But that idea ignores both history and the current reality that the republics aren’t some “bomb under the foundation of the Russian state” but a reflection of the views of the people and of the objective reality of a state the size of Russia and that their maintenance is a precondition for the survival of the state.
“If Russia cannot be celebrated for being one of the first to establish a firm democracy,” the historian says, “it is nonetheless possible to say of Russian federalism that it is one of the oldest in the world,” more than a century ago even though this anniversary hasn’t found any celebrants in government structures or “official” scientific structures.
The first RSFSR Constitution officially recognized as “the primary bases of the state, a republic form of administration, secularism and a federal structure of the state.” It thus completed “the liquidation of the strata state and declared all those constitutional freedoms which are declared to this day.”
Within this constitution was included the 1918 Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People, a document that specified “at the beginning of 1918 that Russia is ‘a federation of Soviet national republics.” Of course, some of these things were realized while others were suppressed. But that is what was said.
“Over the course of 75 years, only the republics were the subjects of the Russian Federation,” Fayzrakhmanov continues. “The oblasts were [solely] simple administrative-territorial units.” But now some Moscow leaders want to ignore that and dispense with what they see as “a federalism that Russia doesn’t need” and blaming Lenin for its existence.
In their view, the Kazan historian says, “it seems that if [the Bolsheviks] had promoted a harsh unitarism or federalism without national republics, we would live in the best country in the world.” But that ignores that “federalism was introduced in Russia ‘not from above’ … but in essence” from below by the peoples of the former empire.
In 1917, in fact, “the majority of peoples at their national congresses declared about the need for creating autonomies and the most rapid federalization of the country.” They did this on their own “without the participation of the central authorities.” The Provisional Government tried to stop this, but its actions only provoked declarations of real independence.
After the Bolsheviks came to power, Fayzrakhmanov says, the Constituent Assembly despite being closed after one day nonetheless was able to declare a federal form of government, “based on a national-territorial principle,” as the foundation of the state. And it called on these nations to convene their own Constituent Assemblies.
The Bolsheviks’ dispersal of the Constituent Assembly served as the basis for the declarations of independence by Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Moldova and Belarus, he points out. And it led to more rather than fewer declarations of national autonomy within the remaining RSFSR and a tilt toward federal ideas among some anti-Bolshevik White leaders.
To be sure, he continues, “part of the autonomies really were created on the basis of particular decrees of the central Soviet power.” Thus, “in response to the independent desire of the Tatars to establish a Soviet state of Idel-Ural, the Bolsheviks advanced their own closely related project” that ultimately became the Tatar ASSR.
This history of founding republics “was not the fruit of ‘Lenin’s thoughts; it wasn’t the result of decrees from the center. Instead, it was a direct continuation of the ideas of national congresses of 1917-1918 about statehood, a continuation of efforts to declare their own autonomy.”
Thus, then and now, “the preconditions for the disintegration of a federative state are hardly the idea of national republics but the insistence demand of the center to impose on all peoples of the country of common clothes in place of the diversity of the old real and then replaced quasi-federalism.”
About THAT bomb under the foundation of the state, Mirsaid Sultan-Galiyev spoke already in the 1920s shortly before his arrest. A worker of Stalin’s Peoples Commissariat of Nationality Affairs, he declared that the division of republics into real ones (union republics) and less than real autonomous ones would restore “semi-colonial” relations and lead to explosions.
According to Fayzrakhmanov, these facts should be recalled periodically to remind all those who see “the entire root of the problems in the Bolshevik federation” of just how wrong they are and how dangerous their denial is as a basis for policy in the future.
“Under contemporary conditions,” he concludes, “the only possibility for preserving the unity of an enormous and diverse country is not harsh unitarism, centralism and the diktat of the center but the establishment of a situation in which the subjects comfortably and profitably participate in a federative formation.”