Francine Hirsch. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 367 S. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8908-2.
Reviewed by Mara Kozelsky (Department of History, University of South Alabama)
Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2007)
The first Soviet census in 1926 was a collaborative exercise between Soviet leaders, ethnographers, regional and local elites, and the mass of citizens being counted. It took months to accomplish, following years of debate. Well before census takers appeared in remote Soviet villages, ethnographers predicted that no set rubric could categorize the Soviet Union's various peoples, for those in the West identified themselves in national terms, those in Central Asia by religion, and those in Siberia mostly by tribe. Still others self-identified by city (Vladimirian or Kostromian) or by economic status, such as the Teptiar, a term denoting a tenant in Bashkir (p. 113). Most Soviet citizens, census takers bemoaned, were too backward to place themselves within a natsional'nost (nationality) or even narodnost' (which roughly translates to ethnicity), much less capable of understanding the distinctions between the two. In the end, census takers formed 191 different narodnosti for the census. Ten years later under Joseph Stalin, that number shrank to 62. Francine Hirsch explains how in just over a decade, the Soviet Union lost nearly 130 peoples.
Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union begins at the turn of the twentieth century (1905) and ends with World War II. Throughout, it traces the cooperation between ethnographers, geographers, and anthropologists with the state in the creation of Soviet identity. She offers rich anecdotes throughout, detailing individual responses to their absorption into group identities not of their choosing. Hirsch borrows from Bernard Cohn, Benedict Anderson, and a host of other scholars of European nationalism to frame her analysis around the "cultural technologies of rule"--the map, census, and museum. The book makes an outstanding contribution to the field and has been recognized in Russian and Eastern European Studies by the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize in 2006, and it was a co-recipient of the European Studies book prize. As the above suggests, Hirsch's work has the ability to cross over from Russia area studies to offer insights to scholars interested in nationalism elsewhere.
Hirsch's study of the "cultural technologies of rule," is in itself nothing new--scholars have been investigating social sciences and identity construction for quite some time. Nor is her challenge to the "prison of peoples" thesis that had long dominated Soviet studies terribly earth-shattering, for revisionist history in the last decades has already shown that the Soviet state was not monolithic, and that the masses of the Soviet citizens to some degree or another participated in the process of rule. Thus, it is her findings about the construction of Soviet identities that are most illuminating and thought-provoking. Most striking, perhaps, is her analysis of "state-sponsored evolutionism" and the struggle between Revolutionary Soviet ideology and European nationalism, two strains of thought that ushered the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republics.
When the Soviets consolidated power in the wake of the Revolution and the subsequent Civil War, they were confronted with the challenging task of organizing the diverse territory of the former Russian empire into a new state. Not only were there peoples of different languages, religions, ethnicities, and tribes, but, as Lenin remarked, peoples of the Soviet Union existed at different economic stages. They ranged from those in the East who were still in the "feudal era," to those in the West who were at "developing stages of capitalism" (p. 64). Officials recognized that Tsarist boundaries had long exceeded their utility and investigated ways to reorganize borders and peoples more efficiently. Following Lenin's lead, Soviet officials sought ways to move all peoples to the same economic level, a civilizing mission which Hirsch maintains was undertaken with greater sincerity than by Western colonial powers that tended to create gaps between colonizers and colonized.
Hirsch creates the term "State-sponsored evolutionism" to describe the Soviet concept of nationality. "State-sponsored evolutionism," according to Hirsch, was based on the Marxist-Leninist belief that nation formation and national consciousness constituted a crucial stage in the evolution toward socialism. The Soviets believed that they could speed forward the nation building process, just as NEP (New Economic Policy) was to speed Russia through the advanced stage of capitalism, the necessary precursor to communism. Consequently, these forward looking Soviet officials supported a "double assimilation": citizens were assimilated into nations at the same time that they were assimilated into the Soviet Union. Ethnographers assisted the state in this process by counting and grouping peoples. Yet how to define Soviet peoples was not immediately clear. Should they prioritize race, ethnicity, religion, language, or byt, a word that translates roughly to "way of life?"
Numerous theories were also put forward about structuring the new territory. The two greatest contenders were those advanced by Gosplan (State Planning Commission) and Narkomnats (People's Commissariat for the Affairs of Nationalities) both of which employed social scientists. The two bureaucracies represented different versions of Marxist-Leninist ideology (that at times competed, and at others cooperated), advancing the Soviet Union on principles of economic planning or regional self-determination. Narkomnats, the mapping wing of the Soviet Union staffed typically by scholars who often had liberal and not Bolshevik leanings, insisted upon ethnographic principles for organizing the new state. In most cases, Narkomnats advocated the autonomy of nationalities. Narkomnats also strongly insisted throughout its existence that Soviet citizens had the right to choose their own nationality, a necessity for peoples who typically had mixed parentage, multiple tongues, and distant homelands.
In contrast, Gosplan, which was the economic-planning organ of the state, insisted that the Soviet Union be organized strictly along economic principles. Officials at Gosplan argued that distinctions among Soviet peoples were more economic than ethnic. In contrast to Western (and later Nazi) thinking that blamed "backwardness" upon innate racial or biological traits, Gosplan (and Soviets in general), believed that "all peoples could 'evolve' and thrive in new Soviet conditions" (p. 9). Consequently, Gosplan advocated dividing the Soviet Union not into ethnographic administrative units, but large economic units that emphasized regions' potential productivity. For example, officials redrew imperial borders and divided present-day Ukraine into the "Southern Mining Region," and the "South Western (Agricultural) Region" (p. 77). Ultimately, the Soviet state settled on a compromise between Gosplan and Narkomnats, "a program of intensive economic development" coupled with the promotion of nationhood. This position was advocated by Stalin, then the Commissar of Nationalities (p. 96).
Over time, the early compromise between Narkomnats and Gosplan produced an awkward map of the internal regions of the Soviet Union, a map which continues to haunt the territory after the Soviet Union's collapse. Ultimately, the Soviet Union was broken into 53 units divided between 15 SSSrs, 20 Autonomous Republics, 8 Autonomous Provinces, and 10 Autonomous Regions, a division that makes little sense in the twenty-first century, particularly to the many peoples forced into alliances they would not choose for themselves. In fact, much of the discord in the post-Soviet era has been an effort to shake free of old Soviet boundaries. Nevertheless, Hirsch's voluminous research on the stages of debate between Gosplan, Narkomnats, and other state bureaucracies shows that organizing the vast Soviet territory was no easy job and, at least in the 1920s, evoked sincere debate about how to administer the space in ways most beneficial to citizens.
Good intentions came to an end with the ascension of Stalin in 1929. Stalin's regime exposed the contradictions in Revolutionary plans for federation, while the ethnographers who so carefully abided by their own conscience were gradually cowed into compliance by the threat of Terror. In fact, many ethnographers who provided the Revolutionary government with maps, careful analysis of populations, and the 1926 Census themselves became victims. Ethnographers who conducted the second Soviet census (but the first "census under socialism") in the 1930s were under duress, just as any other Soviet bureaucrat, to prove that Stalin's predictions about socialism in one country had actually transpired.
In 1936, Stalin gave a speech announcing that the Soviet Union had achieved socialism in one country: collectivization, industrialization, and the assimilation of "smaller peoples into larger peoples." He shocked ethnographers when he described the Soviet Union as consisting of "sixty nations, national groups and narodnosti." With the preparations for the Soviet Union's second census (the first under socialism) underway, ethnographers had to quickly realign their research. Using Stalin's 1913 definition of nationality as their rationale, Soviet ethnographers had to show that indeed, the 191 narodnosti listed in the 1926 census had amalgamated into approximately sixty peoples. The significance of official categories of identity was immense, for groups excluded from the list of nationalities were also excluded from state support for languages, education, and building.
After much debate and rejected plans by Moscow elites, ethnographers managed to produce a list of Soviet populations that complied with Stalin's statement. They did so by combining groups that shared several, but not all, traits. For example, some ethnographers combined the Muslim Ajars with Christian Georgians, arguing that these peoples lived in the same geographic region, spoke the same language, and that under socialism "ancient religious differences" had become irrelevant (p. 287). Ethnographers also derived a separate category for what they termed the "Diaspora Nationalities," or those groups living in the Soviet Union such as the Volga Germans, Poles, or Bulgarians. Such groups were not counted among the native Soviet nationalities. Because Diaspora Nationalities had affiliation with other nations elsewhere, according to ethnographers, they could never truly assimilate. Consequences of the ethnographic crisis in the 1930s remain tragically apparent today. On one hand, groups forcibly combined are still disentangling themselves from each other and, on the other, groups identified as Diaspora Nationalities were targeted for deportation during and following World War II. Thus, by virtue of their selection process, Hirsch implicates Soviet social scientists among the worst crimes against humanity in the twentieth century.
As show trials unfolded and the Nazi regime consolidated power, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) began to identify potential enemies based on perceived allegiances to nations outside the Soviet Union. The internal passport system, which was introduced in 1932, initially allowed citizens to self-identify their nationality. Thus, a man born in Poland to a Lithuanian mother and a German father who had spent his life in Moscow and spoke Russian as a first language, could conceivably identify himself as "Russian." The principle of self-identity was crucial to early Soviets as a matter of personal liberty and socialist consciousness (if someone voluntarily counted themselves as a Soviet citizen, why should it matter who their parents were). By 1937, however, the NKVD eliminated the possibility of self-selection, requiring citizens to adopt the ethnicity of their mothers. Individual citizens balked at this change and fought unsuccessfully through whatever legal channels were available to them.
Despite its antithetical stance to the biological determinism of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, by the 1930s, ended up classifying its citizens according to ethnicity. This was not however, because the Soviets perceived that races were inferior or superior, for it retained its belief in nurture over nature. Rather, it was because of the impending war and the fear of "imperialist encirclement." In 1934 and 1936, the German government made two separate pacts with Poland and Japan respectively, while the 1938 German capture of the Sudetenland raised "immediate concerns about Nazi interference in the Soviet Union's Western borderlands" (p. 274). In other words, Soviet officials did not question the equality of races, but the loyalty of peoples. This distinction, however, mattered little to the massive populations who suffered under Stalin's paranoia.
It is at this point, the gathering clouds on the eve of World War II, that Hirsch ends her book for most intents and purposes. She does include a brief epilogue that summarizes ethnography and social science through the Gorbachev era. Yet, this epilogue is disappointing, for it does not match the depth of previous chapters. Given her last large chapter on terror before the war, one cannot help but imagine that a different epilogue, one that explored ethnography in light of the deportations of peoples after the war, would have been more powerful. Overall, however, the work is highly readable and informative. Its discussion of Soviet efforts to construct economic identities in the 1920s provides a rich counterpoint to emphasis on nationalist racial theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and gives a reminder that alternatives existed.
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Mara Kozelsky. Review of Hirsch, Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union.
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