chapter  15
17 Pages

Nationality politics

The Tsarist empire was dubbed by Marx ‘the prison house of peoples’, and yet the Soviet Union recreated a multinational state made up of some 126 registered nationalities and 170 languages. Only a few of the peoples, however, made a significant impact on the Soviet polity. According to the 1989 census there were twenty-two ethnic groups with over a million members (see Table 9), fifteen of whom had their own union republics. The viability of such a state in an era of nationalism and the dismemberment of empires was much debated, often posed in terms of whether there was a nationality ‘question’ or a nationality ‘problem’ in the Soviet Union. If the latter, then the state was threatened by centrifugal nationalist pressures, whereas the former implied no more than a manageable policy issue. The Soviet view was clear. The revised party Programme adopted in 1986 proclaimed that, ‘The national question, a legacy of the past, has been successfully solved in the USSR.’ This somewhat dismissive view was modified by the Soviet leadership in the light of the many contentious issues in nationality politics revealed by glasnost.