The Russian Empire, the largest empire in the 19th century, fell in 1917. Following a series of revolutions, uprisings and chaos, the Soviet Union was founded in 1921. Monarchy was abolished, the Tsar was killed, the imperial order of the old regime destroyed but did the “empire” fall as well? Today, I shall argue that the Soviet Union, a communist regime that survived for 70 years, did not end the “empire” but on the contrary, embraced it – the Tsar was replaced by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, while monarchy was replaced by totalitarianism. I shall do a comparative analysis between the Russian Empire and the Soviet one, using Ungern’s experience, highlight the most important policies of Russification, self determination and expansionism, to then finally show that the Soviet Union was in a fact an empire of its kind.
What is an empire? An empire is a group of countries ruled by a single monarch or a government. The Russian Empire was the largest empire, stretching from (modern day) Latvia/Estonia to the very borders of China. The political regime was an autocracy where the Tsar, Nicholas II had all the power as well as control over the territory, which was divided into 100 provinces. As Sunderland writes, “Somehow it [Russian Empire] had hold together Estland and the Trans-Baikal, St. Petersburg and the Amur, a German border and a Mongolian one.” (Sunderland, 2014: 230). Sunderland, in depicting Ungern’s life, introduces us to the Russian Empire in transition; For long the Russian Empire as Sunderland describes it, although huge and rigid, left place for local cultures and languages and had a “Laissez faire Imperialism” (Sunderland:2014: 230). Composed different ethnic groups, the Russian Empire grow in the 10th century by gaining influence in the Far East as well as Central Asia, today’s Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgizstan. The “laissez-faire” imperialism, changed when the Tsar started the process of “Russification” to accentuate national unity, which at that time period was seen as necessary to build a strong nation.
The Tsar started the process of “Russification” by imposing Russian language everywhere including schools “The closing of German schools was only one of the imperial initiatives that life for the Baltic Barons beginning 1880s. Over the course of the decade, Russian became the language of business in all draft offices in the region and most municipal offices” (Sunderland, 2014:35). As Sunderland writes, the main purpose of Russification was not just to make people Russian culturally, but to create a united nation and the only way they knew how to deal with such diversity was by russifying the non-Russians, which proved to be rarely effective. Russia was also in the process of building a railway – Chinese Eastern Railway, that would give Russia the road to the pacific. Sunderland writes “The Trans-Siberian, ultimately fell short of being the magical “road to power” that its enthusiastic supports had hoped it would be” (Sunderland, 2014: 51) yet many peasants moved to the Far East, russifying the Asians or as a majority of western Russians called them “Yellow torrent” and “Yellow Peril”. Asian Russia was an example of backwardness, while European Russia was the core of development, politics and modernity. “Russia in Ungern’s time were used to thinking of their country as divided into two uneven parts: European Russia and Asian Russia” (Sunderland, 2014: 62). This kind of perspective is very relevant, because this argument was used by the Bolsheviks to justify and legitimize their expansionist policies. In Russia, during Ungern’s times, ethnic minorities in the east, were described as aliens “inorodtsy” and the goal was “the systematic unification in material, spiritual and intellectual terms… of the aliens with the Russian element” (Sunderland, 2014: 77) by colonizing, during the Great Siberian Migration millions of Russians settled in Siberia. Yet as Sunderland describes, the war with Japan, economic crisis as a consequence of the WWI and social instabilities led to a civil war, that destroyed the monarchy – after the provisional government was established in February 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in October “ The Russian Empire unraveled as a result of the revolutions of 1917, drastically reduced the state’s ability to hold onto its territory” (Sunderland, 2014: 129). Bolsheviks although opposing imperialism, destroyed the old regime yet embraced the “Soviet Empire”.
