Russian Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1991

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 21 Pages

History - Asia



The Soviet Union, by the time of its creation, was the first modern state that had to confront the rising issue of nationalism. With a progressive nationality policy, it systematically promoted the national consciousness of its ethnic minorities and established for them institutional forms comparable of a modern state. In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks, seeking to defuse national sentiment, created hundreds of national territories. They trained new national leaders, established national languages, and financed national cultural products. This was a massive historical experiment in governing a multiethnic state. Later under Stalin, these policies had to be revised to comply with emerging domestic and international problems, which resulted from those once progressive policies.

This paper will present the issue of Russian nationalism and nationality policy in the Soviet Union. The analysis will be based on six different monographs dealing with the issue at different periods of Soviet history. Each has a different approach and at times a different thesis on Russian nationalism or an interpretation of the political events accompanying the Soviet nationality policy.

First, on the following pages, I will give a brief summary of the six books discussed in this paper. Then, I will tell the main thesis of each book and underlie it by the author’s arguments. In the conclusion, I will compare the book’s arguments in a historiographical manner and see where similarities between the arguments exist, where the books complement each other and at which points they disagree with each other. At the end, I will try to give a comprehensive overview of the issue discussed, due to the frame and limited space of this paper.

The first book by Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire[1] analyzes Tsarist Russia during the First World War. A series of military setbacks in 1915 instigated the Russian practice of identifying scapegoats and “enemy aliens”. Especially on the Russian Western front and in the Caucasus, that was entirely inhabited by non-Russians. The regime became increasingly worried about the loyalty of half of the population and considered it a threat to the war effort. Conservative and nationalist elements in the Empire, supported by local administrators, notably blamed Germans and Jews as enemy aliens and planned to dispossess them of their economic wealth and political status. The war became an excuse for ethnic reprisal against minorities and for “nationalizing the empire”. A path taken and an exemplary policy that the Bolsheviks inherited.

The second book by Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union[2] deals with the Bolshevik regime during the revolution and the civil war until the formal constitution of the Soviet Union and the implementation of the its nationality policy. The book describes the military and political unification efforts (conquest) of the newly established regime. Pipes analyzes the difficulties that the regime endured, in bringing back the peripheral territories, which during the revolution and civil war had already gained autonomy or even had declared independence. By deploying the traditional “carrot and stick approach”, those disintegrated and disintegrating regions were persuaded to come back and join the regime under the “mask of federalism” but de facto under the strict rule of a centralized government.

The third book by Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question[3] analyzes the same period as Pipes does. In contrast to him, Smith emphasis is more on the policy implementation than on the actual military and political conquest of those formerly lost and regained regions. His approach is chronological and systematically country-by-country. He gives a detailed insight to the Bolshevik administrative policies of nation building process, by drawing borders and creating state structures, and the autonomy given in cultural policies like education, language and culture promotion. Although both authors deal with the same period and agree on many arguments, nevertheless, they diverge on two main theses, which will be discussed later.

The fourth book by Terry Martin, Affirmative Action Empire[4] deals with the time after 1923 when Stalin continuously took over political power. He focuses on the practical implementation of the nationalities policy during the 1920s, its gradual transformation in the years 1928-1932 and with the “Great Retreat” in 1933-1939. Martin operates from the center of the party and the government in Moscow down to the Union republics and small local units. With the help of case studies of the Ukraine and Central Asia, he covers the main aspects of korenizatiia (indigenization). The last part of Martins book is devoted to “revising of the Affirmative Action Empire” by the ethnic cleansing of Diaspora groups, blamed as “enemy nations” and the emergence of Russian nationalism under the concept of “the Friendship of the People”. Martin also investigates between soft line and hard line nationalities policy. The soft line policy of “forms” of nationhood, changed into a hard line when it conflicted with the core goals of industrialization, state building, internationalism and Communism.

