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Book Review: The Affirmative Action Empire

Affirmative Action Empire by Terry Martin deals with the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy in the period from 1923 to 1939. I picked it up based on my interest in ethnic politics in colonial and post-colonial states. While it seems well-researched and was very interesting at points, I’d call it a book for specialists rather than one of general interest. It filled in a lot of details, but didn’t have many surprises, and I finished it without gaining any wholly new insights into the broader topic of ethnopolitical competition.

Before I go further, I hear you ask: Wait a minute, was the Soviet Union a colonial state? I contend that for practical purposes, yes. The Soviets didn’t think of themselves that way – Martin says that Lenin was comparable to Woodrow Wilson for anti-Imperialist rhetoric. But the Soviet Union inherited the geopolitical boundaries and governing infrastructure of the old Russian Empire, a vast entity encompassing millions of square miles and numerous ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups. For convenience sake, I’ll be referring to the non-Russian population of the USSR as “subject peoples”. Since the new government didn’t intend to grant any of these subject peoples political or economic independence, they were effectively sitting on the old tsar’s throne.

If I were to summarize the Soviet nationalities policy in a single sentence, it would be: “a f*cking mess.” Throughout the period in question, the Soviets were torn between a) their desire to encourage national self-expression on the part of the subject peoples in the belief that it would enhance Soviet power and b) their intense mistrust of any possible social or political competitor to the central government. Martin differentiates between the “positive line”, associated with the first impulse and the “negative line”, associated with the second. The positive line fostered celebrations of national language, culture, etc, while the negative line brutally suppressed any unsanctioned nationalist activity. Critically, there doesn’t seem to have been a clear line between sanctioned and prohibited forms of national self-expression. Rather, the line was constantly in flux, as a result of intra-party conflicts and the changes in the geopolitical environment. More than once, Martin recounts stories of mid-level figures who were caught on the wrong side of the line by a sudden shift in the prevailing winds. Revolutionary politics being the cutthroat business it was, these figures usually paid a severe price for their miscalculation. At best, they lost their position. At worst, they went to the gulag or the firing squad.

The Soviet’s initially indulgent attitude towards national self-expression had several drivers. The first was Marxist ideology, which asserted that nationalism was one of the necessary stages on the road to communism. Second was the assumption that a pro-nationalities policy would make the subject peoples feel more invested in the new Soviet state. Lastly was “the Piedmont Principle”, the belief that encouraging nationalism amongst the Soviet Union’s subject peoples would actually help the USSR project influence beyond its borders i.e. the Belarussians within the USSR could be used to influence the Belarussians in Poland, etc. The Soviets would ultimately prove to be badly mistaken in this last assumption, and this realization would trigger a major shift in policy. More on that later.

The ”positive line” of the nationalities policy took several forms. First was linguistic preferencing, i.e. the right of the various subject peoples to be educated and conduct business in their own language. This point, seemingly minor in comparison to other measures like land redistribution, occupies a good chunk of Martin’s book, and also seems to have absorbed a great deal of attention from the highest levels of the Soviet leadership. My guess is that this is because it was a relatively low-cost way for the central government to signal their support for subject peoples. Material support, what we would nowadays call “development aid”, was expensive and the object of fierce competition. Political or economic independence was obviously out of the question. Ergo, linguistic preferencing.

In spite of numerous decrees and directives, linguistic preferencing never got as far as either the Politburo or would-be nationalists would have wished. Martin says this this because the Soviets never backed up these decrees with the USSR’s most effective way of signaling commitment to a policy: the gulag. Local officials naturally spent a good bit of energy on figuring out exactly what would and would not get them sent to Siberia. When they realized that failures to meet various linguistic targets (hire X percent of Y language speakers, publish X documents in indigenous language, etc) rarely led to more than a stern talking to, they de-prioritized accordingly. This tendency was exacerbated by the fact that the “negative line” occasionally did crack down on supposed “bourgeois nationalists” whose support for linguistic preferencing seemed a little too enthusiastic. Naturally, prudent officials chose to play it safe and give lip service to linguistic preferencing while putting little actual weight behind it.

