The following is a selection of writings by Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin on internationalism, fighting national oppression, and the need for a voluntary union of soviet socialist republics.
In recent posts, World-Outlook has referred to the fight Lenin carried out at the end of his life for a genuinely internationalist approach to ensuring such a voluntary union in the early years after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine this year, and Vladimir Putin’s distortions of Russia’s and Ukraine’s revolutionary history, give renewed importance to these issues.
Lenin’s 1919 letter to the Ukrainian workers and peasants expressed some essential ideas and can be found here.
Lenin’s Final Fight, Speeches and Writings 1922-23, a book published by Pathfinder Press, documents thoroughly the subsequent discussion and debate in the Communist Party and the Soviet government. We encourage readers to purchase and read the book. It offers invaluable material on the issue of overcoming the legacy of national oppression inherited from the Tsarist prison house of nations. It also shines light on other vital challenges that confronted the Russian Revolution at that time.
Lenin’s writings reproduced below are taken from the public domain. For consistency World-Outlook has changed the spelling of a few words to the current U.S. English usage, for example “autonomization.” The link to the source of each document is embedded in its title.
The introduction to the second edition of Lenin’s Final Fight, released in 2010, offers useful context to understanding the material reproduced below on Lenin’s internationalist policies. What follows is taken from that introduction:
The Bolshevik-led government sought from the outset to establish a union of proletarian Russia and the oppressed peoples long encased within the old tsarist prison house of nations across Europe and Asia. But that goal could only be achieved by the voluntary action of those peoples, whose unconditional right to national self-determination was recognized by the new government.
The Soviet congress in January 1918 established the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) ‘leaving it to the workers and peasants of each nation to decide independently at their own authoritative congress of soviets whether they wish to participate in the federal government … and on what terms.’
By late 1922, twenty-one autonomous republics and regions had been established within the RSFSR itself, and the revolutionary government was collaborating with soviet republics in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, and Ukraine to form what in December 1922 would become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Lenin, however, objected to Stalin’s initial draft of a Central Committee resolution, which negated the Bolsheviks’ long-standing proletarian internationalism by calling for “entry” of these other republics into the Russian federation.
“We consider ourselves, the Ukrainian SSR, and others equal,” Lenin wrote in a September 1922 letter to the party’s Political Bureau, and “enter with them on an equal basis into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
In a note to the Political Bureau the following day, Stalin acquiesced to an amended form of this proposal and several other of “Comrade Lenin’s unimportant amendments,” as he called them. Stalin’s note dismissively referred to Lenin’s uncompromising opposition to Great Russian chauvinism as the “national liberalism of Comrade Lenin.”
Two months later Lenin was outraged to discover that Central Committee member Grigory Ordzhonikidze, in the presence of another CC member, Aleksey Rykov, had physically struck a Communist from Georgia during a dispute over national rights. In Lenin’s late December letter to the upcoming party congress, he wrote that the Bolsheviks’ support for the right of national self-determination “will be a mere scrap of paper’ if the party is ‘unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist, in substance a scoundrel and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.”
And Lenin concluded: “That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality, through which the oppressor nation, the great nation, would compensate for the inequality which obtains in real life. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question; he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.”
In early March 1923, Lenin, who knew he was too ill to attend the upcoming Central Committee meeting later that month, wrote [Leon] Trotsky with an “earnest request that you should undertake the defense of the Georgian case in the party CC. This case is now under ‘persecution’ by Stalin and [Feliks] Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality.” Trotsky did so but… the motion he placed before the Central Committee was defeated.From the introduction to the 2010 edition of Lenin’s Final Fight.
Chapter two of the Pathfinder book is titled The Fight Opens: The national question and the voluntary union of soviet republics. It opens with “The Autonomization Resolution: On relations between the RSFSR and the independent republics,” dated September 26, 1922, and drafted by Joseph Stalin. Stalin had been elected General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party in April of that year. That same day Lenin wrote the following response:
By V.I. Lenin
Letter to L. B. Kamenev for Members of the Politbureau
Comrade Kamenev, Stalin has probably already sent you the resolution of his commission on the entry of the independent republics into the R.S.F.S.R.
