Was the Soviet Union Racist? A Discussion With Alexander Verkhovsky

by Cyril Babeev

This is the first part of our interview with Alexander Verkhovsky that explores racial and ethnic relations throughout Soviet and modern Russian history. Verkhovsky is a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and the director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which is registered as conducting activity of a foreign agent under Russian law. For Part Two, click here.

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

The word “racism” has specific denotations in Russia. Outside the country, it’s a term to encompass intolerance and discrimination on the basis of physical appearance, ethnicity, or cultural difference. Within Russia, the word “racism” is mostly known from news from abroad. The term itself is more commonly associated with the idea that humans are divided into three races, an idea propagated through Soviet education and imprinted onto the consciousnesses of generations of Russians. 

In this first part of an interview with Cyril Babeev, Alexander Verkhovsky discusses the issue of race and racial policies in the Soviet Union. Verkhovsky is a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and the director of the Moscow-based SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, which is registered as conducting activity of a foreign agent under Russian law.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

From left to right: S. O. Gorgadze, E. V. Vinokurova, and A. M. Verkhovsky at the meeting of the Council for Civil Society and Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, 2018

CB: Let’s have a look at the ways that race has been historically addressed in Russia and the Soviet Union. There is a well-known belief that the Soviet Union never had racist sentiments or participated in any racist practices, and that, on the contrary, it helped the Black population of the United States.

AV: I don’t doubt this and don’t see any contradictions. The Soviet Union helped different opposition (preferably left-wing) movements in the West in order to undermine the Western world; it did this consistently throughout its whole existence. Anything would do. It didn’t really matter. Our people didn’t really go too deep into it, they didn’t care who to support. It wasn’t connected with their attitude towards racism. It was connected with their attitude towards their geopolitical opponent.

Inside the country, the policy was completely different. During Stalin’s rule, there were mass relocations of entire ethnic groups [these forced relocations between 1920 and 1951 affected around 20 million people and resulted in the deaths of a million people. These numbers and the impact deportations had on communities is often subject to dispute]. This can’t be called anything other than a racist policy in its most extreme form. Later, it was relaxed, just like everything else, but discriminatory practices continued to exist, which, of course, doesn’t change the fact that the Soviet Union was quite a peculiar empire.

1948 Soviet poster, captioned “Under capitalism” and “Under socialism.” Wayland Rudd Archive/Yevgeniy Fiks

Since it was ideocratic, it didn’t have this goal of supporting the metropolis at the expense of the colonies. The goal was more to support ideocratic rule at the expense of everyone else. As a result, it might have been beneficial and useful to support, as they called them back then, “national cadres” [also known as “natskadr,” this is a Soviet term for a trained individual linked to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who comes from a so-called “national minority,” usually of non-Slavic ethnicity]. The Soviet Union used to have various policies to achieve that, such as korenizatsiya [an early Soviet nativisation/indigenisation policy designed to integrate members of non-Russian nationalities into the local governments of respective Soviet Republics], all of which eventually resulted in additional resources being invested into the territories, which were de facto colonies.

Terry Martin came up with this idea of calling the Soviet Union The Affirmative Action Empire, and there’s some truth to it, but one does not exclude the other. After all, a state doesn’t have to have 100% consistent policies regarding racism. The government does whatever is in line with their other, entirely different tasks.

CB: In everyday life, what were the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) citizens’ attitudes towards the citizens of other Soviet republics?

AV: Most of the RSFSR citizens didn’t see the citizens of other republics much. I have lived in Moscow for my whole life, and during Soviet times I would see people from other republics, but that’s because it was a big city, a capital. However, if you lived in a small city, it was very different. And, of course, there were much less non-Slavic looking people in Soviet Moscow then than there were, for example, in Moscow in the year 2000.

That’s why I think most citizens didn’t have any particular feelings about non-Slavic people. And if they somehow met them—at work or in the streets—then it could go different ways.

For example, the so-called trading minorities [often consisting of ethnic minorities, these were people who acted as middlemen between producers and consumers. These groups would face discrimination due to accusations by majority groups that they would withhold wealth supposedly belonging to the majority population], mostly people from Transcaucasia, were massively disliked by the Slavic citizens. They even managed to demonstrate this attitude in a sociological survey conducted at the very end of the Soviet era. But even without it, it was absolutely obvious. 

One could love Georgian cinema but hate a Georgian vendor at the market. Those things were not mutually exclusive. It was generally true for public attitudes, and that’s why people’s love for art, dancing, and cuisine didn’t mean that people couldn’t still dislike the bearers of it all. It was very common. 

