Yerevan 1954: Anastas Mikoyan and Nationality Reform in the Thaw, 1954–1964
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Pietro A. Shakarian
Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw represented a major period of historical change for the Soviet Union, a period that included significant reform to the country’s nationality policy. In this regard, Soviet Armenian statesman, Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, a close Khrushchev ally, played an indispensable role in shaping and defining the nationality policy during the crucial years following the death of Joseph Stalin. In a speech in the Armenian capital Yerevan on 11 March 1954, Mikoyan became the first Soviet official to articulate a different approach toward the nationality policy after Stalin. The speech set the stage for not only for Mikoyan’s major role in post-Stalin nationality reform, but also for his leading role on the issue of de-Stalinization. Subsequently, Mikoyan went on to play a key role in developing the nationality platform of the Third Party Program by rejecting assimilationist approaches toward the issue in favor of more inclusive ones. He also served as chairman of the subcommittee on Nationality Policy and National-State Construction (NPNSC) for Khrushchev’s constitutional commission of the 1960s, envisioning ambitious reforms that would greatly decentralize the Soviet state. Certainly, Mikoyan’s work on the nationality question represented a general trend in Soviet central policy toward more, not less, decentralization during the Thaw years.
Anastas Mikoyan with Soviet Armenian leaders Yakov Zarobyan and Anton Kochinyan in Sanahin, Alaverdi, Lori, Armenia.
Courtesy of the Russian State Archive (GARF) f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1723, l. 21.
As Michael Loader and William Risch have highlighted in their research, the first Soviet official to experiment with more liberalized policies in the nationality sphere was Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentii Beria. However, Beria failed to articulate any concrete philosophy toward the nationality question. Reforms in the nationality sphere became yet another theatre of conflict in his rivalry with Khrushchev for the post-Stalin leadership. After Beria’s arrest and execution in 1953, it was Mikoyan who became the first Soviet official to articulate a guiding approach toward a nationality policy in his 1954 Yerevan speech, one year after Stalin’s death and two years before Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin.
As both an Armenian from the Caucasus and a non-Russian in the Soviet leadership, Mikoyan had an intimate understanding of national issues. In his Yerevan speech, Mikoyan decried “national nihilism” (i.e., an insensitivity toward national cultures) as being equally bad as “national chauvinism.” The approach was not so much new as it was a return to an earlier iteration of the nationality policy. He went on to call for a more flexible position toward Armenian national culture, including the republication of the works of famous authors Raffi and Rafael Patkanyan, and the revival of the memory of NEP-era Soviet Armenian leader Aleksandr Myasnikyan. However, the biggest moment of the speech was when Mikoyan called for the rehabilitation of the fiery Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, who was both a victim of Stalin’s Purges and a symbol of the liberalism of the NEP period in Armenia. The speech can be heard here, courtesy of Avag Harutyunyan of the Armenian National Archives. Charents's name is mentioned at 8:20.
The mention of the name “Charents” was itself enough to make the room explode with applause for approximately 30 seconds. It certainly inspired Charents’s dear friend, the painter Regina Ghazaryan, to exhume his unpublished manuscripts from the ground. She had them buried per Charents’s instructions after his 1937 arrest. They remained underground for over a decade until Mikoyan’s speech. Notably, in the fourth draft of his speech, Mikoyan’s condemnation of the Stalinist regime’s actions toward Charents was even stronger. In the original draft, Mikoyan referred to the poet’s arrest as “inadmissible” (nedopustimii). However, in the final version, he softened his language considerably, stressing instead that the government had been “incorrect” (nepravilnii) about Charents.
An excerpt from the final draft of Mikoyan's speech showing his original, stronger wording on Charents. Again, he originally called Charents's conviction by the Stalinist regime недопустимый, but moderated his wording and changed it to неправильный instead.
This document is held at GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1111, l. 52.
