How the Russian Empire crumbled

MOSCOW. (Gennady Bordyugov for RIA Novosti) - Anyone who has been following the stormy debate brought on by the 90th anniversary of the Great October Revolution may well wonder why its national aspects have been forgotten. Were they not intertwined with the social aspects?

The events that shook the world took place in the Russian Empire, which had a very complex social-ethnic structure. And it is hard to say whether the social or the ethnic factors played a bigger role in those sinister events.

Take land, one of the Revolution's key issues: Russia being a country of peasants, the poorest social stratum of one ethnic group often sought to seize the landed estates owned by representatives of another ethnic group. And in the cities, too, the youth that had migrated from the countryside seeking to climb the social ladder often met with resistance from other ethnic groups.

Contrary to what some politicians thought, the abdication of the Tsar in February 1917 could not automatically solve the ethnic problem in Russia. There was an incredible upsurge of the national movements in Russia's borderlands, and they could not accept the Provisional Government's call for a "single and indivisible Russia". Even so, discrimination of non-Russians was abolished, and the autonomy of Finland and the Polish Kingdom was restored. The remaining ethnic groups were not granted any territorial rights.

The democratic government would, of course, pay a dear price for its failure to appreciate the magnitude of the ethnic problem. True, in June 1917, faced with a mass movement of peasants and soldiers in the Ukraine, the Provisional Government would delegate some of its powers to the Central Rada and recognize the national principle as the basis for the country's administrative division.

The Congress of the Peoples of Russia held in Kiev in September 1917 was attended by 93 delegations representing practically all the major ethnic and national groups with the exception of Finns and Poles. Although the Congress pronounced itself in favor of creating a democratic federative republic in Russia, it was clear that the national interests were prevailing over the idea of universal unity.

Radical sentiments - what today would be called "aggressive nationalism" - were quickly spreading within the national movements. In the elections to the Constitutional Assembly in November 1917 the majority of non-Russians voted for their national parties. Faced with a choice between the Provisional Government's commitment to the united and indivisible Russia and the Bolsheviks' calls for self-determination of the peoples, along with land and peace, the non-Russian population (about 57 percent of the total) preferred the latter. The Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia issued on November 2(15) 1917 offered the peoples the right to self-determination, up to secession. At the time there was no clear awareness that the Bolsheviks put the principle of class struggle above national self-determination.

After the dissolution of the Constitutional Assembly on January 5-6, 1918 centrifugal trends manifested themselves with a vengeance. Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Moldavian Republic (Bessarabia) had proclaimed independence by February, Byelorussia in March and the Transcaucasian Federation in April. Turkestan, Kazakhstan, Bashkiria and the North Caucasus had proclaimed their territorial autonomy in late 1917. The disintegration of the Empire was precipitated by an external factor. In the summer of 1918, after the Peace of Brest and with the Civil War flaring up, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine acted as independent states under German protectorate, Estonia, Latvia and most of Byelorussia were occupied by the Germans, Finland was under German protection, Bessarabia reunited with Romania, and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states after the collapse of the Transcaucasian Federation. In the North Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia the situation was in a state of flux with movements for autonomy, the Bolsheviks and Russian counter-revolutionary forces fighting it out. Compounding the situation was the Intervention by foreign countries.

However, the break-up of the Empire was not the end of the multinational Russian state. Suffering defeats, making concessions and retreating, by the end of the Civil War the Bolshevik government had nevertheless regained the lost borderlands (two decades later the Baltic countries, Western Byelorussia and Bessarabia, though not Poland and Finland, became parts of the U.S.S.R.).

Historians attribute the successful reintegration of the Tsarist empire to a series of factors: the Russian nationalist and reactionary programs of the White armies and the Interventionists; the support of the majority of the predominantly Russian industrial proletariat and the peasantry; the ebbing of national movements; the use of the "divide and rule" principle capitalizing on social and ethnic hostilities, etc. It is important to stress that "national revolutions" were not really revolutions in their own right, most of them being variants of peasant uprisings. In 1917 the nations and ethnic groups did not "betray" but "fled" from the crumbling imperial centre. As soon as the imperial centre started regaining strength, centrifugal forces manifested themselves again.

The 90th anniversary of the October Revolution provides another occasion to wonder whether socialism was capable of removing national antagonisms and paving the way to a supranational world community. Obviously, in the beginning the Bolsheviks wanted to replace the pre-national structure of the Tsarist Empire with proletarian internationalism. But as early as 1918 they reverted to the Social-Revolutionaries' principle of federalism based on the identification of territories according to ethnic and linguistic characteristics, which, of course, was at odds with the Communist ideology.

The principle of self-determination of nations was superseded by the principle of equality within the union federative state. Non-Russian elites were involved in government, the policy of "indigenization", i.e. increasing the share of local indigenous population in the governing bodies, was pursued, "small" local languages were promoted and national schools were established. All that created a groundswell of support for the Bolsheviks on the part of the majority of non-Russian peoples.

However, the objective processes of consolidation of nations and a growing sense of national identity gradually came to challenge the official policy of dismantling the national elements and strengthening the united Soviet state. There came the purges of the late 1920s and the "nationalities operations" of the NKVD in the late 1930s. The 1940s saw mass deportations and the emergence of anti-Semitic trends. All this brought brewing national conflicts to a head and radicalized the demands of the national movements, which were emerging from the underground. Like after the October Revolution, there began a "parade of sovereignties'. In late 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

What lies in store for post-Soviet space? What culture of reminiscences prevails today? Is there nostalgia for a supranational system of political, social and cultural communications? The jubilee of the October Revolution is a good occasion to look back on the past in order to better understand the present. 

Gennady Bordyugov is head of research projects, Russian Social Research Association (AIRO-XXI), Member of RIA Novosti Expert Council

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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