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Nationality Policy in the 1920s

"Gorbachev Factor"
Daughter of Soviet Kirgiziya. By S. Chuikov

In the 1920s the Bolshevik government’s nationality policy was pragmatic and flexible enough to facilitate the integration of the non-Russian populations into the Soviet state. Unlike the late imperial period, when the tsarist regime discriminated against numerous non-Russian ethnic groups, the nationalities enjoyed formal political equality. This was seen as an important precondition for achieving equal socioeconomic and cultural standards across various peoples and helping less developed nationalities to overcome their backwardness. The Bolsheviks believed that this strategy would eradicate ethnic contradictions and settle the “nationalities question” for good.

In the localities the Soviet authorities pursued the policy of “indigenization” (korenizatsia), designed to increase steadily the proportion of the representatives of the indigenous nationality in the local party and state administration (indigenization took the form of “Ukranianization” in the Ukraine, “Belorussianization” in Belorussia, and so on). In addition, during the 1920s, the center actively co-opted representatives of non-Russian elites into central governing bodies. For example, a substantial part of the new Soviet bureaucracy was recruited from mobile ethnic diasporas, such as the Jews. Alongside the Jews, the regime promoted Armenians and Georgians, many of who had been active in the socialist movement and were well educated. As a result, Jews, Armenians, and Georgians featured prominently in top-level party and state bodies, as well as in the ranks of the new Soviet scientific and cultural intelligentsia, in the 1920s and 1930s.

The early nationalities policy of the Bolshevik government displayed considerable tolerance of non-Russian languages and cultures and even systematically encouraged the development of “minor” languages. New alphabets were invented for the first time for forty-eight ethnic groups, including the Turkmen, Chechen, and ethnic minorities of Siberia. Non-Russian languages were increasingly used in lower-level administrative bodies, courts of law, and schools. The Communist authorities made great efforts to eradicate illiteracy by setting up schools, where students were taught in local languages. Gradually, secondary and higher educational establishments were also set up with teaching in local languages. All this helped expand the ranks of non-Russian educated elites and led to a flowering of literature, the arts, and sciences in some of the republics and national autonomies.

There is no doubt, that the Communist regime had very good reasons for pursuing liberal cultural policies. They served to ensure the stability of the multiethnic state by doing away with discrimination of non-Russians. They presented an attractive shop window to the rest of the world and, in particular, to Asian countries by demonstrating a fair treatment of the Muslim populations of central Asia. Finally, and most importantly, schooling and publishing in local languages facilitated the spread of the Communist gospel among non-Russians. Cultural workers of all nationalities were enjoined to produce works of literature and art that would be “nationalist in form and socialist in content.”

The liberal language policies and the indigenization drive endured until the mid-1930s, helping to enlist the support of broad sections of non-Russian populations for the party and the Communist regime. More controversially, they accelerated the process of nation building among major nationalities and nudged some of the minor ones in the same direction. For example, the 1920s saw the consolidation of the Ukrainians as a nation: their language became entrenched in schools and local administration, and they evolved substantial Ukrainian-speaking educated elites, urban populations, and as industrial proletariat.

The “indigenized” administrations tended toward greater independence from the center and craved greater national and cultural autonomy. They became breeding grounds for the spread of national communism in the republics as the desire to combine Communist ideas with national traditions. Contrary to the expectations of the Communist authorities, their policies did not do away with nationalism, but gave rise to nationalist ideologies and to gradual consolidation of nationalities into nations. It was clear that the evolving national elites would not remain content for long with formal equality and would sooner or later claim greater political rights to complement their cultural and language rights.

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