The Myth of Nations: Forum on Nations and Nationalism in the Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire and USSR - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Myth of Nations:

Forum on Nations and Nationalism in the Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire and USSR



Editorial Introduction


The Russian Empire and later USSR always faced the difficult task of how to incorporate the many nationalities into the empire. Instead of Russia’s border spreading into new and mostly uninhabited territories it constantly was absorbing people groups with their own distinctive histories and cultures. In this way it has been called a multi-ethnic empire. This forum is to examine the perspective three different nations within the empire and their experiences with nationality through the formation and collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  In the first essay, the author examines the entrance of Lithuania into the Russian Empire and the struggle to maintain their own culture under Russian domination. The second essay focuses on Estonia, a country in the same area of Europe, with a completely different experience within the Russian Empire. Estonia’s nationalism manifested in different ways, but it too was in response to the Russian Empire’s policies towards the different nationalities within. The final piece is on Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed.  The Soviet Union adopted completely different practices than the former Russian Empire, but still failed to build upon the differences of its people and individual nationalism across the USSR, which ultimately lead to its downfall.  Nationalism faced different challenges with every nation depending on each nation’s level of development, participation in the Russian Empire, or in many cases forced submission and retreat of individual cultures through Russification. The Russian Empire and later Soviet Union were never able to reconcile the individual nations with the all encompassing empire and these essays are focused on the nationalism that arose in response.



The Rise of Nationalism in Lithuania



Armstrong State University


In the centuries leading up to its forceful admittance into the Russian Empire, Lithuania was a powerful entity in Eastern Europe, first as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later as a member of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The three great powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria could essentially choose the Polish king at will, by exerting their influence over the Polish nobles who were responsible for electing their king. Over the course of twenty-two years and three Polish partitions, all of Lithuania became incorporated into the Russian Empire.[1] This incorporation included changing the national language to Russian and other measures of Russification to lessen the resistance to Russian domination. In the face of Lithuanian culture and physical territories being reshaped a strong since of nationalism arose within the Lithuanian communities.


Once under Russian Imperial rule, Lithuanians became the target of Russification, much the same as Poland and the other Baltic States. Russian became the official language in the school system, save for studies of the language itself or for religious studies. Russians also became the de facto heads of Lithuanian society, more rigidly than in Poland, with the majority of Lithuanians confined to the peasantry. While some dissenting political parties formed in this time, such as the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, they were not successful.[2]  These policies would remain in effect in Lithuania until the beginning of the First World War, when Lithuania would again be given its chance for independence.


Benedict Anderson lays out perhaps the most complete and well worded definition of nationalism as an “imagined political community…imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”[3]  In short, the idea that residents of a certain area who have never, and probably will never, meet share a commonality between them more than just their geographic proximity is central to Anderson’s definition. Nationalistic movements undoubtedly played a huge role in the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in many regions throughout the Russian Empire, although throughout Lithuania this was not quite as defining a characteristic as it was in other areas.  The Lithuanian nationalism was focused on preserving their culture opposed to fighting for change in the larger empire that they could have little effect on.



Members of Council of Lithuania, 1917.
Source: National Museum of Lithuania

Nationalism in Lithuania largely has its’ roots in the 1870’s when students began to distance themselves from Polish culture, which was still predominant among the upper class; a residual from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  At this point a common Lithuanian language was established, evolving from one of the three vying for prominence at the time, with intellectuals arising from the peasantry forming the spearhead for the movement.  During the Revolution of 1905, several Lithuanian nationalists spoke out at a conference in the Russian capital, discussing matters of national autonomy, the use of the Lithuanian language and establishing a constitutional assembly, but were put down by members of the center and left in order to avoid antagonizing a “democratic” Russia.[4] Tsarist Russia cared little for the individual concerns of the Lithuanian people, forcing Lithuanian nationalism in place of any sense of position in the larger Russian Empire.



The policies of Russification pushed many of the Lithuanian people into nationalistic movements in order to preserve their culture and heritage. At the beginning of the 1917 Revolution, Lithuania was under Central Powers occupation, and as such, did not have as much revolutionary activity as some of the more volatile regions of the Russian Empire. Despite this, Lithuanian nationalism persevered and in 1918 was the driving force for Lithuania’s secession from Russia and its declaration of independence as a sovereign state under the protection of Germany, a freedom rescinded less than thirty years later following the close of the Second World War.



