Sunday, September 04, 2005

Soviet Apartheid

"Formally Soviet citizens are not restricted by law in their right to choose their place of residence on account of nationality or religious identification. In fact there exists apartheid on the basis of nationality, and also religion applied not only in relation to Meskhetians, but also in relation to Crimean Tatars, Germans, a part of the Koreans, western Ukrainians and Lithuanians, in relation to members of many religious sects, former political prisoners and others." (Moscow Helsinki Group "On the Situation of the Meskhi" 14 January 1977.)

This report carried the signatures of Ludmila Alexeyeva, Elena Bonner, Aleksandr Ginsburg, Piotr Grigorenko, Dr. Aleksandr Korchak, Malva Landa, Profesor Yuri Orlov, Vladimir Slepak and Anatoly Sharansky. It was not the last time the Moscow Helsinki Group compared Soviet nationality policies to South African apartheid. On 4 November 1977, they issued a report on Soviet discrimination against Crimean Tatars that again explicitly compared Soviet policies to apartheid in South Africa. Indeed during the 1970s, Moscow based human rights activists frequently made this comparison. Of course most western, particularly US scholars rejected this comparison because it made the USSR look bad and ruined their image of the Soviet Union as a non-racist state. The few exceptions that I have found have been Edward Allworth at Columbia and Geoffrey Hosking at SSEES. Much more information is available about Soviet nationalities policies today than was in the 1970s. Not, surprisingly this evidence supports the position of the Moscow Helsinki Group and refutes the standard revisionist line dominant in the US.

The Moscow Helsinki Group was writing about the 1970s and the continued residency restrictions that prevented Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks from living in their historical homelands. But, the comparison is even stronger for the 1940s and 1950s when the Stalin regime created an entire seperate administrative and legal system for the deported nationalities. The people designated as "special settlers" by the Stalin regime lived under distinct legal disabilities that limited their mobility, job opportunities and access to education on the basis of their "race."

Although the fifth entry in Soviet passports and other documents listed the term nationality this catagory operated in the same manner as race in South Africa. Starting in 1938, nationality in the USSR became an inherited and immutable legal catagory determined by the native language of a person's ancestors. An individual inherited his parent's nationality, could not change it during his life time and automatically passed it on to his children. Only in the case of mixed nationality marriages did some choice exist. In such cases the child had to pick the nationality of one of his parents upon reaching age 16. Nationality was determined solely by biological descent regardless of acculturation.

During World War II, the Stalin regime deported eight whole nationalites numbering over 2.3 million people to special settlement restrictions in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Siberia and the Urals. These people suffered many of the same legal disabilities that Blacks in South Africa later experienced under apartheid. The only major exception was the absence of a Soviet parallel to the "petty apartheid" of segregated public facilities enacted by the Seperate Amenities Act of 1953. Almost all other aspects of apartheid had earlier parallels in the special settlement regime. Below I detail just some of the many similarities. Other parallels such as job discrimination and legal status before the courts I have not dealt with due to a lack of space.

The keystone to "grand apartheid" was the Group Areas Act of 1950 which restricted the residency of Blacks, Coloureds and Asians. Similar restrictions also formed the foundation of the special settlement regime. The special settlers could only live in their assigned settlements and could not legally leave them even for short periods without special permission from the NKVD. The deported nationalities lived in confined internal exile in the USSR.

South Africa introduced a comprehensive pass system to enforce the Group Areas Act and other apartheid legislation in 1952. They had a difficult time distinguishing light skinned Coloureds from Whites and thus resorted to requiring individuals to carry documents noting their official race. Special settlers also had to carry special identification cards marking them as members of legally inferior nationalities. These documents carried a great deal of information reinforcing their legal inferiority based upon their ancestral heritage. They marked not only the nationality of the special settler and noted that they could not leave their assigned district without permission. But, they also noted the decree ordering their deportation and the date of their exile. In both the Soviet and South African cases the government used a sophisticated system of identification documents to define people racially and restrict their rights upon this basis.

Finally, Pretoria outlawed interracial marriage in 1949. The Soviet government did not ban mixed nationality marriages between free citizens and special settlers. Rather it imposed the status and restrictions of special settlement upon all free citizens that married special settlers. This punishment did not stop such marriages, but it did impose a huge burden upon the formerly free citizen.

In both the USSR and South Africa, the government created seperate systems of administration and law for people based upon their birth into racially defined groups. Physical restrictions upon residency and movement formed the foundation of these discriminatory systems. Soviet human rights activists of course recognized these similarities and wrote about them in the 1970s. Most western, particularly American Sovietologists, however, unfortunately remained willfully blind to this racialized discrimination.

1 comment:

J. Otto Pohl said...


Thanks for stopping by. Hosking did bring up my use of the analogy in the oral exams. But, to be honest as you can see from the quotation at the top, I pinched the idea.

The toads are all over. I only see them on the gazeebo at night. They would be more of a help if they ate more bugs.