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Book Reviews

Minorities as Tools and Victims

The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (The Wilder House Series in Politic...

The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939

by Terry Martin

Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

A representative of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s revisionist school and a Canadian of Mennonite German colonist-Russian/Ukrainian roots, Terry Martin, in his well-researched and pioneering The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2001) covers the saga of the Soviet nationalities policy under Stalin until the Second World War. He is interested in affirmative action policy (polozhite’l naia deiatel’nost,  pokrovitel’stevennaia politika,  pp. 16-17). This was a gigantic social engineering scheme that, while privileging the minorities, entailed reverse discrimination of the Russians.

Therefore Martin dubs the Bolsheviks as “internationalist nationalists” (p. 15). He also admits that the affirmative action policy was designed to influence perceptions so that the Soviet state would not be considered an empire or, more precisely, a continuation of the Russian Empire (p. 19). The author also admits that the Affirmative Action Empire was “a strategy to prevent the emergence of a potentially dangerous obstacle, non-Russian nationalism” (p. 20).

Having won the Bolshevik struggles for power, Stalin continued Lenin’s affirmative action policies. He was also the Party’s leading expert on nationalism and nationalities.  But soon, the new Soviet leader found the nationalities’ policies inadequate to running the USSR. They increasingly alienated the subjugated Russian population.

Most Russians felt sufficiently free of the past and engaged in the new system to chafe under what they viewed as the tyranny of the minorities, which was perceived as an injustice. This did not only concern the embittered pro-Bolshevik participants of the Revolution and the Civil War but also primarily the indoctrinated young, who, by then, had undergone years of Soviet “education.”

While endeavoring to fulfill the central objectives of Soviet policy (collectivization and industrialization), Stalin clashed with the goals of the Soviet nationalities policy. Thus, he deemphasized and then eliminated the affirmative action drive. The Soviet dictator resolved first to halt (p. 307) and then ethnically to cleanse korenizatsiia. That means the policy stayed, but the nationalists (real and imagined) who implemented it were purged, and many exterminated. Incidentally, the Koreans were the first to be “ethnically cleansed” (p. 334).

By the same token, Stalin ended the official discrimination of the Russians and uplifted them. It took the Second World War to elevate Russia, Russians, and “Russianness” to the supreme position in the Soviet Union, where they remained until the end. But that is yet another dialectical story of the Communist twists and turns.

Within this framework, Martin focuses on the “indigenization” (korenizatsiia) campaign (p. 10), or, as Stalin himself referred to it, “nationalization” (nationalizatsiia”) drive (p. 12).

Martin assures us that Stalin was not “either soft or cynical” on korenizatsiia. Sure, he was dialectical.

Like most Soviet schemes, the Communists moved at a breakneck pace. They were insanely proactive so their slaves would have no respite to organize themselves against the Red masters.

Soviet nationalities’ policy encountered numerous obstacles. How does one preserve justice and parity between the majority and the minorities (and among the minorities), say, in Ukraine, where the cities were Russian and Jewish and the countryside Ukrainian?

And who is the majority? Well, it depends on geography and level of national consciousness. Generally, Moscow and its stooges encouraged korenizatsiia in the East but not in the West of the USSR. Practically all Soviet officials were “sabotaging Ukrainization” while encouraging Kazakhization via financial assistance (p. 128). Yet, the Communist bureaucrats, for the most part, denied native requests to decolonize Central Asia by expelling Slavic settlers and seizing their land to hand it over to the Kazakhs and other eastern natives.

Further, the Kremlin promoted native cadres to top positions (except the technical posts because of lack of local talent and experts). It was crucial to creating perceptions of native Communists in power, rather than colonial Russians or other minorities, such as Jews (p. 222).

Martin then pits the center vs. and vis-à-vis the periphery. According to his revisionist analysis, “local conditions were decisive in both East and West” (p. 177). If the author means that the Kremlin’s policy was adjusted to the localities, he is right. Unfortunately, this is a standard device to detract our attention from Stalin to “little Stalins” of Fitzpatrick’s imagination. Ultimately, it was not his local clones but Josef Dzhugashvili himself who called the shots.

All this neatly illustrates the limits of korenizatsia and its dialectical and cynical dimension in the Kremlin’s nationalities policy.

The monograph is quite good at the tactical and operational levels but lacks strategic understanding of the topic at hand and fails short of the goal in terms of methodology.  An apparently impressive volume of documents and materials consulted reminds one of a sampling expedition rather than a comprehensive analysis method. The sheer volume is simply too overwhelming to render itself readily to a synthesis. At a first look, Martin’s mad dash through a multitude of archives appears spectacular, but, on the second look, it yields an impression of a cut-and-paste, as well as a cherry-picking endeavor.

