“When I look at a map of the civil war in 1919, I always wonder how from this spot around Moscow and Petrograd a new empire could re-emerge. Yes, and its name was the Soviet Union”
December 30, 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Rossa Primavera News Agency talked to historian, writer and educator Natalya Georgievna Petrova about the background of this event and its historical meaning.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: Natalya, the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is coming. What was the role of this event in the further course of history?
Natalya Petrova: Whether our judgment of the formation of the USSR is positive or negative, we must acknowledge that it was a historical event that influenced the entire global history. It was as important as World War I, as well as World War II and human spaceflight, in which the USSR played a key role.
Why has this experience been so closely studied? Because that was an attempt to make Man’s age-long dream come true: to build a heaven on Earth, i.e. a society of social equality free from any oppression.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: Why do you think it was Russia where so radical changes took place, but not other countries? Many countries had revolutionary potential, and revolutions took place elsewhere in those years, but no state of a new type, a Soviet state, appeared there, or at least it could not stand for a long time anywhere else.
Natalya Petrova: In other words, did a world revolution have any chances to win? There was a popular poster in 1918-1919, “Comrade Lenin is cleaning scum from the Earth” where he was wiping out kings, tsars, bourgeois, and clerics from the planet. Indeed, there we grounds for such hopes.
When World War I began in 1914, no one planned long hostilities. Everyone expected that it would end in four months. Two years later, riots among soldiers began when soldiers refused to go into attack, and this happened in all the counties involved in the war. The Czechs widely deserted from the Austrian army; the British reported over 3 million deserters; in the French army, refusal to deploy to the frontline was reported in half of the divisions.
A rationing system was introduced in the rear of all the warring nations, and long queues appeared at the shops; in Germany, cooked crow became a dubious “gourmet food.” Poverty resulted in discontent, and failures at the front led to irritation. “Bolshevism is knocking at our doors,” officials in the German general staff said. The French prime minister Clemenceau acknowledged that he had a two-front war: against the German army and against domestic socialists.
In these conditions, either the authorities have a political will or they have none. As for Clemenceau, he ordered to execute deserters and rioters at the frontline. Two dozen were executed, the fleeing from the front was stopped, and France won the war. Grateful Frenchmen built a Clemenceau monument in Paris.
Thus, many countries had preconditions. However, in history, where, in contrast to physics, there are now laws, but there are only patterns, preconditions that can give different results in the same conditions.
When I look at a map of the civil war in 1919, I always wonder how from this spot around Moscow and Petrograd a new empire could re-emerge. Yes, and its name was the Soviet Union.
In other countries, the ideas of nationalism turned out to be stronger than the ideas of socialism, especially in Germany that lost the war, and in weakened Italy. In Russia, the dream of a just society prevailed. And it was being built.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: Recently, it has been vividly discussed whether this form of gathering the peoples of the former Russian Empire was optimal. The form that took place, which is often criticized, including by our officials today, was it optimal? Or maybe other forms were possible for the new Russia? How was the national problem resolved in the Russian Empire and in the USSR?
Natalya Petrova: The national problem is the most complicated one in history. After the religious one. In the Russian Empire, it was resolved the following way: a united and indivisible Russia, i.e. a unitary state. The idea of federalism was not discussed, and in that period, as far as I know, there were no monarchic federations on the globe.
In Soviet Russia, there were ideas of a confederation, a federation, a cultural and national autonomy; as a result, we had what formed, i.e. a federation in form but essentially a united state with a party-based power vertical. Were there any national tensions in the Soviet Union? Of course, there were.
In this sensitive issue, there will always be dissenters, and none of the states where more than one ethnicity lives can claim it has resolved the national issue once and for all. Northern Ireland and the actions of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army – Rossa Primavera News Agency) in Britain, the history of the Basques in Spain, the current events in Catalonia prove this. And this list is incomplete. However, as Marxists say, practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.
The progress of the Great Patriotic War proved that the national policy in the USSR was right. Yes, there were incidents of treason (but is there a country where they never happened?), but the stake of Hitler’s staff on a split-up between the peoples of the Soviet Union failed. And the defenders sacrificed their lives not for their native ethnic republic but for their common motherland, the Soviet Union.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: Many people of the older generation who lived in the USSR often express regret that it disintegrated. These include members of various countries and ethnicities. What did the peoples of the USSR acquire when the Union appeared, and what did they lose when it was gone?
