This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.”
“Soviet powers is to toiling Kazaks like rain in the desert.”
Letter of Kazak peasant to Peasants’ Gazette.

When the All-Union Congress of Soviets meets in Moscow, it presents a vivid and colorful assembly. Flat-faced Tartars from old Kazan, yellow-skinned Uzbeks and Tajiks from the hills and irrigated valleys in the heart of Asia, slant-eyed Tunguz from the Far Northeast over against Alaska, mix with many score nationalities from the Caucasus to pass the laws which shall govern all these peoples. Many of them are dark-skinned peoples, formerly exploited by the Russians, but equal citizens now under the Soviets. It is as if Congress in Washington contained a score of southern Negroes, half a dozen Mexican farmers from Arizona and California, scattered representatives of the surviving tribes of Indians, an Eskimo, a Hawaiian, an Indian from Porto Rico, a mixed-blood from Panama, all legislating on equal terms with auto-workers from Detroit, steel-workers and miners from the Pittsburgh valley, and American farmers from the great west. A British governing assembly similarly formed would show an overwhelming majority from the dark-skinned peoples of Africa and India.

Tsarist Russia was known as the “prison of nations.” No imperialist power has a history of more brutal racial and national oppression. Nation after nation of the proud mountaineers in the Caucasus was literally driven into the Black Sea by the conquering Russians. The Tartars of Crimea perished by tens of thousands in their flight across the Black Sea to Turkey. The tribes of the great plains and the primitive peoples of the Arctic were debauched in the time-honored imperialist way by the vodka of their conqueror and subdued in soul by the emissaries of his religion, that they might be more easily robbed of lands and furs. Even more bitter, perhaps, than the robbery was the insulting “superiority” of the conquerors. “They cheated us and afterwards despised us,” said a flashing-eyed woman Tunguz from the Arctic. “Eh, but it was bad in the old days; all my life I hated Russians.”

The country which fell to the Soviet power to organize was seething with national hates, incited and nurtured by the oppression of centuries. Tsarist imperialism, like all imperialisms, not only oppressed directly, but also set one nation against another. Turks massacred Armenians, Armenians massacred Turks; Ukrainian peasants, stirred up by Russian gendarmes, murdered Jews. The Soviet Government faced in all its intensity that “national problem” which made Austria and the Balkans for generations the tinder box of Europe and has added bitterness to the great conflicts of the modern world.

The Communist policy on nationality was developed over a period of decades by applying the Marxian analysis to the history of nations. Stalin, a Georgian, member of a proud nation which had for centuries been decimated by the wars of its greater neighbors in that hotbed of national hates, the Caucasus, was one of the ablest theoreticians. We find him in the years before the World War developing the exact definition of “nation” as a “historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture,”1 and defending this conception against those who viewed a nation as a matter of “race,” the precursors of today’s fascists. Capitalism both combines nations and drives them asunder. It knits together the peoples of earth by the railroad, the steamboat, the rapid mail, the newspaper. It creates the material basis for the brotherhood of all nations but the methods of its expansion brutally thwart that hope. It advances into the backward lands of earth by plunder and annexation. The “civilized” people rob the “uncivilized” ones and finally war among themselves for the right to rob. Imperialism steadily increases both the economic unity of the earth, and the national hates which tear that unity asunder.

The national policy adopted on the basis of this analysis by the Social-Democratic Party of Russia in the years before the war repudiated every form of compulsion of nationalities, recognized the right of each people to determine its destiny, and stated that a durable union of peoples could be accomplished only by voluntary consent and was possible only through the overthrow of capitalism. The first practical test of this principle came in May of 1917, when the Kerensky government of Russia refused the demand of Finland to secede. Lenin declared at the conference of the Social-Democratic Party on May 12: “We say to the Russian people: don’t dare rape Finland; no nation can be free that oppresses other nations.” Stalin expressed the belief that “now after the overthrow of tsardom nine-tenths of the peoples will not desire secession,” but that those who did wish to, must of course be allowed to secede, while a system of regional economy should be set up for the peoples which decided to remain.

When the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks into power, they at once renounced all rights to Finland, evacuated the Russian troops from northern Persia and cancelled the claims of the Russian imperialists in Mongolia and China. The breaking up of tsarist Russia gave an opportunity to the imperialist powers of the world to fish in troubled waters. England, France, and Germany backed the aspirations of various border nationalities with funds. Yet it was the Bolsheviks and not those imperialist backers who first recognized Latvia, Esthonia, Lithuania as separate states. The Soviets, however, did not only recognize nations; they recognized the right of workers and peasants to revolt. The Ukrainian workers and peasants overthrew the Ukrainian bourgeois Rada; the poor peasants of Turkestan threw out their so-called autonomous government; the “national councils” of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were supported by foreign money but not by their own masses. Peasants’ and workers’ uprisings in these countries were assisted by the Bolsheviks as part of the October Revolution. The newly rising governments of workers and peasants were given military and economic aid and drawn into a socialist “federation.”

