Empire, Nationalities, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Michael Doyle defines empires as follows: “Empires are relationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies.”[1] In both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union there existed a “metropole” or a  core of Russian population and institutions molded in Russian culture and language with some participation of representatives of other cultures who helped maintain those Russian-centric institutions. This metropole maintained the type of imperial relationship described by Doyle to the non-Russian periphery territories and populations. This relationship was engineered to the general political and economic benefit of the metropole. The peripheral populations never enjoyed genuine sovereignty or political independence. However, at least in the case of the Soviet Union, which will be the focus of this paper, fluctuations did occur in the comparative level of the periphery’s autonomy and their freedom to express their respective individual nationalities. In fact, these expressions were at times even encouraged.

The Soviet leadership displayed a striking flexibility in defining the place of Russianness in the Union’s identity and institutions. The prevalence of the identity, its status in education, its role in defining the nation and/or the state, and the stature of Russians in the Union’s institutions all remained in a state of continual change as the leadership adapted itself to new challenges from both inside and outside the Union on the one hand, and its own priorities, whether economic centralization, the war effort or the continuous endeavor to gain and maintain legitimacy, on the other hand. Analyzing this vacillation in Soviet nationalities policy, the reasons behind it, and its role in the demise of the USSR, is the aim of this article.

Early Nationalities Policy

As early as the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, a new nationalities policy and a campaign of de-Russification were launched.[2] Exhausted by the First World War, the Russian empire was on the verge of disintegration. Polish and Finnish nationalisms were long known sources of concern to Russian rulers and were still problematic.[3] However, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Azeri nationalisms – to mention but a few – were expressed with vigor for the first time. The Bolsheviks had to quickly formulate an effective policy to appease non-Russian nationalist impulses and avoid the fragmentation of Russian territory. Equally crucially, the main remnant of the old régime, the nationalist White Army, conducted some of its operations in non-Russian territories, and was absolutely uncompromising on the idea of a single and undivided Russia ruled by Russians.[4] The White Army’s stance was particularly unappealing to non-Russian nationalists, and if the Bolsheviks were to win the hearts and minds of non-Russians and prevail, they had to distinguish themselves from the White Army’s imperialist ideology.

Lenin initiated the first shift away from imperial policies. At the Eighth Party Congress in 1919, Lenin argued that the nascent socialist fatherland must radically distance itself from the imperialism of Tsarist Russia.[5] Lenin advocated recognition of the various peoples of the old empire as separate nationalities and argued that they should be granted significant concessions. This stirred ideological opposition among hardcore elements since Marxist theory defines nationalism as the foe of true socialism and a plot of the bourgeoisie to curtail the proletariat from reaching its universal aspirations. However, by using a degree of flexibility and acknowledging and accommodating peripheral national aspirations, Lenin suggested a very pragmatic move. In his mind, from a theoretical point of view, this was a temporary concession necessitated by political imperatives.[6] The supremacy of the proletariat would ultimately render nation-states and thus nationalism obsolete.

The right to partial self-determination was thus formulated as a response to the increasing assertiveness of non-Russian nationalisms. Federalism and the co-option of non-Russians became a source of legitimacy to what was – after all – an emerging imperial state desperately seeking to consolidate its rule over the periphery. The national identity of the new Soviet state and its citizens was thus established on the universal ideology of communism – and not ethnicity.[7] According to Hans Kohn, the Bolsheviks turned “nationalism from an all-commanding absolute into the servant of a supranational idea.”[8] Communism as an ideology was the foundation for the Soviet state-building process; it defined the Soviet Union as a federation of equal peoples inexorably advancing towards the communist ideal of unity.[9] It was to be radically different from Tsarist Russia and to be antidote to the social “viruses” which had plagued it (i.e. monarchy, reactionary aristocracy, capitalism, the Orthodox Church, and “imperialism,” officially defined as the cultural repression of the non-Russian periphery). The nationalities policy took the name of коренизация (korenizatsiia), which is often translated as “indigenization,” and its objective was to make Soviet power seem more “indigenous” to the non-Russian periphery.

