I’m still reading Kate Brown (see here and here); I’ve been fascinated and appalled by her account of how masses of people were expelled from the kresy and dumped onto the harsh steppes of Kazakhstan (mostly unsuitable for agriculture, though it would take decades before that was realized), but it didn’t seem like LH material until I got to this bit:

In 1938, the NKVD decreed that individuals could not change their nationality. In the postwar period, however, it was possible, especially for women, to change their nationality through marriage. More than fifty percent of ethnic Poles in Kazakhstan married non-Poles. In fact, rates of assimilation among Poles and Germans were some of the highest in the country. Poles, Germans, Tatars, Chechens, among others in exile in Kazakhstan, started to identify themselves in the census as “Russian.” Their identities began gradually to fuse into Soviet identities as they assimilated into Russian-Soviet culture. [Footnote: Deported groups generally did not assimilate into Kazakh culture. In 1990, only sixteen out of 60,000 Poles of Kazakhstan claimed to know the Kazakh language.] They began to speak Soviet-Russian in the same intonations broadcast over the radios, which began appearing in the settlements in the fifties, repeating the same phrases about the “friendship of nations” enunciated by teachers in the classrooms which started to multiply across the steppe after the lean years of war. Perhaps deported persons from the borderlands were drawn to new simplified Soviet identities (in one language and monoculture rather than numerous local cultures and dialects) because their lives no longer contained the social and economic breadth of their former lives in the kresy. […] The streamlined nature of the new Soviet identity fit the standardized, economic simplicity of life in Kazakhstan.

This is really an excellent, thought-provoking book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the kind of cultural/historical analysis evident in the excerpts I’ve provided. (Also, her footnotes are full of references to just the kind of books I’m interested in reading.)


  1. Stalin has been greatly influenced by the legendary empire-builder Shakh Abbas (whose XVI th century mosque still graced the capital of Stalin’s native Georgia), and tried to copy and rival the deeds of Shakh Abbas of Persia for his entire life. Sometimes to minute details, like making his capital an island ringed by canals and bejewelled with towers (a very Persian version of a shahr e sabz paradize!)
    One hallmark of Abbas rule has been forceful relocation of restless border-area ethnics to the opposite ends of his empore, where the transplants were surrounded by the hostile local minorities, and where the newcomers only protection, and only loyalty, would have been to the Shakh and the center, lest the locals wipe them out. Stalin practiced exactly the same.

  2. Did communist egalitarian and internationalist ideas restrain ethnic and national identity?

  3. j. del col says

    See Aleksandr Nekrich’s –The Punished Peoples– for details about Stalin’s ghastly deportation campaigns against ethnic minorities he suspected of having had pro-German sympathies.

  4. They began to speak American-English in the same intonations…repeating the same phrases about the “Founding Fathers” enunciated by teachers in the classrooms … Perhaps the children of emigrants from Europe were drawn to new simplified American identities (in one language and monoculture rather than numerous local cultures and dialects).
    But without all the slaughter (unless you count the Injuns).

  5. John Emerson says

    Imperial relocation of large populations is widespread through history. Babylonia, Persia BC, China, Soviet and Czarist Russia, Persia AD, probably Rome.
    Here in Minnesota, vestiges of Scandinavian, German, Czech, Polish, and Dutch culture survive in specific areas which might be fairly large, but a lot of individuals you meet grew up outside the areas where their ancestry is concentrated and grow up with the generic culture.
    Even as much survival as there is here (not really a lot) requires a bit of public institutional support, beyond just concentration, and my guess isthat Stalin discouraged that.

  6. This is really an excellent, thought-provoking book
    it is indeed, and thanks for bringing it here. Of course, as it should be in a good academic work, its value is broader than learning the history of the Polish-Russian borderlands, it’s in her analysis of the interaction between the state and the people.
    Is there a good profile of Kate Brown somewhere?
    The American History Review has an article on the book here (restricted access, only part of the review available freely) which points out a seeming discrepancy between Brown’s stated subject area of kresy and the actual area treated in the book. Historical kresy is much larger than the Ukrainian part of it that Brown covers.

  7. …but perhaps she qualifies her approach somewhere in the book?

  8. She calls it an “amorphous corridor” and does not, as far as I can tell, suggest that the part she’s writing about is all there is to it, though I suppose you could make that argument from a couple of isolated sentences. I have to say that leading off a review with a nitpick about nomenclature suggests an axe being ground.

