Russia as the Prison of Nations

M. N. Pokrovskii, Russia as the Prison of Nations. 1930

Original Source: 1905 god (Moscow: OGIZ Moskovskii rabochii, 1930). Reprinted in M. N. Pokrovskii, Izbrannye proizvedeniia (Moscow 1965-67), IV:129-35.

Thus that basic force was being prepared which several years later was to assume the leadership of the masses who had revolted against the landowners’ autocracy. Oppression by the latter was unbearable for the peasants, and even more so for the workers, yet they were not the only victims of oppression. The store of enslaved and dissatisfied which Russian autocracy had accumulated by the end of its days was not restricted to Russian peasants and workers. The condition of the non-Russian peasants and workers was even worse, precisely because in addition to everything else they were not Russians. This condition was so striking that it can be described in the words of the official sources, in the words of the Russian officials and generals and their authorized agents. Not to notice it would be impossible.

Here is how the tsarist minister Witte described the general situation. Naturally, he expressed himself in a way that was to be expected from a prominent tsarist official but we should not be disturbed by his expressions … The important point is that even that official understood things which later, in 1917, proved to be inaccessible to the understanding of the Russian bourgeoisie. Here is what Witte wrote around 1911: “Our failure to realize that since the time of Peter the Great and Catherine, Great Russia no longer exists and there is a Russian Empire has been the reason why our policies of the past decades to the present, have been entirely mistaken. When approximately 35 percent of the population are non-Russians and the Russians themselves are divided into Great Russians, Little Russians, and Belorussians, then it is impossible to carry on a policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that ignores this historical fact of capital importance, the national identity of the other nationalities which have become part of the Russian Empire: their religion, their language and so on.”

It does not matter that Witte through his own ignorance included Ukrainians among the Russians and even called them “Little Russians.” What could one expect if subsequently, while leading the struggle against the revolution, he did not even know the name “Bolshevik” and talked about some kind of “anarchist revolutionary party of Russia” which had never existed. What does matter is that even Witte ought to have properly written the name “Russia” ‘ in quotation marks as I am writing it now; for the “Russian Empire” was not at all a national Russian state. It was it collection of several dozen peoples, among whom the Russians constituted a clear minority (about 47 percent), peoples who were united only by the general exploitation on the part of the ruling clique of landowners, and united moreover through the help of the most brutal oppression.

Even the Muscovite State of the seventeenth century in spite of the opinion of bourgeois historians, was no longer a national state of the Great Russian tribe. Besides the remnants of the Finnish tribes, who were enslaved as early as the pre-Muscovite period (the Karelians in Tver, and before the eighteenth century also (Kaluga province) the Tatars, Mordovians, the Mari, Chuvash, and Bashkirs were conquered; at the same time the “conquest of Siberia” was begun, i.e., the forcible annexation of many small northern peoples to Moscow. The enslaved peoples had been revolting at the first opportunity: the Mari annihilated entire Muscovite armies with their commanders. However, the superior military organization of the Russians always prevailed in the end, and the uprising was put down. Here are two examples from the history of the “pacification” of the Bashkirs. After the uprising of 1735-41, “the Bashkirs were beaten, executed, they died in captivity, were sent to work, their wives and children … given away for resettlement in Russia, all in all 28,452 persons.” And do you know how this author-a landowner, a relative of that Bibikov who had participated in the suppression of the Pugachev uprising and whose much-praised biography he wrote-how he estimated the total number of “Bashkirs”? Just about one hundred thousand men! And this was only one uprising! In 1754 the Bashkirs revolted again and again this time “in order to pacify them they were beaten and deported … in numbers up to thirty thousand”.

You will say: but this was long ago, in the eighteenth century, when customs were cruel, torture existed, people were flogged with whips on the public square and so on. Later customs grew milder. Well, let’s s take a look at how mild they grew. Let us take the dispatch of the Russian commander in chief in the Caucasus at the beginning of the nineteenth century-a tsarist general who had no reason at all to slander his own subordinates. He writes about the relations of the Russians to the Kabardinians (now the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic): “the extension of the Caucasus line [the area of Russian colonization] at the expense of their best land has made the Kabardinians distrustful of us… Because of the vain desire of some of the local commanders to distinguish themselves militarily against the Kabardinians rather than by winning them over with gentle and just rule, it has become common to undertake military action every year against them or some other peoples, frequently without any cause. Such measures have embittered the Kabardinians to the point that although they do not have even a shadow of their former might after their last utter defeat, they are still nourishing to this day their invincible spirit of revenge against Russia. This “spirit of revenge” was kept alive as if deliberately also among those nationalities of the Caucasus who had the misfortune to subject themselves to the Russians. Here, for example, is the order issued by another supreme commander in the Caucasus at that time, Ermolov, with regard to the “peaceful Chechens (the Russians themselves called them “peaceful’ because these Chechens had already ceased resisting): “In the event of theft every settlement is obligated to deliver up the thief, and if he goes into hiding, then his family. But if the inhabitants provide a means of escape to the entire family of the thief, then the whole settlement is to be set on fire.” If the “plunderers” (i.e., the mountaineers who continued to resist) took a Russian in captivity and the inhabitants of the “peaceful” settlement did not recapture and rescue him, “from such a village for every Russian taken in captivity, it is ordered that two men from the natives be conscripted.” In the event of a regular raid by the ‘plunderers” that the “peaceful” natives fail to resist, “their village is destroyed, and the wives and children slaughtered.”

