Aug 24, 2022Liked by Branko Milanovic

Dear Branco,

You are absolutely right about the ideological "source" of USSR formation, but imo you are missing a second equally important "source", which is the opportunism of the moment. Anyone who is reading things as written and is not blinded by the later theorizing by Stalin and Trotsky is able to clearly see that Lenin and the party were riding a hurricane which was the Russian revolution, and a lot of what they did was just to stay on top and not to fall off. Thus they had to make constant concession to local elites and do major political contortions to retain consensus even within their own party, not to mention the fellow travellers, of which there were many, especially on the periphery. And while the idea of the USSR is predominantly, as you say, the result of ideology, the execution, including the outline of the borders within it, is almost exclusively the result of local and contemporaneous compromises, i.e. mostly random. If we take Ukraine as an example, there is absolutely no top down ideological reason why Krivoy Rog - Donetsk Republic ceased to exist and was later merged with Soviet Ukraine, it was all decided as a result of local events and later more or less accepted by Moscow.

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Just to complement. From what I can remember from Edward Carr's "A History of Soviet Russia".

There is no Marxist theory of nationalities, so to speak. According to Marx, the Nation-state is just a historically specific formation that will disappear with the rise of socialism. The Bolsheviks, therefore, had to improvise a practical policy towards nationalities after their sudden victory in 1917.

The way they did that was absolutely improvised and changed with time until it more or less stabilized in the 1930s: to the nationalities which already had a strong bourgeoisie before 1917, automatic independence and an option to enter the Union given; to the nationalities which didn't have a bourgeoisie, a republic would be created within the Union, in which an intermediary phase - the "bourgeois-democratic revolution" phase - would be enforced or stimulated, so that it would quickly go through the capitalist stage in order to evolve further to the socialist phase.

Geographically, that meant, in practice, that the Asian nationalities fell into the second case, while the European nationalities fell into the first case.

Nationalities with extremely developed capitalism and bourgeoisie immediately used the opportunity to get unconditional independence. In such cases, the Bolsheviks didn't even pretend to try to get them into the Union. The most illustrative examples were Finland and Poland (the more Western, the stronger this tendency).

Nationalities with pre-capitalist, sometimes even nomad modes of production, either didn't even notice they became republics or peacefully accepted the terms. You can put basically all the Asian nationalities (the "stans", among others) in this group.

In some extreme cases, even a republic wasn't feasible, such was the primitive level of development of these "nationalities". They became instead autonomous republics within the RSFSR. Those cases were even more peaceful, which make the anti-colonial aspect of the USSR very evident. One example of this, if memory doesn't fail me, was Tuva, which was essentially a tribe of some 10,000 people. The Tuvans didn't even have a written language. The Bolsheviks insisted they should become a republic, which they refused. After insisting - which included creating an alphabet for the Tuvan language, so that it could write its constitution - the Tuvan Soviet Republic was founded. In its first congress, it dissolved itself and re-entered the RSFSR voluntarily. Today's Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoigu, is Tuvan: he would never have reached such position were it not for the USSR.

There was one case that was extremely problematic because it was an intermediary one: Transcaucasia. Transcaucasia had a bourgeoisie that was militant but not strong, and was divided in ethnic terms, Armenian and Georgian. Each one claimed their own republics. However, it was not clear their will represented the will of the majority of the Transcaucasian peoples, and, to make things worse, the realities of the geopolitical game (the region was crucial to Soviet national security) of the time made it so that the USSR could not afford for Transcaucasia to opt to leave the Union. The issue was ultimately solved by the Red Army, who tipped the balance to the pro-Union forces in that region. The same thing, in an even more dramatic fashion, happened in the Ukraine (which saw an extremely rare three-side war, between the White, Black and Red Army).

Two bizarre cases happened: Turkmenistan and the Republic of Siberia. (Future) Turkmenistan was a so corrupt, so underdeveloped and so ideologically problematic that the Bolsheviks considered letting it go/expel it from the Union. The Republic of Siberia was a chimera created by the Japanese Empire during the Russian Civil War, where geographic obstacles impelled the Japanese to install a liberal republic with a tripartite chamber - one third Bolshevik, one third pro-Japanese, one-third pro-White Army/local liberals and monarchists. The republic was so artificial and so frail that its end was never contested or made official by the Japanese Empire: the Red Army inexorably advanced towards Siberia and enjoyed absolute support from the local population; the Bolsheviks didn't even bother to make it an ASSR, so overwhelmingly pro-Russian and pro-Bolshevik it was.

There was never any discussion about Novorossiya. It was never a thing. There was some dispute about the frontier industries of the Donbass, but, as far as I know, the narrative that Lenin contradicted some Novorossiyan national will to strengthen the Ukrainian one is a fantasy created by the Russian Federation elites. Crimea however was really a problem: the initial plan was to make it a Tatar autonomous republic, but the Tatars were a minority and it seems they didn't want it or were very problematic. It was then reabsorbed by the RSFSR. We don't know for certain why Krushchev transferred it the Ukrainian SSR; some rumors state he did in one single night, while he was drunk.

The nationalities policy of the Bolsheviks had a clear-cut limit which they never hid: class struggle. Class struggle, according to the Bolsheviks, was the overriding factor of national self-determination. The right to national self-determination only went so far as it didn't hurt the interests of the proletariat. In practical terms, that meant the economy was the decisive factor: once the Five-Year Plans started to be implemented, breakneck speed industrialization of the USSR ensued. Industry naturally leads to centralization of politics, which weakened the political power of the nationalities.

