Reassessing the Russian Identity, Part 2: Czarist and Soviet Policies

10 MINS READNov 27, 2012 | 11:15 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a five-part series on Russian society and identity. Part 2 discusses assimilation strategies in Czarist and Soviet Russia. Read part 1.

As Russia became free from Mongol control and the Russian Empire began forming, Russian identity emanated from Muscovy. Waves of expansion (mostly seen under the three "Greats," Ivan, Peter and Catherine) spread Russian power into Europe, Asia and the Islamic world, taking disparate populations — with varying values, languages, faiths and traditions — under Russian rule.

Russian Empire

Russian Empire

Each Russian czar or czarina dealt with diversity within the empire in different ways. For the most part, Russian imperial rulers attempted to keep ethnic Russians as the ruling elite. This strategy was complicated under such rulers as Catherine the Great, who was Prussian, not Russian. Some Russian czars, like Alexander II, attempted to assimilate non-Russian populations. Others such as Alexander III brutally repressed any non-Russian culture and diversity.

Most czarist policies shifted wildly depending on the issue or crisis of the day. Russification — the enforcement of the Russian language, culture and faith across the empire — was the strategy favored by most Russian imperial leaders. Forced Russification was difficult to implement without brutality. Catherine II attempted to coerce minorities into adopting Russian ways by putting minority leaders on the state's payroll and using those leaders to spread the state's policies and Russian cultural influence. This strategy was fairly successful with the Muslim Tatars in Crimea, but Catherine's assimilation attempts were not as successful with other populations, such as the Jewish population, which was mostly segregated and prevented from taking part in Russia's social, political or economic systems.

One of the most effective tools the Russian Empire used to expand power and either assimilate or oversee the population was the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church expanded across the empire and incorporated local customs and languages in order to penetrate different population groups. Over the centuries, the state, the Church and the populations became interwoven, involving myriad ethnicities and languages.

Nicholas I and the Triad

In the mid-19th century, Czar Nicholas I introduced the first official sweeping strategy for national identity, called "Autocracy, Nationality, Orthodoxy" (also known as the Triad). Many consider this to be the first official Russian social ideology beyond the Russification of certain populations. The ideology was born after Napoleon invaded Russia and the czar survived the Decembrist revolt; Russia was under pressure to repeal serfdom and was embroiled in a war in the Caucasus. The idea was that even with Russia's diverse population, a person could subscribe to at least one of the pieces of the Triad — the throne, the fatherland or the Church. This would allow a person to draw on his or her own values, traditions and ethnic ties but still be loyal to the state through one or more parts of the Triad. This policy was implemented widely across the empire, but it had one inherent weakness: People could become divided over which part of the Triad they adhered to.

Because of the Russian leadership's fears of uprisings, the policy was abandoned when Nicholas I's son, Alexander II, took the throne. Alexander II turned back to the forced Russification of all populations in the empire. He believed that if the population was assimilated under the Russian language and faith, it would be loyal to the crown. A Catholic Pole assassinated Alexander II after the czar used brutal Russification against the Polish population. Ethnic, economic and political agitation was common in the empire until the 1917 Russian Revolution began the Soviet era.

Soviet Strategy

The Soviet period is the only instance in which a comprehensive strategy created an overarching identity in Russia. The 1917 revolution created an opportunity for all the autonomous desires in Russia to re-emerge. The revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power and eventually sparked the creation of the Soviet Union. Going into the Russian Revolution, the leader of the Bolsheviks — and later premier of the Soviet Union — Vladimir Lenin constantly pushed the so-called national question, which was what to do with so many differing populations under Moscow's control. At first Lenin co-opted the issue to get various populations — from ethnic groups to different socioeconomic classes — to rise against the repressive czarist policies targeting minorities and divergent political groups. Lenin called for an ideology of self-determination for all peoples.

Thus, at first, the Soviet system gave sovereignty to the various nationalities and ethnicities, reversing the czarist policy of Russification. As Josef Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) said at the 1923 Party Congress, "The multi-national Soviet state can become really durable, and the cooperation of the peoples within it really fraternal, only if these survivals [of traditional divisions among nationalities] are vigorously and irrevocably eradicated from the practice of our state institutions. Hence, the first immediate task of our party is vigorously to combat the survivals of Great-Russian chauvinism."

Initially, the Soviet Union attempted to solve the national issue of diversity by creating a multi-ethnic concept of the Soviet people built around a single class. The goal was to harmonize the new Soviet regime with the local populations. The Soviet model of identity was called "matrioshka," and provided layers of identification nesting in the concept of being Soviet.

