Thursday, April 10, 2008

Factors of Emigration Movements in the USSR

This week I covered the Jewish emigration movement in the USSR during the 1970s and 1980s in my Migration and Borders class. Next week I will be covering the German emigration movement in the USSR during the same period of time. It occurred to me today that the reason the Jewish and German emigration movements in the USSR came about and were successful to some degree in the 1970s is that they shared three common characteristics.

First, they had a history of persecution that provided a push factor out of the USSR. The memory of this trauma served to unify and mobilize these groups during the 1970s. In the case of the Germans this persecution took place mainly at the hands of the Soviet government under Stalin. In particular the mass deportation to Siberia and Kazakhstan and the subsequent mobilization into forced labor battalions in the labor army created a strong historical grievance among the Germans. For the Jews the Nazi extermination of their communities in Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic states had a very similar effect. This memory combined with resentment against various forms of continuing discrimination, forced acculturation and defamation in the years after Stalin's death served as a powerful motive to emigrate.

Second, they had no national administrative territory in the USSR. The Jews had never had a viable national territory in the USSR. The Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Oblast never contained more than a small portion of the Soviet Jewish population. The Germans had received a number of national territories in the 1920s and 1930s, but Stalin liquidated them all. Already before World War II, the Soviet government had eliminated the German national districts in Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Kuban and Siberia. In 1941 shortly after the mass deportation of the Volga Germans, the Stalin regime dissolved the Volga German ASSR. This marginalized the Jews and Germans as ethno-national groups within the Soviet state structure which was a union of 15 national republics with a number of smaller nationalities having lower ranked political divisions. Thus unlike most other nationalities in the USSR Germans and Jews did not have an administrative territory of their own within the USSR. They thus had a marginalized national existence compared to other groups in the Soviet Union. This marginalization created an additional push factor in favor of emigration. Diaspora nationalities simply did not have a place in the Soviet state structure of nationalities. Had the attempt to restore the Volga German ASSR in the mid-1960s been successful the German emigration movement of the early 1970s probably would not have emerged. The lack of a national territory in the USSR meant that issues of national discrimination and acculturation could not be solved within its borders. Hence they sought a solution outside of the USSR's borders.

These first two factors allowed for the creation of large and active emigration movements among the Germans and Jews. This domestic pressure was a necessary, but insufficient factor in the Soviet government's decision to allow emigration. Foreign pressure also played important role.

Finally, both the Jews and Germans had external homelands that encouraged them to immigrate. Other diaspora nationalities with a history of persecution such as the Koreans or Meskhetian Turks did not launch successful emigration movements because their ancestral homelands did not encourage immigration from the USSR. The Meskhetian Turks attempted to launch an emigration movement to Turkey during the early 1970s, but it failed to achieve any success due to the Turkish government's unwillingness to support it. In contrast West Germany and Israel both encouraged immigration from the USSR. The US later also became a destination for Soviet Jewish emigration due to its willingness to accept such immigrants. The US also put considerable pressure on the USSR to allow Jewish emigration and West Germany made German emigration an issue in its relationship with Moscow. Hence there were real diplomatic and economic incentives for the Soviet leadership to allow a limited amount of emigration by members of these two nationalities.

The convergence of all three factors are what account for the emergence and success of the Jewish and German emigration movements. Lots of Soviet nationalities suffered extreme persecution during the 1930s and 1940s, but most had their own administrative territories in the USSR after 1957. Others such as the Crimean Tatars considered themselves native to regions within the USSR even though they now lacked an autonomous territory. Finally, the support of a state both encouraging immigration and able to put pressure on the USSR to allow emigration was necessary for the success of the Jewish and German emigration movements. Hence diaspora groups in the Soviet Union such as Koreans, Poles and Greeks were unable to launch successful emigration movements.


FLG said...

I always find it interesting that Jews are referred to as a type of nationality or race rather than members of a religion.

Your post talks about Germans, Koreans, Poles, etc. But not Christians or Buddhists, only Jews.

This isn't an accusation or anything. Just something I always find interesting.

J. Otto Pohl said...


In the USSR Jews were legally a nationality and had this designated on line five of their internal passports. Others had German, Koreans or Pole listed. Nobody had Christian or Buddhist listed. This category was thus ethnic and not religious. In fact after 1938 it became racialized. You inherited the nationality of your parents. So there were a great many Jewish atheists and even some Jewish Christians in the USSR. For the purpose of national categorization they remained Jews.

Jews are not the only ethno-confessional group to move from a religious to an ethnic to a national identity. The Bosnian Muslims, Mennonites, Sikhs and others all have gone down this path to varying degrees as well.

Christopher Boondoc said...

Yes, this brings up an interesting point. I knew that the Jewish people were an ethnic group, but also you can convert to Judaism. Can you not become a Jew, but become a Jewish person? I'm not sure how this terminology works, but it is failing me. Thanks for the interesting post. I'd love to see you on my blog too: (I like your background format!)