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Origins of Russian Federalism


The “nationalities question”, which had so unsettled the Soviet Union and pushed it to its inglorious end, did not completely go away with the secession of the Soviet republics from Russia. Russia was a federation in its own right and the reformist government faced the task of restructuring of the country’s state and political system on genuine federative foundations and establishing a federative structure, which would take into account the country’s historical traditions and the realities of the modern-day Russia.


Soviet federalism had evolved as a result of two conflicting tendencies: the growing national separatism and the Russian tradition of a centralized, unitary state. From the early stages of Russian statehood, the country comprised nationalities and ethnic groups of diverse cultural backgrounds and varying levels of development. In the pre-revolutionary Russia the unity of the tsarist empire was cemented by the powerful integrating role of the Russian imperial nation and the relatively low level of national development of the mass of the empire’s ethnic populations.

Even at the start of the twentieth century most of the non-Russian nationalities, which evolved their nationalist movements, did not dream of independent statehood: their most radical demands did not go beyond the desire of cultural autonomy within the Russian empire. Only with the collapse of tsarism and the establishment of the Bolshevik dictatorship Soviet Russia became formally a federative state.

Despite being based ostensibly on a national-territorial principle, Soviet federalism was not a result of integration of national states that had existed before. On the contrary, Soviet republics themselves were typically creations of the federal center. Moreover, the central authorities in Moscow devised a union treaty and set up a federation, which some of these entities joined as union republics, while others as autonomous territories within union republics. As a result, a complex, multitiered federative structure took shape.

Most of the autonomous ethnic-national territories were located within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the Soviet core republic, which itself was an artificial creation similar to other union republics. At the time of the formation of the USSR in 1922 no one could have predicted that the RSFSR’s administrative borders would become contours of the new Russia that would emerge at the end of the twentieth century as a result of the Soviet collapse.

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