Ethnic Cleansing and Revisionist Russian and Soviet History

Jon K. Chang

Jon K. Chang is an American historian and the author of Burnt by the Sun: The Koreans of the Russian Far East (University of Hawaii Press, 2016); [email protected]

It should be made clear which of the scholars cited by name in the exchange write social history. Getty, Rittersporn, Manning, Solomon, Viola, and Fitzpatrick do not write social history as that term is understood and applied by historians of Western Europe and America.

—William Chase, The Russian Review, (Oct.1987)

Yet although they [Holquist, Martin, Weiner and others—namely revisionists] raise the term race, they step around it gingerly and quickly retreat to the safer language of ethnicity and [Soviet] nationality.

—Eric D. Weitz, Slavic Review1

This essay examines why many of the so-called “social historians” of Russian and Soviet studies and in the West did not champion the rights of the marginalized or subaltern nationalities of the Soviet Union, and did not even document their voices and identities.2 Their views, which were disseminated widely, trivialized the deportations and high death rates of the various Soviet minorities from the 1930s to the 1950s by siding with the Soviet state and dismissing the persecution they suffered as being due to their ideology, instead of their ethnicity.

First, let us present some prehistory. From 1930 to the 1950s, Stalin shifted Soviet state policies and Soviet socialism itself towards the promotion of Russians (as well as the Ukrainians and Belarusians) as primus inter pares (first among equals) in the USSR. This moved the category of race or nationality to a hierarchical scale. Racial hierarchy had been anathema to socialism which preached that only socioeconomic classes were unequal. This new classification graded and codified the loyalties (political and cultural) of the various Soviet peoples based on their perceived closeness to Russian cultural norms, ethos, practices, and histories.

Moving Russians to primus inter pares concurrently necessitated that the diaspora nationalities—Soviet Greeks, Finns, Poles, Germans, Chinese, Koreans, Iranians, and others—all with ancestral homelands outside the USSR, become the “last among equals” in Soviet socialism until Stalin’s death in 1953 and perhaps longer.

“Social historians” in the Soviet context, as in the West generally, claim to be doing “history from below,” delving into the lived experiences of ordinary citizens below the level of politics. This was the type of history that, at least in theory, characterized the Sheila Fitzpatrick and Ronald G. Suny-led Soviet studies, history, and political science departments at the Universities of Chicago and Michigan during their periods of tenure and scholarship (Suny and Fitzpatrick respectively). This was also the approach of Fitzpatrick’s former students (Terry Martin, Jonathan Bone, Peter Holquist, and others) and those with similar theories (Francine Hirsch, Amir Weiner, and others).3 All were unwilling to admit that the Soviet Union carried out ethnic cleansing internally based on racial animus and stereotypes of the loyalties and character of the various deported Soviet diaspora peoples. These scholars effectively handcuffed Soviet studies in the West so that it did not examine the ethnic chauvinism of Soviet policies, or the broader issue of human rights. Their Western leftist and anti-Cold War attitudes toward the “U.S. military industrial complex” led them to so strongly identify with Soviet socialism that they discounted the voices and experiences of the Soviet diaspora peoples, mostly by not engaging them and refusing to put their experiences into the proper context.4 These scholars are called “revisionist scholars” because they challenged the previous twentieth century scholarship that saw the Soviets as a totalitarian adversary of Western democracy, and instead took a more benign view, interpreting Soviet history as a beleaguered but noble experiment in socialism and a possible, if far from ideal, alternative to the Western capitalist model.5 Although nominally “social historians,” they ignored and rarely interviewed Soviet citizens themselves. As Haynes and Klehr wrote, “Under these circumstances, revisionists reinterpreted the limited and sometimes ambiguous documentary record to present a benign view of Stalinism. They belittled testimony by the ethnic survivors of the Gulag as biased complaints of anticommunists or embittered exiles.”6

Second, the “social historians” Suny, Fitzpatrick, and others overwhelmingly used the Soviet archives with very little use of oral history despite the fact that these archives were and are constantly culled or revised. Files were and can still be destroyed which do not fit the predominant socio-political narrative(s). Third, these scholars discounted the blind spot in Soviet studies, especially in their own monographs and methodologies, which was that the archives of the intelligence agencies (including the OGPU, NKVD, KGB, and the now renamed FSB) are not and have never been fully opened to researchers or historians (especially those who do not work for the Russian Federation’s FSB).7

The work of Sheila Fitzpatrick is fairly representative of the revisionist scholars in Soviet studies. Fitzpatrick defined herself as a “social historian” researching the subaltern nationalities while uncovering the “view from below,” versus the more political orientation of the totalitarian school scholars, such as Leonard Schapiro, Richard Pipes, and Robert C. Tucker, who emphasized Cold War politics and the building of the Soviet Empire. Yet when it came to the Soviet diaspora peoples and the “nationalities deportations” from 1937 to 1950, both Suny and Fitzpatrick held that these cases of ethnic cleansing were not racial but ideological in nature, in which both elites and ordinary people could be targeted as “enemies of the people.”

