The nurturing of a somewhat democratic and mostly united India is a miracle of modern times. No nation was born in more difficult circumstances, or made out of less likely raw materials. India was granted political independence against the background of civil war and famine. Its leaders had to forge a nation, democratically, out of a population desperately poor and deeply divided.
In the history of the world only the Soviet experiment bears comparison with the Indian one. There, too, a united political entity had to be created out of far-flung and very diverse parts. As in India, the citizens of a putatively single nation-state spoke many different tongues, worshipped many different gods (or no god at all), wore many different dresses and cooked many different kinds of food. As in India, this diversity had somehow to be maintained and even respected, while ensuring that it did not lead to disunity or separation.
This comparison, between the Soviet Union and the Republic of India, was sparked by a reading of a fascinating recent collection of essays entitled A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Building in the Age of Lenin and Stalin. The book’s editors, Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, are American academics, as are the other contributors. But they all speak Russian (and other languages relevant to their task), and they have all mined the rich archives that opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after the Russian Revolution, there was a debate within the Bolshevik party on how best to handle cultural and ethnic diversity. One school believed that the state should promote an essentially Russian identity across the varied territories of the Soviet empire. The other school, headed by Lenin, argued that such a policy would bring back memories of “tsarist chauvinism”. Instead, to cultivate loyalty to and trust in the new state, the Bolsheviks should encourage their subjects to speak, teach, learn and administer in their own language(s).
Over time, the Soviet Union moved towards greater centralization and cultural integration. Where the Bolshevik leadership had once professed great respect for the ideals and aspirations of the non-Russian nationalities, now they placed greater emphasis on the “central unifying role” of the dominant community. By the late Thirties, “the Russians [were regarded] as the Soviet Union’s leading nationality, ‘the first among equals’”. The business of government and of the ruling Communist Party was conducted in the Russian language. Higher education was provided in Russian alone. However, the other languages were promoted in schools, and in literature and the arts.
The architect of this new policy was Lenin’s successor, Stalin. In 1937, he mandated that all recruits to the Soviet Army — an institution as critical to the state as the party — had to be fluent in Russian. Stalin claimed that “there is one language in which all citizens of the USSR can more or less express themselves — that is Russian. So we concluded that it should be obligatory”.
The moves towards Russification intensified after the Soviet Union entered World War II. As the nation-state fought for survival against the Nazis, Soviet ideologues insisted that only a Russian identity could provide the inspiration for the bloody battles ahead. Thus, writers of school textbooks were instructed to “advance Russian nationalism as the first priority”. While professing “respect” and “love” for the non-Russian ethnicities who formed part of the Soviet Union, it was made clear that “Russian history was done by Russians”, and hence “every textbook about Russia ought to be constructed with this leitmotif — what precisely from this point of view [was necessary] for the Russian people’s success, for their development, for understanding the suffering they endured”. Textbook writers were asked to show less interest now “in the hundred ethnicities which entered into our state”, and to omit evidence of historical conflicts between Russian and non-Russian nationalities, especially when these may have resulted in the victory of the latter. And so, during World War II, the “Russian people’s ethnic primacy within Soviet society” was consolidated and confirmed.
When the war was finally won, Stalin threw a great banquet for the commanders of the Red Army. At this banquet — held on May 24, 1945 — Stalin offered a revealing salutation: “Comrades, allow me to raise one more final toast.
“I would like to raise a toast to the health of our Soviet people and, most of all, to the Russian people.
“I drink, most of all, to the health of the Russian people because they are the most outstanding of all the nations entering into the Soviet Union.
“I raise a toast to the health of the Russian people because they earned general recognition during the war as the Soviet Union’s leading force among all the peoples of our country.
“I raise a toast to the Russian people not just because they are the leading people, but because they have a clear mind, hardy character and patience…”
Stalin’s toast would have resonated with M.S. Golwalkar, the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at the time. For Golwalkar likewise believed that national unity could only be achieved by the dominance of a single, leading majority community. However, in this case, the hegemon was defined with respect to religion rather than ethnicity. In the RSS scheme of things, Hindus were the “most outstanding” of all the communities of India, “the leading force” among all its peoples. The other communities were considered inferior, not just in numbers, but in terms of their presumed loyalty to the state. For Golwalkar and his followers spoke and acted as if Hindus had a clearer mind, a hardier character and greater patience than those Indians who owed allegiance to other religious traditions.
Fortunately, the Constitution of India eschewed the model of a homogenizing Hindutva in favour of democracy and cultural pluralism. As our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, often insisted, India could not and must not become a “Hindu Pakistan”. Apart from the pluralism of faiths, there was also a (largely successful) attempt to promote the pluralism of languages. Resisting the pressures to make Hindi the sole language of instruction and administration, Nehru and his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, allowed southern states to run their affairs in their own languages and also to use English (a language more acceptable to them than Hindi) in communication with the Centre.
Comparing the Indian experience to the Soviet one, it seems to me that where they increasingly laid stress on centralization and the assertion of a Russian core, we have, in contrast, moved towards a more federal and pluralistic system. Certainly, the states have far more political power and cultural self-confidence now than they did in the Fifties or Sixties. One reason for this is that, unlike the former Soviet Union, India is a democracy. Thus the people of its provinces can democratically and successfully resist the hegemony of the Centre, as well as the hegemony of a single religion or linguistic group.
The contributors to A State of Nations focus on the nationalities of the Soviet Union alone. Yet the possibilities of a comparative analysis apparently did cross their minds. In their editorial introduction, Suny and Martin speak of how “in the age of nationalism, to be labelled an empire by one’s citizens and one’s neighbours is frequently fatal, for it is assumed that empires are antiquated, artificial constructs that will eventually fragment into their natural nation-state components”. This remark was prompted by the break-up of the Soviet Union, but then the authors add: “India is not now labelled an empire, but if we start to hear it described widely as one, we can assume its disintegration has suddenly become more likely”. For India’s sake, and ours, we must hope that the day when it can be termed an “empire” is far distant.