Were the Soviets Racist

Eric J. Schmaltz

The year 2017 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the political repercussions of which still reverberate across the globe. The USSR’s implosion in 1991 continues to hold contemporary relevance as well, not least because this super-state arguably represented the last great multinational empire in history. By any criterion, the enormous Soviet state inherited a difficult legacy from its tsarist forebears, but the Soviet empire also had to grapple with the fateful consequences of its own often contradictory and fluctuating policies, whether the mass repression of particular peoples or the more progressive affirmative action practices toward its more than one hundred officially recognized nationalities.

American historian Jon K. Chang’s recent groundbreaking effort, Burnt by the Sun: The Koreans of the Russian Far East, examines the history of one of the Soviet Union’s deported and repressed nationality groups during the turbulent Stalinist era. Chang devoted about six years to living and working inside former Soviet Central Asia. He used both archival records and oral histories, and employed the methods of ethnography, geography, and linguistics, all of which has yielded penetrating insight into the Soviet experience at the grass-roots level. Only terrifying complicity among segments of the general population could have made mass repression possible under Stalin.

Chang’s detailed but concise narrative relies on an impressive array of Russian and English-language primary and secondary sources, and features a useful glossary, a number of informative maps and graphs, propaganda posters, newspaper cartoons, and historic photographs.

To the great benefit of students and scholars alike, Burnt by the Sun brings to light the tragic but not forgotten fate of the Soviet Koreans. It also serves to highlight an ongoing debate between today’s leftwing/progressive historians who wish to absolve, or at least minimize, the sins of the Soviet Union and those who wish to bring them to the fore. This in turn bears upon how history is taught in American secondary and university systems, including the particular penchant for the neglect or cursory treatment of national repression and political terror arising from the Left.

In retrospect, the dialectical movement of history did not substantiate the ideological pronunciations of the Soviet Union. The phenomenon of nationalism never dissipated as a powerful historical force, contrary to Marxist-Leninist predictions (or those of present-day progressives).

In the early 1920s, the USSR began implementing rather innovative nationality policies known as korenizatsiia (i.e., “indigenization,” “nativization,” or “sinking roots”). This Soviet-styled “affirmative action” approach promoted a “renaissance” of ethnic cultural and educational development among the Koreans and other nationalities. Korenizatsiia represented a compromise within the Party, containing both warnings against “Great Russian chauvinism” (cultural or national arrogance) and positive assertions of the leading role that the Russians would play “as the first among equals.” By the late 1920s, however, as Chang notes, korenizatsiia developed into a more controversial issue within the Russian dominated Soviet leadership. Then Stalin’s terror-regime of the 1930s and 1940s removed the earlier autonomy and cultural concessions that had been granted to smaller and scattered nationalities, especially along the apparently dangerous borderlands.

Under Stalin from the late 1930s through the end of the Second World War, the category of “enemy alien” or “enemy of the people” resurfaced and ensnared various national minority groups. Chang’s findings in the Soviet Korean case substantiate the notion that the ethnic or national component figured more prominently than a political or class-based one. In fact, the USSR’s Koreans had proved to be one of the regime’s most loyal and supportive national minorities. It appears, therefore, that the Bolshevik Revolution could not sever itself completely from its Russian national heritage and the powerful historical continuities of tsarist imperialism and “Great Russian chauvinism.” After the mid-1930s, communist ideology and “Great Russian chauvinism” gradually combined under Stalinism to produce a most deadly political situation for millions of persons of different cultural, ethnic, political, and racial backgrounds. Stalin came to advocate a crude and extreme form of right-wing national Bolshevism, sometimes known as “Soviet patriotism.”

