A deal with the devil? Why the Soviet Union failed to eradicate nationalism
The elimination of nationalism was one of the USSR’s main stated goals throughout its history. This commitment was largely due to the fundamental clash between communism and nationalism on a theoretical level: they were two political philosophies that should have been incompatible, if implemented in an orthodox manner. However, no implementation of Marxist theory has ever been entirely orthodox, and the Soviet Union was no exception. It, and after 1945 its Eastern European satellite states, were instead governed by a form of communism that represented a compromise with the realities of state rule, particularly the population’s dizzying range of national identities. Not only did the Soviets fail to eradicate nationalism within their empire, therefore, they never even truly tried to do so. While eradication remained an official aspiration throughout the USSR’s lifetime, various factors hindered its development as an actual policy objective.
Epitaph for an epiphehomenon
Officially, Marxist ideology had been implacably opposed to nationalism since its inception. In its economistic understanding of the world, in which divisions of class were the only ones that mattered, nationalism was viewed as merely an ‘epiphenomenon’ (or by-product) of capitalism. Ethnic or national divisions were fictitious, a tool used by the bourgeoisie to maintain their dominance over the working classes: as long as the workers of the world believed in them, they would be unable (or unwilling) to unite and overthrow their oppressors. Without the power relations inherent to capitalism, nationalist sentiment would have no meaning.
The Soviet communists’ assumption once they had seized power in Russia in 1917, therefore, was that nationalism would now be deprived of its economic and political sustenance, and would eventually wither away. Their policy, at least ostensibly, was to accelerate its demise in any way possible, and gradually to replace its assortment of narrow-minded ethnic identities with a more inclusive, overarching Soviet identity of their own design. In the event, however, this policy was not pursued with any real enthusiasm, for several reasons.
A meagre substitute
First, nationalism simply remained more resonant among the Soviet and Eastern European populations than communism, even in its diluted form. This point is emphasized by various scholars, most notably Walker Connor, who, in his pathbreaking work on the subject, describes nationalism as a ‘much more powerful force than Marxism’ as a means of inspiring political loyalty. George Schöpflin, too, mentions the greater durability of ethnic identities. Once established in the consciousness of a group, such identities are ‘extraordinarily difficult to eliminate’, and appeals to them via nationalist rhetoric are able to ‘penetrate the private sphere’ more effectively than references to less emotionally entrenched identities. Communist leaders, moreover, were certainly aware of this disparity. They were, however, hampered by their ideology’s inability to explain why nationalism was so resonant, a disadvantage that left them unable to make their own alternative identity more competitive.
The failure of the Soviets’ own socialist substitute identity was mainly a result of its lack of perceived authenticity among the populace. This was partly because the contents of the Soviet identity were simply uninspiring: representing a ‘crude and simplistic’ adaptation of Marxist-Leninist dogma, it had little to offer citizens used to more emotionally fulfilling ethnic identities. The economic foundations of the identity also undermined its authenticity; more specifically, it tied its legitimacy too closely to the economic performance of the Soviet system. As the inadequacies of that system grew increasingly apparent from the mid-1970s, the meagre bonds of loyalty the socialist identity had managed to forge were broken. Lastly, the means by which the Soviets promoted this identity were haphazard and often half-hearted, further diminishing its emotive power.
As a result of all this, the Soviet identity ended up ‘representing pure “socialist content” completely devoid of “national form”’, and was therefore a less appealing prospect for the populace than the ethnonationalist alternatives.
