Georgia on His Mind: Lenin’s Final Fight against “Great-Russian Chauvinism”

As the Russian Army swept into Gori from where the Georgian Army had launched its assault on Tshkinvali they came face to face with its most infamous son. The statue of Josef Vissiaronovich Djugashvili, aka Stalin, still gazes down on the town of his birth. Stalin would have absolutely approved of the iron response the Putin-Medvedev regime gave to the reckless attack on South Ossetia by the Saakashvili regime. Stalin, despite his birth, was one of the great oppressors of all minority groups, but with particular ruthlessness towards Georgia.

Lenin, Luxemburg and the National Question

Many are aware that, in his final months, Lenin became aware of the danger posed by Stalin and began to take steps against him. What few remember, however, is that it was over the issue of Georgia and the Caucasus that Stalin’s real political character was fully revealed to him. Lenin’s position on nationalism was a complex one. He was painfully aware that the Tsarist Empire had been built on the seizure and oppression of hundreds of minorities. One of his greatest hatreds was thus “Great Russian chauvinism”. This was one of the reasons why he saw the national question in an entirely different way from Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg, born Polish and Jewish, was from two of the oppressed minorities in the Russian Empire. Whereas Lenin saw the national question as primarily a political issue, she saw that it was the shift in the stage which capitalism had reached that had rendered all support by Marxists for “national liberation” as antiquated. In the epoch of imperialism there was no point supporting any future bourgeois national revolutions. Looking at the Polish bourgeoisie in the 1890s, she considered it incapable of founding a new independent nation since it would always be tied “by chains of gold” to one imperialism or another. Lenin did not at first link the national question to the issue of imperialism. He considered it a powerful force which had to be taken into account when addressing any political issue. For our tendency there is no question that Lenin was wrong and nowhere was this revealed more than in Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism where he put his faith in the overthrow of capitalism in the struggle against imperialism by the oppressed people of the colonies. The decolonisation which followed World War II demonstrated that imperialism could actually benefit from conceding so-called national independence. Neo-colonialism was a lot more profitable than an increasingly expensive military occupation. The retreat from Empire of the old colonial power thus did not provoke the crisis of the system that Lenin had hoped for. As the isolation of the Russian working class from the rest of the world’s workers became more obvious in the 1920s, the error on the national question was to have dire consequences for many workers around the world. The failure of the European working class to come to the aid of the Russian Revolution also mistakenly encouraged the Communist International to promote alliances with the national “anti-colonial” bourgeoisies in places like China and Turkey. In both places, these same bourgeoisies bided their time and carried out savage massacres of their working class “allies”.

“Great Russian Chauvinism”

However within the territory of the old Russian Empire the question of the constitutional arrangement of the new society was a slightly different one. Lenin was convinced that any future union of proletarian states had to be a voluntary one. This was why the first declarations of the new Soviet power stated that each national territory had the right to determine its own future “up to the point of secession”. Rosa Luxemburg castigated this policy as allowing the local bourgeoisie, with the aid of German imperialist forces, to take over working class territory as in Finland and the Ukraine. This was true enough but it is unlikely that any policy statement actually made much difference since the Bolsheviks were in no position to materially help their working class allies in these areas in 1918. It was only after the collapse of German imperialism that the Russian Civil War could enter, for example the Ukraine. By 1920, at the Ninth Party Congress, Lenin was already warning “Scratch some communists and you will find Great Russian chauvinists.”

With over 70% of the Communist Party membership being of Great Russian origin Lenin was concerned about this, but the worst “Great Russian chauvinists” were actually from the minority nationalities of the former Tsarist Empire. First amongst these was the Georgian, Stalin, who by virtue of his origins, had been made Commissar for Nationalities following the October Revolution.

