Few people in the West believed during the Cold War that the USSR was what its founders and leaders thought it to be. Lenin and Stalin designed it as a new type of federation - a union of ethnic nations or nation-states. Its Union Republics in their turn were also partitioned into ethnic homelands with varying levels of cultural autonomy. When talking about this autonomy, the emphasis should be on "cultural", as it was the flourishing of ethnic cultures that the union structure was supposed to serve.
It was well known that Revolutionary Social Democrats viewed ethnonationalism as a dangerous competitor to their own project of social revolution. Ethnic animosities tended to divide workers, allying them with bourgeoisies speaking the same language against workers speaking other languages. Thence their famous battle cry 'Workers of All Countries, Unite!' Why on earth would the Bolsheviks want to cater to divisive ethnic sentiments? The Bolsheviks also greatly valued centralism. That is the second puzzle. Why did they pick (even if only nominally) the form of statehood that is less centralised?
To answer the first question, Lenin thought that the symbolism of equality inherent in the idea of a union between fraternal nations would disarm ethnonationalism. He further believed that the ample space that was to be allocated for the cultural expression by ethnic minorities in the new union would cure interethnic hatreds and reconcile the minorities with their former imperial overlord. A united Soviet people would eventually form. Lenin called this strategy "disunion for union" and thought it was good dialectics. It was this "dialectical" thinking that led Lenin to insist on granting the right to secede at will to the Union Republics.
The answer to the second puzzle is that Lenin and Stalin did not consider contemporary federations, such as the United States or Switzerland, to be any less unified in political and economic terms than other, non-federal states. Just like them, the Soviet Union was to be a single economy and a single political system.
"Workers of all countries, unite!" (Gubpolitprosvet,
Military-patriotic and revolutionary poster marking 1 May - International Worker's Day.
If not a true federation, what was the Soviet Union? The view that has become established after its disintegration is that it was an empire in disguise. That also serves to explain why it could not last. Don't all empires fall (unlike democratic polities)? However, what defines an empire? Is it violence with which they are brought and held together? Is it centralisation? Is it the cultural distance between the centre and the peripheries? These criteria are commonly understood to distinguish empires from federations. The book therefore goes through a number of relevant historical contexts to test the soundness of these criteria.
In comparing the manner in which various modern federations were founded, some experts have drawn a contrast as follows. The USA and Switzerland are represented as being 'close to ideal' in the degree of voluntariness with which their constituent units joined the federal unions. On the other hand, the USSR serves to epitomise a federal state that was forcibly put together. To see how arbitrary this juxtaposition is, one need to recall that the original federal bargain between the American states did not last long, and it took four years of savage war and nearly twelve years of occupation to reintegrate the breakaway South. The Swiss history hardly matches the ideal of voluntary integration either. The Old Swiss Confederacy was an expansionist power that annexed and ruled surrounding territories as dependencies. In the mid 19th century, seven Swiss cantons also attempted to break away from the Confederation, but were forced back militarily.
Critics also claimed that the USSR existed on borrowed time, because its Union Republics - in the absence of competitive politics - could only have 'the form but not the substance' of self-government. Since politics had been always vibrantly competitive in the United States, one should expect the forms to be infused with substance there. Yet the antifederalists at the time of the founding expected that the new constitution would turn the union into an empire where, to quote one of them, 'the State sovereignties would be eventually annihilated, though the forms may long remain as expensive and burdensome remembrances'. Their successors in defending states' rights, Southern Confederates, claimed that it had indeed become a unitary empire before their dissent was crushed with massive violence, as already mentioned. The US is now considered the model federation, but it may be edifying to recall that there have been movements in its history, which denied that it was a true federation where the states could enjoy meaningful self-government, competitive politics or not.
The USSR's peculiar organisation and policies that promoted ethnic identities have been pointed to as yet another indication that it was an empire rather than a modern polity. The modern polity is a culturally unified nation-state, not a state of nations. On the other hand, ethnic nationalists in the West had been accusing nation-states that denied recognition to internal ethno-regional diversity of being empires in denial. It was under pressure from such voices that Western nation-states, such as Spain or the UK, have in recent decades carried out reforms that are not dissimilar to Soviet ethnofederal arrangements. Have these Western nation-states been moving backwards or was the Soviet Union ahead of time?
In any case, it has been customary to portray Russia as a laggard in modern nation building. Due to its failure to become a modern nation by the early 20th century, as this line of interpretation goes, it remained the core of a renewed if disguised empire. The formation of Russian nationhood as a prerequisite of democratic development had been inhibited by the fusion of empire and nation building in Russian history. This was presumably different to Western Europe where nations had consolidated before they started to grow colonial empires. This contrast too is mythical. There are sufficient similarities in the histories of territorial expansion between Russia and such exemplary democratic nations as the US or the UK to undermine theories of Russian exceptionalism of that kind.
The book reveals many other intriguing affinities between empires and federations, and it is hoped that it can show that a historically broad comparative analysis provides a more reliable guidance to ascertaining the nature of the Soviet Union as a form of statehood than approaches underpinned by the normative doctrines of federalism or nationalism.