Staunton, October 30 – Stalin’s identification of the Russian people as “the elder brother” of all the nations of the USSR “was incorrect,” Marxist historian and Soviet-era dissident Roy Medvedev says. “Why should the Russian people be the elder brother? Why shouldn’t the Uzbek or Ukrainian nation not be equal?”
That tilt toward the ethnic Russians, he continues in the course of a wide-ranging interview with Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, was one of the manifestations of the fact that Stalin’s nationality policy was “mistaken in many ways” and had disastrous consequences for the peoples of the USSR (business-gazeta.ru/article/362280).
“The nationality policy of the Bolsheviks,” Medvedev says, “was formulated by Lenin, not by Stalin” as many now think. It was a major preoccupation of Lenin, “and namely he developed all the basic propositions of the strategy even before the revolution.” Russia in his vision was to be based “on the equality of nations,” not on the supremacy of any one of them.
“The nationality policy dictated by Lenin was correct,” the historian says. “But during Stalin’s time, nationality policy already was perverted. To a significant degree, the national rights of many peoples except perhaps the Georgians, were violated.” And to this day, the peoples of the former Soviet space have reasons to complain about that fact.
Medvedev stresses that his assessment of Stalin is “absolutely negative: he had no positive role in the history of our country. [He] did not establish a firm state. It fell apart in 1991 because it was based only on force and it needed to have been based on ethnic and social foundations.”
“China, for example, has not disintegrated, but the Soviet Union has, although the two countries in equal measure considered themselves to be socialist countries. In Russia,” as a result of what Stalin did to distort the system, “socialism in fact was liquidated in the course of a single month and replaced as an ideology.”
Medvedev, it should be remembered, has always been a consistent anti-Stalinist and in most cases a defender of Lenin. But his words in this case about Stalin’s introduction of the notion of Russians as “the elder brothers” of all other Soviet peoples are still significant because they highlight a problem that both the Soviet leadership faced earlier and that Putin does now.
And that is this: if the center tilts too far in the direction of Russian nationalism, the country becomes ungovernable except by massive repression because that nationalism will generate a response among other peoples, their own nationalisms, and those nationalisms will be by definition anti-Russian.
Balancing the need to recognize the preeminence of the Russian nation in the country and the rights of non-Russians was too much for the Soviet Union as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev decided to move away from massive force: his targeted use of violence in Baku, Tbilisi, Vilnius and elsewhere wasn’t enough.
The same thing, Medvedev’s analysis suggests, will be true of the Russian Federation: If the Kremlin tilts too far in the direction of the Russian nation, it will either be compelled to rely on force to hold the country together or it will set in train forces that will tear that state apart yet again.