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Soviet Union


Since coming to power in 1917, the Soviet regime has failed to develop and apply a consistent and lasting policy toward nationalities and religions. Official policies and practices have not only varied with time but also have differed in their application from one nationality to another and from one religion to another. Although all Soviet leaders had the same long-range goal of developing a cohesive Soviet people, they pursued different policies to achieve it. For the Soviet regime, the questions of nationality and religion were always closely linked. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attitude toward religion also varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.

The Soviet Constitution, in theory, describes the regime's position regarding nationalities and religions. It states that every citizen of the Soviet Union is also a member of a particular nationality, and every Soviet passport carries these two entries. The Constitution grants a large degree of local autonomy, but this autonomy has always been subordinated to central authority. In addition, because local and central administrative structures are often not clearly divided, local autonomy is further weakened. Although under the Constitution all nationalities are equal, in practice they have not been. Only fifteen nationalities have had union republic status, which grants them, in principle, many rights, including the right to secede from the union. Twenty-two nationalities have lived in autonomous republics with a degree of local self-government and representation in the Council of Nationalities in the Supreme Soviet. Eighteen additional nationalities have territorial enclaves (autonomous oblasts and autonomous okruga) but possess very little power of self- government. The remaining nationalities have no right of self- management. Stalin's definition in 1913 that "A nation is a historically constituted and stable community of people formed on the basis of common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup revealed in a common culture" has been retained by Soviet authorities through the 1980s. But, in granting nationalities a union republic status, three additional factors were considered: a population of at least 1 million, territorial compactness of the nationality, and location on the borders of the Soviet Union.

Although Vladimir I. Lenin believed that eventually all nationalities would merge into one, he insisted that the Soviet Union be established as a federation of formally equal nations. In the 1920s, genuine cultural concessions were granted to the nationalities. Communist elites of various nationalities were permitted to flourish and to have considerable self-government. National cultures, religions, and languages were not merely tolerated but in areas with Muslim populations were encouraged.

These policies toward the nationalities were reversed in the 1930s when Stalin achieved dictatorial control of the Soviet Union. Stalin's watchwords regarding nationalities were centralism and conformity. Although Georgian, Stalin pursued a policy of drawing other nationalities closer to the Russian nationality ( sblizhenie--see Glossary). He looked toward Russian culture and language as the links that would bind different nations together, creating in the process a single Soviet people who would not only speak Russian but also for all intents and purposes be Russian. Native communist elites were purged and replaced with Russians or thoroughly Russified persons. Teaching the Russian language in all schools became mandatory. Centralized authority in Moscow was strengthened, and self-governing powers of the republics were curtailed. Nationalities were brutally suppressed by such means as the forced famine of 1932-33 in the Ukrainian Republic and the northern Caucasus and the wholesale deportations of nationalities during World War II, against their constitutional rights. The Great Terror and the policies following World War II were particularly effective in destroying the non-Russian elites. At the same time, the onset of World War II led Stalin to exploit Russian nationalism. Russian history was glorified, and Soviet power was identified with Russian national interests. In the post- World War II victory celebration, Stalin toasted exclusively the Russian people while many other nationalities were punished as traitors.

The death of Stalin and the rise of Nikita S. Khrushchev to power eliminated some of the harshest measures against nationalities. Among the non-Russian nationalities, interest in their culture, history, and literature revived. Khrushchev, however, pursued a policy of merger of nationalities ( sliianie--see Glossary). In 1958 he implemented educational laws that further favored the Russian language over native languages and aroused resentment among Soviet nationalities.

Although demographic changes in the 1960s and 1970s whittled down the Russian majority overall, they also led to two nationalities (the Kazaks and Kirgiz in the 1979 census) becoming minorities in their own republics and decreased considerably the majority of the titular nationalities in other republics. This situation led Leonid I. Brezhnev to declare at the Twenty-Fourth Party Congress in 1971 that the process of creating a unified Soviet people had been completed, and proposals were made to abolish the federative system and replace it with a single state. The regime's optimism was soon shattered, however. In the 1970s, a broad national dissent movement began to spread throughout the Soviet Union. Its manifestations were many and diverse. The Jews insisted on their right to emigrate to Israel; the Crimean Tatars demanded to be allowed to return to Crimea; the Lithuanians called for the restoration of the rights of the Catholic Church; and Helsinki watch groups (see Glossary) were established in the Georgian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian republics. Petitions, samizdat (see Glossary) literature, and occasional public demonstrations voiced public demands for the rights of nationalities within the human rights context. By the end of the 1970s, however, massive and concerted efforts by the KGB had largely suppressed the national dissent movement. Nevertheless, Brezhnev had learned his lesson. Proposals to dismantle the federative system were abandoned, and a policy of further drawing of nationalities together (sblizhenie) was pursued.

