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The Russian Revolution and national freedom

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John Riddell looks at the lessons of the period when the early Soviet government led the struggle for liberation for oppressed nations
Issue 2017
The Congress of the Peoples of the East
The Congress of the Peoples of the East

We live during a new wave of struggles for national freedom and dignity, expressed most strongly in the Middle East and Latin America, but finding a reflection in the heartlands of imperialism.

In developing a response to each of these struggles one point of reference is the body of work by Marxists such as Vladimir Lenin who analysed the national question.

But it is also crucial to examine closely how Marxists responded to the struggles for national freedom that played such a decisive role in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the early years of the Soviet republic.

Before the revolution, the Russian empire was known as “the prison house of nations”. In 1903, a congress of Russia’s Marxists adopted a position that argued for the right of every nation in the Russian state to self-determination, to regional self-rule, and to the use of its language in schools and social institutions.

At the same congress, the Marxists split into the Menshevik wing and the Bolshevik wing led by Lenin. During the decade that followed, the Bolshevik wing became the first Marxist current internationally to recognise the importance of the liberation struggles then taking shape in colonies across the world.

Lenin argued that Marxists had to distinguish between nationalism in the advanced capitalist countries, where “progressive bourgeois national movements came to an end long ago,” and the oppressed nations of eastern Europe and the semi-colonial and colonial world.

For these oppressed nations, he called for defence of the right to self-determination and national freedom. Only this could lay the basis for the political unification in struggle of working people of all nationalities.

However, some positions expressed by Bolshevik leaders before 1917 were modified in the course of revolution.

For example, consider the definition of a nation provided in 1913 by Joseph Stalin: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

His criteria have merit, but they have sometimes been misused to justify denying national rights to peoples who appear not to pass the test.

In addition, Lenin stressed that his support for national self-determination “implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense”. In 1913, he stated, “Fight against all national oppression? Yes, certainly. Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? Certainly not.”

The evolution of the Bolsheviks’ position is most striking with respect to Russia’s “eastern peoples” – in the Crimea, on the Volga, in the Caucasus, and in central and north east Asia – who had been subjected to settler-based colonisation.

They had seen their lands seized, their livelihoods destroyed, and their languages and cultures suppressed. When revolution broke out in 1917, they had not yet fully emerged as nationalities. Assessed by Stalin’s criteria for nationhood, they did not make the grade.

But in the crucible of revolution, national consciousness began to assert itself, provoking and stimulating demands for cultural autonomy, self-rule and even national independence.

The Soviets take power

On 15 November 1917, one week after the workers and soldiers of Russia took power, the Soviet government decreed the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia” and the right of these peoples to self-determination up to and including independence.

The Soviet government also invited each nation within Russia to hold a Soviet congress to decide whether and on what basis to participate in its federal structure.

The government specified that the minority peoples’ regions must be “autonomous, that is have their own schools, courts, administrations, organs of power and social, political and cultural institutions”, with full rights to use the minority language “in all spheres of social and political activity”.

This policy applied also to religious customs and traditions. Thus the Sharia – the Muslim common law – was recognised in traditionally Muslim territories as an integral part of the Soviet legal structure.

The Soviet government also endorsed the rights of the Muslim peoples to lands recently seized by Russian colonists.

It worked to educate government personnel about the social structure of the eastern peoples.

An appeal to Red Army personnel in 1920 noted that among these peoples, “a clear class differentiation has not yet taken place… The producers have not yet been torn away from the means of production. Each handicraftsman… is also a merchant. Commerce… rests in the hands of millions of small traders, [each of whom] only has a penny’s worth of goods.”

The appeal urged that soldiers see the small independent producers and traders of these regions as allies, as toilers, not as profiteers.

The Soviet government supported the evolution into mature nationalities of peoples still only at the dawn of national consciousness, so they might join Soviet society on a basis of equality.

The Soviets therefore embarked on an ambitious programme to promote national cultural development. Local experts were engaged to choose, for each ethnic group, the dialect best adapted to serving as the basis for a national language.

Alphabets were devised for the mostly pre-literate peoples. Dictionaries and grammars were written and put to use in the publication of minority-language newspapers.

By 1927, across the Soviet Union, more than 90 percent of students from minority nationalities were being educated in their own languages.

Preferential hiring

The Soviet government strove to assure that each nationality was represented in local governmental organs in proportion to its size in the population as a whole. This policy was termed “korenizatsiia” (indigenisation) – “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” in modern idiom.

By 1927, minority nationals predominated in the soviet executive bodies in their regions.

The Communist Party universities, a major source of new leading party members, gave preference to candidates from minority peoples. By 1924 these peoples made up 50 percent of the student body – roughly equal to their weight in the population.

Efforts were also made to speed economic development in territories of the Muslim peoples. They were encouraged to enter the working class of waged labourers, which in these territories had previously been almost entirely Russian in composition. Progress was rapid – by 1926 minority peoples made up a majority of the workforce in Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Dagestan, and about 40 percent in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

These achievements, of course, were possible only through the initiative and leadership of revolutionaries from the minority nationalities themselves. They were mainly drawn from revolutionary nationalist movements that some Marxists, then and now, disparagingly term “bourgeois”.

The central leadership of the Communist Party repeatedly allied with these forces in order to overcome resistance to its policies toward Muslim peoples from within its own ranks.

The general approach of the Bolsheviks was codified by resolutions of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 and the World Congresses of the Communist International, an international network of revolutionary parties, in 1920 and 1922. The positions developed helped the Communist International to win support across Asia during the following years.

The mood of these years is captured by Babayev, a young Muslim from Azerbaijan, who attended the Baku congress as a guard.

Interviewed many years later, he recalled that “when the call to prayer came, he found it natural to set aside his gun during devotions, after which he would ‘go back to defend with our blood the conference and the revolution’… Thousands of people, convinced there was no contradiction between being a Bolshevik and a Muslim, joined the Bolshevik ranks.”

Stalinist reversal

During the 1920s, a privileged bureaucratic caste rose to power in the Soviet Union, with Stalin at the head. This group showed increasing hostility to the rights of minority nationalities. This trend led Lenin, in his final months, to launch a campaign to defend the rights of these peoples.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Stalinist forces rapidly gained control. Soviet republics in Asia were subjected to bureaucratic centralisation, chauvinist policies, hostility to minority language rights, and massive counter?revolutionary terror.

Despite the reversals, the policies of the Bolsheviks in Lenin’s time provide an example of how the working class can ally with oppressed peoples in common struggle.

The Bolsheviks showed a capacity to ally with and learn from the most advanced fighters for national freedom. They set aside old dogmas and allowed real social forces to shape their strategy – one that might today be called “unity through diversity”.

The Bolshevik program included not just political self-determination for oppressed nationalities, but unconditional support for their struggle to win the political, cultural, and economic rights needed to achieve genuine equality, and positive measures to assist these peoples in developing their cultural and political potential as nationalities.

John Riddell is co-editor of the Socialist Voice forum, based in Canada

Further Reading

John Riddell’s article draws on Jeremy Smith’s important work, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, which uses Soviet archives released after 1990.

Dave Crouch looks at the Bolsheviks and Islam in International Socialism 110 (go to for details). The best introduction to the politics of the Communist International is the Pathfinder Press series, The Communist International in Lenin’s Time, edited by John Riddell.

For information on books, and to obtain a recording of John Riddell’s talk on national liberation at the Marxism 2006 conference, phone Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop on 020 7637 1848.

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