Russia, of course, was not the entire USSR and not all Soviet citizens were Russians. Furthermore, it was party policy throughout the USSR’s history to transmute existing national identities into a sense of belonging to a supranational ‚Soviet people‘. This was part of a general endeavour by the state to eradicate any organizations or groupings independent of its control. The central politicians could not afford to let Russian national self-assertiveness get out of hand.

But what on earth was Russia? And what was Russia’s part in the Soviet Union? These are questions which were much less easy to answer than they superficially appear. The borders of the Russian republic within the USSR were altered several times after 1917. Nearly every redefinition involved a loss of territory to the USSR’s other republics. The status of ethnic Russians, too, changed under successive political leaderships. Whereas Lenin was wary of Russian national self-assertiveness, Stalin sought to control and exploit it for his political purposes; and the Soviet communist leadership after Stalin’s death, despite coming to rely politically upon the Russians more than upon other nationalities in the Soviet Union, never gave them outright mastery. Nor was Russian culture allowed to develop without restriction: the Orthodox Church, peasant traditions and a free-thinking intelligentsia were aspects of Mother Russia which no General Secretary until the accession of Gorbachëv was willing to foster. Russian national identity was perennially manipulated by official interventions.

For some witnesses the Soviet era was an assault on everything fundamentally Russian. For others, Russia under Stalin and Brezhnev attained its destiny as the dominant republic within the USSR. For yet others neither tsarism nor communism embodied any positive essence of Russianness. The chances are that Russian history will remain politically sensitive. This is not simply a case of public figures whipping up debate. Russians in general are interested in discussions of Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin and Gorbachëv; and the past and the present are enmeshed in every public debate. Since the end of the USSR, the discussion has intensified about the identity of Russia and the Russians as well as about why the Russian Federation developed as it did. This has been a topic of constant dispute among Russia’s politicians and intellectuals as well as abroad. What kind of country is the new Russia? One trend of analysis has postulated that Yeltsin replaced the potential for orderly progress under Gorbachëv with sheer lawlessness and chaos, perhaps ending with a pseudo-communist restoration led by Putin. Other commentators have argued that the Yeltsin administration, warts and all, rescued Russia from the political and economic turmoil that characterized the last years of communism. For yet others, it was only when Putin ascended to the presidency that the Russians were able to experience a degree of progress in state and society; but this is challenged by those who see his Russia as a Mafia state.

—Robert Service, The Penguin History of Modern Russia, (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 2020), xxxix-xl.

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