After this, one can believe the words of a Chechen historian (an officer in the Russian service, i.e., more than merely “peaceful”) that “having been constantly ruined by the Russians, the Chechens grew accustomed to being resettled from one place to another to such an extent that this forms their distinguishing national characteristic.” But you will say again: after all this was still in the time of serfdom law, when even in “Russia” itself people were being exchanged for dogs and horses; later “customs grew milder.” Very well, let us take the annexation of Turkestan, the conquest of Central Asia (the present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan). This came in the 1860’s and 1880’s, after the “liberation.” One thoroughly “Black-Hundred” Russian traveler at the end of the nineteenth century found that the population of present-day Uzbekistan was given to “trembling” before the “Russian name.” We will see presently that “trembling” might also be given a different name, but first let us recount, in the words of this traveler, how this ‘trembling’ was achieved. It “was achieved with difficulty and its cost was heavy. Before the present state of complete security could be established in the country, it had been necessary to deal mercilessly with the natives after the slightest attempt on their part to attack the Russians. Entire villages were burned to ashes if a single body of a murdered Russian was found in their vicinity.” In addition, the population was brutally exploited: the taxes introduced by the Russians (who had come to “emancipate” the local population from the “yoke” of the native rulers) were increased two, three, four, in one case even fifteen-fold! Under this, the population was simply dying out. Where before the arrival of the Russians there had been 45 settlements and 956 households, twenty years later there already were only 36 settlements and 817 households, and of these as many as 225 were empty, small wonder if according to the “Black-Hundred” traveler mentioned above ‘all around one could sense an exasperated and discontented feeling. Hundreds of angry eyes full of a disapproving severity kept watch on our ceremonial processions; it felt as if one could reach out and grab the evil rays which were piercing us from all directions.” In the end our Black-Hundred man began to ponder the fact that “if some sort of great political or military confusion were to occur in Russia, in Turkestan a popular movement against the Russians would start immediately.” Witte was not the only one who resembled the cat that knew whose meat it had swallowed.

In the East, in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, later in Manchuria (Russian acts of plunder in Manchuria were in no way different from those in the Caucasus or Central Asia, and this is why I do not speak about them separately), direct coercion was applied more often, of course, than in the more civilized Western or South-Western provinces of the “Empire.” But even there in some places, for example, in Poland, after its “insurrections” its attempts to overthrow Russian rule, direct coercion was used very often and a great many Poles ended their lives in Siberia. Everywhere the “alien,” i.e., non-Russian, was an inferior creature and an “outcast” to a greater degree than even the Russian peasant. At least no one stopped the latter from speaking in his own language, and in the court or at a Zemstvo board he heard the language which he understood. But in the non-Russian provinces–Poland, Latvia, Estonia, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia–all “public business” was conducted in Russian: the literate Latvian peasants, like some savages in Central Africa, had to make themselves understood before Russian judges through an interpreter! In the Ukraine for a long time even the Gospel was not permitted in Ukrainian, although this would have been clearly advantageous to the priests in stupefying the Ukrainian peasants. In Poland the Polish language was taught in schools, but it was compulsory to do so in Russian: the teacher was forbidden to discuss a Polish writer, for example Mickiewicz, in the children’s native language because in a Polish school only Russian could be spoken. The children were deprived of a meal if they were “caught” speaking Polish among themselves. Needless to say Ukrainian, Belorussian, Georgian, etc. schools did not exist. If a Ukrainian or Georgian wanted to be literate, he had to study Russian. Moreover, this was alone to nations which not only have their own written language (sometimes older than Russian), but also have their own literature and classical works which frequently have been translated into other languages. One unwittingly asks himself: what it can explain these savage attempts to turn back the history of culture, to make already literate peoples illiterate? An answer to this can lie found in the history of the Jews–a people who were the outcasts par excellence of all “outcasts” in the tsarist patrimony.

