Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jewish Advocacy of Extra-Territorial Cultural Autonomy as Solution to Nationality Question Recalled in Book Newly Translated into Russian

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – In the last years of the Russian Empire, national groups which formed majorities over a specific territory generally sought independence or, if they decided to remain within a Russian state, territorial autonomy. But nations whose members lived in widely dispersed places pushed for extra-territorial cultural autonomy.

            That idea was advanced most forcefully by Austro-Marxists like Otto Bauer whose 1906 book, The Nationality Question and Social Democracy, attracted widespread attention in the Russian Empire and was even translated into Russian by the Jewish Bund. It attracted so much attention that Lenin directed Stalin to attack it.

            That attack, contained in Stalin’s 1912 Prosveshcheniye article, became the basis of Soviet nationality policy which made possession of a specific territory one of the key elements of a nation. Those peoples without such a territory either had to be given one even if they didn’t form a majority there or face the prospect that they wouldn’t be recognized as a nation.

            As a result, most dispersed nations lost that status in the eyes of the communist rulers, although a few, most prominently the Jews, were given a territory that they had never formed a major part of so that they could be included in the official list of nations. But more important, the Soviet state radically downplayed extra-territorial cultural autonomy as a possibility.

            But since 1991, a few writers have again been focusing on this idea, realizing that for dispersed peoples like the Jews, Bashkirs and Tatars, having a political arrangement not based on territory alone, may be critical for national survival. (For a discussion, see

            Now, those in Russia interested in this alternative approach to ethnic organization within a single state have an important new resource. Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye has published a translation of Simon Rabinovitch’s  volume, Jewish Rights, National Rights: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia (Stanford, 2016).

            The translation is entitled “Rights of Nations: Autonomism in the Jewish National Movement in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia.” It focuses on the discussions about extra-territorial autonomy among the Jews at that time and also on the influence of these discussions on other groups, most prominently the Tatars (

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