Soviet Disunion: A History of the Nationalities Problem in the USSR 
by Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda.
Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp., £20, May 1990, 0 241 12540 5
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I recently asked two first-time Soviet visitors to the United States for their most vivid impression of America. Both are perceptive scholars and both had spent several weeks touring and studying. Without knowing the other’s answer, each replied that he was surprised to find that, in contrast with his native country, the US had solved its racial problems. Anyone familiar with racism in America will be struck by this comment on the depth of the ‘nationalities problem’ in the USSR.

At the last count, there were 102 officially recognised nationalities in the Soviet Union. They speak dozens of mutually unintelligible languages and have strikingly different histories and cultures. They range from desert pastoralists to Arctic herdsmen, from Slavic Europeans to Aleut fishermen, from Romanians to Eskimos: Russians comprise only 50 per cent of the Soviet population. The main national groups are variously organised into a complicated system of Union Republics, Autonomous Republics and Autonomous Regions, all scattered across 11 time zones from the Carpathian Mountains to the Pacific. Everything else being equal, the sheer diversity of the Soviet population would make for great difficulty in governing the country. But everything else is never equal, and three additional problems have produced a situation in which the disintegration or radical transformation of the Soviet Union now seems inevitable. First, a legacy of Russian domination of other nationalities has left bitter tastes and fuelled centrifugal tendencies. Second, uneven population growth threatens, and is already producing, social instability. Third, most of the constituent nationalities hate each other.

The national problem is an inextricable part of Soviet and Communist Party history. It is worth remembering that Lenin’s only serious political dispute with Stalin was over the latter’s handling of national problems (Stalin and his henchmen were too brutal for Lenin’s taste on one occasion). National issues, moreover, have been the stuff of Soviet development and disintegration. In 1917, Lenin and his victorious Bolsheviks inherited a ‘prison of nations’ from their Tsarist predecessors. The Russian Empire had forcibly incorporated dozens of non-Russian peoples and it ruled them with an iron hand. National customs and languages were brutally suppressed as the empire sought to ‘Russify’ its conquests: in one obscure corner of the empire, the angry young boy who would become Joseph Stalin was forbidden to use his native Georgian language in school. The Bolshevik platform before the Russian Revolution had stressed national rights and self-determination, and many non-Russian radicals such as Stalin were attracted to Lenin’s group for this reason. The early Bolshevik leaderships included large numbers of Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Poles, Balts, Jews and others.

Immediately after taking power, the Bolsheviks made good on their promise to allow national self-determination and even secession, but only for some. Finland and the Baltic states were allowed to go their own way, as was Poland. The Caucasian peoples (Georgians, Armenians and Azeris) and Ukraine, however, were conquered by the Red Army in the course of its struggle with the anti-Bolshevik Whites. Caucasians and Ukrainians, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, were subsequently annexed first to a Russian and then to a new Soviet state. In the Twenties, relations between and among the various national groups were generally good. Although it did not disappear, the Great Russian chauvinism that had characterised Imperial rule was suppressed as ideologically unacceptable. In this liberal period of Soviet history, union republics and minorities were, within rather wide limits, allowed to control their cultural life, education and language.

But from the late Twenties, the rise of Stalin, and the Bolsheviks’ swing in the direction of intolerant radicalism, worked to destroy the benign ‘national contracts’ that had characterised relations between Russians and others. Ultra-leftist Stalinists were out to eliminate capitalism and all its vestiges after 1929: they collectivised agriculture, nationalised industry and business. For them, nationalism was a relic of the capitalist past; the smaller nationalities should display a proper internationalism by giving up their archaic peculiarities and fusing with the more ‘progressive’ amalgamated Soviet culture. In practice, this meant a Stalinist assault on the rights and prerogatives of minority nationalities and a return to intolerant Russification, which lasted with ups and downs into the Eighties. Stalinist repression fell heavily on minority nationalities. Political, cultural and educational leaders in the national areas were arrested, imprisoned and shot. During and after the Stalin era, periodic purges swept through these areas, decapitating the potential national leadership and ensuring the continued ‘affiliation’ of the nations with Moscow. During and after the Second World War Stalin deported entire national groups, including the Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans and others. Khrushchev’s liberalising ‘thaw’ seems to have given the nationalities few tangible benefits. Although physical terror was ended, compulsion and Russification remained, and concessions to national groups were largely symbolic: Crimean Tatars were exonerated of the charge of collaboration but were not allowed to return to their homeland. Khrushchev’s ‘benign neglect’ was replaced by renewed Russification under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev. Always simmering, national conflict then erupted in the Eighties, as Gorbachev’s glasnost permitted action and articulation in respect of national grievances.

Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda have written an ambitious book. They provide a detailed and richly documented history of the nationality question from ancient times to the end of 1989, weaving together a great variety of sources which includes, for the very recent period, a careful combing of the Soviet press. The book will be both profitable reading for interested non-specialists and a useful reference work for scholars. To write a book capable of serving such diverse audiences is in itself an achievement.

Nahaylo and Swoboda introduce a specific interpretative overlay which they use to make sense of the nationality issue: Great Russian chauvinism. For them, the story is one of continued Russian conquest and oppression, combated heroically by patriots of the non-Russian peoples: they are especially sympathetic to Ukraine. This is a popular approach these days, and it is supported by a certain amount of incontrovertible evidence. Russian domination, often boorish and sometimes brutal, is one of the constants in the histories of these peoples. But it is not the only one. Conflicts also exist between and among non-Russian peoples. Nahaylo and Swoboda mention such ‘horizontal’ conflicts in a few paragraphs, but call them ‘side-shows’ to the main, ‘vertical’ conflict with the Russians. This is bizarre, given that the most violent and bloody national reactions in the past year have not been aimed at Russians at all: Azeris killing dozens of Armenians and Uzbeks killing hundreds of Kirghiz can hardly be considered side-shows, when there has as yet been no mass violence against Russians. The ‘Russians can do no right and non-Russians can do no wrong’ motif leads to some curious biases. Recent Soviet attempts to root out corruption in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, for example, are here seen exclusively as manifestations of the inevitable Russification policy, and the authors tend to excuse corruption, protectionism and nepotism as local ways of doing things in certain societies.

Their anti-Russian approach also produces some interesting omissions. Vicious anti-semitism, which was especially virulent in Ukraine and Belorussia, where it often animated nationalist movements, receives scant attention. When it does, it is only in connection with Russians. Although discrimination against Jews is one of the most common themes in the history of many of the USSR nationalities, the book’s index cites ‘anti-semitism’ on only 16 of the 364 pages of text. Nowhere are we told about the widespread collaboration of Ukrainian, Belorussian and Baltic nationalists with the Nazis. Lithuanian police guarded the Vilnius ghetto; Belorussian patriots staffed puppet governments and helped murder Jews; Ukrainian fingers pulled triggers at the Babi Yar execution grounds. In none of these places did the population lift a finger to help the victims. Certainly, the fascist/communist choices facing occupied populations in these areas were not easy, but if history is to be more than polemic such stories need to be told. Similarly, in the earlier 1918-20 period, willing Caucasian nationalist co-operation with German and British interventionists helped to start Soviet invasions; the Ukrainian Rada’s link with the Germans in the same period also deserves some attention.

As the authors show, national policies have revolved around two conflicting isms: assimilationism and nationalism. Assimilationists have traditionally pressed for the precedence of Soviet laws over those of union republics, for the mandatory study of Russian alongside local languages in schools and for closer ties to Moscow. Nationalists have advocated the legal independence of national areas and the preservation of national cultures, and have discouraged the mandatory teaching of Russian in schools. Both sides have their extremists: assimilationists have often been Russifiers and nationalists parochial and isolationist.

Nahaylo and Swoboda are honest and unabashed nationalists. They believe that little good has come from association with Russians; for them, nationalism is the highest good. This is a popular point of view these days. Everybody believes in self-determination, national independence and cultural freedom. but again, the principles embedded in the assimilationist/nationalist conflict are complicated and do not yield themselves to black-and-white answers. Honest people can differ on these matters. Is it so obvious that nationalism is the highest ethical principle? Is it always to be defended? Twice in this century millions of people have slaughtered millions of others in its name. In practice, there is a fine line between nationalism and hatred. What higher good is served when Azeris ‘self-determine’ to massacre Armenians, or vice-versa? Given the deep hatreds that many Soviet nationalities have for one another, would it really be a step forward for each of them to have independent armed forces?

