100 Years of the USSR. History in Our Lifetime


December 30, 1922 is marked as, without any doubt, a very important historical event – the treaty on the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was signed. 100 years since the signing of the treaty is a very symbolic date, and a good reason to come up with some sort of a summary. Even more, so that the date of 100 years happened to also be the year of the most severe military conflict that is taking place today, between the two largest fragments of the once powerful country – Russia and Ukraine.

In essence, this war signifies the ultimate death of the USSR. Not as a country, as it already happened 31 years ago, but as an idea. And the issue here is not only that modern Russia has clearly failed to restore the USSR in one form or another. Rather, not the country itself, the position of the Russian authorities to whose heritage has been highly critical, but the territory that it once united. Thus, it can be argued that the idea of a supranational imperial community is burning in the fire of this war.

The idea of the fellowship in the USSR depended on various factors - the idea of social and national justice, as well as military-political and economic power. The latter allowed the general public to feel that they belonged to the, hypothetically, greatest project in history, even despite all costs associated with it – repression, terrible famine. Mostly those who grew up in the USSR nostalgize about that time, as well as those who feel uncomfortable in modern reality and its market relations.

As a matter of fact, nostalgia about the times of the USSR was widespread throughout its former territories, and not only among the older generation. It just so happened that modern Russia, to some extent, is trying to either organize and lead these sentiments, if we proceed from the point of view of its supporters, or use them, if we take the perspective of its opponents. Hence the main ideological thesis expressed at the time by Russian President Vladimir Putin that "the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe."

But then modern Russia experienced some sort of evolution of its ideological concept. There was now more emphasis on the fact that the USSR was responsible for the creation of national republics and their borders, which led to the fact that many territories that were previously part of Russia were transferred to them. In particular, such rhetoric has been used especially actively since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. By the way, many Russian politicians periodically also use this argument in relation to Kazakhstan.

However, if we follow this logic, then we are not talking about certain specific territories, like Crimea, but rather about their population. Before the formation of the USSR, both the territories and the population were part of the Russian Empire. After the implementation of the Soviet national policy and the establishment of the USSR, national-territorial formations associated with a particular nation were formed, and they included separate territories where the Russian population prevailed.

At the very beginning of the USSR, there was a heated debate on what to do with such national-territorial republics and the Russian population living on their territories. For example, in the Kazakh ASSR in 1925, the Serafimov commission sent from Moscow discussed the issue of allocating the four districts of the Semirechensk region inhabited by Russians into a separate Kalinin region with direct subordination to Moscow. In a similar fashion, Orenburg communists in 1920 proposed to separate the territories of the Kustanai and Aktobe uyezds (counties) inhabited by Russians from the Kazakh ASSR and attach them to Orenburg.

However, it was unacceptable for Moscow from the perspective of territorial administration. For example, it needed the Russian proletariat in the national republics – workers who could act as a social and political pillar of authority. Therefore, in 1920, the Orenburg Region, with its 95% of the population being Russian, was annexed to the KASSR and until 1924 the Orenburg communists essentially ruled the republic.

In addition, the creation of purely mononational territories did not contribute to the unification policy in the USSR. Unification of the management system, including the language of office workspace and education sphere, was necessary for the Soviet authorities to manage a huge territory. This was connected with the subsequent policy of Russification, which was actively pursued after the mid-1930s.

It seems rational that it would be easier to carry out such a policy if there is a Russian population in the national territory. Yet, the Soviet government, until the early 1930s, pursued a policy of indigenization associated with the transition to the use of national languages in offices. The construction of a large empire after the 1930s required a change of approaches and the romantic period in Moscow's national policy ended.

Thus, national republics in the USSR were not mononational. They were built in the image and likeness of the Soviet supranational community, as each was a part of a single whole. When the USSR collapsed, the newly independent states practically became mini-USSR, with the exception of those that faced interethnic conflicts.

This way, the Russian Federation has become a model of a supranational community. As a result, Russia of the 1990s had no widespread Russian national movement. On the contrary, the popularity of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and left-wing political ideas in general was precisely connected with nostalgia for the USSR in its broadest sense. At that time, the Left in Russia opposed the Right, which was associated not so much with liberals as with supporters of the market.

At the same time, the centralization of political power in Russia under President Vladimir Putin led to the fact that the state began to use ideological ideas that could justify the concept of strong authority. This automatically led to the image similar to the USSR as a strong state, the fall of which led, in the famous words of President Putin, "to a major geopolitical catastrophe."

Furthermore, this led Moscow to the image of the Russian Empire as another version of a strong imperial state. Meanwhile, the government was critical of the actual Russian national movements within the state, due to the fact that they were competitors to the idea of an imperial state. Because in the classic sense, the empire is not a national state, even if it uses certain national symbols.

