Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 13
Lenin Supports the Rebellious Nationalities

The 1905 Revolution gave an impetus to national democratic revolutions in Persia, the Balkans, China, and India. The 1917 Revolution, with its much wider scope and depth, was inevitably bound to do the same, first and foremost within the borders of the Russian Empire itself.

In the Tsarist empire, besides the seventy million Great Russians lived ninety million non-Russians; that is, 43 percent of the population was Russian and 57 percent non-Russian, including 7 percent Ukrainians, 6 percent Poles, and 4.5 percent White Russians. The oppression of the minority nationalities was harsh and crude, so much so as to make the national question in Russia an enormously explosive one.

The revolution, by bringing the masses into the arena, finally exhausted the patience of these oppressed groups. The establishment of formal national equality by the February Revolution brought out even more sharply the actual inequality, and spurred them on to fight even harder for their freedom. The continued existence of the same officials, the same law, enraged them as never before; and to be told, “Wait for the constituent assembly” only increased their irritation. Revolution is not a matter of patience. Why should the oppressed nationalities, who had suffered for centuries, trust the constituent assembly to be different in kind from the existing government and officials?

During a revolution, millions and tens of millions of people learn in a week more than they do in a year of ordinary, somnolent life. For at the time of a sharp turn in the life of an entire people it becomes particularly clear what aims the various classes of the people are pursuing, what strength they possess, and what methods they use. [1]

The oppressed nationalities saw through the provisional government very easily. Its policy on nationalities, as in all other spheres, was vacillating and treacherous.


Finland became the first of the government’s problems. Of all the nations in Russia, the Finland was the least underprivileged. At the end of the nineteenth century, Finland alone still retained a broad measure of self-rule. Indeed, in some respects, it had more democratic rights than Russia proper; Finland under the Tsars presented the paradox of a subject nation possessing more political freedom than the people who ruled over it. It was a separate principality, which the Russian monarch governed in his capacity as Grand Duke. The Finns had complete control over the legislative institutions of the state. There was a bicameral legislative body, composed of a senate and a Sejm. The senate considered legislative projects and performed the function of the supreme court of the state. The Sejm was the highest legislative organ in the country. Called every five years on the basis of nationwide elections, it initiated and voted on legislation relevant to its domain. No law could become effective without its approval. [2]

The Finnish Sejm was the only parliament in the world in which the Social Democrats achieved a majority: 103 seats out of 200. On June 5, 1917, the Sejm issued a law declaring itself a sovereign power, except on questions of war and foreign policy.

At the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a representative of the Finnish socialists appealed for support. He told the congress that the Finnish Social Democratic Party supported “the demand of the right to complete self-determination for Finland – in other words, the recognition by the Russian government of Finnish independence”.

The Finnish people got no support from the provisional government.

The provisional government has aroused the distrust of part of the Finns by delaying settlement of the question put forward by the senate, namely, that of increasing the right of the senate and the Finnish Sejm.

Formal equality was not enough, the Finnish socialist representative went on to say.

The legal status has been reestablished in accord with the manifesto of March last, which assured us that our autonomy was secured. But this does not satisfy us. The Finnish people have been developed culturally, and the Finnish working class has become educated and class-conscious to such an extent that it cannot be satisfied with this declaration; it cannot be satisfied with having achieved a legal status within the limits that already existed one hundred years ... Finland does not wish any longer to remain under Russia’s protection and in the position of Russia’s stepdaughter ... The Finnish people desire to be given the complete right of self-determination and, therefore, do not wish a Russian or English or German or any other imperialistic master. [3]

However, the Finnish Social Democrats did not receive a sympathetic response from the SR and Menshevik leaders of the soviet. The SR paper, Volia Naroda, said on July 16:

[W]e reserve to the provisional government the right to accept and the right to reject any measures adopted by the Finnish Sejm in so far as they go beyond the bounds permitted by autonomy and become measures the publication of which is the right only of a sovereign state. Finland was not one of them. Likewise, the provisional government, both de jure and de facto, has the right to place its veto on all decisions of the Sejm that are obviously detrimental to the interests of the Russian state ... We recognize Finland’s right to broad autonomy, the right to build its internal life independently. But in so far as this autonomy passes into a sovereign independence, in so far as the decisions of the Sejm contradict the interests of the Russian state and are to its detriment, we oppose and repudiate such attempts. [4]

Kerensky, who prided himself on being an “Iron Chancellor,” spoke as follows:

There are important circles in Finland which quite openly aspire to a complete separation from Russia and which imagine that it will be accomplished in the same way as the separation of Norway from Sweden, i.e., quite painlessly ... this view is absolutely mistaken; ... Russia at the present moment is still sufficiently strong to defend the integrity of the remaining territory against anyone. [5]

And, trying to be more “diplomatic,” to appear “liberal,” he explained at a session of the soviet a couple of days later:

[U]ntil the people’s will has been expressed in the constituent assembly, the Russian provisional government cannot proclaim the independence of Finland because we do not consider ourselves as having autocratic power. [6]

In the face of the Finnish clamor for independence, on July 18, the provisional government dissolved the Sejm. Izvestiia, the paper of the executive of the soviet, hastened to justify the government’s action:

the leaders of the Finnish Sejm did not want to understand the sincerity of the provisional government’s stand, they did not want to entrust the future of Finland to the Russian revolution, and they preferred to affirm the sovereign rights of Finland by an independent course ...

This may be the last time that the revolutionary democracy of Russia extends its fraternal hand to the Finnish people. [7]

The “fraternal hand” in the form of armed repression.

A general strike called by the Finnish Social Democrats brought sharply antagonistic comment from the SR and Menshevik leaders. Thus the Right Menshevik paper, Den, wrote:

[I]nstead of lawfully appealing to the people, the Finnish socialists have suggested appealing to the rebellious instincts of the ignorant mob. They called on the workers [to start] a general strike, while the city mobs were solving the food question by attacking the warehouses.

The government reacted violently:

Having heard the report of M.A. Stakhovich, Governor General of Finland, and bearing in mind that intense propaganda is being conducted in favor of an illegal convocation of the Sejm, the provisional government has authorized the Governor General of Finland to prevent in every possible way, [any] open disregard of Russia’s interests, or [any] breach of peace and order in the state, and if necessary, to stop at nothing to restore the same. Similarly, no strikes must be permitted that may affect or undermine the military interests of Russia. [8]

The governor general, a Cadet, forbade the meeting of the dissolved Sejm, and ordered the doors of the building to be sealed. The Social Democratic members of the Sejm broke the seals, and sat for about two hours on September 15, passing controversial acts.

The conflict between the Finnish people and the provisional government continued until the latter was swept away by the October Revolution.


A second, and far larger, thorn in the flesh of the provisional government was the Ukraine. On March 4, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals formed a Central Ukrainian Council, or Rada, in Kiev. The first act of the Rada was to greet Prince Lvov and “dear comrade Kerensky.”

To the President of the Council of Ministers, Prince Lvov: We hail in your name the first ministry of free Russia. We wish you complete success in the struggle for democracy. We are confident that the just demands of the Ukrainian people and her democratic intelligentsia will be fully satisfied.

To the Minister of Justice, A.F. Kerensky: In your name, dear comrade, we warmly hail the dawn of the fulfilment of the national hopes. To you who from the tribune of the State Duma proclaimed the slogan of Ukrainian autonomy, we entrust the guarding of the just demands of the Ukrainian people and her democratic intelligentsia. We have faith that henceforth there shall be no disinherited peoples and that the time is not far distant when our ancient aspirations for a free federation of free peoples will be fulfilled. [9]

The provisional government reciprocated by granting one concession to the Ukrainian nation. On March 14, it authorized the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukrainian schools in the Kiev district. [10]

But the national movement of the Ukrainians did not stand still. To start with, its claims were quite moderate, and were limited to a request for autonomy within the Russian state. Thus the Congress of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party on April 4-5 “expressed itself in favor of the quickest possible implementation of the national and territorial autonomy of the Ukraine, with the guarantee of rights to the national minorities.” [11] A similarly moderate demand for national autonomy was put forward by the Conference of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party. [12]

The Rada also put very modest demands to the provisional government:

Taking into consideration the unanimous demand for an autonomous Ukraine advanced by the Ukrainian democracy, we hope that the provisional government will express in some act its sympathetic attitude, in principle, toward this slogan.

In order to familiarize the government thoroughly with the attitudes in the Ukraine and with the demands of the Ukrainian population, also to render the government practical assistance in introducing various measures called for by the unique life of the region, the creation of the post of special Commissar on Ukrainian Affairs in the provisional government is urgently needed.

The Ukrainization of the elementary schools, approved by the provisional government, should also be applied to the secondary and higher schools, in the language used as well as the subjects of instruction.

