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Mainstream, VOL LX No 9, 10 New Delhi, February 19, February 26, 2022 [Special Double number]

100 Years of USSR: USSR and nation formation in Asia | Anil Rajimwale

Thursday 17 February 2022, by Anil Rajimwale

This year the world is celebrating hundred years of the formation of USSR or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR left a deep impact on world history, including on Asia and on nation-formation here. The rise and dissolution of the USSR has serious lessons for the world history, for democracy and socialism in the 21st century. The word ‘soviet’ has a rich history, which shaped the history of Russian revolution.

Emergence of Soviets in Russian Revolution, 1905

 Soviets have a long and interesting history. They were born in the course of the Russian revolution of 1905 as mass organizations of workers and peasants, spontaneously as organs of the masses fighting against Tsarist despotism. Tsarist Russia had no official elected organs like assemblies or parliament. Duma emerged a little later, in 1906, and was ineffective due to restricted franchise, limitations on parties and restrictions on rights.

 The Soviets or the councils of people in contrast were mass organizations elected by the people directly with real mass power. They sprang up everywhere: in factories, mills and villages, even in army units, to fight the oppressive Tsarist police and army machinery. Various political parties, who had practically no hand in their formation at the initial stages, rushed to join them to create their own spheres of influence, and vied with each other to get seats. They fought elections to the soviets at various levels.

 The RSDLP or the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had split into Menshevik and Bolshevik parties in 1903, the latter led by the great leader of Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilych Lenin. The split related to the basic strategic issues related with Russian revolution. Analyzing the era of imperialism for the first time, Lenin pointed out that the anti-imperialist front had broadened to create grounds for the broader bourgeois-democratic revolution. Feudalism, Tsarism and imperialism must first be eliminated before socialist (proletarian) revolution could be thought of. One could not reach socialism directly; one had to pass through bourgeois-democratic intermediate stages of revolution. The democratic revolution would create conditions for future socialism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood for completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution and asked the proletariat to take part actively in it.

 The Mensheviks on the other hand wanted to reach socialism directly. Therefore, the ‘ultra-revolutionaries’ that they were, they kept out of 1905 revolution since it was not ‘socialist’!

 It was during the 1905 revolution that the unity of the workers and peasants came into being, symbolized by embossing of hammer and sickle on the red flag, the flag of the Soviets, the united organs of workers and peasants.

 The 1905 revolution was led by the Soviets.

Great Russian Revolution, 1917

 Russian revolution of 1917 has shaped the world history in several crucial ways. Tsarist Russia was known as the ‘prison of nations’. In its imperialist endeavor, the Tsarist regime brought a large number of nations under its tutelage, violating their sovereignty and independence. Formation of the USSR was to be an answer to this expansionism by putting forth the principle of self-determination of nations up to secession. This was a major issue during the First World War (WW I).

 But before that, earth-shaking events took place in the Tsarist Russia. In the latter part of WW I, Russia began to disintegrate, and its armies began to flee the war fronts. They and the armies of other imperialist nations began to fraternize at the War fronts. The armies of various countries could see the reality of the imperialist war and began to oppose it. The armies consisted of common workers and peasants and other working people. The Russian soldiers joined the Soviets in huge numbers, which thus became Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Soviets. 

 The Tsar was overthrown and replaced by a Provisional Government in March 1917 in a revolution carried out by the Soviets. It was a democratic revolution, bourgeois development process. They could not form the government directly. They supported a Provisional Government from the outside. The Soviets played a crucial role in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, and the real power was in their hands, though not the formal power. They supported the new revolutionary regime. Lenin in April 1917 wrote his famous article ‘April Theses’, analyzing this dual power which appeared in history for the first time.

 This was the first stage of revolution. The second stage was accomplished in November the same year. In the meanwhile, the revolution passed through complicated stage of development, first through a peaceful period, when the Soviets could capture power peacefully. Then followed a non-peaceful period. There also took place elections to the Constituent Assembly. But the real power came to be exercised by the Soviets, to whose bodies elections took place all over Russia. The Bolsheviks gradually came to dominate it.

 World’s first worker-peasant government was formed through taking over of power by the Soviets after deposing the Provisional Government on 7 November 1917 through armed uprising, though there was no bloodshed and no violent fight. It was formed by the All Russia Congress of the Soviets and its Central Executive Committee. Thus, it was a Soviet revolution.

 The role and place of the Soviets have always been the point of controversy. Soviets were the organs of power or rule of the workers and peasants. They were joined by the soldiers, or largely the peasants in uniform. Thus, it was the first example where the workers and peasants took power in their hands, of course under the guidance of the Soviets, wherein the Bolshevik Party was in majority. This was possible because the armies joined the revolution en masse. This is a lesson for revolutions: the armed forces either must join or at least remain neutral for it to be successful. Today, the armies are supporting the democratic process in most countries.

