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CREES Brown Bag. “Leadership in the Soviet Republics: Nationalism and the Collapse of the USSR.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010
5:00 AM
1636 International Institute/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Jeremy R. Smith, visiting associate professor of history, U-M; and senior lecturer in Russian history and director of doctoral research, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, UK. Sponsors: CREES, Department of History.

This paper focuses on a specific feature of the nationalities question in the USSR – the behavior and attitude of leaders of the Union Republics, specifically first secretaries of the republican communist parties and other senior figures. The author does not propose this as an explanation of the collapse of the USSR, but rather seeks to describe a specific feature of the collapse. The behavior of republican leaders may or may not contribute to an explanation of the break-up of the Soviet Union, but the paper maintains that at least it highlights certain attributes of the Soviet republics which help us to understand developments in the 1980s and 1990s – namely, the characteristics of Soviet republics which resembled those of modern nation states. The paper traces the tendency of senior republican officials in the Soviet Union, in spite of their communist affiliation, to act as national leaders. This tendency begins in the Civil War and 1920s (Validov, Sultangaliev, Shumsky) and then turns to examples from the 1950s (Berklavs, Ibragimov, Ragimov) before consideration of the late Soviet period. As well as looking at late Soviet leaders (Shelest, Kebin, Aliev, Shevardnadze), it considers other features such as language policy, culture, education, historiography, and urban infrastructure of capital cities as part of a broad picture of the development of nation-state characteristics. Explanations of the behavior of republican leaders can be found in trends in Soviet nationalities policies, and in rational choice approaches as advanced by Valery Tishkov. The paper argues, however, that policies and individual behavior appear to involve an attachment to what can broadly be termed nationalism, which goes beyond anything that either the nationalities policy or rational choice paradigms would logically suggest. Instead, an approach which includes reference to emotions and which would argue for biographical studies is supported. In conclusion, the paper argues that, in at least some cases, Soviet republics carried many of the features of modern European nation-states, with implications both for separatist aspirations at the end of the Soviet period and for understanding nation-state development after 1991.

Jeremy Smith is Senior Lecturer in Russian History at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the nationalities question in the USSR, beginning with a doctoral study of the national policies of the Bolsheviks during and after the Civil War. More recently he has worked on Soviet Republics in the 1950s, with emphasis on Georgia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, and Latvia. He is currently completing a monograph which presents a broader picture of the non-Russian nationalities: The Red Nations: the Nationalities Experience in and after the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).