This federation at first was loosely organized. Regional autonomy expressed itself in a variety of flexible forms. Some of these local governments retained their own foreign offices; others issued their own money. Each nationality received the amount of freedom which its workers and peasants demanded. The Communists relied on the pressure of mutual economic interests to bring and hold these peoples together, once capitalist exploitation, the source of their bitterness, was removed. Meantime, they paved the way by abolishing all the special privileges of the “colonizers,” i.e., those Russian and Cossack groups which had received special lands and privileges from the tsar in return for their services in suppressing their neighbors. The Communists also pushed the policy of recruiting local governments from local people; established schools, courts, administrations, in the native languages; and rapidly trained from formerly illiterate and suppressed natives the future teachers and leaders of their people.

The fruits of this policy were seen on December 30, 1922, when, on the initiative of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, later joined by the Ukraine and White Russia, the amalgamation of all the Soviet republics into a union took place at the very time when the states of post-war Europe were increasingly dividing into hostile camps. Thus was formed the Soviet Union, a union of nations, The name “Russian” was dropped from the official title of the country which is known as the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, of which the Russian republic is only one.2 Nearly half of its 170 million people belong to nationalities other than Russian. The number of these nationalities is variously given; the census of December, 1926, showed 182 different nationalities with 149 languages. They are people of different races and colors. They range from the reindeer-keeping Eskimo of the north, to the Kazak sheep herder of southern deserts, from the flax growers of White Russian swamps through the many-nationed Volga wheat lands to the cotton producers of Central Asia. The classic statement of the contrast between the national policy of capitalism and that of socialism was given in the preamble to the Constitution of the new union: “There in the camp of capitalism we have national animosity and inequality, colonial slavery and chauvinism, national oppression and pogroms, imperialist brutalities and wars.

“Here, in the camp of socialism, we have mutual confidence and peace, national freedom and equality, the peaceful co-existence and fraternal collaboration of peoples.

“The attempts made by the capitalist world during the course of decades to solve the problem of nationalities by combining the free development of peoples with the system of exploitation of man by man have proved fruitless. . . . The bourgeoisie has proved itself utterly incapable of bringing about the collaboration of peoples.

“Only in the camp of the Soviets . . . has it proved possible to abolish national oppression root and branch, to create an atmosphere of mutual confidence, and to lay the foundations for the fraternal collaboration of peoples.”

The preamble mentioned, as reasons for a closer union, the economic needs of the war-ruined land, the need of a joint foreign and military policy in the midst of encircling foes, and said that “the very structure of Soviet government, which is international in its class character, impels the toiling masses of the Soviet republics to unite into one socialist family.” It concluded with a guarantee of equal status for all people, the right of secession for each republic and the right of admission for “all Socialist Soviet Republics, whether now existing or hereafter to arise.”

The Bolsheviks did not rest content with the formal act of union. The Central Congress, elected on the basis of population, which put the Russian nationality in a dominant position, was supplemented by a “council of nationalities.” It is one of the two chambers of the legislative and administrative government of the country; no legislation involving national rights may be passed without it. Besides this legal status of equality, a policy was adopted assisting the more backward nationalities in their economic and cultural development, which alone could give them actual equality with the more developed nationalities. New industrial centers were established, modern methods of agriculture and irrigation introduced, peasant and handicraft co-operatives organized. Every national republic was encouraged in the fullest development of a culture, “national in form, socialist in content.”

The meaning of that phrase, “national in form and socialist in content,” was vividly expressed for me by a Jew of Birobidjan, the autonomous Jewish territory rising in the Soviet Far East. “We distinguish between nationalism and nationality,” he said. “If we should claim that the Jews are a chosen people, the best and brainiest in the world, that’s nationalism. It’s dangerous nonsense, the kind of murderous nonsense that leads Turks to attack Armenians or white Americans to lynch Negroes. The assertion of the right of one culture to dominate another, or even to pre-eminence—that is the capitalist wish to exploit, and it leads to war. We have no right to exploit or to claim pre-eminence; but we have the same rights as others to develop our own characteristic culture in peace. The free development of all kinds of national culture adds to the variety and significance of the world. Our policy in this matter is part of the Soviet respect for human individuality—which again is different from individualism. We have no respect for the individuals who hold back history; but all those individuals who help push history forward—workers, writers, all productive elements—must be helped to fullest expression. Hence the Soviet Union has respect for even the smallest national culture, since each of them enriches all human culture and each of them is unique. Eventually, we shall no doubt all merge in one nation and one language, but the road to it is not by suppression and impoverishment, but by the fullest development of all variety.”

