top of page

Soviet and Post-Soviet Integration: The Foundation of a Soviet Union

In the collective imagination, the History of the Russian Revolution is quite simply the History of the passage from the Russian Empire to the USSR and the History of the founding of the first communist regime in the world. But just as 1789 did not replace the king in France with the Republic in one go, the history of the Soviet foundation is more complex. In truth, the creation of the USSR is the result of an ideological compromise : that of the need to maintain the cohesion of the former territory of the Russian Empire while guaranteeing the independence recently acquired by “the peoples” of the collapsed Empire.

To fully understand this, it suffices to follow the ideological path traced by Lenin during the revolutionary years until 1922. Indeed, it should be known that Marx did not consider the national question to be crucial for the future proletarian revolution. It was Lenin’s work that made it possible to reconcile Marxism and nationalism. Lenin understood very early on that one of the great challenges of the coming century would be the national question within Empires and especially within the Russian Empire in particular. It was therefore necessary to find a position which could respond to the demands of minorities (notably Ukrainians and the peoples of the Caucasus) while playing on the card of “internationalism” advocated by classical socialism.

It is thus that Lenin was be inspired by the reflections of Engels who had considered, while studying the Irish case, that national liberation should precede social liberation. This is why Lenin takes up in his “Marxism and the National Question” (1913) the idea that it is necessary to support the demands of “peoples without history” to obtain their support in the coming Revolution and to encourage them to self-determination..

It is therefore a contrario of the Provisional Government, that Lenin will support all the requests for independence of minorities within the Russian Republic in 1917. This movement will lead to the various declarations of independence that took place during the Revolution. The collapse of the Russian Empire, a centralized and monolithic state, was therefore encouraged by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

But here a paradox appeared, because Lenin and Stalin (the Commissioner for Nationalities appointed by Lenin in the new revolutionary government) never wanted the collapse of the territorial space, built for centuries by the Russian Empire. To realize this, it suffices to consider the fact that the base on which they built their new power was the working class and that most of the industrial basin of the Russian Empire was in the West, that is to say in the new Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian Republics, etc… They could not therefore afford to let these territories be truly independent.

As long as the ideology of the Bolsheviks was “internationalist”, it seemed that there was no urgency to reclaim and reintegrate these territories. Indeed, the deep faith of Lenin's supporters in 1917 was that nation-states were doomed to be dismantled into local governments (“soviets” or “councils”) and that world conflicts should not be conceived as struggles between nations but as class struggles. In other words, as soon as the Western working class overthrows its own bourgeoisie, it would join Soviet Russia to provide it with economic support without the need to annex any territories.

But everything changed during the “miracle on the Vistula”. The defeat of the Red Army, which had gone on a mission to support European proletarian revolutions, put an end to the ambitions of Russia's new masters. The workers' revolution in the West did not materialize. It was now necessary to build a “socialist homeland” with the States which had become socialist following the Civil Wars started after the Revolution.

So the choice was made to build a “Soviet Union”. A gathering of socialist states created after the October Revolution of 1917 and whose purpose was first of all to defend themselves against possible intrusions “from the outside” (in reference to the British, French and American expeditions of 1919).

This Union was going to be ideological and not national (moreover the choice was made not to refer to Russia in the name of this new Union). Lenin had played a particular ideological card here because he had decided to create a dichotomy between nations in the classical sense of the term (nation-states) and the “nations within them” (the “bourgeois nations” and the “Proletarian nations”). Thus he could conceive of his new Union as being a Union of sovereign States in the classic sense of the term while making it a monolithic homeland of the working class. Moreover, debates are still raging today as to whether the Soviet Union created in 1922 had a universal vocation to include all the socialist states to come … It is therefore difficult to say whether the USSR was only the result of a regionalism ahead of its time or a state resulting from the creation by independent states of a federal unit.

All this ideology is summed up in the Preamble to the Union Agreement of 1922:

“The restoration of the national economy has proved impossible given the separate existence of the republics.

On the other hand, the instability of the international situation and the danger of new attacks make the creation of a united front of the Soviet republics inevitable in the face of capitalist encirclement.

Finally, the very structure of Soviet power, which is international in nature, pushes the working masses of the Soviet republics on the path of unification into one socialist family.

All these circumstances imperatively require the unification of the Soviet republics into a single federated state capable of ensuring the external security, internal economic prosperity and the freedom of the national development of the peoples. ”

The agreement therefore created something that had never been seen before: a “multinational creature” which was not based on past historical logic but on a common political ideology turned towards the future. These elements present the Soviet Union not as a new state replacing the old Russian Empire but as a Union of independent states with the same international objective: the construction of socialism on a world scale.

Without being in the image of the European Union which was yet to come, one can recognize by this aspect a federalist character common to the two groups. One of the definitions of federalism given by Paul Reuter says, moreover:

We are in the presence of federalism when there is a state, a federation, which unifies, without completely absorbing them, other states, which are the provinces or local states. This means that at the heart of federalism lies a contradiction, since the status of state must belong both to the composite society and to the member units. It is quite obvious that this very contradiction is the driving force behind the federal state. We want to maintain the status of state both to a whole and to the parts”.

Of course the European Union does not constitute a Federation in the classic sense of the term, and the Soviet Union was not quite a Federation as we will see later, but it is remarkable that the foundation of the two sets occured according to the same dynamic: bringing together sovereign states for a concrete project at the international level.

Likewise, this new Soviet federalism very early on took up the notion of foreign policy to justify its existence. Thus we can take up the following remark of Patrick Riley :

It is essential to study in parallel the evolution of national and international ideas because federalism at the national level is in reality an internalization of a form of external relations (a union of “sovereign” states), while international federalism is an externalization (global “government”) of a political form characteristic of an internal state structure. Put differently, the development of federal ideas is the story of the efforts that transform national governments into international relations and international relations into government”.

This dynamic, which appears very clearly at the end of the 20th century, was already in motion with the creation of the Soviet Union, which had an international goal with a world vocation.

The Soviet Union therefore already foreshadows the particular aspect of the European Union when it claims to be a Union of sovereign states linked by a common destiny. But when we look more closely, we can notice other elements of comparison in the tools of integration used by the Soviet Union to spare the socialist power in place and the sovereignty of the new states born of the breakup of the Empire. Russian. This is what we will see next week.


bottom of page