If he has not, please take it from the secretary at once, and read it. I spoke about it with Sokolnikov yesterday, and with Stalin today. Tomorrow I shall see Mdivani (the Georgian Communist suspected of “independent” sentiments).
In my opinion, the matter is of utmost importance. Stalin tends to be somewhat hasty. Give the matter good thought (you once intended to deal with it, and even had a bit to do with it); Zinoviev too.
Stalin has already consented to make one concession: in Clause 1, instead of “entry” into the R.S.F.S.R., to put:
“Formal unification with the R.S.F.S.R. in a Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
I hope the purport of this concession is clear: we consider ourselves, the Ukrainian S.S.R. and others, equal, and enter with them, on an equal basis, into a new union, a new federation, the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.
Clause 2 needs to be amended as well. What is needed besides the sessions of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. is a
“Federal All-Union Central Executive Committee of the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
If the former should hold sessions once a week, and the latter once a week (or once a fortnight even), this may be easily arranged.
The important thing is not to provide material for the “pro-independence” people, not to destroy their independence, but to create another new story, a federation of equal republics.
The second part of Clause 2 could stand: the dissatisfied will appeal (against decisions of the Council of Labor and Defense, and the Council of People’s Commissars) to the Federal All-Union Central Executive Committee, without thereby suspending implementation (just as in the R.S.F.S.R.).
Clause 3 could stand, but its wording should be: “amalgamate in federal People’s Commissariats whose seat shall be in Moscow, with the proviso that the respective People’s Commissariats of the R.S.F.S.R. have their authorized representatives with a small staff in all the Republics that have joined the Union of Republics of Europe and Asia.”
Part 2 of Clause 3 remains; perhaps it could be said to emphasize equality: “by agreement of the Central Executive Committees of the member republics of the Union of the Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia.”
Let’s think about Part 3: perhaps we had better substitute “mandatory” for “desirable”? Or perhaps insert conditionally mandatory at least in the form of a request for instructions and the authority to decide without such instructions solely in cases of “especially urgent importance”?
Clause 4 could perhaps also be “amalgamate by agreement of the Central Executive Committees”?
Perhaps add to Clause 5: “with the establishment of joint (or general) conferences and congresses of a purely consultative nature (or perhaps of a solely consultative nature)?
Appropriate alterations in the 1st and 2nd comments.
Stalin has agreed to delay submission of the resolution to the Political Bureau of the Central Committee until my return. I shall arrive on Monday, October 2. I should like to see you and Rykov for about two hours in the morning, say 12 noon to 2 p.m., and, if necessary, in the evening, say 5-7 or 6-8.
That is my tentative draft. I shall add or amend on the strength of talks with Mdivani and other comrades. I beg you to do the same, and to reply to me.
P.S. Send copies to all members of the Political Bureau.
In Lenin’s Final Fight, the letter above is followed by a letter and a revised resolution both written by Stalin. Lenin then wrote the following:
By V.I. Lenin
I declare war to the death on dominant nation chauvinism. I shall eat it with all my healthy teeth as soon as I get rid of this accursed bad tooth.
It must be absolutely insisted that the Union Central Executive Committee should be presided over in turn by a:
A few months later, following the events referred to in the introduction cited above, Lenin dictated to his secretaries a series of letters dealing with issues to be addressed by the 12th congress of the Russian Communist Party scheduled for March 1923. Three of those notes, related to “Autonomization,” appear below.
By V.I. Lenin
I suppose I have been very remiss with respect to the workers of Russia for not having intervened energetically and decisively enough in the notorious question of autonomization, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the Soviet socialist republics.
When this question arose last summer, I was ill; and then in autumn I relied too much on my recovery and on the October and December plenary meetings giving me an opportunity of intervening in this question. However, I did not manage to attend the October Plenary Meeting (when this question came up) or the one in December, and so the question passed me by almost completely.