In recent years, a robust debate has arisen in the historiography of Russia over whether a “racial” (ethnic) animus played a decisive role in Soviet nationality policies by the 1930s. As Chang argues, revisionist historians who dominate mainstream historiography on the subject identified a form of xenophobia which “sought to identify, repress, and remove persons holding political ideologies inimical to Soviet socialism. Political ideology was the primary consideration. Nationality served only as a ‘marker’ for one’s political beliefs” (174). This prevailing revisionist scholarship neglects to mention that the Soviet regime judged and deported these groups based on ethnicity or race, explicitly violating the 1936 Soviet Constitution. But the revisionists cling to an interpretation of history that smacks of “Soviet exceptionalism,” holding that “ethnic cleansing” can occur without exhibiting forms of ethnic discrimination or collective punishment based on inherited traits. This view essentially absolves Soviet socialism from any taint of bias, racism, or non-Marxist practices.1 Lay readers might view punishing an entire ethnic group for ideological deviation as equally repugnant to punishing them for ethnic identity, but given the supremacy of racism in the multicultural hierarchy of sin, Soviet historiography demonstrates the understanding that the former is far more forgivable than the latter, especially if the goal is advancing communism.

But as Chang makes clear, from the 1930s onwards, Stalin’s regime made deliberate military, political, and socio-cultural policy decisions to realign its socialist moorings around the “Russian” people, language, and culture. Stalin, for example, released around 1,000-2,000 Soviet Koreans from the Far Eastern Red Army in 1937. Soviet Koreans were deemed to be unreliable, “suspicious,” and “cadres of Japanese espionage.” Ironically, both the 1937 mass deportation, in which 172,000 Koreans were removed to Soviet Central Asia, and the 1936-1938 Great Terror could not have transpired without the complicity of Korean communists, collective farm leaders, elites, and cadres. Korean NKVD (secret police) agents helped arrest, deport, and repress their own co-ethnics. Chang also cites evidence that the USSR sent Chinese and Korean NKVD and GRU (foreign intelligence) agents into Manchuria on various operations from the 1920s until 1937.

Chang shows that Stalin’s regime ultimately made no exemptions for individual members of the various deported nationalities according to political affiliation. His findings support similar conclusions found in the extensive studies of Svetlana Alieva and Steven Merritt on late 1930s Soviet deportation policies toward national minorities, including ethnic Koreans, in the Russian Far East.2 Thus, loyal comrades in the Communist Party and Komsomol (Communist Youth League), as well as Red Army veterans and even members of the NKVD faced deportation with their ethnic kin to Soviet Central Asia.

Besides searching state and party archives, Chang conducted oral history interviews with four families of Korean NKVD agents, some of the very individuals who helped target and deport members of their own ethnic community under Stalin. Chang’s study shows that different categories of people in Soviet society could be callously targeted for class (economic or political), religious, and nationalist reasons during the Lenin-Stalin era, though individuals held their own rationales for cooperating with Soviet Communist authorities. Moreover, Stalinism fed a pervasive political environment of paranoia and struggle for self-preservation that encouraged neighbors, friends, colleagues, and even co-ethnics to turn on one another. Personal motivations behind such complicity varied, whether the result of state threats, intimidation, and blackmail, or even originating out of personal vendettas, blatant opportunism, prospects for career promotion, and proud expressions of sincere Soviet patriotism. These all too human behaviors were an extension of the terrible logic of the “counterintelligence state.”

The Stalinist system indeed shifted the direction of its nationalities policies from a more political and class-based antagonism to the increasingly racialized targeting of particular ethno-linguistic communities in the Soviet Union. Between 1937 and 1951, the USSR uprooted, deported, and exiled to the isolated eastern territories thirteen Soviet peoples en masse. Many tens of thousands died during such forcible population transfers. In chronological order, they included the Koreans, Finns, Germans, Karachays, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, Georgian Kurds, Khemshils (Muslim Armenians), and Pontic Greeks. According to the official explanation, these actions were taken in response to the “disloyalty” and “treason” of these groups. In all, around 2.75 million persons were cast into Soviet exile during this period, which included the Second World War. The ethnic Germans, who numbered more than one million, or about forty percent of the total, constituted the largest Soviet nationality group to endure this punishment after August 1941. On November 26, 1948, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet even declared that the fate of the survivors of the various deported peoples in the eastern expanses was to be “permanent exile.”3 On April 26, 1991, in the dying days of the Cold War, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), as the largest and most dominant of the Soviet republics, acknowledged in a new decree that Stalin had indeed waged a policy of “genocide” (genotsid) and “slander” (kleveta) against the various repressed and deported peoples.4 Nevertheless, the debate rages on in academic circles, as the dominant revisionist school of historians continues to argue that these deportations were based on ideology, and therefore necessary in building the great Communist state.

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