After the October Revolution, giving material confirmation to the theory of Rosa Luxemburg, the borderlands of the former Russian Empire fell under the influence of the competing imperialisms. In the Caucasus, the republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were all set up but all were heavily dependent on imperialist support. At first this support was German and Turkish, but later it was British. Under the British, who were supporting the Whites (Kolchak and Denikin) in the Russian Civil War, there was at first no recognition of these republics out of deference to the Great Russian chauvinism of former Tsarist officers who intended to re-establish the Russian Empire. However, by January 1920 the Whites were in full retreat, so the British hastily recognised these governments de facto. At the same time though the British pulled out of the Caucasus and left their new allies defenceless.

Immediately there was a communist rising in Baku which overthrew the British-backed bourgeois government in Azerbaijan. In May 1920, the Menshevik-dominated Georgian Government signed a treaty recognising the new Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic in return for recognition by Soviet Russia of its own independence. This was similar to the treaties signed between Soviet Russia and the Baltic states who remained independent until the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. As confirmation of this, on May 4th 1920, Lenin telegraphed Ordzhonikidze, telling him to withdraw all Red Army troops from Georgia’s frontiers as “peace with Georgia is not ruled out”. This telgram was even counter-signed by Stalin (1). But, in a curious parallel with today the Georgian Government made a series of provocative miscalculations. It first legalised the Communist Party but then imprisoned its entire leadership and most of its membership. In September, it invited a delegation of prominent social democrats from Western Europe to Georgia with the aim of supplying them with “material for anti-Bolshevik propaganda” (2) and tried to enter the “robber” (as described by Lenin) League of Nations in December 1920, in order to get the Western powers involved in the defence of Georgian territory.

Ordzhinikidze’s Invasion

From this point on relations between the two states deteriorated with the Russians now denouncing the “destroying and exterminating” of Ossetians and the “burning of whole villages” in Abkhazia. These are precisely the sort of statements being made by the Putin-Medvedev regime today. Ordzhonikidze now only needed a small border fight between Armenians and Georgians as an excuse for the Red Army, led by Georgian communists, to invade Georgia on February 21st 1921. Tiflis was captured in four days and a Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic was set up. The Russian Communist party, and the commander of the Red Army, Trotsky only heard about it afterwards and were thus presented with a fait accompli. Within a few months Ajaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were formed as autonomous republics or regions within the Georgian SSR. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 has now brought this question back to haunt the region but we should stress (as we show in other articles in this issue) that the real casus belli is not in the national question but in the much more serious international conflict of imperialist interests today.

Back in 1921, Lenin was not at all happy about the manner in which Georgia was brought back into the territory which would soon be dubbed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On March 3rd 1921 he wrote to the Georgian leader (and henchman of Stalin) Ordzhonikidze urging “a policy of concessions” in relation to the Georgian intelligentsia and small traders” and even a “coalition with Jordania or similar Georgian Mensheviks”. (3) The Mensheviks were allowed to operate legally but no coalition took place. This is hardly surprising given that Stalin and Ordzhonikidze were in charge. In fact they were soon on the attack against their own comrades in the Georgian Communist Party.


With the victory of the Red Army in Georgia the civil war was finally over and the Communist Party now turned to the question of the constitutional arrangements for soviet territory. In August 1922 Stalin drafted a resolution “On the Relations between the RSFSR and the Independent Republics” which made it quite clear that these independent republics (Ukraine, Byelorussia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia) would cease to be such and would simply be absorbed into the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics (RSFSR) especially as:

The agencies for combating counter-revolution in the above-named republics would be subordinated to the orders of the GPU of the RSFSR. (4)

The GPU was the successor to the Cheka so this was a formal statement that the “independent republics” would be ruled from Moscow. In short, Stalin was already proposing a revival of the old Russian Empire. (5) Lenin rejected this and on September 27th 1922 proposed the creation of a new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the basis of equality of each participant. This did not end the problem since the ailing Lenin was in no physical shape to do more than sporadically intervene, especially as Stalin, who had responsibility for his communication with the Central Committee, deliberately denied him materials.

