Article 13
August 11, 1988




Imperialists tilt toward Armenia, criticize Gorbachev's decision on Nagorno-Karabakh. USSR Constitution on boundary changes. How the Caucasus republics were formed. Gorbachev blames "irresponsible nationalist elements." Absolves Moscow leadership and the economic reforms. The Leninist view of national chauvinism. How 1920s reforms stimulated regional and ethnic antagonisms. Party resolution of 1923 on Great Russian chauvinism and the NEP.

For many months now the capitalist press in the U.S. has acclaimed General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, using such adjectives as "innovative," "imaginative," "adroit," "skillful," "flexible," and their favorite one, "pragmatic." This presumably is to distinguish him from the "dogmatic," "inflexible" and "conservative" leaders in the USSR. However, on July 21, 1988, the New York Times, in a front-page story, took a different tack. Gorbachev, said the Times in a bold headline, had joined the "hardliners" by his and the Soviet Presidium's insistence on barring the annexation to Armenia of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. What a quick turnaround!

The imperialist press generally has shown considerable bias in its reporting of the Azerbaijan-Armenia dispute over the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians have been quoted far more frequently and the Azerbaijanis very little, indeed--for the most part in inconsequential phrases here and there. The U.S. government, immediately upon the outbreak of disorders in Azerbaijan and Armenia last winter, set up a task force in Europe to assist in processing the immigration of Armenians into the U.S. This is certainly in startling contrast to the willful and cruel way in which the U.S. has barred the door to Haitian immigrants fleeing political terror, as well as to Guatemalans and Salvadorans.

The imperialist bourgeoisie may be entirely mistaken in its speculation regarding Armenia. Its interest in the conflict is worth bearing in mind, however, while awaiting developments. In the meantime, it is necessary to state that the decision of the Soviet leadership rejecting the appeal of the Armenians for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh was the only possible way out, at least for the moment.

The Soviet constitution states that no boundary lines may be changed without the voluntary agreement of the republics involved. To have agreed to a unilateral change of boundary lines in plain defiance of such an explicit constitutional provision would have brought on chaos among the many nationalities of the Soviet Union. It literally could open the door to the dismemberment of the USSR as a multinational socialist state. This may be putting it in extreme language, but once any of the republics is given the green light to unilaterally change its boundaries, this could break down the sovereignty and independence of all the others.

Of course, boundaries could be changed by voluntary agreement after a period of socialist growth and class solidarity. Even the resettling of populations is possible in order to settle old boundary disputes or new ones that have developed in the many years since the Revolution. There were several instances of such agreements in the early years of the Soviet Union and after the Second World War.

It cannot be repeated too often that the USSR is a truly great, multinational state with more than 100 nationalities scattered all over its vast territory. The fact that until now, through all the decades since the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the early 1920s, there wasn't a major outbreak of violent nationalist struggle must attest to the highly progressive, indeed most revolutionary national structure of the Soviet government.

One merely has to contrast this with the situation of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (the Caucasus region) before they became constituent republics of the USSR, at the time immediately after the First World War when the imperialists had a major influence and control there. Richard Pipes presented the imperialist point of view toward the so-called independent republics in his book The Formation of the Soviet Union.

The drawing of boundaries was another source of difficulty for the governments and a constant cause of friction among the three republics.

The population of Transcaucasia was intermingled to such an extent that it was impossible to divide the area along ethnic lines without doing violence to one or another of the groups inhabiting it. The Azerbaijani-Armenian frontier was especially troublesome, not only because the relations between those two peoples were at their worst following the mutual massacres of 1918 but also because the districts which they inhabited could be least successfully separated: Moslem and Armenian villages, located side by side, often used the same regions for cattle and sheep grazing.

Since districts inhabited by a mixed Armenian and Azerbaijani population were generally claimed by both sides as their own, throughout 1919 and 1920 there were quarrels and occasional wars between the two states. They seriously weakened the internal stability of the republics and injured their prestige abroad. The main bone of contention were the Zangezur, Nakhichevan and Karabakh districts.

