Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ethnic Theory and Practice in the USSR and the Republic of South Africa

It has become apparent to me that in both theory and practice that there are a lot of similarities between Soviet nationalities policies and South African apartheid. In practice this is most apparent in the treatment of the deported peoples who were placed under the apartheid like restrictions of the special settlement regime. Restrictions that the Stalin regime decreed to be for all eternity "navechno" on 26 November 1948. But, even under the reformist post-Stalin regime legal restrictions on the freedom of residency remained on Soviet citizens of German nationality until 3 November 1972. This practice rested upon a theory that ethnoses are immutable groups into which people are born into and can not ever leave even after generations of acculturation have eliminated all actual cultural distinctions between the stigmatized groups and their larger host populations. While real cultural traits such as language may disappear during this time ascribed negative traits such as inherent disloyalty due to having an ancestral homeland abroad are considered to be innate and effectively eternal. I consider the permanent ascription of negative traits to people based upon their membership from birth into immutable categories of people defined by the state to be racist, but apparently I am among a very small minority of people with PhDs to take this position.

Ethnic theory in the USSR upon which the classification of people into different nationalities was based rests on the idea of essentialized and primordial groups tied forever to particular pieces of soil from which individuals could not escape through the process of cultural assimilation. Descendants of German immigrants to the US became simply Americans in a few short generations. In Russia and Central Asia people whose ancestors came from Central Europe to the Russian Empire as early as 1764 and who have almost completely lost all connections with their ancestral culture are still considered completely German in their essence. Such a situation has far more in common with racial formation in places like the US or even more so South Africa than it does with maintaining ethnic (i.e. cultural) identity. The ethnic theory that racialized nationality in the USSR in fact has a lot of similarities with the volkekunde used to provide a theoretical basis for apartheid.

Sergei Shirokogorov's work turns out to be one of the primary intellectual foundations of South African volkekunde. The literature freely acknowledges this fact. He was a student of Lev Shternberg, one of the most important early ethnographers in the USSR. Shirokogorov later went into exile in China, but his work continued to be influential not only in the USSR, but also Germany, and later South Africa. Despite being an emigre Shirokogorov's work remained central to Soviet ethnic theory as developed by Yulian Bromley. But, Shirkogorov's ideas were not ever alien to the USSR. The idea of primordial ethnicity which was put into rigid legal practice by the NKVD in 1938 was shared by a number of early Soviet ethnographers including Shternberg and his close collaborator Vladimir Bogoraz.

It is true that the Soviet ethnographers unlike those in Nazi Germany always defined ethnoses on the basis of things other than genetics. But, so too did the South Africans. Culture has since Boas served as a very convenient substitute for biology in the construction of immutable groups defined by ancestry. It is telling that although Hirsch makes numerous references contrasting Soviet and Nazi theories that her book Empire of Nations does not once mention Shirokogorov. An investigation into scholars positively citing his work shows not only similarities, but the actual intellectual influence of Soviet ideas of ethnicity in the construction of the theoretical basis of South African apartheid. The South Africans both in theory and practice erected a system of racial discrimination that thus had far more in common with Soviet nationalities policies than it did with Nazi Germany.

Yet, Hirsch and Weiner defend the USSR from the charge of racism by pointing out its differences from Nazi Germany as if that were the only example of racism in world history. If the Soviet national deportations are not racist because they were justified along lines of ethnicity stressing historical, cultural, and geographical differences rather than genetic ones than it seems impossible to claim that apartheid was racist. It too was justified along a rationale very different from the biological one of Nazi Germany. Indeed defenders of apartheid pointed out that 'separate development' was based upon providing for the different needs of ethnicities defined by differences in  history, culture, and geography not genetic inferiority. Nobody of course took the defenders of apartheid seriously even though they may have sincerely believed what they were saying. So why do most US scholars of the USSR buy the line that there was no racial discrimination in the USSR towards the deported peoples because the Stalin regime called racialized groups nationalities and like South Africa defined them along cultural rather than genetic lines?


Leo Tolstoy said...

Otto, was Hirsch the young woman at our panel in NYC that tried to argue that if a nation such as the Karachays was assimilated as a result of the deportation it was their own fault? I've never read her work; certainly none of the material I've ever read has referenced her book.

Obviously, the Soviet Union inherited the racism ingrained in its Tsarist predecessor. Deporting every last Karachay or Chechen, even those who fought against the Nazis, based upon the supposed notion that they were "traitor nations," is a racist policy.

J. Otto Pohl said...


No that was Kathryn Tomlinson. She is British and got her PhD in social anthropology from UCL. She wrote here dissertation on the Meskhetian Turks. As far as I can tell she has left academia.

Francine Hirsch is an American with a PhD in history. She is currently tenured at the University of Wisconsin. Her claim is that because anthropologists in the USSR were 'anti-racist' that there were no racist Soviet policies under Stalin. She of course largely ignores actual policies enacted by the NKVD. She also tends to ignore the work of the ethnographers who like their counterparts in apartheid South Africa were ethnic primordialists.

For some reason I do not understand Hirsch has been considered the foremost scholar on Soviet nationalities policies for years now. That means that other than you and me the number of people who think that the deportations were racist is very small. Officially the orthodox position of the US academia is that there was no racism towards the deported peoples because the Soviet government was officially 'anti-racist' and used culture rather than biology to categorize people. Of course so did apartheid South Africa. Which is my whole point. Evidently non-Americans such as Petr Skalnik realize this, but Hirsch and Wiener represent the majority view in the US. Other than you, me, and Eric D. Weitz I can not think of a single other published US scholar willing to say that the deportations were racist policies.

Leo Tolstoy said...

Of course, there was no single "Soviet" policy. The korenizatsiia of the early 1930s was followed by the purging of all the promoters of korenizatsiia in the late 1930s. In this 1920s you could be sent to the camps for using the word "zhid" to describe a Jew, while in the 1950s it was the standard word among the apparatchiki to describe them. So to argue the USSR was "officially" anti-racist makes no sense.

I'm dealing with the definition of genocide myself these days. It's a different sort of debate, but still filled with people who limit the debate with false assumptions.

J. Otto Pohl said...


Hirsch says there is a persistent Soviet policy from the 1920s to the 1950s at least rejecting racism. She basis this upon the official theories of race crafted by Soviet anthropologists. She does not take into account the fact that racist acts and policies can exist without a racial ideology based upon an explicit hierarchy of biological inferiority based upon genetics. She completely rejects the idea that racial discrimination can be based upon a 'racialization' that is making immutable ethnic and national categories. Hence her argument boils down to the idea that 'natsionalnost' is not race according to the Soviet anthropologists and therefore there was never any racist policies in Stalin's USSR.

Leo Tolstoy said...

Officially, yes, but officially the USSR was democratic. It sounds like a very rigid way of looking at things.

As for Kathryn Tomlinson, it's good to hear she's out of academia. I couldn't believe what came out of her mouth at that conference.

J. Otto Pohl said...

According to a quick Google search Dr. Tomlinson is currently working for the BBC. Earlier she was working for the British Ministry of Defense.