Friday, March 30, 2012

Open Thread on Ethnic Minorities in the USSR

I do not expect anybody to actually comment. But, feel free to if you want. I am more convinced than ever that the structural practice of the special settlement regime towards deported nationalities and South African apartheid have far more similarities than differences. I think I can get another journal article out of this idea.


Paul Smecker said...

my understanding was that pre-WWII repression was generally conducted on economic and political grounds, but happened to catch lots of minorities that for some reason or the next had a stronger conflict with the bolsheviks -- ethnic germans for being more tied to private property, poles and western ukrainians for the same reasons, georgians (irony!) for having the temerity to elect a menshevik government for a hot minute. post WWII, minorities were punished for collaboration (balts, caucasians that supposedly collaborated, poles) and others for alleged "internationalism". i think it makes sense to leave the jews out of this, but just barely.

J. Otto Pohl said...

There were deliberate national operations in 1937-38 aimed at agents from foreign countries that focused on diaspora minorities. There was a Polish Operation, a German Operation, a Latvian Operation, etc. The ethnic Germans were targeted for being ethnically related to Germany during this campaign. Since ethnicity in the USSR became immutable in 1938 and was already primordial and essentialized this meant that the category functioned the same as race.

During World War II, certain nationalities were targeted for deportation to Siberia and Central Asia in their entirety. These included the Germans, Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks. The Soviet claim of universal collaboration does not stand up. Most of the deportees were women and children. Red Army veterans, Communist Party members, and others who obviously were not collaborators were also repressed. The decision to deport the nationalities was made and then later justified by false claims of collaboration. In reality it was because natsionalnost had been racialized in the USSR and certain ethnicities were stigmatized as being inherently and permanently treasonous by virtue of their ancestry despite the many cases proven political loyalty by members of these groups.

The partial deportations after WWII of Balts was a classic case of colonization. It was an attempt to impose the Soviet system on these nations by removing their native elites to Siberia. It effectively ended armed opposition to Soviet rule in the Baltic States and allowed colonization to proceed up until the 1980s.

Leo Tolstoy said...

One of the anomalies during the deportations was the fact that the Circassians were left alone. There was an entire pro-German Circassian division, while the Chechens for example never had a chance to collaborate. So there was something else going on.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Walt there were lots of cases of nationalities that had German military units, but were not deported in their entirety. Off the top of my head there were the Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Volga Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Latvians, Estonians, and if we count the ROA and KONR the Russians.

David Watkins said...

I took a few courses on Russian and Soviet History, as well as a course in political science in college in the late 90's, and that anecdotal experience doesn't fall in line with your expectations. Indeed, the first major "go look for peer reviewed research" assignment I did in college involved language policy in the USSR. It was over 15 years ago now and I couldn't produce the paper, but I distinctly recall finding a number of studies about the sometimes brutal and forced "Russification" of minority languages by the Stalinist regime. I found several scholarly research articles that discussed this, and wrote a paper that was received as uncontroversial and received a strong grade. I graduated from a mainstream american institution of higher learning with the view that the Stalinist treatment of ethnic minorities was very poor indeed.

Leo Tolstoy said...

Yes, but those are all nations in excess of a million. As Krushchev said, if he could have figured out how to do it Stalin would have deported the Ukrainians too, but there were too many of them. But the Circassians numbered just above 300,000 in 1940, while there were 400,000 Chechens.

The only theory I could come up with is that, since the Circassians were split among five different areas, it would have been very difficult to "surprise" them and deport them all at once.

J. Otto Pohl said...


Thank you for commenting. I am not sure exactly what 'expectations' you are referring to, however. Outright praise of Stalin's treatment of national minorities is rare. But, the systematic denial that the deportation of whole peoples constituted racial discrimination and that things like the special settlement regime were racist institutions is common. From this flows attempts to downgrade and justify the treatment as "political" or "security" related rather than racial repression. Hence it becomes less morally objectionable than things like the US internment of Japanese Americans in the scholarly discourse. This is a rather distorted view given the far worse treatment suffered by the Soviet minorities.

Hirsch flat out denies that the racialization of ethncity on the basis of essentialized culture is even possible. But, if you read people like Kenan Malik, Etienne Balibar, or George Fredrickson it is obvious that culture rather than biology is frequently used to construct racial categories. In fact the official construction of race in South Africa by the Volkekundiges was culturally rather than biologically justified. Their main source being in fact Shirokogorov, a student of Shternberg.

I think Malik nails the cultural construction of race which I would apply to the racialization of ethnicity (natsionalnost) in the USSR in _The Meaning of Race_ London, 1996. Culture which defines ethnicity does the same work as biology if it is used to define an essentialized and immutable group based upon ancestry. This is only controversial regarding the USSR where people have a vested interest in defending the Stalin regime from the charge of racism. In other cases such as modern Europe it is obvious that culture is a homologue for race.

J. Otto Pohl said...


There was a partial deportation of some Karbardians. But, most were left alone. However, taking the Soviet claim of collaboration at face value is not the way to proceed. The deportations were not on the basis of collaboration, but rather collaboration was the excuse used after the deportations.

The deported groups in the North Caucasus had all proved difficult to integrate into Soviet system. The Chechens especially were deemed inherently immune to Sovietization by the Stalin regime by the time of WWII. See Werth's article on this issue for just how racialilized the Soviet view of the Chechens actually was. I do not think the Circassian groups were viewed as having a primordial and essential 'culture' incompatible with Sovietization. Hence they were spared dispersal to Central Asia.