Stalin, having failed to emasculate the republics once now tried a new tack by insisting that Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan unite in a Transcaucasian Republic. This was rejected by the leaders of the Georgian Communist Party, and its entire Central Committee unwisely resigned in protest on October 22nd. This was just what Ordzhonikidze wanted and appointed a new one made up of his young supporters. However, the old Central Committee attempted to carry on the debate until Ordzhonikidze assaulted one of them in his own home. Lenin sent Stalin and Dzerzhinski to investigate, but Dzerzhinski (a Pole by origin) shared the same “Great Russian” perspective as Stalin and between them they whitewashed Ordzhonikidze’s actions. Had older Georgian communists not contacted Lenin privately he may never have heard of the issue. Instead, Lenin had one of his brief moments of recovery and on the last two days of December 1922, just as the Central Committee were voting to adopt his proposal calling the new federation the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, dictated his The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”. It was not to be published until 1956 for the reason that it was explicitly critical of not only Ordzhonikidze, but also Dzerzhinsky and, most decisively of all, of Stalin. The document begins by apologising to Russian workers for not intervening in the affair of “autonomisation” (6) sooner. Then he gets to the immediate issue:

If matters had come to such a pass that Ordzhonikidze could go to the extreme of applying physical violence, as Comrade Dzerzhinsky informed me what a mess we have got ourselves into. Obviously the whole business of “autonomisation” was radically wrong and badly timed. (7)

But soon Lenin was revealing that wider issues were at stake;

It is said that a united apparatus is needed. Where did that assurance come from? Did it come from that same Russian apparatus which, as I pointed out in one of the preceding sections of my diary, we took over from Tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil? ...
... the apparatus we now call ours is, in fact still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and Tsarist hotch-potch and there has been no possibility of getting rid of it in the past five years without the help of other countries, and because we have been “busy” most of the time with military engagements and the fight against famine.

This passage not only shows that the dying Lenin and ruthlessly resurgent Stalin were not only on different paths, they were going in different directions. It puts the lie to all those commentators and so-called historians who have spent the last ten years grubbing around in the ex-Soviet archives trying to prove that Lenin set up the apparatus which Stalin then refined. It also gives a very clear critique of the failure of the revolution and the reasons for it - the isolation of the Russian proletariat, the fight against international imperialism and the dire economic situation inherited from Tsarism’s war. And Lenin went on immediately to denounce Stalin’s actions.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is ... are we careful enough to take measures to provide the non-Russian with a real safeguard against the truly Russian bully ... I think that Stalin’s haste and his infatuation with pure administration, together with his spite against the notorious “nationalist-socialist” played a fatal role here. In politics spite generally plays the basest of roles.

This is almost prophetic of Stalin’s future behaviour in which his “spite” towards, not only Georgia, but also to any of his own comrades who had crossed him in the past, ultimately led to their execution in their hundreds, if not thousands in the 1930s (8).

The Future World Revolution

However Lenin’s comments, whilst apposite about Stalin, were aimed at a higher goal. He was still concerned for the future spread of revolution and how workers in the rest of the world would perceive the Soviet Union. He wanted his comrades to look further to the future. The next day he dictated two more passages. The first begins from a general premise which we would now regard as flawed

A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation, and that of a small nation.

Today we can see that small nation nationalism is hardly ever independent but usually takes on the same form as big nation nationalism as the client of one or another imperialism. This is precisely what Luxemburg predicted. For example, Vietnam would not have maintained a decade or more of war against US imperialism without the weapons of the USSR. Today in Georgia, Saakashvili wants the world to see that plucky little Georgia is standing up to Russian imperialism when, in fact, he is inciting this conflict precisely in order to cement Georgia within the Western alliance.

