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Race without the Practice of Racial Politics

  • Francine Hirsch


Eric D. Weitz argues that the Soviet Union promoted the development of national institutions and consciousness and explicidy rejected the ideology of race. Yet traces of racial politics crept into Soviet nationalities policies, especially between 1937 and 1953. In the Stalin period particular populations were endowed with immutable traits that every member of the group possessed and that were passed from one generation to the next. Recent scholarship, he suggests, has been resistant to drawing out the racial elements in the Stalinist purges of certain nationalities. Francine Hirsch challenges Weitz’s argument, arguing that the Soviet regime had a developed concept of “race,” but did not practice what contemporaries thought of as “racial politics.” Hirsch argues that while the Nazi regime attempted to enact social change by racial means, the Soviet regime aspired to build socialism dirough die manipulation of mass (national and class) consciousness. She contends that it is imperative to analyze the conceptual categories that both regimes used in order to undertake a true comparative analysis. Weiner proposes that Soviet population politics constandy fluctuated between sociological and biological categorization. Although the Soviets often came close to adapting bioracial principles and practices, at no point did they let human heredity become a defining feature of political schemes. Race in the Soviet world applied mainly to concerns for the health of population groups. Despite the capacity to conduct genocidal campaigns and operate death camps, the Soviets never sought the physical extermination of entire groups nor did they stop celebrating the multiethnicity of tiieir polity. The radicalization of state violence in the postwar era was triggered by die nature and role of the war in the Soviet world, the alleged conduct of those who failed to rise to the occasion, and the endemic unstable and unassimilated borderlands, and not by die genetic makeup of the internal enemies. Alaina Lemon’s contribution suggests that scholars seek racialized concepts by treating discourse as situated practice, rather than by separating discourse from practice. This allows consideration of the ways people use language not only to name categories but also to point to social relationships (such as “race”) with or without explicidy naming them as such. Doing so, however, is admittedly more difficult when die only available evidence of past discursive practices are printed texts or interviews. In conclusion, Weitz responds to these critics.



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I would like to thank Laura Engelstein, Stephen Kotkin, David McDonald, Tony Michels, and Mark Hessman for their comments on an earlier draft.

1 It should be pointed out, however, that the authors that Weitz groups together for his purposes (Peter Holquist, Terry Martin, Yuri Slezkine, Amir Weiner, and myself) sometimes disagree with one another fundamentally about the origins and aims of Soviet nationality policies.

2 Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1951).

3 The Soviet rejection of Mendelian genetics in the 1940s and 1950s and official adoption of die theories of Trofim Lysenko is sometimes interpreted as a Soviet disavowal of the concept of race. For a discussion of Soviet genetics and eugenics, see Adams, Mark, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (Oxford, 1990). On race in the Soviet Union, see Cassandra Cavanaugh, “Biology, Backwardness and Byt: Russian Medicine in Central Asia, 1868-1932” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2000).

4 Iarkho, A. I., “Osnovnye problemy sovetskoi antropologii ocherednye zadachi sovetskogo rasovedeniia,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1934, no. 3: 4. Also Bogdanov, V. V., D. N. Anuchin, 1843-1923 (Moscow, 1940); Godina, L., Butovskaya, M. L., and Kozintsev, A. G., “History of Biological Anthropology in Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” International Association of Human Biologists, Occasional Papers 3, no. 5 (1993). On German applied anthropology, see Massin, Benoit, “From Virchow to Fischer: Physical Anthropology and ‘Modern Race Theories’ in Wilhelmine Germany,” in Stocking, George W. ed., Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition (Madison, 1996), 140, and Weindling, Paul, Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism, 1870–1945 (Cambridge, Eng., 1989). For a discussion of constitutional medicine as it was practiced in Germany and the United States, see Tracy, Sarah W., “George Draper and American Constitutional Medicine, 1916-1946: Reinventing the Sick Man,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 66 (1992): 5389.

5 Anthropology and ethnography each had their own institutions and journals. There was some overlap between personnel.

6 On the German-Russian Racial Institute, see Weindling, Paul, “German-Soviet Medical Co-operation and the Institute for Racial Research, 1927-c. 1935,” German History 10, no. 2 (1992): 177206. Weindling notes that German and Soviet researchers shared an interest in constitutional medicine. He explains that “in their dealings with Soviet researchers,” German researchers defined race in neutral “scientific terms as differentiating factors” (193). Soviet researchers used the German-funded institute to foster their own studies of the human being as a productive force.

7 Iarkho, A. I., “Protiv idealisticheskikh techenii v rasovedenii SSSR,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1932, no. 1: 923. On race as statistical type in Europe before World War I, see Massin, “From Virchow to Fischer,” 113–14.

