On 19 November 1990, Boris Yeltsin gave a speech in Kiev to announce that, after more than 300 years of rule by the Russian tsars and the Soviet ‘totalitarian regime’ in Moscow, Ukraine was free at last. Russia, he said, did not want any special role in dictating Ukraine’s future, nor did it aim to be at the centre of any future empire. Five months earlier, in June 1990, inspired by independence movements in the Baltics and the Caucasus, Yeltsin had passed a declaration of Russian sovereignty that served as a model for those of several other Soviet republics, including Ukraine. While they stopped short of demanding full separation, such statements asserted that the USSR would have only as much power as its republics were willing to give.
Russian imperial ambitions can appear to be age-old and constant. Even relatively sophisticated media often present a Kremlin drive to dominate its neighbours that seems to have passed from the tsars to Stalin, and from Stalin to Putin. So it is worth remembering that, not long ago, Russia turned away from empire. In fact, in 1990-91, it was Russian secessionism – together with separatist movements in the republics – that brought down the USSR. To defeat the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt at preserving the union, Yeltsin fused the concerns of Russia’s liberal democrats and conservative nationalists into an awkward alliance. Like Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again or Boris Johnson’s Brexit, Yeltsin insisted that Russians, the Soviet Union’s dominant group, were oppressed. He called for separation from burdensome others to bring Russian renewal.
The roots of nationalist discontent lay in Russia’s peculiar status within the Soviet Union. After the Bolsheviks took control over much of the tsarist empire’s former territory, Lenin declared ‘war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism’ and proposed to uplift the ‘oppressed nations’ on its peripheries. To combat imperial inequality, Lenin called for unity, creating a federation of republics divided by nationality. The republics forfeited political sovereignty in exchange for territorial integrity, educational and cultural institutions in their own languages, and the elevation of the local ‘titular’ nationality into positions of power. Soviet policy, following Lenin, conceived of the republics as homelands for their respective nationalities (with autonomous regions and districts for smaller nationalities nested within them). The exception was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, or RSFSR, which remained an administrative territory not associated with any ethnic or historic ‘Russia’.
Russia was the only Soviet republic that did not have its own Communist Party, capital, or Academy of Sciences. These omissions contributed to the uneasy overlap of ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’. [Continue reading…]