In the Western and South-Western parts of the “Empire” they sometimes constituted a majority of the urban population. They could not be driven out but they were locked up there. The Jews were forbidden to take up residence in villages or to leave the “Pale of Settlement.” The others were not allowed to study in their native language; for Jewish children, admittance even to Russian schools was almost completely denied. There was a fixed “quota” of Jewish students for each district: in those places where Jews were in a majority it reached up to 10 percent; in other places it fell to 3 percent. Jews were denied entry to the state service so that they could in no way get into the ruling class (the landowners and bourgeoisie from among the other “aliens” could enter). In military service, no matter what feat a Jew may have performed, he was never promoted to the rank of officer. And to top it all, from time to time the illiterate urban bigots, small shopkeepers and artisans of the towns where the Jews lived, were incited against the Jews and a Jewish pogrom followed. Such a pogrom occurred in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, in the spring of 1903, and it shook all of Europe; up to a thousand Jews were killed or maimed by the enraged bigots. We shall see that later, in the period of revolution, the pogroms were a favorite weapon of the tsarist government.

The pogrom offers us the very key to the nationality policy of that government. Why was the Russian or Ukrainian petty bourgeoisie and peasantry being incited against the Jews? In order to turn the eyes of these unfortunate people from those who were really responsible for their misfortune. The real culprits were those who were milking the people dry for the sake of the ruling stratum, who imposed on the peasants taxes ten times as high as those paid by the landowners, and so on. Instead of this, they showed peasants a prosperous Jew and said: “Look how rich he is getting! He is getting rich off you, and that is why you are so poor!” ‘ And the illiterate, ignorant fellow believed that all the evil was in the Jew, and he did not see the real source of evil. Neither did he see that for every rich Jew there were a thousand poor ones. Admittedly, this worked less well as time went on, and already by 1902 the peasant, when they tried to incite him against the Jew, began to raid the landowners. For the time being, however, the discord between nationalities which the tsarist government zealously supported was obstructing the unification of all the workers and the exploited into one mass. The Russian was incited against the Pole (“he is always rebelling!”), against the Tatar or Uzbek ( ‘infidels, non-Christians!’), against the mountaineer of the Caucasus or the Turkmen (‘he only thinks about how to slaughter the Russians!’). In Transcaucasia the Armenian was incited against the Turk, and the Turk against the Armenian. In Finland, the Finn against the Swede, in Latvia, the Latvian against the German, and so on, and so forth. The low cultural level of the masses who were being incited was the primary condition for the success of such instigation. A literate, self-conscious population cannot be stirred up against anyone you choose; and the Latvian peasants in the end did not oppose Germans in general but the German landowners, the most greedy and merciless of their kind in the whole “Russian Empire.” And since it was easy to exploit an illiterate population, in this way tsarist policy also assisted the plunder of the “aliens” by Russian capitalism. It was not accidental that the Bashkirs were even sent to France so that they could be exploited in particularly hazardous work there.

However, we will be very much mistaken if we think that this oppression of “borderlands” (some of these “borderlands” began at 500 kilometers from the center—-and this was in a country through which one could travel 10,000 kilometers without crossing a border) was only a subsidiary means for autocracy, that it only somewhat facilitated its struggle with the popular masses by splintering them, inciting one part against another, keeping them in ignorance by artificial means. No, the colonial policy of the ruling class of landowners (Lenin called it “military-feudal imperialism”) was one of the basic reasons why the landowners’ dictatorship itself existed in our country for such a long time. The availability of colonies, i.e., the “borderland” (the land inhabited by the “aliens”), for exploitation helped to preserve backward forms of the economy in the center. The development of capitalism in depth in the old, long-inhabited territories is retarded because of the colonization of the outer regions. The solution of the contradictions inherent in, and produced by, capitalism is temporarily postponed because of the fact that capitalism can easily develop in breadth. Thus, the simultaneous existence of the most advanced forms of industry and of semi-medieval forms of agriculture is undoubtedly a contradiction. If Russian capitalism had possessed no range for expansion beyond the bounds of the territory already occupied at the beginning of the post-Reform period, this contradiction between capitalist large-scale industry and the archaic institutions in rural life (the tying of the peasants to the land, etc.) would have had to lead quickly to the complete abolition of these institutions, to the complete clearing of the path for agricultural capitalism in Russia. But the possibility (for the mill owner) of seeking and finding a market in the outer regions in process of colonization, and the possibility (for the peasant) of moving to new territory, mitigates the acuteness of this contradiction and delays its solution.”

Thus wrote Lenin at the end of the nineteenth century. The dictatorship of the serf-holding landowners was not only a reflection of our country’s economic backwardness, it was also one of the causes of this backwardness. As it rested on outmoded forms of economy, it did not let the economy move forward at the same time. As long as it was not overthrown, “Russia” had to remain a backward agrarian country.

Source: Roman Szporluk, ed., Russia in World History; selected essays (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), pp. 108-116.

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