One of the primary manifestations of korenizatsiia was a wave of Moscow-sponsored nation-building efforts. The central authorities actively established separate republics and a myriad of national territories that were drawn up along ethnic lines. The central authorities supported local languages, educated and promoted local elites and thus built new loyalties to the socialist cause and the central state that was its main champion. As Ronald Suny put it, “[r]ather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became the incubator of new nations.”[10] Each Soviet republic was flanked with an official culture, official folklore and national opera-house. Soviet authorities went as far as to develop written systems for local languages that had previously lacked them. Local languages were taught at schools and universities and used in local administration, provoking in some cases a decade-long adaptation process of a previously Russianized population.[11] In the 1920s, when almost all pupils in the Ukraine were taught in Ukrainian, a Russian residing there also had to be educated in Ukrainian (and obviously to master it if he/she was to pursue a political career in the local administration).[12]

While the central state accommodated and encouraged non-Russian expressions of nationhood, it was particularly suspicious of Russian chauvinism. Lenin stated that one must:

distinguish between the nationalism of oppressor nations and the nationalism of small nations… [I]n relation to the second nationalism, in almost all historical practice, we nationals of the large nations are guilty, because of an infinite amount of violence [committed].[13]

In other words, nationalism of smaller nations – in this context, the non-Russian periphery – was a legitimate response to the chauvinism of larger oppressing nations. If this chauvinism were defeated, peripheral nationalisms would lose their raison-d’être. This mistrust of Russian nationalism involved a sustained effort to eradicate the Russian past, its cultural expressions, its rural roots and the institutions that embodied Russianness, especially the Orthodox Church and the Romanov dynasty. This culminated with the deportation of the Don and Kuban Cossacks, who were ethnic Russians who had supported the royalist White Army.[14] It is therefore fair to talk of this period as one of de-Russification.

Korenizatsiia helped to prevent the disintegration of the fragile Bolshevik state and created a combination of direct and indirect rule.[15] Korenizatsiia was so efficiently carried out that one could argue, as author Terry Martin does, that the USSR was truly the first “affirmative action empire” in history.[16] De-Russification and Sovietization also had a cultural corollary in the short-lived movement of Proletkult (Proletarian Culture), an avant-garde artistic movement with the goal of creating a truly Soviet civilization, which would be purified of the old elitist Russian culture of the nineteenth century. Proletkult was to become a revolutionary new culture transcending Russianness. It was to be internationalist, collectivist and proletarian.[17]

Stalin and the About-Face in Korenizatsiia Policy

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin slowed and eventually reversed the process of korenizatsiia. Several factors may explain this. First and foremost, korenizatsiia had generated a strong sense of national consciousness among the non-Russian populations, and Stalin grew increasingly mistrustful of them. Although he had earlier supported the institution of korenizatsiia and even helped develop its conceptual framework in his 1913 pamphlet Marxism and the National Question[18], he now believed that national consciousness posed a challenge to the metropole. Additionally, the state had by then the means of repression which it lacked in 1919 and priorities had shifted from consolidation and accommodation to development. Increasing economic centralization required Russian to be imposed as the predominant language of economics, development and education, and this logically favored an active incorporation of large numbers of educated Russians into the national enterprise.[19]

The leadership also found itself confronted with a still strong chauvinism in the Russian masses. A more appeasing approach had to be adopted to avoid alienating Russians and help them identify with the goals set by the Kremlin; their loyalty was needed to carry out the government’s ambitious political and economic development plans. In an endeavor of such a scale, the central government had to make the best use of its resources, and needless to say, Russians stood at the core of the empire in terms of population numbers and education levels. Educated Russians were sent to help expand the economies of less-developed republics, creating one of the lasting consequences of this period: the large-scale migration of Russians, which in turn modified the ethnic composition of nearly all the republics.[20]

Russianness was “rehabilitated,” and Russian patriotism was encouraged and often imposed from above. Many local political leaders in the Republics were physically eliminated in large-scale purges, while national treasures were devastated and cultural institutions shut down. Additionally, several autonomous republics and regions were abolished and entire populations deported from their homelands to politically quell what was seen as a dangerous and rising local nationalism.[21]

By 1938, Russian was compulsory in all schools across the Union. In the mid-1930s, korenizatsiia institutions, which had previously represented minority interests were dismantled at an accelerated pace.[22] This “re-Russification” was amplified further during the Second World War as chauvinism was exploited to mobilize the specifically Russian masses for the battlefield. Concurrently, nineteenth century Russian literary and artistic classics were restored as models while Proletkult was set aside. [23]

During the Second World War, the symbolism of the 1812 fight against Napoleon with its fervent nationalism was utilized to inject a patriotic dimension into the ongoing struggle against fascism. Alexander Nevsky, Kutuzov, and even Peter the Great were glorified as war heroes of the past and their aristocratic blood was forgiven. Famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by Stalin to adapt Nevsky’s valiant fight against the Teutonic knights. In another act supporting Russian nationalism, it was “Mother Russia” herself on propaganda posters all across the Union calling the citizens to the front. Pre-Soviet high culture was promoted by the Kremlin as an attempt to legitimize the state and promote national unity during unpredictable years.[24]

