Nationalism and the Soviet State

In Trey Martin’s article, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism”, he argues that the Soviet state most clearly mirrors a neo-traditional model, primarily evident in the Soviet approach to nationality, which was initiated through industrialization. According to Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationality, industrialization destroyed village folk culture by uprooting peasantry and placing them into an urban industrial environment. This led to the formation of a new high, or shared, culture to establish a base for national identity. The Bolsheviks viewed nationalism as a potentially harmful and powerful mobilizing ideology. So, soviet policy sought to remove national identity from this newly developing high culture so that socialism (NOT nationalism) would unify the Soviet state. To avoid the emergence of a greater nationalism, the Soviet state sponsored national republics, each with their own national culture, which would eventually result in one high culture. How did the state hope to achieve a universal acceptance of a high culture through the promotion of Soviet citizens’ national identities?

One detail of this plan that stood out to me was the requirement of all children to attend native-language schools, even if their parents did not speak said native language and wanted their children to attend Russian language schools. What did this instruction in native language hope to achieve? Was this all done in order to prevent defensive nationalism? While this practice of ethnic labeling essentialized national identities, how did it help to achieve Stalin’s “revolution from above”?

Martin ends his article by stating that the Soviet state’s nationality program asserted itself as a neo-traditional model. The soviet state blended the most characteristic forms of modernization, such as universal education and industrialization, while also retaining features of traditional, pre-modern societies, as seen in the view of nationality as primordial. The emergence of new folk-national cultures was not natural but was the result of state invention and intervention. Inherent to understanding the article and putting it into context is the awareness of Stalin’s definition of a nation, that it is “not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people”. The Soviet nationalist policy certainly promoted the idea of nationalism as not being tied or related to one race, but was it successful in developing any national identity at all? Was the over-arching goal of the support of individual nationalities to prevent unification? What did these policies achieve?




2 thoughts on “Nationalism and the Soviet State

  1. Very good summary overall. To answer your question concerning native language schools, I would conclude that they would be implemented as a way to keep the new generations in line with what the Soviet government wanted, and not to be persuaded by those who may not look at the Soviets favorably. In short, it is mostly as a deterrent for anti-Soviet thinking in more remote regions of the USSR.

  2. You raise some very interesting questions about Stalin’s policies. One point that the reading mentioned was that Stalin’s attempts to organize were “constructed and not essential.”(1) So, rather than uniting the population under a single identity, Stalin was dividing the Soviet population even more socially. Even though Stalin was trying to deconstruct subnational identities, he failed to create a single Soviet identity that people could reside under because they were divided in a social sense. To answer your last questions, Stalin’s policies seemed to reinforce social divide rather than unify the population.

    (1) David Hoffmann, Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices. Houndsmills: Macmillan Press;, 2000.

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