Language has often been used as an important tool of the nationality policy. According to the Constitution, the Soviet Union has no official language, and all languages are equal and may be used in all circumstances. Every citizen has the right to be educated in his own language or any language chosen by him or his parents. Nevertheless, demography and Soviet policies have made Russian the dominant language. Under Brezhnev, Soviet officials emphasized in countless pronouncements that the Russian language has been "voluntarily adopted" by the Soviet people as the language of international communication, has promoted the "social, political, and ideological unity" of Soviet nationalities, has enriched the cultures of all other nationalities in the Soviet Union, and has given "each Soviet people access to the treasure of world civilization." Russian has been a compulsory subject in all elementary and secondary schools since 1938. In the schools of all the republics, where both a national language and Russian were used, science and technical courses have been mainly taught in Russian. Some higher education courses have been available only in Russian. Russian has been the common language of public administration in every republic. It has been used exclusively in the armed forces, in scientific research, and in high technology. Yet despite these measures to create a single Russian language in the Soviet Union, the great majority of non-Russians considered their own native language their first language. Fluency in Russian varies from one non-Russian nationality to another but is generally low, especially among the nationalities of Soviet Central Asia. A proposal in the 1978 Georgian Republic's constitution to give the Russian language equal status with the Georgian language provoked large demonstrations in Tbilisi and was quickly withdrawn.

Soviet policy toward religion has been based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism (see Glossary), which has made atheism the official doctrine of the Soviet Union. Marxism-Leninism has consistently advocated the control, suppression, and, ultimately, the elimination of religious beliefs. In the 1920s and 1930s, such organizations as the League of the Militant Godless ridiculed all religions and harassed believers. Propagation of atheism in schools has been another consistent policy. The regime's efforts to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union, however, have varied over the years with respect to particular religions and have been affected by higher state interests.

Soviet officials closely identified religion with nationality. The implementation of policy toward a particular religion, therefore, has generally depended on the regime's perception of the bond between that religion and the nationality practicing it, the size of the religious community, the degree of allegiance of the religion to outside authority, and the nationality's willingness to subordinate itself to political authority. Thus the smaller the religious community and the closer it identified with a particular nationality, the more restrictive were the regime's policies, especially if in addition it recognized a foreign religious authority such as the pope.

As for the Russian Orthodox Church, Soviet authorities have sought to control it and, in times of national crisis, to exploit it for the regime's own purposes; but their ultimate goal has been to eliminate it. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests. Many others were imprisoned or exiled. Believers were harassed and persecuted. Most seminaries were closed, and publication of most religious material was prohibited. By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I.

The German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 forced Stalin to enlist the Russian Orthodox Church as an ally to arouse Russian patriotism against foreign aggression. Religious life revived within the Russian Orthodox Church. Thousands of churches were reopened and multiplied to 22,000 before Khrushchev came to power. The regime permitted religious publications, and church membership grew.

The regime's policy of cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church was reversed by Khrushchev. Although the church remained officially sanctioned, in 1959 Khrushchev launched an antireligions campaign that was continued in a less stringent manner by his successor. By 1975 the number of operating Russian Orthodox churches was reduced to 7,000. Some of the most prominent members of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and activists were jailed or forced to leave the church. Their place was taken by a docile clergy who were obedient to the state and who were sometimes infiltrated by KGB agents, making the Russian Orthodox Church useful to the regime. The church has espoused and propagated Soviet foreign policy and has furthered the Russification of non-Russian believers, such as Orthodox Ukrainians and Belorussians.

