Soviet Union: Facts and Fictions (Part 3: Racial Inequality)

This series (1, 2, 4) is to discuss a popular greentext story that gets shared around numerous leftist circles, and to provide greater context behind many of the claims made.

The Somewhat Suspect Greentext

It may seem trivial to discuss at length a 4chan greentext post, but importantly, a number of sources have now been provided for these claims alongside the meme. This allows for deeper discussion and interrogation of the claims made.

The source for this claim is a news article about Soviet propaganda — literally, the art of Soviet propaganda. Undoubtedly, communism’s internationalist message was anti-racist, egalitarian and appealed to colonised peoples and persecuted minorities worldwide. Indeed, as the article notes, a number of African and African-descended people moved to the Soviet Union to escape injustice in their home countries. However, there is a vast gap between producing literal propaganda and ending racial inequality.

Does this diverse cast of stereotypes end racism?

So what were race relations like in the Soviet Union? This is a complex topic, and particularly in the context of Russia whose attitudes to race are noted for their distinctiveness to wider European ideas. To unpack this question, it is necessary to start at the beginning, and examine what race relations were like in pre-Soviet Russia.

Traditionally, academics have paid little attention to race in Russia — either as a historical phenomenon or as an analytical category. Although this is beginning to change, it raises important questions of why race in Russia has been so difficult to analyse, whether race and racism mean the same thing in Russia as the ‘west’, and how does Russian conceptions of race challenge its development in other contexts?

The use of racial concepts in imperial Russia were in “complete terminological disarray.” Nature and culture were perceived to be very closely intertwined, but the link between the two was not necessarily clear. In the 19th century concepts of paroda, plemya and rasa (roughly ‘species’, ‘tribe’ and ‘race’) were not used to establish hierarchies, but culture and civilization performed this function. Meanwhile, narodnost’ (nationhood) and natsionalnost’ (nationality) were usually used to account for diversity and in some instances (e.g. in texts produced by the Slavophiles) were not clearly separated from paroda, plemya and rasa.

In 1897 the Tsarist administration decided to hold the first general census of all people within the Russian Empire. A question was included to determine the language of citizens of Russia to provide a snapshot of the national make-up of the country. This census, however, makes clear the weak definition of nationality in 1897. Unlike categories such as estate or religion which were recorded in identification documents, nationality remained at best a marginal administrative and legal category. Statisticians decided that a direct question on nationality would be so poorly understood it would be next to useless.

Nikolay Kharkov argues that although it is possible (and even easy) to identify discourses relating to race in late Imperial Russia, it was not sufficiently cultivated enough to be of consequence to society within the objective historical conditions, including the general level of education, and the interests of elites.

Nationality in Russia and the Soviet Union, as understood in a modern Western sense, was an active project and creation of the state. Yuri Slezkine, in his seminal article The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism explains that:

Soviet nationality policy was devised and carried out by nationalists. Lenin’s acceptance of the reality of nations and “national rights” was one of the most uncompromising positions he ever took… “nation building” was a spectacularly successful attempt at state-sponsored conflation of language, “culture”, territory and quota-fed bureaucracy.

This nation-making was highly egalitarian in theory, and the Bolshevik’s

…proclaimed all peoples to be equal and sovereign, guaranteed their sovereignty through an ethnoterritorial federation and a right to secession, endorsed “the free development of national minorities and ethnic groups,” and pledged to respect national beliefs, customs and institutions.

Initially, in the first Soviet census of 1920, nationality was defined as “a group within the population united by a common national consciousness,” and it was up the respondent to determine to which group they belonged. Over time, the Bolshevik’s moved away from self-identification and towards scientific data, ethnography and an official list of nationalities which each Soviet citizen was a member of. After the civil war, the state could draw administrative boundaries to match these new ethnicities, create national republics and establish affirmative action policies. Those who did not identify with the list of official nationalities would have their “true” nationalities “unveiled” (vyiavlenie) to them through state promotion of ethnicity. In the view of Francine Hirsch, Peter Holquist, Terry Martin, Yuri Slezkine, Amir Weiner, and others the Soviets created nations at least as much as they destroyed them.

This hopefully helps demonstrate the inadequacy of thinking about race and racism in the Soviet Union as parallel to the racism demonstrated in the West. The Soviet Union created ethnic dividing lines and institutionalised ethnic difference — but not to create hierarchy like Jim Crow, but in order to promote egalitarianism. Unlike in the Tsarist era, nationality became a focal point of identity as a deliberate policy, and national institutions became a avenues of mobility for millions of citizens from national schools to national theatres. However, it is through this very same created national identities that millions would become victims of the Soviet state.

The distinctly ‘scientific’ form of racism never fully emerged in either Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union. Where these ideas did emerge, they were largely restricted to narrow circles of nationalist intellectuals, and for Russians at large — who were well aware of their mixed racial origins — scientific racism was considered Germanocentric. Under the Soviet Union, when racial science was flourishing in Nazi Germany, it was largely stamped out of Soviet sciences as being “Menshevik idealism”, anti-dialectical and denounced as “zoological” thinking characteristic of the Nazi system and “degenerate bourgeois society”.

