Lenin on Nationality Policy

Vladimir Lenin, On the Question of the Nationalities or of Autonomization. December 30, 1922


I think that I did the workers of Russia a great wrong in not interfering energetically and sharply enough in the notorious question of autonomizing which, I think, is officially called the question of the union of the Soviet socialist republics.

In the summer, when this question arose, I was ill, and then in autumn I placed too great hope on my recovery and that the October and December plenary sessions would give me the opportunity to intervene in this question, but I failed to attend both the October plenary session (on this question) and the December session, and so this question almost completely passed me by.

I managed only to have a talk with Comrade Dzerzhinskii, who had come from the Caucasus land who told me how this question stands in Georgia. I also managed to have a few words with Comrade Zinoviev and to express to him my apprehensions about this question. From what I was told by Comrade Dzerzhinskii, who headed the commission sent by the Central Committee to “investigate” the Georgian incident, I can only experience the greatest apprehensions. If matters went so far that Ordzhonikidze could risk using physical violence, as was reported to me by Comrade Dzerzhinskii, you can imagine what a sorry state of affairs we have reached. Obviously, all this scheme for “autonomizing” was basically wrong and untimely.

It is said that unity of the apparatus was required. Where did these claims originate? Was it not from that very Russian apparatus which, as I have pointed out already in one of the previous entries in my diary, was borrowed by us from Tsarism and only tarred up a little with the Soviet brush?

There can be no doubt that we should have waited with this measure until we were able to say that we vouch for our apparatus as our own. But now we must, in all conscience, say the opposite, that what we call our apparatus is something that in actual fact is still thoroughly alien to us and constitutes a bourgeois and Tsarist hodgepodge, to overcome which in five years has been impossible in view of the absence of aid from other countries and the predominance of military “preoccupations” and the struggle against the famine.

In these circumstances it is very natural that the “freedom to leave the union,” with which we justify ourselves, will prove to be just a piece of paper incapable of protecting people of other nationalities from the incursion of that the true Russian, the Great Russian, the chauvinist, in essence, the scoundrel and despoiler which the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There can be no doubt that the insignificant percentage of Soviet and Sovietized workers will drown in this sea of chauvinistic, Great Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

It is said in defense of this measure that we set up people’s commissariats to deal directly with the national psychology and with national education. But in this connection it may be asked whether these people’s commissariats can be fully set up and, yet again, whether we showed enough concern in taking measures really to defend the people of other nationalities from the true Russian Derzhimordas. I think that we did not take these measures, although we could and should have taken them.

I think that a fatal role was played here by Stalin’s haste and preoccupation with the administrative aspect and also by his rage against notorious “social-nationalism.” Rage in general usually plays the worst role in politics.

I also fear that Comrade Dzerzhinskii, who went to the Caucasus to investigate the case of the “crimes” of these “social-nationals,” distinguished himself there only by his likewise truly Russian attitude (it is well known that Russified aliens always overdo it when they adopt a truly Russian attitude) and that the impartiality of his whole commission is sufficiently characterized by Ordzhonikidze’s use of force. I think that this Russian violence cannot be justified by any provocation or even any insult and that Comrade Dzerzhinskii is irreparably to blame for taking a light view of this violence.

Ordzhonikidze represented the regime in regard to all other citizens in the Caucasus. Ordzhonikidze had no right to show the exasperation which he and Dzerzhinskii have mentioned. Ordzhonikidze, on the contrary, should have behaved with restraint such as no ordinary citizen is obliged to employ, least of all one accused of a “political” crime. After all, in essence, the social-nationals were citizens accused of a political crime, and the entire background to this accusation could only qualify it thus.

Here there arises an important question of principle: How to interpret internationalism. -LENIN. 30/XII/22. Dictated to M. V.

Continuation of Notes. Dec. 31, 1922

I have already written in my works on the national question that abstract framing of the question of nationalism in general simply will not do. It is essential to distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressing nation and the nationalism of the oppressed nation, the nationalism of the big nation and the nationalism of the small nation.

As regards the second nationalism, almost always in historical practice we, the nationals of a big nation, find ourselves to blame for an endless amount of violence, and, what is more, imperceptibly to ourselves we engaged in an endless amount of violence and insult; one has only to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated in our country, of how a Pole is not called anything but a “Polack,” a Tatar is invariably ridiculed as a “prince,” a Ukrainian as a “khokhol,” a Georgian or other residents of the Transcaucasus as “kapkazski” [ironic mispronunciation of “Caucasian”].

Therefore internationalism on the part of the oppressing or so-called “great” nation (although it is great only in violence, great only as a gendarme is) must consist not only in observing formal equality of nations but also in such inequality as would be compensation by the oppressing nation, the big nation, for that inequality which actually takes shape in life. He who has not understood this has not understood the genuine proletarian attitude to the national question, he retains essentially a petty-bourgeois point of view and therefore cannot fail to slip back every minute into the bourgeois point of view.