8 Adams, Mark B., “Eugenics as Social Medicine in Revolutionary Russia: Prophets, Patrons, and the Dialectics of Discipline-Building,” in Solomon, Susan Gross and Hutchinson, John F., eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, 1990), 200. On eugenics, social hygiene, and the nature-nurture debate, see Susan Gross Solomon, “Social Hygiene and Soviet Public Health, 1921-1930,” in Solomon and Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 175–99.

9 Russkii evgenicheskii zhurnal, published by the Russian Eugenics Society in the 1920s, featured articles about and transcripts of these debates. For a discussion of the international debate about Lamarckian and Mendelian theories, see Proctor, Robert N., Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), esp. 3038 , and Schneider, William, Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France (Cambridge, Eng., 1990).

10 French and Soviet anthropologists saw confirmation of dieir dieories in the work of die American anthropologist Franz Boas, whose comparative studies of American-born and European-born Jews and Italians made an argument for the influence of environment on presumed “racial traits.” On Boas and French anthropology, see Schneider, Quality and Quantity, 218. Soviet ethnographers translated Boas’s studies and reprinted excerpts in the journal Elnografiia (later Sovetskaia etnografiia) in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1930s, the “Race Division” of Moscow State University’s Museum of Anthropology (devoted to disproving fascist race theories) featured an exhibit on Boas’s work. See “Khronika: Rasovyi otdel Gosudarstvennogo muzeia antropologii MGU,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1936, no. 2:252.

11 Schneider, Quality and Quantity, 219–23. On German and British blood group studies, see Kevles, Daniel J., In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), 195–96. Antropologicheskii zhurnal published die results of Soviet blood group studies in the 1930s. See, for example, Soboleva, G. V. and Bazarov, N. I., “Gruppy krovi i tipy konstitutsii,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1932, no. 2:124–36.

12 For a discussion of die rise of national socialism in German universities, see Proctor, Racial Hygiene, 268–75. In 1931, the Communist Party began to attack “old regime” experts within the Soviet Union. It accused the physical anthropologist Sergei Rudenko, for example, of fueling fascist “race theories.” See Bykovskii, S. N., “Etnografiia na sluzhbe klassovogo vraga,” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1931, nos. 3–4:313.

13 Plisetskii, M. S. and Smulevich, B. la., “Rasovaia teoriia—klassovaia teoriia,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1934, nos. 1–2:7; S. Bykovskii’s introduction to G. I. Petrov, “Rasovaia teoriia na sluzhbe u fashizma,” Izvestiia gosudarstvennoi akademii materialɴnoi kulɴtury 95 (1934), 11. Recounted in Iarkho, “Osnovnye problemy.” Also see Petrov, G. I., Materialy Buriat-Mongol’skoi antropologicheskoi ekspeditsii 1931 goda, pt. 1 (Leningrad, 1933).

14 Proctor, Racial Hygiene, 47–48.

15 Iarkho, “Osnovnye problemy,” 5; emphasis added.

16 Cheboksarov, N. and Plisetskii, M., “Rasy (chelovecheskie),” in Bol’shaia Sovetskaia entsiklopediia (Moscow, 1941), 40:285. Soviet anthropologists maintained that all human “Osnovnye problemy”; Petrov, “Rasovaia teoriia na sluzhbe u fashizma,” 15–17; and A. B., “Voprosy i otvety,” Revoliutsiia i natsionalnosti, 1934, no. 4:91–94. For a Soviet critique of German anUiropologists, see “Volk und Rasse: Kriticheskii obzor,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1936, no. 1:110–16.

17 A. B., “Voprosy i otvety,” 94; for an elaboration on this dieme and general indictment of the western European empires’ reliance on racial theories to rationalize exploitative policies in the colonies, see T. Trofimova and N. Cheboksarov, “Rasy i rasovaia problema v rabotakh Marksa, Engel’sa i Lenina,” Antropobgicheskii zhurnal, 1933, nos. 1–2:9–32.

18 St. Petersburg Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (PFA RAN), f. 174, op. 2, d. 156,11. 172–77 (“Explanatory Note for Plan of the Detachment for the Study of the Human Being“). Also Plisetskii and Smulevich, “Rasovaia teoriia-klassovaia teoriia,“ 3-24.

19 Iarkho, “Protiv idealisticheskikh techenii,” 13–14; Iarkho, “Osnovnye problemy,“ 7–9; Cheboksarov and Plisetskii, “Rasy (chelovecheskie),” 285-86.

