chapter  3
29 Pages

The roots of the Soviet federation

This chapter examines the USSR’s fi rst years to gain insight into what informed the decision of its founders to adopt the federal model. In the process of investigating the conception of Soviet federalism and its structure, I shall be addressing selected aspects that have most bearing on the problem of distinguishing between federation and empire. Historiographers of the formation of the USSR have prominently debated four such points. First, by what means – voluntary or coercive – was the Union achieved? One group of discussants portray it as a product of the application of brutal force that thwarted genuinely popular national revolutions, which makes the USSR an empire by the manner of conception. Others give a more complex and indeterminate picture of the process of its creation, which nonetheless does not necessarily prevent them from characterising it as an empire on the grounds of how the system functioned (as Suny does, for example). The next point that seems to be a matter of consensus rather than disputation in the literature is the view that federalism was intrinsically incompatible with Bolshevism and its adoption was a forced tactical concession rather than a principled standpoint. Here this view is called into question. Thirdly, there has been a disagreement on the roles of Lenin and Stalin in the design of the federation. Those who emphasise the divergence between the two leaders tend to believe that the vision of the former was closer to federalism, while the other was an imperialist in disguise. In particular, this latter understanding underpinned Gorbachev’s unsuccessful attempt of federal renovation. Finally, it has been also debated whether the Soviet delimitation of Central Asia can be justifi ably presented as a typically imperial divide-and-rule stratagem or as merely consistent with the ethno-federal principle that the Soviets pursued.