A late arrival
The existence of pre-communist nationalisms presented an additional complication, thwarting what chance the broader Soviet identity may have had to take hold. This is especially evident in the fraught relations between various Eastern bloc states, particularly from the mid-1950s onwards. Hungary and Romania, for instance, maintained a frosty relationship with disputes over their respective minority communities, with Martin Mevius noting that such minority problems actually worsened under communism, and even referring to an ‘iron curtain’ between the two states. The peculiarities of Polish ‘national communism’, meanwhile, tarnished relations with the Soviets themselves. This was in part due to the long-standing anti-Russian elements of Polish nationalism, and in part to the traumas of more recent Soviet aggression during the Second World War. The impact of these ‘historically strained relations’ were reflected in the more independent, individualized form that communism took in Poland, as evidenced in particular by the failure of High Stalinism by the late 1940s owing to local resistance. This was a rejection of the most emblematic expression of the Soviet identity, if favour of a specifically national communist variant, which illustrates the depth of attachment such local identities were able to command. Communism, given its comparatively recent introduction in Eastern Europe, could not hope to compete.
As a consequence of these disadvantages, the Soviets were compelled to make various concessions to popular nationalism. These served to ingrain nationalism into the politics of the Union and the postwar empire, and thereby bind the legitimacy of Soviet rule to its ability to meet nationalist expectations. In short, not only did the Soviets fail to supplant nationalism, but within a few years of seizing power they had begun actively supporting it.
A ‘scissors-and-paste’ job
The most cynical of the Soviets’ nationalistic policies was their strategy of mobilizing nationalist sentiment to legitimize their rule, striving to associate themselves in the popular mind with the representation and defence of the nation. This was attempted through a range of propaganda campaigns, promises and what Mevius terms the ‘instrumental use of theory’. This approach had its roots in classical Marxism, which from the beginning had adopted a more pragmatic stance towards nationalism than its official interpretation suggested. Lenin and his successors inherited this legacy, and took a similarly calculating attitude towards the national identities of their own subject peoples. The clearest instance of this was Lenin’s May 1917 resolution to grant self-determination to all ethnic groups in Russia that desired it. This pledge was conceived as a means of attracting support for the Bolsheviks, especially after the October Revolution, and certainly did not reflect any genuine commitment. The pragmatic nature of the policy was illustrated by Lenin’s dismay when so many groups took advantage of his offer, and his interest in ‘reabsorbing’ them ‘with whatever force was required’.
Soviet policy towards the satellite states followed a similarly exploitative line. Indeed, Soviet compromises with Eastern European nationalisms began even before the USSR gained control over those states, namely with the various ‘national lines’ imposed by the Comintern during the 1920s and 1930s. Barring the period of the Nazi-Soviet alliance, this line was maintained during the Second World War, and influenced the Soviets’ strategy for consolidating their newfound empire in 1945. Local communists were instructed to boost their popularity by presenting themselves as ‘heirs to national traditions and guardians of national interests’. To this end, they commandeered national figures and symbols, and attempted to incorporate them into the local communist story—a process that Schöpflin describes as a ‘scissors-and-paste job’ of national reconstruction. In a similar way, long-standing national holidays and commemorations were refashioned as vehicles for the promotion of communist rule and the Soviet alliance.
While it aided the consolidation of communist power, the overall effect of this legitimizing strategy was to associate the communists ever more closely with the interests of the nation or, more precisely, with those of the majority ethnic group in the state. This had become a particularly obvious problem by the 1970s, when the bloc’s ruling communist parties found themselves increasingly unable to afford alienating their respective majorities by failing to meet their nationalist expectations. Moreover, once their exploitation of nationalist sentiment had established a precedent, the communists were vulnerable to being ‘outflank[ed]’ by any political group able to depict themselves more convincingly as defenders of the national interest. By the mid-1980s, this had indeed started to happen in the satellite states and the various republics of the USSR itself. Even many of the Soviets’ less overtly cynical nationality policies compounded this problem—though these were numerous enough that they would be better left to another post.
The elimination of nationalism, in short, proved to be a goal that the Soviet Union was not only unable to achieve, but also unwilling to pursue with any determination. Though the communists managed to harness nationalism as a legitimizing force, they grew increasingly unsuccessful at associating themselves with it—a combination that contributed directly to the collapse of communist rule throughout Europe.