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Pulling the Rug Out from Under

During the summer just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent several days in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus, in the company of a group of young people who called themselves Belarusian nationalists. One of them had recently converted to Orthodoxy, or rather to a new, “independent” branch of the Orthodox Church. Another translated English texts into Belarusian—he was particularly interested in contemporary poetry—and he told me of a friend who had translated Ulysses into Belarusian as well. A third, although not himself Jewish, was trying to resurrect the lost history of the Belarusian Jews. In different ways, each was obsessed with the notion of an authentic national identity. What they wanted, they explained to me, was to find a way of being “Belarusian,” which was different and distinct from the kitsch “Belarus” identity that had been defined for them over the preceding decades by the Soviet state.

This was not, in other words, an ordinary nationalist revival of the sort that has taken place in so many other countries (and so many Eastern European countries) during the last hundred years. For not only did these nationalist intellectuals have to decide who they were, they also had to decide who they were not. They would never have bought the cheap, bright-colored, factory-made “folk” dolls and spoons sold at Minsk souvenir shops. Instead, they traveled into the countryside, trying to find old-fashioned craftsmen who still made genuine folk carvings by hand. They mocked their Soviet schools, where they had learned how the Marxist revolution had dragged a drowsy, feudal peasant culture into the bright light of modern society. Instead, they traced their national origins to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an empire whose court language was an early dialect of Belarusian. They also shunned the Russian language that they had been taught in school, preferring to speak only in Belarusian. As children, they had been told that the language was a backward, peasant dialect, the language of grandmothers, a language best confined to the past. Now they were learning it, and teaching their children too.

It was a complicated matter, being a resident of the country called Belarus in the early 1990s, and so it remains. Some of the complications are those that face any inhabitant of a relatively small country with a relatively obscure language in the English-speaking, globalized world of the twenty-first century. But some of the difficulties are specific to the Soviet experience. For as Terry Martin explains in the introduction to this ground-breaking and original book, the Soviet Union did not originally set out to destroy national culture in Belarus—or in Georgia, or in Ukraine, or in any of the other non-Russian Soviet republics. Instead, Soviet strategy was usually “aimed at disarming nationalism by granting what were called the ‘forms’ of nationhood”—but not the substance.

True, the policy was never consistent. At times, the Soviet state actively encouraged national intellectuals. In the 1920s, Stalin sent one of his personal favorites, Lazar Kaganovich, to “Ukrainize” the Ukraine. Kaganovich not only threatened to fire school headmasters who did not teach in Ukrainian, he personally took up the study of the language (his native tongue, which he spoke poorly) and used it in all of his official business. Under his leadership, the Ukrainian Communist Party and Ukrainian trade unions actively promoted ethnic Ukrainians over Russians, as did universities. Similar policies were followed in Soviet Central Asia, where Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz became the beneficiaries of vigorous affirmative action policies, and rapidly rose to the top ranks of their national Communist parties.

At other times, however, the Soviet Union discouraged nationalism. Or, to put it rather more bluntly, at other times the Soviet Union murdered and imprisoned nationalists. Among the victims of the waves of terror that swept across the USSR in the 1930s and the 1940s were Ukrainian poets, Belarusian writers, and those same Central Asian Party leaders who had been so rapidly promoted in the 1920s. The “great purge” of 1937–1938, one of the most intense and lethal waves of Soviet terror, was accompanied by a major political campaign against “bourgeois nationalists.”

Yet there were also moments when the Soviet Union seemed to conduct both policies simultaneously, allowing intellectuals to pursue nationalist culture—but only as long as they didn’t get too enthusiastic about it. A former Ukrainian dissident once told me that a KGB officer, while searching his apartment in the 1980s, came upon a poem written by Taras Shevchenko, a nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet who was officially recognized in the Soviet Union and even promoted. In Ukraine, statues were dedicated to his memory and numerous “Shevchenko Boulevards” were built across the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the KGB officer confiscated the poem on the grounds that its tone was “too nationalist.” Even officially recognized “Ukrainian cultural figures” had to be kept in check.

This schizophrenia was inherent in the system, an unavoidable consequence of a fundamental Soviet paradox. On the one hand, Martin explains, the Soviet Union was an “extraordinarily invasive, centralized and violent state.” At the same time, it was “formally structured as a federation of sovereign nations,” whose leaders always paid lip service, at the very least, to the national groups that composed the federation. Thus did the Soviet Union celebrate its “diversity” with countless television programs on Uzbek music and Lithuanian folk dancing while simultaneously imprisoning Uzbek musicians and Lithuanian dancers who became too enthusiastic about Uzbekistan and Lithuania.

