J. V. Stalin

The Policy of the Soviet Government on the National Question in Russia

October 10, 1920

Source : Works, Vol. 4, November, 1917 - 1920
Publisher : Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953
Transcription/Markup : Salil Sen for MIA, 2009
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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.

Three years of revolution and civil war in Russia have shown that unless central Russia and her border regions support each other the victory of the revolution and the liberation of Russia from the clutches of imperialism will be impossible. Central Russia, that hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel and foodstuffs. The border regions of Russia in their turn would be inevitably doomed to imperialist bondage without the political, military and organizational support of more developed central Russia. If it is true to say that the more developed proletarian West cannot finish off the world bourgeoisie without the support of the peasant East, which is less developed but which abounds in raw materials and fuel, it is equally true to say that more developed central Russia cannot carry the revolution through to the end without the support of the border regions of Russia, which are less developed but which abound in essential resources.

The Entente undoubtedly took this circumstance into account from the very first days of the existence of the Soviet Government, when it (the Entente) pursued the plan of the economic encirclement of central Russia by cutting off the most important of her border regions. And the plan of the economic encirclement of Russia has remained the unchanging basis of all the Entente's campaigns against Russia, from 1918 to 1920, not excluding its present machinations in the Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkestan.

All the more important is it, therefore, to achieve a firm union between the centre and the border regions of Russia.

Hence the need to establish definite relations, definite ties between the centre and the border regions of Russia ensuring an intimate and undestructible union between them.

What must these relations be, what forms must they assume?

In other words, what is the policy of the Soviet Government on the national question in Russia?

The demand for the secession of the border regions from Russia as the form of the relations between the centre and the border regions must be rejected not only because it runs counter to the very formulation of the question of establishing a union between the centre and the border regions, but primarily because it runs fundamentally counter to the interests of the mass of the people in both the centre and the border regions. Apart from the fact that the secession of the border regions would undermine the revolutionary might of central Russia, which is stimulating the movement for emancipation in the West and the East, the seceded border regions themselves would inevitably fall into the bondage of international imperialism. One has only to glance at Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Finland, etc., which have seceded from Russia but which have retained only the semblance of independence, having in reality been converted into unconditional vassals of the Entente; one has only, lastly, to recall the recent case of the Ukraine and Azerbaijan, of which the former was plundered by German capital and the latter by the Entente, to realize the utterly counter-revolutionary nature of the demand for the secession of the border regions under present international conditions. When a life-and-death struggle is developing between proletarian Russia and the imperialist Entente, there are only two possible outcomes for the border regions:

Either they go along with Russia, and then the toiling masses of the border regions will be freed from imperialist oppression;

Or they go along with the Entente, and then the yoke of imperialism will be inevitable.

There is no third course.

The so-called independence of so-called independent Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Finland, etc., is only an illusion, and conceals the utter dependence of these apologies for states on one or another group of imperialists.

Of course, the border regions of Russia, the nations and races which inhabit these regions, possess, as all other nations do, the inalienable right to secede from Russia; and if any of these nations decided by a majority to secede from Russia, as was the case with Finland in 1917, Russia, presumably, would be obliged to take note of the fact and sanction the secession. But the question here is not about the rights of nations, which are unquestionable, but about the interests of the mass of the people both in the centre and in the border regions; it is a question of the character—which is determined by these interests—of the agitation which our Party must carry on if it does not wish to renounce its own principles and if it wishes to influence the will of the labouring masses of the nationalities in a definite direction. And the interests of the masses render the demand for the secession of the border regions at the present stage of the revolution a profoundly counter-revolutionary one.

