Bolshevism and the National Question

Vijay Singh

The Bolshevik solution to the national question in the Soviet Union has been a favourite target for critics. Such critics have gained strength from some of Lenin's views expressed at the close of his life. This rejoinder examines the views of Prof. Paresh Chattopadyay which echo the standard anti-Soviet criticism. The opening up of the archives in the former USSR have meant that a more complex picture emerges of Lenin's last letters. Lenin, as noted below, held Stalin and Dzerzhinsky politically responsible for the Caucasian incident. The minutes of the 12th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (bolshevik) of 1923 give what seems to be Stalin's oblique reply to Lenin's critique: "Now to continue, I'll move to the question which I can't avoid. Here they've been saying that I'm an expert on the national questions. Comrades, I must say that I never claimed to be such. I twice refused to give a report on the national question, and both times I was unanimously ordered to make the report. I don't say that I'm uninformed in these matters, I have a certain knowledge of the question, but I'm sick to death of it. Why is it that Stalin has to do the report? Where is it written? Why does he have to take the rap for mistakes which are made locally. This isn't written down anywhere." ('Political Archives of Russia', Volume 2, No. 4, 1991, p. 268, emphasis added).

The views expressed by Paresh Chattopadyay are open to question on grounds of logic and facts. ('Back to War', Frontier, 1st April 1995). Stalin on the authority of Lenin is painted in the blackest of colours on the national question. Yet in February, 1913 in a letter to Gorky, Lenin referred to Stalin as a 'marvelous Georgian' for his work on the national question. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 35, Moscow, 1966, p. 84). In December of the same year Lenin commended Stalin's work entitled 'Marxism and the National Question' stating that it occupied a prominent place in the treatment of the national problem (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 19, Moscow, 1963, p. 539). It was Lenin who appointed Stalin to the important post of People's Commissar of Nationalities after the October revolution. As late as March, 1922 at the 11th Congress of the RCP(b) Lenin defended Stalin from the criticism of Preobrazhensky who considered it incorrect that Stalin held concurrently two Commissariats viz. Nationalities and State Control. Lenin argued that for settling the Turkestan and Caucasian questions, 'we need a man to whom the representatives of any of these nations can go and discuss their difficulties in all detail. Where can we find such a man? I don't think Comrade Preobrazhensky could suggest any better candidate than Comrade Stalin' (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 33, Moscow, 1966, p. 315).

On the question of 'autonomisation' Lenin opposed the view of Stalin that the various republics including Georgia should enter the projected union of Soviet socialist republics as autonomous republics, considering that safeguards were required against the Russian apparatus. Molotov indicated that Stalin in this instance continued an earlier line of Lenin: 'Lenin had opposed the federal principle, federalism, because he favoured centralism. All the reins, everything must be held in the hands of the working class so as to strengthen the state. Just read his article on the national question. Autonomy within a unitary state, yes. But Lenin dropped this unitary principle for a federal solution: "Let us create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics!" But Stalin did not know this at the outset'. (ed. A. Resis, 'Molotov Remembers', Chicago, 1993, p. 196). Lenin's objections were met when the USSR was formed as the sovereignty of the unified republics was guaranteed.

Lenin intervened in 1922 in the dispute between the Transcaucasian Committee of the RCP(b) headed by G.K. Orjonikidze and the group of Georgian communists headed by Polikarp Mdivani. The Mdivani group desired that Georgia enter the USSR directly and not through the Transcaucasian Federation. They sought to preserve the interests of Georgia at the expense of Armenia and Azerbaijan and impeded the economic and political ties of the Transcaucasian republic. Lenin did not support the views of Mdivani. Then as now the Caucasus was a hotbed of national strife and it was Lenin's suggestion that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia should be united as a Federation '... a federation of the Transcaucasian republics is absolutely correct in principle, and should he implemented without fail' (V.I. Lenin op. cit., p. 127). Lenin was justifiably outraged when Orjonikidze on being insulted resorted to physical violence with a member of the Mdivani group. After this incident Lenin advised profound caution and a readiness to compromise with the Georgians. Lenin wanted exemplary punishment to be inflicted on Orjonikidze. He held Stalin and Dzerzhinsky to be politically responsible for what he termed 'this truly Great-Russian national campaign' (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works. Vol. 36, Moscow, 1971, p. 610).