Not very long ago, any attempt by Western scholars to explain this paradox, one of many that haunt Soviet history, might well have deteriorated rapidly into a historiographical quarrel. On one side would have been the members of the “totalitarian” or “traditionalist school” of Soviet history, most of whom did not trust Soviet propaganda, and relied upon unofficial sources for their information. Speaking to émigrés, they would have learned of the repression of national culture and the mass arrests of entire ethnic groups. That would have led them to describe how Soviet nationality policy repressed non-Russian peoples. On the other side would have been the “revisionists,” who relied far more on “official” Soviet source material—newspapers, a handful of books, carefully prepared official reports, and other published documents—where they would have found plenty of language about internationalism, the brotherhood of peoples, and friendship between nations. Relying on this kind of information, they would have described what they took to be the Soviet promotion of non-Russian peoples. Each group would have accused the other of ideological bias, and the conversation would have deteriorated beyond the point of usefulness.

Both sides of the argument between traditionalists and revisionists might say such an account is simplistic. But it is true that such apparently irreconcilable arguments once permeated the field of Soviet history. Was the Russian Revolution a coup d’etat, or was it a popular rebellion? Were the mass arrests of the 1930s carefully planned in Moscow, or were they a haphazard “revolution from below,” inspired by local zealots? Were millions arrested, or only “thousands,” as one scholar infamously put it? These historical arguments were made more acrimonious by the cold war, and by American domestic politics. Not all revisionists were “pro-Soviet” (although that is certainly a correct description of some), but most were opposed to the American position in the cold war, and many openly set out to prove that the Soviet Union was not the evil empire that American politicians described. As Leonard Schapiro wrote in these pages more than twenty years ago,

The present generation of scholars in the Soviet field often seem obsessed with guilt about the shortcomings of the West and with the fear that their work may be pressed into political service in the interests of the “cold war,” and therefore they sometimes tend to lean over backward to demonstrate, somewhat speciously, that in spite of obvious differences politics in the Soviet Union are really basically like our own. Their contribution to true scholarship cannot therefore equal that of their predecessors.1

Yet in recent years, the once quite bitter arguments between “traditionalists” and “revisionists” have faded. This is not because there has been a vast political reconciliation or mass recanting of views. On the contrary, over the past couple of years, the debate about the politics of revisionism has continued to rage, in Russian history journals, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere.2 But the end of the cold war and the opening of Soviet archives has also quietly taken Soviet history, and a new gen-eration of Soviet historians, in other directions.3

In some cases, this is because the archives have answered the questions. There were, for example, revisionist historians who once wondered whether the orders to carry out the mass arrests of the late 1930s really came from Stalin at all. Now that we have seen the actual order papers with Stalin’s signature on them, no one asks that question anymore. The same is true of the question of numbers of victims: slowly, the archives are producing figures—in the millions, not the thousands—that grow more precise every year.

Yet in other cases, the archives have actually shown that the questions themselves were wrong. The Affirmative Action Empire is one of the best examples of a recent book that does precisely that. Terry Martin does not even engage in a debate about whether the Ukrainians in the Soviet Union were oppressed victims or whether they were the privileged beneficiaries of Soviet “affirmative action” policies which promoted a handful of Ukrainian leaders, sponsored some Ukrainian language schools, and proclaimed the value of Ukrainian culture. Instead, he accepts, in his first chapter, that Ukrainians—and Uzbeks, and Tatars, and Kazakhs, and other non-Russian Soviet peoples—were at different times both victims and beneficiaries, and then goes on to explore the more fascinating question of how and why that peculiar state of affairs came to be. There is no evidence of American domestic politics in his book; we get no sense that Martin is trying to prove anything, one way or another, about the legitimacy of the cold war.

Martin has been described as a “neotraditionalist,” meaning that his interests lie in how Soviet “progress” seemed to create not a modern society as we know it in the West, but old-fashioned, pre-modern social structures, such as patronage, corruption, and a ruling elite whose relationships resembled nothing so much as those of a prince’s court.4 But the real virtue of Martin’s book—and of all of the best new Soviet scholarship—is not in the theoretical model it propounds, but in the power of its details, gleaned from previously unknown documents. Reading Soviet archives is as close as we can come, nowadays, to listening in on the frank and secret (or so they thought) conversations of Soviet officials. The archives contain not the slogans they presented to the public on the pages of Pravda, but the letters they sent to one another, the written records of their meetings, the early drafts of proposals that later became law.

