Contradiction Within Soviet Identity: The Soviet Union’s Struggle With Nationality

Because the Soviet government focused on indigenization (Korenizatsiya) in the 1920’s yet rejected the attempts at independence of socialist republics such as Ukraine, it was unable to create a concrete “Soviet identity” that separated “high culture” from “national identity.” ((Terry Martin, “Modernism or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism,” in Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices, ed. David L. Hoffmann and Yanni Kotsonis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000), 167.))

Contradiction regarding the Soviet Union’s handling of nationalities began with the Law of the Finnish Sejm and the First Declaration of the Rada. In the former, Finland declared its independence after the fall of the Tsarist Regime. (( The Bolshevik government accepted this first declaration of independence, but it rejected the Declaration of the Rada. (( In “On the Question of the Nationalities or of Autonomization,” Lenin argues for the retention of “the union of socialist republics as regards the diplomatic apparatus” in order to strengthen the Union. However, Lenin and the Soviet government granted Finland’s independence. However, he also warned against the spread of the “Great-Russian chauvinism” to minority populations because this would have created a division between nationalities. (( This division would have undermined the unity of the Russian people as proletariats. On one hand, Lenin called for the retention of socialist republics and denounced Great-Russian chauvinism, yet on the other the Bolshevik government rejected the Declaration of the Rada and accepted Finland’s independence. These contradictions marked the Soviet government’s early struggle deciding whether to create a “Soviet identity” through class identification, national identification, or both.

The Bolsheviks recognition the importance of the support of the many nationalities present in Russia and Korenizatsiya in the 1920’s further exemplifies this contradiction. In order to control the Tsarist military forces, the Bolshevik members of the Petrograd Soviet went to speak with the “Caucasian” members of the military in their native tongue. Previously, ethnic Russian officers and generals controlled the majority of the military force and gave orders in Russian. The Soviets’ decision to communicate with each nationality in its native tongue demonstrated the conscious demarcation of these nationalities. Further, Korenizatsiya, or indigenization, was the government’s support regarding the preservation of minority cultures through education and local practice. Members of these minority communities were encouraged to spread and utilize their native tongue and culture. However, in places like Ukraine, calls for independence were rejected. Under Stalin, this expectation of a separation between “high culture” and “national identity” continued through the implementation of practices such as passportization.

The Soviet government expected its people to accept this flawless distinction between Soviet “high culture” and “national identity” in their identities as the USSR began to industrialize. It expected a peaceful coexistence between the “modern and traditional elements,” also called neo-traditionalism. ((Terry Martin, “Modernism or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism,” in Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices, ed. David L. Hoffmann and Yanni Kotsonis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000), 163.)) However, by the time Stalin introduced his first Five-Year Plan, the Soviet government had encouraged the distinction between nationalities for too long. As it attempted to create this “Soviet high culture,” it continued to contradict itself and confuse the definition of the identity of its people.

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?




Modernization or Bust, Right?

The goal for the Soviet Union was to modernize and move to from a pre-indurstial state through modernization to socialism. Was this goal achieved, did the Soviet Union modernize? Martin argues even though the Soviet Union was reaching for beyond modernization, that due to extreme Soviet statism it arrived at a different location; neo-traditionalism.

Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationality states that in reality nations are the inevitable by product of the social organization of industrial society. The industrialization of any society leads to the massive uprooting and movement of peasants to an industrial environment, where the previously commonly shared village culture no longer exists. In order for the new industrial society to function, the creation of a new common culture is required. To ensure the emergence of a new written and codified common culture the state creates a universal education system. Thus creating a combined culture and national identity. These events must occur to lead to the development of a nation-state. However, there are two ways to interpret these nationalizing steps: the sociological view of nations as modern constructs or the popular view of nations as primordial.

