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Russia and the Hundred-Headed Hydra

ISSUE:  Summer 1980

The hundred-headed hydra of nationalism may destroy the achievements of the October Revolution,” This prediction by a Russian professor was privately circulated after he had visited Central Asia, the Baltic Republics, the Caucasus, and the Ukraine. Indeed, the pent-up resentment against Russian domination is apparent to anyone who has traveled within these regions (outside the collective Intourist propaganda jaunts). The current reinforcement of repression against “bourgeois nationalism” and against religious beliefs suggests that highly placed people in Moscow share the professor’s anxieties.

History is not a morality play, but the word “retribution” springs to mind. For the Communist regime could never have been established on the ruins of the Tsarist empire had not its founding fathers—Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin—perpetrated what must surely rank as history’s biggest hoax ever: inducing the non-Russian subject peoples to identify the Red Revolution with their own struggle for liberation from Moscow’s rule.

In their fight for power, the Bolsheviks, though calling themselves the “vanguard of the proletariat,” knew they needed support from more than the industrial workers, in those days only a weak minority in a rural and backward country. The peoples conquered by the Tsar were aroused by the promise that they would be freed from their imperial masters. At first, the Communists were as good as their word. In 1917 and 1918, sovereign and independent republics were proclaimed by the Turkestans of Central Asia, the Estonians, the Latvians, and the Lithuanians on the Baltic, by the Cossacks of the Don Valley, the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians, the Moldavians, people of the North Caucasus, the Georgians, the Armenians, and the Azerbaijani. Yet after the Communists had organized their own military and police forces, they not only reimposed Moscow’s rule but set up a system more centralized and totalitarian than anything ever dreamt of by the most reactionary of the Tsars. For two decades international intervention saved the three Baltic republics and transferred a part of Byelorussia to Poland and Moldavia to Rumania. The Second World War enabled Stalin to complete the reconquest. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact gave the Russians Latvia and Estonia, and, for the payment of $7,500,000 in gold, Hitler threw in most of Lithuania. The takeovers were ratified by post factum plebiscites, leaving the population no choice.

Now, more than 60 years after the Revolution, we are beginning to see the hoaxers hoaxed. In the immediate post-Revolutionary period, the Communist leaders tried to defuse national sentiment by allowing, indeed positively encouraging, the retention of the trappings and symbols of sovereignty. But at the same time, they reserved real power—political, military, and economic—for the Politburo in Moscow. The ideal formula was devised by Joseph Stalin who, by the end of his life, had more blood on his hands than Adolf Hitler: “National in form, Socialist in content.” In other words: national modes of expression to express socialism (i.e., Soviet-style Communism) and nothing else.

Today, among the 264,000,000 of the U.S.S.R., the non-Russians jointly number about as many as the Russians themselves (according to the latest 1980 official census the Russians have 137. 2 million and thus an absolute majority, but Western academics suspect the figures). And by now the symbols of independence no longer carry conviction, and everyone knows the term “Soviet Socialist Republic” denotes nothing more than an administrative unit ruled from Moscow.

It did not take long for the Communist hoax to be exposed. Just long enough to install the machinery of repression required to liquidate nationalist militants once they discovered they had been fooled. In the Stalinist period of terror and mass extermination, any hint of nationalist opposition to Moscow—or even allegations that there had been a hint—meant deportation and probable death. Entire ethnic groups, alleged by Stalin to be unfaithful to the Communist cause, were driven from their homes and scattered over the Soviet land-mass. In his book, The Punished Peoples, the defector Alexsandr Nekrich, now at Harvard, has told their tale.

Things are very different now. The Soviet system, though still despotic, is far less bloodthirsty and oppressive than in Stalin’s time. That much is admitted by the most implacable of the dissidents, Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who has risked his own life by defying the present rulers.

