The revolt against the Tsar's empire

Should the nations oppressed by the Tsar have the right to self-determination? Sarah Knopp examines this key question for revolutionaries in 1917.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

WHEN RUSSIA'S Tsar was toppled by the revolution of February 1917, his empire had a population that was 43 percent Russian and 57 percent non-Russian.

A majority of people--in Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, modern-day Belarus, the Ukraine, Georgia, Turkish Azerbaijan and Central Asia--lived under an occupation by a government whose language and laws were not their own.

In addition, Jews and other ethnic minorities spread throughout "Great Russia" suffered pogroms and persecution. There were hundreds of laws to restrict the rights of Jews and make them second-class citizens.

How would the Russian Revolution affect this vast empire? Should the nations oppressed by the Tsar have the right to self-determination? These questions were related intimately to the issue of land ownership--and hotly contested in the socialist movement.

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ONE POINT of view was given voice by the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. She argued that socialists should oppose nationalism in Poland, the Ukraine and other nations under the Tsarist yoke.

For internationalists, Luxemburg argued, national liberation was a backward-looking idea. Especially by the time of the First World War, the bourgeoisie--traditional leaders of independence movements--in the colonies had become so weak and compromised by their relationship to imperialism that they could never lead a progressive struggle.

But the revolution in Russia showed another dynamic at work. As Leon Trotsky later wrote in his History of the Russian Revolution, nationalism, tied up with the agrarian question, had been latent in areas like the Ukraine--and was released by the explosion of the February revolution.

In most of these places, peasants suffered under landlords drawn from the ruling classes of the stronger nations. In Volga, the Caucuses and Central Asia, for example, land was seized from tribes like the Bashkirs and Kirghiz, and given to wealthy Russians. Thus, the oppression of the peasantry went hand in hand with national oppression.

Among the lower classes in all the colonized areas, a fight for national independence was raised along with the general awakening of the human spirit brought about by the revolution. The poor peasants of these areas might fight under the banner of nationalism, but as Trotsky wrote, "their nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism."

In March 1917, the Ukrainian Rada (national assembly) voted for Ukrainian to be taught in schools. It also called for territorial autonomy.

But in the Russian capital of Petrograd, the Provisional Government that took power after February remained committed to defending the interests of the bourgeoisie and limiting the extent of democracy. It banned the actions of the Rada, forbid a conference of Ukrainian soldiers and eventually refused to honor its own concession of recognizing the Rada as the official organ of the Ukrainian people.

But this wasn't the end of the national question. Looking to the example of the Ukraine, the Muslims of Central Asia began to demand free self-determination.

The Provisional Government, however, continued to struggle desperately to keep together an empire that was falling apart. It couldn't support real and genuine self-determination, because it honored the needs of the bourgeoisie, and that meant it wanted coal from the Donetz, the ores of Krivorog, and the millions of acres of productive farmland tended by colonized peoples.

All the different socialist tendencies in Russia, both those supporting and participating in the Provisional Government (chiefly, the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks), and those trying to overthrow it (the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky), claimed to support "self-determination." Programs are one thing, though, and content is another.

Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist Revolutionary, while serving as minister of war and prime minister in the spring and summer of 1917, annulled the "exceptional laws"--measures that enforced the legal inferiority of the colonized nations and oppressed nationalities. The Provisional Government was willing to do away with special laws that--like the Black Codes in the U.S. South at the time--targeted minorities or nationally oppressed groups.

But at the same time, the Provisional Government and its "socialist" participants were in favor of compulsory citizenship in Russia--no right to secede. Their rationale was that under the new "revolutionary" government, and with the annulment of the exceptional laws, there was no longer a need for secession.

In reality, this meant that nationalities would be "patronized, tolerated and then persecuted"--as Trotsky wrote, referring the fate of national units formed within Russia's army--by the government.

Ultimately, those socialists who claimed to be for national self-determination, but supported compulsory citizenship under a "revolutionary government," were for its opposite.

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IN OCTOBER 1917, the Provisional Government was overthrown and replaced by the workers' councils (or soviets), where the Bolsheviks were the majority.

Immediately after the conquest of power, the new government issued a decree granting full rights of self-determination, including the right to secession. Autonomous republics were set up in many of the former Russian colonies.