Similarly, what is known as cultural-national autonomy must also be rejected as a form of union between the centre and the border regions of Russia. The experience of Austria-Hungary (the birthplace of cultural-national autonomy) during the last ten years has revealed the absolutely ephemeral and non-viable character of cultural-national autonomy as a form of alliance between the labouring masses of the nationalities of a multi-national state. Springer and Bauer, the authors of cultural-national autonomy, who are now confronted by the failure of their cunningly contrived national programme, are living corroborations of this. Finally, the champion of cultural-national autonomy in Russia, the once famous Bund, was itself recently obliged officially to acknowledge the superflu-ousness of cultural-national autonomy, publicly declaring that:

"The demand for cultural-national autonomy, which was put forward under the capitalist system, loses its meaning in the conditions of a socialist revolution" (see The Twelfth Conference of the Bund, 1920, p. 21).

There remains regional autonomy for border regions that are distinguished by a specific manner of life and national composition, as the only expedient form of union between the centre and the border regions, an autonomy which is designed to connect the border regions of Russia with the centre by a federal tie. This is the Soviet form of autonomy which was proclaimed by the Soviet Government from the very first days of its existence and which is now being put into effect in the border regions in the form of administrative communes and autonomous Soviet republics.

Soviet autonomy is not a rigid thing fixed once and for all time; it permits of the most varied forms and degrees of development. It passes from narrow, administrative autonomy (the Volga Germans, the Chu-vashes, the Karelians) to a wider, political autonomy (the Bashkirs, the Volga Tatars, the Kirghiz); from wide political autonomy to a still wider form of it (the Ukraine, Turkestan); and, lastly, from the Ukrainian type of autonomy to the highest form of auton-omy—to contractual relations (Azerbaijan). This flexibility of Soviet autonomy is one of its prime merits; for this flexibility enables it to embrace all the various types of border regions of Russia, which vary greatly in their levels of cultural and economic development. The three years of Soviet policy on the national question in Russia have shown that in applying Soviet autonomy in its diverse forms the Soviet Government is on the right path, for this policy alone has made it possible for it to open the road to the remotest corners of the border regions of Russia, to arouse to political activity the most backward and nationally diverse masses and to connect these masses with the centre by the most varied ties—a problem which no other government in the world has solved, or has even set itself (being afraid to do so!). The administrative redivision of Russia on the basis of Soviet autonomy has not yet been completed; the North Caucasians, the Kalmyks, the Cheremiss, the Votyaks, the Buryats and others are still awaiting a settlement of the question. But no matter what aspect the administrative map of the future Russia may assume, and no matter what shortcomings there may have been in this field—and some shortcomings there certainly were—it must be acknowledged that by undertaking an administrative redivision on the basis of regional autonomy Russia has made a very big stride towards rallying the border regions around the proletarian centre and bringing the government into closer contact with the broad masses of the border regions.

But the proclamation of this or that form of Soviet autonomy, the issuing of corresponding decrees and ordinances, and even the creation of governments in the border regions, in the shape of regional Councils of People's Commissars of the autonomous republics, are still far from enough to consolidate the union between the border regions and the centre. To consolidate this union it is necessary, first of all, to put an end to the estrangement and isolation of the border regions, to their patriarchal and uncultured manner of life, and to their distrust of the centre, which still persist in the border regions as a heritage of the brutal policy of tsarism. Tsarism deliberately cultivated patriarchal and feudal oppression in the border regions in order to keep the masses in slavery and ignorance. Tsarism deliberately settled the best areas in the border regions with colonizing elements in order to force the masses of the native nationalities into the worst areas and to intensify national strife. Tsar-ism restricted, and at times simply suppressed, the native schools, theatres and educational institutions in order to keep the masses in ignorance. Tsarism frustrated all initiative of the best members of the native population. Lastly, tsarism suppressed all activity of the masses in the border regions. By all these means tsarism implanted among the mass of the native nationalities a profound distrust, at times passing into direct hostility, towards everything Russian. If the union between central Russia and the border regions is to be consolidated, this distrust must be removed and an atmosphere of mutual understanding and fraternal confidence created. But in order to remove this distrust we must first help the masses of the border regions to emancipate themselves from the survivals of feudal-patriarchal oppression; we must abolish—actually, and not only nominally—all the privileges of the colonizing elements; we must allow the masses to experience the material benefits of the revolution.

