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Stalin's "Autonomization"

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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded on 30 December 1922, five years after the October Revolution of 1917, on the ruins of the old empire but within much the same boundaries as imperial Russia. The formation of the USSR cannot be interpreted simply as a reunification of the peoples of the former empire forced on them from above by the Bolshevik leadership. The process of their reintegration into one state had deep historical, economic, political, and cultural causes and was supported from below, as well as directed from above. Moreover, the political regimes that had sprung up in the territories of tsarist Russia needed a union with the Russian heartlands to ensure their common survival in the face of a hostile international environment.

The breakup of the tsarist empire had led to the emergence of six socialist republics: Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Formally these states were independent, but in reality they were parts of one country because they had joint command of the armed forces, a single currency, and joint peoples commissariats (i.e., ministries) of transport, finance, labor, and foreign trade. Most importantly, they were subordinated to the central apparatus of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), which had always rejected the federal principle in its own structures. All that was needed was to formalize de jure the de facto unity of the soviet republics.

The task of working out proposals for a new constitutional structure was entrusted to Joseph Stalin, who at that time was the Peoples Commissar for Nationalities. Stalin proposed the incorporation of the Ukraine, Belorussia, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as autonomies into Russia. Lenin disagreed with this plan of autonomization, as he believed that to violate the proclaimed right of nations to self-determination would be a political mistake. It could spark serious conflicts, undermining the fledgling Soviet state. Lenin defended a different formula: a voluntary union of equal independent republics.

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