Reaching a Balance

The third shift in nationalities policy was much less abrupt and led to a more balanced situation. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death, the nationalities question became crucial to the battle for his succession. The contenders had come to believe that once again, in order to gain support, they had to grant concessions to the non-Russian periphery. Once Khrushchev ascended to power, some economic-administrative competencies shifted from the metropole to the republics and many non-Russians gained offices in the central and local governments (although some of these transfers were reversed in the 1960s.)[25]

At the root of this shift was the fact that the korenizatsiia policies followed during the 1920s had allowed the blossoming of strong national consciousness and, more importantly, of an experience of limited statehood. This consciousness was fuelled by the most powerful catalyst of identity, i.e. a national language, which in many cases korenizatsiia had helped to bring about. The national consciousness of non-Russians was even further strengthened with the widespread literacy and education achieved from the 1930s onwards. Undoubtedly, Stalin’s repression of these identities in the 1930s and 40s and re-Russification created tremendous ethnic and political tensions in regions that had only recently tasted national freedom, at least in the cultural sphere of identity. Hence, in order to give new life to Soviet politics after Stalin’s death, the leadership had to once again recognize national elites and co-opt them in the broader power structure.

National differences were officially recognized at the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, and socialism was again positioned as the humanistic ideology that would allow national idiosyncrasies to flourish. From a pragmatic perspective, as mentioned previously, the promotion of federalism and of national differences had always been a strategic means of fostering the authority of the metropole over the periphery. Nonetheless, Khrushchev actively endeavored to devise a theoretical basis to his policies. He endorsed the paradigms of сближение (sblizhenie, rapprochement) and слияние (sliianie, merging) and developed them at the 1961 Party Congress.[26] These concepts, relying on previous Leninist ideology, essentially asserted that the march towards communism would merge national differences, leading to a fusion of nationalities into one “Soviet people.” There was therefore no need to repress expressions of difference that would disappear over time.

However, Khrushchev’s nationalities policy would not be a complete return to the situation of the 1920s, and on one particular aspect he would remain intractable: Russian remained the Soviet язык межнационального общения, (yazyk mezhnatsionalnogo obshcheniya, the language of internationality communication) and of the “cooperation of all peoples of the USSR.”[27] Higher educational institutions and an ever-growing number of high schools operated exclusively in Russian, especially after the education reforms of the late 1950s.[28] The predominance of Russian was the major difference between this third period – where national differences were accommodated – and the first period analyzed in this article, the nation-building craze of the 1920s (korenizatsiia).

One of the reasons for this discrepancy was that the national goal of economic development was a priority now more than ever, and a unifying idiom was necessary to carry it out efficiently. It was a premeditated choice, and Khrushchev most probably was aware of its political cost. When he clearly expressed his determination to foster the position of Russian as the dominant language in the late 1950s, he essentially signaled an end to his systematic policy of concessions and in the process destroyed the support that he had enjoyed in the non-Russian republics. Although this language policy was extremely unpopular among non-Russians, it remained unchanged up until the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991.

It would be an exaggeration to state that the USSR between Stalin’s death and 1991 was fully a Russian empire, but it must be stressed that the Russian-centric metropole and the Russian language dominated. However, indirect rule was more firmly established, and in large parts of the Union, especially in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, local leaders enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy.

Nationalism and Collapse

To what extent did the fluctuations in nationalities policy play a role in the collapse of the system as a whole? The situation in the 1980s reveals the crucial role played by nationalism, both Russian and non-Russian, in the last years of Soviet history. Increasingly, during Brezhnev’s rule and later, nationalism became a catalyst of discontent. Brezhnev’s era was characterized by permissiveness vis-à-vis many expressions of nationalism, and this passivity allowed the development of dissident movements under the guise of nationalism. Nationalism was also used to express dissent in Gorbachev’s time,[29] especially when economic reform failed and after glasnost’s revelations about Soviet repression wiped out the state’s legitimacy almost overnight.[30] According to Dominic Lieven, “in the emerging re-construction of their own history, the nationalists identified the Soviet experiment as the enemy of essential, authentic, natural national aspirations,”[31] despite the fact that the Soviet policies had nurtured and even shaped some of these nations.

In confronting these national movements and their demands for sovereignty or independence, Gorbachev, committed to democratic reform, could not use the convenient instrument of force that had been used so often to hold the USSR together. Nationalism, stimulated by the fluctuation between the experience of statehood and forced Russification, thwarted the reform envisioned by Gorbachev and led the country towards radicalism and ultimately implosion and an interesting type of decolonization. There were many other reasons behind the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, but nationalism was one among the major ingredients. As Gorbachev’s decentralization policies further eroded an already weakening central authority, declarations of independence mushroomed in the republics.

