I’m barely fifty pages into Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 and it’s already clear to me that this is one of those basic works of scholarship that everyone dealing with the field has to come to terms with. As Raymond Pearson writes in his detailed review (which, along with Martin’s response, I urge anyone interested in the topic to read): “The Affirmative Action Empire is overwhelmingly a product of archive-based research. Martin’s positively Herculean labours in six historical archives in Moscow and another two in Ukraine have been rewarded with a rich and abundant harvest of hitherto-inaccessible primary documentation.” And the picture he puts together as a result is astonishing. Like everyone who’s studied the Soviet Union at all, I was aware that each official nationality was awarded its own territory in which its language would be taught and its customs maintained, but I had no idea how complex the system had been. How many such territorial units do you think there were? Fifty, a hundred, a few hundred? At its peak, tens of thousands. These ranged from the well-known union republics (e.g., Ukraine), autonomous republics (e.g., Tatarstan), and autonomous oblasts (e.g., Chechnya) down through autonomous okrugs, national districts, national village soviets, and national kolkhozes “until they merged seamlessly with the individual’s personal nationality” (as recorded in everyone’s passport). This system, established in the mid-1920s and elaborated in the 1930s, was called raionirovanie ‘regionalization, division into raions or districts.’

The rationale for the system was the need to resolve a dilemma of Marxism-Leninism: what do you do about nationalism? Theoretically, it was the product of a prior stage of history and was superseded by the rise of the proletariat and the move to socialism, but—as Lenin and the other early Bolsheviks were well aware—however retrograde nationalist feelings were, people were very attached to them, and to try to repress them would lead to massive revolt on the part of non-Russians who felt that the Revolution had only brought a new form of tsarist “Great Russian chauvinism.” So one possible solution, assimilation, was out. Another, the strategy of “extraterritorial national-cultural autonomy” championed by Austrian Marxists like Otto Bauer, called for “non-national administrative territories and for special representative bodies, elected by all members of a given nationality,” but this was rejected as well; the Bolsheviks insisted on a strictly territorial definition of nationality. The solution was “the strategy of ethno-territorial proliferation” in which the system of national units was extended “downward into smaller and smaller territories, the smallest being the size of a single village.” (In Ukraine there were thirteen Czech village soviets, three Albanian, and one Swedish; in Leningrad Oblast there were Norwegian, Jewish, and Chinese national kolkhozes.) They hoped this would put an end to nationalism (the idea being that if, say, ethnic Germans were being oppressed by other ethnic Germans in their own territory, it would sharpen class struggle rather than causing ethnic resentment); in fact, it exacerbated the problem, as could have been predicted by anyone not hampered by ideological blinders. But never mind that for the moment—I want to single out a couple of fascinating language-related bits. From pp. 49-50:

The practice of sending all Jewish children to Yiddish schools created enormous protest and was soon abandoned. Volodymyr Zatonskyi sarcastically recounted how Yiddish-speaking children were “caught” and sent to Yiddish schools:

We receive information from Nikolaev, from Kiev, and from a series of other places, that during pre-enrollment examinations children “suspected of belonging to the Jewish nation”, if it becomes clear that “these malefactors [zloumyshlenniki] know Yiddish”, they are automatically sent to a Yiddish school “for, you see, we give every nationality full possibilities in this respect, — so off you go to a Yiddish school.” The children don’t want this and their parents instruct them not to admit that they know Yiddish. And so, comrades, an exam is conducted in order to trick these children — they speak with the child in Russian or Ukrainian, and then, when the child has calmed down (they speak nicely with them), suddenly the examiner tells him in Yiddish to go home. The child jewishly turns around and leaves [po-evreiski povarachivaetsia i ukhodit] [laughter]. “That means you know Yiddish. We’ll send you to a Yiddish school.”

And from p. 52, explaining why it took longer to form Mordvinian districts: “The Mordvinians were strategically insignificant, and their population was in fact so assimilated that it vigorously resisted native language education.”

(I suppose, given the misunderstandings and attacks that marred this thread, I should issue a disclaimer that my discussing these issues does not make me a supporter of the Soviet system, and describing its nationality policy does not mean that I do not realize that it also brutally suppressed many non-Russians and their cultures. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?)