The “liberalization” is not the consequence of a more moderate leadership. There is no reason to suppose that Leonid Brezhnev, who came to power under Stalin, is any more humanitarian than his late master. What has changed radically is the nature of modern industrial society. Slave labor, within the confines of a siege economy, could not have performed the type of work required to provide the military-industrial-technological complex on which the preservation of the Soviet system depended. Still less could it sustain such a complex at the almost-American levels of proficiency needed if it is to serve the permanent goal of Russian policy: to persuade the rest of the world that Soviet communism is the force of the future and that Western capitalism is in a state of irreversible decline.

Repression of national movements is tougher under Brezhnev than it was under Khrushchev; nevertheless, it would be socially and economically impossible for the regime to go back to the primitive horrors of the Stalinist era. Yet as the memories of the terror wear away, unrest among the minorities is likely to increase.

No generalizations are applicable to all the hundred-odd identifiable ethnic groups of which the U. S. S. R. is composed. These vary from the (allegedly) 137. 2 million Russians to the few thousand Yakuts, inhabitants of the diamond-producing northeastern Siberia, a race reportedly in imminent danger of extinction. Each community has its own historical experience, its own relationship to the U. S. S. R. , and its own degree of awareness of separate national identity. The French sociologist, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, in her book L’Empire Éclate shows how the Communist Party, the Russian language, the army, the secret police, and the economy have all been used as instruments of integration. She describes the efforts of Soviet authorities to mold a cohesive society appropriate for the homo Sovieticus, a patriot whose loyalties are not to his own ethnic group but to the whole of the U. S. S. R.

To anyone who has lived in Moscow and traveled around the Soviet Union, the failure of that enterprise is self-evident. The pot has not melted. But what needs to be said is that the heartland of the nationalist revival is Russia itself. As the Soviet mass media reveal, the prevailing creed, nationalism, is progressively ousting Marxist-Leninist materialism—which has manifestly failed to deliver the material goods. The revival of nationalism is most conspicuous in the Russian heartland. In the written and spoken word, the Russians hear more and more about national glory and less and less about Marxist-Leninist materialism. The Communist paradise is indefinitely postponed, and criticism by dissidents is condemned no longer as anti-Marxism but as treason to the fatherland.


In the years immediately after the Revolution, nationalism was tolerated only on sufferance. The Communist creed was designed to leap over national frontiers and to appeal indiscriminately to all “the workers of the world.” That notion vanished with Trotsky, but it was not until the Second World War that the regime officially encouraged the Russians to regard themselves as better and braver than the rest of mankind. Stalin was himself a Georgian, but he saw the Red Army disintegrating before his eyes, with many of the Byelorussians and Ukrainians welcoming the Germans. He recognized the need to provide the Russian soldiers with the feeling that they, at least, were fighting for their homeland.

It was during the war that the Soviet Union scuttled the Comintern (the organization of world communism) and replaced the Internationale with a new Soviet anthem starting:

“An unbreakable union of free-born Republics Great Russia has welded forever to stand. . . .”

Very nice for the Russians—both those inside Russia and the millions of Russian settlers spread over the rest of the landmass from Poland to the Pacific. But far less appealing to the non-Russian nationalities, who have no interest in being “welded forever” by self-appointed civilizers from Great Russia.

The attitude of the Russians to their ethnic minorities is not much better or worse than the attitude of the French, British, or Dutch colonizers toward their “natives” in imperialism’s heyday. But the non-Russians in the U. S. S. R. are living in the postcolonial era and have learned anticolonial slogans from their earliest childhood.

From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, the revival of Russian nationalism has been positive. It has helped persuade the Russians to make sacrifices and, when ordered, to put guns before butter. There are many Russians, young and old, proud of belonging to one of the two Great Powers, who respond easily, sometimes enthusiastically, to appeals to their patriotism.

But there is a reverse side to the coin: the more the Communist cause is identified with Russian nationalism, the less appeal it can have to the non-Russian minorities. And in composition, the Communist hierarchy, both civilian and military, has always been and remains overwhelmingly Russian. By far the most numerous minority are the Ukrainians, with well over 40 million, and the Russians have tried to overcome their hostility by dividing them and attempting to Russify the ruling elite. All the teaching in the institutes of higher learning is in Russian, and in the great Ukrainian cities, Kiev and Kharkhov, Russian has almost entirely displaced Ukrainian as the language of administration and commerce.

