Drawing Together

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Soviet nationality policy, particularly with respect to non-Russians, was deeply contradictory. On the one hand, it established as the basis of its federative system ethno-territorial units and encouraged the development of national cultures and education within them; on the other, it promoted Russian as a lingua franca, the settling of Russians and other Slavic peoples in the Baltic and Central Asian republics, and policies of industrialization that stimulated social mobility, all of which tended to erode national traditions. Thus, the pull towards greater national self-consciousness and cohesion was countered by the pull towards an amorphous, Russified Soviet culture.

Under Brezhnev, these contradictions intensified. When in 1978 the draft of a new republic Constitution in Georgia merely referred to “official concern” for the development of the Georgian language, protests erupted leading to the reinstatement of Georgian as “the official language of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.” At the same time, at meetings in the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic within Georgia demands were made to remove Georgian from the list of official languages and even to demand transfer of the Abkhaz republic from Georgia to the Russian republic. Patronage of national cultures continued under the auspices of the party secretariat in republics such as Ukraine, Estonia and Azerbaijan, as well as in Georgia. Despite these and other indications of national assertiveness and friction, party theorists and the media promoted the notion of the “drawing together (sblizhenie) of nations” and of “increasing their internationalist cohesion” via “their voluntary learning of the Russian language — the language of communication between nationalities.” While acknowledging the persistence of ethnic differences in domestic and family relations (for example, the predominance of nuclear families among European peoples and extended or multi-generational families among the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia; attitudes towards marriage and divorce; rates of female employment, etc.), they pointed to the narrowing of differences in material culture, leisure activities, and educational backgrounds.

Even as the 1979 census showed the proportion of ethnic Russians declining in the overall Soviet population, the concept of the drawing together of nations, with Russians occupying the special role of “first among equals of the fraternal peoples,” was restated. Celebrating the increasing homogeneity of Soviet society, the chief editor of Kommunist, the party’s main theoretical journal, was moved to condemn both “national nihilism” and “national conceit” and to forecast the eventual fusion or merging (sliianie) of nations. The persistence on the popular level of a rich array of ethnic jokes, drawing on and reinforcing derogatory stereotypes, suggests that the Soviet Union was a far cry from having overcome national conceit or even achieving the degree of fraternity among nations that was officially proclaimed.

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