The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2001, ISBN: 9780801486777; 528pp.; Price: £18.95
University of Ulster
Date accessed: 28 March, 2023
Weighing in at over five hundred pages, this formidable work of scholarship investigates the fifteen-year evolution of the Soviet Union's strategy towards its multi-ethnic jurisdiction from the 'Lenin Constitution' of 1923 through to the consolidation of the 'Stalin Constitution' of 1936. The touchstone of such a complex and convoluted topic is the principle of what is now termed 'affirmative action': received wisdom holds that the Soviet Union adopted 'korenizatsiia' or 'indigenisation' in the 1920s as "a prophylactic policy designed to defuse and prevent the development of nationalism" (p. 126) by simultaneously favouring the minority non-Russian nationalities and penalising the majority Russian nation. In the course of the 1930s, however, affirmative action was abandoned and then reversed, initially as a 'Great Retreat' and most calamitously in a 'Great Terror' which reasserted Russian dominance and victimised the previously-privileged non-Russians to create a covert 'Russian Empire' legitimised by the meretricious doctrine of the 'Friendship of Peoples'.
Following an extended introductory chapter, the main text is divided into three unequal but comparable sections: Part One, accommodating Chapters 2 to 5, is entitled 'Implementing the Affirmative Action Empire' and broadly covers the period from 1923 to 1932; comprising Chapters 6 and 7, Part Two focuses on the crossroads of the early 1930s under the title 'The Political Crisis of the Affirmative Action Empire'; and under the heading of 'Revising the Affirmative Action Empire', Chapters 8 to 11 (constituting Part Three) consider the years 1933 to 1939. Within the overall chronological structure, individual chapters are generally thematic in approach without departing from an essentially narrative treatment.
Handsomely produced by Cornell University Press, the volume provides extensive references (which appear as footnotes on each text-page to facilitate inspection by the conscientious scholar), some 46 tables conveniently integrated into the text, four maps to illustrate geopolitical shifts between 1922 to 1939, a useful - not to say essential - glossary, a comprehensive and up-to-date bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an exhaustive index. Symbolising Martin's overall theme, the book cover incorporates a 1935 propaganda photograph of an unctuous Stalin publicising his newly-adopted 'Friendship of Peoples' slogan. Although apparently an unreconstructed version of Martin's doctoral thesis for the University of Chicago, making few discernible concessions to accessibility for a non-specialist readership, The Affirmative Action Empire represents a publisher's model of how to present an unapologetically academic treatise.
The professional virtues of the exposition are self-evident. While never ignoring the historiographical context of secondary sources, The Affirmative Action Empire is overwhelmingly a product of archive-based research. Martin's positively Herculean labours in six historical archives in Moscow and another two in Ukraine have been rewarded with a rich and abundant harvest of hitherto-inaccessible primary documentation. To complain that such a detailed investigation of so sensitive a topic by a Westerner was unthinkable in the Soviet era does not detract from Martin's remarkable achievement: the opportunities for Western penetration and exploitation of the Soviet archives offered in the post-Soviet 1990s have been seized by Martin with prodigious determination, enterprise and solid graft.
The first purpose of the study is to investigate the impact of 'korenizatsiia' over the 1920s and 1930s. What is immediately striking is the sheer sweep of geopolitical discussion, comparing the application of central strategy towards the 'national question' from the western to the eastern extremities of the Soviet Union. Martin demonstrates how the diverse societal circumstances of nations and nationalities in the more sophisticated West and the less developed East (later to be dubbed the 'Soviet Raj') meant that 'affirmative action' by All-Soviet authority bifurcated, settling for divergent objectives and disparate results across an 'empire' which encompassed extravagant ethnic variety. Recognising that the Soviet Union was far from being ethnically homogeneous, official national strategy could not be as administratively monolithic or as politically totalitarian as portrayed in Western historiography.