[Officials in] responsible administrative posts in the Ukraine, both civil and clerical, should be replaced with people who enjoy the confidence of the population, who speak their language and are familiar with their way of life ...

In order to raise the fighting strength of the army and restore discipline, it is necessary to carry out the measure of separating the Ukrainians into separate army units in the rear as well as, so far as possible, at the front. [13]

The provisional government rejected these demands as going too far.

Early in June, Kerensky forbade the holding of a Ukrainian soldiers’ congress convoked by the Rada. The compromising leaders of the Soviet supported Kerensky’s ban. Thus Izvestiia wrote on June 2:

[P]rior to the meeting of the constituent assembly we have, as all Russia has, [but] one aim – not to permit disunity or the dispersion of the forces of the revolution. Prior to the constituent assembly we will not undertake any steps to seize national rights by way of a fait accompli ... The Russian revolutionary democracy must raise its voice and point out to the Ukrainians that in declaring his opposition to the propitiousness of the Ukrainian military congress, A.F. Kerensky was expressing the adamant will of the revolutionary and democratic masses of the population, [and], in particular, the will of the army. [14]

The Ukrainians did not submit to Kerensky’s bullying, or to the admonitions of the Petrograd Soviet. The Ukrainian soldiers’ congress went ahead on June 5-10, representing 993,400 organized soldiers. In order to save the face of the government, Kerensky legalized the congress ex post facto, sending a congratulatory telegram which the assembled deputies greeted with disrespectful laughter.

In its first official manifesto or Universal, issued on June 10, the Rada still did not propose a complete break with the Russian state.

Let there be a free Ukraine. Without separating from all of Russia, without breaking away from the Russian State, let the Ukrainian people on their own territory have the right to manage their own life. Let a national Ukrainian assembly (Sejm), elected by universal, equal, direct, and secret suffrage, establish order and a regime in the Ukraine. Only our Ukrainian assembly is to have the right to issue all laws which are to establish this regime.

Those laws which will establish the regime throughout the entire Russian state must be issued by the All-Russian parliament. [15]

The Cadets reacted by describing the Ukrainian leaders as German agents. The SR and Menshevik leaders admonished them. Thus Izvestiia of June 16 wrote:

Regardless of the language the workers speak, [or] their ethnic affiliations, once they become aware of their interests they cannot [help] but stand for the indivisibility of the state – The revolutionary democracy of Russia stands for the indivisibility of the state. To split up a great state, created by a thousand years of historical development, means taking a big step backward. [16]

The SR paper, Volia Naroda, of June 17, declared: “The democracy of Russia must brand the steps of the Central Ukrainian Rada as illegal, mistaken, and dangerous.” [17]

Chernov published in the central organ of his party an attack on the “irresponsible actions” of the Rada, for usurping the rights of the future constituent assembly; the course of the Rada, he declared, was “Leninism in the national question.” [18]

Naturally the Ukrainian SRs – forming the largest party in the Rada – did not take kindly to the policy of the Great Russian SR party.

In order to try to mend relations with the Ukrainians, the provisional government sent a delegation to Kiev, made up of Kerensky, Tsereteli, and Tereshchenko. In the heated atmosphere of the Ukraine, the delegation took some steps towards a compromise. A statement agreed to between the Rada and the provisional government was drafted.

To appoint a special organ, the General Secretariat, in the capacity of a higher organ for the administration of regional affairs in the Ukraine ... The government shall work through the designated organ in carrying out measures dealing with the life and administration of the region. Considering that questions such as the national and political organization of the Ukraine and the methods of resolving the land question in the Ukraine within the framework of the general principle of transfer of land to the workers must be settled by the constituent assembly the provisional government shall respond favorably to the elaboration of bills by the Ukrainian Rada, in such forms as the Rada itself finds correspond most closely to the interests of the region ... for the purpose of submitting these bills to the constituent assembly. [19]

The agreement, although in the nature of a compromise, represented quite an achievement for the Rada. First, and foremost, it was recognized as the institution authorized to speak for the Ukrainian people. However, after the July offensive against the Bolsheviks, the provisional government veered sharply to the right on the Ukrainian question, as well as others.