Rosa Luxemburg was right that bourgeois leaders in the colonies would try to lead in a reactionary direction. The merchants, teachers, clerks and low military officers in Poland, for example, only started talking about secession and territorial autonomy when it became clear that the workers of Moscow and Petrograd were going to overthrow the Provisional Government and institute workers' power.

But importantly, the idea of national liberation raised demands that couldn't possibly be won for the majority of people under the rule of the bourgeoisie: land for the peasants, economic democracy, freedom from military rule, and legal and social equality.

For this reason, the Bolsheviks never saw the bourgeois "leaders" of national liberation movements as "progressive." They supported national liberation in part because it would raise aspirations that only workers' and peasants' control could satisfy.

Internationally, the Bolsheviks recognized that the fight for liberation of oppressed peoples was intimately tied to the fight against capitalism. The Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev estimated that four countries (Britain, France, the U.S. and Japan) oppressed over 1 billion people in their colonies.

A struggle for self-determination in the colonies would help to break world capitalism--and that was crucial to maintaining workers' control in Russia.

To facilitate this, the Communist International--a coalition of revolutionary socialist parties in numerous countries, formed at the initiative of the Bolsheviks--hosted the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, Azerbaijan, in September 1920. It brought together Communists and non-Communists from India, China, Persia, Turkey, the Middle East, the former Russian colonies and the Ottoman Empire, as well as representatives from oppressor nations.

The aim of the congress was to advance the struggle for national self-determination. Lenin wrote in 1920:

All Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.

Without this latter condition, the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as their right to secede, are but a false signboard.

While it encouraged national liberation, the conference in Baku stressed that the overall struggle was against all the rich. At the conference, Zinoviev said:

The great importance of the revolution that is beginning in the East lies not in requesting the British gentlemen to take their feet off the table, and then permitting the Turkish gentlemen to put their feet on the table. No, we want to ask all the rich, ever so politely, to take their dirty boots off the table.

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THE RUSSIAN Revolution was defeated after just a few years. The counterrevolution was symbolized by the rise of Joseph Stalin, who went on to preside over a new system of exploitation and repression.

One of the most important steps along Stalin's path to power was the reimposition of national oppression.

The commitment to self-determination of nations had begun to degenerate even before Stalin consolidated power--under the pressure of an international attack on the new workers' state, and the resulting civil war and decimation of the Russian working class.

The White Army of the former Tsarists, backed by the imperialist countries, had created bases in former Russian colonies for attacks on the workers' state. Thus, Poland was used as a base for organizing counterrevolutionary forces.

In a mistaken military decision in 1920, the Red Army of the Russian workers' government pursued the White Army into Poland in an attempt to defeat it--and make a bridge to the revolutionary workers of Germany.

Even if they opposed the counterrevolutionaries who led the White Army, Poles overwhelmingly viewed the Red Army's march to Warsaw as an invasion, in contradiction with the stated commitment to the recognition of the right to self-determination.

By this point, two contradictory trends were in competition with one another. On the one hand, the conference in Baku attempted to organize to further the struggle for national liberation. On the other, the immense strain of the civil war created pressure on revolutionary leaders to violate some of the principles of the October Revolution--self-determination among them.

By 1922, Stalin--rising to positions of leadership, especially after Lenin suffered a series of strokes--had effectively stripped many of the newly autonomous republics, like Georgia, of their real independence. Lenin's final political battle, hampered by his ill health, was against this degeneration of the Bolshevik commitment to self-determination.

Stalin continued to talk about making alliances with the "revolutionary bourgeoisie" of colonized countries (such as China at that time). But his aim in these situations was to subordinate the interests of workers in pour countries to those of the native bourgeoisie.

In China, tens of thousands of Communist Party members paid for this with their lives when nationalist leaders turned on their Communist allies, and smashed workers' organization.

Meanwhile, Stalin and his regime reassembled the old pieces of the Tsarist empire and imposed--at immense human cost--"Great Russian" control over a huge number of oppressed peoples.

Nevertheless, the original ideas of the Russian revolutionaries underline the importance of the national question in the fight for socialism--and of our commitment to the struggle against all forms of oppression.

This article first appeared in the June 8, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.