Paresh Chattopadyay is factually incorrect when he argues that Lenin "condemned Stalin, who as one 'Russified, coming from other nationalities... overdid 'Great Russian chauvinism', this Russian frame of mind". The actual quotation shows that Lenin here was criticising the Polish communist Dzerzhinsky and not Stalin:

'I also fear that comrade Dzerzhinsky, who went to the Caucasus to investigate the "crime" of those "nationalist-socialists", distinguished himself there by his truly Russian frame of mind (it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have became Russified overdo this Russian frame of mind)..." (op. cit., p. 606).

Nor is it at all clear that Lenin called Stalin 'a Great-Russian bully' as Paresh Chattopadyay charges. It is more likely that Lenin in the following passage was referring to the Georgian G.K. Orjonikidze who had manhandled a member of the Mdivani group:

"The Georgian who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of 'nationalist-socialism' (whereas he himself is a real and true 'nationalist-socialist', and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity..." (op. cit., p. 608).

The view expressed on the question of the transfer of some nationalities from their traditional homelands during the Second World War are also questionable. It is denied, for instance, that a number of nationalities collaborated with the Nazism on the ground that they merely supplied food to the Germans under duress. Yet a recent analysis convincingly shows that a number of Turkic nationalities were guilty of mass treachery to the side of Nazi Germany. (W.B. Bland, 'The Enforced Settlements', London, 1993). The Nazi army was met with jubilation and welcomed as 'liberators' by practically the entire population of the Crimea and the Turkish areas of the northern Caucasus. The German army secured the support of the Crimean Tatars and various Caucasian peoples to form 'self-defence battalions' which took up the task of hunting down the partisan forces who were engaged in the struggle against the Nazi occupation. This is further corroborated by Molotov who argued as follows: 'The fact is that during that war we received reports about mass treason. Battalions of Caucasians opposed us at the fronts and attacked us from the rear. It was a matter of life and death; there was no time to investigate the details. Of course innocents suffered. But I hold that given the circumstances, we acted correctly." (op. cit. p. 195). The dissolution of the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the transfer of its population also took place for reasons of state security. The resettled nations were allotted land and given state assistance to establish their economic life.

It is incorrect, moreover. to argue that Stalin at the close of the war "greeted the Russians, and not the whole Soviet people". In his speech of 24th May, 1945, Stalin actually stated:

"I would like to propose that we drink to the health of the Soviet people, and primarily of the Russian people" (J. Stalin, 'On the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union', Moscow, 1954, p. 24). Stalin then gave his reasons for stating that the Russians were the most outstanding of all the nations that constituted the Soviet Union. He argued that during the war the Russian people had earned universal recognition as the guiding force of the Soviet Union among all the people of the country. (loc. cit.)

An over-all assessment of Stalin's contribution to the solution of the national question in the Soviet Union has to take into account a number of facts. It was Stalin who discovered entire nations, drew up the new national ethnic boundaries and guided the formation of the Central Asian Republics. Under Soviet power forty-eight nationalities acquired a written alphabet for the first time. Before 1917 the majority of the population had been illiterate, by 1939 illiteracy had been largely overcome. The Stalin period saw the economic upliftment of the national republics. While industrial growth expanded at a high speed in the USSR as a whole, the industrial growth of the national republics grew with particular rapidity. In the USSR as a whole, gross output of large-scale industry had increased by 1940 12-fold compared with 1913. In the Kazakh SSR it increased 20- fold, in Georgia 27-fold, in the Kirghiz SSR 153-fold and the Tajik SSR by 308-fold. Similarly, the Central Asian Republics benefited tremendously in the realm of education. The number of pupils in elementary and secondary schools increased in 1940 as compared with 1914-15 as follows: Azerbaijan SSR 9-fold, Armenian SSR 9.4-fold, Kazakh SSR 10.9-fold, Turkmenian SSR 35-fold, Kirghiz SSR 47-fold, Uzbek SSR 73-fold and the Tajik SSR 822-fold. (Politicheskaya Ekonomiya, Uchebnik, Moscow, 1954, p. 372). It is ironical that Stalin's contribution is today belong re-assessed in a positive fashion in the former Soviet Union but elsewhere there are many still in the Khrushchevite time-warp.

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