As regular readers will know, I’m not much of a fan of the Soviet Union, but whatever my political biases, as a professional historian I’m above all in favour of historical accuracy. If historical accuracy requires me occasionally to come to the Soviets’ defence, then so be it. So, here goes.
The Washington Post published an op-ed yesterday by Terrell Jermaine Starr which drew parallels between Soviet nationalities policy and alleged attempts by modern-day Russia to stir up racial tensions in America. The message was pretty clear: the Soviets were not just racists, but specifically Russian racists. So you shouldn’t be surprised that modern day Russians are too. Let’s look at this in detail.
Starr begins saying that “The Washington Post reported recently that Russia-backed entities spent at least $100,000 on Facebooks ads designed to pit white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general. … We still don’t know exactly how any of these social media efforts informed American voting choices in 2016.” Here we run into an immediate problem: $100,000 is the total allegedly spent on Facebook ads, most of which had nothing to with pitting “white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general,” but involved things like a dog lovers site, and one of which – the “Blacktivist” account – supposedly actually complained about white racism against blacks (all part of “sowing divisions”, as is said). And over half the money was spent after the 2016 election, and so can’t have been about influencing the election at all.
But all that is by the by. What really interests me is what Starr gets onto next: a discussion of Soviet nationalities policy. “None of us should be surprised” by Russia’s Facebook shenanigans, Starr says, because:
As a Russian supremacist state, the former USSR understood very well how to weaponize racism. It wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities during its 70-plus years of existence. … [the 15 Soviet republics] were nothing more than colonies of Moscow. One of the first things a colonizer does is center its ethnic superiority over the peoples it rules. During the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin waged “Holodomor” (or Holocaust) against Ukraine … The best numbers have the death figure ta 4 million people, but some estimates have that figure upwards of 10 million. … Stalin … presided over a USSR that centered Russians as the leading ethnic group. … Soviet childrens books depicted African children in blackface and Africa as an uncivilized continent … In 1927 the Soviet Union engaged in a campaign demanding that women in Uzbekistan unveil. … the real motivation was to homogenize the population, which the Kremlin viewed as primitive and backwards, with Russian values. Soviet propaganda from the time depicts clerics in Uzbekistan as menacing and primitive in a clear case of Islamophobia. … Whether it was killing Ukrainians, “civilizing” Central Asian peoples or disparaging black peoples while pretending to treat them as equals, the USSR always centered the Russian slav. The Russian Federation is no different.
Let’s unpack this.
First, is it true that the USSR “wielded Russian homogeneity” against minority nations and “centered its [Russian] ethnic superiority” over them? Note how Starr’s examples are taken almost entirely from the Stalin era. Nationalities policy did indeed take a Great Russian turn at that time, but it was a relatively short-lived one. In the 1920s, and then from the 1950s onwards, the Soviet policy was one of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia). This encouraged the use of local languages and the development of a local national elite. In fact, the Soviets were responsible for spreading mass education in non-Russian languages, and in various cases of actually standardizing and creating a literary language for local peoples, precisely so that mass education in the local language could become possible. It is generally accepted by scholars of Soviet nationalities policy that the Soviet Union established the conditions for its own eventual collapse by in effect creating nationalities, national institutions, and national elites where none existed before.
Outside of the Stalin period, Great Russian nationalism had some supporters within the party leadership, but was generally frowned upon. In 1970, the Politburo itself stepped in to purge the editorial board of the journal Molodaia Gvardiia because it had overstepped the mark in promoting Russian nationalism. Party ideology chief Mikhail Suslov was a firm opponent of Russian nationalism, as was KGB head and later General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov. And while the party purged the Russian nationalists, it provided a degree of protection for Lev Gumilev to publish his Eurasianist tracts which went out of their way to praise the qualities of the steppe peoples of the Soviet Union, such as the Tatars, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, tracts which earned Gumilev the insult “Tatar lover” from the nationalists. Soviet policy was far from promoting racism, let alone Russian nationalism.
Second, when it comes to the Holodomor, it’s interesting that Starr, after admitting that most historians assess the number of deaths as about 4 million, throws in the figure of 10 million as well, as if there is some justification for this much higher number. He also fails to mention the many Russians and Kazakhs who died at the same time. The result is a distorted picture of reality.
Third, Starr may well be quite right about Soviet depictions of black people. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. But it would hardly have made the Soviets uniquely racist, compared with how blacks were depicted in other countries.
Fourth, it makes no sense to describe the Soviets’ campaigns against Islamic traditions in Uzbekistan as an attempt to homogenize the Central Asian peoples “with Russian values.” The aim was to homogenize them with “Soviet values.” That isn’t the same thing at all. Yes, Soviet propaganda showed Muslim clerics as “menacing and primitive.” And yes, if you like, you can call that “Islamophobia.” But at the same time, Soviet propaganda was every bit as disparaging of Orthodox clerics. In 1916 there were 66,000 priests in Russia. In 1940, only 6,000. In 1916, there were 33,000 Orthodox parishes in Russia. In 1940, just 950. The Soviets practically wiped Orthodoxy out as a formal institution. If they were “Islamophobic”, they were “Orthodoxophobic” too.
That mattered because Orthodoxy was, and is, a central part of Russian national identity. In assaulting the Church, the Soviets assaulted the very core of Russia. They smashed up its historical heritage, tearing down monuments and destroying churches. Starr should look up “village prose” or read some of those Molodaia Gvardiia articles from the late 1960s, to get a sense of what many Russians felt the Soviet Union was doing to their heritage. When sculptor Sergei Konenkov, artist Pavel Korin, and writer Leonid Leonov, penned an article entitled “Guard our sacred objects!” denouncing Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign and demanding the preservation of Russian historical monuments, they didn’t do it because they felt that Russia was in charge of the Soviet Union and “centering its ethnic superiority over the people it ruled.” They did it because they understood very well that the Soviet regime was a threat to Russian culture. And when Vladimir Soloukhin wrote his “Visit to the Russian Museum,” and complained of the destruction of Russian culture, he wasn’t doing so he thought that the Soviet Union “wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities,” but because he realized that traditional Russia was under threat.
The Soviet Union, then, didn’t always “center the Russian slav.” Its objective was the “merging” (sliianie) of the Soviet peoples into one common, Soviet, nationality, an objective which was as threatening to Russian national identity as to the identity of other peoples.
As for Starr’s idea that modern Russia follows a similar, racist, anti-non-Russian policy, it’s worth noting that when one examines the current situation, one finds that Russian nationalists don’t like the policies of the current Russian government at all. They don’t like that the government preaches that Russia is a multinational state, Rossiiskaia not Russkaia; they don’t like the freedom given to national regions within the Russian Federation to educate children in local languages; and they really don’t like the government’s policy of relatively open borders encouraging large scale immigration from Central Asia. From the nationalists’ perspective, the state doesn’t “center the Russian slav” at all.
Starr finishes his article with the following gem:
While I was visiting the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, in 2010, a man who appeared to be at least 80-years-old approached me on a busy downtown street and asked me if I knew the history of Ukraine. It was a broad question, but I welcome his insight. “Ukraine is a colony of Moscow and Russia wants to take it back.”
So this is Starr’s evidence – the word of one old man in Lviv. I guess it must be true then.