Another component of the “positive line” was land redistribution. This took place mostly in the “Soviet East”, the region you now call Central Asia if you’re being scholarly or “the Stans” if you’re feeling snarky. Then as now, these countries were relatively under-developed and only lightly touched by western influences. A number of efforts were made to redistribute prime agricultural land from Russian settlers to the indigenous population in these regions. This went exactly as well as you’d expect. In my experience, the desire to hold on to what you have is virtually a universal constant of human nature; I can only presume this goes double for Russian peasants living close to starvation for generations. There was much discontent, and occasionally outright bloodshed, mixed in with forced relocation and ethnic cleansing. In the case of Kazahkstan the forced relocation was done with such a heavy hand that the Politburo

actually rebuked the local security services for their handling of the issue.

Martin identifies poverty, land ownership disputes, and a relatively recent date of colonization by Russian settlers as the major factors driving ethnic conflict throughout the USSR. Given that these conditions were so prevalent in the Soviet East, it seems unsurprising that the USSR’s “de-colonization efforts”, to include land redistribution ultimately never got very far. As Martin puts it, the Soviets inherited a segregated society in the region, and while they abolished legal segregation, they soon accepted de facto segregation – in living spaces, in work environments, and even in lines for rations – as the price of doing business. In one example, a Soviet factory inspector noticed that the workers barracks were broken down along ethnic lines. When he asked why, he was told that there were fewer brawls that way.

To me, however, the most interesting aspect of the “positive line” was a campaign of “affirmative action” that corresponds almost precisely to the modern use of the word. The Soviets made a concerted effort to recruit members of the national minorities to jobs within the administrative state – in other words, to bring them into the professional managerial class as we now call it. In effect, it was an attempt to manufacture a new elite, one which was presumably more loyal to the state, system, and party which had given them their position. Martin doesn’t explicitly say this, but I think we can infer it.

To me, this raises all sorts of fascinating questions. Was this new elite actually more loyal to the USSR? (The fact that when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, someone like Heydar Aliyev could transition seamlessly into an Azerbaijani nationalist after 28 years as KGB officer suggests that they probably weren’t). Did they clash with traditional elites within their own communities, or they mostly recruited from said traditional elites? (Given that elite=landowner in most societies up until very recently, and that the Soviet Union was notoriously not fond of land owners, I suspect the former, but I could be wrong). Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t share my fascination with intra-elite competition, so he doesn’t explore these questions very much.

There are some insights to be gleaned, however. For example, there is some discussion of the “Red/Expert problem.” In a paranoid state like the USSR, which prioritizes loyalty above all else, how do you deal with the fact that certain highly-technical enterprises can only be run with the assistance of specialists of dubious loyalty? For a striking example of this problem in action, consider Sergei Korolev, who after six years in the gulag, rose to become head of the Soviet Rocketry program, because the USSR could not afford to fall too far behind in the arms race. The Soviets faced an analogous problem when trying to promote individuals of the desired nationality into leadership positions in technical departments.

One answer, apparently, is to have figureheads who hold the title, but leave the actual work to others, nominally lower-ranking. In one example, neither the head nor deputy of an oblast (an administrative unit that seems to correspond roughly to a county, I am happy to be corrected on this because I’m really not sure) agricultural ministry actually had an office or desk. Instead, the ministry was de facto being run by a non-party specialist. Martin draws a parallel with Malaysia’s “Ali Baba businesses”.

This whole thing caused me to reflect on a deficiency in the “simple model” of societal hierarchies. There’s a tendency to think of hierarchies as strictly linear, something like this:


Middle Class

Working Class

Applying this to the USSR, we might construct a model with the central committee at the top and rural non-party members at the bottom. In fact though, an examination of the structure of the USSR would reveal a complex web of different agencies and officials whose authority and responsibility overlapped in complex ways

[I can't post the diagram on the site for some reason. Take my word that's a mess)

I’m oversimplifying the the hideous tangle that was the CPSU, but that only reinforces the point I’m trying to make, which is that hierarchies don’t actually work like this in practice. The reality of power relationships is that they’re always in flux, and that multiple parallel hierarchies can coexist and intersect in surprising ways. A more accurate model might be something like:

[Another diagram I can't post]

