The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series: “Nationalism and the Russian Revolution: From Anti-Imperialism to a Soviet Empire” by Ronald Grigor Suny

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H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the third post of its “The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series”, which looks at the relationship between nationalism and left-wing movements and thinking in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Ronald Grigor Suny (the University of Michigan), inquires into the role of nationalism in the Russian Revolution.


The Russian Revolution and the early years of building of the Soviet state occurred at a particular historical conjuncture – World War I, massive displacement and genocidal massacres of people, and the restoration of bourgeois power in its aftermath.  This was a moment when Western colonial powers still considered empire and colonialism as a viable, even enviable, progressive form of governance over backward, benighted non-Europeans.  Although the three great contiguous landed empires – Romanov Russia, Ottoman Turkey, and Austria-Hungary – failed the test of war and gave way to nationalist movements, independent ethnonational states, and colonial mandates, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal all were prepared and willing to crush opposition to their imperial holdings and maintain European dominance in Africa and Asia. The United States was more ambiguous about empire, and its wartime president Woodrow Wilson had proposed national self-determination at least for the peoples of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The principal voice against colonialism was the Soviet Union for both ideological and strategic reasons. Lenin had condemned imperialism in his famous polemic, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism:  A Popular Outline (1916), as the cause of devastating wars and a principal impediment to the progress of socialism, and promoted national self-determination as part of the Bolshevik program. Strategically it was calculated that if the great European powers were threatened and weakened by revolts in their colonies, the international revolution against capitalism would succeed far more easily. 

For Lenin the national and colonial questions were linked tightly to the future existence of the Soviet state and the possibility of building socialism in the former Russian Empire. In his essay on Imperialism he proposed that capitalism had reached a new stage of maturity “in which economic competition and geopolitical rivalries were tending to merge together.” This imperialist stage required “an anti-imperialist alliance between the working class in the advanced countries and national liberation movements in the colonies.”[1] Both overseas and empire-state imperialism, Lenin contended, involves the involuntary annexation and domination of one state or nation over another. Socialists were supposed to be “against the forcible retention of any nation within the frontiers of a given state.” 

Lenin’s utopian expectations that the elimination of imperial oppression would result in the spontaneous and irresistible attraction of small nations to the socialist nations and that in the long run the state would wither away and nations merge allowed him to support unhesitatingly national self-determination and the right to full separation. The “inevitable merging of nations” would only occur with the socialist revolution and “only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.”[2]

Lenin was consistently opposed to what he labeled “Great Russian chauvinism,” accusing non-Russian comrades like Stalin and Orjonikidze of such attitudes. “No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations,” he quoted Marx as saying. Yet he privileged the interests of large nations over smaller nations in the interests of economic development and therefore of socialism, and he left a large loophole by asserting that international, even global, concerns outranked narrow national interests. “[T]he interests of the liberation of a number of big and very big nations in Europe rate higher than the interests of the movement for liberation of small nations; [and] the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European – today we should say a world—scale.”

Lenin’s Marxism was genuinely pragmatic. One of his favorite and repeated remarks was:  “Facts are stubborn things.  You can’t beat facts by gossip.”[3]Rather than deducing what had to be done from the writings of the master, concrete situations had to be analyzed and the correct tactics induced from the particular historic conjuncture. A national liberation movement in one country might have to be opposed if it proved to be “merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries.” The flexibility that he proposed in 1916 would two years later, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the head of the Soviet government, have enormous consequences for non-Russian nationalities in a time of civil war and foreign intervention. In Lenin’s view the particular had to be subordinated to the general interest. But he was caught in an unresolvable contradiction that would only be resolved in specific cases: the contradiction between favoring national self-determination and subordinating that noble aim to the general interest. In a prescient and dark warning, he emphasized what Engels had suggested in a letter to Kautsky: “the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing.

While many of his closest comrades during World War I considered nationalism and national liberation movements, like the Irish anti-British uprising in 1916, to be irrelevant in the age of globalizing capitalism, Lenin was almost unique in seeing anti-colonial resistance as intimately linked, indeed indispensable, to the overthrow of capitalism in the metropole. “The social revolution,” he wrote in answer to Nikolai Bukharin’s dismissal of nationalism, “can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including the national liberation movements in the underdeveloped, backward, oppressed nations.”[4] In other words, against his more radical left and orthodox comrades, like Bukharin, Piatakov, and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin saw revolution as “impure,” a mix of class and national factors, all of which had to be considered as part of a revolutionary strategy.