 Later in the course of history of the Soviets, the power passed step by step into the hands of the party and a narrow circle of its leadership. It was thus deprived of real power, which was usurped by the party and a narrow circle of its leadership, mainly during the centralized rule represented by Stalin. Stalinism destroyed Soviet, and thus worker-peasant, power.

However, that is another question needing separate treatment.

Creation of USSR, 1922

 One of the first problems tackled by the Soviet regime was the relation between class and national question and solution of the national problem. Soviet government announced that any republic wanting to separate was free to do so. As a result, Finland got separated in 1918. This was a great step by the new government, and showed its intentions. Russia consisted of so many nations and countries like the Ukraine, Byelorussia, the central Asian republics and so on.

 Russia was not one ‘country’ in the usual sense of term. It included so many countries which evolved into future ‘republics’. So, a highly flexible national policy was adopted, which was peculiar to Russian revolution. Yet, most of the republics or countries and areas chose to remain within the political-economic structure of now Soviet Russia due to democratic and socialist revolutions.

Russian revolution liberated the imprisoned nations.

 Soviet Russia consisted of 15 constituent republics, 15 in all, which became ‘Soviet’ step by step. They adopted or established Soviet power. They also became ‘socialist’. Soviet Russia became RSFSR or Russian Socialist Federative Socialist Republics. Then it became USSR, joined by other republics. This was a slow, complex and complicated, dialectical and contradictory process. The Soviet power spread slowly and painfully, due to sharp class conflicts imposed by former Tsarist forces and imperialist countries, which sent their troops into Russia to overthrow the newly established Soviet power. Fourteen (14) imperialist countries including the US, Britain, France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and others militarily intervened into Russia. The War of Intervention was also known as the Civil War because the rightwing reactionaries and supporters of former regime, the ‘White Guards’, actively took part. The war lasted from 1918 to 1922, when imperialism and counter-revolution were badly defeated. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was announced on 1922. It consisted of 15 republics including Ukraine, Byelorussia, Russian Federation, Central Asian Republics etc. It became a powerful union of Soviet nations with socialist direction, which deeply impacted the world history.

 In the course of the Civil War, Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Russian Federation entered into a military and political alliance. In 1921 and 1922, they set up close diplomatic alliance in foreign trade and policy. In 1922, the CC of RCP (Russian Communist Party) formed a commission to discuss the relations between the republics in the midst of serious debates. Lenin proposed formation of the USSR, a voluntary union of equal and sovereign states.

 Lenin’s proposals were accepted unanimously. The First All Union Congress of Soviets held on 30 December 1922 accepted the formation of the USSR. A Treaty of Union was signed. Two years later, a declaration on the formation of USSR was adopted and also the Constitution of USSR in January 1924 in the Second All Union Congress of Soviets.

 USSR at the time included two federal republics of Russian Federation and Transcaucasia including Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, plus Ukraine and Byelorussia. All Union Congress of Soviets (AUCS) became the highest body of power. All Union CEC became the highest executive power.

 The fact is of great theoretical as well as practical importance that the emergence of the USSR helped and speeded up the formation of national-states in the course of national liberation struggles against colonialism and imperialism, such as in India, Asia, Southeast Asian regions, Africa, Middle-east etc. This is a historic contribution of the USSR.

Soviet Impact on India and Asia

 USSR stood with the peoples fighting against colonialism and imperialism. This contained the seeds of nation and nation-state formation in these countries in Asia and Africa. Thus, the USSR helped crystallizations of anti-colonial national formation in the subjugated lands.

 It unleashed a process of national liberation movements (NLM) in the colonial countries. USSR thus helped the process of creation of independent nations in their struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

 National liberation struggles in these countries was nothing but the process of formation of anti-imperialist nations. USSR emerged as a firm ally of these emerging nations. India was one of them. Indian nation emerged in the course of long anti-British colonial struggles.

 USSR had a deep influence on the Asian countries like India, China, Indo-china, Malaya, Burma, Middle-east, Central Asia etc. Russian revolution inaugurated a world revolutionary process, which joined together the Russian revolution, international working class movement, and the struggle for national freedom in the colonies.

 USSR, earlier Soviet Russia, established a close cooperation with the revolutionary Turkey led by Kemal Ataturk Pasha. Lenin took initiative to solve all the border problems with Turkey and Iran, and returned the disputed lands grabbed by Tsarist regime. Soviet regime helped these countries with material aid even when Russia was going through a very difficult economic crisis.