The territorial aspirations of the Azerbaijani government were of considerable magnitude. In an official petition presented to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, it claimed not only all of Eastern Transcaucasia but also Daghestan, Kars and Batum--an area comprising 60 percent of Transcaucasia and a portion of the North Caucasus as well. Since neither Georgia nor Armenia were willing to concede these claims, the relations between Azerbaijan and its neighbors remained constantly tense.1

Thus the imperialists virtually confessed their inability to solve the national question in the Caucasus in a peaceful way. It was so much easier for them to hand it all over to the counterrevolutionary White Guards.

This doesn't mean that after the establishment of the USSR there was not a considerable residue of nationalism, but this must be examined in its historical context to see what can be learned from it that will shed light on the present situation. The bourgeois view, of course, is that the struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan is either a purely nationalist one or a conflict of religions (Armenia Christian, Azerbaijan Moslem). It goes without saying that the bourgeoisie blame the social character of the Soviet Union as a socialist state, and in particular the earlier leaders of the USSR, as the basic cause of the conflict.

General Secretary Gorbachev spoke on the national question to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on July 19, 1988. His talk was distributed in translation by Tass news service and reported on in the New York Times of July 21. How did he explain why there should be a struggle over the little enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh located in Azerbaijan and in which the majority of the population is Armenian? If an opinion of his views can be formed from this talk, it is altogether disappointing. His talk was mostly an attempt to blame so-called "irresponsible nationalist elements" in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. He talked of bribery and corruption, but these are only surface manifestations that don't go to the root of the problem.

Protectionism [i.e., clique struggles or rivalries over turf--S.M.], bribery, and the shadow economy are rampant in the republics. Perestroika has uncovered all that. . . .

Certain clans who would like to keep all the main spheres of life in their hands have developed there. . . .

Nagorno-Karabakh was used from both sides as a pretext to stir up nationalist sentiments, bringing them up to the nationalist form in order to conceal the really difficult, crying problems.

But look, comrades, how passions are to some extent running out of control now: there appear slogans of anti-socialist, anti-Soviet and anti-Russian character. . . .

[If this continues,] it will strike out everything that has been created for many generations, poison the public mentality with nationalist venom and thereby spoil relations between the peoples for many, many years to come.

Is this what they are after in Azerbaijan and Armenia? 2

As can be seen from this talk, the essence of his position is to put the blame squarely on irresponsible, nationalist and anti-socialist elements in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. In particular, he blames (without naming them) the so-called conservative elements, those who are opposed to perestroika, as being responsible when he says that elements in both republics use this issue as a pretext to stir up national sentiment.

One thing is very clear from this talk: he absolves the Soviet leadership from any responsibility and avoids even a mention of the possibility of negative effects of the economic reforms (not the democratization process), nor does he pose the question as to whether the reforms could possibly have accentuated preexisting national animosities. He doesn't explain why over all these decades there has been no nationalist uprising--certainly none that we here in the West heard of, and it is certain that had there been one, the capitalist press would have ferreted it out and magnified it to the nth degree.

Unfortunately, Gorbachev doesn't draw on the rich historical lessons of the Soviet Union. He doesn't go to the roots of national chauvinism. His is a bourgeois liberal approach to the national question, invoking morality instead of revolutionary communist internationalism.

Fortunately, this rich history is available, and can be found in some detail in the proceedings of the Tenth and Twelfth Congresses of the Party,3 not to speak of all the works by Lenin on the national question. The Tenth Congress laid the basis for the Party's position on the national question; the Twelfth Congress in particular carried forward all the prior discussions and resolutions. Gorbachev makes no reference to the many documents from this early period of the Soviet Union which gave such lucid expositions of the national question and described the situation of the republics and the federation in clear language, without any equivocation. His explanation is in sharp contrast to the approach the Party took to the national question right after the Revolution, when national antagonisms were exacerbated by the introduction of drastically needed economic reforms.