First of all, we need to understand that communism opposed imperialism and nationalism – Lenin believed that “Imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism”. He emphasized the equality of all nations within the Soviet Union and embraced the idea of national liberation and self-determination. As Connor (1984) explains, Marx, the founding father of communism believed that nationalism was incompatible with communism, since nationalism was a bourgeois phenomenon and with the destruction of the capitalist system, nationalist sentiments and national identities would disappear. Lenin saw nationalism as a negative force, if fought, it would become combative nationalism and threaten the securing of power “Lenin was adopting a political strategy – if nations were not given this right, then among the peoples whose national consciousness was emerging as a political force, it would encourage a combative nationalism which would run counter to the establishment of socialism in Russia” (Smith, 1995: 2). He used national identities to differentiate and contrast the Bolsheviks from Mensheviks and tsarists. As a result, the right for self determination was introduced in the program of Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, in 1903 and as Pipes (1995) explains, “Within days of assuming power, the Bolshevik government issued, over the signatures of Lenin and Stalin, a “Declaration of Rights” of the national minorities. It affirmed, without conditions or qualifications, that every nation had the right to self-determination up to and including separation.” (Pipes,1995: 401). Lenin by self determination meant – separation from Russia only and because of economic interdependence, he believed that no country would want separation, and secondly, he meant “proletarian self determination”, if a country was not going in the communist direction, the Bolsheviks had the right to bring them back in the Soviet Union (Pipes,1995 :403). Yet his expectations proved to be false – Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Ukraine all declared independence in 1917-1918. As a result, Lenin adopted a different strategy to keep the old Russian “empire” together which was his main goal.
Bolsheviks tried to distinguish themselves from tsarists and oppose imperialism by creating strategic policies that would expand the Soviet Union, yet formally would be a federal union of states. Lenin wanted to “divide the country into autonomous and self governing territorial units according to nationality; freedom and equality of languages, protection of the cultural and educational rights of minorities” (Smith, 1995: 2). Lenin saw Russian nationalism as a threat and had a fear of “Great Russian chauvinism” (Smith,1995: 3), therefore he supported the indigenization, also referred to as “Korenizatsia” of non-Russian Republics.
Korenizatsia was a policy that promoted local languages in schools, local cultural and national values – As Brubaker (1999) writes “the cultivation of distinct national cadres, allowed, to live and work in “their own national” territories; the cultivation of a large number of national languages; and the development of an elaborate system of schooling, including higher education, in non-Russian languages” (Brubaker,1999: 29). Yet Pipes (1995) underlines that the Soviet Union was a pseudo-federal system, “that provided neither equality, nor power” (Pipes, 1995: 406) and although local soviet leaders were given power, it was only a façade of a truly centralized government in Moscow – “The result would be formal federalism, with all the trimmings of statehood, presumably able to satisfy the aspirations of the non-Russian peoples, concealing a rigidly centralized dictatorship centered in Moscow” (Pipes, 1995: 408).
What was the purpose of the constitutional “self – determination” if the Bolsheviks wanted territorial expansion? Connor (1984) explains that the principle of self determination was linked to socialism “Lenin designed a formula that would permit the Soviet government denying the propriety of the self-determination doctrine to any case in which it might be detrimental to the Soviet State” (Connor,1984: 49) He underlines, this meaningless iniatitve had four major goals. First of all, it was used for internal propaganda; by emphazing the right of secession, Lenin and Bolsheviks opposed to past-discrimination and proved a rupture between the old Russian empire and the new communist Russia, not only to the Russian population but to minorities as well. It was also used for external propaganda, especially for the Thirld World, since Lenin believed that it was extremely important to convice the Third World that the Soviet Union was defending the right of nationalist minoroties, as well as to “increase the appeal of a union republic” (Connor,1984: 54). Finally, the last purpose was to support the communist parties in mutlinational states by creating the Comintern, to coordinate policies with other communists in the region.
As Sunderland explains, the Soviet Union was not that different from Imperial Russia – while promoting the idea of self determination and equality of nations, the Red Army openly occupied independent states and started the process of “Russification” or “Sovietization” just like the Tsar had. Stalin during the Second World War, as Smith (1995) writes, imposed the Russian language in every soviet state “The promotion of Russian people as the “elder brother” reached new heights, with Russian patriotic symbolism permeating Soviet propagandistic and ideological statements” (Smith, 1995: 3). Also, Stalin believed that the true reason for wining the war against Hitler were Russians who “earned in this war the general recognition as the guiding force of the Soviet Union” (Stalin, cited by Smith,1995: 4). Brezhnev later on, promoted the Russian language from kindergarten to universities as well.