Martin's second preoccupation is to monitor and expalin the dynamic of change in the operation of 'korenizatsiia'. The study suggests that Soviet nationalities policy was more multi-factorial than has been commonly represented, typically precipitated by a fluctuating combination of internal and external components. Simplistically expressed, Leninist strategy was designed to avoid antagonising the still-potent force of separatist nationalism by the intemperate imposition of state socialism, instead opting to handicap the instinctive 'chauvinism' of the majority Russian population and foster lasting goodwill among the non-Russians by institutionalised 'affirmative action' on their behalf. 'Korenizatsiia' was intended to 'indigenise' Soviet power through mass recruitment of local non-Russians as cadres within the Communist Party, extending and deepening Soviet authority within a state-sponsored political climate of respect for non-Russian national identity and culture.
But Martin also asserts that a hitherto-undervalued element in determining tactics towards the nationalities was geopolitical location: non-Russian nations that straddled the Soviet frontier were crucial in the elaboration of overall policy. Following the 'Piedmont Principle', conspicuous benevolence towards nations within the Soviet Union was intended to furnish supra-national window-dressing to co-nationals outside Soviet jurisdiction, simultaneously facilitating future national unification and the expansion of the Soviet Union. As nationalism was press-ganged into the service of socialism, the interests of non-Russian nationalists and the Soviet Union were - for the time being - expected to coincide. As a consequence, Ukraine (as the largest non-Russian Soviet republic) was especially generously treated in the 1920s, in the propagandist hope of recommending Soviet-style socialism to the Ukrainian minority of Poland with a view to opportunist Soviet encroachment westward.
By the early 1930s, however, both the internal and external rationales for 'positive discrimination' had been irremediably undermined. Most non-Russians had their appetities whetted rather than slaked by 'affirmative action' while 'korenizatsiia' showed every sign of exacerbating inter-ethnic violence to the point of endangering the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the Russians mightily resented the institutionalised and artificial 'reverse discrimination', which benefited non-Russians who were increasingly condemned as ungrateful, extortionate and manipulative. Meanwhile, on the western borderlands, front-line Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldavia and Karelia were now considered vulnerable to Western aggrandisement and the exploitative 'Piedmont Principle' was perceived as backfiring on the Soviet Union.
The affirmative action of the 1920s was consequently replaced by a security-conscious repression of all 'diaspora nationalities', that is to say ethnic groups within the Soviet Union which could be accused of being 'fifth columns' or 'Trojan horses' for expansionist 'kin-states' across the Soviet border. The 'Great Terror' undeniably targeted 'diaspora nationalities' (notably Poles, Finns, Belorussians and Ukrainians) in operations which would now be termed 'ethnic cleansing'. But the 'Terror' did not necessarily victimise other ethnic groups: nationalities were not harassed for their ethnic distinctiveness but because their geopolitical location exposed them to the temptation of defection from the Soviet Union. Martin asserts that available documentation indicates that anti-nationalist purges accounted for no more than one-third of executions during the 'Great Terror' (p. 338) and claims that extant evidence suggests that non-diaspora non-Russians suffered an arrest, exile and execution rate lower than the Russians (p. 424).
Two ostensibly contradictory points about the transition from the twenties to the thirties are advanced. While it is conventional to identify 1928, the year of Stalin's initial assumption of leadership, as the turning-point between the versatile Leninism of the twenties and the consolidating Stalinism of the thirties, Martin convincingly proposes the alternative of 1932 - dated specifically to the test-case of Ukrainisation - as the supreme political watershed of the interwar Soviet Union. At the same time, the traditional dichotomy between the twenties and thirties is consciously played down, with the 'unfortunate' labelling of the 1930s as the era of the 'Great Retreat' from Soviet ideals coming under close and critical scrutiny (pp. 414-16). Martin insists that the element of continuity between the two decades was authoritative and persistent, with 'silent korenizatsiia' being effectively "scaled back, although not abandoned" (p. 27), a reading which undermines the image of reactionary backlash which has dominated Western historiography of the period.
There are identifiable shortcomings to the study, some of which are patently not the responsibility of the author. As Martin candidly concedes, KGB documentation remains 'largely inaccessible' to researchers (p.387). With the expanded activities of the OGPU/NKVD so central to the 'Stalin Revolution' and 'Great Terror' over the 1930s, the current non-availability of the historically-crucial KGB archives inevitably prevents anything resembling a definitive interpretation, necessarily downgrading the present meticulous account to the level of an enterprising interim investigation.