Assimilations sometimes raise questions that are difficult to answer. Is it clear that, given their demography and geography, Kirghiz children could not profit from learning Russian along with their native tongue? Assimilationists can reasonably argue that, without it, Kirghiz children are cutting themselves off from the outside world of science and learning. What higher good is served by this isolation? Nahaylo and Swoboda do not address these questions. (Incidentally, for better or worse, assimilationism is taken for granted elsewhere in the world: Irish, Native American and Chicano children are all expected to learn English in school for their own good.) None of these considerations can possibly justify Russian chauvinism, domination or heavy-handed tutelage. Although Russian domination kept Azeris from killing Armenians, Uzbeks from killing Kirghiz, Georgians from killing Abkhazis, Ukrainians from killing Jews, it did so at a tremendous price: dictatorship, repression and brutish assimilationism. But this is precisely the problem with the Nahaylo and Swoboda book: justification. Why should the point of a historical work be to attack or defend historical phenomena? What separates good history from polemic?

It is difficult to say what will happen to the USSR. If we forget about the melodramatic division into villains and victims and look at some cold facts and statistics, it is clear that things cannot remain as before. Ten years ago, Russians accounted for a little over 52 per cent of the Soviet population. Today it is down to 50 per cent. The Russian population increased by 5.6 per cent in the last ten years: that of Muslim Uzbeks 34 per cent, Kazakhs 24 per cent and Tadzhiks 45 per cent. Every year, 125,000 draftees into the Army do not speak Russian, a twelve-fold increase in 20 years. Soviet society may be the most racist in the world, and glasnost has allowed the racism to bubble to the surface. As a Soviet friend told me, ‘when we opened Pandora’s box, we also kicked over some slimy rocks.’ Azeris have slaughtered Armenians, Uzbeks have massacred Kirghiz, and citizens are sometimes not safe on the street of other Soviet republics (25 per cent of the Soviet population lives in another nationality’s republic). The Soviet Army, unused and unsuited to dealing with national protest, has sometimes replied to mass demonstrations with poison gas and axe handles.

Partly in response to such assertions of nationality, Great Russian patriotism and anti-semitism are also on the rise. In the West, anti-semitism is usually considered unfashionable among educated people. Not in Russia: a recent letter signed by 295 writers (whose profession in Russia enjoys the glamour of rock stars or movie idols) claimed that ‘the unhindered export of Zionism into our country has become a menacing reality,’ and that ‘Zionist fascism’, along with Nazism, ‘bears direct responsibility for many pogroms, including pogroms against Jews – for “chopping off the dead branches” of the tree of their own people at Auschwitz and Dachau, in Lvov and Vilnius’. The same letter calls a proposed law against anti-semitism ‘in essence a LAW ON THE GENOCIDAL DESTRUCTION OF THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE’.

Nearly every Soviet national republic has declared its autonomy, at least in principle. Soviet Moldavians and Romanians (the same people), in their thousands, have torn down the international frontier and brushed aside Soviet border guards in order to re-unite with relatives on the other side. Lithuania has formally declared its independence, although it recently ‘suspended’ the declaration, and others will surely attempt the same. Those who have not declared their independence from the Soviet Union have made forceful statements about their national sovereignty and maintained that the laws of their union republic take precedence over Soviet legislation. Several republics have announced that their citizens should and will be able to perform their military service in their home republics. Moscow’s high-ranking representatives are hooted down in the national areas. All the nationalities are blaming each other for their current problems. Central Asians blame the Russians for turning their homeland into a cotton monoculture and for pursuing disastrous ecological policies. Russians, in turn, blame the peripheral areas for acting as a drain on Russian economic resources.

What can or should Gorbachev do about all this? Clearly he does not want the USSR to break up precipitately: his firm actions against Lithuanian secession and the dispatch of troops to Azerbaizhan are proof of that. In the long run, though, dramatic transformation is inevitable, and Gorbachev is not so stupid as to imagine that the USSR can continue to exist along present lines. He is aware as we are of the demographic data, the geo-economic imbalances and the depth of national hatred, and he understands that it is necessary to arrange a new ‘national contract’ to avoid civil war. He is also enough of a Marxist to believe, rightly or wrongly, that such conflicts are essentially economic. But can he prevent the shattering of the USSR? Does he have a plan?

