Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

A Great Overview of Russian 20th c. History by Leading Russian Conservative - Yegor Kholmogorov (Part 1)

MORE: History

Intro by Anatoly Karlin.

The latest in our series of translations of Russian national-conservative intellectual Egor Kholmogorov.

This massive opus, which will be published in two parts, is the closest thing there is to a condensed historiosophy of Kholmogorov’s.

Russians in the 2oth Century. Part I: Origins to WWII

Translated by Fluctuarius Argenteus


Early Stages of Russian Ethnic History

The modern Russian nation grew out of the Old Rus people, whose identity had already started to coalesce in the 9th century, as evidenced by a 839 embassy to Frankish emperor Louis the Pious, where the ambassadors claimed they were representing “a people named Ros.”

Over the 9-11th centuries, the Old Rus people assimilated a number of East Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes, Scandinavian and West Slavic ethnic and social groups, developed a national awareness based around the concept of the Russian Land and Orthodox Christian identity, formed elements of high and everyday culture and lifestyle, as well as environmental, economic, and colonisation strategies.

The Old Rus identity was so durable that even the period of terrible Mongol onslaught and subsequent raids, political vassalage, and onerous tribute did not significantly hamper their development and territorial expansion. Starting in the 13-14th century, the Russians rapidly expanded to the north of the East European Plain. The system of small villages connected mainly through rivers and other waterways, allowed it to cover enormous and hard-to-colonise territories with a network of populated centres. An enormous role in the Russian colonisation was played by Orthodox monasteries, which, even at the most remote limits of Russia, acted as hotbeds of economic activity and culture.

The Russian state around 1500.

Over the 15th and 16th centuries Russia is formed as an early nation-state that identified the Grand Duchy of Moscow and its dependencies with the Old Rus and claiming the entirety of the Old Russian national legacy, above all the lands of Western and Southwestern Rus that had been annexed by Lithuania and Poland. In those lands, the population gradually developed the peculiarities of the Little Russian and Belorussian branches of the Russian nation. Together with disintegrating factors, such as Polonisation or Catholisation, there were also uniting factors, such as Orthodox communion and a common struggle for Orthodoxy.

In the East and South, we see the mass migration of Russians to the Urals, Siberia, and the Black Sea steppes, the construction of the Great Abatis Line and the emergence of a unique Cossack military and social system, which brought these lands away from nomad dominance and under intensive Russian colonisation and economic exploitation.

By the end of the 17th century, Russia grew to be the largest continental empire on Earth, even if the population was sparse and unevenly distributed. The Russians became one of the largest ethnic groups, with a rich and original culture, language, Orthodox tradition, and folkway. The existence of a Russian civilisation became a fait accompli.

Imperial Contradictions

The Imperial period in Russian history was coloured by contradictory processes. On the one hand, the expansion of the state continued, uniting the Belorussian and most of the Little Russian branches of the Russian people within a single state, leading to their mutual influence and enrichment as parts of a unified nation. In spite of roadblocks set up by serfdom, an intensive territorial expansion of the Russian population went on. In many cases, a widespread “escape from the state” only intensified the settlement of new territories by runaway serfs. Russian settlement completely engulfed Novorossiya and Crimea, North Caucasus, the Altai, and Ussuria. The Russians became the dominant ethnic group in the Volga region, the Urals, and Siberia, and energetically made their way into Central Asia and the Baltics, with many Russian communities also springing up in Transcaucasia. Russian colonisation even spread beyond the borders of Russia, leading to “Yellow Russia” projects in Manchuria.

Ethnicities of the Russian Empire in 1916.

On the other hand, the Empire absorbed large populations marked by a foreign cultural, ethnic, and even civilisation identity. Their integration into the Russian cultural matrix was hamstrung by the following problem: even for the Russians themselves, the civilisation standard of Russian culture ceased to be seen as fundamental. The reforms of Peter the Great caused it to be supplanted by the European standard. Social life was marred by cultural gaps and cultural cringe, a mutual estrangement between the upper and lower classes, when the élite could barely converse in their native tongue. In this period, the Orthodox faith, professed by all estates of the society, remained the sole unifying factor of national cultural identity. Rejecting the Russian civilisation standard led to a decline of folk culture. Rather than an ideal for ethnic minorities to aspire to, Russification began to be seen as a useless half-measure, getting in the way of a direct Europeanisation of specific ethnic groups and their ultimate independence from Russia.

At the same time, the 19th century saw a tremendous effort of synthesizing a modern Russian national culture. It was marked by the birth of national historiography, journalism, religious and philosophical thought. Russian poetry and prose reached an unparalleled splendour, becoming one of the cornerstones of world culture.

Image icon samarin-238x300.jpg
The Slavophile doctrine revindicated Russian civilisational sovereignty. Yury Samarin’s [portrait right by Vasily Tropinin] and Mikhail Katkov’s polemical essays defended political nationalism, claiming that Russian culture and Russian national character are meant to integrate the entirety of the Empire’s population into a single whole, subject to the same laws, speaking a single language and having a common culture.

At the same time, we can see the the sources of the artificial separation of the Little Russian and Belorussian branches of the Russian nation. The cultural “Ukrainophile” movement in Galicia, beyond the borders of the Russian Empire, evolves into a cohesive Ukrainian separatism with its own version of history, its own purpose-built language, and political claims to all of Southern Russia. On a smaller scale the same reorientation happened with Belorussians. In both cases, one can easily see the interests of rival nations and empires, mostly Poles and Austrians, attempting to convert a part of the Russian population into a buffer between them and the Russian ethnopolitical core. Certain elements of this alienation even permeated Imperial statistics where “Great”, “Little”, and “White” Russians were counted and mapped separately.

Demonstration by the Union of the Russian People.

Early 20th Century Crisis

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Russians were faced with a systemic crisis. Social antagonism between the peasantry and the upper classes of the Empire intensified. Still largely agrarian, Russia lagged behind in developing a non-class-based national awareness in the majority of the common folk. Mass schooling, an essential factor of nation-building, was underdeveloped, the army operated in the context of a royalist rather than national patriotism, the Church, faced with revolutionary and anti-clerical propaganda, was forced to be on the defensive instead of taking any active nation-building measures.

The development of national and patriotic awareness unfolded mostly in the educated classes, with an emerging national ideology, a demand for national culture, and patriotism as the ideological norm. However, the intelligentsia by and large preferred Liberalism and Socialism, including its Marxist strain. In the fight for the masses, national ideology faced fierce competition from revolutionary ideology, which was as anti-national as it was anti-monarchy and anti-capitalist.

The interpretation of Russia as the “prison of nations” and a desire to “liberate” ethnic minorities at any cost, including the open support of separatism, was the mainstay of most Russian revolutionary factions, from Liberals to Social-Democrats (Bolsheviks). Even before the collapse of the monarchy, the ethnic fringes of the Empire saw aggressive anti-Russian movements, especially the 1916 Central Asian uprising in a large part fanned by Turkish special services.

Stolypin in the State Duma.

On a state level, the Imperial government more and more identified with Russian national values. In 1912, the State Duma passed a law that separated the Russian and Orthodox-majority Chełm (Kholm) Governorate from the Kingdom of Poland. The ethno-religious factor was put before reasons of political geography. Even more ethnocentric and Russian-favouring were the policies of Pyotr Stolypin, specifically his bill regarding zemstvo [local self-government] in the Western Krai [essentially modern-day Belarus], pushed against both left- and right-wing resistance in the Duma and the State Council. However, the assassination of the nationalist Prime Minister, social crisis, and state collapse put a decades-long stop to pro-Russian ethnic policies.

Revolutionary Russophobia

The downfall of the monarchy, anarchy, endless ephemeral governments and republics, the civil war – all of this led not only to separatism in the non-Russian periphery but also cemented the schism of the Russian people. With a Ukrainian People’s Republic proclaimed in Kiev, Ukrainian separatism became a major factor in the intervention and civil war. In addition to the Belorussian Rada, there were active attempts to promote Cossack, Siberian, and Far Eastern separatism.

If most Whites supported the idea of a “united and indivisible Russia” and were Russian nationalists and patriots, the Bolsheviks actively employed the slogans of ethnic equality and supported the separatist forces of ethnic groups living in the Volga and North Caucasus regions. Bolshevik policies in those lands were markedly anti-Russian. While reconquering secessionist statelets, the Soviets positioned their régimes as national workers’ governments fighting against national bourgeois governments. For the Bolshevik leadership, the ethnic breakup of Russia and the Russians was self-evidently inevitable.

Ukrainization campaign in Odessa.

While constructing the USSR, the Bolshevik leaders politically reinforced the separations of Little Russians (renamed to Ukrainians) and Belorussians from Great Russians, now seen as the sole nation that the term “Russian” encompassed. On the other hand, they rejected the plans for a “Russian Republic” which implied the secession of Tatar, Bashkir, etc. republics from the RSFSR.

The USSR turned into an asymmetrical edifice, with its weakest point being the enshrinement of Ukrainian separatism. In 1924, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a leading ideologue of Ukrainisation, returned to Kiev and charted the course for imposing the Ukrainian language and identity via Soviet mass schooling. The national policies of early Bolshevik rule were based on systematic Russophobia. The Russians were seen, to quote Lenin, as a people “great only in their violence, only as great as bullies are.” The Bolshevik headman called for a purge of government administration from “a veritable sea of chauvinist Great Russian scum.”

The relations between the Russians and other ethnic groups were to be based on a complete humilitation of the Russian people as a way for them to atone for past injustices. As Nikolay Bukharin deigned to speak for all Russians, “we, as a former imperial nation, must place ourselves in unequal conditions by way of giving even more leeway to national movements.” The creators of the USSR seemed to imagine it as a prison for the Russian people where the Russian people were serving a sentence for the Russian Empire, officially dubbed “the prison of nations”.

Fortunately, even this affirmative action internationalism had its limitations. The Bolshevik leadership ostracised and annihilated the group of Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, a Tatar nationalist who championed the separation of a Tatar-Bashkir-Chuvash state from the RSFSR, “with rights equal to those of the Ukraine”, and creating a Turan Republic in Central Asia. Sultan-Galiev’s rationale for those projects was that they were “terrible for Russian nationalism but harmless for the Revolution.” In this particular case, geopolitical reasons and the principle of state unity prevailed over the strictures of Bolshevik doctrine.

Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, ideologue of the Red Turan.

The revolution and civil war divided the Russians into Reds and White, the latter forced into emigration. Numerically the White émigrés were incomparable to the Russians that had remained in the Motherland; the breakup was more along educational and social lines. Russia was deprived of most of its bourgeoisie, officers, intelligentsia, and clergy. The Russian culture broke into three parts: émigré, official Soviet, and “forcefully Soviet” (paying only lip service to the conditions imposed by the Soviet régime).

The philosophers’ ship.

A Nation on the Brink of Liquidation

Of course, the ideological thought of the Russian intelligentsia kept working on restoring national unity, building bridges between the sundered Russian world. Popular both in Soviet Russia and among émigrés, the ideology of the Smenovekhovtsy called for all patriots to work for the USSR, seeing it not as a Communist tyranny but a common Motherland, a homeland of the Russian nation, while awaiting a gradual national transformation, a Russification of Bolshevism. This ideology kept most Russian intellectuals and specialists from emigrating and supported their desire to work for the Motherland while waiting for better times to come. As a result, Russia kept within its Soviet borders a critical mass of people with a developed national awareness.

Among the peasantry, still forming the majority of the nation, conformism with regards to the Soviet system was intertwined with economic pragmatism: the Soviets solved the question of land ownership and slowly unfolded development programmes in the countryside. As a result, the peasants were lukewarm regarding the gradual erosion of national culture and church tradition, especially given that the foundations of country lifestyle remained largely the same.

Participants of the Tambov Rebellion.

The Bolshevik onslaught against the peasantry was repelled by an acrimonious civil war that the Soviets had to endure after having defeated the Whites. Nominally, the Kronstadt, Tambov, and Don rebellions were crushed, and the 1921-23 famine decimated Russian peasantry, but in fact the Communist assault against the country was frozen for almost a decade. Revolutionary upheavals were mostly limited to urban areas.

Nevertheless, in 1928-32 the Soviets dealt a terrible blow both to the traditional peasant lifestyle and Russian national consciousness, preserved by the Smenovekhovtsy intelligentsia. The collectivisation wrecked the traditional life of the Russian countryside and started the machinery of repression and population transfer (both forceful and voluntary). The 1932-33 famine stroke a second demographic blow after the one in 1921-23 to the Russian peasantry. The excess mortality index in Southwestern Russia (Ukraine), the Volga region, and North Caucasus oscillated between 2.6 and 3.2 over the normal. The largest depopulation occurred in Krasnodar and Stavropol krais, as well as Donetsk, Lugansk, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Zaporozhye oblasts – meaning that the so-called Holodomor was thrust mainly against Novorossiya.

