Staunton, September 14 – Soviet and Russian nomenclature about nations and peoples has always struck many in the West as needlessly fussy, but in Soviet times and until very recently, officials and experts have insisted on a clear distinction between “a people” [“narod”] and “a nation” [“natsiya”].
The first refers to any human group, political or otherwise, which has some consciousness of itself and some eternal signs that set it apart from others. The latter refers to an ethnic community, defined variously, that includes a common language, culture and sense of origin.
In late Soviet times and in more recent discussions of that period, both officials and experts in the Russian Federation and elsewhere were and have been scrupulous in referring to the population of the USSR as “the Soviet people” [“Sovetsky narod”], a “new historical community” that remained multi-national.
That makes an article posted on the KM.ru portal day especially intriguing because in a sharp departure from this practice, it poses the question “Was the Soviet Nation [‘Natsiya’] a Myth or Reality” and suggests that the answer should be a confident “yes” (km.ru/front-projects/belovezhskoe-soglashenie/sovetskaya-natsiya-mif-ili-realnost).
The unsigned article offers two bases for its conclusion. The first is historical. It says that the USSR was created officially and practically out of 15 “nations,” each of which had its own republic, but says that “by the 1980s, the real situation had essentially changed” and they had come together as a “Soviet nation.”
The other is conceptual and involves the differences between those nations which are based on “blood, origin, and culture,” like the German, and those based on a political community based on territory, linguistic, statehood, and economics, like the French and the Americans.
The population of the Soviet Union was never a nation in the former sense, despite a high degree of intermarriage among its constituent nations. But according to KM.ru, it had become one in the second sense after World War II. Indeed, it was, just like most of the “nations” of the world today “poly-ethnic” rather than “mono-ethnic.”
According to unnamed experts, “the identification of the majority of people living in the country with a common territory, a common statehood, a common history, a common language of interethnic communication, and a common economy began to be established in the USSR in the course of the Great Fatherland War and was basically in place by the 1970s and 1980s.”
But during the last decades of the Soviet system, Soviet social scientists resisted calling this community a nation, preferring instead to label it “the multi-national Soviet people,” a term, the KM.ru article suggests, provided an intellectual foundation for the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But there were some experts, again unnamed, KM.ru continues, who argued that “a new ‘Soviet nation’ had in fact been born, not in the sense of ‘a nation of Soviet power but rather in the sense of a nation which formed he people of the country under the name USSR” – much in the same way the various peoples of the US formed the American nation.
Soviet writers could never adequately explain why they were not prepared to talk about a Soviet nation, but it appears that they were constrained by the fact that they did not want to declare that “the old nations [which would be part of such a community] were atrophying and dying.”
To say that would have called into question a major plank of Soviet ideology, the notion that the system was promoting both the self-determination and flourishing of peoples. But thus, these writers failed to take into account that “by the 1970s, this real flowering had already led to the process of fusion, albeit not complete, into a single union nation.”
Had the Soviet-era writers focused on this, the disintegration of the USSR on national lines would have been far more difficult, although KM.ru notes that “in the opinion of a number of experts, the division of the USSR was not the realization of the principle of the right of nations to self-determination but rather a complete neglect of that principle.”
That is because, these experts say, the events of 1991 “ignored the right of this new political union ‘Soviet’ nation to control its own national state.” Its interests were neglected and trampled upon, and now, one can see, “the destruction of the self-identification of the pretender to the role of its successor – ‘the [non-ethnic] Russian proto-nation.’”
If one accepts the theory of “’a single political Soviet nation,’” then “today one could resolve the problem of ‘a divide people’ and guarantee the normal development of the country to the extent that even today, the interests of Soviet national unity on the space of the former USSR are objectively distinct” from those of the ethnocracies in the now-independent countries.
“However,” the KM.ru article concludes, “today even many of those who would like to see this are often afraid to speak about this publically and officially, fearing attacks for striving to ‘the restoration of the empire’ and ‘the trampling of the rights of other nations’ as well as ‘attachment to Stalinism and great power aspirations.’”
At its base, the KM.ru argument about the existence of “a Soviet nation” collapses because the USSR was not an immigrant society as is the United States. Instead, its numerous peoples were brought into the fold by military conquest, and many if not all of them have national traditions extending back even further than the Russian not just the Soviet.
But of course, the KM.ru article is not so much about the past as about the future: it is designed to provide grist for the mill of those who want to promote two ideas: a single nation within the Russian Federation, one that doesn’t need provide support to non-Russians within it or have any non-Russian republics, and the a restored Moscow-centric state on the territory of what was the Russian and Soviet empire.
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