Ronald G. Suny announced he was a Marxist social historian who would overcome past prejudices and oversights by focusing on the history of the “non-Russians.”8 He proclaimed his “liberal, progressive and Marxist influences and leanings” far and wide, especially in his academic autobiography, Red Flag Unfurled: History, Historians and the Russian Revolution.9 However, once situated at Oberlin College, he proceeded to write in-depth histories only about Russians, Georgians, and Armenians. His own personal research never ventured upon the peoples near and east of the Ural mountains, those especially marginalized in Russian and Soviet historiography—the Caucasian Muslims, Central Asians, all of the various Tatar peoples, the Siberian natives, other Asian peoples (such as Buriats and Kalmyks), and the various Finno-Ugric peoples of the USSR. This is negligent and antithetical to “social history” because these latter groups were marginalized to a far greater degree than the non-(Eastern) Slavic Armenians and Georgians.10 Regarding the Soviet Koreans, Suny (with Kivelson) on page 304 of their monograph Russia’s Empires repeated the same findings as Terry Martin’s, citing the latter’s “Origins” article in its entirety (as the reference for the Soviet Korean case),11 explaining that the Soviet state did not “conceive of these deportations as ethnic . . . It was the Soviet leadership’s strong commitment to forming a multinational state, rather than any hostility to ethnic identities, that politicized ethnicity by linking it to the formation of administrative territories, land possession, and resettlement.”12

Suny and Fitzpatrick (and Jerry Hough) led many scholars in Soviet and Russian history down a false path. It is clear that the Soviets recognized these eastern ethnic groups as “persons and beings of a national language, character or mentality (psychological makeup), territory and economic life.”13A revisionist historian of a later generation, Amir Weiner, wrote about the Soviet “nationalities deportations” and tried to explain them away. Weiner argued that the nationalities deportations removed ethnic groups because of their “territorial identities.” Writing specifically about the Crimean Tatar deportation, Weiner stated, “Despite their horrible suffering (about one-quarter died during their first three years in exile), it was their territorial identity and not their physical existence or even their distinct ethnic identity that the regime sought to eradicate.”14 Weiner’s “territorial identity” theory is contrived and proves false upon deeper examination.15 The Crimean Tatars and Koreans were deported separately under separate deportation orders. However, only Tatar and Korean women married to Russians, Ukrainians, and Cossacks were allowed to remain in the Crimea and the Russian Far East (respectively), while families married to Tatar or Korean men were deported.16 If the identities were truly “territorially based,” all members of the nationality would have to be deported.

Second, a “territorial identity” is one which is easily transmittable (more akin to a social identity). This would mean that during the Korean deportation for example, the Soviet state would have needed to deport not only Koreans, but all others who had adopted this “territorial identity” or ethos. The state would have had to deport large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians who possessed this regional identity, especially those who were neighbors with Koreans.17 This did not occur and was not a part of the “nationalities deportations.”

These Eurocentric “social historians” and their students adopted positions which could in fact be called “Russian nationalist” or those expressing Russian populist and nativist sentiments. They absolved the Soviet Union of ethnic cleansing through exceedingly long, typically Marxist theoretical articles. Primarily, they employed three stratagems of history writing and historiography in order to make Soviet “ethnic cleansing” more benign, or not ethnic cleansing at all. First, they did not put the “nationalities deportations” of the Soviet Koreans in their proper historical context, that of the 1936 Stalinist Soviet Constitution. This is a document that promised individual determinations of guilt in Soviet courts and that Soviet citizens could not be judged collectively by their nationality, stipulations that should have effectively prohibited wholesale ethnic cleansing.18

Second, the social historians and revisionists of Russian and Soviet studies decoupled Soviet chauvinism from any connection or continuities with the Tsarist period. For example, Martin states:

By Soviet xenophobia, I mean simply the exaggerated Soviet fear of foreign influence and foreign contamination. I absolutely do not mean traditional Russian xenophobia. Soviet xenophobia was ideological, not ethnic. It was spurred by an ideological hatred and suspicion of foreign capitalist governments, not the national hatred of non-Russians.19

The third stratagem was to label this hatred of so-called foreign capitalist imperialists that arose during the 1930s as “Soviet xenophobia.” This was a complete misnomer. The peoples being deported were not foreigners; they were simply Soviet national minorities in a supposedly socialist polity (the USSR) who were being deported within the Soviet Union. Likewise for Martin’s “Russian xenophobia.” The Russian empire expanded beyond the borders of Kievan Rus through imperialism. As it expanded, Russian colonizers and Cossack soldiers sometimes expressed deep antipathies and violent actions towards the Finno-Ugric peoples and especially the Siberian natives. This hardly counts as xenophobia. The Russians and Cossacks are coming into the territories of others, not the reverse. Martin and other revisionists simply refused to associate racism or chauvinism with Soviet socialism, and so purposely renamed this as “xenophobia.” Again, this kind of nomenklatura favored and promoted the Soviet state and Russian nationalist and nativist sentiments.

It would be hard for any member of the Soviet diaspora or deported peoples to see these revisionist writings as anything other than a cover for Soviet ethnic and racial bigotry. Revisionist Francine Hirsch wrote about “unextinguished loyalties to homelands and states outside of Soviet borders,”20 while Terry Martin named “the exaggerated Soviet fear of foreign capitalist influence and contamination” as causes for the nationalities deportations.21 The third scholar, Amir Weiner, identified their “territorial identities” as the primary culprit. As a Soviet Greek or Korean, one might answer, “What is going on here? I have never been to Greece or Korea. What possible loyalties or territorial attachments or ethos could I have to my ancestral homeland? What happened to the policy of ‘national in form, socialist in content?’”22


These revisionist historians took power and gained social capital on various campuses through leftist liberal credentials yet adopted a Russian nationalist point of view which degraded the national minorities of the Soviet Union, their histories, their contributions, and especially their suffering.23 I contend that this is a type of gentrified racism; one which has its origins in middle and upper-middle class academics in Western liberal democracies with little or no direct-long term lived experiences in communist, totalitarian countries or their post-Soviet incarnations. These academics, whose influence peaked in the 1960s and 70s, passed on similar politics to their students. Their logic requires that one accept as valid a clearly false narrative: elites among Soviet minorities were arrested and shot, and their communities deported. However, they were deported not because of their ethnic identities but because of “their political loyalties, inability to assimilate, and other reasons.” These scholars insisted that the ethnic and racial phenotypes of these Soviet minorities were simply “markers” or “referents” for their putative political loyalties and other deleterious traits. Therefore, accordingly, the Soviet state was ideological and never ethnic.24 This is sophistry. No one in academia would dare redefine and then absolve the acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing which occurred in Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or the Hutu’s Rwanda. Yet the revisionist account of the “nationalities deportations” dominates Soviet and Russian studies.

What cannot be denied is that from the 1930s to around 1950, fourteen Soviet nationalities were named in NKVD orders, their communities were forcibly removed and deported within short, discrete periods of time on charges that named them by ethnicity.

Soviet studies and Western diplomacy towards the USSR were handcuffed by this self-proclaimed progressive revisionism which turned out to be, in fact, hard-right Russian nationalist and nativist views towards Soviet ethnic cleansing. And yet, these errors in historical thought continue to be taught. Most of the scholars teaching at the top schools in North America in Russian history, politics, or literature themselves come from only a small number of schools.25 Scholars who try to bring in different approaches or methodologies are the first to be dismissed. Groupthink and the concentration of power in just a few hands have severely limited the field of Russian history and politics which, in turn inhibits and debilitates U.S. diplomacy, politics, and international relations with Russia and the countries of the former USSR. It hobbles U.S. diplomacy and international relations by putting the U.S. on the defensive even in terms of human rights, as a significant part of Russia’s past abuses are wiped clean. It also puts the burden of proof on the U.S. in substantiating its claims of Russian or Soviet-era human rights violations, rather than utilizing and empowering oral history, fieldwork, and interviews from former citizens of Communist Bloc regimes and the USSR.


1Eric D. Weitz, “Racial Politics without the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and National Purges,” Slavic Review 61, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 1-29.

