Nationalism in a Multiethnic Country

Karl Marx writes on how the revolution of the proletariat will bring down national boundaries, and that class will unite and bring people together in the same way that nations did in the past. With a land mass as extensive as the Soviet Union had, the number of cultures, languages, and traditions are nearly infinite. However, the problem that the Bolsheviks faced was that they needed to unite the peasants in some manner to get them to overthrow the tsarist regime, so they attempted to unite under a common Russian identity. The major ethic groups such as the Tatars, Chuvash, and Caucausian peoples wanted to keep their traditions which had been in place for centuries if not more. ((Slezkine, 421)) Clearly they wanted to stand up against this, but the nationwide reforms the Soviets sought to put into place required some basic language or national unity for efficiency’s sake.

This quickly deteriorated into a very pro-Russian ethnic idea. It was epitomized by a man who was Georgian by birth, Stalin. The people who were not Great Russians were the victims of tsardom, and were backwards, and in order to reverse this backwardness, they needed to be educated by the party in all aspects of life. They would have to, “Develop and strengthen their own Soviet statehood in a form that would correspond to the national physiognomy of these peoples.” ((Slezkine, 423)) The Soviets met all of these cultures at the middleground, they allowed them to preserve their languages in things such as their courts and arts, but bow down to Soviet dominance in other aspects of life.

This is not to say that the Soviet Union made it easy for these cultures to survive, the process for a language to become official was extremely arduous. The failure to go along with Stalin’s policies or the party line would end in harsh punishments for that group.

With the large groups of nationalities, controlling them according to the needs of Stalin and the party was always going to be a harder task, especially when some of them do not feel the need to contribute back to Moscow.

Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethical Particularism,” Slavic Review, 53, 2, 414-452

A Critique of Imperialism


John Hobson argued that the capitalist market drove the imperialistic trend of the late 1800s, as opposed to nationalism. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) Much like colonialism, imperialism is a policy that allows for one country to take control over another, generally by military force. Hobson was writing Imperialism in London just after the Long Depression, one of the worst recessions in history. The depression affected economies worldwide; however, England took the hardest hit. Being in the midst of all the economic failure around him must have prompted Hobson to criticize imperialism. Although many people were literate in England at this time, Hobson was most likely writing for Parliamentary members because they had the most political influence. 

Hobson argued that nationalism was a term being used too loosely; he inferred that imperialism couldn’t be considered a nationalist policy because it involved people in the empire who were not geographically, culturally, or linguistically bound. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) He called out the British government for not focusing on their political and economic problems instead spreading their power to other parts of the world that were not asking to be controlled. ((John Hobson, Imperialism, 1901)) Hobson’s intent with this piece was essentially to tell the British government to get their act together and deal with their issues rather than create more problems in other parts of the world.

Redrawing the Map of Europe

Europe witnessed a dramatic rise in nationalist fervor in the middle of the nineteenth century, leading to the unification of Italy and the German states. Giuseppe Mazzini’s On Nationality highlighted the trend towards uprisings under the banner of liberty rather than uprisings for the sake of power or wealth. ((Giuseppe Mazzini, On Nationality, 1852)) With cries for liberty came cries countries to be united based on nationality. Mazzini campaigned for Italy to be a country comprised of “a human group called by its geographical position, its traditions, and its language,” which he believed would result in a peaceful nation of common peoples. ((Mazzini, On Nationality)) Mazzini, a politician and the driving force behind the movement for Italian unification, wrote to convince his contemporaries of a necessary redrawing of the map of Europe, with nationality rather than conquest being the basis for borders. Concurrently, the multitude of German states had become an object of war between Prussia and Austria.


Giuseppe Mazzini, Count Camillo di Cavour, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Fathers of the Fatherland”

In 1849, National Assembly in Frankfurt offered the German crown to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. ((Johann Gustav Droysen, Speech to the Frankfurt Assembly,1848)) In an earlier speech, Johann Gustav Droysen, a member of the assembly, argued for the superiority of Prussia over Austria because Prussia’s monarchy was “wholly German.” A Prussian Imperial Proclamation accepting the German crown in 1871 reiterated this nationalist connection. Wilhelm acquired power over Germany as a “duty to [their] common fatherland,” and asserted responsible for protecting the rights of all those in the German Empire. ((The Imperial Proclamation, 1871)) The simultaneous unifications of both nations were symptoms of nationalist zeal and a desire to live amongst, and be ruled by kinsmen. While considering the role nationalism played in shaping our understanding of nations and borders, I want to ask what influences (i.e. the French Revolution) may have spurred on the fervor in the nineteenth century, and what examples of nationalism exist today.

