Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 10

By Elena Chinyaeva

President Vladimir Putin has used his first year in office to start, among other things, a reform of the so-called “asymmetrical” federation which has developed in Russia, in which the relationships between the center and the provinces are based on bilateral agreements rather than a system of common principles. The future of the existing national-territorial division may also be revised, because in realpolitik, the principle of national self-determination is virtually incompatible with two other basic principles of international relations–the sovereignty of the state and the inviolability of borders–as well as with the efforts to create an international security system, because the interests of states and the rights of the individual peoples are difficult to reconcile.


In early 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appeared before the U.S. Congress with his Celebrated Fourteen Points and Four Principles. Nationalities all over the world received his message with varying degree of enthusiasm, depending on their historical experiences and political ambitions. For a great many of them the declaration of the principle of self-determination included in the Fourteen Points sounded like support for their long-standing battles for national independence.

World War I opened new prospects for the national movements striving for statehood–developments only strengthened by the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Having seized power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia declared the right of the nations to determine their own future, thus stealing the initiative from the Alliance. It was a month later that Wilson presented his own formulation of the national self-determination principle. This was perceived around the world as a turning point in the development of international relations. Since the American and French revolutions, the national self-determination principle had become almost a synonym of democracy. The victory in World War I of the Alliance countries, with their parliamentary political systems, over the autocratic regimes of the Axis states was interpreted as the victory of democracy and humanism. Never mind the fact that, in the words of historian of nationalism Alfred Cobban, “the national principle slowly came to the dominant position through force of circumstances rather than as a result of deliberate policy of the great powers: New states had already created themselves out of the disorder into which the defeated powers fell. All that the [Peace] Conference could do was to register accomplished facts and delimit the frontiers of the new states.”

Thus Wilson’s idealism had quite pragmatic roots: He meant to counteract the effect of Bolshevik propaganda, keep Russia in the war and launch a diplomatic offensive against Germany. However, his perception of the relation between the national-self-determination principle and its implementation was indeed idealistic: “When I gave utterance to those words [that a nation has a right to self-determination] I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed which are coming to us day after day,” Wilson said. Some of his contemporaries and fellow-statesmen were more realistic. Thus, his then Secretary of State Robert Lansing said: “The principle of national self-determination is loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle in force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”


At the Paris peace conference the victors relied on two criteria in attempting to control the process of the creation of new states–the dominance of a single language and the results of referenda. The Soviets produced their own model.

In practice, it proved impossible to apply the two criteria consistently. The establishment of Czechoslovakia showed this. The union of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia–the so called lands of the Czech crown–was justified by historic tradition and their unification with Slovakia, which for several centuries was a territory of the Hungarian kingdom, was justified by the national self-determination principle, because the Slovaks were declared to be a branch of the Czechoslovak nation and their language a dialect of Czech. Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia acquired Carpathian Ruthenia as the result of a referendum conducted not in Ruthenia itself, but among Ruthenian immigrants in the United States. Meanwhile, the German population of these territories was denied a referendum and the language rights of national minorities were ignored. Ironically, the Slovaks at that time were perhaps the only large national minority in Europe whose complaints to the League of Nations’ Minority Commission were not admitted on the grounds that the Slovaks were part of the ruling nation.

Inconsistencies in applying the national self-determination principle, apart from the peculiarities of the Western powers’ international policy, resulted in the collapse of Czechoslovakia in 1939, when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, a territory with a largely German population, on the pretext of defending the rights of a German minority. The situation was similar in other countries. The Poles claimed the southern part of East Prussia on the basis that a majority of its population consisted of Polish speakers, but did not want to apply the same test to Russian-speaking East Galicia, which Poland had historically claimed. Germany claimed Austria, Tyrol, Schleswig and the Sudetenland on the basis of language, but objected to it as a test for East Prussia. There were many times fewer plebiscites held than might have been expected, given that Italy, Romania and France consistently opposed their being held. The process of creating new states was accompanied by the painful creation of new minorities. Minorities made up 35 percent of Czechoslovakia’s population, 30.4 percent of Poland’s and 25 percent of Romania’s. The great powers, for their part, were anxious to restrict the right of national self-determination to Europe only, and categorically denied it to their own colonies.

