Staunton, November 15 – Many have wondered why Vladimir Putin has raised the language question now, but the answer is simple: he is following the same playbook he used before and that the Bolsheviks pioneered in the 1920s – exploiting the nationality question to mobilize ethnic Russians around the Kremlin.
Whenever Soviet or Russian leaders have needed to gain the support of ethnic Russians, they have played up, sometimes even creating out of whole cloth, the supposed existence of a serious threat from the non-Russian nationalities. Boris Yeltsin, for example, did this in 1993 when he began talking about “people of Caucasian nationality” and launched the Chechen war.
Vladimir Putin went from being a largely unknown second-tier official in Yeltsin’s entourage to the unquestioned leader of Russia by blowing up the apartment houses in Russian cities in 1999, blaming the Chechens and launching an even more vicious campaign than the one Yeltsin had conducted.
Now that Putin is once again turning to that strategy, it is useful to recall how it came to prominence in the early days of Bolshevik rule; and in Vzglyad today, Dmitry Lyskov describes the way in which “the nationality question transformed revolutionaries into statists” who put loyalty to Moscow above everything else (vz.ru/politics/2017/11/15/895230.html).
A century ago, Lenin and the Bolsheviks issued the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia which many have criticized for encouraging separatism. “But was this in fact the case?” the Vzglyad commentator asks. His answer is a resounding “no” because in reality it had a far greater impact on the revolutionaries than on the non-Russians.
To this day, Lyskov continues, that is not widely understood. Many sources blame the declaration for sparking the disintegration of the Russian Empire, but in fact that had begun well before the Bolsheviks issued this statement. It did not just speed up this process but laid down the basis for blocking and reversing it.
The Bolsheviks had little choice but to say they were for self-determination. That had been backed by almost all revolutionaries in Russia since 1825 and was even included in the programs of almost all political parties which existed in 1917. But the key thing is that for the Bolsheviks, this “right” was never an end in itself.
They were quite prepared and quite successful in using it against the Whites who generally opposed any self-determination by non-Russians. That is because the Bolsheviks could deal with centrifugal forces “not head on” as the Whites tried to do “but asymmetrically,” promising much but scaring Russians and mobilizing them for centralization.
As a result, the Bolshevik leadership transformed their followers from revolutionary activists into committed state-thinking people, exactly the kind the new regime discovered it needed to survive and the kind that Stalin used so successfully to suppress any form of autonomy.
Putin by playing up the language issue is thus not doing anything new.