The decision to mention Charents not only facilitated the poet’s official rehabilitation, but also played an important role in the process of de-Stalinization. Mikoyan’s stance on the issue was informed partially by his own sense of guilt for his role in Stalin’s Purges, particularly in his native Armenia. On 15 September 1937, Stalin dispatched Georgii Malenkov and NKVD deputy Mikhail Litvin to Yerevan to purge the Armenian Communist Party in the aftermath of the death of Old Bolshevik Sahak Ter-Gabrielyan. Five days after Malenkov and Litvin arrived in Yerevan, Stalin sent Mikoyan too, to test his loyalty. Much intrigue has surrounded this episode, but documents from the FSB Central Archive indicate that Mikoyan was forced into this operation, which was closely supervised by Stalin from Moscow. In his memoirs, Mikoyan recalled that he attempted to save at least one individual during his trip – Danush Shaverdyan – but to no avail. Ultimately, together with Malenkov and Litvin, Mikoyan participated in these repressions, something for which he apparently never forgave himself, becoming the one member of Stalin’s circle “most distraught by his conscience.”
Since Beria’s arrest in July 1953, Mikoyan received numerous requests for rehabilitations from Old Bolsheviks from his revolutionary days in the Caucasus, including Armenians, Russians, Georgians, Jews, and other nationalities. The invocation of Charents was intended as a means of signaling to others that the Soviet state, and Mikoyan in particular, would be open to reviewing requests for rehabilitation. Predictably, in April 1954, one month after the speech, the number of letters that Mikoyan received mushroomed. Additionally, only one week after the speech, a “review” commission was established in Armenia in Mikoyan’s name to examine several cases related to Stalinist repressions. It included some of Armenia’s leading Party figures, notably First Secretary Suren Tovmasyan and future First Secretaries Yakov Zarobyan and Anton Kochinyan. All comprised part of an influential Thaw-era Armenian patronage network, linked to Mikoyan.
The commission was just one element of Mikoyan’s emerging role as the Kremlin’s foremost de-Stalinizer. From April to December 1954, Mikoyan personally followed the statuses of hundreds of rehabilitation requests, signing off on virtually every one in his characteristic blue pencil. Together with Levon Shahumyan (son of revolutionary Stepan Shahumyan), Mikoyan also met with Gulag returnees, such as Aleksei Snegov and Olga Shatunovskaia. At the urging of Mikoyan and Shahumyan, Snegov and Shatunovsakaia recounted their horrific stories of Gulag life to Khrushchev, paving the way for the Soviet leader’s historic denunciation of Stalin at the XX Party Congress in February 1956.
Mikoyan meets with rehabilitated Old Bolsheviks in Baku, 30 March 1964.
Courtesy of GARF, f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1847, l. 53.
However, Mikoyan’s position of opposing both “national nihilism” and “national chauvinism” did not find universal acceptance among the Soviet political elite. Throughout the Thaw, the Party’s position on nationality policy remained the subject of considerable debate. There were two major positions within the Party – the sliianie (merger) position and the sblizhenie (rapprochement) position. The advocates of the sliianie position favored the assimilation of the Soviet republics and different national groups into a larger Russian Soviet whole, as part of the historical realization of the communist utopia. By contrast, the advocates of the sblizhenie position stressed a common Soviet state identity while also respecting the ethnic and cultural expression of the country’s various nationalities.
Mikoyan in Alaverdi, Armenia, with Soviet Armenian leaders Anton Kochinyan, Yakov Zarobyan, and Yeghishe Astsatryan, 15 March 1962. Photographer: Baghdasaryan.
Courtesy of Avag Harutyunyan of the Armenian National Archives.
The struggle between these two visions was clearest during the process of drafting the platform on nationality policy in the Third CPSU Party Program of 1961. In this process, Mikoyan staunchly favored the position of sblizhenie over sliianie. Of the merger idea, Mikoyan wrote in the 1958 draft of the Party Program, “this is a natural process, not a Party task.” In the subsequent draft from early 1961, Mikoyan heavily struck out a passage on the “impending merger” of nations with his characteristic thick blue pencil, which he also underlined in red. He also opposed defining the nationality policy as “territorial,” or synonymous with the Soviet ethno-federal state. In staking out this position, he endorsed the idea that the policy could also encompass the rights of individual representatives of various national groups, regardless of their place of residence in the USSR.