  1. At risk of being extremely far off topic … Zatonskyi’s account sounds exactly like international school kindergarten interviews in Hong Kong.
    NYT: “Cantonese, Please”
    South China Morning Post: “The quest for English comes at a price”
    And Hong Kong parents seem to have hit on the same solution as most urban Soviet citizens of minority background: don’t bother teaching your kids the low-status language at all, to ensure that all the interviewers’ attempts at trickery will fail.

  2. All very well, Eric, but children learn the language(s) they hear and need to use, not the languages they are taught.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    Wasn’t the formula “national in form, socialist in contest” devised to explain these practices?

  4. The child jewishly turns around and leaves [po-evreiski povarachivaetsia i ukhodit]
    Maybe, to improve the joke a tad in English, “the child takes a jewish turn and leaves” ? Even though povarachivatsia presumably couldn’t be used in the sense of “take a [jewish] turn”, i.e. take on [some of] the characteristics of [a Jew].

  5. Or “turns jewish and leaves” (perhaps, for once, not “turns, jewish, and leaves”). I suppose the “po-” alliteration makes the joke in Russian.

  6. “Makes a jew-turn” ? Pity that “American” has so many syllables that it’s hard to make good bad puns on it.

  7. eats shoots and leaves?

  8. Jongseong Park says

    Great to see The Affirmative Action Empire recognized. It’s an impressively researched book on a fascinating topic. My history professor recommended it to me when I was researching diaspora Koreans in Ukraine.
    The language-related bit I remember from the book (if I remember correctly; I left my copy back home in Korea) is that during the height of the Latinization campaigns (giving minority languages Latin orthography), there was apparently also an attempt to have Korean written in the Latin alphabet, though nothing eventually came of it.

  9. Is there a general answer to the question of how one decides which documents in the archives to believe? It was a system in which you could be executed on whim – why risk telling the truth, or even the wrong lie? Would that result in people trying to agree on which lie they should all report? If so, even searching for consistency wouldn’t necessarily be much good.

  10. raion presumably is from the French rayon. What’s missed out when raionirovanie is translated as “regionalization” is the notion of “emanation from the center” implied by rayon, as from a sun or the power center of an empire. Not for nothing was Louis XIV called le roi soleil. Not for nothing were all roads intended to lead to Rome. Sloterdijk has analyzed in some detail the conceptual and tactical difficulties of political structuring in history.

  11. Is there a general answer to the question of how one decides which documents in the archives to believe?
    These are not public documents designed to pull the wool over the public’s eyes; these are discussions between Communist insiders trying to promote different policies and figure out how the experiment was working. Furthermore, the “executed on whim” business refers to a considerably later period than this; the worst that would happen to you in these discussions is that your proposal would be voted down at the next Central Committee meeting.
    What’s missed out when raionirovanie is translated as “regionalization” is the notion of “emanation from the center” implied by rayon
    Except that that has nothing to do with Russian, where raion was simply a foreign-sounding word for ‘district.’ Put your Sloterdijk back in your pocket.

  12. I didn’t mean to imply that “Russian” had something that goes missing. Note that I wrote “implied by rayon“, i.e. the French word. It’s just something worth thinking about in terms of general semantics and etymology, whether or not you have anything in your pocket or up your sleeve.

  13. I know one book that will never be in your pocket, because the title addresses something inherently implausible, to you as well as to me: Pseud and Suitability.

  14. You are occasionally quick to imply that I am a pseudsayer, usually when I trot out the S word. But surely you can tell the difference between me and, say, d**dg*d ?

  15. Heaven forfend! I would never accuse you of pseudsaying, or make such an implication; I merely poke gentle fun at your Sloterdijkery because it is far from my own interests. I will defend to a point well short of death but still impressively advanced your right to your theoretical investigations; I myself have quite enough trouble figuring out what words and other symbols actually mean in practice without worrying about how they fit into a grander scheme of things. Think of me as a humble grubber among roots and fallen leaves, keeping my snout to the soil as you soar in infinite space.

  16. So you hog the earth, while I hug the empyrean ? But there’s still a lot of mud-slinging that goes on up here, let me tell you.

