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Home > Nations & Nationalism  > Teaching Nations and Nationalism in the (former) Soviet Union - Katrina Z. S. Schwartz


Teaching Nations and Nationalism in the (former) Soviet Union

Katrina Z. S. Schwartz

Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida, and the author of a book manuscript in progress, tentatively entitled Globalizing the Ethnoscape: Nature and National Identity after Communism.

“What is a nation? ... A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”1

Thus did Joseph Stalin confidently weigh in on one of the most vexed ongoing scholarly debates of the modern era, “qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”2

Not content to be simply the architect of Soviet totalitarianism, Stalin also fancied himself the “Coryphaeus of science,” and his substantial 1913 essay on “Marxism and the National Question” represents only one of his numerous contributions to various learned disciplines. It is, however, perhaps the best-known among them, and indeed was deemed a sufficiently important scholarly intervention on the topic to be included in a definitive recent reader on nationalism.3

This historical curiosity-a serious academic meditation on the definition of nationhood by the man who, as People’s Commissar for Nationalities, would be instrumental in designing the USSR as an “affirmative action empire” for nations, before going on to orchestrate quasi-genocidal atrocities against more than one nation-is one reason why the theme of nations and nationalism in the Soviet Union and its successor states makes for such a compelling teaching topic.

I designed a “Special Topics” course entitled “Nation, State, and Identity in (Post-)Soviet Politics” and taught it in two consecutive semesters during academic year 2001–2002 as a lecturer in the political science department at Penn State University. Nowadays, many political science departments offer only one general course in Russian and/or Soviet politics. Having just finished teaching such a course myself at the University of Florida, I know just how hard (dare I say impossible) it is to do justice to the complexities of both the Soviet period and the post-Soviet “triple transition” in a single semester. A course focusing on the national dimension of Soviet and post-Soviet politics offers one way of complementing this general course, allowing exploration of the tremendous cultural diversity of the “Soviet people,” which otherwise may be given short shrift in the struggle to cover the basics.

From a thematic perspective, moreover, the former Soviet Union is an ideally suited regional case-almost tailor-made, really-for teaching about nationalism. The USSR, after all, was a multi-national empire built by people who thought a great deal about nations. Lenin as well as Stalin wrote about national identity and its relationship to class identity, state-building, and imperialism. This was an empire designed on the basis of a very consciously articulated, if wonderfully paradoxical, theory about nationhood.

Believing that a temporary tactical concession to nationalism was necessary to win the support of the oppressed peoples within the tsarist empire’s “prison-house of nations,” Lenin and Stalin set out toward the goal of Marxist internationalism by first seeking to bolster national consciousness among those peoples, and indeed to create nations out of the more “backward” peoples by supplying those essential elements of nationhood (according to Stalin’s above-quoted definition) that were lacking: written languages, history books, song and dance ensembles, and defined national territories.

Nationalism would initially be harnessed to build legitimacy for socialism, but ultimately socioeconomic modernization would erode national differences and merge the nations into a single, supra-national “Soviet people.” Thus the world’s first state built on the ideology of internationalism became its first ethnically defined federation. This extraordinary nation-building and nation-destroying project provides a fascinating empirical illustration of questions of how and why national identity is created, sustained, or eroded, and of the role of states in these processes.

In the post-Soviet period, the successor states provide a rich set of comparative cases in which the shared historical legacies of tsarist and Soviet imperial rule can be juxtaposed against the diversity of recent trajectories. From Riga to Almaty, the post-Soviet umbrella allows us to explore almost every analytical issue in the study of nationalism: the ways in which national identity is constructed and contested by politicians, intellectuals, and publics; the relationships between titular nations and national minorities; the politics of language rights and citizenship; the role of religion in nation-building; communal violence; separatism and ethnoterritorial conflict; and so on. Post-Soviet space also presents a unique opportunity to explore the “triadic politics” that emerged from the disintegration of an asymmetrical ethnic federation: the complex relationships, that is, between new nationalizing states, the old (Soviet) homeland state, and the new national minorities that found themselves suddenly “beached” on foreign soil.4

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me in structuring this course lay in providing enough background-both conceptual background on nations and nationalism, and historical background on the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union-to make the course material comprehensible without eating up too much of the semester. The first part of the course (three and a half weeks of a 14-week semester) was devoted to this effort.

