Tony Cliff

Russia: A Marxist analysis

Chapter XVI:
Relaxation in the policy of national oppression



Rectifying some of the excesses of Stalin’s nationalities policies

Stalin’s death occurred at the height of the Russification campaign. There had been a loud crescendo of vitriolic denunciations of bourgeois nationalism in the Party Congresses of the national republics preceding the 19th Congress of the CPSU (October 1952). Stalin’s heirs had to decide whether they should continue these policies or offer concessions to the national minorities in order to weaken opposition to the regime.

The self-assurance of the non-Russian peoples of USSR following their economic and cultural advance must lead to increasing opposition to national oppression. When the retreat from Stalin’s over-centralism in economic management was made – exemplified in the sovnarkhozy – and the boundaries of these were made congruent with the national republics, the harshness and extremism of Stalin’s nationalities policy became intolerable.

Pointers to change appeared shortly after Stalin’s death. For instance, in Georgia prominent Communist Party leaders who had previously been denounced as bourgeois nationalists were restored to influential positions. [1] In Ukraine the Russian First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Leonid Melnikov, was sacked in June 1953 for deviations on the national question. He was charged with “distortions of the Lenin-Stalin policy ... by the harmful practice of advancing officials, predominantly from other Provinces of the Ukraine, and by converting the teaching in Western Ukrainian higher educational institutions to the Russian language. [2] Melnikov was replaced by the Ukrainian Aleksei Kirichenko. [3] A few days later the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Party issued a statement criticising “distortions in the nationalities policy” and announced that henceforth the leading posts in the Party, state and economic machine would be filled mainly by Lithuanians. [4] During the same month the Central Committee of the Latvian communist Party used similar language to criticise the past nationalities policy in the Republic, and demanded that leading posts should be given to Latvian officials. [5]

In his secret speech to the 20th Congress Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s nationalities policies in. no uncertain terms. In forthright accusations of cruelty through the deportation of entire peoples he said: “Not only no Marxist-Leninist, but no one with any common sense can grasp how it is possible to make whole nations responsible for traitorous activities, and to include women, children, old people, Communists and Komsomols, to use mass repression against them, and to expose them to misery and suffering for the hostile acts of individual persons or groups.” He was referring to the Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen-Ingush and Balkars. He recalled that Stalin even thought of deporting all the Ukrainians to beyond the Urals, but was deterred by their numbers.

Khrushchev made no mention, however, of the 400,000 Volga Germans who had an autonomous republic until their removal to Siberia in 1941, nor the 250,000 Crimean Tartars who were deported to Turkestan in 1944.

On February 11, 1957, the Supreme Soviet issued a decree rehabilitating the Chechen, the Ingushi, the Karachai, the Balkars, and the Kalmyks [6] (but again overlooking the Germans and Crimean Tartars).

The main lines of the nationalities policies, however, have not really changed radically under Khrushchev.


Administrative control from Moscow continues

In the governments of the Asian republics newly appointed in 1959, of the 118 ministers, no fewer than 38 were Europeans. In Kirghizia Russians held the portfolios of internal affairs, the chairmanship of the Control Commission, and the Committee of State Security. [7]

In Turkmenia, amongst others, the Chairman of the Committee of State Security, the Chairman of the State Planning Committee, the Minister of Finance, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers were all Russians. [8] In Uzbekistan, amongst others, the Chairman of the Committee of State Security, the First Deputy Chairman of the Planning Committee, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers were Russians. [9] In Tadzikistan, amongst others, the Chairman of the Committee of State Security, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers were Russians. [10]



The idealisation of Tsarist annexation still goes on ...

In 1954 elaborate festivities were organised for the 300th anniversary of the signing of the agreement at Pereyaslav between the Ukrainian Hetman Bogdan Khmelnitski and Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich by which the two states were united. On the occasion Pravda wrote:

Oppression by the Polish state of the gentry and the unrestricted and arbitrary rule of the Polish nobility became the greatest brake on the economic and cultural development of the Ukraine. The population of the Ukraine also suffered from the constant brigand raids carried out by the Turks and the Crimean Tatars.

In a prolonged and selfless struggle against the Tatar and Mongol and other foreign enslavers, the Russian people overcame feudal disunity, upheld their national independence, and created a powerful centralised state with its capital in Moscow. Moscow became the foundation and the initiator of the formation of the Russian state and the political, economic and cultural centre of that state.

