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For Russia’s Non-Russians, 1917 Revolution Hasn’t Ended – OpEd

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The Kazan newspaper, Biznes Online, held a conference on “100 Years of October and the Nationality Question,” whose participants agreed that for the Tatars and other non-Russians within the borders of the Russian Federation, “the revolution had a beginning but it has not yet ended.”

Consequently, as the 50,000-word transcript of its discussions makes clear, discussions of what happened in 1917 and its wake turned into where the non-Russians are now, the challenges they face, and the goals they have for themselves now (business-gazeta.ru/article/366903, business-gazeta.ru/article/367016 and business-gazeta.ru/article/367137).

The discussion was extraordinarily rich about both the past and the present and future. Below are some of the most important observations participants made about the revolution and its consequences through the end of the Soviet period and a more detailed discussion of what they said about the situation now and their prescriptions for the future.

Among the observations they made about 1917 and its aftermath, the following are especially striking:

  • Ildus Tagirov, former head of the World Congress of Tatars, argues that Soviet federalism was from beginning to end “a forced measure” opposed by Lenin, Stalin and all Soviet leaders. They made concessions only because Lenin understood that a unitary Russia would collapse and bring down the communist regime with it.
  • Aydar Khabutdinov of Kazan’s Russian University of Law says that “Lenin understood tha the had at the very least to hold Russian Russia, plus the regions of the Volga-Ural region and Central Asia. He knew not badly the programs of the national movements.”
  • Maksim Shevchenko, a Moscow commentator, says that “Lenin was not a nationalist, not a Russian or a Tatar one or a Kalmyk, Chuvash or Jewish one.” But having grown up in the Middle Volga, he knew Tatar at least well enough to speak with people in that language. Shevchenko added that “had Lenin lived another 15 to 20 years, the federation would have been real” in order to oppose the West.
  • Damir Iskhakov of the Kazan Institute of History says that Russia like other Eurasian empires during World War II was undergoing a process of decolonization, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to prevent that from going all the way in 1917.
  • Ruslan Aysin, a Tatar political scientist, says Lenin thought “in order to be united, it is first necessary to be clearly subdivided.” Thus, he first pursued delimitation and ony then federalization. He was helped in this by the fact that the leadership of the Bolshevik Party included many non-Russians, for whom internationalism was “natural.”
  • Shevchenko says that “Lenin would today have been against the bad on teaching of Tatar and even on the division of children into nationality classes … Present-day reforms are direted at the destruction of even the smallest remaining kernels of the Leninist Soviet revolutionary inheritance.”
  • Marsel Shamsutdinov, a Tatarstan entrepreneur, says he doesn’t agree that if Lenin had lived, things would have been better. “Either Lenin would have become like Stalin and destroyed independence in the localities or Stalin would have done away with Lenin as he did with Trotsky and with all other opponents who interfered with his achievement of one-man rule.”
  • Khabutdinov says that one of Lenin’s priorities was to prevent the emergence of two competing blocs on the territory of Russia, a Slavic one and a Turkic Muslim one.
  • Shevchenko says that “Stalinist nationality policy continued the Leninist one on the whole.” And in an intriguing aside, he mentions that he owns “a copy of Mein Kampf published in 1929 in Russian “for the Bolshevik Central committee with a preface by Karl Radek. In that preface, Radek urged his readers to focus on “the anti-imperialist passages of Hitler.”
  • Ayrt Fayzrakhmanov, vice president of the World Forum of Tatar Youth, says that “the idea of a Tatar-Bashkir Socialist Republic” which arose in 1918 was “the first Soviet project of a republic.” It was in part Stalin’s idea, “but in the fires of the civil war, this project died.” But it informed the formation of the USSR later.
  • Iskhakov says that “if the language policy connected with the so-called rooting policy, which began already under Soviet poer had been continued consistently … then the Soviet Union would have fallen apart already at the end of the 1930s.” Stalin’s turn to Russian in 1932 was in part an effort to forestall that outcome.
  • Shamsutdinov says that “the principle of self-determinatio of nations could not be realized in the Soivet Union” because it was “a feudal state where no independence federations or local self-administration was possible. Instead, everything was subordinated to the center.”

Turning to current events, Tagirov says that “either Russia will be developed as a democratic state or Russia will not exist.” Khabutdinov adds that what is happening now reflects mistakes made in the early 1990s and the failure of the Russian Federation to become a democracy with a well-developed civil society.

Shevchenko offers the most comprehensive discussion of what has been going on. He notes that “at the moment of the disintegration of the USSR,” the Muslim community within it was not in a position to play a major role because it was not well-organized and did not have access to the levers of economic or political power.

“Now, after the defeat of the terrorist Islamist underground in Russia, many special services [in Russia and the other post-Soviet states] have lost their raison d’etre.” And in an effort to save the situation for themselves, they are taking steps which threaten the countries of which they are a part.

The attack on minority languages is one of these mistaken targets. The special services and those associated with it don’t understand that by going after languages, they are joining a struggle with ethnocratic elites and even more with the populations within the republics involved.

According to Shevchenko, “if the ethnocratic elites were ordered to go about on lunar rovers and speak Martian but if by doing so they could keep their property, they would agree. But the language issue hits the selfcosnciousness of the enormous mass of people, toiers, peasants, the intelligentsia, and urban residents.”

The Moscow commentator says that the situaiton can be resolved only by turning to “a neo-Bolshevik national and society policy,” that is, by treating the nations as “the subjects of history” rather than by forming alliances or hierarchies of officials. That requires democratization and the formation of a civil society.

To promote that, Shevchenko calls for the convention of a democratic congress of the peoples of Russia as was done in 1917. If such “an alterantive democratic federationof peoples” doesn’t arise, then “a crypto-fascist empire” will be the only possibility left. In short, Russia stands before the choice between “a democratic union of peoples” and a dictatorship.

The Tatars at the roundtable were more pessimistic. Fayzrakhmanov for example says htat “in 1991, the Tatars consistently defended the preservation of the USSR, and the disintegration of the USSR played a bad joke on the Tatars,” one in which their standing and power have declined.

Unfortunately, he continues, “the national question is not question number one or even question number two” in Russia today. And consequently, if the country is subject to another revolution, “the nationality question as it was in 1917 will not be in the future” because Russia whether we like it or not is far more mono-ethnic.

“The slogan ‘take as much sovereignty as you can swallow’ remains important,” Fayzrakhmanov says. “It did not lead ot the disintegration of the Russian Federation.” Indeed, it may have postponed that end at least for a time, even though Moscow is now trampling on the very idea.

It is sadly the case that “the dialectics of Russian Federalism which could become a universal recipe for the entire world aren’t valued by many forces in the federal center. If they were, then solutions would be possible.”

And Shamsutdinov says that while less has been achieved over the last generation than many hoped for, “a new generation has grown up which does not know the fear of the KGB and which doesn’t watch as much television. We see them at meetings of Nalvany and others,” even though “today, a large part of the population of Russia remains passive.”

Happily and with Moscow’s unintended help, “Tatarstan has already woken up.


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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