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.

The USSR as a Communal Apartment

Author Yuri Slezkine poses an interesting view of the USSR in the late 1920’s and early 30’s in his chapter “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism” in the book Stalinism: New Directions. The chapter details the “Great Transformation” of 1928-1932, during which ethnic diversity was highlighted and celebrated; it then explains the “Great Retreat” during the 1930’s, when nationalism as a whole was discouraged except those select nationalities that reinforced socialist ideas and contributed to the overall success of the USSR.

The promotion of ethnic distinctions seemed strange to me at first, considering the Communist goal of eliminating classes and the inequalities that came with them. I assumed that defining and strengthening different ethnic identities would only lead to more inequality and struggle. It seems that at first, ethnic particularism was a way to accept the inevitable differences that arise between people but in a manner that avoids classes. Towards the end of the chapter, however, the author alludes to the fact that certain nationalities were seen as more worthy, therefore superior to others. It may not be along class lines, but the people of the Soviet Union were still divided. This promotion of nationalism most likely created more problems for the Soviet government in the long-term as nationalism grew stronger and threatened the Soviet’s unity and control. These struggles would also plague the Russian government after the fall of the Berlin Wall.