Despite the eruption of nationalism during the World War, aided as it was by imperial support of separatist movements in the enemy camp, Lenin remained convinced that nationalism reflected only the interests of the bourgeoisie, that the proletariat’s true interests were supranational, and that the end of colonialism would diminish the power of nationalist sentiments. In contrast to his party comrades on the Left, he refused to oppose the independence of Finland, Poland, and Ukraine. “We say to the Ukrainians,” proclaimed Lenin, “as Ukrainians, you can run your own lives as you wish.  But we extend a fraternal hand to the Ukrainian workers and say to them:  together with you we will fight against your and our bourgeoisie.  Only a socialist alliance of laborers of all countries eliminates any ground for national persecution and fighting.”[5] Though he hoped that such separations could be avoided and reserved the option to oppose specific moves toward independence on principle, he abjured the use of force to keep the empire whole. He was unequivocal in his public commitment to “the full right of separation from Russia of all nations and nationalities, oppressed by tsarism, joined by force or held by force within the borders of the state, i.e., annexed.” However, at the same time, he argued that the goal of the proletarian party was the creation of the largest state possible and the rapprochement (sblizhenie) and eventual merging (sliianie) of nations. Such a goal was to be reached, not through force, but voluntarily, by the will of the workers.[6] 

Once the Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd in October 1917, Russia began to fragment into independent states.  With the outbreak of civil war in mid-1918 semi-independent governments sprang up in the borderlands. The Bolsheviks, like the liberals and moderate socialists, wanted to preserve the great state, but given their pre-revolutionary commitment to national self-determination including separation from Russia, as well as their isolation in the major cities and weakness in imperial peripheries, they were willing to support, for a time, the aspirations of non-Russians for autonomy or even independence.           

In the euphoria of revolution and the confidence that came with surviving civil war, Lenin and the Bolsheviks gave in to their most cherished hopes:  that the world would soon be made anew by international revolution. National borders would be swept away, and a new organization of human society would gradually replace capitalism and bourgeois parliamentarianism. Immediately after taking power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks set up the People's Commissariat of Nationalities under Joseph Stalin and issued a series of declarations on “the rights of the toiling and exploited peoples,” “to all Muslim toilers of Russia and the East,” and on the disposition of Turkish Armenia. But events moved beyond the declarations from Petrograd.

At the beginning of December a congress of soviets in Kharkov declared a Soviet republic in Ukraine. Kharkov stood opposed to the “bourgeois” Rada in Kiev. With two antagonistic governments functioning in Ukraine, each claiming to be the legitimate sovereign power in the country, the Soviet Council of People’s Commissars in Petrograd recognized the Soviet republic and “its right to secede from Russia or enter into a treaty with the Russian Republic on federal or similar relations between them.”[7]  But he complained that the Ukrainian Rada was disarming Soviet soldiers in Ukraine, had refused to convene a congress of soviets, and was supporting the Cossack revolt against the Soviet government in southern Russia. Petrograd demanded that the Ukrainian Rada cease its actions against the Soviets. 

Lenin defined the situation at the end of 1917 as a civil war declared by the enemies of the Soviet state. Some weeks later, in January 1918, by forcibly dissolving the democratically elected Constituent Assembly and not permitting it to reassemble, the Bolsheviks essentially declared civil war not only against the liberal and conservative forces in the country but also against their former comrades on the Left, the moderate socialists, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. A different logic now prevailed, the logic of war rather than of democratic negotiation and compromise.  “[T]he civil war which was started by the Kadet-Kaledin counter-revolutionary revolt against the Soviet authorities, against the workers’ and peasants’ government, has finally brought the class struggle to a head and has destroyed every chance of setting in a formally democratic way the very acute problems with which history has confronted the peoples of Russia, and in the first place her working class and peasants.” In an environment in which it was not clear which side, the Soviets or the Rada, would emerge victorious in Ukraine, Lenin decided to let the question of who represented the nation be decided on the battlefield.  