Using this evidence Martin is able, for the first time, to explain what it was that the Soviet Union’s leaders actually intended their nationality policy to achieve. Lenin and Stalin, Martin writes, had watched the Hapsburg Empire collapse, and “understood very well the danger of being labeled an empire in an age of nationalism.” Knowing that their heavily centralized, dictatorial state would probably be seen in the various national republics as yet another empire run from Moscow, they initially designed their nationality policy precisely in order to prevent the Soviet Union from meeting the same fate.

It was toward that end that they staged official celebrations of non-Russian music and dancing, promoted the publication of non-Russian authors, and called for affirmative action policies designed to promote non-Russians in the non-Russian republics. If not exactly a fig leaf, this enthusiastic promotion of national cultures certainly was an elaborate means of concealing the true nature of the system from the Soviet Union’s citizens, hiding from them the fact that they were in fact living under yet another empire, run from Moscow. National leaders were expected to understand this game, to play along, to celebrate the Ukrainian language or Kazakh culture—but only up to a point. They were certainly not meant to start agitating for independence from the Soviet federation, or even to start talking about any meaningful form of sovereignty.

Yet the archives also reveal that Moscow’s promotion of various national cultures had unforeseen and unwelcome consequences in the republics themselves. Martin describes, for example, what happened when various national republics formally established hiring preferences for local elites, and actively discriminated against Russians. From the records, it is clear that this form of affirmative action did not always have the desired effect. One Russian official complained that it actually discouraged national leaders from leaving the Central Asian republics and going to universities: “Why study, receiving a miserly stipend, when the demand for minimally literate Kazakhs is so great that one can receive a leadership position and a good salary?” Instead of becoming more fully educated, Uzbeks and Tatars flocked into leadership positions in their local Communist parties. Meanwhile, Russian specialists were left in charge of industrial enterprises and often remained in charge of local politics as well, acting behind the scenes.

This kind of imbalance created more national tension, not less. Over time it seems to have created more nationalism too. The average Central Asian, another official explained, is

less educated, has fewer cultural skills and is less well prepared for work in the government apparat. He wants to get ahead. If he is a Communist, he has an advantage and this explains to a large degree the movement of the [local] intelligentsia into our Party. But if he is not a Communist—how can he get ahead up the ladder of government service? Either he must work like a European, or he can bring up some other issue which will give him an advantage over the European. Therefore he puts forward the indigenous nationalities issue….

This kind of report, read carefully in the Kremlin, seems to have convinced Stalin that the promotion of national sentiment had backfired, creating too much national pride and too much autonomy. By the mid-1930s, he decided to reverse it. As he would do many times, Stalin did not mark this shift in policy by announcing it to the nation, or by preparing people in advance. Instead, he launched a political “affair” that temporarily dominated national political debate. In this case, the target was Mykola Skrypnyk, a well-known Ukrainian Bolshevik who had committed the sin of promoting “Ukrainization” just a little bit too fervently. He had not only advocated the expansion of the borders of Ukraine into Russia, but he also wanted to cooperate with western Ukrainians who were, at the time, citizens of Poland. In punishment, he was hounded in the press and at Party meetings—literally to death, for he finally killed himself. But the “Skrypnyk Affair” was not only about Skrypnyk. It also served as a signal which other national groups were meant to understand. The director of the fine arts college in Odessa put it succinctly:

Prior to the matter with Skrypnyk, all our courses were beginning to be taught in Ukrainian. But after the Skrypnyk Affair, everyone switched back to Russian fearing that otherwise they would be labeled a Ukrainian nationalist.

It was not only the larger nationality groups who suffered. Policies designed to promote larger nationalities—the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, the Ukrainians in Ukraine—also led rapidly to discrimination against other, smaller national groups, notably the Koreans, Germans, Finns, and Poles who were scattered throughout the Soviet border regions. Originally, Stalin had intended to use such groups to bring revolution to neighboring states. Later, he concluded that they were having the opposite effect—instead of exporting revolution, they were importing counterrevolution—and they too were slaughtered, in disproportionately high numbers, in the mass terror of the late 1930s.

By the end of the 1930s, Stalin’s original nationality policy had in fact completely reversed itself. Both the Russian nation and the Russian language officially gained a new, superior status. Russian became the language of the Moscow bureaucracy and the Red Army; all schools in non-Russian republics were required to teach it. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Russification of Russia itself was completed, as small national groups who lived within the boundaries of the Russian republic were forced to drop their own languages and learn Russian. In the long term, the effect of this change was to centralize the Soviet state even further, as Stalin well understood. “It would be a good thing,” he told a Party meeting in 1937,

if every citizen conscripted into the army could make himself understood in Russian, so that if, say, an Uzbek division is shifted to Samara, they can make themselves understood to the local population. Here is where the absolute need was born…that all Red Army soldiers master some one language, in which they can communicate in all regions of the Union. This language is Russian.