The Creation of Estonia and Its Nationalism



Armstrong State University


The late 19th century in Estonia is their period of national awakening. Estonia was led by a new elite class, and the country marched towards nationhood.  Estonia had been within the Russian Empire since 1721 and in many ways represented a model of European culture that Peter I wanted to preserve, resulting in considerable autonomy for a state under Russian authority. This century was also a period of industrialization, marked by a rise in large factories and an extensive railway network that linked Estonia with Russia.  Nationalism in Estonia originally manifested as calls for greater equality and autonomy within the larger Russian Empire.  The autonomy already possessed created a highly educated class of citizens that would later resist policies of Russification, leading to movements for greater independence after the Revolution of 1905 and 1917.[5]


According to Benedict Anderson, nationalism is “an imagined political community-and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign,” and he means each word very specifically.[6]  Benedict says that a nation is imagined because all members will never know most of their fellow-members, but they all have the same image of their community. When imagining this community people view it as limited because even the largest nations have borders. A nation is imagined as a community because of the common view of kinship and brotherhood that members of a nation possess.


One of the most critical components for Estonia in the nineteenth century was the cultural revolution that took place. This national awakening was brought on by two external factors; the emancipation of serfs (1816−1819), and the process of Russification in the late 1800s. The serf emancipation while granting the right to move more freely, had not changed the law of land ownership and left most Estonians economically enslaved to land owning Baltic Germans.



Estonian National Song Festival 1869.
Source: Estonia Institute

Combined with a search for identity, Russification helped push the national awakening into action. While Russification was supposed to curb nationalistic feelings it instead brought about the idea of “us” and “them”. This started with the push of the Russian language on Estonians; it was the perfect building block to begin to separate the characteristics of an Estonian from a Russian.  It was this cultural phenomenon that made Estonians begins the process of self-identification. By identifying themselves as a distinct community within the Russian empire, the Estonian people drew from their shared history and customs to create an ethnically based Estonian nation.  One example of this is the first Estonian-language newspaper, Perno Postimees, which appeared in 1857.  It was published by Johann Voldemar Jannsen, who was one of the first to use the term ‘Estonians’ rather than Maarahvas.[7]



During the midst of the Russian revolutions Estonia was undergoing its awakening. While Estonia did play a role in the revolution, most attention was focused on the slowly building empire and understanding its own people and characteristics. Most involvement of Estonia was for the demand of autonomy in the 1905 revolutions. It was in this stage that Estonian workers expressed their discontent with the economic, social and legal situations in their society through the strike movement. They were trying to obtain shorter working days, better environments, and higher pay.[8]


Events in Estonia mimicked those in Russia, and in January 1905 as armed insurrection flared across the border, Estonia’s workers joined the fray. Tsar Nicholas II's response incited the Estonian rebels, who continued to destroy the property of the nobility. Subsequently, thousands of soldiers arrived from Russia, quelling the rebellions and then executed 600 Estonians and sent hundreds off to Siberia. During Russia’s involvement in WW1 many Estonians were conscripted to fight for Russia under the notion that if they helped to defeat Germany they would be free. This of course would not be true, but by 1917 the matter was no longer the Tsar's to decide. In St Petersburg, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, and the Bolsheviks seized power. As chaos swept across Russia, Estonia seized the initiative and on February 24, 1918, effectively declared its independence.


Estonia received slightly better treatment than some of the nations under the rule of the Russian Empire, but this lead to a thriving Estonian culture and ultimately a population still unwilling to submit to Russification and surrender of their own nationalistic goals.  Executions during the revolutions and then military conscriptions to fight the Germans in WWI were all factors that prevented Estonians from viewing themselves as part of Russia as a whole and sustained nationalism.  Russia’s policies towards the nationalities within her borders not only alienated the different nations and cultures, but in many cases, such as Estonia, created movements of nationalism that would not have been present without the threat of having to conform to the Russian Empire.  Estonia achieved independence from Russia and Germany and was recognized by the Western Allies in 1920, although it would be taken over again by the Soviet Union after WWII and the battle of nationalism within the multi-ethnic empire would persist once more.



Nationalism’s Role in the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Case of Armenia



Armstrong State University


The final collapse of the Soviet Union was a result of the coup that took place in 1991, but this was a result of developments that had been growing since the mid 1980’s and many of the republics had already declared and received sovereignty by 1991. A generalized answer for the collapse is that the Soviets and the Communist Party never completely understood nationalism or at least could not find a way to make it work for the benefit of the empire.  Armenia’s history dates back to the earliest days of Christianity with the establishment of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 301 A.D.  Because of this rich history and culture the Armenian people have always had a deep since of nationalism even when they possessed little to none of their original territory or borders.  This nationalism allowed the Armenians to preserve their culture in the face of many foreign rulers.