By its very nature, administrative history is never likely to set the pulse racing and this detailed dissection of Soviet social-engineering ambition and practice cannot escape a certain hermetic and de-humanising character. In a quite literal sense, the study is essentially characterless, that is to say devoid of personalities. Although Stalin predictably looms large, always the ultimate architect of nationalities policy but often essentially arbitrating between the initiatives of underlings, no personal dimension emerges: there is plenty on the 'Stalinshchina' but precious little about Stalin himself. Significantly, the protagonists in the ongoing saga of Soviet affirmative action were typically Bolshevik second-rankers of the likes of Kaganovich, Skrypnyk and Postyshev. The almost total non-appearance of first-rankers like Bukharin, Kirov, Trotsky and Zinoviev is a reminder that, while not automatically a peripheral issue, the nationalities question was still only one of a number of interlinked items high on the packed agenda of the interwar Soviet Union.
One particular professional shortcoming of the text can be laid more readily at the author's door. Perverse though it may seem to criticise a volume of over 500 pages for being too short, the lack of chronological context in the shape of the pre-1923 and post-1939 settings is regrettable. Too little by way of historical background, either tsarist or Leninist, is provided. It is surprising, as well as disappointing, to see Richard Pipes's Cold War classic The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1924 (Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA, 1964) and especially Jeremy Smith's post-Cold War study The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-1923 (Macmillan in association with the School of Slavonic and East European Studies; Basingstoke, 1999) cited in the bibliography but not even mentioned, still less discussed, in the body of the work. Similarly, while it would seem that the Second World War reinforced rather than retarded interwar trends, no significant attempt is made to do more than hint at their impact on the short-term (1939-41 and 1941-45), medium-term (1939-53) or long-term (1939-91) career of the Soviet Union.
Over ten years after the end of the Cold War, Western revisionist history of the defunct Soviet Union is still gathering pace, fuelled both by a greater historical objectivity and the growing availability of primary documentation. Martin has demonstrated in The Affirmative Action Empire an admirable open-mindedness towards the tortuous and traumatic development of the Soviet Union, and presented outstanding credentials as what Stalin once ominously described as an 'archive rat'. While Martin's reputation as a 'super-rat' is already assured, there are still more questions than answers about the career of the Soviet Union, certainly the largest and probably the most controversial country in the twentieth-century world. If and when the KGB archives are ever mined, admitting the tantalising possibility of retrospectively resolving the bewildering paradoxes of the Soviet era, it is to Martin that we must surely look for magisterial re-interpretation and re-evaluation.
I am grateful to Professor Pearson for his admirably lucid re-statement of my book's major arguments, as well as his kind words about its contribution to our understanding of the Soviet Union. I see that we are soul mates in our high regard for the footnote and our regret that almost all academic publishers now insist on spoiling their books with endnotes. I am pleased that Pearson has publicly commended Cornell University Press for giving their author the necessary space and academic apparatus to address a very large and important topic in a comprehensive manner, and am happy to express here my own gratitude as well.
I will proceed by first briefly alerting the reader to a few of the book's themes and arguments that Pearson lacked space to mention, and then by addressing his query about the place of my story in the broader context of Tsarist/Soviet history. One of the great benefits of access to Soviet archives was the possibility to analyze patterns of ethnic conflict, which turned out to have been quite severe throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Interestingly, a radical Soviet policy designed to lessen ethnic conflict - namely, the creation of thousands of small national territories down to the district, village soviet, and even individual collective farm level - actually exacerbated it considerably. As national territories became smaller and smaller, the threat of becoming a national minority in one of them became more and more threatening, leading to further ethnic mobilization and conflict. I also found that ethnic conflict was most severe - in right-bank and southern Ukraine, the Kuban, Bashkiria, Kirgizia, and above all, Kazakhstan - where such territorial conflict combined with conflict over land and historical estate or soslovie divisions (an important instance of the influence of the Tsarist heritage). By making the possession of land worthless, collectivization actually reduced ethnic conflict, a fact of considerable relevance for understanding the relative lack of rural ethnic conflict in the recent Soviet collapse.