2When I use the term “Eurocentric,” I have included the two Christian Caucasian nationalities, the Armenians and Georgians as part of the European peoples. Typically both are considered both Caucasian and European when in Russia and or the former USSR. See Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 127.

3Fitzpatrick listed many of her former students (circa 1999) in Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), ix. One, for example, was Jonathan Bone. Regarding the Korean deportation, he states, “Neither did the mass relocation amount to ethnic cleansing, though post-Soviet scholars often assert that it did. It is better characterized as an ethnicized population transfer.” See Jonathan Andrew Bone, “Socialism in a Far Country: Stalinist Population Politics and the Making of the Soviet Far East, 1929-1939,” PhD Diss., University of Chicago, 2003.

4Sheila Fitzpatrick, A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 309, 340. Page 209 states, “I thought of myself as different from the general run of British and American Soviet scholars, with their Cold War agenda (as I saw it) of discrediting the Soviet Union rather than understanding it.” Page 340 states, “That was because I was what was called a 'revisionist' in the 1970s; that is, a social historian critical of the totalitarian model.”

5For a thorough analysis to date of this, see John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), 17-18 and the bibliographies of most of the monographs named in this essay of the “revisionists.” The bibliographies are almost all archival based (even memoirs).

6Ibid., 17. For Dr. Jerry Hough (also a revisionist), see Ibid., 17 and Fitzpatrick, Spy, 330-331.

7Oleg V. Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 2-3; Theodore Karasik, The Post-Soviet Archives Organization, Access, and Declassification (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 1993), 6; Terry Martin, Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 387, fn202, and Sheila Fitzpatrick, On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 5 which states, “With the Soviet party and government (but not secret police) archives opened.” OGPU, NKVD and KGB were all abbreviations for the Soviet political police from 1923 to 1991. The three distinct abbreviations represent different reorganizations of the political (secret) police.

8See Ronald Grigor Suny, “Rethinking Soviet Studies: Bringing the Non-Russians Back In,” in Beyond Soviet Studies, ed. Daniel Orlovsky (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Press, 1995), 105-134.

9Ronald Grigor Suny, Red Flag Unfurled: History, Historians and the Russian Revolution (London: Verso, 2017), 1-16. See also the back cover of Ronald Grigor Suny’s Looking toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) which states that he is: “A specialist in the history of the non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union.”

10“Most Bolsheviks were Russian, and in 1922, they accounted for about 72 percent of party members. Others who were disproportionately Bolshevik were Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Poles, and Latvians. Jews, Georgians, and Armenians were overrepresented in the party leadership, and this remained the case until 1953.”See Martin McCauley, The Soviet Union, 1917-1991, 2nd edition (London: Longman, 1993), 112.

11Valerie A. Kivelson and Ronald Grigor Suny, Russia’s Empires (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017), 304, fn23. Footnote 23 is written as follows “Martin, ‘The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,’ 813-861.”

12Martin, “Origins,” 829.

13Chang, Burnt, 177.

14Amir Weiner, “Nothing but Certainty,” Slavic Review 61, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 46.

15See Amir Weiner, Making Senseof War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 148 for the second iteration of this theory.

16N.F. Bugai, Ikh Nada Deportirovat: Dokumenty, Fakty i Komentarii (Moskva: Druzhba Narodov, 1992), 45 and Anatolii Kuzin, Dalnevostochnye Koreitsy: Zhizn i tragediia sudby (Uzhno-Sakhalinsk: Dalnevostochoe knizhnoe izdatelstvo, 1993), 164.

17It seems apropos to call this an “ethos” rather than an identity since the primary factor is territory-geography.

18Chang, Burnt, 175.

19Martin, “Origins,” 829, 861.

20Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 272, 275, 295.

21Martin, “Origins,” 829.

22Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National and Colonial Question (repr. 1935, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2003), 210. Page 210 states, “Proletarian in content and national in form.” See also 260-261.

23Russian nationalism and Russians (as well “Russianness”) as primus inter pares surged beginning in the mid-1930s under Stalin.

24Chang, Burnt, 174. See bottom 174 in parentheses.

25To see how Soviet studies is dominated by just a few schools, see Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Whither Soviet History?: Some Reflections on Recent Anglophone Historiography,” Region 1, no. 2 (2012): 213-230 (see esp. 213) and David Wolff, “Roundtable: What Is a School? Is There a Fitzpatrick School of Soviet History?” Acta Slava Iaponica 24 (2007): 229-241, to name just two articles.

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