In brief, we must prove to the masses that central, proletarian Russia is defending their interests, and their interests alone; and this must be proved not only by repressive measures against the colonizers and bourgeois nationalists, measures that are often quite incomprehensible to the masses, but primarily by a consistent and carefully considered economic policy.

Everybody is acquainted with the liberals' demand for universal compulsory education. The Communists in the border regions cannot be more Right-wing than the liberals; they must put universal education into effect there if they want to end the ignorance of the people and if they want to create closer spiritual ties between the centre of Russia and the border regions. But to do so, it is necessary to develop local national schools, national theatres and national educational institutions and to raise the cultural level of the masses of the border regions, for it need hardly be shown that ignorance is the most dangerous enemy of the Soviet regime. We do not know what success is attending our work in this field generally, but we are informed that in one of the most important border regions the local People's Commissariat of Education is spending on the native schools only ten per cent of its credits. If that is true, it must be admitted that in this field we have, unfortunately, not gone much further than the "old regime."

Soviet power is not power divorced from the people; on the contrary, it is the only power of its kind, having sprung from the Russian masses and being near and dear to them. This in fact explains the unparalleled strength and resilience which the Soviet regime usually displays at critical moments.

Soviet power must become just as near and dear to the masses of the border regions of Russia. But this requires that it should first of all become comprehensible to them. It is therefore necessary that all Soviet organs in the border regions—the courts, the administration, the economic bodies, the organs of direct authority (and the organs of the Party as well)—should as far as possible be recruited from the local people acquainted with the manner of life, habits, customs and language of the native population; that all the best people from the local masses should be drawn into these institutions; that the local labouring masses should participate in every sphere of administration of the country, including the formation of military units, in order that the masses should see that the Soviet power and its organs are the products of their own efforts, the embodiment of their aspirations. Only in this way can firm spiritual ties be established between the masses and the Soviet power, and only in this way can the Soviet power become comprehensible and dear to the labouring masses of the border regions.

Some comrades regard the autonomous republics in Russia and Soviet autonomy generally as a temporary, if necessary, evil which owing to certain circumstances had to be tolerated, but which must be combated with a view to its eventual abolishment. It need hardly be shown that this view is fundamentally false and that at any rate it is entirely foreign to the policy of the Soviet Government on the national question. Soviet autonomy must not be regarded as an abstraction or an artificial thing; still less should it be considered an empty and declaratory promise. Soviet autonomy is the most real and concrete form of the union of the border regions with central Russia. Nobody will deny that the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkestan, Kirghizia, Bashkiria, Tataria and the other border regions, if they desire the cultural and material prosperity of their masses, must have native schools, courts, administration and organs of authority, recruited principally from the local people. Furthermore, the real sovietization of these regions, their conversion into Soviet countries closely bound with central Russia in one integral state, is inconceivable without the widespread organization of local schools, without the creation of courts, administrative bodies, organs of authority, etc., staffed with people acquainted with the life and language of the population. But establishing schools, courts, administration and organs of authority functioning in the native language—this is precisely putting Soviet autonomy into practice; for Soviet autonomy is nothing but the sum total of all these institutions clothed in Ukrainian, Turkestan, Kirghiz, etc., forms.

How, after this, can one seriously say that Soviet autonomy is ephemeral, that it must be combated, and so on?

One thing or the other:

Either the Ukrainian, Azerbaijan, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Bashkir and other languages are an actual reality, and it is therefore absolutely essential to develop in these regions native schools, courts, administrative bodies and organs of authority recruited from the local people— in which case Soviet autonomy must be put into effect in these regions in its entirety, without reservations;

Or the Ukrainian, Azerbaijan and other languages are a pure fiction, and therefore schools and other institutions functioning in the native languages are unneces-sary—in which case Soviet autonomy must be discarded as useless lumber.

The search for a third way is due either to ignorance of the subject or to deplorable folly.