Overall, the position enshrined in the 1961 Party Program placed an indefinite pause on the idea of a “merger of nations” and instead favored the development of the USSR as a multiethnic federation. As historian Alexander Titov argued, the Party Program represented “the main ideological document up to the end of the Soviet period,” and as such, its position on the nationality question remained virtually unchanged for the duration of the Soviet era. In many ways, as scholar Maike Lehmann has highlighted, this position was already a reality for many people in the Soviet Union, who negotiated between both “Soviet”/”socialist” and “national” identities. For his part, Khrushchev was clearly impressed by his friend’s expertise on the nationality question. When the Soviet leader proclaimed his plans for a major reform of the Soviet constitution, he named Mikoyan chairman of the constitutional commission’s NPNSC subcommittee.
In addition to Mikoyan, the subcommittee was comprised of 14 members, representing various parts of the USSR, including the First Secretaries of three union republics. The aim was to reform the union state and reverse the excessive centralization that characterized the Stalin constitution of 1936. Toward that end, Mikoyan and the subcommittee, together with Soviet legal experts, debated and discussed various reforms, including enhancing the powers of the union republics vis-à-vis Moscow, the possibility of elevating national autonomous entities to the status of union republics, and even the structure of the state itself. On the latter point, Mikoyan was of the opinion that the USSR should ideally be more than a federal state. Instead, he envisioned it as a free union of republics, something closer to a confederation and to Lenin’s original vision of the union.
Mikoyan and Anton Kochinyan greeted with traditional offerings of lavash (Armenian flatbread) and salt at Karchevan, near Meghri, on the Soviet-Iran border, 13 March 1962.
Photographers: Nemrut and Amalyan.
Courtesy of Avag Harutyunyan of the Armenian National Archives.
The focus was not solely on the rights of the union republics. Mikoyan and his constitutional framers also envisioned reforms for national autonomous entities, including enhancing their representation in the Soviet of Nationalities. Additionally, Mikoyan opposed having union republics approve the constitutions of autonomous republics. For reference in their work, the reformers closely examined “bourgeois” Western criticisms of Soviet federalism, especially on the excessive centralization of the 1936 Stalin constitution. They also studied the constitutions of several Western and Eastern Bloc states, but were most interested in the 1963 constitutional reforms of Josip Broz Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia.
While clearly impressive, the work of the NPNSC Subcommittee also prompts many questions. For example, although the reform effort sought to bolster national autonomous entities, the envisioned weakening of Moscow’s central authority would no doubt place them in a precarious position vis-à-vis the union republics. In addition, although Mikoyan recognized the importance of non-titular nationalities in his later writings, the reform effort left the status of these groups unaddressed. Moreover, for a committee focused on both national-state construction and nationality policy, more emphasis was placed on reforming the ethno-federal state structure. Mikoyan’s earlier focus on the non-territorial dimension of the nationality policy was not expounded upon in the subcommittee’s work. Finally, the work of the subcommittee was ultimately aspirational. Although the ideal of equality among national groups was realized in many places in the USSR, in many others, there was a significant gap between the articulated ideal and the lived reality, as Krista Goff has highlighted.
Regardless, the work of the NPNSC subcommittee was ultimately left unrealized. Khrushchev’s ouster from power in 1964 and the rise of Leonid Brezhnev precluded that possibility. What is clear is that Mikoyan’s role in the development of the Thaw-era nationality policy represented a greater trend toward decentralization and a potential alternative path toward a more representative and democratic Soviet socialist system.
Film: Anastas Mikoyan in Armenia (1962)
Courtesy of Avag Harutyunyan of the Armenian National Archives, Yerevan.
Pietro A. Shakarian is a Lecturer in History at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, and a historian of Armenia, Russia, and the Caucasus, with a particular focus on Soviet Armenia during the era of Khrushchev's Thaw. He earned his Ph.D. in History at The Ohio State University, his MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, his MLIS at Kent State University, and his BA in History at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
 Based on earlier interpretations of the sliianie and sblizhenie concepts as synonymous, most Western scholars previously concluded that the 1961 CPSU Party Program’s endorsement of the sblizhenie position signaled an intent toward the assimilation of nations. In fact, as the evidence indicates, the opposite was true.  Michael Loader, “Beria and Khrushchev: The Power Struggle over Nationality Policy and the Case of Latvia,” Europe-Asia Studies, 68, no. 10 (December 2016): 1759-1792, and William Risch, The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 20-21.  The speech was published in 1954 by Gospolitizdat, with a print run of 100,000 copies (see Anastas Mikoyan, Rech’ na sobranii izbiratelei Erevanskogo-Stalinskogo izbiratel’nogo okruga goroda Erevana, 11 mart 1954 goda [Speech at the Voter Meeting of the Yerevan-Stalin Electoral Okrug of Yerevan, 11 March 1954] (Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1954)).  For an insightful study on the ways in which the backgrounds of Mikoyan and other Soviet leaders impacted their radicalization and support for Bolshevik revolutionary politics, see Liliana Riga, The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).  A. I. Mikoyan, Rech’ na sobranii izbiratelei Erevanskogo-Stalinskogo izbiratel’nogo okruga, 43.  A. I. Mikoyan, “Rech’ na sobranii izbiratelei Erevanskogo-Stalinskogo izbiratel’nogo okruga goroda Erevana,” March 11, 1954, Yerevan, Audio recording, 121:48, HAA-KFFP.  Regina Ghazaryan, “Husher Charentsi masin” [Memories of Charents], in Charentsi het: Husher [With Charents: Memoirs], ed. Davit Gasparyan (Yerevan: Nairi, 1997), 357.  GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1111, l. 52.  Charents was officially rehabilitated on 9 March 1955, approximately one year after Mikoyan’s speech (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 962, ll. 195-198). Notably, the commission tasked with reviewing Charents’s case took Mikoyan’s speech into consideration in their deliberations on the poet’s fate (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 962, l. 178).  Armenian First Secretary Amatuni Amatuni and local NKVD chief Khachik Mugdusi were responsible for Ter-Gabrielyan’s death. Both were Beria allies who had assumed office after Beria’s assassination of popular Armenian leader Aghasi Khanjyan. However, they failed to inform Stalin about Ter-Gabrielyan’s death, provoking the wrath of the vozhd’. For Stalin’s reaction, see GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 607, ll. 18-19.  L. Denisova, ed. Tragediia Sovetskoi Derevni: Kollektivizatsiia i Raskulachivanie, Dokumenti i Materiali, 1927–1939, Tom 5. 1937–1939, Kniga 1. 1937, The Tragedy of the Soviet Village: Collectivization and Dekulakization, Documents and Materials, 1927–1939, Vol. 5: 1937–1939, Book 1. 1937 (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2004), 605n70. The documents cited are held at TsA FSB RF f. 3, op. 4, d. 149, ll. 85 and 105.  During the Yerevan intervention, Stalin kept in close contact with Malenkov who served as his “eyes and ears” in Yerevan. For more on Malenkov’s role, see Sergei Filippov, “9 podvigov tovarishcha Malenkova. Kak stalinskiy kadrovik zachishchal partiiu ot ‘starykh bolshevikov’” [The Nine Feats of Comrade Malenkov – How a Stalinist Personnel Officer Cleansed the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ from the Party], Uroki istorii XX vek (International Memorial), June 12, 2019, https://urokiistorii.ru/article/55837 (accessed November 11, 2021).  Anastas Mikoyan, Tak bylo: Razmyshleniia o Minuvshem [So It Was: Reflections on the Past] (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2014), 630. Although Shaverdyan was arrested on 23 February 1937 (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 47, l. 4), he was still under investigation by Armenian authorities during the September 1937 intervention (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 47, ll. 212-216). By order of a military tribunal of the Transcaucasian Military District, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on 27 May 1939, with loss of rights for 5 years and confiscation of half of his property. He apparently died in prison on 24 October 1941 and was officially rehabilitated on 25 September 1954 (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 49, l. 111).  Stephen F. Cohen, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin (Exeter, NH: PublishingWorks, 2010), 91. For a detailed overview of Mikoyan’s role in the Purges in Armenia in September 1937, see Pietro A. Shakarian, “An Armenian Reformer in Khrushchev’s Kremlin: Anastas Mikoyan and the Politics of Difference in the USSR, 1953-1964” (Ph.D. diss., The Ohio State University, 2021), 36-57.  