It is a well-entrenched view that the Soviet Union was not a real federation. Epithets such as ‘merely formal’, ‘nominal’, ‘ostentatious’, and the like have made a regular occurrence whenever the Soviet or other two socialist federations are mentioned; see the entries for ‘pseudo’ and ‘sham’ in the dictionary of federalism descriptors. 1 Duchacek characterised ethnic representation in Soviet federalism as a ‘constitutional hallucinogen’. 2 Raymond Pearson’s chapter can be cited as particularly rich in such rhetoric, as ‘Potemkin village’, ‘cosmetic face’, etc., to the extent that in one short piece he appears to have exhausted the whole range of vocabulary that can serve the purpose. 3 Jack F. Matlock’s ‘autopsy’ is also heavy on the hypocrisy theme; 4 as he puts it, the ‘borders of republics and other entities were like decorative lines on the surface of a concrete slab, there for appearance but with no structural function’. 5 A few of more recent quotes show that this tendency is still common:
The outward display of federal structures was just a thin veneer that masked a highly centralised state … 6 The Soviet Union was formally a federation of sovereign, ethnically designated republics that was in reality a centralised dictatorship. 7 A multi-ethnic, multilingual entity, composed of 15 ‘autonomous’ republics (sic) and numerous sub-units within them, the Soviet Union was in all but name an empire, held together by powerful central institutions, pressure for ideological conformity and the threat of force. 8 [A] huge gap separated [Soviet] constitutional prescription and political practice, giving rise to a sort of ﬁ ctive or sham federalism … [it was] more pretence than a reality. 9
If not a federation, what was it? The usual answer is that the USSR was ‘really an empire [‘not a multinational state’], the last left on earth’, and its dissolution ‘spells the end of the imperial era of European history’. 10 Alexander J. Motyl has prominently promoted the concept of empire as ‘especially suitable’ for analysing the Soviet Union. He claims that ‘the self-assertion of the republics cannot be explained only in terms of state-society relations’ and that they have their origins in ‘the dynamics of empire in general’. 11 His interpretation also distances the
Soviet Union as an empire from ‘more cohesive competitors’ that are ‘more or less coherent nation-states or multiethnic states’. 12
This book addresses such perceptions and offers a revision of the relationship between the concepts of empire, federation and nation-state as it has been frequently conceived in the context of Soviet studies. It is strictly the internal condition of the USSR or its typological nature that is the subject of this analysis. I have no objections to the expression ‘Soviet empire’ when used as an equivalent to ‘power’, ‘order’ or ‘civilisation’. The expression is also frequently used to describe the relationship between the USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe. This relationship will be outside of consideration in this book, which enquires into the forms of statehood rather than international relations.