Not only they repressed minorities and imposed their own Russian culture, but Stalin had ambitious expansionist desires, that he would execute after the WWII, once socialism was established in Russia (part of the “Socialism in one country’’ Doctrine), yet Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia were occupied and invaded by the Red Army shortly after they declared independence. As Pipes (1995) writes, Azerbaijan was occupied with great brutality “Ordzhonikidze, Sergei Kirov, introduced a reign of terror that was to typify his methods of rule in the region. Defiance of Soviet occupation in the provinces was brutally suppressed. Ordzhonikidze arrested and executed a number of Azerbaijani leaders, including the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff of the deposed government.” (Pipes, 1995:427). This was followed by the invasion of Georgian capital Tbilisi and Erevan (Armenia), although Soviets signed independence agreements, the secret clause was that both Armenia and Erevan would legalize the Communist Party and Sovietize the countries. In 1920 Armenia became communist, while Georgia on February 23, 1921 was invaded by Soviet Troops with great brutality. What about the Far East? We see this in the case of the Chinese Eastern Railway, the Soviet Union started a conflict with China that lead to the Sino-Soviet War in 1929, because the Bolsheviks did not want to give up the control of the CER. Mongolia on the other hand was an independent soviet satellite yet after 1924 as Sunderland writes “The country declared independence on the day before Ungern’s trial (September 1921) […] but after his death the last vestiges of the older order were scrapped and Mongolia became a people’s republic” (Sunderland, 2014: 229). The Bolsheviks opposed imperialism yet as we can see from the Georgian case, by invading an independent, sovereign state, the Bolsheviks proved that “anti-imperialism” sentiments were false and they simply opposed Tsarist autocracy, not imperialism as such “By the combined use of the Red Army and local Communists, the Soviet government succeeded in returning most of the minority areas to Soviet control by 1922; and with the End of the WWII, it regained control over the remaining peoples of the old Russian Empire” (Connor, 1984: 51).
After WWII and with the start of the Cold War, Eastern Europe was used by Stalin as buffer zone, to protect itself from the Western forces, in response to growing western alliances, the Soviet Union created the Warsaw pact and included the “satellite states” which in other words, meant independent countries that were under the pressure/ influence of another country, and in this particular case, under the heavy influence of the Soviet Union. The communists used the Seton Watson’s three stage model (Seton Watson, 1985) – Genuine coalition (where left wing parties are equally powerful and cooperate) /Bogus coalition (only left wing parties, yet communists are the most powerful) /Monolithic regime (no other parties, communists start collectivization/industrialization) – although not all countries passed every stage such as Poland, Albania, a majority of them went through all three of them, which allowed communism to establish itself by promoting the idea of “People’s democracy”. The Soviet Union used the Warsaw Pact to invade Czechoslovakia during their reforms of liberalization in 1968, also known as the Prague Spring, because those liberal reforms were seen as a threat to the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union, the country was invaded by Warsaw Pact troops to remove the party leader Dubček and replace him with Husák, a devoted communist that would begin the process of “Normalization”.Soviet Union expanded itself by gaining influence in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, Central Asia and the Far East. “In fact they did so well, using a combination of military acumen, repression and diplomacy, that they were able to reassemble much of the old imperial puzzle and impose their new order on top of it” (Sunderland, 2014: 232).
All in all, the Bolsheviks were openly fighting imperialism and capitalism,by creating misleading policies of self determination and equality of all nations. In reality they did not want to destroy imperialism as such, but only the old tsarist regime. By occupying independent countries, by imposing Russian language within the empire, by interfering with Eastern European countries after WWII, they very much proved that the Soviet Union was in fact, the Soviet Empire. Maximillian Voloshin (1920), a famous Ukrainian- born Russian poet described the situation, “What was changing? Symbols and leadership. The same tornado on every path: in Commissioners – folly of autocracy, explosions of revolution in Tsars” . Sunderland by tracing Ungern’s life shows the ironic similarities between the Bolsheviks and the tsarists, both imagining a multinational empire/state and both living under imperialism “ One aimed to reset the broken clock of the empire to an ealier time, the other replace it with a new one, rename it and take it into the future” (Sunderland, 2014: 233) The empire did not end in 1917-1921, in fact it is still very much alive, as Vladimir Putin is expanding the Russian territory everyday, by occupying parts of two sovereign and independent states – Ukraine and Georgia.