  17. Korean written in the Latin alphabet
    And more serious attempts to “unroll” the syllable blocks into 가로쓰기 garosseugi ‘horizontal writing’ / 횡서 hoengseo ‘on-line’. See the chapter “Experimentation with Han’gŭl in Russia and the USSR” in The Korean Alphabet: Its History and Structure.

  18. John Emerson says

    For those who haven’t heard me recommend it before: “Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus” by Ronald Wixman.
    It turns out that, like sometime LH commentator Zaelic, Wixman got into Balkan studies via folk music and dance: Ron Wixman.

  19. Jongseong Park says

    MMcM: 가로쓰기 garosseugi ‘horizontal writing’ is ambiguous in this respect and would generally be understood to refer to the directionality of the script. 풀어쓰기 pureosseugi, which you could translate as ‘untangled writing’, is the common term for what you describe. Several prominent scholars of hangul advocated various forms of pureosseugi in the early 20th century, but it never caught on. Was there a Russian/Soviet angle to this as well? It’s been a while since I looked through that book…

  20. “this is one of those basic works of scholarship that everyone dealing with the field has to come to terms with.”
    Well, judging from the review and Martin’s response, it sounds like he has done some level headed and welcome investigation into the Ukraine famine which neither Ukrainian nor Russian nationalists will like. That’s important work. On the whole the book sounds very thorough and interesting, but I’m not getting the impression Martin is advancing any terribly radical ideas about Soviet history in the 20s and 30s. What are people going to have to come to terms with?

  21. the common term for what you describe
    I readily confess that I didn’t know how contemporary Western scholars refer to that form of Hangul. But I’m sure you’re right that they’ve come round to the way Korean scholars (and Wikipedia) do.
    King introduces the idea as karo p’uro ssŭgi, then refers to it as p’uro ssŭgi. On the next page, he says

    By now [1914], Chu [Sigyŏng] was calling “on-line” writing by the native Korean term karo ssŭgi rather than the Sino-Korean hoengsŏ.

    And elsewhere just uses “on-line,” always in quotes. The index writer of the book chose “karo ssŭgi (writing side by side).” Perhaps because it’s historical. The book also uses McCune-Reischauer, probably in part because that’s what the non-Korean contributors were taught with. Me too, but I avoided that above because it confused David Marjanović last time.
    Was there a Russian/Soviet angle to this as well?
    The article (1) summarizes the history of “on-line” writing in Korea (probably not necessary for someone with ready access to Korean sources), (2) analyzes in detail some samples from a publication that used it by the Korean Orthodox Church in Chita (what I had in mind; note that the Wikipedia article above mentions Western Christian missionaries) and (3) outlines Soviet innovations in Hangul (mostly phonemics and not “on-line” layout).

  22. I’m not getting the impression Martin is advancing any terribly radical ideas about Soviet history in the 20s and 30s.
    There have been too many “terribly radical ideas about Soviet history” already. He’s providing a huge collection of facts and interpretations that essentially rewrite the history of the Soviet approach to nationalities, which turns out to be far more complex than had been known, with all sorts of competing power centers and self-defeating policies.

  23. We Arendtists, of course, already know that totalitarian states are shot through with overlapping and competing bureaucracies.

  24. So are non-totalitarian states. As an Arendtist myself (not in the freshest condition, since it’s been many a year since I read On Revolution, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft etc.), I seem to recall that she didn’t pin great hopes on bureaucracy of any kind. Her blood-chilling take on Eichmann was that he was a banal functionary.

  25. Grumbly, I know Slotty’s a great man and all, but he didn’t invent the modern discussion of the radial plan or the panopticon.

  26. Who said he invented the discussion, Mr. C. ? Sloterdijk touches on those subjects, of course, but he doesn’t just reheat the hash that Foucault, say, already made of them (as it happens I’m in the middle of Überwachen und Strafen, it’s my current tub read).

  27. ‘Leventy zillion folks have written about these things. I am familiar primarily with Sloterdijk’s discussions of them. Jes’ sayin’.

  28. Sorry no, you didn’t say that after all. Never mind.

  29. “Think of me as a humble grubber among roots and fallen leaves, keeping my snout to the soil as you soar in infinite space.”
    I think what LH is trying to say is that he blogs shoots and leaves.