Russian nationalism and resentment was an equally crucial element in this process. Many Russians did not have the impression of belonging to a metropole. In most Russian regions, the perception was that the metropole was concentrated in Moscow alone. Indeed,

Russian regions from Vladivostok to Leningrad were as tightly controlled as non-Russian republics, perhaps more so. Everything from their school curricula to their crop acreage to the types of goods they sold in their stores was determined in Moscow.[32]

There was an equally strong resentment against smaller republics having superior autonomy, representation and lobbying power than larger and more-developed Russian regions within the RSFSR. Boris Yeltsin played partly on these resentments when he conveyed the populist message that for too long Russians had been dominated by what he called “The Center,” i.e., the Moscow central institutions. As the progeny of the Soviet system, Gorbachev was in no position to challenge Yeltsin’s appeal to the dormant but still powerful nationalism of the Russian masses.

Thus Yeltsin, enjoying a strong base of support among Russian nationalists, became chair of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, and declared Russia a sovereign state. After a series of uprisings, hasty decisions, misreading of actual events and a missed coup, the USSR ultimately collapsed.

The status of the Soviet Union as an identity marker however, has not collapsed. It is interesting to notice that the merger of Russian and purely Soviet symbols, in addition to the victory of 1945, gave reality to the abstract notion of Soviet patriotism.[33] For some time, Russia and the Soviet Union became indistinguishable. It is not the existence of this Soviet patriotism but its resilience that is remarkable. In Russia itself, many Soviet patriotic elements have been restored by Vladimir Putin into the national symbols of the Russian Federation, including the music (though not lyrics) of the Soviet national anthem. A Russian military parade today is an interesting blend of Soviet and Russian components that shows how confused Russian identity itself has become after 70 years of Soviet infiltration.[34] Also, many in Russia today feel a strong Soviet nostalgia and do not see the break between Russia and the USSR as a clear one.


The extent of the Russian character of the USSR was more clearly defined in the two periods that followed the 1917 Revolution, i.e. korenizatsiia between the Civil War and the early 1930s, and re-Russification until Stalin’s death in 1953. In the first period the USSR was not a Russian empire, as policies were not intended to inequitably favor the imperial core over the periphery. During korenizatsiia, the USSR was an incubator of new nationalities, replacing earlier local, religious or tribal solidarities with a sense of belonging to various nation-states comprising the broader Union.[35] Russianness was repressed. However, this statement must be tempered by the fact that despite the official recognition of non-Russian nationalities, real political power and economic decision-making were still concentrated in Moscow. An absurd situation was created in which nationalisms with all their flags, lexicons and national clothing were promoted, but true national political expression was lacking. Subsequently, during the second period, when Russianness was restored as the overarching identity of the union, these new national consciousnesses, still freshly promoted or created, were ruthlessly repressed, and therefore paradoxically consolidated. From that time, Russianness was deeply resented by non-Russian nationalists as the nemesis. Indeed, it was not only Tchaikovsky and Pushkin who were back on the pedestal, but an imperialist metropole, imposing an inequitable relationship upon the periphery. This left an indelible perception among non-Russians. The assimilation of the Soviet system with Russian imperialism, led the non-Russian nationalists at a later stage to define themselves against both the Soviet system and the perceived Russian imperialism for which it seemed to stand.

The post-Stalinist period was again more permissive and more tolerant toward expressions of non-Russian nationalism. Many of the nationalist movements, which were allowed to express themselves in the republics during Brezhnev’s reign, would later fuel the mass movements of the Gorbachev period.[36] The USSR was not a Russian empire as such, but there was a predominance of Russians, although this was never absolute.

The ultimate irony of Soviet history is that its proclaimed initial objective of unifying the Soviet people – an honorable goal which might have overcome divisions created by nationalism – was frustrated by a pragmatic policy of cultivating non-Russian national consciousnesses, believing that the march towards socialism would one day render nations obsolete. This never happened. In fact, the very national experiences that korenizatsiia had engendered, consolidated by later repression, provided a social and cultural base for discreet resistance to rule by the metropole and ultimately radical nationalist uprisings in the 1980s.[37] In fact, the republics had been brought into the Union by force and were kept there by force during Stalin’s reign.[38] Force, or the memory of force, helped hold the Union together for 74 years, until Gorbachev liberalized some aspects of Soviet political life and, in the process, unleashed the inherent vulnerability of Soviet federalism: the right of the republics, embodied in the Soviet constitution, to secede. Nationalism was a time bomb that exploded in the void left by the de-legitimized Soviet ideology in a period when the leadership was reluctant to use force to hold the empire together.

