Saturday, August 15, 2020

Sultan-Galiyev Warned USSR Would Disintegrate If It Followed Stalin’s Model, Kazakh Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 13 – A year ago, a group of scholars visited Kazan and was given access to archives containing materials about Mirsaid Sultan-Galiyev, the first senior Bolshevik Stalin had expelled from the party and later had imprisoned and shot and someone who if he is remembered at all is recalled as a Muslim national communist.

            That Sultan-Galiyev wanted to bring Islam and communism together and hoped to promote the spread of communism through the Muslim world both within what was then the Soviet Union and more broadly is certainly true. But he played a bigger role than that, and his words on issues like federalism and the survivability of the USSR are being remembered.

            Using materials from the Kazan archives, Buirkitbay Ayagan, the deputy director of Kazakhstan’s Institute of the History of the State, argues that Stalin’s animus toward Sultan-Galiyev reflected in the first instance the latter’s call for a more liberal and open-ended USSR (

            The details Aygan provides add to our knowledge of Sultan-Galiyev and the early years of Soviet nationality policy, but his article is important for another reason: as Putin closes down investigations into alternatives to Stalin’s thinking lest they undermine his single stream view of Russian history, scholars from former union republics are likely to provide the breakthroughs.

            All too often, the research that scholars in the former Soviet republics do on the Stalin period is ignored because both Russian and Western investigators focus on Moscow archives rather than considering the holdings in other archives including in the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation like Tatarstan. Aygan’s work shows why this is a major mistake.

            In his article, the Kazakh scholar says that he and his colleagues found several key documents which have not been published anywhere else, including Sultan-Galiyev’s memoirs, his speeches at closed party meetings, and his correspondence with non-Russian and Russian communists.

            “As is clear from the materials of the archives,” Aygan says, “Sultan-Galiyev was at the center of events when the national republics were being established, when the delimitation of borders was occurring, and when local organs of administration were being formed. Naturally, he became an active participant and witness of the establishment of the RSFSR and also the USSR.”

            His independent-mindedness often put him at odds with Stalin. Speaking at a closed section of the 12th party congress, Sultan-Galiyev said pointedly that if the country followed the model of state construction favored by Stalin, the USSR won’t resolve the nationality question and would be put on the way toward disintegration.

            “In contrast to Stalin’s entourage,” Aygan continues, “Sultan-Galiyev stood for a model of equal and voluntary inclusion and unification of republics within the USSR;” and he insisted that each republic have the full panoply of rights and not just a limited number set by Moscow and its agents in place.

            In other documents in the archives, Sultan-Galiyiev talked about “the possible disintegration of the USSR” because the Stalin system could not solve social or nationality problems effectively. Only serious decentralization and a liberal approach to social issues could prevent disaster.

            Not surprisingly, Stalin couldn’t tolerate that and arrested him soon after, but the party leader also could not directly attack Sultan-Galiyev on those grounds. Instead, he presented Sultan-Galiyev as someone who was conspiring against the USSR by making alliances with Muslims and Turkic radicals, charges that were not true but continue to affect how Sultan-Galiyev is viewed.

            Ayagan concludes with the following words: “Mirsaid Sultan-Galiyev was able to do a great deal for the establishment of the autonomies of oppressed peoples. In union with many leaders of the national borderlands, M. Sultan-Galiyev and those who shared his views sought the formation of a more liberal model of the USSR, as a union of republics with equal rights.” 

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