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Soviet Union

Chapter 4. Nationalities and Religions

ON FEBRUARY 17, 1988, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared that the nationalities question in the Soviet Union was a "crucially important vital question" of the times. He went on to call for a "very thorough review" of Soviet nationalities policy, an acknowledgment of the failure of the past Soviet regimes' attempts to solve the problem of nationalities that was inherited from tsarist Russia. With remarkable candor, Gorbachev admitted that the problem not only still existed but that it was more acute than ever.

For close to seventy years, Soviet leaders had maintained that frictions between the many nationalities of the Soviet Union had been eliminated and that the Soviet Union consisted of a family of nations living harmoniously together, each national culture adding to and enriching the new Soviet culture and promoting the development of a single Soviet nationality. However, the national ferment that shook almost every corner of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s proved that seventy years of communist rule had failed to obliterate national and ethnic differences and that traditional cultures and religions would reemerge given the slightest opportunity. This unpleasant reality facing Gorbachev and his colleagues meant that, short of relying on the traditional use of force, they had to find alternative solutions in order to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Whether they succeed or fail in this task will, to a large degree, determine the future of the Soviet Union.

The extensive multinational empire that the Bolsheviks (see Glossary) inherited after their revolution was created by tsarist expansion over some four centuries. Some nationality groups came into the empire voluntarily, but most were brought in by force. Generally, the Russians and most of the non-Russian subjects of the empire shared little in common--culturally, religiously, or linguistically. More often than not, two or more diverse nationalities were collocated on the same territory. Therefore, national antagonisms built up over the years not only against the Russians but often between some of the subject nations as well.

Like its tsarist predecessor, the Soviet state has remained ethnically complex (see fig. 10). Indeed, the distinctions between the various nationalities of the Soviet Union have sharpened during the Soviet period. The concessions granted national cultures and the limited autonomy tolerated in the union republics (see Glossary) in the 1920s led to the development of national elites and a heightened sense of national identity. Subsequent repression and Russianization (see Glossary) fostered resentment against domination by Moscow and promoted further growth of national consciousness. National feelings were also exacerbated in the Soviet multinational state by increased competition for resources, services, and jobs.

Data as of May 1989