on 27 November 2014
"The Affirmative Action Empire" is a book about the early Soviet Union, dealing with Communist policy towards the non-Russian ethnic groups. The author, Terry Martin, is a history professor at Harvard University.
During the Civil War, the mostly Russian Bolsheviks had a tendency towards narrow "internationalism" and anti-nationalism, which often led to conflicts with non-Russian nationalities (despite Lenin's insistence on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination). In the Ukraine, this was known as "the grim lessons of 1919", when the mostly non-Russian peasants supported the anti-Bolshevik forces against the Red Army. On Lenin's and Stalin's insistence, the Bolsheviks decisively changed course after the Civil War, officially proclaiming the policy of "korenizatsiia" (indigenization) at the Bolshevik party congress of 1923. Over the next ten years, this led to the creation of a virtual "affirmative action empire" (Terry Martin's own term), during which the Bolsheviks systematically attempted to promote non-Russians to leading posts in the non-Russian regions, and support non-Russian national culture in general. The Soviet Union, rather than India, invented affirmative action.
Indigenization proved to be both surprisingly radical and obviously contradictory. The Bolsheviks rejected both involuntary and voluntary assimilation of non-Russian nations into the dominant Russian nation. Every non-Russian nationality, no matter how small or insignificant, was to have its own national soviets, its own primary schools, and (if possible) its own autonomous regions or republics. Non-Russian nationalities deemed "backward" were also entitled to federal funding from Moscow. The thoroughness of korenizatziia was rather impressive, as when the only Swedish village in the Soviet Union, Gammalsvenskby in the Ukraine, got its own national soviet, or when Norwegians and Saami at the Kola Peninsula got their own kolkhozes! In many Soviet republics, non-Bolshevik nationalists (including recently returned émigrés) were promoted to high-ranking positions in institutions dealing with science or culture. In the Ukraine, indigenization was particularly radical, being heavily promoted by Communist leader Mykola Skrypnyk. Attempts were made to de-Russify assimilated Ukrainian workers, force the largely Russian bureaucracy to learn Ukrainian, and give the Ukrainian soviet republic influence over Ukrainian regions in the RSFSR (the Russian soviet republic). Even largely non-Ukrainian cities, such as Odessa, were expected to Ukrainize, for instance by replacing Russian road signs with Ukrainian ones. (Not a trivial issue in a region were national feelings were very strong on both sides.) Indigenization was also used as part of Soviet foreign policy. Thus, Ukrainization was used to mobilize support for the Bolshevik revolution among the Ukrainian population abroad, most notably in Poland, an enemy nation the Soviet Union wanted to destabilize. The indigenization of Byelorussia was used for similar purposes.
At the same time, indigenization was highly contradictory. The Bolsheviks, of course, were *opposed* to nationalism. Indigenization was viewed by most Bolshevik cadre as a clever tactic to undermine support for local nationalists (who had often fought the Bolsheviks in the Civil War). Stalin said that the culture of the non-Russian ethnic groups should be "national in form, socialist in content". This created a tension within the indigenization policy, since supporters of national culture wanted more than mere "form". In Central Asia, the indigenous peoples demanded the literal expulsion of all Russians from their republics, seeing them as arrogant settlers. In many areas, there were also clashes between different non-Russian groups. Nationalists and pro-nationalist Communists (such as Sultan-Galiev in Tatarstan or the Borotbists in the Ukraine) attempted to use indigenization to further *their* respective agendas. By contrast, Russians, including many members and supporters of the Communist Party, were generally opposed to indigenization. The policy was sometimes unpopular even among non-Russians, who wanted their children to learn the Russian language and hence resented compulsory non-Russian schools. Local branches of all-Union ministries and companies also resented using the local language rather than Russian, while the Red Army was exempted from the policy and allowed to use Russian exclusively. The ten-year long history of korenizatsiia is therefore a story of false starts, temporary retreats and various inconsistencies overall.
Korenizatsiia was officially abandoned in 1933, when Stalin decided that promotion of the dominant Russian nationality and its traditional culture would give the Soviet Union more political stability than the indigenization of 100+ quasi-autonomous regions. In the Ukraine, Ukrainization was cancelled when the Ukrainian Communists in Poland defected from the Communist International for seemingly nationalist reasons, the nationalist intelligentsia and the Borotbists became too vociferous, and the Ukrainian peasantry resisted forced collectivization. The usual purges and show trials followed. Mykola Skrypnyk committed suicide (Stalin called it "the Biblical fall of Skrypnyk"). National minorities such as Finns, Poles and Latvians were seen as potentially disloyal, and were deported en masse in virtual acts of ethnic cleansing. In Central Asia, by contrast, indigenization continued even during forced collectivization and the First Five Year Plan, the reason being the "cultural revolution" accompanying them. While the "cultural revolution" was opposed to national culture, it was even more contrary to traditional Russian culture, and therefore promoted non-Russians through affirmative action. Around 1933, however, korenizatsiia came to a halt everywhere in the Soviet Union. Wholesale terror on an ethnic basis became rule rather than exception, the expulsions of the Chechens and the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia being two notorious examples.
How honest was Communist indigenization? The author believes that it was honest enough in the sense that the leaders of the Bolshevik party (including Stalin) really wanted to implement the policy during its halcyon days. The author even suggests that Stalin wasn't a Greater Russian chauvinist during the 1920's (despite accusations from Lenin on that score) and that some of his early proposals have been misunderstood by later Trotskyist polemicists! The problem was that indigenization was seen as a "soft core" Communist policy, while industrialization and collectivization were "hard core", central and non-negotiable. In a conflict between policy objectives, the "soft core" couldn't hold. Many Soviet citizens were arrested or even executed for (non-Russian) nationalism, while nobody was treated that harshly for Great Russian chauvinism (ostensibly the greater danger). But the main reason why the policy failed was that it led to increased ethnic tension and strife, including violence, and an opportunity for "counter-revolutionaries" to use the "national forms" in order to promote an anti-Bolshevik political perspective. By strengthening the "national forms", the Bolsheviks also strengthened nationalism, while their theory suggested the opposite. Since Soviet power had conceded the "national forms", the non-Russian minorities were supposed to more readily accept the "socialist content". They apparently didn't. During the crises of the 1930's, Stalin and the Communist leadership therefore decided that promotion of the Russian majority was the surest way to ensure the stability of the Soviet Union and (of course) its bureaucratic class. Yet, even afterwards, the Soviet Union nominally remained a multi-ethnic state based on "Friendship of the Peoples", albeit with the Russian nationality as a kind of primus inter pares. (Even Putin's Russia pretends to be multi-ethnic after a fashion, as when Putin graciously granted national rights to the Crimean Tatars after the Russian annexation of Crimea, when Chechens are made leaders in Russian-occupied Chechnya, etc. Clearly, a "Soviet" trait!)
"The Affirmative Action Empire" is a sturdy scholarly tome, with the usual excessive details and impossibly many reference notes, and thus not really suitable for the general reader. However, it's already a landmark work within Russian studies and should be consulted by everyone seriously interested in Soviet history, Communist history and the survival of nationalism.