Gorbachev appears to be banking on long- and short-term developments to dampen the national crisis. First, he is counting on rapid economic improvement, combined with considerable national autonomy and dramatic political changes to make continued adherence to the USSR more attractive. He has pled with national groups to be patient and to give his reforms a chance to work. In addition, he has recently taken some concrete political steps to change the nature of the Soviet ‘union’ in an attempt to save it. Following decisions first made last year at a Central Committee plenum, the Supreme Soviet will soon propose a new ‘national treaty’ for the Union. The semi-fictitious national ‘contract’ dating from the early Twenties, which effectively bound the other nationalities to the Russian Republic, is to be replaced. From all indications, the proposal will be for a truly federal system in which each national republic is an equal partner. Each republic would control its own taxes, industry, agriculture, trade and education. Central planning would be replaced by negotiations among equal nations who control their own resources. Only defence and foreign policy would remain prerogatives of the centre, based on a federal (rather than a ‘supreme’) soviet.

Why would a republic want to join such a federation? Gorbachev’s partisans are working hard to promote and develop the idea of an ‘all-Union market’ in which the unseen hands of supply and demand would allocate resources and products across the territory which is now the Soviet Union. Each nationality would find economic advantages in dealing with nearby and familiar trading partners, as the current network connections of the command economy is replaced by a network of private connections. Perestroika thinkers hope that the advantages of the ‘all-Union market’, combined with real national autonomy, will save the union.

In addition to engineering the Party’s ideological change in national policy and sponsoring the drafting of the new national treaty, Gorbachev has already begun the necessary political modifications. A new law from the Supreme Soviet guarantees each national group the right to use their own language in education, literature, government documents and almost every other sphere. In July at the 28th Party Congress, he revamped the Politburo to guarantee a seat for each national republic on the Party’s highest body. At this early point it is difficult to evaluate the dramatic changes at the Congress, including Boris Yeltsin’s dramatic resignation, walk-out, and apparent splitting of the Party. But Gorbachev’s re-election as General Secretary, the freeing of the new Politburo from the conservative Central Committee (for the first time, the General Secretary and Politburo were decided by the Party Congress, not the Central Committee), and even Yeltsin’s walk-out, may all strengthen Gorbachev’s hand, despite the criticism he took from conservatives at the meeting. The Party Congress gave him a personal mandate and agreed to a liberal and nationally representative Politburo. Organisationally, neither Gorbachev nor the new Politburo have to answer to anyone in the Party. This means that in the Supreme Soviet and other legislatures, party members (even conservative ones) will be obliged to vote the party line that his reformist leadership lays down. Those reformers who split from the Party will vote for reform. It is possible to see that Gorbachev is now much stronger and freer than before to enact a radical programme.

Does Gorbachev have time to pull this off? Nobody has the answer, but his recent agreement with the Lithuanians to suspend their declaration of independence for only 90 days suggests that he is counting on very short-term improvements. He hopes that Lithuanians and others will want to affiliate themselves with his new federation in the near future. If this does not happen in the short term, Gorbachev has shown that he is clever enough to play nationalities off against one another to buy time. If these expedients fail, he can always use coercion in the short run: his new position as President of the USSR gives him the power to declare ‘Presidential Rule’ in any republic and to govern directly.

In the long run, the proposed new federation would become much stronger as part of Europe. As he has said on many occasions, the key to Soviet economic revival is participation in the world economy. If he does have a long-range plan, it is to enter a ‘Greater Common Market’. Soviet representatives have recently been avid promoters of this idea: the idea of a ‘Common European Home’ and East-West security system, adherence to European standardisation norms, addressing the Strasbourg Parliament and tentative Soviet participation in GATT are steps in this direction.

