Putin's Attempt to Undo Two Revolutions
Americans who watched or read Vladimir Putin’s address just prior to his invasion of Ukraine might have been puzzled by the many references to Lenin and the Bolsheviks as the “creators” of modern Ukraine and the detailed lecture on the mistakes of the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy. Surely, Putin, a former KGB man schooled in Marxism-Leninism, views the U.S.S.R. with nostalgia and his regional aggression is part of a project of putting back together the grandeur of that state? Well, yes but mostly no. For Russians like Putin, Lenin’s legacy is fraught. When there was talk about removing Lenin’s body from the mausoleum in Red Square in 2016, Putin said he wouldn’t do that, but he also stated that Lenin had placed a “time bomb” under Russia.
Lenin is even sometimes portrayed as a more destructive figure than Stalin, which might seem shocking. I’m currently reading Vladislav Zubok’s Collapse, an excellent and scrupulously researched account of the breakup of the U.S.S.R.: the (Russian) author refers to Lenin as “the great destroyer of Russian statehood” and pins much of the blame of the Soviet collapse on what he calls Gorbachev’s “neo-Leninism,” the General Secretary’s sincere belief in the teachings of Lenin. It’s not uncommon to hear modern Russians, especially those of conservative persuasion, repeat the old canard that Lenin was really a German agent, deliberately returned to St. Petersburg on a sealed train like some terrible biological weapon to poison the Russian Empire.
The origins of this resentment of Vladimir Ilych are in large part due to the aforementioned Soviet nationalities policy. The origins of that policy are in the convoluted and even sometimes contradictory logic the Bolsheviks applied to the problem of rising nationalism in the old Russian Empire. In the 19th and early 20th century, with the spread of romanticism and liberal and democratic ideas combined with their own traditions, the various peoples under Tsar’s rule developed their own senses of national identity and a wish to throw off Russian domination. This created both a political and ideological problem for the Bolshevik section of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. On the one hand, as good Marxists, they believed in socialist internationalism: the workers had no country and the future course of human development would be in greater unity and combination rather than division into parochial groups.
Nationalism, for the Bolsheviks, was part of bourgeois ideology, a convenient cover for the interests of landowners and capitalists. On the other hand, like the aspiring nationalists, they also opposed imperialism and the Tsar’s autocratic state. Not to mention, they had to compete politically for the workers’ support with the nationalist movements. And, within the Bolshevik movement, there were also representatives of all the various ethnic groups of the empire: Georgians, Jews, Armenians, Ukrainians, etc., whose revolutionary political consciousness developed in no small part from the experience of Russian oppression. Political cohesion required a recognition of these sensitivities and differences.
But Lenin and Bolsheviks also sincerely recognized the real political work performed by national sentiments in the liberation from the forces of reaction in general and the destruction of the Tsarist empire—often called “the prison-house of nations”—in particular. And, after all, according to Marxist theory, the development of nationalism was a sign of progress: a part of the historical march towards socialism. All of these factors created a complicated dance around the question of national identity. Here is Lenin, in his 1914 pamphlet, On the National Pride of the Great Russians (the Great Russians are now what we just call “Russians”):
We [Bolsheviks] are full of a sense of national pride, and for that very reason we particularly hate our slavish past (when the landed nobility led the peasants into war to stifle the freedom of Hungary, Poland, Persia and China), and our slavish present, when these selfsame landed proprietors, aided by the capitalists, are loading us into a war in order to throttle Poland and the Ukraine, crush the democratic movement in Persia and China, and strengthen the gang of Romanovs, Bobrinskys and Purishkeviches, who are a disgrace to our Great-Russian national dignity. Nobody is to be blamed for being born a slave; but a slave who not only eschews a striving for freedom but justifies and eulogises his slavery (e.g., calls the throttling of Poland and the Ukraine, etc., a “defence of the fatherland” of the Great Russians)—such a slave is a lickspittle and a boor, who arouses a legitimate feeling of indignation, contempt, and loathing.