Familiarizing students with competing definitions and theories of the emergence of nation and nationalism is no easy task, especially given the deeply-entrenched conceptual conflation of “nation” and “state” in both popular and scholarly American discourse, as well as the shocking lacuna on nationalism in many general political science texts.5 To address at least some of the analytical diversity, I assigned several very short excerpts from John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith’s 1994 reader on nationalism. Along with Stalin’s quintessentially objectivist definition, we read classic statements by Connor, Renan, Breuilly, Deutsch, Geertz, and Hroch (not included in the reader). In lectures, I attempted to introduce the debates between primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist theories of nation formation, presenting also the arguments of Benedict Anderson, Gellner, Hroch, and Hobsbawm and Ranger on the “invention of tradition.” (I assigned excerpts from some of these authors the first time I taught the course, but decided they were too complex for students to grapple with in such a compressed way.

I should note that in choosing readings, I was heavily constrained by my department chair’s prudent warning not to assign more than 100 pages of reading per week at the utmost.) Given its centrality to the nationalisms of Eastern Europe, I also briefly addressed Herder’s cultural-linguistic articulation of nationalist ideology.6 The next three class periods provided an obviously very sketchy overview of the Russian Empire in general, nationalities issues in the empire, and Marxism. Here I used brief excerpts from Walker Connor (in the reader), from Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Soviet Experiment, and from Gregory Gleason’s Federalism and Nationalism.7

The second part of the course addressed “The Making of (Post-)Soviet Nationalities,” beginning with a two-period attempt to explain “What was the Soviet Union?” I assigned the best short overview I am aware of: Mary McAuley’s Soviet Politics 1917-1991.8 (I ordered the book for purchase, although I only assigned the first half-through Stalinism-as required reading.) After providing this necessarily cursory overview of the revolution, formation of the Leninist party-state, totalitarianism, collectivization and forced industrialization, and Stalinist terror, I addressed the two contradictory faces of Soviet nationalities policy: ethnofederalism and nation-building, on the one hand, and national repression and russification, on the other. I assigned only one reading for this section: Yuri Slezkine’s very comprehensive 1994 Slavic Review article.9 This section ended with the fatal contradiction between empire and nation-building, and the role of nationalism in the Soviet collapse. I assigned chapter four of Suny’s The Revenge of the Past.10 (The previous semester, I assigned the entire book, but I felt that the chapters on the imperial period were somehow at once too detailed and too schematic to be satisfying, at least with this pool of undergraduate readers.) Bowing to my own research interests, I supplemented Suny’s general analysis with three short and accessible articles on the “eco-nationalist” dimension of the breakdown.

Part Three moved on to consider the successor states. Refining the syllabus the second time around, my task was made easier by the discovery of Pal Kolsto’s excellent book, Political Construction Sites, an eminently readable undergraduate text.11 Supplemented by several articles, the Kolsto text allowed me to cover many, although certainly not all, dimensions of national politics in the successor states. After introducing the notion of “triadic politics” between Russia, the newly independent states, and the Russophone diasporas, we took up the two most strongly binational successor states, Latvia and Kazakstan, to explore the politics of language and citizenship.

Forms of ethnoterritorial conflict were investigated through cases from the southern Caucasus, Crimea, and Moldova. I complemented Kolsto’s text with Catherine Wanner’s wonderfully vivid ethnographic study of Ukrainian nationalism, Burden of Dreams.12 In addition to conveying powerfully a sense of what daily life was like in Soviet and post-Soviet times, this book explores, in a very readable way, the role of the state in cultivating national identity through various sites of nationalization: history-writing, commemorations, festivals, schools, and urban landscapes.