One serious obstacle to the realization of Soviet autonomy is the acute shortage in the border regions of intellectual forces of local origin, the shortage of instructors in every branch of Soviet and Party work without exception. This shortage cannot but hamper both educational and revolutionary constructive work in the border regions. But for that very reason it would be unwise and harmful to alienate the all too few groups of native intellectuals, who perhaps would like to serve the masses but are unable to do so, perhaps because, not being Communists, they believe themselves to be surrounded by an atmosphere of mistrust and are afraid of possible repressive measures. The policy of drawing such groups into Soviet work, the policy of recruiting them for industrial, agrarian, food-supply and other posts, with a view to their gradual sovietization, may be applied with success. For it can hardly be maintained that these intellectual groups are less reliable than, let us say, the counterrevolutionary military experts who, their counter-revolutionary spirit notwithstanding, were drawn into the work and subsequently became sovietized, occupying very important posts.

But the employment of the national groups of intellectuals will still be far from sufficient to satisfy the demand for instructors. We must simultaneously develop in the border regions a ramified system of courses of study and schools in every branch of administration in order to create cadres of instructors from the local people. For it is clear that without such cadres the organization of native schools, courts, administrative and other institutions functioning in the native languages will be rendered extremely difficult.

A no less serious obstacle to the realization of Soviet autonomy is the haste, often becoming gross tactlessness, displayed by certain comrades in the matter of sovietiz-ing the border regions. When such comrades venture to take upon themselves the "heroic task" of introducing "pure communism" in regions which are a whole historical period behind central Russia, regions where the medieval order has not yet been wholly abolished, one may safely say that no good will come of such cavalry raids, of "communism" of this kind. We should like to remind these comrades of the point in our programme which says:

"The R.C.P. upholds the historical and class standpoint, giving consideration to the stage of historical development in which the given nation finds itself—whether it is on the way from medievalism to bourgeois democracy, or from bourgeois democracy to Soviet, or proletarian, democracy, etc."

And further:

"In any case, the proletariat of those nations which were oppressor nations must exercise particular caution and be particularly heedful of the survivals of national sentiment among the labouring masses of the oppressed or unequal nations" (see Programme of the R.C.P.).

That means that if in Azerbaijan, for instance, the direct method of requisitioning superfluous dwelling space alienates from us the Azerbaijanian masses, who regard the home, the domestic hearth, as sacred and inviolable, it is obvious that the direct way of requisitioning superfluous dwelling space must be replaced by an indirect, roundabout way of achieving the same end. Or if, for instance, the Daghestan masses, who are profoundly imbued with religious prejudices, follow the Communists "on the basis of the Sharia," it is obvious that the direct way of combating religious prejudices in this country must be replaced by indirect and more cautious ways. And so on, and so forth.

In brief, cavalry raids with the object of "immediately communizing" the backward masses must be discarded in favour of a circumspect and carefully considered policy of gradually drawing these masses into the general stream of Soviet development.

Such in general are the practical conditions necessary for realizing Soviet autonomy, the introduction of which ensures closer spiritual ties and a firm revolutionary union between the centre and the border regions of Russia.

Soviet Russia is performing an experiment without parallel hitherto in the world in organizing the cooperation of a number of nations and races within a single proletarian state on a basis of mutual confidence, of voluntary and fraternal agreement. The three years of the revolution have shown that this experiment has every chance of succeeding. But this experiment can be certain of complete success only if our practical policy on the national question in the localities does not run counter to the demands of already proclaimed Soviet autonomy, in its varied forms and degrees, and if every practical measure we adopt in the localities helps to introduce the masses of the border regions to a higher, proletarian spiritual and material culture in forms conforming with the manner of life and national features of these masses.

In that lies the guarantee of the consolidation of the revolutionary union between central Russia and the border regions of Russia, against which all the machinations of the Entente will be shattered.

Pravda, No. 226, October 10, 1920

Signed: J. Stalin