As we have explained earlier, the New Economic Policy was inaugurated by Lenin in 1921 as a temporary measure. It was a step backward toward market relations made necessary by the devastation of the imperialist war, counterrevolution and intervention. It was meant to get the economy of the country back on its feet after a period of terrible shortages, wide dislocation, economic sabotage by the bourgeoisie and also widespread famine. The whole idea was to supersede NEP as soon as possible with overall socialist planning of both industry and agriculture. The partial return to capitalism was done in order to win over the peasantry to support the industrialization efforts of the USSR, so that the country could get out of the disastrous economic situation into which the imperialists and the counterrevolutionaries had plunged it.

Lenin more than anyone, while arguing that this return to some of the features of capitalism was an absolute necessity under the circumstances of post-war economic collapse, warned of its great dangers and pointed out where this could lead. And in fact, before it was abandoned in favor of the first five-year plan, it brought about the enrichment of the traders and merchants, the so-called nepmen or middlemen whom Lenin called the new bourgeoisie, as well as a much greater differentiation between poor and rich peasants. All the evils of capitalism began to resurface, including unemployment. But the great merit of the NEP period was that it had given the young Soviet state a breathing spell for reconstruction. Having achieved that, it was necessary to go forward. By what means this should be done then constituted the axis of a new political struggle in the Party.

What relation does today's perestroika have to this earlier Soviet period? As has become well known by this time, there is today a strong and overriding tendency of the radical reformers in the USSR--who are in reality bourgeois liberal reformers--to clamor for the restoration of those aspects of Lenin's New Economic Policy which directly dealt with opening up the USSR to the capitalist market, establishing joint ventures with the imperialist bourgeoisie, privatizing light and medium industry and even loosening control over the nationalized sector.

The most prominent ideological leader of this trend today, as we have written earlier,4 is the economist Nikolai Shmelyov. He has been one of the most blatant and uninhibited in proclaiming the need to return to the New Economic Policy of the early 1920s. Gorbachev himself has stated that he agrees with Shmelyov's analysis "of the state of affairs in the economy . . . as it actually exists today," but disagrees with other aspects of it, such as Shmelyov's flagrant insistence that "some unemployment is necessary" in the USSR, which Gorbachev says would be against socialism.5

It's not altogether wrong to define the so-called radical economic reformers, such as A.G. Aganbegyan, Leonid Abalkin, Tatyana Zaslavskaya and others, as the Shmelyov tendency. Their views are generally shared by many of Gorbachev's leading supporters.

Let us see then how the national question, as it pertained to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, was analyzed in a resolution adopted by the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in April 1923, and entitled "National Factors in Party and State Development." 6 The resolution is very important because at that time Lenin was still alive and it was adopted unanimously, with the agreement of the entire leadership of the USSR. Even though there had been lengthy and intense debate on a number of other issues, the position on the national question, as formulated and adopted in this resolution, won the support of all the groupings.

The resolution deals, of course, with local chauvinism, but it shows that the origins of such chauvinism lie in national oppression, that is, the oppression by the Great Russians. Bear in mind that this resolution was passed at a congress of the Russian Communist Party--and that it was criticizing first and foremost the great-power chauvinism of the Russian nationality.

The Congress also thought it very important to point out that the New Economic Policy had exaggerated and made very acute what remained of local antagonisms. The resolution shows how inequality fostered by economic oppression, from both the Great Russians and the imperialists, inflamed local antagonisms.

First, the resolution says that the heritage of czarism consisted:

. . . in the first place, in the survivals of Great-Power chauvinism, which is a reflection of the former privileged position of the Great-Russians. These survivals still persist in the minds of our Soviet officials, both central and local; they breed in our institutions, central and local; they are receiving reinforcements in the shape of the `new' Smenovekh Great-Russian chauvinist spirit, which the New Economic Policy tends to accentuate.7 (Our emphasis.)

It should be remembered that this was written in 1923 when Lenin was still alive and had great influence in shaping the positions taken by the Party. Lenin was the architect of the New Economic Policy, and also the inspirer and architect of the nationality position of the USSR as embodied in the various resolutions of the Party.

It's important that at a time when the New Economic Policy was scarcely two years old, note was immediately taken by the leading Party of the USSR, the Russian Party, that the New Economic Policy was reinforcing chauvinism, above all the chauvinism of the Great-Russians. In other words, the turn towards small-scale commodity production and so on, the turn toward private initiative, reinforced the worst features of the old czarist regime--national oppression.