On July 16, the Rada drafted a proposal elaborating the agreement of July 3, [20] but the government rejected it out of hand on August 4. [21] The reaction of the Rada was very sharp. It declared that the position of the provisional government:

(1) is dictated by distrust toward the aspirations of the entire democracy of the Ukraine; (2) is imbued with the imperialist tendencies of the Russian bourgeoisie toward the Ukraine; (3) violates the agreement of the Ukrainian Central Rada with the provisional government of July 3. [22]

“When the time came for the government to redeem its pledge,” declared the head of the Rada, Vinnichenko, “it turned out that the provisional government ... is a petty cheat, who hopes to get rid of a great historic problem by swindling.” [23]

Neither the government nor the compromising leaders could check the rise of the national spirit in the Ukraine. The millions of peasants awakened by the revolution demanded land. They started making themselves heard, and the only language they could use was their native one – Ukrainian. In this way the agrarian revolution and the national revolution were interwoven.

Other Nationalities

In the east there were nations that were much more cruelly exploited and oppressed than the Finns, Ukrainians, and White Russians in the more cultured west. The people and tribes along the Volga, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, were startled by the revolution. But the February regime did not change their actual situation at all. The best lands continued to be in the hands of landlords and wealthy Russian peasants. These colonialists fought hard for the unity of the Russian state. They displayed the maximum hatred and chauvinism towards the downtrodden native population. National antagonisms intersected in all directions with class antagonisms. The inexorable pressure of the masses for national liberation bore down on the weak and tottering February regime.

Even the most modest claims of the moderate representatives of the oppressed nationalities went unheeded by the provisional government. What utterance could have been more moderate than the speech of A. Topchibashev, representing Muslim organizations, to the Moscow State Conference (of August 12-15)?

No sooner had the sun of freedom appeared over Russia than the Moslem people, having thrown off the hated chains of despotism took heart, and, rejoicing in the hope for a better life, took their place in the ranks of the most fervent supporters of the new regime that is based on democratic principles. [They acted] not only as supporters but as defenders of the provisional government which personifies this system and decided to give every support to all the measures that the supreme power of the nation should undertake ... The day is close when free, democratic Russia will realize the equality and fraternity of peoples, Moslems among them, and will show the world an example, unparalleled in the history of mankind, of respect to the rights of all peoples, inviting European nations to liberate all their subjected peoples, including the Moslem peoples in Europe, Asia, and Africa, on the basis of free self-determination. Then we will proclaim enthusiastically, in one voice: ex oriente lux! [24]

After this declaration of love for the provisional government, the Estonian representative, Pipp, spoke:

We state that in questions of a general nature we stand for the complete realization of the measures outlined by the Russian democracy, and we will give every support to the revolutionary provisional government in this direction. But we consider it necessary to make a special note of one question of tremendous importance to the state – the nationality question.

First of all, we must point out that the statement made by the head of the provisional government harbors no kind words toward us. On the contrary, we, non-Russian peoples, are being reminded of the possible accounting and of the magnanimous forgiveness for the absence of friendship at a time of danger. We consider that this attitude toward us is profoundly unjust, for our desire to satisfy the most vital and urgent national demands is not a destructive or centrifugal phenomenon, but the only correct and sound principle of state construction ... We consider it necessary ... to proceed to the resolution of the nationality question. There can be no delays. No people can live by promises alone. The vagueness of the situation can only increase the spontaneous unrest among the people. The basic needs of the people must be given timely satisfaction. At the same time, preliminary work must be started for reorganizing the state on principles providing the highest guarantee of freedom and national self-determination in a democratic Russian republic based on the federal principle of a friendly family of Russian peoples, where autonomous regions – Estonia among them – would constitute equal members. [25]

This timid reproach and humble request produced very little sympathetic response even from the left of the hall – the Mensheviks and SRs. As for the right, General Kaledin answered the representations of the oppressed nationalities in no uncertain terms: “Russia must be an indivisible whole. All separatist tendencies must be nipped in the bud.” [26]

As an epitaph on the national policy of the provisional government, we can quote the draft constitution drawn up by a special commission a few days before the October Revolution: “The Russian state is one and indivisible.” [27]

Lenin’s Sympathy

Lenin felt a deep sympathy for the oppressed nationalities. He detested chauvinism, and especially abhorred the Great Russian variety. Above all, he was profoundly aware of the enormous revolutionary potential of the national movement against oppression.

He hated with the oppressed, loved with the oppressed, and hoped and fought with the oppressed. He supported the struggle of the minority nationalities for freedom with all his strength of feeling while at the same time forging an international, united party of the proletariat.

