The Peoples of the Soviet Union

Most of the Poles live in the region along the Russo-Polish border that was known as Eastern Poland between the two World Wars. Its history has been as varied as its population.

The Poles form the largest single group. But mixed in with them are White Russians and Little Russians. Taken together, the Russians form a majority. Following a Soviet-sponsored plebiscite in 1939, the region was officially incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Before 1914 Russia had a considerable population of Baltic Germans whose families had lived for generations in what we have known since 1 9 1 9 as the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Russia occupied these states in 1940. Following the election of new pro-Soviet parliaments, the three states gave up their independence to become constituent republics of the USSR. The Nazis, however, had first arranged for the return to Germany of all German-speaking residents.

A colony of Germans had also lived on the Volga north of Stalingrad since the days of Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. During the course of this war, however, the German minorities were moved farther east lest they per-form the role of Trojan horse.

All kinds of customs

There isn’t enough space to give the names and special characteristics of all these peoples in detail. But we should not forget, when we think of Russia, that it is a union of a vast number of national and racial groups, and that they vary widely in their economic development, their social habits, and their religious beliefs.

The Poles, for example, are Roman Catholics. Many of the Germans are—or were—Lutherans. Before 1917 most of the Great and Little Russians belonged to the Eastern Orthodox church. Many Ukrainians were members of the Uniat church—in which the doctrines and jurisdiction of Roman Catholicism are combined with the rites of the Russian Orthodox religion. The Asiatic peoples are mostly either Moslems or Buddhists. And in 1939 there were also about 3.5 million Jews in the total population of 170 million.

Even more than the United States, the USSR is an assortment or aggregation of peoples of all kinds, ranging from the most primitive to the most advanced. This great, variety creates difficult problems in. the political administration and economic development of the Soviet state.

Many peoples but one nation

Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 the czarist government followed a policy of forcible “Russification.” That is, it tried to weld together and force into a Russian mold all the many nationalities and races under its rule. In the United States we have worked to Americanize our new immigrants through education and adaptation rather than by trying to enforce a national pattern. The czarist Russian government, however, didn’t go in much for popular education because it was afraid that revolution would follow in the wake of education.

By a somewhat different course the Soviet leaders achieved a striking measure of national unification. They have imposed on all the peoples of the USSR a uniform political and economic system usually described as communism. But within this centralized framework, administered from Moscow, they have given each national group a considerable measure of cultural independence and, more recently, economic self-rule. Each national group is encouraged to develop its music, literature, language, and so on, but all must accept the political and economic doctrines of the Soviet system.

The experience of the USSR in dealing with a great variety of national groups may prove very valuable to the rest of the world in meeting the problems of postwar reconstruction especially in regions like those of eastern Europe and the Balkans, where populations are often inextricably mixed. The Russians have shown that it is possible to have cultural independence for national and racial groups, yet achieve political and economic unity among them.

The Russians have certain essential characteristics which appear again and again throughout their turbulent history, and these characteristics may help us to understand why they act as they do. Partly because of its geographic isolation, Russia remained outside many of the main streams of the civilization that shaped western Europe and the New World. That is why in some ways Russia, even today, may seem backward at first glance.

In many ways, the Russians resemble the Americans more than they do any other people. Like Americans, they are eager to ask questions and learn new things. They have an attitude of breezy but not annoying self-confidence, born of the knowl-edge that they have vast spaces and great material resources at their disposal. And they adapt themselves readily to new and entirely untried conditions.

Russians are quick to learn

To Westerners the Russians often appear inefficient. Many have therefore wondered how “inefficient” Russians could do so well on the industrial front that even the Nazis have been forced to admit Russia’s great strength in modern war equipment.

The answer to this question is that we did not know the Russians. Before 1917 they had had relatively little experience with industrial methods. Their country was still in a primitive stage of agriculture and had only begun to face the problems of the machine age. When vast masses of Russian peasants were drawn into factories after 1917, they simply did not know how to deal with mechanical contrivances and often treated machines as if they were draft animals.

But this does not mean that the Russians—especially the younger generation, brought up to admire and respect mechanical civilization—have not been quick to learn. On the contrary the Russians have shown the world that, given the necessary education and technical training, they can be very adept at modern industrial methods.