National prejudices still exist in the minds of some Russians, due to their past privilege of superiority. National grudges still remain in the minds of formerly suppressed peoples, who long learned to distrust the Russians. These form the final problem. If they lead to even minor conflicts based on nationality, they are firmly dealt with. Ordinary drunken brawls between Russians may be lightly handled as misdemeanors, but let a brawl occur between a Russian and a Jew in which national names are used in a way insulting to national dignity, and this becomes a serious political offense. Usually, the remnants of national antagonisms require no such drastic methods; they yield to education. But the American workers who helped build the Stalingrad Tractor Plant will long remember the clash which Lewis and Brown had with the Soviet courts after their fight with the Negro Robinson, in the course of which they called him “damn low-down nigger.” The two white men went back to America, disgraced in Soviet eyes by a serious political offense; the Negro remained and is now a member of the Moscow City Government.

What has been the result of this national policy of the Communists, applied to people in all stages of development. from the nomads of the great plains to the proudly cultured Georgians? It has welded the strength of scores of formerly subject peoples around the Revolution and enabled the Russian workers to beat back their enemies. It has abolished age-long hates with unbelievable speed. It has released tremendous energy of devotion which gave a great economic and cultural impetus. It has dealt a mortal blow to that legend of “inferior” and “superior” races into which capitalism divided the earth, the former of which are the doomed objects of exploitation, while the latter bear “the white man’s burden”—the mission to exploit. Over against this legend, exalted today by fascism into a religion, stands the whole experience of the USSR. The liberated non-European nations, once drawn into the channel of Soviet development, are no less capable than Europeans of truly progressive civilization.

New centers of industry have risen in the national republics more rapidly than in the rest of the Soviet Union, as part of the Communist policy to “equalize the backward districts with the center.” During the first Five-Year Plan, when the industrial output of the entire country doubled, it increased 3.5 times in the national republics The increase was most rapid in the most backward; the great plains of Kazakstan saw a 4.5 times increase in industrial output, while the Central Asian Republics attained a sixfold growth. Based on these economic achievements was the growth in education and culture. Seventy nationalities adopted the Latin alphabet during the first Five-Year Plan. Many nationalities had no alphabet at all before the Revolution; they received their written language as a gift from the Soviet power. Among all the nations spectacular increases had been made in literacy, in the growth of books and in the arts. The first All-Union Theatrical Olympiad held some years ago showed that many nations have developed a truly national theater, which in some cases has already reached the level of high art.

An important chapter in Soviet national policy is the story of how ten million nomads are being transformed into stable farmers. The Kirghiz, the Kalmyk, the Gypsy, the reindeer herders of the Far North and the mountain people of Central Asia and the Caucasus—tribes which for centuries led a semi-barbaric existence under the threefold oppression of the tsars’ officials, their native chieftains and the medicine men—are already developing collective farms. Seven million of those who roamed the plains and hills and tundra have already settled; it is planned to settle the remaining three million by the end of the second Five-Year Plan. The Soviet Government gave them land for tilling and pasture; irrigated their fields; provided money and building materials for barns and blacksmith shops, homes and bath-houses, for the purchase of livestock and seed. Soviet farm experts taught them methods of farm cultivation.

Especially picturesque are the peoples of the Arctic tundra. Twenty-six nations have been listed in this vast region, the most populous of which, that of the Tunguz, numbers only 60,000. Before the Revolution none of these peoples had an alphabet, a written language or a school. Today most of them have received a written language, and printed books. Several hundred schools in the native tongue have pushed their way along the Arctic coast, some traveling with the reindeer herds of the nomads, others building dormitories where children spend the winter.

“Once they looked upon us as wild beasts,” wrote 2 member of the Nentsi people, reindeer herders of the North. “There are still Nentsi living who were exhibited in the tsarist time in zoological gardens of Russia and foreign lands. They called us ‘Samoyeds’ (cannibals) and the tsar’s government legalized this as our shameful name—but now we begin to sing new songs. For our tundra is new. An experimental farm center has risen beyond the Arctic circle; we have raised vegetables! On the Pechora meadows has appeared the first tractor. When the first radio came, how it frightened us Nentsi. But now every day the number of literate people grows.”