Exile of the Kulaks.

Anti-clerical policies, enacted right after the revolution, intensified during the “Godless Five Years”, which saw mass closure and demolishment of churches and mass executions of priesthood. For most of the Russian population, the road to traditional church life was severed.

At the same time, a campaign of elimination targeted the Smenovekhovtsy intellectuals. A series of show trials (“Academy Affair”, “Vesna affair”, “Slavic Studies Affair”, the Industrial Party and Peasant Labour Party trials) all but stamped out the milieu of non-Communist academics, intellectuals, and specialists who collaborated with the Soviets out of national and patriotic sentiment.

Removal of the Monument to Nakhimov in Sevastopol, 1928.

The 1920s and the 1930s were the apex of anti-Russian propaganda with Bolshevik slogans. Pravda published doggerel like the following: “Russia! Are you through? Are you gone? Have you croaked at last? Well, good riddance to you, as you didn’t live but only kept moaning in a dark and narrow hut”. In 1928, a monument to Admiral Pavel Nakhimov was torn down in Sevastopol for being offensive to Turkish sailors that entered the seaport. In 1932, the Narkompros [education ministry] ordered a monument to General Nikolay Raevsky on the Borodino battlefield to be turned into scrap metal, claiming it was “devoid of any historical or artistic value”.

This practice of historical nihilism and systematic humiliation of Russian national sentiment had its theoretical foundations in Nikolay Pokrovsky’s school of historiography that treated the entirety of Russian history as that of a “prison of nations” and painted national heroes as flunkies of the Tsars and bourgeois capital. By 1933, the Russian nation as a community joined by common memory, traditions, and cultural practices stood on the brink of destruction, ravaged by both ideological denationalisation and economic collectivisation brought about by Communism.

A Forced National Revival

The right-wing swerve of capitalist Europe after the rise of the Nazi Party forced the Communists to review their policies. It became impossible to ignore the national factor in foreign affairs with the same ease as they did within the country.

The Soviets start employing Russianness not only to describe the internationalist duty of the “nation of bullies”, not only as the idea of Russians as a vanguard revolutionary nation, but while appealing to Russian cultural and historical tradition. This tradition was no longer seen as a purely negative factor or something to be outlived. The era of “Let’s melt down Minin and Pozharsky”[1] doggerel was over. Stalin himself voiced a demand for “a Bolshevik Ilovaysky” (pre-revolutionary history manuals written by Dmitry Ilovaysky were a byword for ultraconservative nationalist historiography). The Pokrovsky school was subjected to an ideological interdiction. A series of films and books came out, glorifying the national heroes of the past – Alexander Nevsky, Minin and Pozharsky, Suvorov and Kutuzov. A symbolic watershed came in November 1936 with a well-orchestrated critical savaging of Tairov’s opera The Bogatyrs, with a thoroughly Russophobic libretto by Demyan Bedny.

Of even greater importance that changes in the rarified heights of political atmosphere were the decision to curtail the korenizatsiya in Soviet republics and autonomies, and switching all national alphabets to Cyrillic (even more surprising given that the Latinisation of Russian script was discussed in earnest in the earlier 1930s). All schools faced more stringent requirements for compulsory Russian teaching.

However, this ideological renovation did not mean an end to Soviet internationalist aggression against the Russians. The dismemberment of Russian national territory continued into the 1930s. In 1936, to coincide with the new Soviet constitution, a Kyrgyz and a Kazakh Soviet Republic were carved out of the RSFSR, and the authors of ideologically approved official histories of those republics emphasised colonial oppression in Imperial times.

A new wave of repression in 1937-38 dealt a new blow to the Russian. The purges targeted not only Communist apparatchiks but also clergy, military specialists, and intelligentsia, deemed “ideologically hazardous” for this or that reason. Russian culture was robbed of dozens of great scientists, thinkers, and writers.

