Shant Krikorian
Contributing Writer

The rise and fall of empires has been a repeated refrain in the history of humanity. Sturdy and powerful entities as though they are often embellished to be, have rapidly and sometimes unpleasantly disintegrated behind a quilt of unmanageable internal and external pressures. The consolidation of ethnic identities and the rise of nationalism could be considered imperative internal preludes to imperial disintegration – as it did with the Russian Empire and the USSR, in 1918 and 1991, respectively.

As nationalism refers to an ideology, sentiment, form of culture, or social movement that focuses on the nation – the nationalism present in the demise of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union vehemently entailed ethnic consolidation and mass mobilization in (1) the endeavor of liberation from Moscow’s central rule, while finally, (2) constructing an independent political nation, anew.

In such a linkage between nationalist outbreaks and imperial demise, one is simply forced to question: to what extent did the role of nationalisms of smaller nations play in the collapse of the Soviet Union?

It is important to emphasize that the nationalist and ethnic factor was not the immediate cause of demise – it merely played an inexorable force for disintegration. In both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, ethnic-nationalism challenged the cohesion of state society, thwarting Russian-dominated rule out of power.

Nationalism then became a question of control and maintenance – could Moscow control and maintain such ethnic forces within its borders in 1918 and 1991? No.
If not, what conditions had sought the arrival of nationalism? And how did they destabilize the cohesion of state society?

In the probe of factors that lead to disintegration, it would be judicious to say that Russian ethno-linguistic ascendancy, failed and unequal state policies of nationalities, and the breakdown of interethnic symbiosis were developments crucial for arousing nationalism in the Soviet continuum.

The Soviet Union throughout its history suffered from deeply entrenched problems from this natural transfer of the “nationalist problem” from Imperial Russia. In particular, the fateful decision to set up a federal structure along ethno-territorial lines and to maintain strong linguistics and cultural distinction among many of the constituent units created an inherent weakness in the state” (Tuminez 83).

Indeed, the breakup of the Soviet Union did so precisely along the ethnic lines carved amongst its former republics. The responsibility lies with nationalism – which, under intense growth fueled by the political and ideological liberalization of Gorbachev, grew uncontrollable.

In an interesting correlation with the nationalistic events and variables that led to the downfall of the Russian Empire, the same, ironically, would be proven to be realized in the former Soviet Union. Although in this political entity, “Russification” would be covered under the dictational blanket of “sovietization”, the probe of factors that lead to Soviet disintegration, maintained their structure of the Imperial Russian ones:

Russian Ethno-Linguistic Ascendancy: Russification (1)
Failed and unequal state policies of nationalities (2)
Breakdown of Inter-ethnic Symbiosis (3)

These three variables, in the Soviet continuum, were translated via two main soviet policies that undermined the cohesion of the soviet social fabric, thus turning the wheels of the “nationalism” the soviets had declared such victory over.

The two factors that undermined Soviet cohesion, in which the variables were transmitted through, were:
1. The Bolshevik policy of creating and reinforcing ethnic and nationalistic identities, if only inadvertently. This policy undercut official claims about proletarian unity and the irresistible triumph of a supernational Soviet identity.
2. Soviet policies of unequal treatment and repression of various nationalities. These policies contravened the official notion that all nationalities were “equal” and would “blossom” under Communist rule.

The first factor led to the structural vulnerability of the Soviet state, and the second produced grievances against the center that fueled separatist nationalism (Tuminez)
Indeed, as the Bolshevik’s began to crush the newly-found independence of peripheral countries, they saught to gain support from the local populous, by allowing and encouraging lingual and cultural development centralized in each respective republic. Although this initially proved constructive for collecting and ideologically forming a sympathetic national base – harsh following Russification policies by Stalin, would merely put “salt on old imperial wounds” only to be contrasted with the flourishing of ethnic languages during the early communist decade.

In 1972, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, ironically declared:
“In the course of the socialist construction, the formerly national hinterlands have long ago vanished; socialist nations have joined together to form an interethnic community – the Soviet people – that is new in its social parameters. Common cultural traits have developed, … and national discord is a thing of the past” (Bromlei 78)

But indeed, nothing could have been further from reality in the Soviet Union. In continuing with the imperial policies of Russia, Russification and Russian Ethno-Linguistic Ascendancy was indirectly a prime catalyzer for ethnic nationalism and disintegration. Zaslavsky noted that, “the very structure of Soviet society, with its high degree of centralization, encouraged the substitution of Russian for other languages in many areas of social life” (Zaslavsky 101).

With Russian as the lingua franca, and outwardly, the only way to excel in Soviet Society, the Kremlin made sure that ethnic populations were forced to use Russian, “artificially forced to consider ethnic languages as second-class” (Zaslavsky 101).

