On page 167 of Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 there’s a table headed “Official List of ‘Culturally Backward’ Nationalities”; these were nationalities considered “eligible for preferential assistance, and enjoying appropriate awards and privileges” in what Martin calls the Affirmative Action Empire of the USSR in the early 1930s; the criteria were an extremely low level of literacy, an insignificant percentage of children in school, lack of “a written script with a single developed literary language,” presence of “everyday social vestiges” (oppression of women, racial hostility, etc.), and a lack of national cadres. Martin says the list “followed conventional usage, except that it included Greeks and Bulgarians as culturally backward, and made the interesting distinction that Tatars were only culturally backward outside the Tatar ASSR, a curious tribute to Tatarstan’s zealous pursuit of korenizatsiia.” I found the list fascinating; it included names so obscure it took diligent research to figure out who they were (greatly aided by Wixman’s The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook), as well as a couple of unfortunate typos like “Volugy” for Voguly. But I nailed them all, and was contemplating doing a lot of work to post a list with links to the appropriate Wikipedia articles when I discovered that some industrious Wikipedian had gotten there before me. Some items were misidentified and a couple of typos missed, but of course, it being Wikipedia, I was able to correct them. So as a public service, I present the now perfected Cultural backwardness article, with its 97 nationalities (some of which are mere tribes or other subunits).

And as an unrelated public service, I will mention that SAGE Journals Online is offering free online access back to 1999 until October 15, 2010. Enjoy!


  1. John Emerson says

    Wiki is very uneven in the nationalities area. Some articles are sketchy, some blemished by myth and nationalism, and some excellent.

  2. Vance Maverick says

    Sounds very much like the official system of ethnic minorities in China, and probably not by coincidence. If I weren’t thumbing this in on my iPad! I would add a See Also link right now.

  3. Yeah, no Jews! Suck it, Roma!

  4. What are “national cadres” ?

  5. ‘What are “national cadres” ?’
    Quislings in the communist interest.

  6. aqilluqqaaq says

    They distinguished the Манегры (and the Негидальцы) from the Тунгусы-Эвенки, and the Чуванцы (but not the Анаулы or the Ходынцы) from amongst the Юкагиры, but not the Юги from the Кеты, the Алюторцы or the Кереки from the Коряки, the Энцы from the Нганасаны, the Селькупы and the Камасинцы from the Ханты and the Манси, or the Юиты from amongst the Эскимосы?

  7. Yes, it’s a bizarre set of choices, but remember, they were trying to fulfill the Five Year Plan in four years!
    What are “national cadres” ?
    Cadres (active party members) who were members of the nationality in question. The lack of such cadres was an especially well-known problem in Central Asia.

  8. lack of “a written script with a single developed literary language,”
    Absence of a written script connected to a literary language
    I think ‘a single developed literary language’ in this context (now, at any rate) means not only the development of a script for the purposes of a literary language, or even the development of a literary language written in that script, but the development of a literary language written in that script upon which spoken language is modelled. Fewer than half of the broadly conceived ‘Siberian’ groups identified here have such literary models even today – half of those that do are from the Turkic group alone, and none from the (admittedly sparsely represented) Ob-Ugric, Yenisei-Ostyak, Yukaghir, or Gilyak groups.

  9. Of course the Greeks, Bulgarians, Chinese, and Persians had a standard language to refer to, but that standard was set outside the USSR. So that leaves which nationalities that were not considered culturally backwards? Russians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars in Tatarstan and Germans. Do I forget any?

  10. You forgot the Poles, the Finns, and the Jews. Martin writes (pp. 126-27):

    Who was culturally backward? This was initially unclear, and, as we shall see, it was hotly contested, since the rhetoric of cultural backwardness promised to be useful in making financial claims on the center. Culturally backward with respect to whom? This was obvious: the Russians. Not that the Russians were considered the most culturally advanced nationality in the Soviet Union. That status, as we have seen, was reserved for the “western national minorities” (Germans, Poles, Finns). Russians were generally grouped in the next category with the developmentally similar Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Georgians, and Armenians (although the last two were sometimes considered “eastern” and “backward” when the topic was “feudal” customs). The remainder were generally categorized as culturally backward…

  11. the Baltic nations?
    i recalled a conversation with my English teacher when i tried to explain her the sentence structure in my language, that it reads backwards and one have to translate it from the end to the beginning in the reverse order
    and she asked me whether i feel that the language is backwards, and when i didn’t get it she said not modern, obsolete and other synonymes and i stopped explaining
    should have blamed self for using the wrong word i thought afterwards

  12. has to translate,
    i got touchy b/c it was not in the class and just a casual conversation and she started to build the conversation around the word and i can just stop talking in the middle of the conversation if i don’t like anything, very unpleasant to people i guess
    and again afterwards i thought that she was just acting that, very professionally, was perhaps just trying to point out my mistake

  13. read, the problem was a confusion between “backwards” (= going toward the back, not toward the front) and “backward” (not modern, etc). Your teacher had probably never heard of a language with a word order opposite to that of English, and she may have thought you were saying it was not modern, etc. I think that she was just trying to understand what you meant.
    I know another language where people say “our language is backwards”, and my reply is “How do you know it is not English that’s backwards?” In speaking we have to use one word after another, so the words have to be in a certain order. Different languages use different word orders.