 Soviet Russia and later USSR became the centre of attraction for the freedom fighters and revolutionaries from Asia, Central Asia, Middle East and Africa, who flocked there to see for themselves the revolutionary and socialist transformation, drawing great inspiration for the freedom of their own countries. Revolutionaries like Sen Katayama, Sultan Zade, MN Roy, Shaukat Usmani, Baba Prithvi Singh Azad, Sun Yat-sen, Mohammad Shafiq, Bhupen Dutta, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and numerous others drew inspiration for freedom and democracy.

 Many revolutionaries from India were arrested and tried under successive Peshawar Conspiracy Cases (1922-24). They were arrested while returning from Soviet Russia to India via Afghanistan. A large number of Asian and other revolutionaries were trained in the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, as also in Tashkent, which was an important centre. The university and other revolutionary centres trained a large number of Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and other revolutionaries, who played an important role in the events in their respective countries.

Soviet revolution had a deep impact on India and shaped many events. It radicalized India’s freedom struggle against British colonial rule. National leaders such as Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Bose, ‘Father of the Nation’ Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Bhagat Singh and many others appreciated the role of USSR in supporting and aiding Indian freedom movement.

Lenin and Gandhi

 The one revolutionary who understood Gandhiji most and best was Lenin. He had no hesitation in formulating that the revolutionaries must support leaders like Mahatma Gandhiand Sun Yet-sen, and take part in the national freedom movements together with them.

 Lenin presented the Main Theses on Colonial Question at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. Lenin sharply criticized the ‘Supplementary Theses’ prepared by MN Roy, who wanted first to ‘overthrow’ leaders like Gandhi and only then fight for freedom. Lenin considered the movement led by Gandhiji and Congress as a genuine anti-imperialist national democratic, opposed sharply to imperialism. Lenin similarly highly regarded Kemal Ataturk Pasha and Sun Yat-sen.

 Mahatma Gandhi on his part had the highest regard and admiration for Lenin. He wrote about Lenin thus: “The devotion of such titans of spirit as Lenin to an Ideal must bear fruit. The nobility of his selflessness will be an example through centuries to come, and his Ideal will reach perfection...”

 Pt Jawaharlal Nehru as a leading Congress leader was appointed secretary of the Anti-Imperialist League in 1929, and worked in close cooperation with the Soviet Union and its leaders. Nehru had a deep respect for Soviet Union and was deeply influenced by Marxism, and was a Marxist in many respects. He wrote Glimpses of World History and Letters From a Father to His Daughter, using the method of historical materialism. He in fact helped many leaders of Indian freedom movement to learn Marxism and Soviet experiences. He also had a great regard and appreciation for the liberation movement in China led first by Sun Yat-sen and then by the CPC. He was among the initiators of the Medical Mission of the Indian National Congress to China’s liberated zones in the 1930s.

 FSU or the Friends of Soviet Union was born in the early 1941 as a vehicle of friendship between India and USSR fighting against imperialism. In the post-independence India, FSU became ISCUS and played a crucial role in promoting Indo-Soviet friendship against imperialist attempts to divide India.

 USSR stood firmly with the Indian people fighting for freedom during the anti-British colonial struggles. This was a continuation of the time when Madam Cama unfurled India’s Tricolor at the Stuttgart congress (1908) of Socialist (Second) International, and Lenin at that congress staunchly supported and advocated Indian cause for freedom.

 Indo-Soviet friendship continued well after India’s freedom in 1947, acquiring new features including economic ones. The anti-imperialist unity of the newly liberated countries during the NLM was not just symbolic or political; it was firmly based in the economic cooperation between the two steams. USSR helped India become economically independent and self-reliant by setting up basic and heavy industries as means of struggle against economic imperialism of the West. The friendship and the united front were bulwark against world imperialism.

 Wide range of political forces and parties was radicalized by socialist ideology of USSR, such as the Congress, CSP (Congress Socialist Party), Communist Party, and many others including the mass organizations of the people and the classes. USSR became the guiding star for anti-fascist struggle on the eve of and during the Second World War. Anti-fascist ideology took deep roots, with anti-fascist forces spreading fast.

USSR and liberation movement in China

 USSR exercised a deep impact on the events in China prior to and after the WW II.Spirit of freedom and democracy spread to China soon after the Russian revolution, and was expressed in the mass student uprising of Shanghai May 4th, 1919, known as the May Fourth Movement. Sun Yat-sen, the great leader of the Chinese people, the ‘Gandhi’ of China, a leader of the first Chinese revolution of 1912 and of the KMT or the Kuo Min-tang (Guomintang) party, was a close collaborator of the USSR. Soviet advisors like Mikhail Borodin helped KMT fight feudalism and imperialism. Communist Party of China was born in the midst of these events, leading to a close collaboration between KMT, CPC and the USSR. Madam Soong Ching Ling, wife of Dr Sun Yat-sen, carried forward this legacy.