20 Cheboksarov and Plisetskii, “Rasy (chelovecheskie),” 295-96; Iarkho, “Protiv idealisticheskikh techenii,” 12–14. The Soviet regime differentiated between narodnosti, natsional'nosti, and natsii—as ethnohistorical groups at different stages on die historical timeline. For a discussion of these terms, see Hirsch, Francine, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926,1937, and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 251–78.

21 Iarkho, “Protiv idealisticheskikh techenii,” 13; Iarkho, “Osnovnyi problemy,” 9; A. B., “Voprosy i otvety,” 93–94.

22 Iarkho and odiers argued that an analysis of the racial traits still present within nationalities could elucidate the historical process of the nationalities’ formation. Iarkho, “Osnovnye problemy,” 9.

23 PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 1, d. 71,11. 1–2 (“Working Plan of the Detachment for the Study of the Human Being as a Productive Force“); PFA RAN, f. 135, op. 1, d. 162,11. 90–91,96–97 (“Explanatory Note for the [Financial] Estimate of IPIN’s Expeditions for 1931“ and “[Financial] Estimate of IPIN’s Expeditions for 1931“). IPIN was the Academy of Sciencesɴ Institute for the Study of Nationalities, formerly the Commission for the Study of the Tribal Population of Russia and the Borderlands (KIPS).

24 PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 1, d. 414,11. 255-294ob. (“Stenographic Record of Academy of Sciences’ Tajikistan Conference. Section: Culture and the Study of the Human Being“); PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 2, d. 468,11. l-6ob. (“Towards an Anthropological Study of the Population of Tajikistan“).

25 PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 1, d. 71,11. 3–4; and Russian State Archive of the Economy (RGAE),f. 339, op. 4, d. 14,11.14,19 (Information about detachments and parties of SOPS expeditions of 1931-1939). When researchers learned that all peoples were not thriving in all regions of the Soviet Union, they explained that the “vestiges” of “old social structures“ and class relations were “impeding Soviet construction.” For example, PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 2, d. 156, 11. 136–41 (“Working Plan for the Amgun Complex Expedition for the Study of the Human Being“).

26 See the discussion in Iarkho, “Osnovnye problemy. “

27 Schneider, Quality and Quantity, 229; Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, 97. Beginning in 1931, the Soviet regime repressed Russian anthropologists who in the 1920s had speculated on the possible negative effects of racial mixing.

28 PFA RAN, f. 135, op. 1, d. 162,1. 107 (“Working Plan for Buriat-Mongol Anthropological Expedition“); PFA RAN, f. 174, op. 2, d. 156, 1. 173 (“Explanatory Note for the Plan of the Detachment for the Study of the Human Being: Plan of the Brigade for the Study of Mestizos in Buriat-Mongolia“). Also G. I. Petrov, Materialy Buriat-Mongol’skoi antropologicheskoi ekspeditsii.

29 On metizatsiia and the Soviet person, see A. I. Iarkho, “O torn, kak ne sleduet zanimat’siia antropologiei,” Antropologicheskii zhurnal, 1935, no. 1:146-50. For a Soviet refutation of German theories about racial purity, see Plisetskii and Smulevich, “Rasovaia teoriia—klassovaiia teoriia. “

30 Weitz repeatedly mistakes cultural Sovietization for Russification. The Russian language was to be the lingua franca of the Soviet Union.

31 For a discussion of German “homeland nationalism” and the League of Nationsɴ response, see Brubaker, Rogers, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge, Eng., 1996).

32 Martin defines Soviet xenophobia as “the exaggerated Soviet fear of foreign capitalist influence and contamination.” Martin, Terry, “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,” Journal ofModern History 70, no. 4 (1998): 829.

33 On the deportation of diaspora nationalities, see Gelb, Michael, “An Early Soviet Ethnic Deportation: The Far-Eastern Koreans,” Russian Review 54, no. 3 (July 1995): 389412; Pohl, J. Otto, Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949 (Westport, Conn., 1999); Bugai, N. F., ed., “Ikh nado deportirovatɴ”:Dokumenty, fakty, kommentarii (Moscow, 1992); and Martin, “Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing. “

34 From 1931, Soviet ethnographers were encouraged to identify nationalities and groups within nationalities with a “petit-bourgeois tendency.” PFA RAN, f. 135, op. 1, d. 280,1. 6 (About IPIN’s work with the Council for the Study of Productive Forces [SOPS] to study the human being).

35 On Soviet efforts to integrate new territories into the union, see Gross, Jan T., Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton, 1988), and Weiner, Amir, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton, 2001).

36 See Gross, Revolution from Abroad.

37 For an elaboration of this argument, see Francine Hirsch, “Empire of Nations: Colonial Technologies and the Making of the Soviet Union, 1917–1939” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1998).