The resolution goes on:

The situation in a number of the national republics (the Ukraine, White Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkestan) is complicated by the fact that a considerable section of the working class, which forms the main support of Soviet government, are by nationality Great-Russian. In these districts the alliance between the town and the countryside, between the working class and the peasantry, encounters a powerful obstacle in the form of the survivals of Great-Russian chauvinism. . . . Thus, the first immediate task of our Party is to wage determined warfare on the survivals of Great-Russian chauvinism. . . .

The equality of legal status of the nations won by the October Revolution is a great achievement for the peoples, but it does not in itself solve the whole national problem. . . . The causes of this actual inequality [of the nationalities--S.M.] lie not only in the history of these peoples, but also in the policy pursued by czarism and the Russian bourgeoisie, which aimed at converting the border regions into areas exclusively producing raw materials and exploited by the industrially developed central districts. To remove this inequality in a short space of time, to eliminate this heritage in a year or two, is impossible. The Tenth Congress of our Party has already pointed out that "the elimination of actual national inequality is a lengthy process involving a stubborn and persistent struggle against all survivals of national oppression and colonial slavery." But eliminated it must be at all costs. And it can be eliminated only if real and prolonged assistance is given by the Russian proletariat to the backward peoples of the Union in their economic and cultural advancement. . . . [T]his assistance must, in accordance with the resolution of the Tenth Congress, be rendered simultaneously with the struggle of the toiling masses against the local and foreign exploiting upper strata, which are gaining in strength in connection with the New Economic Policy, and for the consolidation of their social positions. [Our emphasis--S.M.]

. . . This heritage consists, lastly, in the survivals of nationalism among a number of peoples which have suffered the heavy yoke of national oppression and have not yet managed to rid themselves of old national grudges. . . . [I]n some of the republics the population of which is made up of several nationalities, this defensive nationalism often turns into aggressive nationalism, into the outright chauvinism of the stronger nationality directed against the weaker nationalities of these republics. Georgian chauvinism (in Georgia) against the Armenians, Ossets, Adjarians and Abkhasians; Azerbaijanian chauvinism (in Azerbaijan) against the Armenians; Uzbek chauvinism (in Bokhara and Khorezm) against the Turkmens and Kirghiz, Armenian chauvinism, and so on--all these forms of chauvinism, which moreover are fostered by the conditions of the New Economic Policy and by competition, are a great evil which threatens to make certain of the national republics the scene of squabbling and wrangling.8 [Our emphasis--S.M.]

In Lenin's day, it was ABC for the Party to recognize that the revival of bourgeois economic competition almost immediately aggravated national antagonisms, notwithstanding the urgency of making a broad retreat in order to take the long step forward to build socialism. Should it not be clear that three-and-a-half years of the economic reforms have aggravated the national animosities in the USSR today as exemplified in Armenia and Azerbaijan?

Was it not the bourgeois aspects of perestroika that stimulated and accentuated local nationalism? Was it not an act of Great Russian chauvinism to have replaced Dinmukhamed A. Kunayev, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan and himself a Kazahk, with a Great Russian, Gennadi V. Kolbin, in 1986?

There was justification for perestroika when the proletariat was a minority of the population, when it was exhausted by a revolutionary struggle to save the Soviet Union. Is there any justification today for the introduction of economic reforms that are so perilously analogous to the negative aspects of the New Economic Policy? With virtually one voice, the whole international bourgeoisie keeps cheering for each new step in the direction of the NEP-like bourgeois reforms. They are never satisfied and keep on goading the USSR leadership to go further and further. Should not the lessons of Azerbaijan and Armenia make the Soviet leaders pause and reconsider?


1. Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 208.

2. New York Times, July 21, 1988.

3. March 1921 and April 1923, respectively.

4. See Article 10.

5. Pravda, June 22, 1987.

6. The full text of this resolution is included in the appendix of Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (New York: International Publishers, 1935), pp. 279-87.

7. Ibid., p. 282.

8. Ibid., pp. 282-84.

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