The situation was further complicated by the intervention of foreign powers. The Germans supported, indeed propped up, the anti-Bolshevik governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic republics; the Ottoman Turks overthrew the Soviet in Baku and backed an independent, anti-Soviet Azerbaijan. With the defeat of the Central Powers and the end of World War I, the British became the major force behind the anti-Soviet opposition. For the three years from 1918 to 1921 the Red Army was engaged in a simultaneous battle against “bourgeois nationalists” and “foreign interventionists.” Anti-imperialism merged with the drive to “liberate” the former subject peoples of the Russian Empire. Speaking to the Third Congress of Soviets in January 1918, Lenin claimed that the lesson Marxists had learned from the French experience, both Jacobin and Communard, was that “there is no other road to socialism except the dictatorship of the proletariat and the ruthless suppression of the rule of the exploiters.” (Applause)…. Not a single problem of the class struggle has ever been solved in history except by violence.”

With little real ability to impose its will in the peripheries, the Soviet government made a strategic shift in response to the growing number of autonomies and accepted by January 1918 the principle of federalism. As they launched an attack on Ukraine, the Bolsheviks announced that they recognized the Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Ukraine as “the supreme authority in Ukraine” and accepted “a federal union with Russia and complete unity in matters of internal and external policy.” The Third Congress of Soviets resolved: “The Soviet Russian Republic is established on the basis of a free union of free nations, as a federation of Soviet national republics.” Both federalism and national-territorial autonomy were written into the first Soviet constitution, adopted in July 1918. As Richard Pipes has noted, “Soviet Russia...became the first modern state to place the national principle at the base of its federal structure.”[8]

Many historians, ensnared in national historiographies and the paradigm of the nation as the unavoidable product of modernity, have failed to recognize that nationalism was relatively weak during the first revolutionary year, still largely centered in the ethnic intelligentsia, among students and the lower middle classes of the towns, with at best a fleeting following among broader strata. Among Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Azerbaijanis, rather than a sense of nationality, the paramount identification was with people nearby with whom one shared social and religious communality. For these peoples neither nationalism nor socialism was able to mobilize large numbers into the political struggles that would decide their future. For several other nationalities, among them the Latvians and Georgians, class-based socialist movements were far more potent than political nationalism. For still other nationalities, like the Ukrainians and the Estonians, nationality competed with a sense of class for primary loyalty of the workers and peasants with neither winning a dominant position. Among the most coherently nationalist movements were the Armenians where a socialist-nationalist party, the Dashnaktsutyun, dominated. Faced by the threat of annihilation at the hands of Ottoman Turks, Armenians rallied around an inclusive, all-class nationalism. The Poles also combined nationalism with socialism, as did the Finns, though non-socialist alternatives existed.[9]

In the ferocity of the civil war, many Communists, particularly those in the peripheries or of non-Russian origin, opposed Lenin’s principled stand in favor of national self-determination, fearing the dissolution of the unitary state. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, Bukharin argued that only in those nations where the proletariat had not defined its interests as separate from the bourgeoisie should the slogan of “self-determination of nations” be employed. Lenin’s formula, he claimed, was appropriate only “for Hottentots, Bushmen, Negroes, Indians,” whereas Stalin's notion of “self-determination for the laboring classes” corresponded to the period in which the dictatorship of the proletariat was being established.[10]  Lenin answered Bukharin sharply.  “There are no Bushmen in Russia; as for the Hottentots, I also have not heard that they have pretensions to an autonomous republic, but we have the Bashkir, the Kyrgyz, a whole series of other peoples, and in relation to them we cannot refuse recognition.”  All nations, he reasserted, have the right to self-determination, and Bolshevik support for this principle would aid the self-determination of the laboring classes. The stage of a given nation as it moved from “medieval forms to bourgeois democracy and on to proletarian democracy” should be considered, he stated, but it was difficult to differentiate the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which had been sharply defined only in Russia.[11] The final resolution of the Congress was a compromise between Lenin’s tolerance of nationalism and the more militant opposition to it.[12] The Bolsheviks reached no consensus on nationality policy, and the conflict between those who, like Lenin, considered the national agenda of non-Russians and those who, like Stalin, subordinated the national to the “proletarian” continued until the former’s death and the latter’s consolidation of power within the party.  On the ground, Communists themselves decided who was the carrier of the nation’s will, and after the initial recognition of independence for Finland, Poland, the Baltic republics, and (for a time) Georgia, few other gestures were made toward “separatists.”

