Nationalities in the USSR


The Soviet Union was a multi-national empire from the revolution of 1917 through the final demise of Communism in 1991. Multi-national in this context meant that all Soviet citizens were defined by nationality, which was a category associated with birth, but also with native language, regional boundaries, and cultural traditions. While Russians always made up the largest single national group, they never comprised an absolute majority of the population. All Soviet citizens had their nationality stamped in their passport, which provided one marker of identity.

As indicated by the 1982 map included with the primary source materials, the territory of the Soviet Union was divided into fifteen republics and more than one hundred autonomous regions, each of which was defined at least partially by nationality. Soviet schools taught children in their "native" language, and newspapers, periodicals, and books were published in many languages other than Russian. While the Communist Party, the security police, and the military ensured that political power remained centralized, hierarchical, and dictatorial, the everyday experiences of people throughout this period always involved the dual identities that were both national and Soviet.

Nationalities and the Breakup of the USSR

Given this historical background, the key question becomes what role nationalities played in the final stages of the breakup of the Soviet Union. To explore this question, it is important to define the meanings of nationality and nationalism, as they apply to this historical situation. Nationality refers to a population that shares some key characteristics: language, culture, geography, political affiliation, religion, territory, or historical experience. Nationalism refers to an ideology, in which the identification with the nation becomes an important source of identity, a cause for mobilization, or a point of contention.

Throughout the twentieth century, the extent to which the many nationalities in the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union articulated and experienced a sense of nationalism depended on the historical context. Some nationalities developed a relatively strong sense of nationalism that was based on resentment against incorporation into the Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empire, dissatisfaction with subordinate status within this system, and some desire for autonomy and even independence. The three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) had the strongest sense of nationalism, because of the way they were incorporated into the Soviet Union as a result of the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany; other nationalities with a relatively strong sense of nationalism included the Ukrainians, Armenians, and Georgians.

At this same time, other nationalities were characterized by what might be called a weaker sense of nationalism, that did not attach such significance to historical, cultural, territorial, and linguistic differences. Examples of the weaker definitions of nationalism included Belorussia, Moldavia, and especially the predominantly Muslim populations in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, where religious and cultural identities that transcended territorial boundaries coexisted with patterns of economic underdevelopment.

Within each of these national republics and especially within the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, smaller nationalities also developed stronger or weaker definitions of nationalism. The Russian people, more than any other population, tended to identify their national identity with the overarching system of Soviet power. While the end of the Soviet Union resulted in the formation of 15 independent republics, both the process of dissolution and the subsequent history of these countries was shaped by these differences in nationalism as a political ideology.

National Independence Movements

Recognizing this spectrum of nationalism explains why the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to challenge the Soviet government's claim to be ruling with the consent of nationalities. During the first years of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, in fact, the leaders of the "popular fronts" in these Baltic regions were among his strongest supporters because they shared his goal of decentralizing power, creating opportunities for free expression, and acknowledging the errors and crimes of Soviet history. By 1988, however, these popular fronts moved ahead of Gorbachev in their demand for greater independence, a Western style market economy, and multi-party political systems with elected legislators. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, leaders in the Baltic republics pushed ahead even more quickly in their demands for independence, which also provoked a stronger response from the Soviet government as well as from ethnic Russians living in the republics.

During the course of 1990, all three Baltic republics declared their formal independence from the Soviet Union. Facing this direct challenge to the authority and integrity of the Soviet political system, Gorbachev responded by declaring these steps illegal. In January 1991, one of the most visible confrontations between central authority and regional autonomy occurred in Vilnius, Lithuania, when Soviet forces attacked a television station that had been outspoken in support of the popular front forces. The forces breaking up the Soviet system were strengthened when Boris Yeltsin, as leader of the Russian republic, declared his solidarity with the Baltic movements and even sought foreign support for this separatist push. The overwhelming support for independence was reflected in outcomes of the referenda held in February and March 1991 pushed these Baltic states even further from the Soviet system even before the failed August coup by anti-Gorbachev hardliners in Moscow and the subsequent end of the Soviet Union in December.