Thus, one should not consider Martin’s discoveries and conclusions as anything but preliminary. To be sure, some of it is not his fault. The best remedy to such flaws would be to rely on many case studies of localities, clans, tribes, and nationalities. However, at the time of writing, hardly any existed. So his is a premature synthesis.

Also, predictably, Martin avoids scholars, no matter how expert, whose methods, conclusions, and ideas diverge from his own. My colleague Paul Goble, America’s leading conservative and anti-Communist expert on non-Russian nationalities of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet eras, is the most significant omission and the most visible non-person in The Affirmative Action Empire.

There are other problems as well. Martin tends to take Communist policies and propaganda utterances at their face value. He sees the Bolsheviks as true internationalists while openly fostering, out of the goodness of their hearts and progressive sensibilities, minority nationalisms.

The historian thus fails to grasp that both Lenin and Stalin, first and foremost, were interested in maintaining themselves in power. Power was indispensable to arrive at the Marxist utopia. Everything else was subordinated to it in a relativistic manner. Martin even quotes Stalin to that effect, but it appears that the scholar draws no lessons from the dialectical and relativistic implications of the words of the Soviet dictator in January 1934: “It would be stupid to give a formula that would be valid for all times. Such formulas do not exist. The greatest danger is that deviation against which one ceases to battle and which therefore grows into a danger to the state.” (p. 361).

As far as it impacted their nationalities policy, the Bolshevik leaders felt that since ethnic Russians (really, the Whites) fought against the Reds in the name of Russian nationalism, Lenin and Stalin supported the nationalisms of the minorities as a counterweight to the majority Russian enemies (again, the Whites). The Communists invented minority nationalism to partition Russia into “national” republics and keep the ethnic Russians in check to control their conquests.

Let us stress that, at the initial stage, the Bolsheviks projected their White enemies onto all Russians. However, in reality, the Whites were a relatively small minority of Russians, a point we shall return to shortly.

Although for these reasons, the Russians were officially discriminated against in Soviet Russia, at the same time, they were also advantaged under Bolshevik rule. This was because ethnic Russians, particularly in places that constituted minority populations in the colonial areas, tended to support the Bolsheviks and their revolution. At least some of them were rewarded with the appropriate party and government posts and endured in them despite official discrimination of the Russian people. Further, the Russian language was the Bolshevik lingua franca of control and command. By the force of inertia, it became a privileged tongue. Through its medium, Communism was purveyed on the conquered land. “Increased centralization undercut linguistic korenizatsiia” (p. 175).

But to understand the dialectical twists and turns of such phenomena, one must backtrack to Lenin, the Revolution in Russia from February 1917, the Bolshevik coup d’etat of October 1917, and the Civil War until 1922.

The reality was that the Bolsheviks conquered Russia with prominent minority support and much Russian backing. However, initially, they treated the Russians as a conquered people and discriminated against the Russian nationality, including its culture. Conversely, they favored national minorities until the Second World War.

Let’s look at this apparent paradox of the Russian support for and their discrimination by the Communists. The patterns of voting for the Constituent Assembly in 1917/1918 show that in the ethnic Russian region centered in Moscow, it was overwhelmingly ethnic Russians who cast their ballots for the Bolsheviks. In Central Asia and the Far East, as Richard Pipes has shown, it was also ethnic Russians who fought for the Reds both against the Russian Whites and non-Russian, native separatists. It was the (albeit usually hostile to Communism) “bourgeois specialists” who ran the machinery of the Communist state.

In particular, the (rather unwilling) officer-draftees in the Red Army defeated their former colleagues and friends from the Tsarist armies, the Whites. Sadly, most Russian officers stuck with the state, even if it was Bolshevik, instead of joining the Whites. Most of the officers were coerced into the ranks, but before the Communists turned efficient at terrorizing, very few had the initiative, resolve, and gumption to launch the White Movement. Most remained neutral and, then, they simply did as the Reds told them. Thus, the ethnic Russians were indispensable to the Bolshevik victory as its active or passive enablers.

On the other hand, sections of each minority ethnicity joined the Bolsheviks, usually gradually and incrementally. Three main ethnic minority groups tied their fortunes to the star of Lenin.

First, a few were original Social Democrats, anarchists, or other leftists, active in the radical movement from its inception in the late 19th century. Second, many were new revolutionary recruits who saw Communism as the shining light of the future in 1917 and after. Third, progressive nationalists and even religious reformers (e.g., Tatar Muslims) deluded themselves they could implement their platform within the context of victorious Bolshevism.

Of the latter group, some became national Bolsheviks and others progressive “bourgeois” nationalist fellow travelers (“smenovekhovtsy”). Soon, after they outlived their usefulness, they were repressed and eliminated. Parenthetically, their role vis-à-vis the Bolsheviks was somewhat analogous to Vichy France’s intellectuals’ attitude toward the Nazis (p. 191, 231).