The fifth book by David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism[5] explains the failure of early Bolshevik nationalities policy, because Marxism, internationalism and socialist slogans in the 1920s had failed to mobilize the population and gather behind the regimes industrialization and war preparation efforts. Instead, Stalin ordered a new approach of state building and an ideological about-face, by appealing to Russian identity as the greatest common denominator in the Soviet Union. Russian history provided a rich source of events and hero figures that, with minor ideological rupture, could have been drafted to serve Soviet state-building interests. What Brandenberger calls “National Bolshevism” was achieved by a reduction of Marxism-Leninism to the level of rhetoric and a “return to history” in favor of a peculiar form of Marxist-Leninist etatism, which pursued communist ideals with an emphasis on great power components of traditional tsarist Russia. This became a dominant factor in Stalinist culture for the future of the Soviet Union.

The sixth book by Yitzhak M. Brudny, Reinventing Russia[6] describes how Khrushchev abandoned Russian nationalism and the Stalin cult. However, because of this and his own politics, he alienated the Soviet intelligentsia and caused them to drift toward russocentric and nationalist positions again. Under Brezhnev, these intellectuals were supported by the state, because they filled the vacuum of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and served as a source of patriotism for the regime. Unfortunately, as the years past, this policy backlashed and the nationalist intellectuals began to oppose the regime itself.

Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I

Although Lohr analyzes Russian nationalism and nationalities policy under the Romanovs during the First World War, he makes some thoughtful conclusions about the influence and effects of those policies for the Soviet Union that succeeded the tsarist Empire. Lohr says that to a certain degree, the wartime expansion of the tsarist state resulted out of its claim to control and manage the population and the economy. He concludes, that this was an important precedent for the same extensive claims that the Soviet state later employed.[7]

“The campaign against enemy minorities contributed to strengthening the national state through the expansion of documentary control over the population, greater police and state oversight of foreigners and immigrants, the creation of a network of inspectors, administrators, and liquidators to oversee and control corporations and economic transactions, and the transfer of many businesses and properties to state institutions. The campaign shows how the old regime introduced these and other state practices that would ultimately become central to the Bolshevik revolutionary repertoire, from the nationalization of private property to the identification, purge, and removal of enemy populations categories.”[8]

The tsarist regime campaign of nationalizing the Empire was an attempt to mobilize the patriotic feelings among the population, to make the imperial state more national, and rally popular support behind the country’s war efforts.[9] The government’s policy of deportation and expropriation was also a major project to sort, define, and categorize individuals according to their ethnicity, immigrant status, or citizenship, and thereby decide if those entire population categories were to be considered enemy aliens or internal enemies. This process constituted for the first time the sense of nationality and ethnicity as a function of wartime practices that the Soviets later would practice for their purposes as well.[10]

Furthermore, World War I significantly contributed to the restructuring of the laissez faire capitalist economic system under the tsarist regime, towards a greater autarkic economy based on self-sufficiency and isolation. In that way, Russian economic nationalism did not disappear under the Bolsheviks, but was even more pronounced and remarkable in their case.[11] The Bolsheviks policies of industrialization and “socialism in one country”, to make the Soviet state strong and prepared for wartime, embraced an extreme form of economic autarky. Like tsarist Russia during the war, the Bolsheviks liquidated the last foreign enterprises operating in the Soviet Union, and launched purges of foreign technicians, managers, and engineers under the accusation of espionage.[12]

Another significant and unintended backlash of the nationalization policies during the war was that those policies radicalized and mobilized the groups affected. This strongly contributed to their own sense of national grievance, unity, and identity. On the other hand, those measures did not go far enough for some ultra-Russian nationalists. In that way, their disaffection soon turned towards the regime itself, and the ruling class was confronted with the accusation of not being national and thereby patriotic enough. Even the charge of treason was openly announced. These were side effects of the states gamble with the ideology of nationalism, which very soon could backlash to the authorities themselves. This phenomenon was something that the Soviet Union after the Stalin era would experience repeatedly, because of lessons not learned.


[1] Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2003

[2] Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1997)

[3] Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-1923 (London: St. Martin Press, 1999)

[4] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001)

[5] David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2002)

[6] Yitzhak M. Brudny, Reinventing Russia: Russian Nationalisms and the Soviet State, 1953-1991 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1998)

[7] See Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire, p. 170.

[8] Ibid, pp. 170-171.

[9] Ibid, p. 166.

[10] Ibid, p. 170.

[11] Ibid, p. 172.

[12] Ibid, p. 172.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
538 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
The American Central University – Department of History
B+ (2)
Russian Nationalism Soviet Union



Title: Russian Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1917-1991