The Empire Falls

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Nationalism, the identification of an “imagined community” based on nationality and the belief that it should be congruent with statehood, was largely confined in imperial Russia to small groups of urban-based intellectuals. The non-Russian peoples of the empire, consisting overwhelmingly of peasants, did not identify themselves so much in national terms but rather by religion, locality, or their peasant status. Nevertheless, the weakening of central authority after the overthrow of the tsar and the rapid deterioration of economic conditions created an opportunity for nationalist movements to assert claims for political leadership and the independence of “their” people. In the long run, which is to say beyond the years of revolution and civil war in Russia, those claims would be realized only in Finland, Poland, and the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Elsewhere, political independence, achieved as a result of the implosion of Russian-based authority and in several instances with the sponsorship or support of another external power, was more short-lived.

Among the earliest claims to national self-rule were those of the Ukrainian Central Council or Rada which was formed in early March 1917 and by April was led by the ardent nationalist and historian Mihail Hrushevsky. Demanding the right to form Ukrainian national regiments and tax the population, the Rada remained dissatisfied with the Provisional Government’s offer of compromise. Parties represented in the Rada received strong support in the Constituent Assembly elections of November, but the Soviet government’s refusal to concede independence on the Rada’s terms soon led to war. When the Rada proved incapable of stopping the Red Army’s advance in January 1918, it turned to the Germans whose price of support included requisitioning of grain from the peasantry. Peasant support for the Rada sharply declined, although the Bolsheviks, who also imposed requisitions, were no more to their liking. In the aftermath of the Brest Litovsk Treaty, the Germans dissolved the Rada and installed General Pavlo Skoropadskii as Hetman. His rule barely survived the Germans’ withdrawal in November 1918. Thereafter, Ukrainian territory was contested among the Red Army — aided by Russian or Russianized workers in Kharkov and the Donbass — various White armies, anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists under Semen Petliura, and roving bands of peasant anarchists under Nestor Makhno.

The situation in other parts of the country where the population was predominantly non-Russian was no less volatile and confused after the overthrow of the tsar. In the absence of central authority, these borderland territories fell into the hands of local elites who in some cases spoke the language of socialism and in others legitimized themselves with reference to national or religious affinities. In Transcaucasia, soviets were established in the major cities of Tbilisi and Baku and enjoyed considerable popular legitimacy and local self-rule. With the October Revolution, the Transcaucasian socialist parties (excepting the Bolsheviks), declared independence for the whole region and eventually the three separate independent republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These republics survived only so long as the Red Army was preoccupied with combating the counter-revolutionary Whites. In Turkestan (Central Asia), indigenous pan-Turkic and Muslim renovationist movements battled Russian settlers (who themselves were divided between pro- and anti-Bolsheviks) for control of railroad lines, food supplies and other strategic resources. Elsewhere, in Tataria, Bashkiria, and Crimea, Turkic-Tatar movements vied with Reds and Whites for control. These and other parts of the vast Eurasian land mass remained essentially stateless until absorbed within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

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