The regime applied a different policy toward the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Belorussian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Viewed by the government as very nationalistic, both churches were suppressed, first at the end of the 1920s and again in 1944 after they had renewed themselves under German occupation. The leadership of both churches was decimated; large numbers of priests--2,000 Belorussian priests alone--were shot or sent to labor camps, and the believers of these two churches were harassed and persecuted.

The policy toward the Georgian Orthodox Church has been somewhat different. That church has fared far worse than the Russian Orthodox Church under the Soviet regime. During World War II, however, the Georgian Orthodox Church was allowed greater autonomy in running its affairs in return for the church's call to its members to support the war effort. The church did not, however, achieve the kind of accommodation with the authorities that the Russian Orthodox Church had. The government reimposed tight control over it after the war. Out of some 2,100 churches in 1917, only 200 were still open in the 1980s, and the church was forbidden to serve its faithful outside the Georgian Republic. In many cases, the regime forced the church to conduct services in Old Church Slavonic instead of in the Georgian language.

The Soviet government's policies toward the Catholic Church were strongly influenced by Soviet Catholics' recognition of an outside authority as head of their church. Also, in the two republics where most of the Catholics lived, the Lithuanian Republic and the Ukrainian Republic, Catholicism and nationalism were closely linked. Although the Roman Catholic Church in the Lithuanian Republic was tolerated, large numbers of the clergy were imprisoned, many seminaries were closed, and police agents infiltrated the remainder. The anti-Catholic campaign in the Lithuanian Republic abated after Stalin's death, but harsh measures against the church were resumed in 1957 and continued through the Brezhnev era.

Soviet religious policy was particularly harsh toward the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Ukrainian Catholics fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when western Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Although the Ukrainian Catholic Church was permitted to function, it was almost immediately subjected to intense harassment. Retreating before the German army in 1941, Soviet authorities arrested large numbers of Ukrainian Catholic priests, who were either killed or deported to Siberia. After the Red Army reoccupied western Ukraine in 1944, the Soviet regime liquidated the Ukrainian Catholic Church by arresting its metropolitan, all of its bishops, hundreds of clergy, and the more active faithful, killing some and sending the rest to labor camps, where, with few exceptions, they perished. At the same time, Soviet authorities forced some of the remaining clergy to abrogate the union with Rome and subordinate themselves to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Prior to World War II, the number of Protestants in the Soviet Union was low in comparison with other believers, but they have shown remarkable growth since then. In 1944 the Soviet government established the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christian Baptists to give the government some control over the various Protestant sects. Many congregations refused to join this body, however, and others that initially joined the council subsequently left. All found that the state, through the council, was interfering in church life.

The regime's policy toward the Islamic religion has been affected, on the one hand, by the large Muslim population, its close ties to national cultures, and its tendency to accept Soviet authority and, on the other hand, by its susceptibility to foreign influence. Since the early 1920s, the Soviet regime, fearful of a pan-Islamic movement, has sought to divide Soviet Muslims into smaller, separate entities. This separation was accomplished by creating six separate Muslim republics and by fostering the development of a separate culture and language in each of them. Although actively encouraging atheism, Soviet authorities have permitted some limited religious activity in all the Muslim republics. Mosques functioned in most large cities of the Central Asian republics and the Azerbaydzhan Republic; however, their number had decreased from 25,000 in 1917 to 500 in the 1970s. In 1989, as part of the general relaxation of restrictions on religions, some additional Muslim religious associations were registered, and some of the mosques that had been closed by the government were returned to Muslim communities. The government also announced plans to permit training of limited numbers of Muslim religious leaders in courses of two- and five-year duration in Ufa and Baku, respectively.

Although Lenin found anti-Semitism abhorrent, the regime was hostile toward Judaism from the beginning. In 1919 Soviet authorities abolished Jewish community councils, which were traditionally responsible for maintaining synagogues. They created a special Jewish section of the party, whose tasks included propaganda against Jewish clergy and religion. Training of rabbis became impossible, and until the late 1980s only one Yiddish periodical was published. Hebrew, because of its identification with Zionism, was taught only in schools for diplomats. Most of the 5,000 synagogues functioning prior to the Bolshevik Revolution were closed under Stalin, and others were closed under Khrushchev. For all intents and purposes, the practice of Judaism became impossible, intensifying the desire of Jews to leave the Soviet Union.

Data as of May 1989

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