When the Communists set up the Soviet Union as a fake federation – in part to deceive the minorities and in part (in the Soviet Union’s western borderlands) to offset the charm of the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and subvert the newly resurrected Polish state – Lenin resolved to institute “affirmative action” to promote the national minorities and to disadvantage the ethnic Russians. Why did he choose to alienate the Russians?

According to the Bolsheviks, the Russians were tainted as colonial and imperial masters of the recent past. They were reactionaries and persecutors of the minority peoples of the empire. The triad of Autocracy-Orthodoxy-Nationality warped their consciousness. The Russians could not imagine themselves and their victims outside of this oppressive paradigm. They were incapable of progressing toward the revolutionary goal of Communism without shedding their reactionary consciousness.

Much work would have to be done on the Russians before they could be saved and ushered into the Marxist utopia. Meanwhile, they should be held down, and their former victims elevated through affirmative action. Thus, Soviet Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic became the first-ever state to implement such policies on a massive scale.

The Bolsheviks believed that, first, they were creating the world’s most equal and just state; second, they were obliged to right all the wrongs inflicted on minority people by Tsarist Russia; third, the Communists were ushering in a paradise on earth which required to expedite the transition of all the peoples of the former empire, including the most primitive and less advanced, into proletarians.

But to accomplish that, the revolution had to go through a nationalist phase. The minorities (even hunter and gatherer clans and nomadic tribes) would have to progress initially to the stage of “bourgeois” nationalism. In congruence with the Marxist scheme of history, they would have to shed tribalism (or “feudalism”) first to attain advanced national consciousness. Without that, they would not reach the ultimate proletarian stage of consciousness, climaxing in Communism.

In a word, the national question was a peasant question. Industry was indispensable to create a proletariat out of peasants. That would eliminate the national question. (p. 147).  Or, to put it the way that Martin would agree with, albeit falsely reducing mega-murdering Communism to mere modernization, one needed native nationalism to start producing proletarians to modernize their lands.

As dictated by the Marxist-Leninist dialectics, virtually all peoples of the USSR were goaded into becoming modern nations. The Communists went so far as to discourage assimilation actively into the Russian mainstream. Martin writes about their “resolute hostility to even voluntary assimilation” (p. 16).

To this end, aside from central administration in Moscow, each “union republic” had its own minority bureaucracies and institutions, including cultural ones. In addition to the “union republics,” including, perhaps most prominently, Soviet Ukraine, the Soviet state was divided into many “nationalist” entities.

Hence, there was a proliferation of thousands upon thousands of  “national” soviets, particularly at the lowest village level. In this manner, the USSR was peppered with minority strongholds embedded in majority territories. This pitted the imperial minorities against the Russians and minorities against other minorities, e.g., the Armenians vs. the Azeris.

Lenin’s Marxist ideology drove his theoretical assessment of reality. Having seized power violently, he was in a position to act upon his fantasies and implement them in practice, violently if need be.  The objective was to create entities “socialist in content, national in form” (p. 155).  Hence, a Yiddish-language theater would be authorized, but only to spew Bolshevik propaganda. A Polish soviet would be permitted in a village, but it would have to kowtow to the Party. And so forth. Thus, “Nationalism will be disarmed by granting the forms of nationhood” (p. 8).

Thus one should view Bolshevik nationalities policy as a form of deception. Its end product favored the Communists themselves while victimizing the rest. Consider the Soviet attitude toward Jews: “The Bolsheviks firmly opposed anti-Semitism, both as one of their favored symbols of Tsarist depravity and because the large numbers of Jews in the Soviet government made anti-Semitism a proxy for anti-Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks’ economic and class policies, however, with their hostility both to trade and to former traders, led to the economic annihilation of the Jewish shtetls and the stigmatizing of a majority of their inhabitants as Lishentsy (those deprived of their electoral rights [sic! any civic rights])” (p. 43).

It is worth stressing that Martin considers Soviet Jews as relatively privileged (e.g., in terms of being least likely to be targeted by secret police terror and other forms of repression (pp. 388-389).  The reverse was true for Soviet Poles (p. 283).  They were the foremost “diaspora nationality” to suffer in the Great Terror (1937-1938).

The scholar assumes that Soviet Jews must have suffered many deaths because of their status as an educated group but cites no concrete evidence to support his contention. Here, once again, hardly any scholarship existed on the topic when The Affirmative Action Empire went to press.

The same goes for the “anti-Polish operation of the NKVD.” Essentially, as far as the death statistics, Martin relies on a single article by Nikita Petrov. This otherwise fine scholar mistook a preliminary tally of ca. 111,000 Polish victims executed for the final death list. Many scholars have copied his mistake since, including Andrzej Paczkowski in The Black Book of Communism, another under-researched synthesis. It does not matter that Petrov has corrected himself following detailed revelations in a superb monograph on The Anti-Polish Operation by my friend, Tomasz Sommer (soon to be published in English). Sommer has established with much certainty that the Polish victim count was about 200,000.