If this dream should come true, the national question in the USSR would become much less acute. Should the USSR enter a Greater Common Market and receive security guarantees, several things would happen. The autarchic economic problems which produced Russian imperialism would diminish: in a true common market, the specific needs for Azerbaizhan’s oil or Uzbekistan’s cotton would change as the Soviet economy merged into the larger market. Whether the Soviet Union existed as a unit or as separate states would make less difference if its components participated in such a sphere. The strategic threat of a hostile independent Lithuania in alliance with foreign enemies evaporates if both are parts of the same prosperous system. For centuries, Britain worried about and fought to prevent foreign influence or domination of the Low Countries. A united Europe solved that problem and Gorbachev hopes for the same solution in the Baltic states. Gorbachev’s advisers are avid students of Europe, and more than once have noted that the lengthy post-war process of unification resolved the Franco-German rivalry and fostered national peace.

It may be that Gorbachev hopes that the European solution will help prevent the break-up of the USSR. If it does not, entry into the European Community is also a fall-back position in case of disaster on the nationality issue. If it must come, he would like to get into Europe before the shattering takes place. Since the raison d’être of the empire had always been economic and military anyway, better that the break-up should come after economic and security issues with Europe are resolved. In that case, it would not make so much difference whether Lithuania or other states called themselves independent or not.

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Vol. 12 No. 20 · 25 October 1990

J. Arch Getty’s review of Soviet Disunion (LRB, 30 August) is seriously flawed because his premises are wrong. Most of the nationalities within the Soviet Union do not hate each other and military necessities and economics are not the only factors which led to the creation and continued existence of the Soviet empire. He points out that the Soviet Union has 102 officially recognised nationalities. He then asserts that ‘most of the constituent nationalities hate each other.’ As proof of this, he refers to five nationalities which have been the subject of inter-ethnic violence. He presumably believes that, but for Soviet power, a majority of the remaining 97 nationalities would also be at each other’s throats. Mr Getty’s assertion ignores the recent history of co-operation between many of the nationalities. For example, he seems unaware of the co-operative efforts between Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians and the national leaders from Soviet Central Asia and the Ukraine. He makes no reference to one of the few positive by-products of the gulags – the camaraderie which developed between the various imprisoned national leaders. Furthermore, no reference is made to the co-operative effort of the nearly two million citizens of the Baltic states who formed a human chain stretching across all three countries in a joint, peaceful protest against Soviet rule. On what facts does Mr Getty base his hyperbolic conclusion that the Soviet nationalities are filled with hate for each other, and his equally frail corollary that ‘all the nationalities are blaming each other for their current problems’? Most blame the Soviet system. Only a few blame each other.

Mr Getty suggests that assimilation is preferable to rampant nationalism. His suggestion may be correct as an abstract proposition, but his analysis assumes facts which simply do not describe Soviet reality. ‘Assimilation’ implies a voluntary adoption of a different culture. The voluntary element has been, and largely continues to be, missing in Soviet nationalities policy. When Russian culture is imposed by force and native culture is destroyed, when native populations are exterminated and Russians are brought in as replacements, when Russian is mandated as the language, when street signs are changed to Russian by Moscow’s edict, when all official and scholarly communications must be in Russian – what kind of moral imperative does such assimilation by fiat carry? In this context, perhaps the nationalism of the non-Russians, used as a vehicle for maintaining traditions and freedom of choice, is not such an unsavoury concept.

Finally, while economic and military considerations have certainly influenced the formation of the Russian empire, Mr Getty ignores the impact of Russian chauvinism. The thrust of the Soviet empire has been at least influenced by the Russian version of Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’, just as it has been fuelled by a belief that more territory is better for its own sake. Mahaylo and Swoboda recognise this. Getty does not. If Tsarist Russia and its successors had given people the choice of deciding their own destiny, most of the Soviet nationalities problems would not exist. Mr Getty’s image of the Soviet Union as a boiling, hate-filled cauldron of nationalities which only Soviet power can keep from spilling over reflects a blind acceptance of Moscow’s political rhetoric.

Imperialism, whether couched in economic terms, in military terms or in terms of bringing ‘civilisation’ to those who are ‘less enlightened’, is the antithesis of respecting the basic right of human beings to be free to make their own decisions. Why are we so scared to see democracy given a chance? Would removal of Soviet power from its ethnic colonies result in self-annihilation by those nationalities? I submit that the answer is no – not if democratic institutions are permitted to replace Soviet power. When was the last time that democratic nations went to war with each other?

Jack Treiman
Consulate of Estonia,

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