In the end, a valid formula for realizing the principle of self-determination was not worked out, and diplomatic negotiations became the most common way to reach agreement on the issue.


Having declared that a nation has the right to determine its future and even to secede, the Bolshevik government in Russia was confronted by the intentions of the many peoples of the former Tsarist empire to put this right into practice. Lenin, with his mastery of dialectics declared that the nations of the Russian empire should secede in order to be unified. According to Leninist ideology, the toiling masses of all nations should liberate themselves from the national bourgeoisie and then unify on the basis of a proletarian brotherhood. While some national movements led by “bourgeois nationalists” were suppressed, Poland, the Baltic states and Finland gained independence. Moreover, as a result of the Soviet-Polish war of 1920-1921, Poland expanded over the Curzon line, annexing territories of White Russia and the Ukraine. These remained in Polish possession until the notorious Soviet push into Eastern Europe in 1939-40.

In the Soviet Union’s internal politics, the principle of territorial autonomy was declared the main means to solve the national question. A strange federation emerged as a result, with an arbitrary hierarchy of national and autonomous republics and regions. The question of cultural development was solved with another ingenious stroke of Bolshevik dialectics: Soviet culture was declared proletarian in essence but national in form. In fact, it was a federation not of nations, but of proletariats of various ethnic origins, and was held together only by the political-ideological supremacy of the Communist party. Currently, the representatives of a titular nation do not form the majority in either of Russia’s national republics. Thus, for instance, 75 percent of Tatars live outside Tatarstan, where they form a minority, while they are the second-largest ethnic community in Moscow, the Russian capital.


According to Cobban, the history of the right of self-determination is a history of the making of nations and the breaking of states. In practice, he says, the process of self-determination, pushing toward disintegration, had to be stopped at some point or another. The dynamics of political development stresses the need to reconsider static theories: Neither the national self-determination principle nor that of national sovereignty is absolute, while the nation-state concept could not be regarded as the sole basis for political organization. Multinational states must reenter the political canon. Both principles should be limited and combined in such a way so that each would operate in its own proper field and respect rights of individuals.

In the context of national relations and reforming the federation in Russia, theories stressing the common interests of peoples populating the same territory, such as the Eurasian theory and the idea of national-cultural autonomy, are of particular significance. Proponents of Eurasianism, including emigre academics of the early 1920s like the historian Georgy Vernadsky, the Petr Savitsky and the linguist Nikolai Trubetskoy, argued that living on one geographically homogeneous landmass facilitates the economic, political and cultural integration of the peoples populating it. The unity of a large continental landmass is determined by the economic interdependence of neighboring regions. The Eurasians regarded an ethnically defined federation as an ideological invention of the Bolsheviks, while arguing that an administrative division into provinces was more conducive to the cultural and historic unity of the Eurasian population.

The cultural autonomy concept developed in the early 20th century by the Austrian social-democratic leaders Karl Renner and Otto Bauer allowed for the division of nationalities in the spheres of education and culture, with the possibility left open for anyone to “sign up” to any nationality freely. Nations have to be “states within a state,” not a “union of states,” they argued. Particular national communities would govern their matters in education and culture according to their own interests. Above that a common state would have a decisive say in matters of economics, politics, administration, legality and security.

Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader of one of the right-wing parties in the current Russian parliament, has referred to Eurasia sarcastically as Asiopa. A few years ago, however, he came up with the idea of a “new federalism” based on the horizontal integration of regions on the basis of their economic interdependence–an idea which clearly echoed that of the Eurasians. The reform of the Russian federation that has been undertaken by President Putin is obviously related to the idea of a steady transformation of Russia’s regions into provinces whose relations to the federal center shall be governed by a unified code of laws. The first step towards this goal is to revise regional legislations to make it compatible with and subordinated to the federal constitution. The status, rights and responsibilities of national republics in relation to the center have to be brought in line with those of the Russian oblasts in all spheres, from taxation to international representation. Such reforms have already begun. Their success will depend not only on the federal center’s political skills, but also on its ability to convince Russians that the national self-determination principle is destructive and hostile to the individual.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.