I also present a new argument concerning the vexing question of the role of the Ukrainian national question in the mass famine of 1932-33, making use of a large quantity of elite, decision-making sources in Kyiv and Moscow, including the recently declassified personal archive of Joseph Stalin. As many readers will know, some interpret the famine as a planned genocidal act directed against the Ukrainian people, while others counter that it had absolutely nothing to do with nationality, but instead targeted peasants in the country's major grain-growing regions. Both positions rely on real facts but grossly exaggerate their significance and ignore sources gathered by the other side. I argue, as do almost all serious scholars, that the famine was not intentional genocide, but the result of a reckless collectivization and dekulakization policy and an even more reckless exporting of grain in 1930-31 to acquire hard currency, combined with a mediocre harvest. Once a famine crisis had emerged in the summer of 1932, a strategic decision was taken to concentrate the famine in the Soviet Union's grain-growing regions in order to be able to minimally feed the politically crucial army and urban populations.
I depart from this fundamentally correct 'peasantist' interpretation, however, by demonstrating that Stalin personally (and, I would add, falsely) interpreted greater peasant resistance to state grain requisitions in Ukraine and the Ukrainized North Caucasus region of Kuban as being caused by Ukrainian nationalism, aided and abetted by Petliurite forces in Pilsudski's Poland and acting underground in Ukraine. On 11 August 1932, Stalin wrote to Kaganovich confidentially: "If we don't make an effort now to improve the situation in Ukraine, we may lose Ukraine. Keep in mind that Pilsudski is not daydreaming, and his agents in Ukraine are many times stronger than [the Ukrainian Communist leadership] thinks. Keep in mind that the Ukrainian Communist party includes not a few (yes, not a few!) rotten elements, conscious and non-conscious Petliurites, as well as direct agents of Pilsudski. [Without major reforms], I repeat - we can lose Ukraine."(p. 298) These reforms would include a year-and-a-half-long wave of terror against Ukrainian intellectuals and Galician émigrés, and a substantial scaling back of the policy of Ukrainization. The Ukrainian question, then, was not a cause of the famine, but it did quite quickly become a major factor in the politics surrounding the famine crisis, and ultimately triggered a fundamental revision of the Soviet nationalities policy. I hope (undoubtedly naively!) that this interpretation will resolve the increasingly sterile debate between the 'peasantist' and 'Ukrainian' interpretations of the famine.
Before turning to the relevance of my findings for the long-term fate of the Soviet Union, let me briefly address two small points. Although I did (and do) regret that I was unable to work in KGB archives for this book (not so much to study the terror, but for their surveillance reports on the popular mood), I have subsequently worked in several former KGB archives and no longer feel that the documentation there will fundamentally change our understanding of Soviet social history. Rather, I think future progress will come through detailed local studies based on regional archives, many of which are already beginning to appear (for instance, recent books by Matt Payne on Kazakhstan, Hiroaki Kuromiya on the Donbas, Amir Weiner on Vinnytsa, and forthcoming books by Jörg Baberowski on Azerbaijan, Douglas Northrop on Uzbekistan, Adrienne Edgar on Turkmenistan, Kate Brown on right-bank Ukraine, Nick Baron on Karelia, and Michaela Pohl on Kazakhstan). Second, Professor Pearson made a minor mis-statement in his description of the national operations of the 'Great Terror', which indeed did target Poles and Finns (among others) as 'diaspora nationalities', but not Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were categorized as indigenous nationalities. I only cited some evidence suggesting that they might have suffered disproportionately due to being located on the sensitive western border and due to a significant Roman Catholic population in those border regions.
