The Russian Revolution and National Freedom: How the early Soviet government led the struggle for liberation of Russia’s oppressed peoples

The following article, published on November 1, 2006, was written by John Riddell, then a co-editor of the now ceased Socialist Voicewhich was produced in Canada. We are publishing it in two parts. Part one, here, appeared in the July issue of The Spark and part two will appear in the August issue.

When Bolivian President Evo Morales formally opened his country’s Constituent Assembly on August 6, 2006,

Russian Bolshevik leader V.I Lenin, in 1919

he highlighted the aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the central challenge before the gathering. The convening of the Assembly, he said, represented a “historic moment to refound our dearly beloved homeland Bolivia.” When Bolivia was created, in 1825-26, “the originary indigenous movements” who had fought for independence “were excluded,” and subsequently were discriminated against and looked down upon. But the “great day has arrived today … for the originary indigenous peoples.” (, Aug. 14, 2006)

During the preceding weeks, indigenous organizations had proposed sweeping measures to assure their rights, including guarantees for their languages, autonomy for indigenous regions, and respect for indigenous culture and political traditions.

This movement extends far beyond Bolivia. Massive struggles based on indigenous peoples have shaken Ecuador and Peru, and the reverberations are felt across the Western Hemisphere. Measures to empower indigenous minorities are among the most prestigious achievements of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela.

At first glance, these indigenous struggles bear characteristic features of national movements, aimed at combating oppression, securing control of national communities, and protecting national culture. Yet indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere may not meet many of the objective criteria Marxists have often used to define a nation, such as a common language and a national territory, and they are not demanding a separate state. The response of Marxist currents to the national aspects of Latin America’s indigenous struggles has been varied, ranging from enthusiasm to a studied silence. Yet an ability to address the complexities of such struggles is surely the acid test of Marxism’s understanding of the national question today.

Such disarray among Marxists is all the more costly in today’s context of rising struggles for national freedom across Latin America and the Middle East today. The challenge is also posed in the imperialist heartlands, where we see a rise of struggles by oppressed minorities that bear more than a trace of national consciousness. For example, in 2006 the United States witnessed the strongest upsurge of working-class struggle in 60 years in the form of demonstrations and strikes for immigrant rights that were also, in part, an assertion of Latino identity. And the oppression of non-white and Muslim minorities in France has given birth to the provocatively named “Mouvement des Indigènes de la République.” (

The Marxist position on the national question was forged around well-documented debates on the independence movement of long-constituted nations such as Ireland and Poland. But the writings of Lenin and his contemporaries before 1917 have little to say about nationalities in emergence, that is, peoples in struggle who lack as yet many characteristic features of a nation. But precisely this type of struggle played a central role in the 1917 Russian revolution and the early years of the Soviet republic. In the course of their encounter with such movements, the Bolshevik Party’s policies toward national minorities evolved considerably. Sweeping practical measures were taken to assure the rights of national minorities whose existence was barely acknowledged prior to 1917.

The Bolsheviks’ policies do not indicate what course to adopt toward national struggles today, each of which has a specific character and set of complexities. Nonetheless, the Bolshevik experience is a useful reference point.

Pre-1917 Positions

The initial position of Russian Marxists on the national question was clear and sweeping. In 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), adopted a program specifying the right of all nations in the Russian state to self-determination. The program also advocated regional self-rule based on the composition of the population and the right of the population to receive education in its own language and to use that language on the basis of equality in all local social and governmental institutions. (Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, London: Univ. of London, n.d., p. 14.)

In the decade that followed, the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP became the first Marxist current internationally to recognize the importance of the liberation struggles then taking shape across the colonial world. Lenin wrote in 1913, “Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom” in a movement that will “liberate both the peoples of Europe and the peoples of Asia.” (V.I. Lenin. Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-71. Vol. 19, pp. 99-100. Most quotations in this study can also be located by Internet search.)

Lenin also insisted on the distinction between the advanced capitalist countries, where “progressive bourgeois national movements came to an end long ago,” and the oppressed nations of Eastern Europe and the semi-colonial and colonial world. (CW 22:150-52) In the latter case, he called for defense of the right to self-determination and support of national liberation movements, in order to create a political foundation for unification in struggle of working people of all nationalities.


In the test of the Russian revolution, these and many other aspects of the Bolshevik’s pre-1917 positions proved to be a reliable guide. Some positions expressed before 1917, however, required modification.

For example, consider the definition of a nation provided in 1913 by Joseph Stalin: “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.” (J.V. Stalin. Works, Moscow: FLPH, 1954. Vol. 2, p. 307) Stalin’s article was written in collaboration with Lenin and was viewed at the time as an expression of the Bolshevik position. His objective criteria are a good starting point for analysis, but they have sometimes been misused to justify denying national rights to indigenous and other peoples that appear not to pass the test.

In addition, Lenin stressed that his support for national self-determination “implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense.” (CW 22:146) In 1913, he stated, “Fight against all national oppression? Yes, certainly. Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? Certainly not.” (CW 20:35) Lenin is sometimes quoted as being opposed to federalism as a form of state, although he also endorsed federation as a stepping stone to democratic integration of nations. (CW 22:146)

Such pre-1917 positions are sometimes applied today in order to justify opposition to the demands of national liberation movements. But they should be interpreted in the light of the way the Bolshevik position was applied in the decisive test of revolution.

The indigenous peoples of tsarist Russia

The oppressed peoples that made up the majority of the pre-1917 tsarist empire can be broadly divided into two categories.

On the western and southern margins of the empire lived many peoples—among them the Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, and Armenians—that met all of Stalin’s objective criteria of nationality. As nations, they possessed clearly defined historical and cultural traditions. It was these peoples that the pre-1917 Bolsheviks had chiefly in mind when they discussed the national question.

But there were also many peoples in Russia—in the Crimea, on the Volga, in the Caucasus, and in central and northeast Asia—that had been subjected to settler-based colonization similar to that experienced by the Palestinians, the Blacks of South Africa, and—in much more extreme form—the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These subjects of the Russian tsar, whom the Bolsheviks often spoke of as Russia’s “Eastern peoples,” had seen their lands seized, their livelihood destroyed, and their language and culture suppressed. They had suffered discrimination and exclusion from the dominant society.

When revolution broke out in 1917, these peoples, although varying widely in their level of social development, had not yet emerged as nationalities. The evolution of written national languages, cultures, and consciousness as distinct peoples was at an early stage. Most identified themselves primarily as Muslims. Assessed by Stalin’s criteria for nationhood, they did not make the grade. But in the crucible of revolution, national consciousness began to assert itself, provoking and stimulating demands for cultural autonomy, self-rule, and even national independence.

This fact itself is worth pondering. A revolution is, in Lenin’s phrase, a festival of the oppressed. Peoples long ground down into inarticulateness suddenly find inspiration, assert their identity, and cry out their grievances. We cannot predict the shape of freedom struggles that will emerge in a revolutionary upsurge.

Next month, in the second part of this article, the author looks at the taking of soviet power, promotion of national culture, the Baku Congress, and the way in which gains of the Soviet government were reversed.

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