Staunton, December 30 – Ninety-three years ago today, the First Congress of Soviets created the USSR, a state that died just before its 69th birthday. Many in Moscow still regret its passing and continue to speculate on what might have allowed the world’s first socialist state to survive in the face of both its international opponents and domestic opposition.
The editors of the Regnum news agency note today that in its first 35 years of the existence, the USSR saw “the number of republics grow from four to 15 and the area of the Union greatly expanded. Who knows perhaps everything might have been different if China, the GDR, Cuba and Vietnam” had joined it as well? (regnum.ru/news/polit/2047164.html).
By making that reference, the Regnum editors intentionally or not have raised a question that many have preferred to forget: the USSR might have expanded in exactly that way if Lenin had lived because Lenin believed that the borders of the USSR should expand to include all countries that had had a socialist revolution in them.
But in fact, it expanded to the borders that it had at its end because Stalin believed that non-Russians who had not lived under the Russian Empire would not tolerate being part of a Russian-dominated state for long. And consequently, he did not move to include within the USSR countries that had gone socialist in Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America.
Stalin violated his own view only when he occupied Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and parts of what is now Moldova and when after a gap of 25 years re-imposed Russian rule in the Baltic countries, and it was these violations that almost certainly contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Had Stalin moved the USSR’s borders further outward, the Soviet Union likely would have exploded even earlier; but if it had survived in the form Lenin wanted, it would not be a Russian-dominated system but rather one in which the majority of its population would be speaking Chinese, certainly something that would give even the most pro-Soviet Russians pause.
The fight between Lenin and Stalin took place largely out of public view. In his draft theses on the national colonial question for the second congress of the Komintern in 1920, Lenin outlined his view that as the revolution spread, so too should the borders of the Soviet state, an idea that the Red Army’s invasion of Poland may have made appear plausible.
Stalin registered his objections in two code cables, one of which was published in Soviet times only once and by someone who did not die in his sleep as a result as a footnote in the third edition of Lenin’s collected works and one of which remained unpublished until after the demise of the USSR.
In both, Stalin made clear that national identities would remain powerful even after a socialist revolution and that trying to impose Moscow’s control on those who had never experienced Russian rule before would be a mistake. He said that the Poles would never accept Soviet RUSSIAN rule and that the same would be true elsewhere.
In the event, Lenin was incapacitated and died not long after the USSR was formed, and Stalin was able to put his ideas into practice, ideas that gave birth to a world socialist system in which there were many states not one with the kind of diversity that he had no intention of allowing within the Soviet Union.