Stalin and the birth of British values
The USSR is the template for modern multiculturalism
This is part 2 in a two-part series on Russia multiculturalism
‘British values’ was an idea that largely emerged in the later Blair/Brown years, one of those terms that came to be used everywhere even though almost no one using it, and no one reading it, seemed to understand what it meant.
It grew with the anxieties about multiculturalism following the 7/7 bombing, and the realisation that large numbers of young people from Muslim backgrounds were growing up alienated from the country of their birth; in order to combat this, the government and its ideological allies in education set about teaching a system of national values to unite a newly-diverse population.
Many of these values weren’t especially British, and others weren’t even values to most of the country. There was a big focus on things like ‘tolerance’ and ‘fair play’, as if other nations identified cheating as a core national characteristic. Other values were and are highly contestable, and would have been incomprehensible to most of our grandparents, being post-1960-something moral innovations about sexual identity. Maybe they’re good, maybe they’re not, but there’s nothing British about them, and if you think these things will hold a new empire together, you maybe haven’t acquired a level of cynicism necessary for government.
But then New Labour’s approach to this area was characterised throughout by a strange naivety, which in part resulted from a lack of interest in history; this was true even as they begin to write a new chapter in Britain’s story, seemingly unaware that it been written many times before elsewhere.
Multiculturalism is as old as the first empires, indeed the two things are intimately linked, the essential thread of Krishan Kumar’s Visions of Empire. Successful overlords down the ages have developed methods of dealing with diverse groups, the most famous being the millet system whereby the Ottomans ruled different religious communities, but something prefiguring this occurred as far back as the Persian Empire. Managing diversity is nothing new, but perhaps the most interesting parallel between multiculturalism in modern Britain and the United States comes with the Soviet Union. It was, after all, a multi-ethnic empire but one with an ideological commitment to equality, and one with a dominant group whose nationalism and ethnic feelings had to be suppressed. The goal of the Soviets was to create a brotherhood of nations devoted to the values of the state — with predictable results.
As Kumar describes it, the USSR developed various policies which are recognisable today, many formulated by Lenin’s Commissar of Nationalities, an ambitious go-getting Georgian by the name of Joseph Stalin. It was Stalin who has arguably done more than anyone else to influence modern multiculturalism, helping to create the first system of affirmative action (chronicled in greater depth by Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire, which Kumar cites).
In particular the relationship between Russians and the Soviet Union provides a parallel with the 21st century relationship between white Americans and the United States. And, since Britain is now a cultural satellite state of the US, a similar pattern is found here. too.
Russia was an unfortunate place to try communism; not only was it largely agricultural, but it was hardly the sort of compact, homogenous society in which people might accept such a degree of personal sacrifice. Denmark might have made a decent stab at Marxist ideology, and of all recorded communist states, East Germany was the richest and arguably most successful. Or at any rate, least unsuccessful. And even they had to imprison their citizens behind a wall.
Russia was in contrast a gigantic empire and home to dozens of ethnic groups, so that a system based on reciprocity was already up against all human inclinations. Its diversity also meant that, inevitably, it would function as an empire, even if the Bolsheviks were in principle opposed to such a thing (it was Lenin, after all, who had helped make ‘imperialism’ a term of abuse, even in the west). Indeed it was the Bolsheviks’ vision of a new empire, defined by a universal ideology, which helped them win the civil war against the Whites, attracting former tsarist officers like Aleksei Brusilov; in contrast, neither conservatives nor liberals were able to deal with the clash of competing nationalities. Conservatives would oppress the national minorities, while liberals would inevitably let them go; only the Reds could be true successors to the Third Rome.
The practicalities of running such a diverse state favoured a system of multiculturalism whereby local community leaders ruled on behalf of the state, and the Caucasian Stalin, hailing from one of the most ethnically diverse regions on earth, understood it better than anyone. As commissar of nationalities from 1917 to 1924, it was Stalin who devised the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policy.
Under his rule, and in order to help ‘the labouring masses of the non-Great Russian peoples to catch up with Central Russia, which has gone in front,’ it was necessary to ‘develop and strengthen among them courts, administration, economic and government bodies functioning in their native languages and staffed with local people familiar with the manner of life and mentality of the local inhabitants.’ On top of this it would be necessary to have ‘press, schools, theatres, clubs, and cultural and educational institutions in general, functioning in the native language’.
The policy came to be called Korenizatsiia, or indigenisation, and as Yuri Slezkine put it: ‘“the world’s first state of workers and peasants” was the world’s first state to institutionalise ethno-territorial federalism, classify all citizens according to their biological nationalities and formally prescribe preferential treatment of certain ethnically defined populations.’ This was a paradox that would also come to dominate the thinking of western progressives, who both wished to see beyond race and also define and judge everything by race.
In order to develop the ‘oppressed nations’ and rein in the ‘mindless Russian chauvinism’ (rusotiapstvo) of Great Russians, Kumar writes, ‘in the 1920s and 1930s there was a deliberate, state-sponsored policy of supporting native languages and education, and in appointing local people to state and party institutions.’ Some 40 non-Russian written languages were created in this period, and some forms of national literature flourished (including Ukrainian).
The policy had an ideological basis, and also a practical logic; justice could only come about when all nations were equal, but encouraging minority identity also allowed the party to run the state through local community leaders, a lesson that democratic parties in the West would later learn. It was win-win — at least for the party. Not so much for the ordinary Russians, for as Martin wrote, ‘Russians had to accept ambitious Affirmative Action programs for non-Russians’ and ‘traditional Russian culture was stigmatised as a culture of oppression.’