  Unprecedented help was rendered by the USSR in creating and developing the liberated zones in China, to which Congress party of India too contributed through sending the Medical Mission to China. Soviet troops defeated the Japanese Kwantung Armies in Manchuria, thus simultaneously rolling back fascism and helping the PLA or People’s Liberation Armies to gain ground.

 USSR proved to be strong support in building independent economy of China after liberation in 1949. The territory of the USSR was a firm ground for the training of revolutionaries from China, India, Vietnam (and other areas of Indo-china), South and Southeast Asia, etc.

USSR and Bangladesh Liberation Struggle 

 The Soviet naval fleet and other forces were powerful deterrent to the US 7th Fleet during the Bangladesh liberation struggle of the 1970s. India and USSR actively cooperated in joint struggle against US imperialism during this struggle. Presence of Soviet fleet, help through arms and armaments and humanitarian help, along with cooperation with Indian government, were great help facilitating the liberation movement in Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was in close collaboration with the leaders of USSR in his struggle against military intervention and anti-imperialist fight.

 This event and the related ones defined the deep friendship between India, Bangladesh and USSR in common struggle against US imperialism.

Great United Front against Economic Imperialism

 It goes without saying that imperialism, in particular US imperialism, seeks to keep the former enslaved and now free and developing nations backward economically and in every other manner. In modern times, in 20th and 21st centuries, no developing nation can be strong economically without developing energy resources, iron and steel industries, oil, gas and electricity, mass communications, modern agriculture, heavy machinery, infrastructure, and so on.

 USSR played a key role and came forward to help the newly liberated nations to develop these industries and infrastructure, while the imperialist countries refused point-blank. A large number of countries have been able to build iron and steel, coal industry, oil refineries, heavy machine building plants, railways and communications, drugs and pharmaceuticals, fertilizer industries and so on, with the active help of the Soviet Union. It is upon these industries and infrastructure that they have built their economy further and developed in the 21st century as key players in the world economy, with rate of growth faster than those of the Western countries.

Historic Legacy of USSR

 Anti-imperialism and development have a strong and firm economic base, which has historically been contributed by the USSR. One cannot forget this contribution on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of USSR.

 The USSR is no more in existence, yet its revolutionary, socialist legacy and positive achievements continue to inspire people all over the world. It no doubt committed many mistakes, and there were attempts to learn and correct them. Revolutionaries must learn from their mistakes, and not justify them.

 Yet, the positive contributions cannot be denied. It is obvious that 21st century will not see another ‘Russian type’ revolution, or Chinese or Cuban or Vietnamese etc type. Situation has changed drastically. Yet the announcements of failed socialism have proved to be wrong. More than a dozen countries in Latin America have consistently for the last two decades been trying to chart new, parliamentary path of social change, backed by mass movement. Among the latest events of positive were in Mexico and Nicaragua, and more recently in Chile. More countries are veering round to new kinds of democratic, progressive and left paths, with each step more specific and concrete.

 Armed forces in Latin America are displaying more positive attitude to democratic institutions and democratic verdicts. This is a drastic, positive change from earlier positions. New sections and classes have emerged. Composition of the working class has changed. New features of social movement have emerged. For example, the earlier Chilean developments such as the victory of Bachelet were known as ‘Housewives’ revolution’. Today, Chile has elected a young left president and formed a government composed mainly of women and left elements. Latin America is going through a peaceful parliamentary transformation of democratic nature, thanks mainly to the liberatory process unleashed by the Soviet revolution.

 In India, new type of farmers’ movement took place.

 Changes in several European countries, and in Asia show that though the forms and methods of social change are undergoing transformation, the basic endeavor is to change people’s life. The traditional left, democratic and social force is changing.

 World is going through a new technology, information and digital revolution, fast expanding markets, rapid urbanization, collapse of time and space, miniaturization of means of production, high productivity and therefore greater emphasis on distribution, parliamentary and democratic forms of struggle, new mass movements, rise of the middle class, greater respect of democracy by the armed forces as shown in Latin America, etc.

 People are struggling to create a just society in new forms in the 21st century. The Social Front has expanded as never before. Even in the US the slogan of ‘99% Against One Percent’ reflects broadening of wide front. Even there, finance monopoly corporate power has not been able to fully dominate, and financial concentration is being challenged.

 Finance capital is getting further isolated. It is trying to crush not only workers, peasants, middle class, intelligentsia, etc but also the productive capital, heightening possibilities of democratic revolution. Financial imperialism is in a bind.

 The great historic achievements of USSR continue to inspire through its positive achievements in the 21st century.

(Author is General Secretary, All India Progressive Forum [AIPF])

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