I have only had time for a talk with Comrade Dzerzhinsky, who came from the Caucasus and told me how this matter stood in Georgia. I have also managed to exchange a few words with Comrade Zinoviev and express my apprehensions on this matter. From what I was told by Comrade Dzerzhinsky, who was at the head of the commission sent by the C.C. to “investigate” the Georgian incident, I could only draw the greatest apprehensions. If matters had come to such a pass that Orjonikidze could go to the extreme of applying physical violence, as Comrade Dzerzhinsky informed me, we can imagine what a mess we have got ourselves into. Obviously, the whole business of “autonomization” was radically wrong and badly timed.
It is said that a united apparatus was needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it not come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil?
There is no doubt that that measure should have been delayed somewhat until we could say that we vouched for our apparatus as our own. But now, we must, in all conscience, admit the contrary; the apparatus we call ours is, in fact, still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the course of the past five years without the help of other countries and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.
It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and Sovietized workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.
It is said in defense of this measure that the People’s Commissariats directly concerned with national psychology and national education were set up as separate bodies. But there the question arises: can these People’s Commissariats be made quite independent? and secondly: were we careful enough to take measures to provide the non-Russians with a real safeguard against the truly Russian bully? I do not think we took such measures although we could and should have done so.
I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious “nationalist-socialism” [Stalin criticized the minority nations for not being “internationalist” because they did want to unite with Russia], played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles.
I also fear that Comrade Dzerzhinsky, who went to the Caucasus to investigate the “crime” of those “nationalist-socialists”, distinguished himself there by his truly Russian frame of mind (it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified over-do this Russian frame of mind) and that the impartiality of his whole commission was typified well enough by Orgonikidze’s “manhandling.” I think that no provocation or even insult can justify such Russian manhandling and that Comrade Dzerzhinsky was inexcusably guilty in adopting a light-hearted attitude towards it.
For all the citizens in the Caucasus Orjonikidze was the authority. Orjonikidze had no right to display that irritability to which he and Dzerzhinsky referred. On the contrary, Orjonikidze should have behaved with a restraint which cannot be demanded of any ordinary citizen, still less of a man accused of a “political” crime. And, to tell the truth, those nationalist-socialists were citizens who were accused of a political crime, and the terms of the accusation were such that it could not be described otherwise.
Here we have an important question of principle: how is internationalism to be understood?
December 30, 1922
Taken down by M.V.
Continuation of the notes.
December 31, 1922
In my writings on the national question, I have already said that an abstract presentation of the question of nationalism in general is of no use at all. A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.
In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it. It is sufficient to recall my Volga reminiscences of how non-Russians are treated; how the Poles are not called by any other name than Polyachiska, how the Tatar is nicknamed Prince, how the Ukrainians are always Khokhols and the Georgians and other Caucasian nationals always Kapkasians.
That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or “great” nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question, he is still essentially petty bourgeois in his point of view and is, therefore, sure to descend to the bourgeois point of view.
What is important for the proletarian? For the proletarian it is not only important, but also absolutely essential that he should be assured that the non-Russians place the greatest possible trust in the proletarian class struggle. What is needed to ensure this? Not merely formal equality. In one way or another, by one’s attitude or by concessions, it is necessary to compensate the non-Russian for the lack of trust, for the suspicion and the insults to which the government of the “dominant” nation subjected them in the past.
I think it is unnecessary to explain this to Bolsheviks, to Communists, in greater detail. And I think that in the present instance, as far as the Georgian nation is concerned, we have a typical case in which a genuinely proletarian attitude makes profound caution, thoughtfulness and a readiness to compromise a matter of necessity for us. The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of “nationalist-socialism” (whereas he himself is a real and true “nationalist-socialist,” and even a vulgar Great-Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; “offended” nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest- to the violation of that equality by their proletarian comrades. That is why in this case it is better to over-do rather than under-do the concessions and leniency towards the national minorities. That is why, in this case, the fundamental interest of proletarian class struggle, requires that we never adopt a formal attitude to the national question, but always take into account the specific attitude of the proletarian of the oppressed (or small) nation towards the oppressor (or great) nation.