At the same time, since the country was so big, some smaller minorities were simply not noticed by an average citizen. For example, I suspect that many RSFSR citizens didn’t know that there were Chechens…they just never met them. 

Tsyrendashi Dorzhiev, a Soviet World War II sniper from Barai Adag, Buryatia, Siberia

CB: As I understand, the citizens of different republics often intermingled in the army.

AV: Yes, of course. However, in the Soviet army, dedovshchina [literally translated as “rule of the grandfathers” is a form of bullying or hazing of junior army conscripts by more senior ones] played a bigger role than being from the same place. The conflicts were mostly between generations, not between groups. A lot of people who were in the army ended up adopting a dismissive attitude towards people from Soviet Central Asia, because they saw them as unintelligent. This led to the appearance of certain slang, even though they did not have much interaction outside of the army system.

Of course, there were some specific cases, where the government dictated the attitudes towards certain ethnic groups. For example, I think Soviet antisemitism was more of a governmental phenomenon than a mass one. Of course, in hindsight, it’s hard to say what people’s feelings really were, because citizens tended to give in to indoctrination easily.

It was hard not to give in to it in the Soviet period; you would have to live in some kind of bubble, and not many people could do that. So, of course, it affected people’s opinions. But it was not comparable to the aversion that they felt towards Georgian people.

CB: How did state policies affect Siberian indigenous peoples, such as Evenks, Khanty, Mansi, etc.? 

AV: I don’t know much about state policy towards them, but I remember that as soon as indigenous people were able to voice their grievances—which was after perestroika [literally translated as “rebuilding” or “restructuring:” a series political and economic reforms undertaken by Gorbachev’s government between 1987 and 1991 designed to end Brezhnev’s stagnation period and democratise the Soviet political system]—they complained that the policy of adapting them to modern life was carried out in very brutal ways, and they didn’t like it at all [through armed resistance, indigenous populations opposed forced integration into Soviet society, which required them to abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in villages. Integration also often led to forced separation of children from indigenous families to be educated in state boarding schools, which further eroded indigenous culture and identity]. But I suspect that it was more or less the same for the indigenous peoples all over the world.

Later it changed, but either way, this policy couldn’t have been called racist by design. The government wanted the best for them, they wanted all citizens to be the same. It’s a normal, typical aspiration of a modernist state—to standardise its citizens. And those citizens were especially unusual, so, of course, they wanted to standardise them. And no one cared that those citizens didn’t like it.

“Fishermen” by Konstantin Pankov, a Nenets/Mansi Soviet artist

CB: Could this then be called a kind of systemic racism in the sense that it was more indirect in its characteristics?

AV: You see, this situation is a little different. Speaking about the Evenks or other peoples, especially those who lived in the tundra, far from the “centres of civilization,” and whose way of life was still quite traditional, the government was trying to do a good thing for them. But as a result, they destroyed this traditional way of life. Some people survived it and were able to integrate into society, and some didn’t. Some of these people—those who lived during the Soviet period and who have now completely integrated into the city life—are activists of relevant movements and talk about what happened back then with bitterness.

CB: I see. Because usually, when discussing these topics, it all comes down to “We gave them so much, but they’re ungrateful and resent us for it.”

AV: The thing is that in order to say things like that, the problem needs to be discussed in the light of “we and they.” For example, “the Russians and the Evenks.” But in reality, it was “the state and the Evenks,” not “the Russians and the Evenks.” It was organised in a different way, and their issues were mostly with the government.

And even now, what the indigenous activists are engaging with is mostly preservation of land where there is still anything left to preserve and education in their native language. Maybe I’m unaware of some conflicts on ethnic basis, but I see it more as a problem native populations have with government policies. They have a difficult relationship with the government, but it doesn’t extend to the ethnic majority.

Students of the Kazym boarding school at a physical education lesson, 1935

CB: The same issue often comes up when talking about Central Asia and the Caucasus. What were the problems they had with the government, and what were relationships like with those republics?

AV: Actually, this is different because they have their own authorities, in the sense that there’s a national elite which has its own interests, and that’s why there is more than enough room for conflict. The Evenki elite cannot conflict with the Russian government. It’s just impossible. But the Uzbek one can. And even the Tatar one in Tatarstan can.

In general, this topic of privileges for titular minorities [a Soviet term for nations that gave names to their respective autonomous entities within the Union, e.g. Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic] is the biggest and favourite topic for the majority of nationalists. And that is something that the general public easily catches on to: that Russians are discriminated against in Tatarstan, because it’s the biggest and most well-known republic.

How are they discriminated against? The fact that there’s a smaller percentage of them in official positions? But it’s not quite clear why would an average person even have to worry about it, if they never even tried to make it into these circles.