I can’t find any information about whether Korolev himself ever became a member of the communist party; for the point I’m trying to make, we’ll assume the answer is no. As a non-red expert, Korolev was in theory subordinate to the party apparatus. But as a key leader in an area of vital strategic importance, Korolev presumably enjoyed access and influence well beyond that of most low-ranking party members. The likely outcome of any conflict between Korolev and a party member would depend on who that party member was, what their connections within the party were relative to Korolev, the nature of dispute, et cetera. Whatever the theoretical great chain of being that bound the Soviet Union together, in practice there would always be room for competition. This room for competition is exacerbated by the fact that the upper echelons of any hierarchy, by their nature, tend to be dominated by fiercely ambitious individuals who are quick to exploit any opening to advance their own agenda. In the words of that great strategic thinker, Jack Sparrow, at the end of the day, the only rules that really matter are what you can do and what you can’t. The true balance of power was thus constantly being re-negotiated.

This isn’t a new idea of course, though I’m not sure how often I’ve seen it formalized. C.S. Lewis wrote of the “Inner Ring”, the self-appointed clique which asserts itself through influence. I’ve heard that Foucalt liked to say that power was multifocal, and maybe this is what he meant. Once you start to look, discrepancies between official hierarchies and non-official ones are everywhere. Stalin himself is a textbook example of someone who rose to wield near-absolute power in spite of being nominally a mere administrator. His title of “Secretary General” literally referred to his position as someone who took notes at the meetings of the politburo. Under certain circumstances, I can imagine that these discrepancies serve a useful purpose – useful for someone, anyway. Deflecting responsibility for unpopular decisions, for one thing. Concealing key nodes/personnel from potential hostile actors for another application.

Where was I? Oh right, talking about the creation of a new elite. Unfortunately for the various nationalist actors, at a certain point, the USSR began to reverse course. Remember the Piedmont Principle? The idea that cultivating nationalism would allow the USSR to project power into ethnic minority groups in neighboring regions? Gradually, Soviet decision makers perceived that the current was in fact running in the opposite direction; cross-border nationalist ties were trumping loyalty to the Soviet Union. By 1932, the USSR was in the midst of the Holomodor, one of the most brutal famines of the twentieth century. Ukrainian cross-border nationalism was blamed, rightly or wrongly, as a major contributor to the situation. Additionally, the resentment of the Russian majority was reaching potentially dangerous levels. So, the USSR reversed course.

By the late 1930s, the “Great Retreat”, as Martin calls it, was in full swing. National institutions were gradually abolished, various symbolic policies such as linguistic preferencing were walked back, and Russian culture and identity were gradually rehabilitated. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union was reinvented as a largely Russo-centric entity. This does not seem to have been a crudely ethnocentric form of Russian chauvinism, but rather cultural nationalism. “The Russian language was the principal path for non-Russians to participate in that culture.” Assimilate and you could, at least in theory, enjoy the full status of any other member of the USSR.

So what can we learn from this book? Mostly, I think, that there’s a strong tendency on the left to underestimate the power of nationalism. Earlier in the twentieth century, a number of prominent leftists had declared that then-hypothetical Great War was just a clash of capitalist imperialists and that the workers of the world would unite and turn against their masters. This spectacularly failed to happen, and the working classes mostly turned out to be enthusiastic participants in the war effort, at least at first. Given the First World Wars contribution to the ultimate breakdown of the prevailing European class system, perhaps this was the right choice for them. I’m not sure why this tendency exists or how it developed. Both the political left and nationalism in the modern sense are in some sense products of the enlightenment. Revolutionary France certainly demonstrated that the two could be tightly fused. For that matter, so did Zionism. My best guess is that it’s because “left” ideologies tend to be universalist in character. Like, say, Christianity (as opposed to traditional Judaism), left ideologies offer a prescription for all mankind, one which is supposed to transcend the petty divisions of language, culture, or geography. Additionally, these ideologies naturally attract wonkish intellectual types who see themselves as transcending these same barriers, and don’t see why everyone else can’t or won’t.

I suppose we also learned that when position and prestige are at stake, vast amounts of fire and brimstone will be spilled over seemingly minor issues (language, various symbolic policies, etc). But I feel like we already knew that. We also learned that when you sort people into groups based off of any particular set of characteristics, they immediately start competing on the basis of those characteristics. But I’ve always felt like that was pretty intuitively obvious to anyone who bothered to stop and think about it.

Could a similar scenario occur today? I’m not sure. The USSR was, as mentioned before, the heir of a vast multinational empire. Various groups competed on the basis of language, ethnicity, and culture. Affirmative action programs today mostly seem to happen within a nation, along (arbitrarily defined?) sub-national identity categories. When those categories are sufficiently robust, robust enough to lead to significant conflict, sure, I could see a backlash. But I don’t think we’re there yet. My basic model for this is that affirmative action is a form of elite patronage, and that competitive elites engage in it in order to create or mobilize their own base of support. In times of elite overproduction, you naturally see patronage of all sorts materialize from rival elite groups. In order to face a backlash, enough elites would have to decide that affirmative action was causing more trouble than it was worth. I’m not really sure what sort of upheaval it would take for the American ruling class to walk back affirmative action policies or rhetoric. Competitive elites are willing to take risks, after all. That’s what makes them competitive. And as the existence of more or less the entire post-colonial world attests, elites are willing to accept quite a lot of collateral damage before they abandon identity-based mobilization of potential supporters.


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They mentioned affirmative action empire, so I thought it worth to give a link:

there’s a strong tendency on the left to underestimate the power of nationalism.

I’m not sure why this tendency exists or how it developed.

Well, that's easy. When it's for them, they're in favor of it, but if it doesn't work for their side, then nationalist is a synonym for fascist. Orwell had a lot to say about this.

British nationalists: fascists. Ukrainian nationalists: heroes. American nationalists: fascists. South African nationalists: heroes. Now you try!

Thanks, appreciate it.

An oblast is bigger than a county. Think a US state, but on the smaller side.

Thanks for the clarification

Perhaps comparable to a British county?

The median oblast is 65 000 km2, several times bigger than Yorkshire (11 903 km2) and almost as big as Bavaria. Half the size of the median independent state (Eritrea, 125 000 km2). But smaller than the median US state at 150 000 km2; the largest state smaller than the median oblast is WV.

True, but the UK is much more densely populated than Ukraine. It looks like the average Oblast has an average population in the lower side of 1-2 million, which isn't so far off the average county.

I've been wondering this in the Donbas context: how much identity does an oblast typically have? Like would you talk shit on people from neighboring oblasts? Because in the USA we would definitely talk shit on someone from neighboring states, but only rarely do you see inter-county rivalry. Would your oblast determine your sports-team rooting interests? Would you prefer to remain in your oblast for various reasons?

Because in the USA we would definitely talk shit on someone from neighboring states, but only rarely do you see inter-county rivalry.

That's true, but I feel like inter-city rivalries are very real. In Colorado, it's a common saying in Boulder and Fort Collins that "if it smells like Greeley, it's going to snow." Greeley has a lot of cattle ranches, and it is the case that if you start to be able to smell cow poop, it means you're probably getting snow - but I've always felt that it was a bit of a dig at Greeley's expense as well.

To me that just sounds like the good ol' urban-rural divide. Dunking on those dirty country-folk goes back at least to what, ancient Rome? If not further.

Sure, but for the most part two different cities have a lot of nothing in the middle of them. Like does someone who lives in the suburbs/country halfway between Boulder and Greeley talk shit on Boulder or on Greeley? In PA, Pittsburgh and Philly people will talk shit on each other, and suburbs vs city will talk shit on each other, but MontCo and Delco people don't really feel that strongly about someone who lives in Wayne versus someone who lives in Lansdale or whatever.

Which is the relevant bit for annexation, right? Like, if the arbitrary county line became a national border, I'd be so confused.

My working theory is that a really strong sense of local identity tends to be correlated with lower socioeconomic status. To be cosmopolitan requires education and the freedom and economic security to travel, all of which are correlated with wealth. I can't imagine someone who went to Groton penning this song

This really depends on the oblast/republic/krai. Some have a strong regional identity; some share theirs with a larger geographical region.