  30. Soviet approach to nationalities turns out to be far more complex than had been known, with all sorts of competing power centers and self-defeating policies.
    Exactly: good intentions pave the road to hell.
    I’ve just read Pearson’s review and Martin’s reply, and I must say that Martin answers practically all the questions I had immediately formed in my mind. His response should really be part of the book itself. I think, though, one aspect is either missing or not accentuated enough: the relevance of his analysis in broader, not just Soviet/Russian or even European, but global terms. He touches upon this in the response, but doesn’t develop.
    The title itself, Affirmative Action, does it mean to evoke the recent American debate on how to deal with racial/ethnic inequality?

  31. Jongseong Park says

    MMcM, thanks for the detailed explanations. Chu Sigyŏng probably called it ‘horizontal writing’ because the fact that his proposed way of writing was horizontal was enough to distinguish it from traditional vertical writing. Of course now, virtually all Korean writing is horizontal while retaining the syllabic blocks. So we need a more specific term to make explicit the fact that the alphabetic elements are separated and not combined into syllabic blocks.

  32. the Missing Tooth:
    On the subject of marxist national policies Lenin’s work “О праве наций на самоопределение” (in Russian) (On the right of nations to self-determination, (in English) is considered to be fundamental.
    It is there (ch8) that Lenin refers to Marx’s dictum that ‘nationalism is the aching tooth of a socialist’, meaning that one’s views on national issues always reveal their true nature. I was surprised not to find the famous tooth in the online English version of Lenin’s article. How come?
    Маркс имел обыкновение “щупать зуб”, как он выражался, своим знакомым социалистам, проверяя их сознательность и убежденность.
    It was Marx’s custom to “sound out” his socialist acquaintances, as he expressed it, to test their intelligence and the strength of their convictions.

  33. “national in form, socialist in contest”
    I think it mostly refered to cultural policies.
    typo: …in form, …in content

  34. David Marjanović says

    it confused David Marjanović last time

    Have you got photographic memory?

  35. He does indeed. Don’t mess with MMcM.

  36. Sashura, I think it’s just a case of using an idiom to translate an idiom – in English saying he “felt his tooth” wouldn’t have an immediate meaning. But — if the original specifies как он выражался (as he put it), then perhaps that isn’t really an idiom in Russian, either, in which case the translator could, IMHO, have used something equally charming and idiosyncratic (and non-idiomatic), such as “tested his tooth” or “felt his tooth” to recreate the feel.

  37. I understand, I just think it’s a pity that such a lovely image – squeezing someone’s sore spot to extract the truth – is lost in translation. Maybe there is a relevant idiom in German?

  38. Just a thought: районирование may more adequately be translated into English as [creation of] ‘encatchment areas’, a term very current today in Britain.

  39. For a British audience, maybe. It would be incomprehensible on this side of the Atlantic.

  40. In B. C. the phrase ‘catchment area’ is being used.

  41. BC – British Columbia?

  42. Am I correct in thinking that a catchment area is what is “incorrectly” called a watershed?

  43. BC – British Columbia?
    Am I correct in thinking that a catchment area is what is “incorrectly” called a watershed?
    I thought there could be a connection. I’ve seen it in reference to the area from which schools draw students and hospitals draw patients. I wouldn’t be suprised to see it with churches or shopping centres. I have a hunch it’s administrative jargon. But, after everyone else has done it, I think I’ll go google.

  44. I see I hit the nail in the dark. As for ‘aministrative jargon’, there is a reference to ‘network management’.

  45. here is a short Wikipedia article on catchment.
    The contorversy surrounding ‘cathcment’ is similar to what Martin writes about rayonirovaniye – entitlement to use certain public facilities in the area where you live turns into an obligation or, for others, not in the area, but with an interest in the facility, – into a deprivation of rights. So families have to move to get their children into the ‘right’ school or fake address.

  46. marie-lucie says

    French rayon:
    This word does not just means ‘ray (of the sun)’ but also ‘honeycomb’ (rayon de miel), ‘(individual) shelf’ (eg in a bookshelf, which is composed of several linked shelves), and ‘section, department’ in a department store. It also means ‘radius’ in speaking about the area around a central point (eg the virtual circle around a city). The extension to ‘administrative unit’ in Russian is understandable in this larger context.

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