The Ukrainian, Leonid Plyushch, a mathematician whose first language was Russian and who married a Russian Jewess, describes in his book, History’s Carnival, how, as a sign of solidarity with his compatriots, he made himself speak Ukrainian. One day, using Ukrainian in a public place, he was asked by a Russian why he could not speak a human language: “The blood rushed to my head and right then I became a Ukrainian once and for all. . . .” Plyushch was tortured in a Soviet psychiatric hospital before being exiled. He is a living testimony to Russian persecution of national minorities and of their failure to create a cohesive society.

The non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union fall broadly into two categories: the Europeans from the Christian tradition, including the peoples of the Baltic Republics, the Byelorussians, the Ukrainians, the Bessarabians, the Georgians, and the Armenians. These look West, and, from my personal experience in these regions, they feel more friendly towards Western visitors than Russians.

The second group are Moslem by origin and look toward the Middle East and Asia for solidarity and support. The regions are in the North Caucasus and Central Asia—to which perhaps should be added the Crimea. This area was principally inhabited by Moslem Tartars until Stalin deported them in May 1944. Now the region is repopulated with Europeans, but the Tartars are still agitating to be allowed to go home.

The division of the groups does not mean, of course, there is no common anti-Russian feeling: on the contrary, samizdat (clandestine) journals reported that when the Moslem Chechens blew up the statue of General Yermolov, Tsarist conqueror of the Caucasus, in their capital city of Grozny, the glee was shared by all the nationalities, including the Ukrainians. I myself heard from a Moslem Kurd (a member of one of the poorest ethnic groups in Tbilisi) how much in April 1978 he and his friends enjoyed watching the Georgian students fighting against the Russians. They were objecting to proposals to eliminate a constitutional clause which made Georgian the official language of the Georgian Republic.

Almost all of Soviet territory, both European and Asian, is out of bounds for foreigners. Only specially designated cities may be visited and then only along specially designated routes. Strikes and riots certainly occur, but they are never mentioned in the media. In measuring the extent of internal opposition to Soviet rule, Westerners have to rely on the grapevine, the testimony of defectors, and hints of official anxiety provided in official speeches or in new measures directed against dissidents.

In the West, thanks to contacts with the émigré groups, we hear more about European than Asian opposition to being Russified. Yet in the long term the Moslem resistance to assimilation may prove the more serious problem. The pacification of Central Asia was long and difficult. For centuries the Russians had been subject to the Tartars, and the Moslem communities were not easily reconciled to the tables being turned. When the Communists reestablished their control, they confiscated religious property, closed almost all mosques, and encouraged linguistic and cultural divisiveness between the localities. For this purpose, they broke up what had been the Republic of Turkestan into five separate units: Tadzekistan, Kazakhstan, Uzhbekistan, Kirgizhstan, and Turkmenistan. Even then, the Kremlin was still nervous: millions of Moslems were deported and killed during the Stalinist purges.


Since that period, most Western observers, visiting Central Asia under Russian guidance, have been impressed with massive urbanization and with the absorption of selected Asians into the Communist elite. They have seen that the few remaining mosques are frequented only by the old and infirm. It all looks calm and, by Asiatic standards, reasonably prosperous.

Yet from recent sociological studies we know that this impression is deceptive. The Moslems have managed to retain their non-Soviet way of life, from the cradle (and circumcision) through marriage (often with a purchased bride) to the grave (with Moslem mourning rites). There are regions inside the Soviet Union where public holidays are now held to commemorate not Bolshevik but Moslem occasions. The religious hierarchy has let it be known that Moslems do not need to go to the mosque to pray but can do so at home. In some regions the Moslem hierarchy has virtually taken over the Communist mass organizations, with special emphasis on the youth movement—the pioneers (for children) and the Komsomol (for youngsters up to 28). These can then be used to inculcate not Marxist-Leninism but a sense of solidarity with the rest of Islam.