Natalya Petrova: I was born in the Soviet Union, and I am proud of it. I am proud of my wonderful education, of which those living in Russia today can only dream, and I received it for free. I could receive medical aid for free, and I paid lunch money for communal utility services without a fear that the bills could rise tomorrow, and I received the apartment itself for free. Our employer granted us trade union-paid tickets to industry-sponsored health resorts for the whole family, for minimum prices as well.
With my scholarship allowance, I traveled with my friends almost over the whole country, from the Baltic region to the Urals, from Crimea to the White Sea, so cheap the railroad tickets were for students. Theater tickets were also affordable, however, they were hard to find for premieres.
Then, the 1990s came. We not only became poor, but we found ourselves to be citizens of a country that had no respect, which betrayed everyone who believed in us.
As for how the people’s of the USSR comprehended the collapse of our country, they should be asked directly. Let me give only one example. At the university that I graduated from (then its name was Lenin Moscow State Pedagogical Institute), at the Philology Department, there was an Uzbek section. Every year it admitted girls and young people from Uzbekistan, and after graduation, they taught Russian in their home republic.
In the Soviet Union, one could not imagine an illiterate person having any secondary school education. Today, you can hardly find an educated person among the young people who come here to earn a living from our former Asian republics.
Besides, the studies of Russian and education for young people from various countries of the world in Soviet universities were also part of our national policy in its international version.
I remember that a student from Gambia studied in my group at the History Department, and when he introduced himself to us, he showed his small country on the map of Africa. Reportedly, he received a high office in his country when he returned.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: What was the USSR for the rest of the world? What place does the USSR have in the history of the world?
Natalya Petrova: The fact that it was one of the two superpowers says it all. And the achievements of our country in the social sector were something that everyone could experience, I have already mentioned them. I remember, during the Olympiad of 1980, when I was a student and I worked as an assistant to a guide in a group from West Germany, the Germans asked me in surprise, “Why do all the people read while in the subway?” – “We not only read in the subway, we read at homes and in libraries. Why do not you read in subway?” I wondered. Now there is nothing to wonder, now we do not read in the subway either. Neither we do elsewhere.
Rossa Primavera News Agency: Is contemporary Russia the successor to the Soviet Union? If yes, what is this succession? What has Russia kept from the Soviet experience and what has it rejected? How could this experience be useful to contemporary Russia?
Natalya Petrova: In our country, we often start from scratch, having destroyed everything with our own hands first. However, it is too expensive to blow up your home every time it needs only minor renovation.
Let me speak about the field I know, education. The fact that the reformers of the 1990s did not plan to make a minor renovation in education is not a secret today. The education reform is complete now because it has reached its goals: our education has become a copy of a foreign one (I would even say an alien one), and it has become integrated into the system that received wide criticism even in the West, and I heard this many times from my European colleagues, as the testing system alone was so strongly criticized!
In education today, we have the same situation as we had 100 years ago: we have adopted the American approach of projects, which was popular in the early 20th century, instead of oral examinations.
In the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the traditions of the Russian school were rejected along with the subjects, textbooks, lessons, examinations, marks, and teachers who were replaced with “school workers.” By they way, history as a subject was also canceled.
And what happened? After ten years, industrialization began, and it required experts, but not people familiar with something in broad lines. And then everything was returned to the previous course: subjects, lessons, textbooks, history, and even teachers with marks and examinations.
I am not disposed to idealize the Russian Empire either, its education had something to be improved, too. In the USSR, the new curriculum left out Latin and Greek, logic, religious education, and two foreign languages, but everything else was kept.
And those who graduated from these Soviet schools won the war. As one of the SD [Sicherheitsdienst – SS intelligence agency] report stated, where data on the Soviet young people gathered to perform forced labor in Germany in WWII were analyzed, “the comparison of the knowledge of the German and Russian agricultural workers shows that the Russians are better educated.”
Thus, the experience of the USSR must be used in Russia today. But we should not blow up our home again, let us combine the achievements of the Soviet system with what we can today.