Motifs, therefore, of “second-classness” and “subordination” revisited soviet policy. The 1937 Pravda editorial rhapsodized:
“Russian culture enriches the culture of other peoples. The Russian language has become the language of world revolution. Lenin wrote in Russian. Stalin wrote in Russian. Russian culture has become international, for it is the most advanced, the most humane” (Tuminez 95).

The soviet policy, henceforth, became a juxtaposition of once “national lingual cultivation” to hard-line Russification. The constant closing and opening of such imperial wounds never lead to full recovery as such – prompting a strong seed for nationalistic uprisings.

The factor of failed and unfair policies of nationalities also continued under the soviet yoke. Lenin, early on, advanced the idea of “equality of all nations”, affirmed by article 70 of the Soviet constitution. Yurri Andropov, in late 1982, reaffirmed Lenin’s policy of equality amongst nations:

What is the essence of the path established by Lenin? Breifly, it could be put this way – it is the fully voluntary union of free peoples as the guarantee of maximum durability of the federation…It is the full equality of all nations and national groups, and the concomitant attempt to liquidate inequality among them, not only legally but in fact. It is the free development of every republic, every national group” (Turminez 97).

In practice, however, this was far from reality. Under Stalin, in particular, the USSR was an active agent in genocide and ethnic deportations. Although Stalin’s programs attacked ethnic Russians as well – minority groups faced a particular animosity from the Kremlin, as entire ethnic communities were uprooted on the basis of “anti-Soviet” tendencies and classifications as “enemies of the workers”. Ingushes, Balkars, Chechens, Kalmyks, Greeks, Meshkhetian Turks, Lazes, Poles, Armenians, Crimean Tatars, Lithuanians – entire communities, cities, and provinces, were uprooted and erased from the face of the earth.

“The Krasnodar Kray, in a matter of months lost 80% of its Greek Population and 45% of its Armenian Population” (Palyan 39). Indeed, with such random ethnic targeting, Russians were brought in to replace departing populations – not only reestablishing motifs of colonialization, but that of genocide. The same could be said for numerous administrative divisions in Russia, where, for example after World War II in the Kaliningrad Oblast, the dominant German population was swiftly replaced with that of an ethnically Russian one.

In such a stark inherited history of denied lingual rights, forced cultural and linguistic Russification, socio-economic stratification based on ethnicity, ethnic policy favoritism, mass deportation, etc. – it becomes simple to see the vast inconsistencies all these had with a promised doctrine of equality and internationalism.

The most important role of nationalism in the demise of the Soviet Union, came in the final years of glasnost of the Gorbechov era, where such tendencies, for the first time in a mere ninety-years, were able to be expressed.

As such it is important to note, that Gorbechov did not himself trigger nationalism across the USSR, but merely, his state policies of transparency, allowed a primitive showcase of it. In natural continuation, “The system fell because the leadership tried simultaneously to dismantle the old practices of command in the economic and political spheres and to construct a democratic multinational federation (Suny 154).
With such transparency, the unsolved, largely traumatized ethnic wounds of the past, came to haunt the soviet continuum: the Armeno-Tatar War was transformed into the Nagorno-Karabagh War, struggles in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, transformed into wars against Georgia, and the Baltic struggles – reinvented in a strike against the imperialistic Kremlin.

In both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, state policies directed at Russification, ethnic inequalities/favoritism, and disruption of multiethnic symbiosis, breaded a monster of nationalism – that in the end – due to a combination of economical and political weaknesses in the Russian metropol , could not be tamed.
Suny notes that “ideas of nationality are deeply embedded in these nations understanding of their past” (Suny xi). The nationalisms of these small republics, as such, was but an object of inherited experiences of marginalization, segregation, and subordination.

In both the Russian Empire and the USSR, the Russians failed to successfully opt for the cohesion of these ethnic groups. The mass plight of Jews from the USSR, of Georgians pushing their own independence, of even, fellow Slavic, Ukrainians demanding territorial self-determination, was a substantiation to the medium in which the states created a feeling of “Russianness” against a backdrop of foreigners.
Such structural vulnerabilities and political grievances sustained an emporium in which the Russian State was not able to control or maintain the nationalistic outcries for independence.

Nearly twenty years after the downfall of the USSR, the Russian Federation still finds itself in a similar predicament – a massive plight of its people out of the country, transfixed in ethnic war in the Caucasus, and growing xenophobia, the Russian government is best advised to ensure the elements of societal cohesion, that it did not under the soviet yoke, or it would be simply doomed to repeat the failures of its past.

Works Cited

De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University, 2004.

Kauffman, Stuart. Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. New York: Cornell University, 2001.

O’Connor, Kevin. The History of the Baltic States. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.

Palyan, Pavel. Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004.

Ronald, Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Roschwald, Aviel. Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Smith, Anthody. National Identity. Reno: Reno University Press, 1993.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland In Transition. New York:
Colombia University Press, 1995.

Tuminez, Astrid S. Nationalism, Ethnic Pressures, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. Journal of Cold War Studies: Volume 5, John Hopkins University, 2003.

Image courtesy of Alisa April.

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