Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Putin’s Criticism of Lenin on Nationality Issues about More than Federalism, Svanidze Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 31 – Vladimir Putin has consistently attacked Lenin for setting up the union republics that the current Kremlin leader argues put a delayed action mine under the edifice of the USSR and ultimately caused its destruction, but according to Russian journalist Nikolay Svanidze, Putin is fundamentally wrong.

            And Putin’s critique of the founder of the Soviet state is wrong in a more general sense, Svanidze suggests, reflecting Putin’s failure to see that on most issues, Stalin, whom the Kremlin leader clearly admires, was the true heir of Lenin and that Stalin, an ethnic Georgian who became a Russian was like many such converts more Russian than those born as such.

            On an Ekho Moskvy program hosted by Sergey Buntman, Svanidze observes that Putin believes Stalin was correct in pushing for centralism and giving non-Russians only autonomous status within a Soviet Russia and that Lenin was wrong in promoting federalism because that ended with the collapse of the USSR (

            “That is,” the journalist continues, “in the opinion of the president, if there had been a unitary state and the republics had not had the legal possibility of leaving the USSR, they would have remained there.” Svanidze says he “doesn’t agree with that” on the basis of his analysis of Lenin’s actions on the nationality question, actions that were, in his view, “irreproachable.”

            While his interview is devoted to a discussion of Lenin’s last years, Svanidze’s comments about Lenin and Stalin shed important light on Putin’s position, one that reflects more than just his commitment to centralization and authoritarianism but also toward various social and ethnic groups, including the Russian nation.

            The Soviet generation which came of age during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign considered it good tone to oppose Lenin to Stalin, Svanidze says. “But to a great extent, Stalin was Lenin’s heir,” prepared as was the founder of the Bolshevik state to use terror and to demand unquestioning obedience.

            But there were important differences. Lenin was a pragmatist, and his list of hated groups was different than Stalin’s. Perhaps even more important, Lenin as a Russian intelligent was disposed to be sympathetic to ethnic minorities seeing them as victims of the Russian state and less inclined to sympathize with Russians or those who became Russians than Stalin.

            “Lenin, who terrorized the peasants, who hated the intelligentsia, and who destroyed priests, on the nationality question was absolutely beyond reproach.” Why that was so “God alone knows.” But he was, and therefore he was prepared to be more deferential to non-Russians as in the Georgian case than Stalin, the Georgian who had become a Russian, ever was.

             In some of his final notes, Lenin made clear that he had little use for Stalin and little use for the ethnic Russians. To be sure, he didn’t think especially well of any particular people. “He was in this sense a real Marxist and did not understand what made one people good and another bad.”

            But Lenin was especially hostile to Russians because of their innate authoritarianism and tendency to lord it over all other peoples, and the founder of the Russian state put his finger on Stalin’s problem: “Russified non-Russians often exceed Russian national attitudes at least in part.” 

            Svanidze concludes: “Here is the basis of Lenin’s attitude toward the nationality question. And he wrote things with which it is difficult not to agree and under which one is prepared to sign that a big nation must be especially tolerant to a small nation, to reach any agreement with it, and to be extremely kind.”

            Stalin, of course, was anything but, and from this it follows that Putin’s attitudes toward Lenin and Stalin reflect not just his belief about the role of union republics in the collapse of the USSR but also his own identification with the Russians and their traditional style of rule and his view that non-Russians are a problem rather than potential friends and allies.

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