The author of a large book on a broad theme can only be gladdened when the primary criticism of a reviewer is that he did not extend the book's chronological scope. Nevertheless, I feel Professor Pearson is perfectly correct to raise this issue and I did, at various times, consider adding a brief account of Tsarist policy in the introduction and a conclusion dealing with longer-term trends, including the collapse of the Soviet Union. I did not do so partially out of respect for the complexity of these issues and my dislike of superficial, potted historical summaries. However, with respect to the period before 1923, the reason was much more my preference to use my introduction to frame the study in terms of the global, world-historical problem that the Bolsheviks were attempting to resolve - how to govern a multi-ethnic state in a centralized fashion in the age of nationalism - and the novel solution they attempted: what I call the 'Affirmative Action Empire', the conscious promotion of national territories, elites, languages and identities (even where these barely existed!) as a prophylactic strategy for defusing the emergence of separatist nationalism and the subjective perception among non-Russians that they were living in a Russian empire. This was the first and most radical response to the crisis of the multi-ethnic state created by the collapse of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires, and I believe that the novel Soviet experiment in addressing this crisis should be better known by students of nationalism, empire, affirmative action and contemporary multi-ethnic states (the book is published in a comparative, multidisciplinary series on politics, history and culture). For this reason, I did not deal extensively in my introduction with the Bolshevik re-conquest of the Tsarist borderlands or their fascinating improvisational policy decisions during the Civil War, topics admirably dealt with by Richard Pipes and Jeremy Smith, both of whom I in fact do cite in my introduction as authoritative (see notes 2, 3, 9, 29, 44).
With respect to the long-run significance of the policy evolution that occurred from 1933 to 1939 (described in chapters 8-11), I agree with Pearson that the revised policy did largely structure Soviet nationalities policy through to the Gorbachev reforms. The two most important changes were the conquest of the Baltics, western Ukraine, western Belorussia, and Moldova which, as Roman Szporluk has long argued, foolishly re-created in a new form the Tsarist regime's Polish problem: that is, the problem of ruling peoples with a more developed sense of nationality (for whom Soviet affirmative action offered nothing) and a comparable or greater economic potential (for whom developmentalist socialism offered nothing). Second, the end of mass terror and Brezhnev's doctrine of 'stablility of cadres' allowed indigenous first Party secretaries in the eight southern republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasus - and to a lesser extent in the six western republics - to practise a kind of 'korenizatsiia from below', creating indigenous, neo-traditional patron-client networks that came to control republican politics and, in most cases, easily assumed leadership after the collapse in 1991.
However the key contradiction, I would argue, was already in place in 1939. The original 'Affirmative Action Empire' strategy was specifically designed to prevent the emergence among the non-Russians of the subjective perception that they were living in a Russian-dominated empire, for Lenin and Stalin correctly understood that in the age of nationalism, the subjective perception of empire meant the belief that the state would eventually collapse along national lines. To that end, they implemented the twin policies of non-Russian nation-building and the downplaying of the Russian nationality, so that their centralizing policies, which otherwise might provoke nationalist resistance, would be perceived as Soviet and not as Russian. After 1933, the first policy was preserved in a scaled-back form, but the second was reversed and Russians were celebrated as, in effect, the state-bearing people of the Soviet Union. As a result, not only could overtly discriminatory actions such as the national operations of the Great Terror and the national deportations during World War II, but also more ambiguous events as the famine in Ukraine, collectivization in the Baltics, denomadization in Kazakhstan, or even the censoring of a national author, all be interpreted as the actions of a Russian empire. Prior to glasnost', such perceptions were mostly confined to émigrés and dissidents, but after 1986 they spread with stunning rapidity and quite quickly undermined the legitimacy of not just the Communist Party but the multiethnic Soviet state as well.
Nor were the Russians fully content with their national status as elder brothers. After 1933, Russians were lauded as the most Soviet nation, encouraged to view the whole Soviet Union as their homeland, not required to learn 'national minority' languages, but Stalin's policy (and this was very much Stalin's policy, not Lenin's) of denying the Russian nationality any institutional base was very much continued. There was no Russian Communist Party, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian flag, and so forth. There was only a multiethnic All-Russian (rossiiskii not russkii) Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (and Stalin had even vehemently opposed Lenin's creation of a separate RSFSR exactly on the grounds that it would create an institutional base for Russian separatism; in other words, one must admit that Stalin did foresee the danger of a Yeltsin). From all evidence, save a small nationalist dissident coterie, Russians were perfectly content with this status (and many are now nostalgic about it). However, with glasnost' and the torrent of abuse directed at Russian imperialism, particularly from the western republics, a brief moment emerged when the 'burden of empire' argument seemed persuasive to enough of the Russian elite to allow Yeltsin to use the RSFSR to destroy the Soviet Union.