From the Western viewpoint, the implacable Moslem rejection of Western culture appears socially regressive. After an era of forced emancipation, women are increasingly reluctant to accept offers of education and jobs, preferring the Islamic choice of a home and big family. Already the Moslem population is about one-fifth of the Soviet total, and according to Western demographers the higher Moslem birthrate indicates that it will be approaching one-third by the turn of the century. And as the Moslem population has a much lower average age, the proportion of Asians in the Red Army is even higher.

The Russians have invested huge capital in the formerly Moslem territories, developing agriculture (notably cotton), extracting precious raw materials, and installing industrial plants in what had been totally undeveloped territory. They have brought in higher education, hygiene, huge new cities— and in so doing provided a useful example of what the British scholar Professor Seton-Watson has called “the law of colonial ingratitude.” The Asians feel that the Russians have developed the region for their own profit and see no cause for loyalty and respect. I was reminded of this in the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhe when I met a Jordanian student who had been allowed to visit his fellow-Moslems in and around Tashkent. He brought them food and clothes and found them materially worse off than the Jordanian workers, though better educated. He told me they welcomed him as a brother, insisting they had more in common with him than with the Russians. His experience seemed to have paralleled my own, when I was in the European non-Russian regions.

The remoteness of the territory and the secretiveness of the system make it impossible to evaluate the political significance of the Moslem rejection of Russian intrusion. Could there be an Iranian-type religious coup on Soviet territory? Probably not: the vast and elaborate system of police-informers, going down to every factory, residential block, collective farm, college, or school makes it improbable that the Kremlin could be caught as unprepared as the Shah. And the Red Army is strictly under Russian command and control.

Nevertheless, the Moslems in the U. S. S. R. cannot be expected to be impervious to developments elsewhere in Islam. Besides the proximity of oil, one reason why the Russians decided to send tanks into Afghanistan may well have been their fear of a successful anti-Communist coup on their own frontiers.

Forgetting that Moscow is holding down a huge and restive empire, Westerners tend to expect Brezhnev and Company to behave like the leaders of any other great power. Amidst talk about Third World poverty and imminent ecological disaster, it is tempting to assume that the East and West have fundamentally the same interests. But have they? Is it in Moscow’s interest to accept Western notions of a disarmed and orderly world? And if the Russians turn their swords into ploughshares, can they be sure their multiethnic empire will survive? A dynamic army may be essential to repress demands for selfdetermination which, given the chance, might stretch all the way from Estonia to Georgia, from Lithuania to Outer Mongolia and the Kurile Islands.

The East-West dialogue is still necessary. In the last resort, the Russians do share with the West a common interest in avoiding a nuclear holocaust, which neither system would survive. The West benefits from increased exchanges of commodities, people and ideas, and freer access to what used to be a closed society and a siege economy.

Certainly the police state will do its best to control East-West comings and goings, but, as I saw in my travels, the apparatus of repression is neither ubiquitous nor omniscient. Even the KGB sometimes falls down on its job. We hear, for example of Communist-sponsored delegations coming from Georgia to Paris, meeting their emigre compatriots, visiting Georgian churches, and swapping jokes against the Russians.

It has to be said in defense of the Soviet position, that they have never concealed their intention of continuing the ideological struggle with the ardent aim of extending the areas under Soviet control. Both Khrushchev during the era of “peaceful coexistence” and Brezhnev during détente (two words for the same phenomenon) have always told their own people that the accommodations between East and West must not be allowed to impede the active Soviet support for “movements of national liberation.”

The Western allies can cooperate with Moscow for the avoidance of war, for a balanced reduction of arms, and for mutually beneficial exchanges. Further, within the constraints imposed by the balance of nuclear terror, they, more convincingly than the Russians, can champion the anti-Imperialist cause. For it is inside the Soviet bloc that the movements of national liberation most deserving of sympathy and support are now to be found. In this matter, particularly after Afghanistan, the Russian-dominated Politburo which rules the Russian empire has inherited the tribulations of the Tsars—and perhaps one day may inherit their fate.


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