That is not to deprecate Martin’s scholarship in toto. All-new research is valuable for it creates more opportunities to delve into the unknown. For example, the scholar dangles a tempting morsel of a virtual one-liner on a Ukrainian and Polish anti-Soviet uprising in the countryside in 1935 or about the alleged Polish spies in the Kuban (p. 293, 301). One would like to know more, but the author simply can’t oblige.

The historian also knows little about the Polish community in the USSR (pp. 46-47). He seems incapable of differentiating between nobility and petty gentry. Thus, he dismisses Soviet rants about petty nobles as fanciful (p. 42).

They were not, as petty nobles proliferated both in Soviet Belorussia and Ukraine. Once again, Martin delved into the Soviet archives, cherry-picked about a topic he had a poor grasp of, and embarrassed himself. But that is not his fault: there are neither case studies nor general monographs on the topic in English, and precious few in Polish (including those published before 2001 by late Professor (Father) Roman Dzwonkowski and Mikołaj Iwanow).

Martin is further confused about Polish national consciousness. He believes, for example, that many victims of the anti-Polish operation of the NKVD were not Polish at all. He questions whether people who listed themselves as Poles and Catholic in a Soviet census were really Polish and not Belarusians.

Actually, they were. It was never sexy to claim Polish nationality in the USSR. The Poles were one diaspora nationality that experienced hardly any benefits of affirmative action. They were treated with hostility throughout. Thus, those who self-identified as Polish, through their free will, took a serious risk. And many suffered for it. Nonetheless, The Affirmative Action Empire contains enough tidbits about the Polish minority for any fair-minded reader to be horrified at the enormous scale of their martyrdom at the hands of the Communists (pp. 283, 315, 320-322, 327-328, 336-340, 364).

More seriously, Martin’s views on the Soviet genocide are instead revisionists. He sees Stalin’s mass murder vis-à-vis the minorities as merely “ethnic cleansing.” For example, “from 1935 to 1937, the hard-line party and NKVD were supervising the ethnic cleansing and mass arrest of the Soviet Union’s diaspora nationalities” (p. 22). Weirdly, however, he admits that in crushing the resistance, the Communists developed the concept of the “enemy nation” (p. 308). Thus, logic dictates that mass murder committed against an “enemy nation” should qualify as genocide, a concept at which, alas, Martin balks.

The historian also gives credence to the lowest possible statistics of death in the Soviet terror campaigns. For example, he believes that only over 700,000 were shot, including ca. 111,000 Poles. Martin fails to remark that even if we take such low estimates seriously, then 111,000 Polish victims out of the total of around 900,000 Soviet Poles make the Poles, astonishingly, the primary victims of the Great Terror.

Here’s his reasoning for an earlier spasm of Communist mass murder: “The 1932-1933 terror campaign consisted of both a grain requisitions terror, whose primary target was the peasantry, both Russian and non-Russian, and a nationalities terror, whose primary target was Ukraine and subsequently Belorussia…. Nationality was of minimal importance in this [grain requisition] campaign. The famine was not an intentional act of genocide, specifically targeting the nation. It is equally false, however, to assert that nationality played no role whatsoever in an anti-korenizatsiia hard-line critique combined with the immediate pressures of the grain requisitions crisis in Ukraine and Kuban, whose particularly intense resistance was attributed to Ukrainization” (p. 305).

Finally, it is also intriguing how Martin misconstrues Soviet policymaking. He believes there was a hard-line policy (the Party and the NKVD) and a soft-line one (state administration and other institutions). He imagines that “the official sanctioning of coexisting and contradictory policy lines meant that the true policy line emerged from a dialogue between them.” And then he sagely adds: “The historian, like the local party official, has to learn the center’s signals” (p. 22). Indeed, he must. But Martin has failed to learn, for one should see the Communists’ soft-line as deception and hard-line as reality. That is called an integrated strategy.

There are a few spelling mistakes in The Affirmative Action Empire. I’ll stick to the ones pertaining things Polish. For instance, the author misspells Józef Piłsudski’s name throughout, usually dropping the diacritic, but at least one as “Pilsudski” (p. 228). As a rule, he drops Polish diacritics (e.g., p. 36 n. 25). He also translates “great-power chauvinism” instead of “Great Russian chauvinism” (velikorusskii, p. 358). But that’s rather minor in comparison to the overall spirit of his work, rife as it is with predictable revisionism somewhat offset by laudable insights.

All in all, Terry Martin’s monograph posits more questions than it answers. It also posits more problems and begs for further research. Ultimately, it is a book about Soviet nation-building and Communist nation-destroying. New national constructs were to lead to internationalism, while old traditional nations had to perish to pave the way to the same.


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