Italian Nationalism and Unification

Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian nationalist who played a large role in the nationalist movement in Italy. In 1852, Mazzini published some of his work that focused on nationalism and the need for a unified democratic state of Italy. Mazzini mentioned in his writing that the people from the revolution in Vienna were fighting for something more than just material possessions; they were fighting for their nation.[i] The revolution in Vienna was in context with Mazzini trying to propose a unified state. He was looking to unify the people of Italy to rid their beloved nation of those who occupied it, the Austrians, and create a democratic state for Italy to be run. By ridding the state of Italy of the Austrians, Italy could be free to run themselves and prosper on their own.

In the documents of Italian unification, the Program of Count Cavour 1846 provides a point towards Mazzini’s thinking that opposes it even though it was before him. It states that “Nationalism has become general; it grows daily; and it has already grown strong enough to keep all parts of Italy united despite the differences that distinguish them”. [ii] If nationalism is growing every day then would it be easier for Mazzini to achieve his goal of a unified democratic state of Italy? If this concept grows then it will reach numerous people every day which will contribute to the nationalist movement started by Mazzini.

[i] Giuseppe Mazzin: On Nationality, 1852

[ii] Documents of Italian Unification, 1846-61

At the Crossroads of Lenin and Stalin

Map of the USSR portraying 1922-1928

Map of the USSR portraying 1922-1928

(( Soviet Union 1922-1928 : Socialist republics – National powers. Digital image. Hisatlas – Map of Soviet Union 1922-1928. Accessed February 21, 2016. ))


During the Russian Civil War, nationalist uprisings and criticisms left Bolshevik leadership with some important questions and decisions to make. They had to determine whether to grant different ethnicities and nationalities sovereignty, how to cope with those that did not receive as such, and how to make the union of soviet socialist republics stronger and well-connected. Both Lenin and Stalin, in the form of personal writing, shared their thoughts on these issues.


Lenin seemed to take an approach not too dissimilar to the ancient Romans: when ruling over another group of people, keep their systems and leadership intact, so long as they provided troops and worked within the greater economic system.[1] Lenin understood that to oppress a minority population led to resentment and an unwillingness to work with the system in place. Furthermore, he claimed to see beyond nationalities in a sense, declaring being a proletariat the superior identifying characteristic. Moreover, if groups worked together long enough, their origins will cease to matter.


Stalin argued in a similar manner, but used Western and pseudo-socialist nations to juxtapose where his Communist ideology was superior.[2] He criticized the others for being hypocritical in its views towards imperialism: while they were willing to allow for “self-determination” of their colonies, they refused to acknowledge the similar poor treatment minorities received in the home countries. Furthermore, Stalin criticized the other countries’ warping of “self-determination” to the point where a minority ethnicity or nationality could receive their cultural freedom, but still essentially had to maintain political and economic submission to the mother country. Stalin also asserted the fusion of nationalist revolution against colonialism and imperialism with proletariat revolution against capitalism.


However, what Stalin failed to acknowledge were the minority groups under control of Russia at the time.[3] He avoided discussing the people of Georgia, Armenia, and the like. Perhaps because Stalin himself was Georgian and had managed to become a higher up in the Bolshevik Party, he saw no reason for Georgians not to be a part of Russia. In any case, it is at this point where Stalin differed from Lenin, leading to a course of action in which Lenin eventually condemns Stalin in his writing. Lenin acknowledged the nationality differences within the future USSR, and seemed to prepare to figure out how to solve the problem.


That being said:

  1. Lenin dictated that being a proletariat in a communist mindset superseded all other forms of identification. In a capitalist system, what gets valued more – economic class or nationality? Does it depend on the class?
  2. Lenin and Stalin wrote these points during the Russian Civil War. Do you think their points would have changed had they been written afterwards?
  3. How did Stalin’s attacks on imperialism fit into the global context at the time (1921)?

[1] Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Lenin on Nationality Policy.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2015. Accessed February 21, 2016.

[2] Stalin, Joseph. “The Presentation of the National Question.” The Presentation of the National Question. Accessed February 21, 2016.

[3] Stalin wrote in 1921, meaning that it was still Russia at the time.

A Call for Nationalism

During the Enlightenment period there was a surge of nationalism in regions where there had been little unity before. Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German philosopher, presents nationalism as a people who, as well as being bound together geographically, are culturally, linguistically, and historically linked ((Materials for the Philosophy of the History of Mankind)). In 1784, when Gottfried Von Herder published his work interpreting nationalism, Germany as we know it today was made up of many different small territories, the most prominent of these being Prussia. It’s possible then that this segmented area was the reason Gottfried von Herder was advocating so strongly for nationalism. It’s difficult to feel pride in your nation if you’re not entirely sure of what nation you’re a part of. France was another  inspiration for the sudden support for nationalism. Gottfried von Herder specifically mentions in his writings that France was able to achieve a united state by forcing all of its citizens to speak French, which in turn connected the people ((Materials for the philosophy of the History of Mankind)). He infers that a common language is key to establishing a culture and a nation.


