Sunday, March 30, 2014

Korenizatsiia as the logical conclusion of indirect rule

It has occurred to me since I have been living in Africa that the Soviet policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) to rule over the various non-Russian territories of the USSR was not any kind of real concession to national self determination as claimed by the Soviet leadership and most Western scholars today. Instead it was merely the logical conclusion of Lord Lugard's policy of indirect rule implemented in the British Empire as the most efficient way to rule over large expanses of territories with a minimal number of European administrators.

In both the Soviet and British cases representatives from the indigenous populations ruled the territory and people on behalf of the central metropolitan power based in Moscow or London. These local leaders enforced the political rule of the center and made sure that the economic resources of the peripheral territories remained subordinated to policies dictated from the center. There was no real political or economic autonomy either under indirect rule or Soviet korenizatsiia. In both cases indigenous elites carried out policies crafted in far away London or Moscow without any significant input by the population living in places like the Gold Coast or the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.

In addition to the centralization of political and economic policies and their execution by indigenous elites the two systems shared another similarity. The indigenous people were allowed and even encouraged to keep and develop officially sanctioned versions of their native cultures and traditions. Despite, some misguided claims to the contrary there was nothing unique about the Soviet policies of supporting indigenous languages, customs, and cultural forms under korenizatsiia. These things were encouraged rather than suppressed in the British African colonies. A good argument can be made that British practice often allowed more real cultural autonomy than the Soviet Union permitted. Certainly, things like the suppression of indigenous religious practices seem to put the British in a better light than the Soviets. But, there are other places where actual practice shows the British to be far more supportive of indigenous cultures than the Soviets. For instance a far greater percentage of Europeans in West Africa learned indigenous languages than did Russians in Central Asia and other non-Russian republics. Indeed unlike the USSR where ethnic Russians working in the administrative apparatus of non-Russian republics almost never learned the indigenous language, the British were eventually successful in forcing almost all of their long term administrators in the Gold Coast to become proficient in one of the local languages (Talk to University of Ghana History Department by K.B. Asante  12 February 2014). In both cases there is an official policy of bilingualism for both indigenous and non-indigenous administrators. But, in the case of the Gold Coast it was put in practice whereas in the USSR the practice was for indigenous cadres to learn Russian without requiring Russians to become bilingual.

There is no question that indirect rule was the cheapest and most efficient way to run much of the British Empire. Likewise, korenizatsiia was viewed as the only way that a political state centered around Moscow could continue to control the administration and resources of the vast non-Russian populated areas of what became the USSR. Loyal indigenous leaders were in both cases looked at as the best way for the center to assert political and economic control over the people, lands, and resources of the periphery. In neither case was their any real political or economic autonomy for the periphery. However, in both cases the preservation and promotion of official versions of traditional cultures were a central pillar of metropolitan policy. While many scholars in the US and elsewhere have gone to great length to stress apparent differences between the USSR and colonial empires, the similarities between the policies of korenizatsiia and indirect rule have been largely ignored. Instead korenizatsiia has been falsely portrayed as a form of real decolonization granting concrete national self-determination rather than just a more developed form of indirect rule.

No comments: