On the jacket of Terry Martin's monograph, Mark Beissinger calls it 'the most detailed study of the origin of the Soviet regime's contradictory policies toward its minorities'. The detail comes from prodigious research in recently opened archives. Martin's contribution goes well beyond filling in the broad and generally accurate picture painted by earlier Western analysts. He offers original, meaningful and generally convincing analytic insights, justifying Beissinger's assertion that this 'is one of the most important books on Soviet nationalities policies ever published'.
Perhaps one of the weaker points in the book is the use of 'affirmative action' to describe Soviet policy. Martin argues that affirmative action is not programmes for members of an ethnic group but, in his case, 'Soviet state support for the national territories, languages, elites and identities of those ethnic groups' (p. 18). But in America, where the term 'affirmative action' was coined (and only about two or three decades ago), 'affirmative action' does mean programmes for members of racial or ethnic groups and has nothing to do with languages and territories. Why use this very American term, specific to a time and place and highly controversial, to describe Soviet policies of half a century earlier? There are some striking similarities between Soviet and American policies, but they could have been pointed out without transferring the terminology and its associations.
This is a small failing in a huge achievement. Martin describes in detail how the policy of 'korenizatsiia', or 'indigenization', was conceived and implemented in Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus, Central Asia and elsewhere, and how it was resisted on federal, republic and local levels. 'Affirmative action' in the USSR meant encouraging the training and promotion of indigenous people to cadre positions and insisting that local languages be used in official transactions, schools and cultural institutions. Promoting indigenous people to responsible positions was easily accomplished in the western, European USSR, and so the major focus became 'the formidable task of linguistic korenizatsiia' (p. 177). In the Soviet east (Caucasus and Central Asia), linguistic korenizatsiia 'proved utterly impossible, so all energies were devoted to ... create an indigenous elite'. Martin argues convincingly that these decisions were 'made at the local level, based on the judgments of the republican leaderships, and were only subsequently ratified by the center. They were not imposed from above' (p. 177).
The author makes an important distinction between 'hard-line policies', those at the core of Bolshevism that enjoyed priority, and 'soft-line policies', designed to make the core policies palatable to the general population and 'implemented to the extent they did not contradict the core hard-line policies' (p. 179). Affirmative action was a soft-line policy and was curbed when it was deemed to have gone 'too far'. Contrary to most analysts of nationality policy, Martin believes that in the early 1930s korenizatsiia was still in force, but when Stalin reidentified the centralised state with the Russian people, korenizatsiia faded into oblivion.
Martin shows that korenizatsiia created a 'hole in the middle', as it elevated indigenous peoples to high positions in the republics, but not at the federal centre, and diverted most indigenous potential leaders to pedagogy in an attempt to create native-language school systems. Indigenous people did not enter the Soviet technical intelligentsia, especially in the east.
Another novel point is that 'The newly available archival evidence contradicts any assertion that Stalin's support for korenizatsiia in the NEP years was either soft or cynical. On the contrary, the policy was identified with him personally and he backed it vigorously on numerous occasions' (p. 232). Of course, as in many other areas, Stalin soon shifted course radically.
Martin claims that the famine of the early 1930s in Ukraine 'was not an intentional act of genocide specifically targeting the Ukrainian nation' (p. 305), though he admits that nationality played some role in it since in Kuban, Ukrainisation was blamed for resistance to grain acquisitions. Here, as throughout the book, Martin does not advert to much of the secondary literature on this controversial topic. Even in his first chapter, which competently surveys Bolshevik nationality policy and affirms previous scholarly literature, he cites mainly archival resources and neglects the secondary literature. While this may buttress the originality of his work, it is not helpful to readers who will want to explore further and will have greater access to published works than to archives.
But Martin gives original insights into the relationship of the Great Terror to the nationalities. He concludes that a fifth of all arrests and a third of all executions involved border nationalities, with about 800,000 people deported.
In my view Martin downplays the destruction of national cultures and too easily accepts the Soviet claim that korenizatsiia was 'good for the nationalities'. Before that policy could be implemented, traditional elites were purged, traditional institutions destroyed, and major elements of traditional cultures were viciously attacked and purged. In all the cultures of the USSR religious elements played a large part before the Revolution, and these were artificially eliminated from the Soviet versions of those cultures. The new nationality cultures were to a large extent invented and imposed by the regime.
This book is comprehensive, lucid, original and exciting. No one interested in the evolution of the USSR should ignore it.