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Cultural nationalism contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union

Nationalism in the post-Soviet republics did not arise solely as a result of the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union. The longstanding policy of the Soviet elite aimed at forming a multinational state is what enabled it. Authorities sought to use ethnic diversity to strengthen the state structure, but the result was exactly the opposite. A study by Andrey Shcherbak, senior research fellow at the HSE’s Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR)*

The late 1980s and early 1990s were noted for their sweeping and unexpected upsurge of national movements in virtually all of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union. One of the reasons for this lies in the development of cultural nationalism in the preceding decades as an unintended side effect of the nationality policies being carried out.

Andrey Shcherbak has looked at Soviet nationality policies in both a comparative and historical sense. “Soviet ethnic regions throughout the entire Soviet era were researched using structural equation modelling (SEM),” said Shcherbak. During the entire project, the history of 49 Soviet regions was analysed from 1917-1991.

Following the ideas of the two scholars, David Laitin and Dmitrii Gorenburg, Shcherbak distinguished two types of nationalism: cultural and political.

Cultural nationalism is understood to be promotion of an official language of the dominant nation and the creation of conditions for studying it by representatives of other nations.

Political nationalism is the demand for national independence and recognition of the rights of ethnic groups to self-determination (including the right to secession).

An ethnic Bolshevik expanse

The higher the status of a region during the Soviet era, the more resources it received from Soviet authorities to develop ethnic institutions, notes Shcherbak. The official administrative hierarchy in the Soviet Union was structured as follows: union republics, autonomous republics, autonomous regions, and national autonomous areas. Union republics theoretically had the right to secede from the state.

In contrast to the tsarist government, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the right of ethnic self-determination as one of their main political principles to attract new allies.

Shcherbak describes how Soviet authorities tried to mobilize the potential of ethnic groups in building and strengthening the communist regime during different periods. In fact, during the early Soviet period, as the author notes, there was an attempt to “marry” communism with nationalism and transform nationalists into communists.

The Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations. The more ethnic groups that appeared, the easier it was for the Bolsheviks to manage them. In the period during the building of the Soviet regime, authorities rapidly created artificial national boundaries, opened schools for the study of native languages, promoted local elites, published books and newspapers in national languages​​, and supported the development of local intellectuals – writers, poets, scientists, and historians. Shcherbak notes that Soviet linguists created Latin alphabets and written languages for more than 20 ethnic groups. The first universities began to appear in most of the republics. According to Shcherbak, early Soviet policy initiated the development of cultural nationalism in the Soviet Union.

An unstable Soviet policy

Stalin's policy changed the situation,however. In the 1940s, and the first half of the 1950s, Russification of the learning process took place in the national republics, which promoted the leading role of the Russian people both in the victory over capitalists and in the Great Patriotic War. Bolsheviks called Russian the ethnic glue of the Soviet Union, says Shcherbak.

In 1944, several ethnic groups were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and were deported to Central Asia. Among them were Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, and the Crimean Tatars.

But under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the golden age of ethnic institutional development began, Shcherbak notes. Representatives of the ethnic intelligentsia received opportunities to work in various fields. New universities were opened, and literature in the national languages was printed. But as Shcherbak also notes, this period saw the first clear stirrings of nationalism. They were expressed in dissatisfaction of local elites who not only wanted to have influence at the republic level, but also at the federal level,as well as in opposition to the ongoing process of Russification.

Pause for thought

As a result of elections that took place in 1990, ethnic nationalists came to power in all of the Soviet republics. The rise of nationalism during the sunset of the Soviet Union was not only the result of the crisis and the collapse of the communist system, but also the consequence of latent cultural nationalism, which was unconsciously provoked as a result of the Bolsheviks’ ethnicity policies, concludes Shcherbak. The development of national cultures in the Soviet period led to the emergence of a national intelligentsia, which became the driving force behind the nationalist actions during the period of perestroika. “One can talk about a kind of historical inertia of the process,” explains Shcherbak.

The results of the study raise questions about cultural autonomy as a solution to the problem of interethnic conflict. “The Soviet government made ​​concessions to ethnic regions in the area of culture, which in no way stopped the growth of political nationalism beginning in the late 1980s,” explains Shcherbak.

*Taking part in the project was Irina Vartanova, associate researcher at the LCSR (St. Petersburg)

See also:

Russians united by xenophobia (in Russian)
European tolerance takes a pass when it comes to Gypsies (in Russian)
Post-Soviet integration and social thought (in Russian)
Nationalism in the Soviet Union: an historical and comparative perspective (preprint - in Russian)


Author: Marina Selina, February 25, 2014