Gottfried von Herder was not born into wealth; he was raised by poor parents and had the good fortune of being able to study under famous philosophers such as Immanuel Kant ((Encyclopedia Britannica)). Seeing how he started as a peasant, I have to wonder if Gottfried von Herder saw the rise of the Third Estate in France and drew the connection between this revolution and a surge of nationalism in France. Did Gottfried von Herder’s economic status lead him to endorse nationalism so heavily?

Overall, Gottfried von Herder was one of many philosophers during the Enlightenment period who advocated for nationalism in a state. His country, education, and economic status were all influences to him as well as potential reasons that he believed so wholeheartedly in nationalism.


“Is multi-kulti Dead?”

This news article, written in 2010, focuses on the rising number of immigrants in Germany. However, a large number of these immigrants are unable to integrate into mainstream society, and there is a growing anti-immigration trend. Economist Sarrazin published a book criticizing the influx of immigrants and the number of non-German children being born in Germany. He claims that the influx of immigrants is causing Germany to become less advanced biologically, culturally, and professionally. Recent polls found that many Germans favor heavy restrictions on Muslim religious practices, and “a third [of the population] think the country is overrun with foreigners.” Many of the immigrants are not integrated into German society, and Germany could benefit from their professional skills.There are individuals who recognize that Germany is becoming an immigration state, and they are advocating for immigrant integration into German society. Rather than force assimilation or limit immigration, Germany needs to integrate immigrants into their society to reap maximum economic benefits. It is alarming that anti-immigrant feelings are becoming so strong in Germany, particularly because of German’s historical views on German supremacy. Sarrazin paints non-Germans as unintelligent and draining the resources of the German people, which is a dangerous precedent. Racial and ethnic hierarchies create civil unrest and discontent, which is far more destructive than immigrants.

Modernization or Neo-traditionalism?

Did the Soviet Union achieve their goal to modernize? According to Terry Martin, author of the article Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism, argues the Soviet Union went did not achieve modernization instead they went to Neotradiononalism. What exactly is needed to reach modernization? Ernest Gellner believes modernization results from industrialization and to have a successful pre-industrial state you must achieve nationalism. Gellner believes one of the reasons the Soviet Union did not become a modernized state was Stalin forced industrialization on to the Soviets to rapidly which destroys cultures necessary to build a new high culture which is needed as the basis for a national identity needed to industrialize. Gellner also states the Bolsheviks follow an interpretation of nationality was to move the Soviets nationalist thoughts to the Bolsheviks sociological concept. In order to do this the Bolsheviks worked to remove national identity from the new high culture, with the idea of socialism not nationalism. But according to Gellner to achieve modernization is nationalism is needed. I found it interesting that even though the Soviet Union was culturally and ethically labeled and divided they were still unified on the ideas of Stalinism. And it was the Soviet Union’s devotion Stalinism and belief in socialism over nationalism prevented them from achieving modernization; instead they became a Neo-traditionalism state.

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?




The Soviet Union and Failed Modernization

In its efforts to achieve modernization, the Soviet Union again faced the problem of failed execution. What Stalin and Lenin imagined for their new nation did not occur in reality. In his chapter, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism,” Terry Martin discusses the Soviet government’s methods for creating nationalism within the Soviet Union among the various nationalities included in the newly formed Soviet Union. Using quotations from Stalin’s 1913 pamphlet and a 1938 article from the Bolshevik journal, Martin argues that the Party’s shift in its understanding of nationalism as a by-production of modernization to its emphasis on nationalism’s connection with primordial roots.[1] Through a comparison with the ideas of a modern theorist on nationalism, Ernest Gellner, and an analysis of the government’s practices, Martin draws conclusions regarding the outcome of the Soviet attempts at modernization through establishing multiple forms of nationalism throughout the country.

It must be noted that the Soviet government sought to emphasize and support nationalism in order to transcend nationalism. By allowing various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union to create national schools and maintain their national languages, the government believed they could indoctrinate the diverse groups into one nation as Soviet citizens.[2] However, similar to its collectivization process, the Soviet government’s intended implementation and outcome for modernization did not occur in reality. Martin concludes that the main reason for this stems from the government’s practice of determining that ethnicity was inherited and thus connected to a person’s nationality. Therefore, national identity must be primordial.

Throughout the chapter, Martin declares that the actual execution of using nationalism as a path towards modernization fails in the Soviet Union. Instead, the Soviet Union achieved neo-traditionalism, an alternative form of modernization. Neo-traditionalism possess the characteristics of pre-modern societies but consists of all the processes associated with modernization including industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and universal literacy and education.[3] Due to its failure of implementing its desired system of nationalism, the Soviet government did not fully obtain the form of modernization they were seeking. Instead they achieved a modified form, neo-traditionalism.

[1] Terry Martin, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism.” In Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices edited by David L. Hoffman and Yanni Kotsonis. London: Macmillan Press, 2000: 162.

[2] Ibid., 167.

[3] Ibid., 175.