  9. Re: Shah Abbas — I assumed Stalin took the mass resettlement ideas straight out of the Old Testament. He should have been well familiar with it from his seminary days.

  10. 🙂 I guess before advancing my pet hypothesis about the influence of the Abbasid practices on Stalin’s USSR, I should have mentioned that in the old Caucasus, kids learned of Shakh Abbas from the granny’s fairy tales. Even the regular way to start a tale, like English “once upon a time…” or Russia “in the three-nineth czardom, in the three-tenth state…”, would switch to the smth. like following in some formerly Persian frontier-lands: “Devil gave us tobacco to grow, so we perish, but without it we die all the same. Even the great Persian ruler Shakh Abbas smoked. But let me tell his story next time, and this story first”.

  11. Footnote: Deported groups generally did not assimilate into Kazakh culture. In 1990, only sixteen out of 60,000 Poles of Kazakhstan claimed to know the Kazakh language.
    Doesn’t that go without saying? What an odd footnote. A Pole assimilating into Kazakh culture in the 1930s-50s would have been almost as bizarre as an Irish immigrant to Arizona in the 1930s assimilating into the Navajo culture. Kazakh culture simply was not the dominant culture in most of Kazakhstan between 1930s and 1990, and was being forcibly and cruelly suppressed during much of that time. It’s far less true now, but when I lived in Almaty in 1993 that city was probably as pure a locus of deracinated “Soviet” culture as could be found anywhere in the Soviet Union.

  12. Vano,
    but equally very few Russians in Latvia and Estonia bothered to learn Latvian or Estonian, even though their culture was dominant. I learnt a few phrases before going there on a holiday and still saw surprise on their faces they heard ‘tervist’ or ‘cik maksa?’

  13. leading off a review with a nitpick about nomenclature suggests an axe being ground
    oh, yes, I felt that too. More interesting is, whose toes she stepped on? Amazing how 90 years on it’s still such a can of worms that a calm historical overview meets with resistance.
    I only judge from the excerpts you quoted, but it seems to me that one does not need to cover the whole region to pinpoint the trends.

  14. Doesn’t that go without saying?
    No, of course not. You and I might take for granted that Kazakhs and their culture were suppressed and ignored in Soviet Kazakhstan, but the uninitiated reader might well suppose otherwise. Arizona, after all, is not Navajostan. Besides, sixteen out of 60,000? Come on, that’s a remarkable statistic, well worth mentioning.

  15. “Besides, sixteen out of 60,000? Come on, that’s a remarkable statistic, well worth mentioning”
    Yes, it’s surprisingly high. I would have guessed two. But I take your point. Maybe it makes more sense in context of the rest of the book, but as presented the footnote still seems misleading to the uninformed reader, because it implies there was perhaps some possibility of Poles or other deported people assimilating into Kazakh culture. I would probably drop the word “generally” if I were the editor.
    What is interesting about Kazakhstan is that the flow went the other way – Kazakh elites assimilated into the “new simplified Soviet identities” Kate Brown is describing, in a sense becoming “deportees” in their own land.

  16. The Kazakhs are a tribal society largely defined by a three-tiered hierarchy of tribal confederacies (the Great, Middle, and Lesser jüz’s). One can’t assimilate into this society by learning the language, because you lack the tribal links and roots. It’s like in Hawaii, where not being able to recite one’s list of ancestors makes one a Ha’ole no matter how many of one’s ancestors lived on the islands. The transplants pick select Hawaiian words and customs but that’s not assimilation. It’s a similar story with the Navajo of course, without Navajo blood and ancestral land one doesn’t become a member.
    Even large modern societies have vestigial tribalism, of course, but generally speaking, assimilating into Russian or American society is a piece of cake in comparison.

  17. To MOCKBA:
    Well, tribalism is out of matter here, as the data concerns Poles speaking Kazakh, and not Poles integrated into Kazakh traditional society.
    vanya: Yes, it’s surprisingly high. I would have guessed two.
    I understand well your irony but I would have guessed much more, and 16 is surprisingly low. Many Russians evacuated to Bashkiria, especially to remoted villages, learned to speak Bashkir.
    I suppose that low percentage of Poles speaking Kazakh is due to the methodological pecularities of 1989 census.
    During that census one could name his mother tongue and only one more language one could speak.
    I remember I told the counter that my mother tongue was Bashkir, and while I wanted him to write down Russian and Tatar as two other languages I knew, he insisted that I could name only one language, and guess which one he chose?
    So I think Poles living in Kazakhstan told the counter that their mother tongue was Polish (whether it was true or not is another question) and that the other language they knew was Russian; they could well had tried to tell they knew Kazakh too, there were no more free space in the questionary.
    The 16 Poles in question were those, I think, who could speak only Polish and Kazakh, or those who insisted it was so.
    I insisted I knew Bashkir and Tatar but the counter in 1989 wrote down Bashkir and Russian.