The result of the Bolshevik nationalities policy was dual: in the West, it didn't work (see the present-day Eastern European nations). But in the East, it was a tremendous success. The reason for that is obvious: in Asia, capitalism was either non-existent or an extremely brutal enterprise; there was no working class consciousness in Asia, and trade unions were non-existent. In such scenario, a revolution "from above" was better than no revolution at all. It had an anti-colonialist effect in Asia. That's why the USSR, and Marxism-Leninism, still enjoy great prestige and respect in Asia (and success, in the cases of China and Vietnam, where it still exists), while being demonized in Europe.

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Aug 24, 2022Liked by Branko Milanovic

Dear Branko,

what a great post (and what a great comment by VK above!)!

I think it just proves once again, how much current RU elite is XIX century in its way of thinking: it's all about "nations", "historical justice" and frankly, plain imperialism. It is also a testament of how detested communist education was in the late USSR (ie when those in power were young and studied in their universities - they did not listen much to their dull Maxist Leninist lectures).

Everybody capable of rational thought in Russia knows this: there is simply no coherent ideology in the current elite, just a weird reincarnation of the late USSR with its militarism, lack of vertical mobility, societal ossification and complete ideological emptiness (de-facto nihilism) with some nominal reverence to vaguely conservative values.

This was bound not to end well. And it hasn't.

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Very clear article for those not familiar with the history, and useful even for those of us who know the general outline of the debate on the "national question." Thanks much for posting.

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Is there a possibility of EU breaking up ? You have said nationalism is responsible for break up of USSR even though USSR acknowledges some 130( around) nationalities.

I think EU is stable because the elites in these nations are happy as EU has money,power and prestige.( EU losing those is unlikely ).where as USSR lost out because the rich countries were constantly thought how to undo USSR.

There is no entity strong enough to resist EU.

Ofcourse it is propaganda that putin was constantly trying to breakup EU.

EAEU came up in 2011 i.e., after NATO -2008.Hillary opposed it saying it is recreation of USSR when it is patently not.

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USSR is more enlightened ( universal, internationalist) compared to EU. EU formed even after france rejected it in 2005 .EU is capitalist which trumps it's liberal dimension. I think EU and this new" democracy " are poor imitations of USSR and communism as they benefit elites and making working class suffer and will only lead to regression over time. (Immanuel wallerstein wrote in his blog that 2040's is a crucial time)

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Aug 21, 2022·edited Aug 21, 2022

Thanks for posting the article, very informative, but it doesn't read as refutation of Putin's grievances of how administrative borders within USSR were drawn. The EU analogy would actually be supportive of Putin's grievances: I can hear him in his whining voice saying that the European Commission does not re-draw internal national borders the way the Bolsheviks did...

Rather, USSR history should be irrelevant to Putin's thesis, because that entity collapsed and its internal administrative organization shouldn't have had any magical powers and meanings. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the emerging countries did not automatically assume the borders of the Ottoman divisions (sandjaks, etc...) Far from it.

If Putin has any grievances they should be directed not towards Lenin/Stalin/Khrushchev but toward his mentor Yeltsin, who in his hurry to have his own "kingdom" accepted Kravchuk's bid for dissolution along the administrative borders. A deal is a deal, Yeltsin signed it, and it wasn't all bad for Russia: they got all the nukes and 90% of the Black Sea Fleet...

Would an alternative deal been better, e.g. partition along ethno-linguistic lines, with UKR keeping its nukes and splitting the BSF 50/50? Probably? But hindsight is 20/20, in the meantime deals are meant to be honored not "fixed" through brutal barbarism...

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Really interesting! Two points do not fit easily though in this vision.1) Lenin/Stalin support for self-determination (a point that made W Wilson praise Lenin originally) as a political devise to win support for the revolution, which indeed gave some fruit –a concept that is in tension with Marxist universalism more apparent in the case of Lenin, than in Trotsky the most universalist of them all. 2) Stalin´s own transits towards Russian chauvinism as a propaganda device in the 2WW and the fact that there was no intention of absorbing Eastern Europe into the USSR. It sounds strange that Mao was asking to join the USSR in 1949 an initiative that made more sense in 1921 but not then… and also strange that Milanovic family thought about Yugislavia would be joining the USSR, again an idea more fit for 1917-1920 (when all the Bolsheviks were expecting a world revolution to bail them out) than later. But well history is full of these tensions…


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Really enjoyed reading this piece and equally enjoyed reading the insightful comments. I still have Carr’s book from my high school days, and will reread it, but can anyone recommend a good history of the USSR that covers the 30s/40s and 50s?

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Somewhat sure communist Romania never had any intentions to join the USSR and that historical grievances against Russia were far too strong in most of East Europe to allow anyone but a small cadre of party elites to expect a relinquishing of national identity to essentially be absorbed into a new Russian Empire.

After all, there would be a Russian majority in the USSR, most elites would speak Russian, the center would be at Moscow and so on.

It's impossible to escape from the nation and the tribe through artificial and ideological processes. Only slow, natural mixing of populations works.

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Not to disagree with BM's explanation of the 1920's USSR ideologues, but they seemed rather attached to the borders of pre-war Russia. The Transcaucasian SSR was forcefully brought into the USSR (after which it was perhaps free to leave ... :)) while both Mongolia and Tuva (the latter until 1944) remained independent states. Similarly, the Baltic states and Bessarabia, part of pre-war Russia, were later included into the USSR although these were events almost twenty years after the considerations described in your post.

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Thank you.So informative.

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Excellent points.

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Okay, but one would think the obvious question is... why didn't Poland, Hungary, Romania etc. join the USSR? Was it simply that the nature of the state changed at some point?

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Very interesting article and brings the right context to understand Ukraine Russia conflict.

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