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The Russian Way

The Punished Peoples: The Deportation and Fate of Soviet Minorities at the End of the Second World War

by Aleksandr M. Nekrich, translated by George Saunders
Norton, 238 pp., $10.95

Dr. Nekrich, until he left the USSR in 1976, worked as a senior research scholar at the Institute of History of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1965, his work on the outbreak of the war between the USSR and Germany, entitled June 22, 1941, was published by the Academy, and subsequently translated into English and other languages. Its general theme was the lack of preparation for the war for which not only Stalin but the Communist Party and the government were held to blame.

One would have thought, from the record of the Red Army in the early stages after the invasion, that this was pretty obvious. One would also have thought that the Soviet authorities would have been satisfied with the reflection that the universally acknowledged magnificent performance which the armed forces and the entire population put up after recovering from the initial setbacks were enough to satisfy wounded national pride. But that is not the way that Soviet authorities behave. Having allowed the book to be published, they had second thoughts about it, although its appearance had been not only authorized but indeed sponsored by the Academy of Sciences.

So, in typical manner, a conference was summoned in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and a great debate was held in which the frightened and sycophantic fellow scholars of Dr. Nekrich duly condemned the book—most, but not all. A number of courageous voices were raised from those who had served in the armed forces and had witnessed the shambles of the preliminary phase of the war. A full account of this meeting reached London, and was published in Survey in April 1967, and attracted a good deal of attention.

This did not help Dr. Nekrich. The book was banned and copies destroyed in libraries—except for those in the “Special Sectors.” Dr. Nekrich was expelled from the Party, but left in his job. However, he was not allowed to publish, but was allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He brought with him a manuscript in draft which formed the basis of this book, which he completed while holding a fellowship at the Russian Research Center at Harvard.

The story of the brutal rounding up and deportation to Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and Siberia of some one million of small peoples from the Caucasus and the Crimea for allegedly collaborating with the Germans is the subject of The Punished Peoples. It was first told by Robert Conquest in The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities, published in 1960. This was an excellent piece of research, and indeed Dr. Nekrich acknowledges his debt to it. But Dr. Nekrich has been able to expand the grim story of these deportations—during which thousands died—in two respects, on the basis of information to which he had access while working in the USSR. He was able to use the results of detailed and important research which its authors were not allowed to publish, and which has remained either in manuscript or in the form of unpublished dissertations. Secondly, he has made a study, based largely on the local press (which is not available to scholars outside the USSR) and on personal interviews, of what happened when some of those deported were allowed, long after the war, to return to their homelands.

The peoples were the Volga Germans in 1941, with whom Dr. Nekrich does not deal in detail; and in 1943-1944 the Kalmyks, Karachai, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, and Balkars. There were also 200,000 Meskhetians from Georgia, with whom Dr. Nekrich does not deal, who were deported on November 15, 1944—though, apparently, not as a punishment, but to remove potential pro-Turkish elements from a frontier area. In spite of repeated appeals to the government—there have been thirty-eight delegations in thirty-three years—they have not been allowed to return to their homes. It is, incidentally, an interesting reflection on Soviet life that all these people, in the last election to the Supreme Soviet, before their deportation for alleged disloyalty, had voted (in the usual percentages, only just short of 100) for the Communist and allied candidates—though whether this is a revelation of the nature of Soviet elections, or a measure of the shortness of Soviet memories, or of the cynical indifference of the Soviet authorities to consistency, is a matter of conjecture.

Dr. Nekrich has made a meticulous, scholarly, and objective study of the evidence of actual collaboration with the Germans of the deported peoples—as if, indeed, even were the evidence to show a greater proportion of collaborators among, say, the Chechens than among the Great Russians this could conceivably in any civilized society justify the deportation of men, women, and children, graybeards and infants in arms. However, the evidence assembled by the author shows that the “punished peoples” produced some collaborators, some voluntary, some forced—but then so did every single area of the Soviet Union which was occupied by the Germans. Conversely, these peoples’ contribution to victory while serving in the armed forces and in the partisan movement was no smaller than that which was made elsewhere in the country.