Samuel A. Casper, “The Bolshevik Afterlife: Posthumous Rehabilitation in the Post-Stalin Soviet Union, 1953-1970” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2018), 44. For the letters sent to Mikoyan, see GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1099, 1100, and 1101.  Casper, “The Bolshevik Afterlife,” 54. One of these letters came from Danush Shaverdyan’s son, Sergei, who appealed to Mikoyan to have the cases of his parents reviewed (HAA f. 1191, op. 1, d. 48, l. 2). Mikoyan immediately forwarded the request to Soviet Procurator General Roman Rudenko, writing “please review and inform me about the results.” (GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1101, l. 103)  HAA f. 1, op. 34, d. 54, l. 26 and GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1099, ll. 1-2.  It was through this network that Mikoyan assisted Yerevan in securing Moscow’s support for major economic projects in Armenia, including the Arpa-Sevan and Arzni-Shamiram canals. For an overview of Mikoyan’s Armenian patronage network during the Thaw, see Chapter 3 of Shakarian, “An Armenian Reformer in Khrushchev’s Kremlin”. For a first-hand account in the Armenian language, see Yeghishe Astsatryan, XX dar. Hayastani karutsman chanaparhin (Husher) [20th Century: On the Path Toward the Construction of Armenia (Memoirs)] (Yerevan: Edit Print, 2004), 56-85. For further information on patronage networks in the Thaw-era USSR in general, see Nikolai Mitrokhin, “The rise of political clans in the era of Nikita Khrushchev,” in Khrushchev in the Kremlin: Policy and government in the Soviet Union, 1953–1964, ed. Jeremy Smith and Melanie Illic (London: Routledge, 2011), 26-40.  These lists, with Mikoyan’s personal signature next to virtually every case, form the vast bulk of the documents in GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1104.  Cohen, The Victims Return, 89-91; Kathleen E. Smith, Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 32-46; and Sergo Mikoyan, “Aleksei Snegov v bor’be za ‘destalinizatsiiu’ [Aleksei Snegov in the Struggle for ‘De-Stalinization’],” Voprosy istorii 4 (Apr. 2006): 69-70.  During Mikoyan’s July 1962 meeting with Soviet legal scholars regarding the work of the NPNSC Subcommittee, Ivan Tsameryan of the Soviet Academy of Sciences discussed the dynamics of the debate and stated that the “publication of the draft party program dealt a strong blow to these views that preached the merging of nations.” For further information, see RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, ll. 59-60.  For an excellent overview on the development of the Party Program, see Alexander Titov, “The 1961 Party Programme and the fate of Khrushchev’s reforms,” in State and Society Under Nikita Khrushchev, ed. Melanie Illic and Jeremy Smith (London: Routledge, 2009), 8-25. For a detailed study on the role of Otto Kuusinen in the Party Program’s development, see Jukka Renkama, Ideology and Challenges of Political Liberalisation in the USSR, 1957–1961: Otto Kuusinen’s ‘Reform Platform’, the State Concept, and the Path to the 3rd CPSU Programme (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2006), 284-332.  GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1619, l. 38.  GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1616, l. 122.  GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1616, l. 121; GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1618, l. 136; GARF f. 5446, op. 120, d. 1619, l. 14.  Titov, “The 1961 Party Programme,” 8.  Maike Lehmann, “Apricot Socialism: The National Past, the Soviet Project, and the Imagining of Community in Late Soviet Armenia,” Slavic Review 74, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 9-31.  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, l. 17.  These three First Secretaries were Yakov Zarobyan of Armenia, Vasil Mzhavanadze of Georgia, and Sharaf Rashidov of Uzbekistan (see RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, l. 17).  For further information on these deliberations, see Chapter 5 of Shakarian, “An Armenian Reformer in Khrushchev’s Kremlin.”  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, ll. 61-62.  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, ll. 209-210.  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, l. 209.  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 37, ll. 64-78.  RGASPI f. 84, op. 3, d. 43, ll. 1-29, 52-60, and 69-74.  For Mikoyan’s writings on the cultural achievements on non-titular nationalities, especially the Avars of Dagestan, see Anastas Mikoyan, USSR: A United Family of Nations, trans. David Skvirsky (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 66-67).  See Krista A. Goff, Nested Nationalism: Making and Unmaking Nations in the Soviet Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020).