38 The original form told passport registrars to “put down the natsionalɴnost’ (narodnost’) to which die recipient of the passport ascribes himself.” State Archive of die Russian Federation (GARF), f. 9401, op. 12, d. 137, 1. 129ob. (Instructions for filling in the forms of passport documents). Passport laws stipulated that the registration of nationality “in official documents (for example, in die passport)” was to be “registered solely on die basis of die declaration of citizens diemselves.” GARF, f. 7523, op. 9, d. 99, 1. 14 (Statement from the head of die Faculty of Civil Law).

39 GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 304,11. 8–9 (About die determination of the nationality of people born to parents of different nationalities, 1939, 1940). Different criteria were used at different times to determine nationality for birtii certificates and other official documents. Birth certificates from 1920–1925 requested the nationality of the mother. From 1928 through die late 1950s, official documents (birdi, deadi, marriage, divorce, and adoption certificates) requested die nationality “to which the person concerned identifies himself or herself.” From the late 1950s, these documents requested the nationality of one parent; the choice was the respondent’s. Melikɴian, G. G., ed., “Formulirovka voprosov v pervichnykh dokumentakh tekushchego ucheta demograficheskikh sobytii v Rossii,” appendix 6 in Narodonaselenie, Entsikhpedicheskii slovar’ (Moscow, 1994).

40 Slezkine, Yuri, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” Slavic Review 52, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 444.

41 GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 304,11. 8–25. Sovnarkom protested the NKVD directives and asserted diat registrars “who fill out the column natsional'nost’ in passports and other documents without regard to respondents’ testimonies” do so “in violation of the law. “

42 This nonetheless marked a shift from registration according to an individual’s own self-definition to registration according to the nationality of one or both parents. The Soviet census, by contrast, continued to register nationality according to the self-definition of the individual.

43 Proctor, Racial Hygiene, 134,212-17.

44 GARF, f. 7523, op. 65, d. 397,11. 2–7, 19–27, 32–38, etc. (On the reorganization of artificially created national regions and agricultural soviet 1938). Also Martin, “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,” 857.

45 Alieva, Svetlana, ed., Tak eto bylo: Natsional'nye repressii v SSSR1919–1952 gody (Moscow, 1993), 2:118, 172.

46 On the Soviet politics of excision, see Weiner, Making Sense of War, chap. 3.

47 As Weitz himself notes, die United Nations definition of genocide “is at one and die same time too broad and too narrow. “

48 Ibid., 2:118. The account cites “Ukaz NKVD Kirgiz SSR, 7June 1947.” The party’s ideological position also suggested that it was at least possible for other members of enemy nationalities to experience a true change of consciousness and be rehabilitated. Edinographers and odier experts did studies in the 1930s to prove that collective labor could transform group identities. For example, PFA RAN, f. 135, op. 1, d. 162,11. 43–44 (Agenda for 1932 in connection widi the Five-Year Plan).

49 The quote is from Martin, “Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,” 816.

50 The quote is from Slezkine, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment,” 415.

51 The term is Slezkine’s, “The USSR as a Communal Apartment,” 414. 52. These changes were not just symbolic; through positive and negative measures, the regime attempted to manipulate group and individual consciousness. State-sponsored evolutionism combined western European ideas about “cultural evolutionism” (which presumed that all peoples evolved through progressive stages of cultural development) widi die Marxian theory of history (which presumed that all cultural forms corresponded to particular stages on die historical timeline) and added to it die Leninist conceit that revolutionary actors could speed up historical progress. On state-sponsored evolutionism as Soviet civilizing mission, see Hirsch, Francine, “Toward an Empire of Nations: Border- Making and die Formation of Soviet National Identities,” Russian Review 59, no. 2 (April 2000): 201–26. On die Marxist stages of edinohistorical development, see Slezkine, Yuri, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the SmallPeoples of the North (Idiaca, 1994). For a provocative argument about die Soviet timeline as a manifestation of “Bolshevik Marxist eschatology,“ see Weiner, Amir, “Nature, Nurture, and Memory in a Socialist Utopia: Delineating the Soviet Socio-Ethnic Body in die Age of Socialism,” American Historical Review 104, no. 4 (1999): 1114–55. Terry Martin calls the Soviet promotion of national forms and cultures “affirmative action” and argues diat the regime abandoned its “affirmative action“ programs in the 1930s. He misses the fact that from the start Soviet policies were oriented toward die amalgamation of edinohistorical groups; die 1930s saw the acceleration of diis process, not a retreat from it.

53 For an elaboration of tins argument, see Hirsch, “Empire of Nations: Colonial Technologies and the Making of die Soviet Union,” chap. 6.

Race without the Practice of Racial Politics

  • Francine Hirsch


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