Armenian genocide survivors, 1919.
Source: Armenian General Benevolent Union Archives

The Armenian people demonstrated nationalism throughout many centuries of being dominated by the Byzantines, Persians, Ottomans and finally the Russians/Soviets.  Making a distinction between themselves and their neighbors in the Caucasus areas has helped to maintain nationalistic feelings for Armenians and most non-Russian groups in the area.  It is clear through the many examples of injustices done to the Armenian people, such as the Armenian Genocide in 1915-16, that they were willing to die for this sense of shared community, culture and heritage.



Armenia experienced a brief period of independence after WWI only to be conquered and incorporated into the Soviet Union as Soviet Armenia in 1922.  Many of the Baltic republics had communism and the Soviet system forced on them after WWII.  The other republics that entered into the USSR. willingly had seen deportations, imprisonments, and even murder of their own nationalist elites in the periods that Stalin sought to unify the Union through brutal force. These tactics were the context that drove the many smaller republics to demand greater autonomy within the Republic of Soviet Socialists. Gorbachev, as early as 1984 began to speak of democratization, although like most Soviet rhetoric action never followed.[9]   It seems that Gorbachev was more than just pandering to the non-Russian peoples and that he actually believed he could reform the Soviet Union and win over the many groups that were preparing for revolution.  The opposite effect occurred and the outer republics saw Gorbachev as their only opportunity to leave the weakening USSR for good. 


In the past, Armenians watched their nationalism used against them by Stalin in a tactic that placed them in conflict with Azerbaijan over the same territory (Nagorny Karabakh), in an attempt to force both republics to need the assistance of Moscow.  However, tensions among the republics were no longer able to be managed by Moscow, and mass protest and fighting broke out in the 80’s.  In 1988 a regional council of Nagorny Karabakh began demanding to be rejoined with their ethnic homeland of Armenia.  This only led to mass demonstrations and the death of 32 people.  Despite Gorbachev’s statements of support for more democracy and liberal politics, the Soviets were unwilling to redraw any borders and in many cases sent in the KGB and Special Forces units to squash demonstrations or riots.[10]  


Then in 1988, Gorbachev announced to the UN that “the socialist countries could choose for themselves”.  Simultaneously an earthquake shattered Armenia and killed 50,000 Armenians.  The Soviet failure to respond properly left for Armenians the question of whether they should try to stay within the Union or not.   The lack of authority in the botched rescue attempts and the corruption of builders who were stealing the actual cement and replacing it with sand added to the discontent.[11]  


Armenia is made up of a people group that have preserved throughout many changing borders, territories, and ruling empires.  The people are held together through shared language, religion, culture and heritage and in this way represent nationalism to the fullest.  In the end, Armenians have always considered themselves an individual people group within the many different Empires that have conquered its borders.  The 1989 census showed that in the Transcaucasus area there were fewer than 10% who identified as Russian, and in Armenia the numbers were less than 1.6%.[12] By the time Russia declared itself a sovereign state, the other republics were never going to give allegiance or subordination to anyone other than their own nationalities and national interests.[13]



About the authors

Dannyel M Smith is a junior at Armstrong pursuing a major in nursing and a minor in History. Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, a junior history major, is a member of Phi Alpha Theta and the program assistant for the Initiative for Civic Engagement's Speakers Bureau on campus. Robert Cory is a junior in the Political Science Department, who is also pursuing a minor in History.


Recommended citation

Robert Cory, Dannyel Smith and Francis Tannie Arnsdorff, “The Myth of Nations: Forum on Nations and Nationalism in the Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire and USSR,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 2, no.2 (Aug. 2012).



[1] MacKenzie, David, Imperial Dreams, Harsh Realities: Tsarist Russian Foreign Policy 1815−1917, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, n.d., 19−22.

[2] Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801−1917 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 487−498.

[3]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), 5−7.

[4] Ronald Suny, Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 28−341, 353-366; Andreas Kappeler,  The Russian Empire, A Multiethnic History (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Press, 2001), 356−57.

[5]For Estonian History, see (Accessed Wednesday, February 08, 2012); (Accessed Wednesday, February 08, 2012); (Accessed Wednesday, February 08, 2012)

[6] Benedict Anderson,  6−7.

[7]Kerstin Saarkoppel, “Estonian Identity, Estonian Nationalism: Impact of European Union Accession,” MA thesis, (McMaster University 2002), 29−54.

[8]For Estonian industrial workers' demands in the 1905 revolution, see'+demands+in+the+1905+revolution%2fEesti...-a0199194944 (Accessed March 06, 2012).

[9] Anders Aslund, Russia’s Capitolist Revolution (Washington DC: Peterson Institute, 2007), 46.

[10] Aslund, 51.

[11] Ibid., 64.

[12] “Russian Diaspora,” in Immigration and Asylum from 1900 to Present, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. (accessed April 18, 2012).

[13] Jack Matlock, Autopsy on an Empire (New York: Random House, 1995), 652.

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