The centralised Russian state played a paramount role in the historical development of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and other peoples of our country. From its very inception it became a centre of attraction and a mainstay for the fraternal peoples fighting against foreign enslavers.

In the Liberation War of 1648-54 the Ukrainian people were fighting for liberation from the yoke of the Poland of the nobility, and at the same time for reunion with the fraternal Russian people in one Russian state.

The Ukrainian people who rose up to wage the war of liberation were headed by Bogdan Khmelnitski, an outstanding statesman and army leader. The historic service rendered by Bogdan Khmelnitski consists in the fact that Khmelnitski, expressing the age-old aspirations and hopes of the Ukrainian people for close alliance with the Russian people and directing the process of formation of Ukrainian statehood, properly understood its tasks and perspectives, saw that it was impossible to save the Ukrainian without their uniting with the Great Russian people, and persistently strove for the reunion of the Ukraine with Russia. [11]

It is interesting to note that until the middle of the thirties Soviet historians treated Khmelnitski in quite a different way. The first edition of the Large Soviet Encyclopedia, for instance, described him as a “traitor”, and “savage enemy” of the insurgent Ukrainian peasantry. [12]

On the annexation of the North Caucasus to Russia, the theoretical, organ of the CPSU said: “Not a single Soviet scholar doubts the progressive nature of the unification of the peoples of the North Caucasus with Russia.” [13]

During celebrations in 1957 on the 400 years’ anniversary of the occupation of Bashkiria by Tsarist Russia it was stated that “Most of the Bashkir tribes in 1554-57 willingly accepted Russian overlordship, which despite Tsarist colonial oppression was of progressive significance to the further development of Bashkiria.” [14]

At a conference of the intelligentsia of Uzbekistan in October, 1956, Mukhitdinov, First Secretary of the CC of the Uzbek CP, declared:

The economic, political and cultural contacts of the Uzbek and other people of Central Asia with Russia have a historical record of a millennium. The incorporation of Central Asia into Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century was a turning point in the history and the fate of the Uzbek and other Central Asian peoples. The most important factor determining the progressive nature of the unification of Central Asia with Russia consists, apart from other factors of an economic and cultural nature, above all in the contacts between the peoples of Central Asia and the working class of Russia. [15]

Again, a “Joint conference on the progressive significance of the annexation of Central Asia to Russia” sponsored by the USSR Academy of Sciences and those of the four Central Asian republics in May 1959, declared:

The annexation of Turkestan to Russia was deeply progressive and marked the beginning of a new stage in the history of the peoples of Central Asia. it had been prepared by all the preceding history of both the Russian and Central Asian peoples ... the progressive significance of the annexation of Central Asia to Russia lies in the fact that the indigenous population of Turkestan came into contact with the Russian people and its working class, the most revolutionary class in the world. [16]

In 1959 the victory of Tsar Peter the Great over the Swedes at Poltava in 1709 was commemorated.

During the March, 1962 elections to the Supreme Soviet Party propaganda made frequent references to the Russian tradition, connecting the deeds of Prince Yury Dolgoruky (the founder of Moscow in 1147) and Peter the Great with those of Lenin and Khrushchev.


Russification still goes on ...

The Russian language continues to edge out the national languages, even in the schools of the national republics. Thus in Uzbek schools, where the native tongue is used for teaching, the hours allocated for its study decrease in the more advanced classes, until in the eighth class the ratio is six to two in favour of Russian. It is therefore not surprising to find that “in a number of areas more than 60 per cent of pupils failed the Uzbek language examinations.” [17] Again, whereas the Buryats made up 49 per cent of the population of their autonomous republic, only 12 per cent of those at school were being taught in the Buryat language. [18]

Similarly as regards the Tatars we are informed: “The number of Tatar schools has recently been cut down ... they have gradually been converted first of all into Russo-Tatar schools and then into Russian ones.” [19]

Although non-Russians constitute about half the population of the USSR, the circulation of newspapers in non-Russian languages constituted in 1958 only 18 per cent of the total circulation of newspapers in the country. [20]