The complexity of the current situation lies in the fact that during Russia's war against Ukraine, the state should use not so much imperialistic as a national ideology. The reason for this is that it becomes possible to mobilize the patriotic public. This is where the denial by radical Russian politicians of Ukrainian statehood, and by some even of Ukrainian national identity, comes from.

Still, although it often uses nationally minded radicals and their rhetoric, Russia does not completely switch to their ideology. Because it still sees itself primarily as an empire, not a nation-state.

Moreover, Russia itself remains a supranational community, considering the large number of nationalities within. In addition, Moscow has traditionally counted on the sympathy of all former members of the USSR who are still nostalgic for it. It is clear that if we turn to purely national rhetoric, then we can forget about this option altogether.

In any case, the very idea of the USSR and nostalgia for it finally dies on the battlefields of this war. This state is finally going down in history. Today, it is a war of new symbols. There is Russia, an imperialist vision that uses the symbolic of two dead empires – the Russian and the Soviet. It wants to restore its former power. On the other hand, the Ukrainian national state is fighting for Ukrainian identity, and against the symbols of the Russian and Soviet Empires. At the same time, there are many representatives of national minorities in the political elite of Ukraine, starting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. From an ideological point of view, Ukraine is guided by European values. In other words, the Ukrainian national state is the implementation of the European concept of the nation-state.

It is worth noting that Russia and Ukraine have different principles of organizing the state and society. Russia is a centralized bureaucratic imperial model of a relatively eastern type, similarly to the USSR. On the contrary, Ukraine is striving to move to a form of self-government that resembles the European model and, consequently, wants to get away from the imperial bureaucracy. Thus, it wants to leave both the USSR and the Russian Empire at the same time.

It is possible to make an argument that this is a war between different approaches to state-building. Generally, we are talking about the fact that the bureaucratic imperial model wants to return part of its former territory, which in turn is trying to get out of its influence to where it will have more independence due to the nature of the European model of self-government.

It should be noted here that this is a very old conflict in its ideological essence, as it has been going on since about the XIV century. Actually, the split between the two parts of former Ancient Russia occurred due to changes in the state organization.

In the north-eastern principalities – Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan, the model of a centralized bureaucratic state was established, which was borrowed from the ulus of Jochi (Golden Horde). Thanks to this, the grand dukes of these principalities were given the opportunity to create a centralized bureaucratic power of the Eastern type. This was necessary to collect taxes in favour of the Jochi ulus and themselves. After the fall of the Jochi ulus, the bureaucracy remained and conditions for despotic power arose. As a result, the institute of city self–government, the “veche,” disappeared in the Moscow Principality, and the local aristocracy shifted into the category of "service princes," which was an equivalent of bureaucracy.

At the same time, the Western Old Russian principalities became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A distinctive feature of this state at that time was the development of urban self-government, somewhere between the Veche to Magdeburg law. In fact, Magdeburg Law was one of the few legal systems in Europe that ensured the independent status of cities and their self-government. Moreover, European democracy came from this in many ways.

In addition, the aristocracy of the Western Russian principalities possessed substantial autonomy, unlike the aristocracy in the Moscow Principality, which was serving the state and depended on it. It should be noted that the desire of the aristocracy in Western Europe for autonomy was another source of development of European democracy, along with urban self-government. It is enough to recall England's Magna Carta in 1215, in which the barons restricted the rights of the royal authorities. In 1265, the first parliament was created on its basis.

Still, centralized bureaucratic statehood had an advantage over decentralized states due to the concentration of resources and despotic authority. The first state is always concentrated and has the capacity, among other things, to conspire in a neighbouring decentralized state. There will always be those who will support a strong neighbour due to their own internal contradictions.

Indeed, it was extremely difficult for poorly organized states and societies to resist it. In this regard, the fate of XVIII century’s Poland, with its inclusion of Lithuania, is very indicative. It survived three territorial divisions and gained independence only after the end of the First World War and the fall of three empires – the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian. Of course, there were powerful empires in Europe too, such as Austria, but there was still a place for self-government.

Nevertheless, the military-political power of a centralized bureaucratic state does not automatically imply economic power. Therefore, both the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union usually depended on European technologies, the development of which was provided by a competitive environment.

In general, the current war between Russia and Ukraine is an old conflict between different models. But at the same time, it takes place on the former territory of the two most powerful empires – the Russian and the Soviet. That is why Russia is so sensitive to the fact that Ukraine is moving away from it and becoming part of its historic adversary, Europe. Thus, Russia is trying to prevent it. This relates to the statements of Russian politicians who claim that they are fighting so that Ukraine does not become anti-Russia.