However, most people understand that racism can exist in subtler or different forms than being rooted in supposed-biological fact. Under Stalin, when some population groups were perceived as particularly resistant to the state’s socialist ideology, the Marxist belief in the malleability of human beings began to waver. Certain national groups became “racialised” and endowed with immutable traits, possessed by every member of the group and passed from one generation to the next. This formulation, while not based in scientific biology, nevertheless is indistinguishable from race in its legal, political, and social functions.

On 2 April 1938, the NKVD institutionalised the racialisation of nationality. From this date onwards, every individual automatically inherited the nationality of their parents at birth and this could not legally be changed during their lifetime.

Stanford Associate Professor of Soviet History, Amir Weiner identifies 1936 as a turning point in the Soviet Union’s approach to nation and race. Stalin’s new constitution proclaimed the attainment of socialism and created a new legal category of “enemies of the people”. From this point forward enemies were defined by nation rather than class (such as the Kulaks), and deportations focused on peoples rather than classes.

From 1937 to 1944 the Stalin regime forcibly resettled a number of national groups within the USSR. The first such nationality removed from its traditional place of settlement in the USSR were the ethnic Koreans in the Soviet Far East, sent to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1937. This policy was followed by deportations of Finns Eastwards in 1941.

The Stalin regime’s policy towards its ethnic German citizens during World War II involved ethnic cleansing, the imposition of apartheid like residency restrictions, and their mass conscription into forced labour detachments. Joining the Koreans and the Germans were ethnic cleansing of the Karachais, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks, all deported in 1943 and 1944. People may defend these policies as necessary in the face of a potential fifth column (though I question whether such people would similarly defend Japanese internment in the USA), however restrictions on movement remained for up to decades after WW2.

Post-Racism? Almost 500,000 Chechens and Ingush were deported in 1944, mostly by freight train. An estimated 132,000 died in transit and exile. (Fowkes 2016, 10)

Some Chechen and Ingush historians describe the deportations of the people as a genocide, and although there wasn’t an attempt to eliminate all Chechen and Ingush people there was a systemic effort to erase them as a nation — starting with the dissolving of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic in 1944. Chechen and Ingush towns were renamed, graveyards and monuments bulldozed, and past signs of Chechens and Ingush were erased. History books and encyclopedias ceased to mention the original inhabitants of the region. In exile, Chechens and Ingush were forbidden from using their languages in schools or publicly showing their cultures. Following WW2, Chechens and Ingush were forbidden from returning to the Caucasus, even following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s secret speech. Only in 1957 did the Soviet government consent, and even then only for 17,000 Chechen and Ingush to return to their homeland.

In the case of the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks, such policies continued up until the collapse of the USSR. Between September 1967 and July 1968, over 12,000 Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea. The Soviet government, however, granted only 18 families residency permits. Soviet authorities forcibly expelled most of the remainder back to Uzbekistan. Crimean Tatars who were denied registration permits could not legally work, notarize home purchases, or enrol their children in school. They also remained subject to expulsion from Crimea. Robbery, beatings, and destruction of houses frequently accompanied these evictions. Between 1978 and 1980, the Soviet authorities expelled 640 out of 700 unregistered Crimean Tatar families from Crimea. The Soviet government also used similar methods to prevent the return of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia. Throughout the 1960s, Georgian authorities instigated mass round-ups and expulsions of returning Meskhetian Turk families. In total, from 1960 to 1969, the Soviet government expelled 705 Meskhetian Turk families who managed to return to Georgia.

No discussion of racism in the Soviet Union can be complete without mention of antisemitism. On 13 January 1953, the Soviet government declared that nine of the Kremlin’s most prestigious doctors had murdered two Stalin’s closest aides and accused them of taking part in a vast plot to to kill top Soviet political and military leadership, including Stalin himself. This, entirely fabricated plot, preceded a “blatantly anti-Semitic” government led campaign. Jews were arrested in Leningrad, already arrested Jews were shot in Ukraine, articles on the crimes of Jews were published through Belarus, and plans were drawn up to deport the Soviet Jewry Eastwards.

While these plans failed to materialise on account of Stalin’s death, antisemitism remained an issue in the Soviet Union, evident in the high emigration rates. During the Brezhnev years approximately 200,000 Jews, left the Soviet Union. Later, with glasnost and perestroika, almost one million more Jews left, most once again to Israel.

“Evidence of a crime,” cartoon from the January 1953 edition of Krokodil. This edition attacked Western bankers, Nazi generals, the Vatican, and the “Zionist conspiracy”

In the 1930s two white Americans working at Stalingrad faced a highly publicised trial for attacking a black American labourer, Robert Robinson. American racism was placed on trial and the USSR cultivated an image of being an enlightened, “raceless” society. This cultivation was a partial success, and many African nations and African-minority groups turned to the USSR as a source of ideological and material support. However, the Soviet Union was far from achieving its ideal, as we will see.