  14. aah, so perhaps i used then the backward word, not backwards, and picked up the s afterwards and it was just the same word with a different meaning for me until now, or it could be she misheard
    anyway that was one unpleasant conversation for me that i wanted apologize for afterwards but the classes got cancelled then and i never met her again
    hopefully she didn’t notice anything awkward though, a pretty extroverted person she were

  15. those who enjoyed the Gogol-Google fest might also find delight in that voguly (misprint pointed out by Hat) were also called goguly or gogulichy

  16. The basic meaning of un cadre is ‘a frame’, as for a photo or painting. For a door or window the word is encadrement, which also applies to the activity of the human cadres, who are supervisors or managers who ‘frame’ (encadrer) a group they are responsible for. (The word does not mean the same as English ‘to frame’ someone for a crime).
    Being a cadre entails a higher level of education and responsibility than for workers, who are supposed to follow orders. This word is now also applied more loosely to other persons with similar levels of education and responsibility. Those at a very high level are called cadres supérieurs.
    Les salariés receive a regular paycheck (le salaire), but it looks like les cadres may be paid according to different formulas, especially high-level executives in the private sector.
    I first learned the word cadre (outside of the concrete meaning) while reading about the Chinese revolution when I was quite young, and it took me a while to understand what it meant. In communist jargon it referred to the better-educated people who were responsible for organizing and indoctrinating groups of workers and peasants.

  17. national cadres
    кадры comes from French distinction, still very much in existence, between ordinary workers (salariés) and workers with advanced skills – cadres. I didn’t realise this until I moved to France. Cadres have higher salaries, are better socially protected and generally have higher social status, than non-cadres. (Marie-Lucie might add to this).
    So ‘national cadres’ in Martin’s book refers to the policy of training and educating members of ethnic groups to be able to fill jobs which needed such advanced skills, including party work, but not excluding other fields, i.e. doctors, teachers, engineers and academics/researchers. There was of course party vetting, stricter in the early Soviet years, but lax after Stalin’s death. When I was filling out forms for university in the 70s they still had a graph ‘social origin’ with options ‘worker’, ‘peasant’ and ‘sluzhashiy'(office worker, white-collar worker).
    The cadres policy wasn’t employed just in national policies, but generally in the drive to increase social mobility, educate ‘proletarian’ masses (the hoi polloi?) and bring them into professions previously dominated by members ‘enemy, exploitative’ classes. Older Russians would remember the slogan of the time: ‘Cadres decide everything,’ attributed to Stalin.
    I don’t know when exactly, but at some point cadres (кадры) acquired a jargon meaning similar to English talent – sexually attractive people, usually meaning girls.

  18. Thanks, that was a most informative comment! I was always hazy on the exact meaning of кадры/cadres.

  19. Thanks, Marie-Lucie
    It’s easy to see how cadres acquired the Soviet/communist tinge in the West.
    I am curious as to when, how and who developed the concept in France: was it some social reformer in the Third Republic? Or was it a back borrowing from the Soviet Union? Early marxists in Russia were more at ease with French social thinking than English or American, so cadres as the word is obviously from French. But what about the idea?

  20. Sashura, I am sorry I can’t answer your question, as I am not very familiar with the history of the communist and pre-communist movements.

  21. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé has:
    1796 « ensemble des officiers et sous-officiers de l’armée » (Le Néologiste fr. ou Vocab. portatif des mots les plus nouveaux de la lang. fr.); 1840 « ensemble des employés d’un rayon administratif » (LAND.); d’où 1840 rayer (un employé) des cadres (Ibid.); 1931 les cadres « le personnel d’encadrement (des entreprises) » (M. FARBMAN, Piatiletka, 75 [Rieder, 1931] dans QUEM.).
    So it would seem that the modern administrative sense does indeed derive from Soviet usage, since the first citation is from Piatiletka.

  22. oh, wow, thanks! brill! and the first mention, 1796, suggests that it may have been introduced by the original revolutionaries – the French (or Napoleon?)
    My favourite story – ringroad borrowing, linguodialectics. Russians borrow from the French, then the French borrow from Russian usage again.

  23. With the quotations from the TLFI, it looks like the word cadre went from the French revolutionary army to the administration, and meanwhile it was adopted by the early communists for specific roles within their organizations. I don’t see why the French bureaucracy would have (re)borrowed the word from the communists, since it had already been in use, probably as professional jargon. What is more likely is that the word was first restricted to the army, etc and later went into more general use among the public (I don’t remember the word used very much when I was young, but it is now very common). It is obvious that the higher echelons of French administration never identified themselves with the communist “cadres”, nor did they find the word “contaminated” by its use in that context.

  24. I just thought to look up “cadre” in the excellent Mistakable French, by Philip Thody and‎ Howard Evans, which has explained many aspects of French culture and language use to me over the years, and found a helpful entry which basically says what marie-lucie above said, but adds that “la Confédération générale des cadres (or de l’encadrement) are a powerful interest group in France.” I don’t know if this is still true.

  25. The first use of cadre given by the OED is from Scott’s 1832 introduction to Lay of the Last Minstrel, where it refers to the frame story of the minstrel who recites the six cantos that make up the body of the poem, and is immediately glossed by Scott with frame. But after that the dominant meaning throughout the 19C is the military one: ‘the permanent establishment forming the framework or skeleton of a regiment, which is filled up by enlistment when required’. Only in 1930 does the Communist meaning, or rather meanings, land in English; the OED points out that when referring to China it simply means ‘office-holder’, and one may speak of a cadre, meaning a single person.

  26. If I had to read The Lay of the Last Minstrel, I’d pick this travesty.

Speak Your Mind