Why was this ghastly and inhuman operation carried out? Dr. Nekrich attributes the decision mainly to the chauvinism and national enmity that are encouraged by the Soviet system. There is probably truth in this—contempt for the non-Russian inhabitants of the empire is not even a particularly Soviet phenomenon, though what is new is the façade of national friendship which has been erected by propaganda. The future Nicholas I wrote in his diary after a journey through Russia in 1816 that “there is nothing poorer and more lazy than these Southern Tartars. If the Crimea were not in Tartar hands, then everything would be entirely different….” Lenin’s strictures on the great Russian chauvinism of his colleagues in 1922 are well known. Things have not changed much. That there was a large element of chauvinism is further shown by the readiness of Russian and other soldiers to carry out their orders with the utmost brutality—though this factor should not be over-stressed, now that we have learned of the brutality which some British soldiers displayed when ordered to round up captured Soviet citizens for “repatriation” to death or destruction.

Besides, there were unknown heroes too—Dr. Nekrich cites the case of a soldier who, refusing to kill an old Chechen, his daughter-in-law, and her baby in the course of the rounding up, was promptly shot by his Georgian officer, who then massacred father-in-law, mother, and infant. Another possible motive for the deportations is also one which has a long history in Russia: the desire to camouflage in foreign (and Soviet) eyes the fact that Great Russians and Ukrainians had also collaborated with the Germans by trying to make a case that this happened only among the non-Russian peoples.

The treatment of the various nations concerned after the death and denunciation of Stalin has varied a great deal. Khrushchev expressed some selective indignation on the deportations at the Twentieth Congress in his secret speech—mentioning the Karachai, Balkars, and Kalmyks, and ignoring the Chechens, the Ingush, the Volga Germans, and the Crimean Tatars. In the course of the following years, all the Caucasian peoples were “rehabilitated” and their former Autonomous Regions restored to them—but again the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return home. The Volga Germans have been encouraged by the example of the Jews to press for “repatriation” to West Germany, though they have had much less success in this than the Jews have had in their campaign to get to Israel (or, at least, out of the USSR).

The struggle of the Crimean Tatars is well known both because of the courage and persistence that they have shown and because of the action of such heroes who have struggled on their behalf as General Grigorenko. But this has so far been of no great avail against the determination of the Soviet authorities to keep Russia and Ukranian Crimea “Tatarenrein.” Dr. Nekrich describes factually and unemotionally the hostility, the persecution, and the injustice which the people who have been allowed back have had to suffer from the Russian inhabitants of their homelands on top of the hardships which they suffered during deportation—some demographical details produced by the author suggest that losses of population among the small Caucasian peoples vary from 14.8 to 30 percent.

It is interesting to observe that the latest volume of the Soviet Military Encyclopaedia to appear describes the annexation by Imperial Russia of the Caucasian peoples, including the Chechens, in the nineteenth century as “progressive” because it saved them from “enslavement” by Oriental despotisms like Persia and Turkey and provided them “in the person of the Russian people with a reliable ally and a mighty champion.” It is much to be hoped that Dr. Nekrich’s account will become available in the Soviet Union some day. It is a depressing and discreditable story which he has to tell. But it is right that it should have been told, and above all told so fairly and objectively.

Its merits apart, Dr. Nekrich’s book is important for another reason. He is, so far as I know, the only Soviet historian in the field of contemporary history to have emigrated in order to pursue in the West the work which he was denied the opportunity to publish in his own country. In general, Soviet contemporary history (as distinct, be it said, from some Soviet work on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) is lamentable because it pays little regard to truth in its zeal to pursue the party line. Dr. Nekrich’s work is a shining exception—indeed, it was precisely because he insisted on portraying the truth as he saw it and refused to admit his “errors” that he was silenced by the Party and subsequently deprived of his Soviet citizenship. This book is conclusive proof of the value which that rare bird, an honest Soviet historian of the contemporary period, can add to scholarship. American scholars have made an unrivaled contribution to the study of the history of the Soviet Union to which not only the world of learning but also governments which seek to understand the Soviet Union owe a great debt. The combination of academic training and standards with experience of Soviet life and intimate knowledge of sources adds a unique quality which it is difficult for Western scholars to attain.

In view of this it is extremely disturbing that Dr. Nekrich’s request for political asylum has been rejected and, even worse, that he is threatened with deportation on some technical grounds. He has had several offers from academic bodies which would enable him to continue his research into modern Soviet history. Distinguished American scholars in the field of Soviet studies have appealed to the government authorities concerned not to persist in a course which would result not only in a serious loss to American scholarship but in damage to the great reputation which the United States deservedly enjoys for its enlightened treatment of foreign intellectuals who have suffered for their opinions. I have benefited greatly from American work on Soviet history in my own studies, and should like to add my plea from across the Atlantic to that of my American friends and colleagues.

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