One of the first things the Soviet regime did was break down the concept of the superiority of ethnic Russian identity; Russian Orthodox churches were closed, and Russian cultural and science programs were shut down. Such institutions threatened the new identity and order the Soviets were trying to build.

The concept of a Soviet identity was meant to supersede ethnicity, political ideology, nationality, class and gender. The unifying factor was the Soviet concept, which centered on equality and pivoted on a single class of workers. Each group was recognized and given some degree of autonomy. Stalin called this period a "blossoming of cultures." However, Stalin clarified just how far the idea of self-determination would go, saying, "It should be borne in mind that besides the right of nations to self-determination there is also the right of the working class to consolidate its power, and to this latter right, the right of self-determination is subordinate."

Ethnic autonomy and divisions in the Soviet Union thus varied depending on the population. In many cases, ethnic communities that were touching the Soviet Union's international boundaries were given Soviet Social Republic statuses, and those within were given statuses of Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republics or Autonomous Republics or Autonomous Provinces. For the most part, the idea was that Northern Caucasus or Tatar and Bashkir peoples were too close to the Russian core (Moscow and St. Petersburg), so they must remain subjugated under the Kremlin, whereas Central Asian or Southern Caucasus peoples farther from the core could be pseudo-colonialized.

Former Soviet Union

Of course, the Soviet regime did not trust any of these populations — regardless of their administrative status — to not attempt to consolidate and rise against Moscow's rule. Just like the czars, the Soviet regime had fears rooted in the Russian state's historical struggle to oversee these populations. Internal fears ran particularly high in the first two decades of the Soviet era as economic crises and famines (many caused by Soviet policies) rippled across the land. Stalin thus implemented a series of policies breaking with Lenin's initial concepts of self-determination and autonomy. Stalin redrew the initial borders of the Soviet territories, breaking up certain populations among different administrations. He also implemented mass deportations and relocations of populations to other parts of the union (far from the core) to keep some population groups unconsolidated. In addition, Stalin significantly decreased the number of officially recognized nationalities in the Soviet Union.

Political Identity Under the Soviets

The ideology of self-determination and the actual practice varied greatly under Soviet policies. Ethnic diversity was not the only challenge; differing political ideas — such as dissident groups in the western Soviet territory influenced by various European ideologies, or groups in the south influenced by Islamic ideologies — divided the population. The Soviet identity strategy needed to incorporate ways to help shape those populations and make them more loyal to the Kremlin. The two strongest tools — aside from widespread repression — were language and the Communist Party.

Enforcing the use of a common language across the Soviet Union was key. Lenin and Stalin drew on the ideology of German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who said that language tied people together, creating a nation. The Soviets believed that a common language determined thought and could equalize people into one unified class. Policies making Russian the Soviet language were first implemented in the 1930s (though not officially until the 1960s and 1970s). In the 1930s, all non-Russian languages were forced to at least use the Cyrillic alphabet, making it easier for those non-Russian populations to learn Russian. By the 1960s, Soviet educational reforms were put into place that pushed Russian into nearly every school. By the fall of the Soviet Union, 75 percent of all population groups across the union spoke Russian.

Lenin introduced the strategy of state and party centralization, meant to sideline political, social and ethnic divisions. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was meant to keep tensions in check. Since the different population groups wanted to feel like part of the system, the party gave them that feeling — real or not. The Communist Party set up cadres within each population group, republic and territory, creating a political system linked to the concept of the Soviet identity. The party sought to control all political and social aspects of the Soviet Union and span all ethnicities, age groups and genders.

The Communist Party spread into the ethnically non-Russian republics when, over the years, ethnic Russians were given prominent positions within the party in those republics in order to repress minorities' nationalist traditions. This was met with quite a bit of resistance in many republics, including Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian dominance of the party eventually was overturned in the 1980s. Over time, it seemed as though ethnic Russians dominated the other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Russia became the preeminent republic within the union, partially shut off from other Soviets in terms of population movement.

The Soviet strategy had uneven success, but the overarching Soviet identity did have a uniting effect in much of the Soviet Union. It created a new kind of patriotism and enthusiasm for being Soviet and having the will to fight for the socialist motherland in times of crisis. Such sentiments typically grew more intense during larger crises, such as World War II and at times in the Cold War. The concept of the Soviet identity has been the closest Moscow has come to uniting the many peoples of Russia and its surrounding lands under a single identity. As Nikita Khrushchev stated in the 1961 Communist Party Congress, in the Soviet Union "there had formed a new historical community of people of diverse nationalities, having common characteristics — the Soviet People."

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