However, Lenin was actually thinking of the problem differently here. His argument is better made as a specific point about the fact that, by chance, the first proletarian revolution took place in a multi-national Empire which had behind it a century of attempted Russification and crushing of all non-Russian cultural expression. For Lenin, it was important that the USSR set a new tone and a new example of real proletarian internationalism for the rest of the world’s workers. Earlier, he had himself been seduced by the prospect of the Red Army spreading the revolution by bayonets. After the Polish state, urged on by Western imperialism, invaded Soviet territory it suffered a massive defeat. By autumn 1920, the Polish Army had been driven back to Warsaw. At this point military success took over from political reality amongst the ranks of the Russian Communist Party. No-one listened to the Polish Communist, Karl Radek, who predicted that the sight of a Russian Army (however proletarian) at the gates of Warsaw would be a propaganda gift to the nationalist Pilsudski regime who would be able to unite the nation (including the proletariat) to fight the invader. This is precisely what happened in 1920 and Lenin was trenchant in his own self-criticism for not siding with Radek. He did not want another such mistake to be made. Thus he finished (after calling for the removal of Ordzhonikidze and putting the main blame on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky) with a rallying call for the future

...the harm that can result to our state from a lack of unification between the national apparatuses and the Russian apparatus is infinitely less that that which will be done not only to us, but to the whole International, and to hundreds of millions of the peoples in Asia which are destined to follow us onto the stage of history in the near future... The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak of my unconditional approval for it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. But the morrow of world history will be a day when the awakening peoples oppressed by imperialism are finally aroused and the decisive long and hard struggle for their liberation begins.

As we stated earlier Lenin was to be disappointed that the revolts of the oppressed people of Asia (and other colonised areas) did not provoke the collapse of the imperialist order that he had so wished. Today we can see that it is the exploited of the world, wherever they are to be found that will form the solid nucleus of the future revolution to liberate humanity. However our analysis of this complex issue demonstrates that the vision of Lenin for the future of both the USSR and humanity was infinitely different from the future which Stalin was already preparing even as Lenin entered the final months of his life. Lenin saw the future communist world as created by “freely-associated producers” (Marx - The Communist Manifesto) not by invading armies. Lenin’s third stroke in March 1923 prevented him from finishing the fight he had begun. Stalin survived and succeeded in shaping the USSR as the Russian Empire reborn. It is this legacy that today’s Kremlin have picked up once again.


(1) The telegram is in V.I. Lenin Collected Works Volume 35 (Progress Publishers 1966 edition). This was the first time it had appeared in English.

(2) E.H. Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Volume 1 p.352. The delegation included Kautsky, Vandervelde and Ramsey Macdonald. The Menshevik-dominated Government of Jordania had come to power in 1918 via the local soviets but had then entered into a coalition with local bourgeois nationalists. Lenin now seemed to have considered that as the question of proletarian power had been settled it was now possible to re-engage with Menshevism.

(3) Carr, loc cit p.354. This letter does not appear in the English version of Lenin’s Collected Works (Volume 35) but Carr is quoting the original Russian Sochineniya (Vol 26). The English version does have other telegrams to the Military Revolutionary Committee of Georgia, and Ordzhonikidze, which state similar things, such as,

you are observe particular respect for the sovereign bodies of Georgia; to display particular attention and caution in regard to the Georgian population.

Vol. 35, p479

(4) Quoted in Roy Medvedev Let History Judge, p71.

(5) And, of course in his lifetime he was to surpass the Tsars. Although he failed to recapture Finland in the Winter War of 1940, he not only re-invaded the Baltic States but after the Second World War established a physical empire over virtually all Eastern Europe. It is not accidental that Putin today makes constant reference to the achievements of Stalin’s Great Patriotic War.

(6) “Autonomisation” was Stalinspeak to criticise those who advocated a true federation in the USSR. Lenin in the document says that the real issue is the nature of the USSR.

(7) All the quotations from this document are taken from Lenin Selected Works, Vol 3, pp 687-692.

(8) For a more incisive analysis of the nature of Stalinism see “Stalinism is Anti-communism” in Internationalist Communist 22. [£3 including postage from our group address]. A corrected version has been published as a pamphlet, Stalin and Stalinism by the Internationalist Workers Group, our US comrades. It is $1 plus postage from PO Box 14173, Madison, WI 53708-0173.

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