Undoubtedly, an epic battle of fundamentally different approaches to the life of the state and society is taking place before our eyes. The national aspect, of course, plays its role on both sides of the conflict, but it is not quite decisive. Actually, this is evidenced by the fact that the parties accuse each other of various forms of fascism. As it is known, this is an extreme manifestation of radical nationalism.

However, this claim certainly cannot be applied to Ukraine, not only due to its president being Jewish and the head of the ruling faction in parliament - a Georgian. In addition, Ukrainian radical nationalists did not even get into the Verkhovna Rada in the last elections. At the same time, of course, radical Ukrainian nationalists are fighting for Ukraine, as well as many radical Russian nationalists are fighting for Russia. But not all of them: paradoxically, there are separate groups that have been fighting for Ukraine since 2014. Nevertheless, radical nationalists do not determine the policy of the conflicting countries, no matter how much their opponents wish for it to be so.

For the most part, the parties are fighting for identity. However, while Ukraine is fighting for Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian political nation, Russia is still fighting for the identity associated with the imperial state tradition, whether it is derived from the Soviet Union, from the Russian Empire or from the Moscow state.

Because of this, Russia has a lot of supporters in this conflict in different countries in the former USSR, but there are also a lot of opponents. Those who are for Ukraine, in the most general sense, do not want the return of the empire, and, therefore, the USSR. While those who are for Russia, on the contrary, would like for it to be reestablished. The problem for Russia here is that the latter want the return of an idealized version of the USSR, but not the Russian Empire, and especially not the Moscow state. While official Moscow itself is still more inclined to the conventional model of the Russian Empire. In particular, because it cannot ignore the rise of patriotic sentiments in her own society, which are still nationally oriented.

So, we can conclude that with any outcome of this war, the history of the USSR finally ends and it is symbolic that this happens 100 years after its formation. Nostalgia for the USSR, of course, will remain, but it will be associated with the outgoing generation and its memory of youth, when “everything was better.” But as a political project, nostalgia for the USSR has utterly lost its potential.

After this war, the parties will mostly remain to each their own. Ukraine will be a nation-state in its European sense, but much more cohesive and politically homogeneous. In other words, there will be no place for a pro-Russian or pro-Soviet political movement. While Russia will remain a centralized bureaucratic state, but with fewer resources. Even if in the end it manages to retain part of the occupied territories, this does not negate the fact that there will be a lack of resources. Russia will have to determine its position in new historical conditions and search for a new identity.

The USSR was able to compete with the collective West because it had achieved autonomy in the economy on the basis of directive planning and having vast territories such as ones in Eastern Europe under its control. Today, we do not have to talk about the possibility of achieving economic independence in Russia or anyone else for that matter.

It is also impossible to completely return to a planned economy because even China was not able to. Although there is a very effective centralized bureaucracy, albeit in the spirit of empires of the past, it focuses on the competition with Western countries in the global economic area.

That is why it is so difficult for Moscow today to find support for its policy from states with Eastern bureaucratic models of government. They use their strengths to compete in the field of economics and geopolitics with Western democracies, but not for open confrontation. The latter is not very profitable today, as it is too expensive.

At the same time, it is unclear whether there can be solidarity between Eastern centralized bureaucracies, which exists between European democracies. Under such circumstances, President Zelensky can appeal to common values in the United States and Europe, but President Putin cannot.  This is because the East values interests and the opportunities that can be used to achieve them.

Russia tried to play its own game, but it did not work out; or rather, it has not, as nothing has ended yet. Nevertheless, it is fighting rearguard battles for the legacy of long-dead empires. Nowadays, Russia simply has no one to share this legacy with, as it was in the XVIII century when Poland was divided, or even in the middle of the XX century, when firstly the USSR and Germany in 1939 divided Poland, and then the USSR, the USA and England after 1945 divided Eastern Europe. Today, Moscow is basically pleading for an agreement to be reached with it, which also includes the above-mentioned sharing, but there is no answer yet.

It seems that the USSR has finally died. Its story ends before our eyes. Will the story have a sequel? Most likely not. But its origins, the 100th anniversary of which we celebrate on December 30, 2022, is impressive, especially for Kazakhstan.

What is important to note is that Vladimir Lenin's efforts resulted in a historic decision to form the USSR, and not to just include all the republics in Russia as autonomies. This was proposed by Joseph Stalin. But Lenin, already being very ill at the time, really pushed for it. It didn't seem to matter at the time, but in the end, it turned out to be a crucial historical decision. It retrospectively allowed the peaceful end of the history of the USSR and created conditions for the emergence of independent states, including Kazakhstan.

No one is indifferent to the USSR today: some hate it, and others are nostalgic. But when this great state of the past finally vanishes in history, then the time will come to treat it without much emotion. Probably the way we treat any of the great empires of the past, the Mongol being a prime example.

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