Tsarist Russia: a prison house of nations

The Provisional Government that took over upon abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 did not act decisively to solve the problems that had come to a head. Most important of these was how to seek peace in World War 1, then in its third year, a war in which the backward Russian Empire had lost more millions killed and wounded than any of its allies or its enemies. Next was the demand of the peasants, in that overwhelmingly agricultural country, that landowners’ land be turned over to those who worked it. A third was simply providing bread to feed a population starving — partly because the country’s meager resources had been diverted to the army, but increasingly because the absence of men and horses from the farms meant that production could not be kept up. The fourth was the demand for independence or restoration of rights by the conquered nations within the Russian Empire, and for equal rights by minorities dispersed therein.

Of the Ukrainians, Lenin wrote at this time: “Accursed tsarism made the Great-Russians executioners of the Ukrainian people, and fomented in them a hatred for those who even forbade Ukrainian children to speak and study in their native tongue.”

With respect to the massive stealing of Bashkir land, he had written: “This is a tidbit of colonial policy that will stand comparison to any of the feats performed … in . . Africa.” That indictment is borne out by the fact that in some counties the Bashkir death rate reached genocidal levels.

The Ukraine is on the western frontier. Bashkiria is in the Ural Mountains separating Europe and Asia, Kirgizia deep in Central Asia, on China’s westernmost border. Just a year before the overthrow of the tsar, the Russian Army had taken hundreds of thousands of sheep from the nomadic Kirgiz, and paid in rubles. But in that subsistence economy, large sums of money were meaningless: there was nothing to buy. Sheep’s wool provided clothing and shelter, sheep’s milk and meat were food, sheep’s intestines became bags, their sinews served as cord. With the inefficiency of that day, of that country, and of armies in general, the sheep had been slaughtered by the tens of thousands before provision for storage was made, and the Kirgiz had seen them rot uselessly, while they themselves hungered. On top of this came the decree conscripting Central Asians for unarmed labor service at the front, thousands of miles away. A rebellion broke out which “took the form of an indiscriminate slaughter of Russian peasants.” As a Russian geologist told Anna Louise Strong in Kirgizia, a dozen years later, perhaps 10,000 were wiped out. The Russian colonial occupation army, plus divisions moved from the front, responded ruthlessly. About a million of the nomadic Kirgiz and Kazakhs — one out of ten people in the affected area — tied to Chinese Turkestan, where they were sold into slavery.

At the very opposite end of the country, north of Leningrad, bordering Finalnd, live the “white” European Karelians. Their language resembles Finnish, but “To sell a Bible written in Finnish was punishable by exile. . . . Children were punished for speaking Karelian even in the schoolgrounds.” (Native Americans have had that experience in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and Chicanos did until very recent years.) Those Karelian children were lucky simply to be in school at all: in Bashkiria, of 4,778 children in secondary schools in 1910, only ten had been Bashkirs.

This was the reality when the tsar was overthrown.

When people in Central Asia revolted in 1916 against Tsarist plans to conscript them in to the army, the order went out for Russian troops to crush the rebellion.

William M. Mandel, Soviet But Not Russian


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