Here there is a differentiation here between a “good nationalism” of liberation and democracy against a “bad nationalism” of chauvinism and conquest. But as the primary beneficiaries of an imperial system, Great-Russian workers had to be “educated” to support the rights of self-determination of their dominated brethren:
The proletarian revolution calls for a prolonged education of the workers in the spirit of the fullest national equality and brotherhood. Consequently, the interests of the Great-Russian proletariat require that the masses be systematically educated to champion—most resolutely, consistently, boldly and in a revolutionary manner—complete equality and the right to self-determination for all the nations oppressed by the Great Russians. The interests of the Great Russians’ national pride (understood, not in the slavish sense) coincide with the socialist interests of the Great-Russian (and all other) proletarians. Our model will always be Marx, who, after living in Britain for decades and becoming half-English, demanded freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers.
After the Revolution, during a 1922 controversy with Stalin over the degree of autonomy that should be allowed for the new national republics, Lenin said one must “distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations and the nationalism of oppressed nations, the nationalism of large nations and the nationalism of small nations.” He angrily denounced Stalin and his camp as “Great-Russian chauvinists” and declared that Russia’s “great-power nationalism” was a greater threat to the project of the U.S.S.R. than the local nationalisms. Ironically, Lenin was an ethnic Russian and Stalin was Georgian.
During his speech, Putin gave a very cynical reading of the nationalities policy, saying it was an expedient to hold on to power, a quick and badly thought-out sop created by the Bolsheviks:
That raises another question: why was it necessary to make such generous gifts, beyond the wildest dreams of the most zealous nationalists and, on top of all that, give the republics the right to secede from the unified state without any conditions?
At first glance, this looks absolutely incomprehensible, even crazy. But only at first glance. There is an explanation. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks’ main goal was to stay in power at all costs, absolutely at all costs..They did everything for this purpose: accepted the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, although the military and economic situation in Kaiser Germany and its allies was dramatic and the outcome of the First World War was a foregone conclusion, and satisfied any demands and wishes of the nationalists within the country.
While certainly there is something to this: immediate political needs were definitely a factor, but, as we’ve seen, the Bolshevik policy had more complicated intellectual roots than naked power lust. In part, it was a kind of constitutional “check-and-balance” against the perceived danger of resurgent Russian chauvinism. This included encouraging the development of the cultures of the various nationalities: in the 1920s, for example, Ukrainian language and literature was a major part of the school curriculum within the Ukrainian S.S.R., a process called “Ukrainization.” Officials were also expected to learn and use Ukrainian while carrying out their duties. In his The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, Terry Martin describes the sophisticated reasoning behind these policies:
Nationalism is a masking ideology that leads legitimate class interests to be expressed, not in an appropriate class-based socialist movement, but rather in the form of an above-class national movement. National identity is not a primordial quality, but rather an unavoidable by-product of the modern capitalist and early socialist world, which must be passed through before a mature international socialist world can come into being. Since national identity is a real phenomenon in the modern world, the nationalism of the oppressed non-Russian peoples expresses not only masked class protest, but also legitimate national grievances against the oppressive great-power chauvinism of the dominant Russian nationality. Therefore, neither nationalism nor national identity can be unequivocally condemned as reactionary. Some national claims-those confined to the realm of national "form"-are in fact legitimate and must be granted to split the above-class national alliance. Such a policy will speed the emergence of class cleavages and so allow the party to recruit non-Russian proletarian and peasant support for its socialist agenda. Nationalism will be disarmed by granting the forms of nationhood.
So there you have it. As the states are sometimes called “laboratories of democracy” in America, the Soviet republics were to be “laboratories of nationalism,” allowing some “legitimate” forms of national aspiration under carefully controlled conditions. It’s kind of a brilliant solution and was a precarious balancing act probably doomed to fail. The rest of the story is too long to tell now, but Russians and Russian culture mostly remained dominant in the Soviet empire, which also committed unspeakable crimes against the ethnic peoples it was supposed to include and protect. Part of that story is Stalin’s brutal reversal of Ukrainization. In historical retrospect, this strange combination of the oppression and encouragement of national differences—an inherent contradiction of imperial statehood—seems bound to have resulted one day in an explosion. But as ill-conceived or impossible as Lenin’s policy may have been, his warnings about the dangers of Russian chauvinism now seem prophetic.