Sunday, November 12, 2017

Bolsheviks Played Smaller Role and Others a Greater One in Defining Statehood in the Caucasus than Many Now Think

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 12 – It is an article of faith among many Russians that Lenin and the Bolsheviks set the stage for the demise of the USSR by their creation of the non-Russian republics; but such a view, historians say, overstates the ability of the center to define the situation and underrates the role of others including the peoples themselves.

            No one disputes that the territorial divisions in the former Soviet space lie behind many of the region’s current problems – for a discussion of that, see -- but there is now a lively debate on how those divisions and the territorialization of nationality came into existence (

            At a regular seminar on “The Caucasus in the Past and Present” held at MGIMO earlier this week, Russian specialists discussed the process by which the three union republics in the south Caucasus and the non-Russian autonomies in the north Caucasus came into existence in the first years after the 1917 revolution.

            All of them underscored a point that is often lost: the Bolsheviks did not have the chance to draw whatever borders they wanted but rather had to accept or at least seriously take into account the actions of others, ranging from the local Muslim and Christian populations to the anti-Bolshevik movement led in South Russia by General Anton Denikin.

            Vadim Mukhanov, a specialist on the region at MGIMO, pointed out that “the northern border of Georgia and now of Abkhazia” was drawn not by the Bolsheviks but follows the ceasefire line between the forces of the Georgian Mensheviks and Denikin’s White Armies. Other borders have a similarly complex origin.

            Some followed the borders of pre-1917 gubernias, others reflected religious divisions that were transformed during the Russian Civil War into ethnic ones. Indeed, in the words of one speaker, Oleg Ayrapetov of Moscow State University, at that time “the words Bolshevik and ethnic Russian were synonyms” for many in the Caucasus. 

            Lyudmila Gatagova of the Moscow Institute of Russian History told the seminar that “after the Great October Socialist Revolution, the center for a time was weak. Until then, the representatives of the national movements simply didn’t have the physical opportunity to manifest their separatism. They were not insane.”

            As a result, she continued, “1917 was the beginning of a process of establishing nation states on the territory of the empire. Therefore, the conflicts too acquired an inter-ethnic character” although “earlier they were religious and feudal” in their definition.

            Sergey Manyshev, a Daghestani who also works at the Institute of History, said that Islam played a key role in defining some of the states in the North Caucasus, especially Chechnya and Daghestan, where Muslim leaders found themselves locked in a struggle with socialists. 

            Mkihail Volkonsky, another Moscow historian, agreed and stressed that in 1917, “the Muslims acted as a political subject,” but later what were in fact “Muslim autonomies” were “divided by ethnicity” and it was that redefinition rather than redrawing of lines that created today’s “administrative-political subjects, the national republics.”

            Unfortunately, Manyshev said, discussing such things in Daghestan has been made difficult by the insistence of officials there that scholars should focus on the Caucasian War of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than on the first years of Soviet power.  That needs to change if people are to understand just who created the republics and why.

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