What is important for the proletarian? It is not only important but even vitally essential for the proletarian that the maximum trust be created for him among members of other nationalities in the proletarian class struggle. What is needed for this? What is needed for this is not merely formal equality. What is needed is to compensate in one way or another by one’s treatment of or concessions to other nationalities for that distrust, that suspicion, those insults which were inflicted on them in the historical past by the government of the “great power” nation.

I think that there is no need to give Bolsheviks, Communists, a more detailed explanation than this. And I think that in the case in question, namely, the Georgian nation, we have a typical example in which the truly proletarian attitude to the matter requires of us that we be extremely careful, tactful and generous. The Georgian who adopts a scornful attitude to this aspect of the matter, who scornfully hurls accusations of “social-nationalism” (whereas he himself is a genuine, real not only “social-national” but also a crude Great-Russian gendarme), that Georgian in essence violates the interests of proletarian class solidarity because nothing so retards the development and consolidation of proletarian class solidarity as national injustice, and to nothing else are “offended” nationals so sensitive as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality–even if it be through carelessness, even if in the form of a joke–to the violation of this equality by their proletarian comrades. This is why in this case it is better to be overly generous and lenient toward the national minorities than not be sufficiently so. This is why in the given instance the fundamental interests of proletarian solidarity, and consequently of the proletarian struggle, too, require that we should never take a formal attitude to the national question but should always take into account the definite difference in the attitude of the proletariat of an oppressed (or small) nation toward the oppressing (or big) nation.
-LENIN. Dictated to M. V. 31/XII/22.

What practical measures should be taken in the prevailing situation?

First, we should retain and strengthen the union of socialist republics; there can be no doubt as to this measure. We need it, as the world Communist proletariat needs it for the struggle against the world bourgeoisie and for defense against the latter’s intrigues.

Secondly, we must retain the union of socialist republics as regards the diplomatic apparatus. Incidentally, this apparatus is exceptional in the composition of our state apparatus. We have not admitted to it a single person who was in any way influential in the old Tsarist apparatus. In it the entire apparatus that is in any way authoritative has been made up of Communists. Therefore, this apparatus has already earned itself (we can say this boldly) the name of a tested Communist apparatus purged to an incomparably, immeasurably greater degree of the old Tsarist bourgeois and petty-bourgeois apparatus than that which we are compelled to make do with in the other people’s commissariats.

Thirdly, it is necessary to punish Comrade Ordzhonikidze as an example (I say this with great regret, because I personally am one of his friends and worked with him as an émigré abroad), and also to finish the investigation or thoroughly reinvestigate all the materials of Dzerzhinskii’s commission with a view to correcting the immense number of wrongs and biased judgments which undoubtedly exist there. Stalin and Dzerzhinskii should, of course, be made politically responsible for all this truly nationalistic Great-Russian campaign.

Fourthly, the strictest rules must be introduced regarding the use of the national language in the non-Russian republics which belong to our union, and these rules must be thoroughly checked. There is no doubt that under the pretext of unity of the railroad services, under the pretext of fiscal unity, etc., a mass of abuses of a truly Russian nature will infiltrate, our apparatus being what it is. To combat these abuses special ingenuity is needed, not to mention special sincerity on the part of those who take up this struggle. A detailed code will be required, which can be drawn up with some degree of success only by nationals living in the republic in question. Moreover, we should not in any way renounce in advance the idea of going back, as a result of all this work, at the next Congress of Soviets, i.e., of retaining the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics only in military and diplomatic respects and in all other respects restoring full independence to the individual people’s commissariats.

It should be borne in mind that the fragmentation of the people’s commissariats and the lack of coordination among their work in relation to Moscow and other centers can be adequately counteracted by Party authority, if applied in a sufficiently circumspect and unprejudiced manner; the harm which may accrue to our state from the lack of unification of national apparatuses with the Russian apparatus is immeasurably less, infinitely less than the harm which accrues not only to us but to the entire International, to the hundreds of millions of people in Asia who will have to come to the fore on the historical stage in the very near future, following after us. It would be unforgivable opportunism if, on the eve of this emergence of the East and at the beginning of its awakening we were to undermine our authority within it by even the slightest rudeness and injustice toward those of other nationalities living in our country. It is one thing to have to rally together against the imperialists of the West who defend the capitalist world. Here there can be no doubts and it is superfluous for me to say that I approve of these measures absolutely. It is quite another matter when we give way, if only in trifles, to imperialist attitudes toward oppressed nationalities, thereby undermining completely all our sincerity of principle, all our defense in principle of the struggle against imperialism. And tomorrow in world history will be a day when the aroused peoples oppressed by imperialism will wake up once and for all and when a vigorous, long and difficult battle will begin for their liberation.

-LENIN. 31/XII/22
Dictated to M. V.

Source: Current Soviet Policies (New York: F. A. Praeger, 1957), Vol. II.

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