Taken down by M.V.
December 31, 1922
Continuation of the notes.
December 31, 1922
What practical measures must be taken in the present situation?
Firstly, we must maintain and strengthen the union of socialist republics. Of this there can be no doubt. This measure is necessary for us, and it is necessary for the world communist proletariat in its struggle against the world bourgeoisie and its defense against bourgeois intrigues.
Secondly, the union of socialist republics must be retained for its diplomatic apparatus. By the way, this apparatus is an exceptional component of our state apparatus. We have not allowed a single influential person from the old tsarist apparatus into it. All sections with any authority are composed of Communists. That is why it has already won for itself (this may be said boldly) the name of a reliable communist apparatus purged to an incomparably greater extent of the old tsarist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements than that which we have had to make do with in other People’s Commissariats.
Thirdly, exemplary punishment must be inflicted on Comrade Orjonikidze (I say this all the more regretfully as I am one of his personal friends and have worked with him abroad) and the investigation of all the material which Dzerzhinsky’s commission has collected must be completed or started over again to correct the enormous mass of wrongs and biased judgments which it doubtlessly contains. The political responsibility for all this truly Great-Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.
Fourthly, the strictest rules must be introduced on the use of the national language in the non-Russian republics of our union, and these rules must be checked with special care. There is no doubt that our apparatus being what it is, there is bound to be, on the pretext of unity in the railway service, unity in the fiscal service and so on, a mass of truly Russian abuses. Special ingenuity is necessary for the struggle against these abuses, not to mention special sincerity on the part of those who undertake this struggle. A detailed code will be required, and only the nationals living in the republic in question can draw it up at all successfully. And then we cannot be sure in advance that as a result of this work we shall not take a step backward at our next Congress of Soviets, i.e., retain the union of Soviet socialist republics only for military and diplomatic affairs, and in all other respects restore full independence to the individual People’s Commissariats.
It must be borne in mind that the decentralization of the People’s Commissariats and the lack of co-ordination in their work as far as Moscow and other centers are concerned can be compensated sufficiently by Party authority, if it is exercised with sufficient prudence and impartiality; the harm that can result to our state from a lack of unification between the national apparatuses and the Russian apparatus is infinitely less than that which will be done not only to us, but to the whole International, and to the hundreds of millions of the peoples of Asia, which is destined to follow us on to the stage of history in the near future. It would be unpardonable opportunism if, on the eve of debut of the East, just as it is awakening, we undermined our prestige with its peoples, even if only by the slightest crudity or injustice towards our own non-Russian nationalities. The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defense of the struggle against imperialism. But the morrow of world history will be a day when the awakening peoples oppressed by imperialism are finally aroused and the decisive long and hard struggle for their liberation begins.
December 31, 1922
Taken down by M.V.
On March 5, 1923, five days before his final stroke incapacitated him Lenin dictated this letter to Russian Communist Party Politburo member Leon Trotsky.
By V.I. Lenin
Dear Comrade Trotsky:
It is my earnest request that you should undertake the defence of the Georgian case in the Party C.C. This case is now under “persecution” by Stalin and Dzerzhinsky, and I cannot rely on their impartiality. Quite to the contrary. I would feel at ease if you agreed to undertake its defence. If you should refuse to do so for any reason, return the whole case to me. I shall consider it a sign that you do not accept.
With best comradely greetings,
The next day Lenin addressed this letter to leaders of the Communist Party in Soviet Georgia facing “persecution by Stalin and Dzershinsky.”
By V.I. Lenin
Comrades Mdivani, Makharadze and others
Copy to Comrades Trotsky and Kamenev
I am following your case with all my heart. I am indignant over Orjonikidze’s rudeness and the connivance of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky. I am preparing for you notes and a speech.
Lenin’s failing health prevented him from making the speech referred to above.