V. I.   Lenin

A Letter to S. G. Shahumyan

Written: Written November 23 (December 6), 1913
Published: First published March 2 (15), 1918, in the newspaper Bakinsky Rabochy (Baku Worker) No. 48. Published according to the manuscript.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 499-502.
Translated: The Late George Hanna
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive (2004). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

December 6, 1913

Dear Friend,

Your letter of November 15 gave me great pleasure. You must realise how highly one in my position appreciates the opinions of comrades in Russia, especially thoughtful people, who are thinking hard studying the subject. I was therefore particularly pleased to get your early reply. One feels less isolated when one receives letters like this. But poetry enough—let’s get down to business.

1. You are in favour of an official language in Russia. It, is “necessary; it has been and will be of great progressive importance”. I disagree emphatically. I wrote about this long ago in Pravda,[1] and so far have not been refuted. Your argument does not convince me in the least. Quite the reverse. The Russian language has undoubtedly been of progressive importance for the numerous small and backward nations. But surely you must realise that it would have been of much greater progressive importance had there been no compulsion. Is not an “official language” a stick that drives people away from the Russian language? Why will you not understand the psychology that is so important in the national question and which, if the slightest coercion is applied, besmirches, soils, nullifies the undoubtedly progressive importance of centralisation, large states and a uniform language? But the economy is still more important than psychology: in Russia we already have a capitalist economy, which makes the Russian language essential. But you have no faith in the power of the economy and want to prop it up with the crutches of the rotten police regime.   Don’t you see that in this way you are crippling the economy and hindering its development? Will not the collapse of the wretched police regime multiply tenfold (even a thousand fold) the number of voluntary associations for protecting and spreading the Russian language? No, I absolutely disagree with you, and accuse you of k\"oniglich-preussischer Sozialismus![2]

2. You are opposed to autonomy. You are in favour only of regional self-government. I disagree entirely. Recall Engels’s explanation that centralisation does not in the least preclude local “liberties”.[5] Why should Poland have autonomy and not the Caucasus, the South, or the Urals? Does not the central parliament determine the limits of autonomy? We are certainly in favour of democratic centralism. We are opposed to federation. We support the Jacobins as against the Girondists. But to be afraid of autonomy in Russia of all places—that is simply ridiculous! It is reactionary. Give me an example, imagine a case in which autonomy can be harmful. You cannot. But in Russia (and in Prussia), this narrow interpretation—only local self-government—plays into the hands of the rotten police regime.

3. “The right to self-determination does not imply only the right to secede. It also implies the right to federal association, the right to autonomy,” you write. I disagree entirely. It does not imply the right to federation. Federation means the association of equals, an association that demands common agreement. How can one side have a right to demand that the other side should agree with it? That is absurd. We are opposed to federation in principle, it loosens economic ties, and is unsuitable for a single state. You want to secede? All right, go to the devil, if you can break economic bonds, or rather, if the oppression and friction of “coexistence” disrupt and ruin economic bonds. You don’t want to secede? In that case, excuse me, but don’t decide for me; don’t think that you have a “right” to federation.

Right to autonomy?” Wrong again. We are in favour of autonomy for all parts; we are in favour of the right to   secession (and not in favour of everyone’s seceding!). Autonomy is our plan for organising a democratic state. Secession is not what we plan at all. We do not advocate secession. In general, we are opposed to secession. But we stand for the right to secede owing to reactionary, Great-Russian nationalism, which has so besmirched the idea of national coexistence that sometimes closer ties will be established after free secession!

The right to self-determination is an exception to our general premise of centralisation. This exception is absolutely essential in view of reactionary Great-Russian nationalism; and any rejection of this exception is opportunism (as in the case of Rosa Luxemburg); it means foolishly playing into the hands of reactionary Great-Russian nationalism. But exceptions must not be too broadly interpreted. In this case there is not, and must not be anything more than the right to secede.

I am writing about this in Prosveshcheniye.[3] Please do not fail to write to me in greater detail when I have finished these articles (they will appear in three issues). I will send something more. I was mainly responsible for getting the resolution passed. I delivered a series of lectures on the national question in the summer,[6] and have made some little study of it. That is why I intend to “stick tight”, although, of course, ich lasse mich belehren[4] from comrades who have studied the question more deeply and for a longer period.

4. So you are opposed to “altering” the Programme; opposed to a “national programme”, are you? Here, too, I disagree. You are afraid of words. You must not let words frighten you. Everybody changes it (the Programme) any way, surreptitiously, in an underhand manner, and for the worse. We, however, define, make more precise, develop and consolidate our position in keeping with the spirit of the Programme, with the consistently democratic spirit, with the Marxist (anti-Austrian) spirit. This had to be done. Let the opportunist (Bundist, liquidator, Narodnik) scum   have their say, let them give their equally precise and complete answers to all the problems raised, and solved, in our resolution. Let them try. No, we have not “given way” to the opportunists, we have beaten them on all points.

A popular pamphlet on the national question is very much needed. Write. Looking forward to reply, I send you my very heartiest greetings. Regards to all friends.

Yours, V. I.


[1] See pp. 354–57 of this volume.—Ed.

[2] Royal Prussian socialism.—Ed.

[3] See present edition, Vol. 20, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”.—Ed.

[4] I am willing to take advice.—Ed.

[5] Lenin here refers to a passage in Engels’s “Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891”. (Engels, “Zur Kritik des sozial-demokratischen Programmentwurfes 1891”, Die Neue Zeit, 1901-02, 20 Jhrg. 1. Band, Stuttgart, 1902.)

[6] The lectures here referred to are those Lenin delivered in 1913 in Switzerland.

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