Joseph Stalin, the Bolshevik Commissar of Nationalities 1917-1924 and a Georgian, adapted the class struggle to the traditional policy of divide and rule. Soviet federalism provided a national veneer to a centralized state, controlled by the Communist Party, where Russians staffed the key party posts within the various republics. When Ukraine (in the spirit of self-determination) refused to allow Red Army troops on its soil in 1918, Lenin’s Commissar of Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, advocated a reinterpretation of the right of national self-determination: “The principle of self-determination ought to be used as a means in the struggle for socialism and it ought to be subordinated to the principles of socialism.” Moreover, the principle applied only to the “toilers” and not to the bourgeoisie.
The second stage in the development of the national problem begins with the epoch of imperialism leading capitalist powers occupy colonies and become multi-national, colonial empires. In that manner the national problem developed into a colonial or a national-colonial problem, i.e. into a problem pertaining to the liberation of the colonial peoples and of the dependent countries from imperialist oppression. Formerly the national problem was an internal governmental problem, whereas at the present time it. is an inter-state, and a world problem; the national problem became a part of the general problem of the proletarian revolution,and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The opportunist trends and the theoreticians of the II International did not want to notice this radical change in the development of the national problem. Lenin and Stalin were the first ones to discover the relationship of the national problem with the problem pertaining to colonies, established a theoretical foundation for that relationship and made it ‘the basis for the revolutionary activity of the proletariat.
According to Stalin: “Formerly the national problem was usually limited by a tight circle of questions pertaining principally to ‘cultured’ nationalities. The Irish, Hungarians, Poles, the Finnish people, the Serbians and certain other European nationalities–this is the group of people who did not enjoy full civil rights and whose fate interested the members of the II International. Tens and hundreds of millions of Asiatic and African people, who were suffering national oppression in its most oppressive and cruel form, usually remained beyond their field of vision. They hesitated to place the blacks, the ‘cultured’ and the ‘uncultured’ into the same category. At the present time such duality and half-way policies in the national problem may be considered as having been liquidated.”
Stalin defined a nation as an “historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on thebasis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-upmanifested in a common culture.” Prior to Communist rule, the ethnic groups of the Northern Caucasus saw themselves first as members of clans, and secondarily as members of a huge ethnic society of North Caucasian peoples. Two Soviet policies were critical to the development of national consciousness in the region: the 1921-22 creation of ethnically defined republics, and Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the entire populations of the Karachay, Ingush, Balkar and Chechen national groups. Similarly, national consciousness among indigenous peoples ofSiberia did not exist prior to the Soviet regime.
Stalin’s watchwords regarding nationalities were centralism and conformity. Although Georgian, Stalin pursued a policy of drawing other nationalities closer to the Russian nationality ( sblizhenie). He looked toward Russian culture and language as the links that would bind different nations together, creating in the process a single Soviet people who would not only speak Russian but also for all intents and purposes be Russian. Native communist elites were purged and replaced with Russians or thoroughly Russified persons. Teaching the Russian language in all schools became mandatory. Centralized authority in Moscow was strengthened, and self-governing powers of the republics were curtailed.
Nationalities were brutally suppressed by such means as the forced famine of 1932-33 in the Ukrainian Republic and the northern Caucasus and the wholesale deportations of nationalities during World War II, against their constitutional rights. The Great Terror and the policies following World War II were particularly effective in destroying the non-Russian elites. At the same time, the onset of World War II led Stalin to exploit Russian nationalism. Russian history was glorified, and Soviet power was identified with Russian national interests. In the post- World War II victory celebration, Stalin toasted exclusively the Russian people while many other nationalities were punished as traitors.
Soviet policies of Russo-Moslem relations appear to continue in cyclic tradition; relative liberalism under Lenin, forced assimilation under Stalin, and finally a modern version of Catherine’s policy of tolerance and recognition of fundamental ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences. Attempts to “Russify” these and other ethnic minorities of Central Asia predate considerably the founding of the Soviet Union and indeed go back at least to the Middle Ages when a young Muscovite state tried to shake off the Tatar yoke brought on by the Golden Hordes of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. It was some three hundred years before Russian conquest of Moslem lands was completed, and for still another two centuries and more the Russians practiced a rigid policy aimed at the absorption of the Moslem community. Recognizing the futility of Russification, Catherine II stopped the policy of forced assimilation, and for almost a century afterward relations between Russians and Moslems were marked by tolerance, if not amity (a relationship strikingly similar to that which has existed for the past three or four decades). Catherine’s liberalism ended around 1860, however, when a new period of intense pressure on Islam began under the influence of emerging Slavophile ideas of Russian Orthodoxy. Policies comparable to those during the Stalin era of the 1930s and ’40s were adopted in a brutal attempt to assimilate the Moslems–and met with much the same result
Whatever Lenin’s motivations,however, Russian chauvinism was quickly revived under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s. The federal state structure was preserved, but support for nationalities and regional autonomy were drastically reduced. One of Stalin’s strategies was to arbitrarily combine two or more unrelated ethnic groups within a single ethnic territory — presumably to weaken secessionist aspirations. For example, in what became Karachay-Cherkessia, Stalin combined Caucasians (Cherkess) and Turkic (Kachay) peoples whose languages are mutually unintelligible. A similar policy resulted in a combined Kabardino-Balkarian republic.
Stalin’s third strategy was to divide ethnic groups with artificially borders drawn. In 1937 Stalin created three separate ethpic entities out of the former Mongolian Buryat Autonomous Republic: the republic of Buryatia; the Aga Buryat area within Chita oblast, which contained a significant portion of the former Buryat-Mongolia’s cattle and farm areas; and the Ust’ Orda area located in Irkutsk oblast, which was rich in lead.
The fourth strategy was deportation. Seven ethnic groups were deported from their native territories en masse: the Volga Germans; the Kalmyks; the Crimean Tatars; and the Chechens, Ingush, Karachai, and Balkars of the Northern Caucasus. Robert Conquest estimated that the total number of people despatched into exile was approximately 1,250,000. Many thousands of deportees perished en route.