26 December 2015

Origins of the Soviet Ethnofederal System

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1329-1340, 1408-1429:
There has [been] much scholarly debate about the impact of the Bolsheviks’ decision to devise an “ethnofederal system” for the Soviet Union, which created autonomous territories on ethnic principles. In the Caucasus, scholars have observed, this preserved national divisions, which eventually fractured the Soviet state and turned into armed conflicts. It could be argued, however, that the Caucasus set the blueprint for the Soviet Union, not the other way round. In other words, the fragile situation in the Caucasus in 1921, still broken by numerous inter-ethnic conflicts, may have caused the Bolsheviks to invent the ethnofederal system under duress.

It was also a Caucasian, Stalin, who presided over this complex construction once it had been created. His approach was both ruthless and pragmatic. The primary aim appears to have been to build a system that would survive the shock of both internal and external threats. National interests were balanced out and could eventually be eliminated. Small nationalities would be modernized, with Russia the engine pulling them into the future. Lenin, who disapproved of Russian nationalism, might have been content to see Georgia detached from Russia, so long as it remained Bolshevik. Stalin believed that Russia, the center, and the Caucasus, the borderlands, needed one another. In 1920, he wrote, “Central Russia, the hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs.


The late 1920s were the heyday of what Terry Martin calls the “affirmative action empire,” with the implementation of the new ideology of korenizatsia (literally “rooting,” or “nativization”) sponsoring programs to modernize and assist the non-Russian Soviet nationalities. The Azeri, Abkhaz, Ossetian, and Lezgin written languages were all given a new progressive Roman alphabet. Huge numbers of people received an education for the first time in their native languages. The Communists declared that in the first ten years of Soviet rule in Georgia, half a million people had been taught to read and write. In 1940, Armenia claimed that the entire adult population was literate for the first time.

For years, scholars of the Soviet Union concentrated on its centralizing policies, and some called it the “prison-house of nations.” Only recently have scholars and commentators begun to analyze how, beginning with the korenizatsia program, the Soviet authorities actually defined and strengthened national identities. As the American Suny put it in 1993, “rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations.” The tsarist empire had categorized its people by religion, mother tongue, social class, and regional location. The Bolsheviks held that “nationality” was a useful transitional phase between the backward culture of small ethnic groups and an advanced state of socialism. But the national identities persisted, and the transnational socialist future never came. As Martin writes, “in order to implement affirmative action programs, monitor their success, delineate national territories, assign children to programs, the Soviet state constantly asked its citizens for their nationality.” So to be “Ossetian” or “Azerbaijani” acquired real meaning for the first time, and this category became a formal badge of identity when it was written into the first Soviet internal passports in 1932.

There was a hierarchy of nations. Two of the three main nationalities of the Transcaucasus, the Armenians and Georgians, were classified as “advanced” Western nationalities, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, while Azerbaijanis fell into the category of nations in formation, requiring developmental aid. In practice this meant that, as in tsarist Russia, Armenians and Georgians could advance quickly up the Soviet career ladder. Two Karabakh Armenians from village backgrounds were cases in point. One, Levon Mirzoyan, served as head of the Communist Party first in Azerbaijan and then in Kazakhstan, the other; Suren Sadunts, served as first Party secretary in Tajikistan in 1935–36. Both were shot in Stalin’s purges. It would have been impossible for a Kazakh or an Azerbaijani to be given an equivalent post in Armenia or Georgia.

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