The Guardian • Issue #1999

Putin’s mistake: Russia, Ukraine, and the national question

On a number of occasions, Vladimir Putin has said that Russia and Ukraine are a “single nation.” This statement has been completely misunderstood in the small number of former colonisers known as “the West.” They assume that Putin means a “single country,” indeed that Ukraine is not “a country” and will be absorbed by Russia. Once again, the West has failed to understand and so misrepresented another part of the world. So let us put aside an increasingly irrelevant West and see what Putin actually means.

To begin with, we need to consider a very important historical document: a speech by Putin from the 21st of February, 2022. Two points should be noted. First, Putin states that Ukraine “is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” a people “bound by blood” and the religion of Orthodox Christianity. Second, he states that Ukraine is a creation of the Bolsheviks’ policy on nationalities and that – in his opinion – this was a mistake. For the Bolsheviks, Ukrainians were a distinct nationality, along with many other nationalities in the Soviet Union. And since they lived in a distinct area, this should become an autonomous republic.

By now, we need some background. Putin’s first point alludes to the history of Kievan Rus’, from the 9th to the 13th century CE, which turned to Orthodox Christianity in 988. This is the origin of what we know today as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. After the superior Mongol forces destroyed the old Kievan Rus’, the centre of gravity shifted to Moscow. Political and religious power gradually established itself and the world’s largest country gradually emerged, spanning a vast area of the Eurasian landmass, from the Pacific Ocean to Belarus-Ukraine.

So Putin is correct in terms of this history: the regions of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were all part of one state. But were they one nation or nationality? Note carefully: Putin speaks of a nation, not of a country or a state. There is a difference.

This is where the Bolsheviks come in. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were immense debates among socialists in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Caucusus. The key question: what is a “nation”? Some argued for a historically common culture, or “specific spiritual complexion” as the key, but as the debate progressed the Bolsheviks developed a more comprehensive position. Lenin made major contributions, but it was Stalin’s long essay from 1913, “Marxism and the National Question,” that really laid out the full position.

After rebutting the arguments of the Austrian Marxists, the Jewish Bund, and the Caucasian Social-Democrats, Stalin offers the following well-known definition: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” Note carefully: ethnicity is not part of the definition, so the English term “ethnic group” is inaccurate. Stalin’s careful elaboration of the definition would come to form the foundation of the Russian Social-Democratic platform. It would also determine the preferential policies for minority nationalities in the Soviet Union, as well as all socialist countries up to the present day – of course, with much further development.

The result: the Soviet Union developed the world’s first comprehensive approach to minority nationalities. Many were the measures introduced, fostering language, education, culture, economies, and autonomy. In parts of the Soviet Union where a nationality had a clear historical continuity, autonomous republics were established: Ukraine and Belarus in the west, the central Asian republics, and many more. The protections for minority nationalities were rigorous: even racial slurs were punishable with a heavy fine or prison sentence. In fact, the very structure of the Soviet state was shaped by this policy, with the second legislative body known as the Soviet of Nationalities. For legislation to be approved, it had to pass this body as well as the Soviet of the Union.

Two questions arise from this history. First, is Putin correct in asserting that Russians and Ukrainians are a single nation? He is not correct. But note carefully: he frames his assertion in the same terms used by the Bolsheviks. He assumes the definition of a nation outlined above but then uses this definition to argue that Russians and Ukrainians are not separate nationalities, but one and the same since they share the same history, culture, and spiritual space. However, if we include language, stable community, and territory – as with Stalin’s definition – then they are two nationalities.

Second, are Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks to blame – as Putin asserts – for tearing up the Soviet Union and so historical Russia? They are not to blame. The autonomous republics did not have their identities forced upon them, as Putin asserts. Instead, there were long debates and discussions over this issue, and the policy was instituted with many early revisions in light of problems and developments. The minority nationalities were – in many cases for the first time – able to claim a distinct identity in what may be called a “multi-national state.”

Indeed, the success of the approach in the Soviet Union led other socialist countries to adopt similar policies. In Yugoslavia, the preferential policies for nationalities were most obvious. But also in East Germany, where the Sorbian minority was for the first time recognised as a distinct nationality and given significant support. Today, we find a more fully developed minority nationalities policy in countries such as China and Vietnam.

Why do I write “more fully developed”? A comprehensive policy such as the one concerning minority nationalities is not set in stone; it needs constant revision in light of changing circumstances. There was one feature of the Soviet Union’s approach that was not revised: the right to secession by autonomous republics and regions. On this matter too Putin has sought to blame Lenin and Stalin for the break-up of the Soviet Union, so we need to set the record straight.

In the early days of the Soviet Union, which emerged from immense struggle, the right to secession made sense. They wanted all of the regions to join the new union willingly, and that included – they believed – the right to leave willingly. Later, it would become obvious that the right to secession was no longer applicable. A region can have significant and even enhanced autonomy without the need to secede from the union. In fact, autonomy and secession are not necessarily related. As we all know, during a period of the loss of unity and direction by Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), when anti-communist opportunists and counter-revolutionaries rose to leadership positions, the right to secession was claimed by the autonomous regions – with cynical support from the West – and the Soviet Union fell apart.

The lesson has been learned: it is worth noting that socialist countries today do not include the right to secession by autonomous regions. Instead, they have enhanced the autonomy of such regions as a way of increasing the unity of the country as a whole.

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