In the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia itself emerged as another leading force in the movement to claim independence from the Soviet Union. These steps included a declaration that Russian law took precedence over Soviet law, preparation of a Russian constitution, and negotiations with the governments of other republics that bypassed the Soviet administrative system. In early 1991, when Gorbachev scheduled a referendum on the new federal union, the chairman of the Russian Communist Party, Yeltsin, added a question about whether voters favored a direct election of the Russian president. This provision passed overwhelmingly, and in June 1991, Yeltsin was elected President of Russia, thus acquiring a kind of democratic legitimacy never pursued by Gorbachev, who refused to subject his authority to any kind of electoral approval. When the attempted coup failed in August 1991, Russia was well positioned to declare formal independence, and to assume many of the governmental functions that the Communist Party was no longer able to provide.

In the Caucasus, the movement towards independence was complicated by the tensions among and within national groups. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan focused on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Armenians made up a majority of the population, yet the district was administered by Azerbaijan. As the Armenian republic government escalated its pressure for a union with this territory, the government of Azerbaijan as well as the Azeri population in and around Nagorno-Karabakh also escalated its resistance to Armenia's attempt to incorporate the region into its territory. In January 1990, a series of violent attacks on Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh provoked intervention by Soviet troops, which established order but further emboldened independence movements in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, even as both sides accused Moscow of showing favoritism to their rivals.

In Georgia, by contrast, the emergence of a nationalist movement also provoked one of the most violent incidents of this period, an attack by Soviet troops on demonstrators in April 1989 that resulted in 19 deaths. Even as the Georgian independence movement acquired a broad base of support, ethnic minorities within Georgia also began to press for more rights or even new unions across existing political boundaries. First the Soviet and then the Russian government repeatedly threatened to intervene in defense of minority rights in Georgia, even as Georgia itself assumed a leading role in asserting national sovereignty before the final collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

In Central Asia, one of the first manifestations of nationalism came, ironically, in opposition to Gorbachev's reforms, when he threatened to remove Communist Party officials implicated in systemic corruption and abuses of power in several Central Asian republics. Rather than perceiving these actions as signs of progress, Communists from the local nationalities rallied around their leaders, thus initiating (however inadvertently) challenges to Moscow's authority that would spread in the following years. As in the other regions, glasnost created possibilities for the articulation of nationalism as a collective ideology and movement. More significantly, however, a number of Communist officials from specific national groups redefined themselves and their networks of power in ways that positioned them to assume power as the Soviet system began to weaken. The post-Soviet rulers of the Central Asian republics thus shared a common trajectory, as they were all put into power by the Moscow-based Soviet Communist Party, but remained in power as leaders of newly independent national republics.

In Ukraine, where nationalists could point to moments of historical experience of self-rule and cultural independence, the evolution of a nationalist identity was complicated, as was true throughout the Soviet Union, by the multi-national and multi-ethnic composition of the population. While the western regions of Ukraine were increasingly confrontational in their demands for autonomy and independence, the more eastern regions, where a larger proportion of the population was ethnically Russian, were less supportive of this movement for autonomy and independence. While Ukraine was geographically closest too and thus strongly influenced by the rapid changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, these divisions within the territory and population complicated and compromised this nationalist challenge to Soviet power. Ukraine played a key role in orchestrating the final end of this drama. In mid-December 1991, the leaders of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine declared themselves independent, thus bringing to an end, on New Year's Eve, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Exploring the Documents

The documents provided in this module make it possible to explore the multiple histories outlined in the above narrative. Maps and population statistics for the Soviet and post-Soviet period provide some basis for situating and measuring the extent of changes in territory and population. Most of the other materials come from the year 1989, when the Soviet nationalities simultaneously exercised their own emerging sense of nationalism and also responded to the parallel changes in Eastern Europe. While the Soviet Union remained intact and the Communist Party retained power throughout this pivotal year, the changes in national identity represented one of the most important factors that contributed to the breakup of this system less than two years later.

Media reports published within the Soviet Union thus represent voices and movements of individuals and groups struggling to to define their common interests, pursue shared objectives, account for differences within and between national groups, and respond to the authority of the central government. These media sources are taken from the published daily reports of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a U.S. government agency that monitored broadcasts and publications from within the Communist bloc throughout the later stages of the Cold War. As this bloc began to disintegrate, American policy makers used these translated documents, in combination with other reports, to determine the intentions of actors and the implications of events. Re-reading these documents as historical sources makes it possible to follow unfolding developments and explore perspectives of those who truly "made" the history of 1989.

Tom Ewing
Virginia Tech University
Blacksburg, Virginia