In the last days, the USSR was perceived as a Russian empire by the republics aspiring to self-determination. In Russia itself, the USSR was perceived as an over-centralized Moscow empire. The convergence of these two perceptions played a role of great consequence in the disintegration of the imperial territory into fifteen independent states.


[1] Michael W. Doyle, Empire, Cornell University Press, 1986, p.19.

[2] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, Cornell University Press, 2001, pp. 11 – 12.

[3] Ibid, p. 2.

[4] Gerhard Simon, Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union. From Totalitarian Dictatorship to Post-Stalinist Society, Westview, 1991, p.21.

[5] Lenin had already developed these ideas in a brochure written in April 1917, Zadachi proletariata v nashei revoliutsii (Proekt platformy proletarskoi partii).

[6] Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past; Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 87.

[7] Interestingly, for all its apparent modernity and progressiveness, this move was reminiscent of more ancient empires where ethnicity was also not a defining element of citizen identity. For instance, most Roman emperors were not ethnic Italians, as Latin high culture was considered the actual determinate of Roman identity and had precedence over ethnic origin.

[8] Hans Kohn, Der Nationalismus in der Sowjetunion, Societäts-Verlag, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1932, pp. 94 – 96, quoted in Simon, Nationalism and Policy, p. 7.

[9] Dominic Lieven, Empire, the Russian Empire and its Rivals from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, John Murray, London, 2000, p. 291. According to the constitution of the USSR, the Soviet republics had the right to secede.

[10] Idem.

[11] Ibid., p. 102-103.

[12] Ibid., p. 292.

[13] Lenin, K voprosu o natsional’nostiakh, 359, quoted by Martin in The Affirmative Action Empire, p. 7.

[14] Lieven, Empire, p. 303.

[15] Simon, Nationalism and Policy, p. 1.

[16] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, Cornell University Press, 2001.

[17] Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia, New York, 2002, p. 450.

[18] Joseph V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question”, in Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913.

[19] Lieven, Empire, p. 292.

[20] Simon, Nationalism and Policy, p. 2.

[21] Suny, The Revenge of the Past, p. 108.

[22] Ibid., p. 108.

[23] Figes, Natasha’s Dance, p. 480 – 481.

[24] Lieven, Empire, p. 305 – 306.

[25] Simon, Nationalism and Policy, p. 234 – 258.

[26] Khrushchev, N.S. “Report on the Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” Documents of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU. New York: Crosscurrents Press, 1961, 2 vols.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Suny, The Revenge of the Past, p. 108-110.

[29] Suny, The Revenge of the Past, p. 125 – 126.

[30] Lieven, Empire, p. 335.

[31] Ibid., p. 139 – 140.

[32] J. Hough, Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991, Brookings Institution Press, 1997, p. 57.

[33] Simon, Nationalism and Policy, p. 149.

[34] Dominic Lieven, “The Soviet Union: an anti-capitalist empire?”, lecture in Empire, Colonialism and Globalization, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London, March 2006.

[35] Suny, The Revenge of the Past, p. 110.

[36] Ibid., p.124.

[37] Suny, The Revenge of the Past, p. 126.

[38] Lieven, Empire, p. 326.


Michael W. Doyle, Empire, Cornell University Press, 1986.

Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2002.

J. Hough, Democratisation and Revolution in the USSR 1985-1991, Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

Khrushchev, N.S. “Report on the Program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” Documents of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU. New York: Crosscurrents Press, 1961, 2 vols.

Hans Kohn, Der Nationalismus in der Sowjetunion, Societäts-Verlag, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1932.

The Changing Status of Russian in the Soviet Union, ed. By Isabelle Kreindler (International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 33.) The Hague: Mouton, 1982. Pp. 141.

Dominic Lieven, Empire, the Russian Empire and its Rivals from the Sixteenth Century to the Present, John Murray, London, 2000.

Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, Cornell University Press, 2001.

Gerhard Simon, Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union. From Totalitarian Dictatorship to Post-Stalinist Society, Westview Special Studies on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1991.

Joseph V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question”, in Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913.

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

About the Author

Reza Zia-Ebrahimi

Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is finishing an MSc in History of International Relations at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE). He plans to write a PhD thesis on Iranian nationalism.

View all posts by: Reza Zia-Ebrahimi

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Andrei Nesterov