Estimates of Soviet citizens with African ancestry place the number at little more than a few thousand. Soviet citizens of African descent also did not suffer any official repression encountered by the likes of the Koreans, Chechens, Tartars or Germans detailed above. This is, in part, explained by the fact that African descendants simply did not exist as a separate, legally-recognised nationality. In Is there a Black Eurasia?: Ghanaian and other Diasporic African Populations in the USSR in Comparative Perspective (found within Replenishing History: New Directions to Historical Research in the 21st Century in Ghana) J. Pohl argues that:

People of African descent did not have their African lineage indicated on line five of their internal passports and other documents. Instead the Soviet regime classified them variously as Russians, Abkhazians, and other nationalities. Official discrimination against blacks in the USSR could not be legally institutionalized because they did not exist as a legal category.

Did discrimination against Africans manifest itself unofficially? To answer this we turn to a noteworthy event in the 1960s. In the first recorded political protest to occupy Moscow’s Red Square since the 1920s, 500–700 Ghanaian and other African students protested racial discrimination in the Soviet Union. Placards carried inflammatory slogans such as “Moscow? Center of Discrimination”, “Stop killing Africans!”, and “Moscow, a second Alabama.”

18 December 1963, hundreds of Ghanaian students protested in Red Square against racial discrimination

The protests were triggered by the untimely death of Edmund Assare-Addo, a Ghanaian medical student, however grievances about race relations had been commonplace for some time. In 1962 and 1963, the Ghanaian Embassy received so many complaints about “unprovoked assaults by Soviet citizens” that it requested a formal investigation.

In studying this event, Julie Hessler found:

…racism was a genuine problem for the first cohorts of African students, and that their concerns about verbal harassment, unprovoked assaults, and racial profiling by the police were based on everyday experience as well as word of mouth…

Reports include Soviet students yelling “Let’s go lynch the Negroes!” [Poshli HnchevaUnegrovi] at universities. A KGB informant reported that Soviet students had extremely poor relations with “blacks and mulattos”, who were referred to with obscenities, and considered sadistic, dirty, hypersexual and the source for a syphilis outbreak. Girls who dated black men were reportedly viewed as “worse than the lowest prostitute”.

As covered above, the ethnic deportations during WW2 continued to be enforced throughout the remaining years of the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, both the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks in Soviet Central Asia compared their plight to that of the Palestinians, although they never resorted to armed resistance in the way the Palestinians did. Letter writing, petitions and peaceful demonstrations were used to try and persuade the Soviet government to restore previously held rights. The Crimean Tatar petition to the Twenty-Third Congress of the CPSU in March 1966 had over 130,000 signatures, almost the entire adult population of the nationality. In 1969, over 7,000 Meskhetian Turks demonstrated in Tbilisi out of a total population of only 200,000 people. The Soviet government responded to these petitions and demonstrations with violence and a complete refusal to consider the issue of repatriation. Only when the Soviet Union began to collapse did the Crimean Tatars make any substantial progress on returning to their ancestral homeland. The Meskhetian Turks still remained dispersed across Eurasia unable to return to Georgia.

The final example of racism in the Soviet Union I would like to touch on is the experience of the Veps, to highlight the more subtle forms of discrimination prevalent in the Soviet Union. The Veps are a small Balto-Finnic people located predominately in Karelia. Initially granted autonomy, changes in the Soviet Union’s nationality policies in the late 1930s saw the Veps’ territorial autonomy abolished. During the Brezhnev era, local officials and census takers illegally refused to register the Veps identity on passports and the census, causing an unnatural and sudden decline of official numbers of Veps. The disappearance of the Veps was seen as progress, a step toward a future without nationalities, toward a Russian-speaking Soviet people.

I hope I have demonstrated the problem with stating the Soviet Union ended racial inequality, on multiple fronts. Firstly, race, as we understand it in the West, was not used in Tsarist Russia to enforce inequalities and thus could not be ended in the first place. Second, the Bolsheviks created, codified and institutionalised ethnicities to deliberately demarcate different peoples to be administered differently. Even if done in the name of egalitarianism, this was quite literally the creation of segregated groups. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, these groups became racialised, in that one was born into the group, could not leave the group, and was imbued with certain immutable characteristics. These racialised groups were used as the basis for deportations, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid-like policies including restriction of movement and banning from jobs. Lastly, as seen in the case of the Jews, Africans and the Veps discrimination of ethnic grounds was commonplace throughout the existence of the Soviet Union. Most on the left would not argue that racial inequality has been ended in the United States on account of supposed legal equality, but rather see it as an ongoing project — the same standard needs to be used against the Soviet Union in this regard.

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I like history and thinking about freedom. I have a background in International Relations, Strategic Studies and I work for the Military Industrial Complex