I suspect that it’s all due to a strong Soviet legacy with its national and ethnic quota system [which created quotas in universities and government organisations meant to be filled by designated amounts of representatives of titular nations] that was implemented extensively. This is how the idea that representation should be proportional got stuck in everyone’s head. And our people remember well who is who on the basis of their blood and watch them carefully.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev drinking wine in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, 1963

CB: What was this policy of proportional representation in the Soviet Union?

AV: It varied from period to period. When the Soviet regime was established, in some places further away from the centre of the country, there weren’t any local Bolsheviks at all. But in other places there were, which made a difference. So, they would implement this nativisation policy (korenizatsiya), and then it would turn out that the local officials—whether they were natives or not—might, like any other local officials, start opposing the central power. Then it would cause panic in the centre and the desire to quickly reshuffle staff in order to gain better control there. There were always waves like this in the Soviet staff policy.

At the same time, this general principle that staff policy should take into account the nationality of the nomenklatura in the broad sense—not only the Party one, but any kind— was something that really stuck in people’s memories.

I must say that in general, the Soviet Union with its much-celebrated internationalism, has significantly contributed to the fact that even now our people still tend to put such a big emphasis on biology. It is because the Soviet passport system assigned nationality on the basis of blood, and so any person whose father was Ukrainian and mother was Russian, for example, could choose which nationality to put in their passport.

And then later they would be routinely—not blamed, but reminded that they were not actually completely Russian or Ukrainian, they just signed up to be one. They even had this word— “signed up.” This was the inevitable result of this passport system, creating this image in the minds of the general population.

And it is still like this. There is no nationality in the documents anymore, and even though nationalists want to bring it back, it’s still not coming back…And yet, when a person is asked what their nationality is, people don’t trust their word if they say that they are Russian or Tatar. You have to ask them what nationality their dad is, their mom, their grandmothers and grandfathers, and only then you can find out who they “really” are.

CB: And will that affect how this person will be treated?

AV: It depends on the person’s views on this issue. If this person doesn’t trust Tatars or Jews, and they find out that someone has a Jewish or a Tatar grandfather, then the reputation of that person will be tarnished in their eyes. They are not a real Russian. And the same from the Tatar side. It’s natural. It’ll be the same everywhere (in the post-Soviet space), because everyone learned the same things in the Soviet schooling system.

1967 Soviet poster. Wayland Rudd Archive/Yevgeniy Fiks

CB: Was this issue addressed at the systemic level in the Soviet Union? Why did they need to divide people by blood? Was there some discourse connected with it?

AV: Yes, it was needed—first of all, for the staff policy, because depending on what the Party thought was right, they might need to increase the number of Tatars in some positions in Tatarstan, or vice versa, to decrease them…And in order to know who the Tatars were, their nationality had to be recorded in the documents. It was very important.

But, of course, there were also more radical cases, for example if those Tatars were not Volga Tatars but Crimean ones [Volga Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group within Russia native to the Volga-Ural (Idel-Ural) region. They comprise the second largest ethnicity in Russia after Russians. Both Volga Tatars and Crimean Tatars originated as part of the dissolution of the Golden Horde in the 15th century, and both ethnicities predominantly practice Sunni Islam]. If you were a Crimean Tatar, you could not enter Crimea in the Soviet era. And how would they know if you’re a Crimean Tatar? They would check what your passport says. And a clever Crimean Tatar, who was able to pay a bribe and register as simply a Tatar, would be able to enter it. 

The practice of putting certain restrictions on the Jewish population is well-known, but there were also completely different cases. Besides, it was not necessarily a uniform practice across the Soviet Union. There could be local ones as well. 

It was done for the sake of manageability of this complicated multi-national and multi-ethnic system. There wasn’t any public discourse that some nation was evil. Of course, there were exceptions, and there were some excesses in this area, but in general, the Soviet Union didn’t like to do it. It was not the fault of the Jews, but of the Zionists, [Soviet authorities claimed that they fought Zionist conspiracies and had nothing against Jewish population, while enforcing antisemitic policies] and the Crimean Tatars were not mentioned at all for simplicity’s sake. But it manifested at the level of the staff policy. 

The next excerpts from our interview with Alexander Verkhovsky will explore the development of racial and ethnic relations in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, new issues that arose with the Chechen War, and mass post-Soviet migration. They will also touch upon attempts by the Russian government to resolve these tensions and outline Verkhovsky’s informal proposals to improve racial and ethnic relations in Russia. 

Cyril Babeev is the founder of the Gallery of Contemporary Illustration and the supervisor of various projects at Drawing Matter. He is interested in how people remember others and the world around them.

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