The Great War

The Great Patriotic War was the time of unthinkable trials for the Russian people. Hitler’s aggression saw as its end the complete destruction of Russian statehood, the dismemberment of the country, and its breakup along ethnic lines. The war was waged to destroy the Russians, not the Soviets, and Nazi policies were based on a complete disdain for Russian cultural heritage (“all and any cultural values in the East do not matter”, said the infamous order signed by Walther von Reichenau), as well as for civilian lives (e.g., the mass starvation of Leningrad citizens was planned regardless of whether the city surrendered or not).

It is not surprising that the war triggered a rapid national upsurge, a development of Russian patriotism that called for victory over the invaders. The great Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin noted in a wartime article written for the Swiss press that “the further the war extended in time and space, the more noticeable was the Russian instinct of self-preservation, the greater was the resolve of the Russians to repel the enemy, the more the warring masses subjected themselves to the discipline of the national High Command while ignoring the Communist régime…”

Ilyin also claimed that “the collective memory of the First World War, where Russia’s desertion led to a terrible 25-year long retribution, led to the thought that this new war had to be loyally fought to the end.” That is why the level of active collaborationism was much lower than Hitler’s analysts expected based on the pre-war anti-Russian policies of the Soviets. Pro-Nazi collaborationism “in the name of the Russian people” was the province of numerically insignificant groups.

The war took a terrible toll on the Russians, bringing untold grief, gigantic demographic losses (a third demographic collapse in 30 years), and untold destruction. At the same time, the Russians restored their self-awareness as a great nation with a unique historical mission. The self-awareness as a nation of victors, cemented in wartime propaganda, became a part for millions of people a part of their personal consciousness. The word “Russian” reached a worldwide prestige rarely seen in Imperial times.

It seemed that the USSR would turn to a national/imperial model with a clear Russian dominance. This idea even dawned upon several high-ranking RSFSR apparatchiks. A noticeable change was the expansion of the Russian habitat after a long period of shrinkage. The newly annexed East Prussia, Southern Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands were settled almost exclusively with ethnic Russians. These lands became core Russian territories, largely against the grain of Stalin’s plans for using East Prussia as a bargaining chip in a gamble for “a unified neutral Germany”. Essentially, Kaliningrad was claimed for the Russians thanks to Konrad Adenauer’s recalcitrance; the West German chancellor saw Germany only as a part of the Western bloc.

However, the consequences of deportations in the North Caucasus and Crimea were much more dramatic for the Russians. The regions became almost exclusively Russian, but the rehabilitation and return of the deported ethnic groups led to inter-ethnic conflict, terrorism, and anti-Russian pogroms. Even during this period, the interest of Russians weren’t always put first – e.g., the request of Carpathian Ruthenian representatives to annex their land to the Russian (as opposed to Ukrainian) Soviet republic was declined.

The effect of annexing Western Ukraine to the Ukrainian SSR proved to be quite dubious. The Soviets spent more than a decade on suppressing Banderite terror gangs, but even after that Galicia kept contaminating the rest of the republic with the most radical strain of Ukrainian nationalism, founded upon a zoological hatred of the “Moskals”. By the end of the 1980s, that ideology had infested most of the Ukrainian SSR population, Ukrainised in the Soviet manner, and gave fruit that were more and more anti-Russian in nature.

Election of the Patriarch Alexey I (Simansky) in 1945.

An important part of the patriotic swerve was a partial rapprochement between Soviet régime and the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditional hierarchy with the Patriarch at the head was restored, the schism of the Living Church[2] liquidated, most of the country gained access to Orthodox sacraments and rituals, and thus to ages-old Russian cultural milieu. Orthodoxy was largely restored as a part of the vision of Russian identity.

Regardless of its ideological intent, the post-war educational revolution had enormous repercussions for the Russians. A multitude of new colleges gave a higher or specialised education to most young men and women, while most schools attempted to emulate pre-revolutionary classical gymnasia, even if only in look and feel. However, it should be kept in mind that, for the entirety of post-war Stalin’s rule, college education in the country of triumphant socialism was not free but paid.


[1] An infamous poem by Soviet poet Dzhek Altauzen (1907 – 1942), referring the monument to in the Red Square commonly seen as an iconic symbol of Russian patriotism.

[2] A schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1920s-40s that called for a “modernisation” of church doctrine and rituals along Marxist lines and collaborated with the Soviets.

Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!
MORE: History

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.