During the past year many of the national republics celebrated their fifteenth anniversary. Briefly they flamed across the columns of the Soviet press—Daghestan with its thirty languages; Kazakstan, largest and most arid of all the republics; northern Karelia of forests and marble mountains, “where every fisherman has a lake of his own”; far-south Armenia, centuries old in civilization and suffering: each of them told its achievements under Soviet power.

To Alma-Ata, new capital of the yellow-skinned, once nomad, Kazaks, who, as late as 1919 were believed by one of their own nationalist leaders to be “doomed to a slow death,” came a congress of 748 scientific and cultural workers to report on the country’s educational growth. Before the Revolution there were 13,000 children in the schools of this vast area; now there are half a million. A national theater, an opera, a symphony orchestra, seventeen institutions of higher learning are counted among the cultural achievements. They arise on the industrial basis of Karaganda copper, the Turksib railroad, the great mines at Ridder, the Emba-Orsk oil pipeline.

On the borders of Afghanistan the youngest Soviet republic, the Tajiks, celebrated ten years of existence. Soviet power has meant to them 100 million rubles’ worth of irrigation, the erection of great textile plants, the sinking of mines, the creation of a network of technical schools. Scientific excursions have mapped their high Pamirs, finding gold and precious minerals on the slopes. Tens of thousands of tractors, plows, harrows and modern farm implements have come to the cotton fields where once the camel pulled the wooden plow. On the site of an ancient village has grown the new capital, Stalinabad, an industrial center. Airplanes land in mountain villages whose inhabitants before the Revolution never saw a wheeled cart. Soviet power found only half of one per cent of the Tajiks literate; today nine-tenths of the children attend public school.

One by one the list unrolls of 182 nationalities, which have created industries, modern farming, schools and a national culture under Soviet power. Nor are the nationalities mere recipients of blessings from the more advanced Russians. Creative energy pours increasingly from them all to enrich their common Soviet life. Some of the smaller nationalities have already made records which place them in the vanguard of the Soviet Union. Armenia, once ravaged by national massacres, is today a model republic of the Transcaucasus, celebrated for its thriving industries. Kabardino-Balkaria, a district of two Mohammedan peoples on the northern slopes of the Caucasus, has created the most famous collective farms of the USSR. It developed the idea of “socialist farm-cities” designed by architects, which is spreading through the whole Soviet Union, and the policy of making older farmers inspectors of quality, which brought happiness and self-respect to hundreds of thousands of aged men in the Soviet land.

The devotion of suppressed peoples, both within and without its borders, is the prize which the Soviet national policy has won. “Soviet power is to toiling Kazaks like rain in the desert,” is a proverb of the Kazak old men quoted in the Soviet press by Kliumov, eighteen-year-old president of a Kazak village. “The Party of Lenin and Stalin has resurrected peoples from the dead, peoples who were less than dust. Now these peoples have themselves conquered the earth and have come to report their victory to their leader,” said the Tajik poet Lahuti, arriving in Moscow with a delegation of triumphant record-making cotton-pickers. “The past is a stairway of years carpeted with pain and beggary,” said Arith Shakirov, one of the cotton-pickers. “The Uzbeks feared to go along the road of the Arabs; the Tajiks carried sticks when they walked through the Uzbek quarter. Hardly anyone could read. The past is gone. On its ruins we build a bright new life. Woe unto anyone who tries to take it away from us.”

When Turkoman horsemen made a spectacular run from their capital, Ashkhabad, to Moscow, in August, 1935, the cities through which they passed on their 4,300-kilometer way were decorated to meet them. “From beyond the boundless expanse of our great fatherland, across the hot sands of the Kara-Kum, the Ust-Urta steppes and the limitless collective fields,” thus ran their greeting. They spoke of the “invincible brotherhood of nations replacing the prison of nations—tsarist Russia—which has gone into the past never to return.” One of the group, Chary Kary, had been in Moscow before. “But then,” he said, “it was the city of my enemy and every person in it seemed my personal foe. Now Moscow is the heart of my great fatherland and every nationality in it is my nation.”

“The friendship between the peoples of the USSR is a great and signal victory,” said Stalin to one of those many delegations of Central Asiatic workers who stormed the Kremlin with their exploits in late 1935. “As long as this friendship exists the people of our country shall be free and invincible.” But the influence of the Soviet national policy goes far beyond its borders. More than any other Soviet policy it has undermined the imperialisms of the world.


1.  Marxism and the National Question, 1913.

2.  There are seven constituent republics, the Russian, the Ukrainian, the White Russian, the Transcaucasian, the Uzbek, the Turkoman, the Tajik. Many of these, and especially the Russian, which is by far the largest, contain smaller autonomous republics within them. The number of nations represented by delegates in the All-Union Council of Nationalities is forty-two.

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