Thus did a “federation of independent states” become, de facto, an empire.

It is a strange story. But then, reading Martin’s book, and reading the work of other scholars who have begun to work seriously in the Soviet archives, one is struck, above all, by how much stranger the Soviet Union is beginning to seem, in retrospect, than we thought it was at the time, and how much more perverse. As the work of these scholars amply proves, the USSR was not an ordinary authoritarian dictatorship, and it was not governed by brute force alone (although there was plenty of that). Millions of people in fact cooperated with the system, mouthing its platitudes, apparently believing its rhetoric—or pretending to believe in its rhetoric—despite abundant evidence that the rhetoric was false. The historian Stephen Kotkin, one of the first to produce a substantial book using Soviet archives, described this paradox very well, when he wrote of how Soviet citizens lived in a “dual reality.” On the one hand, they saw the shoddy workmanship in the factories, the suffering of terror victims, the manifest injustice. On the other hand, they listened to the ritual incantations of revolutionary ideology, and they must have believed them, or wanted to believe them, or tried very hard to believe them.

Certainly they had plenty of incentives, moral, financial, and even physical, to do so: to deny the rhetoric was to risk becoming an outcast at best, arrest and prison at worse. As time passed, this atmosphere of collaboration under pressure built on itself, and became “normal.” Someone might, occasionally, have objected to the falsehood, but so what? As Kotkin writes,

Their brief but blunt words could have momentarily devastated the lingering falseness, but life would have resumed, speeches would have been made, “contributions” to the latest state loan drive collected, the fight to increase production continued, and so on. And anyway, capitalism was worse, wasn’t it?5

Nationality policy was cloaked in this same “lingering falseness.” The Soviet Union was clearly an empire, but it masqueraded as an anti-empire. The sovereignty granted to the non-Russian Soviet republics was clearly false, but plenty of people received incentives to pretend that it was not. These ideas were hard to live with, but so were posters that proclaimed the “triumph of socialism” in a town where the shops were empty and old ladies couldn’t heat their apartments in winter. A policy of Ukrainization that shifted, over time, to a policy of Russification was hard to cope with, but so was a Soviet foreign policy that alternately opposed Hitler, made a pact with Hitler, and then called on the nation to turn around and fight against Hitler.

Shifting assumptions about what was real and what was not pervade Soviet history and they are very difficult for a modern Western historian, or even a modern Russian historian, to understand and explain. But the contradictions were difficult for Soviet citizens to live with, too. What did Mykola Skrypnyk think when the rug was suddenly pulled out from under his feet, and the Ukrainization he had been praised for promoting was suddenly deemed “counterrevolutionary”? What did the several hundred thousand Soviet Koreans think in the early 1930s when they were told, with great fanfare, that they would now use the Latin alphabet? What did they think in the late 1930s when they were told, equally forcefully, that “Latinization” had now been abandoned?

Reading this history also gives us in the West an insight, however narrow, into the turmoil experienced in the non-Russian lands of the former Soviet Union during the last decade. Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Georgia: these are now “free” and independent states. Yet how real is this freedom? Might it not be another illusion, foisted upon them by a still powerful, and still much wealthier, Russian republic? It’s easy to see why some still seem confused, why others wish for the empire to return—and why still others, like my Belarusian friends, crave an end to the experience of “dual reality.” It’s a natural reaction, and it will continue. Whether successful or not, their search for an “authentic” national culture is the central story of their generation, all across the former Communist world.

  1. 1

    See Leonard Schapiro, “Rewriting the Russian Rules,” The New York Review, July 19, 1979.

  2. 2

    See Martin Malia, “Revolution Fulfilled: How the Revisionists Are Still Trying to Take the Ideology Out of Stalinism,” Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 2001; see also Sheila Fitzpatrick’s introduction to Stalinism: New Directions (Routledge, 2000), pp. 1–14.

  3. 3

    Much of the best work is being published in the French journal Cahiers du Monde Russe, in several languages. See, for example, the issue of April– December 2001, which is dedicated to new research on the Soviet secret police.

  4. 4

    Terry Martin, “Modernization or Neo-Traditionalism Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism,” in Fitzpatrick, Stalinism: New Directions, pp. 348–367.

  5. 5

    Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (University of California Press, 1995), p. 229.

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