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Despite the difference of approach, however, both plans envisaged a centralized state with all the prerogatives of power concentrated in the hands of the central party bodies. To the Bolsheviks, whether they supported Lenin’s or Stalin’s viewpoint, and to the two leaders themselves, the class approach took priority over everything else. What really mattered was to find a solution to the nationalities issue that would help to advance the main strategic objective—the establishment of a socialist unitary state. 

Lenin’s proposal was more in tune with the slogans of Communist propaganda and the goal of a world revolution. Lenin saw the Soviet Union as a bridgehead, from which the world revolution would begin to expand, incorporating ever-new national entities, into a “Socialist United States of the World.”

Lenin’s plan emphasized the equality of the republics and opened the door to new countries to join the union. The invitation to other states to become members of the USSR was even incorporated in the first Soviet constitution, adopted in 1924. According to the constitution, the ultimate goal of setting up the Soviet Union was “uniting all the working people of all the countries” into one suprastate—a “World Socialist Soviet Republic.” Formally, the union was “open” both ways: Republics were free to join, and they also had the right to secede. However, no legal mechanism was provided to enable the republics to exercise the right to leave.

The Central Committee approved Lenin’s plan, and the administrative form of the Communist state took the shape of a federation, based on national ethnic groups. The ethnolinguistic principle of carving up administrative territories contradicted Russia’s demographic realities: in many of its parts the ethnic mix of populations was too complex to allow a straightforward division of the territory into separate ethnolinguistic units. The task was particularly difficult in central Asia, where linguistic and ethnic diversity was especially profuse. Many ethnic communities found themselves arbitrarily divided between different republics, regions, or territories. For example, the autonomous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was always largely populated by Armenians but was ceded to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1921.

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Soviet Nationalities


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