The fight against Titoism goes on

While Great Russian chauvinism openly proclaims itself, there are persistent attacks on nationalism among the non-Russian peoples. A few examples from recent years will show this. At the end of 1956 a Party conference of the Union of Soviet writers of Ukraine severely condemned manifestations of “bourgeois nationalism” among Ukrainian writers. [21] Again, the First Secretary Of the Uzbek Communist Party spoke at a conference of the intelligentsia of Uzbekistan in Octobe, 1956, of “persons convicted in recent years ... accused of nationalism.” [22]

At a meeting of the Board of the Union of Soviet writers of Belorussia the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Belorussian CP, T. Mazurov, made the following accusation:

Bourgeois nationalists, traitors to their motherland, are the worst enemies of the building of Socialism in our country. They are the agents of American imperialism. Nationalists, betrayers of their people, are used by American espionage in its dirty operations. Therefore we must be vigilant and give a decisive rebuff to any manifestations of bourgeois nationalism. [23]

A similarly sharp attack on Kirghizian bourgeois nationalists was made at a meeting of the CC of the Kirghiz CP in February 1960. [24]

The First Secretary of the Latvian CP, Pelshe, declared: “Manifestations of nationalism remain alive like old roots, and they will not disappear automatically of their own accord. Their remnants need to be annihilated.” He went on to criticise the former leaders of the Latvian CP and government for their “open nationalist policies”. [25]

As a result of widespread anti-nationalist campaigns in the second half of 1959 there was an almost complete reshuffle of Party arid government in the Union republics of Azerbaidjan and Latvia. At a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaidjan on June 16 and 17, almost all the Party leaders in Azeibaidjan were replaced. The First Party Secretary, I.D. Mustavaiev, was accused of having “caused bewilderment in the completely clear language question”; another secretary of the Central Committee was accused of “artificially differentiating between native and non-local officials”. W. Akhundov became the new First Party Secretary, and on August 12 the former Komsomol leader, Vladimir Semichastny, took the place of the Second Secretary, Yakovlev. Finally, on December 11 the former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaidjan, N.A. Ibrahimov, was obliged to admit that he had made “several mistakes over the language question”. In November the First Party Secretary, Jan Kalnberzin, was replaced by the former Second Secretary, Arvid Pelshe. The Prime Minister, Vilis Lacis, was replaced by Jan Paive. The former minister, J.P. Ostrov, the Latvian Komsomol leader, V.D. Ruskuliv, and the Chairman of the trade unions, I.O. Pinxis, were also dismissed. On November 29, 1958, Lacis had declared himself in Pravda in favour of keeping the compulsory study of the Latvian language. [26] Similar campaigns took place in Moldavia in September and in Kirghizia in October.

The development of the economic regions, strictly controlled from Moscow, but still granted limited semi-autonomous rights and inclined to relative autonomy, engenders a regional consciousness. Their boundaries largely coincide with those of the national republics or groups of national republics, and this, together with the enhanced self-assurance following upon economic and cultural advance, is bound to strengthen nationalist tendencies in the republics.




1. Zarya Vostoka, 16 April 1953.

2. Pravda, 13 June 1953.

3. Pravda Ukraine, 13 June 1953.

4. Pravda, 18 June 1953.

5. Sovetskaya Latviya, 28 June 1953.

6. Izvestia, 12 February 1957.

7. Sovetskaya Kirghiziya, 30 May 1959.

8. Turkmenskaya Iskra, 31 March 1959.

9. Pravda Vostoka, 25 March 1959.

10. Kommunist Tadzhikistana, 29 March 1959.

11. Pravda, 9 December 1953.

12. Large Soviet Encyclopedia, Vol.59.

13. Kommunist, No.4, 1957.

14. Ukrainska Radyanska Entsiklopediya, Kiev, Vol.I, 1959, p.472.

15. Radio Moscow, 11 October 1956.

16. Pravda Vostoka, 27 May 1959.

17. ibid., 31 August 1957.

18. Cultural Construction of the RSFSR, Russian, Moscow 1958, p.206. In R. Conquest The Last Empire, London 1962, pp.100-1.

19. Uchitelskaya Gazeta, 2 August 1958.

20. Conquest, op. cit., p.101.

21. Pravda, 4 December 1956.

22. Pravda Vostoka, 13 October 1956.

23. Sovetskczya Belorussiya, Minsk, 21 February 1957.

24. Sovetskaya Kirghiziya, 26 February 1960.

25. Pravda, 30 August 1961.

26. W. Leonhard, The Kremlin Since Stalin, London 1962, pp 345-6.


Last updated on 6.9.2002