Bolsheviks and the national question, 1917-23

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Tue Aug 27 06:51:51 MDT 2002

The current (Spring 2002) issue of International Socialism Journal has a
review of a book that will be of considerable interest to many list

The seeds of national liberation
A review of Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question,
1917-1923 (Macmillan, 1999), £45

About the time that the Soviet Union ceased to be a union ten years ago,
historians became more interested in the origins of the forces tearing apart
the world's largest state. How successful had the Bolsheviks been in
resolving national tensions? Was there ever any hope that the USSR could
survive as a stable multinational unit? Or were the seeds of its collapse
present from the very start? What was the significance of disagreements
among the Bolsheviks, in particular Lenin and Stalin, over the national
question? After a decade that has seen appalling massacres of one national
group by another in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kurdistan and East Timor, and during
which governments like Tony Blair's have resorted to racist vilification of
immigrants and asylum seekers, these questions have lost none of their

For almost 50 years the standard work on this aspect of Soviet history has
been Richard Pipes's The Formation of the Soviet Union. Pipes analysed vast
quantities of Russian language literature from this period, and his book is
still a valuable reference. But Pipes was starting out on a career as the
foremost Cold War historian of Russia. His thesis was that Lenin's slogan of
'the right of nations to self determination' was nothing but a bait with
which to lure the non-Russian peoples, 'a tactical device intended to win
over the minorities'.1 As soon as the regime felt sufficiently stable,
according to Pipes, it moved to reconquer the borderlands and renege on its
promises to the minorities. The formation of the Soviet Union in December
1922 was a decisive turning point in the resurrection of the Russian Empire.
Pipes takes the extreme Russian chauvinism of the late Stalin period and
reads it straight back to October 1917.

Nonetheless, the book retains an element of ambiguity. Reviewing Lenin's
attack on Stalin in his 'testament', Pipes goes as far as to say that, had
Lenin lived, his 'conciliatory attitude to dissident nationalism in the
republics' would have meant that 'the final structure of the Soviet Union
would have been quite different from that which Stalin ultimately gave it'.2
A similar observation led Moshe Lewin in Lenin's Last Struggle to argue that
Lenin's dispute with Stalin over the national question in 1922 was evidence
of a deep divide between the libertarian goals of the Bolshevik Revolution
and conservative, Stalinist reaction.3

Pipes's book concentrates almost exclusively on the political aspects of
Bolshevik national policy, to the exclusion of culture and economics. French
historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse attempted to fill this gap, and it is
significant that she rejects the Machiavellian interpretation prefered by
Pipes. For Carrère d'Encausse, Lenin was neither a chauvinist nor an
imperialist--his political principles were 'cogent and consistent', and in
its early years the Bolshevik regime made genuine attempts to restore
national rights and atone for the crimes of Tsarist colonialism.4

But if his intentions were good, Lenin's theories did not survive the test
of concrete events: 'His earlier convictions crumbled in the face of a
reality that could not be ignored.' Like Pipes, Carrère d'Encausse sees a
contradiction between Lenin's centralism, on the one hand, and his defence
of national rights on the other--in the end centralism was inevitably

By shifting the focus to cultural and economic policy, however, Carrère
d'Encausse began to reveal a picture very different from the straightforward
imperialist conquest proposed by Pipes. More recent scholars have also been
impressed by Bolshevik achievements in the national sphere in the 1920s.
Yuri Slezkine, Russian specialist at the University of California, Berkeley,
for example, argues that 'Soviet nationality policy was devised and carried
out by [non-Russian] nationalists', while Harvard historian Terry Martin
characterises the USSR as an 'affirmative action empire'.6 This history was
hidden from Russians themselves: 'The fact that the Soviets covered up the
extent of pre-Stalinist nation-building and its anti-Russian thrust proves
how politically volatile party leaders considered the rediscovery of what
the 1920s were really like'.7

Despite the fact that Stalin, as Commissar for Nationalities, was the
government minister responsible for national policy until 1923, his
biographers (with the exception of Trotsky) are also oddly silent over the
Bolsheviks' record on the national question. One historian calls this 'the
myopia of professional Sovietology regarding the nationality question'.8

It is in this context that Jeremy Smith's book The Bolsheviks and the
National Question, 1917-1923 is a welcome contribution to rediscovering the
Leninist legacy in this sphere. Based on copious archive research, Smith
sets out to challenge many of Pipes's assumptions. This review will draw on
his findings to help paint a broad picture of Bolshevik national policy
after the revolution. It will then briefly examine his more important and
controversial conclusions.

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