduced the concept ‘national in form, socialist in content,’ which has served as the cornerstone of Soviet cultural policy. Although equality of nationalities was enshrined in the USSR Constitution of 1936, there was never any equality in real life. By its discriminatory nationality policy the Party imposed on Ukrainians and Belarusians the status of ‘younger brothers’ to the dominant Russians and promoted the assimilation of the various nationalities into the Russian culture.

In spite of considering language to be national in form, Joseph Stalin and his successors gradually reduced the language rights of national minorities in the Soviet Union. Following the brief period of indigenization or nativization of cadres and communications in the republics (including the process of Ukrainization in Soviet Ukraine), the non-Russian languages were restricted first to their own territories. Then, in 1938, Russian was made a compulsory subject in the schools of the national republics. In 1958 Nikita Khrushchev permitted parents to decide whether their children would be instructed in their native language or in Russian. In Leonid Brezhnev’s Constitution of 1977 the right to education in one’s native language was reduced to a mere ‘opportunity.’ As a practical consequence of this policy the percentage of Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine claiming the Ukrainian language as their native language declined from 93.5 in 1959 to 89.1 in 1979 and 87.7 in 1989, whereas the use of Russian as the second language increased from 35.8 in 1970 to 51.8 percent in 1979. In 1988 one-half of Soviet Ukraine’s schoolchildren were being taught in Russian. Increasing limitations on non-Russian languages resulted in a clear trend toward monolingualism.

The selection of the leadership of the national republics was left neither to chance nor to history. Appreciating the strategic value of nationalized cadres, Vladimir Lenin believed that a national elite was essential to bring the masses of a given nationality into the socialist society, but that its power should be entirely cosmetic. Accordingly, in the 1920s and early 1930s the Party and government bureaucracy of the non-Russian republics was subjected to indigenization. In Ukraine the leading proponents of this policy (see Ukrainization) were Oleksander Shumsky, Mykola Khvylovy, and Mykola Skrypnyk. Beginning in 1928, however, Joseph Stalin reversed the policy and dispatched first Lazar Kaganovich, then Pavel Postyshev, and finally Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine to destroy its national cadres. While all Union republics were affected, Ukraine was treated with special severity: its intellectual and cultural elite was wiped out in the terror, and its political cadres were decimated in the purges. Stalin’s successors continued to distrust the native leadership of the national republics. To keep the native cadres under surveillance the second secretary (in charge of cadres) in each republic was usually Russian. Members of national minorities in the armed forces were posted outside their homelands. The command of security and military formations was entrusted mostly to Russians. The 1961 CPSU Program endorsed the principle of ‘exchange of cadres’ between republics, thus discarding the façade of national leadership. In practice this exchange of administrative personnel was one-directional, and any murmur against its pro-Russian bias was treated as treasonous. From time to time the native cadres of the Communist Party and state were purged for nationalism. In spite of these measures republic leaders, such as Petro Shelest, occasionally spoke up in defense of their native culture and language.

To obliterate national distinctions and create a homogeneous Soviet people the authorities manipulated national borders and resettled ethnic groups. Ethnically related peoples were split into separate nationalities. Boundaries of national republics were drawn to exclude significant irredenta as well as to include unrelated ethnic groups. Indigenes were deported, sometimes en masse (eg, the Volga Germans of the Volga German ASSR, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingushi, Balkars, and Karachai), and nonindigenes, especially Russians, settled on their territories. According to Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin would have deported the entire population of Ukraine during the Second World War had he had enough boxcars. The so-called sovereign republics did not control their own immigration policies.

Given Vladimir Lenin’s flexibility and ambiguity on the issue, his successors might have pursued a subtle nationality policy varied in tempo and attuned to the state’s needs. This was not the case. Except for the 1920s, when ‘great-nation chauvinism’ (ie, Russian nationalism) was identified as the chief danger, ‘local nationalism’ was held up as the gravest threat to the Soviet state. While pride and even interest in non-Russian traditions or history was branded as nationalism, the Great Russians were glorified for staging the Revolution of 1917, building the USSR, and winning the war against Adolf Hitler. From the 1960s there was wide discussion on the ‘growing together’ (sblizhenie) and ‘fusion’ (sliianie) of nationalities and the development of a Soviet people. The Russian language was singled out as the medium of inter-national communication and the key to scientific knowledge and higher culture. Rapid Russification was thus the order of the day under Nikita Khrushchev and, after a brief respite, under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors.

The failure of the Leninist nationality policy in the Soviet Union was not acknowledged officially until 1989. The policy had neither eradicated national distinctions nor established equality (political, economic, or social) or harmony among the nationalities of the USSR. In fact it had legitimized national identity by emphasizing language, symbols of statehood, borders, and institutions and had exacerbated ethnic resentments and hostilities by discriminating against the non-Russian nations and suppressing them. The various nationalities of the Union and their supreme soviets came to life in the wake of the 1989–90 elections, demanding sovereignty and then secession from the USSR. Adhering to the traditional centralist policy of the CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev offered the republics a new deal but resorted to small concessions to preserve the Union and the dominant position of the Russians. His efforts were superseded by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

Smal-Stocki, R. The Nationality Problem of the Soviet Union and Russian Communist Imperialism (Milwaukee 1952)
Dzyuba, I. Internationalism or Russification?: A Study of the Soviet Nationalities Problem (London 1968)
Connor, W. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy (Princeton 1984)
Krawchenko, B. Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth-Century Ukraine (London 1985)

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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