By late 1921, the revolutionary wave had receded, and the Soviet government began to see itself as one state among many, albeit with a different historical role. The link between the national question within the USSR and the anti-imperialist struggle abroad became more tenuous. Both in its domestic nationality policies and in its anti-imperialist foreign policy the experience of the Soviet leadership demonstrated a series of concessions and adjustments of theory to reality, of desire to necessity, and of ideology to pragmatism. Bolsheviks were a minority party representing a social class that had nearly disappeared in the civil war. With no political or cultural hegemony over the vast peasant masses and with exceptional vulnerability in the non-Russian regions, the Communist parties moderated their own leap into socialism. The years of the New Economic Policy (1921–1928) were a period of strategic compromise with the peasantry in both Russia and the national republics, a time of retreat and patience awaiting the delayed international revolution. It was also a time of greater accommodation to the non-Russian peoples of the periphery. National cultures were promoted; native languages taught; and local cadres were elevated into positions of power, displacing Russians over time. 

Until his last active days Lenin continued to advocate caution and sensitivity toward non-Russians, whereas many of his comrades, most notably Stalin and Orjonikidze, were less willing to accommodate even moderate nationalists. In several republics, leaders of defeated parties were quickly removed from power and driven into exile; but other former members of the nationalist or moderate socialist movements were integrated into the Communist parties and state apparatus. The Bolshevik mission civilisatrice involved the building of a federated state that would both nurture the nations within it, raise the borderlands up to the cultural and economic level of the center, and thus forge new loyalties to the ideals of the socialists. The pragmatic gradually won out over the purely aspirational. Perhaps most ominously, in the light of a resistant reality in which the inevitable movement toward communism appeared stalled, the gap widened between the actual practices of Bolsheviks and the inflated rhetoric that disguised them. The language of national liberation and anti-imperialism remained a potent discursive cloak under which an empire of subordinated nations was gradually built.




[1] Alex Callinicos, “Lenin in the Twenty-First Century?  Lenin, Weber, and the Politics of Responsability,” in Lenin Reloaded (Durham and London:  Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 36-37. Callinicos writes that “Lenin was by no means the greatest Marxist economic thinker,” yet he sees Lenin’s work as necessary for contemporary politics:  “The Left needs such strategic analysis today. It needs to go beyond the critique, however valid, of the apologetic theories of globalization put forward by avowed neoliberals and their allies among the defenders of the Third Way to develop a proper understanding of the phase of development capitalism is currently undergoing.”

[2] V. I. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Theses” Vorbote, no. 2, April 1916.

[3] See, for example, this sentence in a letter to Bukharin, October 14, 1916.

[4] V. I. Lenin, PPS,   (LCW 23:70).  See Kevin B. Anderson, “The Rediscovery and the Persistence of the Dialectic in Philosophy and World Politics,” in Lenin Reloaded.

[5] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochineniia [henceforth, PPS] (Moscow:  Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1958-1965), XXXV, p. 116.

[6] From the brochure Zadachi proletariata v nashei revoliutsii (Proekt platformy proletarskoi partii), written in April 1917, first published in September.  [V. I. Lenin, PSS, XXXI, pp. 167-168.]

[7] V. I. Lenin, “Manifesto to the Ukrainian People, with an Ultimatum to the Ukrainian Rada,” December 3, 1017, PSS

[8] Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union:  Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 11.

[9] The strength of nationalist versus socialist parties varied from nationality to nationality.  Nationalists or socialist nationalists were strongest among the Armenians, Finns, and Poles; less strong among Ukrainians, Estonians, and Latvians; and even less powerful among Lithuanians, Belarusians, Georgians, and the Muslims peoples.  For a comparative account of nationalism and socialism during the Russian Revolution, see Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past:  Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1993), particularly pp. 20-83.

[10] Vosmoi s"ezd RKP (b).  Mart 1919 goda.  Protokoly (Moscow:  Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1959), pp.46-48.

[11] Ibid., pp. 52-56.

[12] Ibid., pp. 397-398.

On behalf of H-Nationalism, I'd like to thank Ronald Grigor Suny for his excellent contribution. The fourth post of our series will be published next Saturday (20 January). Don't miss it!