The sociological interpretation of nationality is that the development of the modern national culture and identity is born out of the destruction of the old primordial folk culture. The primordial interpretation of nationality is that the changes are perceived as an awakening of the essence of ancient village-based folk culture. The Soviet Union’s nationality policies reflected the sociological interpretation of nationality and sought to separate national identity from high culture. Socialism would be the basis of high culture and be the unifying identity of the whole state. National identity would be used as a way to avoid a defensive nationalist movement and to do that all forms of national identity would be promoted. But, in the state’s attempt to avoid a defensive nationalist movement against itself, it actively intervened to manage identity categorization. The state’s centralized power and control over social and economic affairs enabled it to systematically ethnically label everyone. This constant practice of labeling and separating individuals based on national identity inadvertently turned nationality into a primordial hereditary status. Soviet industrialization successfully destroyed pre-industrial folk culture but the nationality policies failed to lead to a common Soviet national identity. The consequence of the Soviet Union’s failure to follow Gellner’s model and couple high culture with national identity led to the belief in primordial nationality. This result was the opposite of what the Soviet Union wanted.

The Soviet Union’s extreme statism allowed for the implementation of their nationality policies to inadvertently get morphed into a primordial view of nationality. The Soviet Union did not follow the path of Gellner’s theory towards modernization because the presence of extreme statism inhibited it. Instead it fell into a alternative form of modernization, one that was a mix of tradition and modern. The neo-traditional society of the Soviet Union had market driven modernization along with a variety of practices that resemble traditional pre-modern societies.


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.

Neo-Traditionalism from Modernization

In the 1930’s, the Soviet Union’s intentions were to create a more strongly collected, unified nation. While nations were an inevitable product of modernization through the massive uprooting and relocation of the working classes, there was a shift from a nation being modern in it’s fundamentals to focusing on the primordial roots of the citizen. What spawned from creating a national identity through the conduit of modernization was Neo-traditionalism. Neo-traditionalism in essence is the simultaneous cooperation of both modern and traditional aspects, and was the Soviet Union’s unexpected outcome. A pre-industrial state could not be considered a modern nation, because modernity cannot exist without the technology. However, industrialization exterminates old folk culture and is a catalyst for new culture. As the sense of nationalism developed, the game began to change with shifting ideologies with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks saw nationalism as something which was on a different plane than class, and socialism would be the unifying principle. However, Soviet affirmative action made class and ethnicity an issue because of discriminatory institutions, a product generated by over zealous statism. The Neo-traditional outcome of modernization is what shaped Soviet nationalities.

This article made me think of how we view the ethnicity of each other in America. When people ask me what I am in regards to ethnic background, I say I am South African and Irish. Most people would answer this way I believe, even though all who were born in America are Americans. What is the line between immigration and a true, newfound sense of nationality? Why do many of us feel a sense of pride to our ethnic backgrounds despite the fact that we have never experienced the culture?

An Unnatural Return to Roots

Governing policies in the Soviet Union consistently blended new ideas with standing tradition. As such, the conflict between the role of the modern ‘nation’ and the primordial ethnicities  is very similar to other conflicts: the role of the government and the church, emphasis on peasantry and the quest to modernize, and Western culture and Soviet traditions.

While the idea of a ‘nation’ was a modern construct, the Soviets hoped to supersede that with the identity of class. From the piece by Fitzpatrick, the origin of the ‘nation’ was developed from the villages uniting under feudal systems and then, eventually, identifying as a singular nation. The role of the clergy was the uniting fashion for these early villages and feudal city-states where religion was a large facet of identity,  but some of this was lost in becoming a nation, when nationality became the strongest identification. In the Soviet Union, both class and nationality were prioritized as identifying factors. But, like many of the Soviet programs, this was a top-down forcing of a process that should have been natural, if it was to happen at all.


As Nationalism and Class-ism was standardized, they became stratified and eliminated mobility. This had a special impact given that in the USSR class and nationality came with certain privileges, along with obligations and restrictions. Stratifying the population to such an extent actually damaged the ability for demographics to identify with each other, getting in the way of the Soviet dream of a unified class-consciousness. By trying to influence class and ethnic development toward a homogeneous culture, the Soviets created a number of dissatisfied and unique nations.  This collection of independent mentalities would slowly fracture the Soviet Union.