  18. A very good point about the Census setup, Solokso. And of course I only mentioned assimilation as a supposed goal of learning the language because the original note, and the discussion which followed, dwelled on assimilation.
    You are absolutely right that people can pick a language for communication, especially in smaller comminuties, even if they only live there temporarily. Even the famed Navajo Codetalkers were a brainchild of a non-native speaker (a son of a white teacher in a schhol for tribal children).
    My Mom actually lived in Bashkortostan as a toddler during WWII, in a then-smallish town of Dyurtyuli. It’s not like they were evacuated there on purpose though. Rather, her mother, an machine operator at a plant, was being evacuated to industrial Urals. But at the last moment granny was denied passage because she had two dependents, too many to be housed in overcrowded Urals. So the 3 women ended up just dumped on a barge and pushed down Belaya River. When the river froze at last, they were allowed to disembark, and that’s become “the place”. But most everyone in the family always spoke a little bit of basic Tatar, and I guess Granny was good enough with these few basic words …

  19. I understand well your irony but I would have guessed much more, and 16 is surprisingly low.
    I wasn’t being ironic. Most of the Kazakhs I knew in Almaty could barely speak Kazakh in 1990 (Russian was their first language). Why would Polish immigrants learn it? Where? There were few books, few newspapers, and almost all mass entertainment was in Russian. Now, add to that the general Slavic contempt for Kazakh culture. I don’t think my earlier comparison of Kazakhs to Navajo was that far off.

  20. vanya
    Your description of the linguistic situation in Almaty in 1990 concerning Kazakhs may be absolutely correct, but I don’t see how it concerns Poles deported to Kazakhstan in the thirties. Books, newspapers and mass entertainment had nothing to do with poor people speaking Polish who suddenly found themselves to live in remote Kazakh villages at that time. And please believe the experience of Russians deported to Bashkiria during the WWII, the general Slavic contempt for minorities’ culture easily succumbed at these extreme circumstances, when to survive one could rely only on the solidarity of his neighbours.

  21. to MOCKBA
    If your grand mother was operator at Rybinsk plant, you may find interesting my post at Ufa livejournal community about Rybinsk plant workers recollections.
    Рыбинский завод в эвакуации в Уфе

  22. No Solokso, hers was one of the countless “numbered” nameless factories from the industrial zone @ Moscow’s Shosse Entuziastov, evacuated overnight on the Black Day of October 16th. As far I remember it has been evacuated further East, but my grandma didn’t get into the boxcars of the equipment train. The management only had time to wake up those employees who lived close to the factory. Granny lived downtown with in-laws, and she didn’t even learn about evacuation until next morning, when the train to safety has already left. So she was trying to catch up with the factory on her own when the Ufa authorities barred them. In hindsight, being marooned in a riverside village might have helped them to survive, especially because they lugged along a sewing machine… I heard lots of tales about Dyurtyuli but they always had more of a smile than of desperation.

  23. Solokso,
    The difference between Kazakhstan and Bashkiria, as I understand it, is that the Poles were not shipped to “remote Kazakh villages”. The Poles were mostly dropped into the middle of the steppe where they were supposed to fend for themselves and start from scratch. Remember Kazakhstan was a large and mostly uninhabited country in the 1930s. The new arrivals often dominated the Kazakhs numerically in the regions they were dumped into. Poles and Ukrainians were not sent to Southern Kazakhstan where more urbanized Kazakhs lived in towns, they were sent to Northern Kazakhstan were the nomadic population had been brutally ethnically cleansed.

  24. Vanya,
    I’m afraid you are not well aware of the situation in Nothern Kazakhstan in the 1930s. The Kazakh population, while ethnically cleansed and decimated, was still there, with their cattle, and the deported who had to “start from scratch” (how do you imagine that in the middle of steppe?) had to communicate with the locals. My Bashkir grand mother who lived in Troitsk in Tcheliabinsk region told me that she survived (with my father and my aunt) in the 40s because of her Kazakh friends who lived their traditional nomadic life in Nothern Kazakhstan and provided her with meat from time to time.

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