With what passion Lenin attacked the role of the Great Russians as tyrants over the Ukrainian people:

Accursed Tsarism made the Great Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue. Russia’s revolutionary democrats, if they want to be truly revolutionary and truly democratic, must break with that past, must regain for themselves, for the workers and peasants of Russia, the brotherly trust of the Ukrainian workers and peasants. This cannot be done without full recognition of the Ukraine’s rights, including the right to free secession. [28]

His clear, sharp policy on the national question was summed up in the resolution he wrote for the April Conference of the Bolsheviks:

The right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states must be recognized. To deny them this right, or to fail to take measures guaranteeing its practical realization, is equivalent to supporting a policy of seizure or annexation. Only the recognition by the proletariat of the right of nations to secede can ensure complete solidarity among the workers of the various nations and help to bring the nations closer together on truly democratic lines. The conflict which has arisen at the present time between Finland and the Russian provisional government strikingly demonstrates that denial of the right to free secession leads to a direct continuation of the policy of Tsarism. [29]

However, Lenin did not find it very easy to win the day at this conference. He had to fight again and again among the ranks of his own party for the right of nations to self-determination. We have seen how, during the years 1912-16, Lenin had to argue against those Bolshevik leaders who in the name of internationalism opposed the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, including separation (see chapter 3). Now, during the revolution of 1917, he had to fight the same battle again. At the April Conference G.L. Piatakov argued against the slogan of national self-determination:

[F]rom an economic point of view, national independence represents an antiquated, obsolete, impossible object. The demand for independence is taken out of another historical epoch, is reactionary for it desires to turn back the march of history. [30]

F.E. Dzerzinsky practically accused Lenin of supporting the “point of view of Polish, Ukrainian, and other chauvinists.” [31] Lenin responded to these attacks:

In no nation does hatred of Russia sit so deep as with the Poles; no nation dislikes Russia so intensely as the Poles ... The Polish Social Democratic comrades have rendered a great historic service by advancing the slogan of internationalism and declaring thau the fraternal union of the proletariat of all countries is of supreme importance to them and that they will never go to war for the liberation of Poland. This is to their credit, and this is why we have always regarded only these Polish Social Democrats as socialists. The others are patriots, Polish Plekhanovs. But this peculiar position, when, in order to safeguard socialism, people were forced to struggle against a rabid and morbid nationalism, has produced a strange state of affairs: comrades come to us saying that we must give up the idea of Poland’s freedom, her right to secession. [32]

Lenin’s resolution was carried by the conference, but against quite widespread opposition, fifty-six delegates voted for it, sixteen against, and eighteen abstained. Piatakov’s resolution got eleven votes, with forty-eight against, and nineteen abstentions. A resolution similar to Piatakov’s put by the Georgian Makhiaradze, received twenty-one votes, with forty-two opposing, and fifteen abstentions. [33]

A few days before the October insurrection, Lenin wrote again on the national question, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.

When we win power, we shall immediately and unconditionally recognize this right for Finland, the Ukraine, Armenia, and any other nationality oppressed by Tsarism (and the Great Russian bourgeoisie). On the other hand, we do not at all favor secession. We want as vast a state, as close an alliance of the Great Russians; we desire this in the interests of democracy and socialism, to attract into the struggle of the proletariat the greatest possible number of the working people of different nations. We desire proletarian revolutionary unity, unification, and not secession. We desire revolutionary unification – We want free unification; that is why we must recognize the right to secede (without freedom to secede, unification cannot be called free). [34]

His unambiguous, decisive policy on the national question, as on other questions, cut through the equivocations of the February regime, and helped to destroy the wealth, power, and influence of the Great Russian bourgeoisie, upheld by the provisional government and the compromising leadership. Lenin’s policy on nationalities was among the important levers of the October Revolution.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, p.225.

2. Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union, pp.3-4.

3. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.341-42.

4. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.349-50.

5. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.340.

6. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.341.

7. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.354-55.

8. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.357-58.

9. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.370.

10. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.370.

11. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.371.

12. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.371-72.

13. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.375-76.

14. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.381-82.

15. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.383.

16. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.388.

17. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.387.

18. Radkey, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism, pp.274-75.

19. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.389-90.

20. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.394-96.

21. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, pp.396-97.

22. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.398.

23. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.895.

24. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, p.1500.

25. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, pp.1500-01.

26. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, p.1480.

27. Browder and Kerensky, vol.1, p.319.

28. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.25, pp.91-92.

29. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, p.302.

30. Sedmaia konferentsia, p.213.

31. Sedmaia konferentsia, p.219.

32. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.24, pp.297-98.

33. Sedmaia konferentsia, p.227.

34. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, pp.175-76.


Last updated on 25.10.2007