This book won the highest approval ratings in student evaluations both semesters. I was also fortunate to have the author herself on campus and available for guest lectures. This part of the course concluded with a topic unfortunately not covered by Kolsto: the relationship between religion and nationhood in the Islamic regions of the former USSR.

The final section took up the struggles of the Russian Federation to define and defend its national identity, membership, and borders in a (reluctantly) post-imperial context. Kolsto provides a decent overview of the competing approaches by Russian politicians and intellectuals to the question “What is Russia and who are Russians?” - including civic nationalism, ethnocultural Slavic nationalism, neo-imperialist Great Russian nationalism, and Eurasianism. We wrapped up by considering the centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon Russia’s ethnoterritorial federation, using the contrasting cases of Tatarstan and its bilaterally negotiated “sovereign” status within Russia, and Chechnya, the federation’s sole instance of secessionism. This is another critical topic not covered by the Kolsto text, and so I again selected a number of articles.

I showed documentary films whenever appropriate, including Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Despair (1984) on the Ukrainian famine, excerpts from Juris Podnieks’ Soviets (1988) on ethnic tensions in the last days of the Soviet Union, and a 30-minute film on the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia called The New Iron Curtain (1997).

There are of course a great many other films that could be used, if available; for example, the Ukrainian segment of Michael Ignatieff’s series Blood and Belonging would be a useful complement to Wanner’s book. After only two iterations, my syllabus is still very clearly a work in progress. And thanks to the rapid pace of events in the region, it is obviously already outdated. The last two years have seen the publication of important new books that could serve well in this class: Mark Beissinger’s Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, Matthew Evangelista’s The Chechen Wars, and Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire, to name but a few.13 What has not changed is the salience of “the national question” in the politics of the post-Soviet region, and the usefulness of this region for teaching about nationalism.


1. Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, excerpted in John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, eds., Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1994), pp. 18-21.

2. Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?,” reprinted in Hutchinson and Smith 1994, pp. 17-18.

3. Hutchinson and Smith 1994.

4. Rogers Brubaker, “Nationhood and the national question in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Eurasia: an institutionalist account,” Theory and Society 23 (1994), pp. 47-72.

5. For example, the textbook I used to teach introductory comparative politics this past year at the University of Florida, which has been used extensively within my department in recent years, devotes literally one page to the topic of nations and nationalism. Judging from the other texts I have looked at, this is by no means unusual. However, for next year I have found a book that devotes an entire chapter to “States and nations: nationalism-nation building- supra-nationalism,” as well as a chapter on “Ideology.” This is Michael J. Sodaro, Comparative Politics: A Global Introduction (Boston: Mc-Graw Hill, 2004).

6. Ultimately, the overview of nationalism theory may have been the most frustrating portion of the course. In the hopes of elucidating this difficult theoretical material by encouraging students to apply it to their own lived experience, the first assignment asked them to write a short essay (3-4 pages) on the question, “Is America a nation?” I instructed them to “begin with a clearly stated theory of what a nation is, and of how national identity is formed,” using the assigned readings to construct an argument and counter-argument. Unfortunately, quite a few of the students appeared entirely unable to process this question analytically, offering responses along the lines of “Not only is America a nation, but it is the greatest nation in the world..” The problem was undoubtedly aggravated by the timing, as the post-9/11 mood of flag-waving patriotism was still extremely strong.

7. Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Gregory Gleason, Federalism and Nationalism: the struggle for republican rights in the USSR (Boulder: Westview, 1990).

8. Mary McAuley, Soviet Politics 1917-1991 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

9. Yuri Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review 53, 2 (1994): 414-452.

10. Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

11. Pal Kolsto, Political Construction Sites: Nation-building in Russia and the Post-Soviet States (Boulder: Westview, 2000).

12. Catherine Wanner, Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

13. Mark R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2002); Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).


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