A Sketch of Soviet Culture Theory

Soviet government policy on minority indigenous peoples was part of a larger problem of nationality across the Union. The Soviets had inherited a multicultural empire, and the Tsarist obsession with "getting the names right," in order to map the soci al terrain of the empire in terms of distinct ethnic groups, was translated into the "nationalities question" under Lenin (Slezkine 1994a). Despite Marxist doctrine which might make cultural differences irrelevant, the Soviets promoted the rights of mino rity ethnic groups which had been oppressed under Tsarist Great Russian chauvinism. Ethnic groups and culture were "very firmly grounded in history and historical processes" (Schindler 1991: 69). These historical processes were traced backwards into ori gins, the study of which has been labeled as "ethnogenesis," the formation of ethnic groups. The manifestation of ethnos on the ground, and the differences between the above definitions and social "reality" led to the development of a baroque typology of social forms, which I will not go into here (cf. Schindler 1990: 16 ff.; Kuoljok 1985). I only want to point out here that the theory of ethnogenesis assumes culture and then proceeds to explains its different manifestations.

The idea of national rights, which conflated culture, language, and territory, was one of Lenin's most uncompromising positions. The theoretical hierarchy of categories of ethnic groups (ethnosi ) corresponded to an administrative hierarchy wit hin the Union. Nations composed the Soviet Socialist Republics (e.g., Ukraine, Georgian, and Kazakh). "Nationalities," like the Yakut (Sakha) and Chechen, were organized into territorial units inside the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic as A utonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSR), which, unlike Union republics, did not have the right to succession. Tribes were relegated to Autonomous Provinces or Regions depending on population size. Provinces are larger administrative units, and auton omous regions are a subunit of an province. Thus, the Koryak Autonomous Region (capital, Palana) was subordinate to the Kamchatka Province with its capital in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Soviet ethnographers made the individual the proper ethnic unit on a micro scale. This had serious ramifications for the execution of government policy, which treated members of various ethnic groups in the Far East as individuals, and not as socially constituted persons bound in a complex web of social relations and dependencies. For example, a head of a household would be fined a huge sum on the grounds that he was an exploiter of his extended family. Thus, the supposed victims of exploitation by "kulaks" were forced to work under the burden of heavy fines which fell upon the household.

The historical development of ethnoses was discussed under the rubric of "ethnic processes":

In the course of history the changes undergone by ethnic communities have been conditioned by the general path of the socio-economic and cultural development of humanity as a whole and by the specific characteristics of the communities' own ex istence (Schindler 1990: 52).

Ethnic communities, according to this theory of culture, are not only bounded, homogeneous units, but they are located within a universal history. This history was structured by a Marxist-Leninist dialectic teleologically defined by the Soviet Union a s the end of the path. The important Soviet ethnographer Ia. Gurvich defined ethnic processes as "the various types of interaction of ethnoses, leading to changes of old or the arising of new ethnic formations" (Schindler 1990: 52). Ethnic self-consciou sness was the basic criterion for a distinct ethnic process of a single ethnos changing, yet remaining somehow essentially itself, over a long period of time. Thus, sixteenth century Russians and contemporary Russians were considered to be the same "peop le" (narod ) because there was supposedly no change in ethnic self-consciousness.1 Ethnic processes also became elaborated into a byzantine classification of change, wh ich could be either "evolutionary" or "transformational" (Schindler 1990: 54 f).

A particularly important ethnic process, the origin of new ethnic groups, quickly became a common focus of research, and various theories of "ethnogenesis" were promulgated. Ethnoses were considered to come about "naturally," through the course of hi story. The conjunction of a language community and contiguous territory was a key factor in defining an ethnos, and ethnogenesis was usually understood as the result of some sort of assimilation of distinct groups or the divergence of a previously homoge neous group. From the soviet anthropologists' point of view, coerced assimilation was the result of capitalist governments acting upon minority groups, like Native Americans within the United States, while "natural" assimilation was the case within a soc ialist society like that found in the Soviet Union. Studies of ethnogenesis and other ethnic processes often consisted of statistical examinations of mixed marriages in a given republic (cf. Kozlov 1988).

These different lines of anthropological research and culture theory were connected to government policy in a number of ways. Ethnicity was listed in every individual's internal passport, and could be important for access to certain social services o r other special consideration. The children of mixed marriage were given the choice of choosing one of the parents' ethnicity, and if they couldnÕt choose, the law automatically chose the mother's. Thus, ethnicity quickly became coded into racial catego ries, and culture theory in the Soviet Union was generally racist (Schindler 1991: 69).

Under Stalin, support for nationalism and ethnic rights was codified into a sacred principle of Marxist-Leninism, and nationality was incorporated into state ideology as "form without content" (Slezkine 1994b). Thus, one could have endless variation in form without a change in the universal content of societyÑeconomic class stratification. Culture was reduced to superficial form, a sort of "ethnic flavoring" to the universal meat-and-potatoes content of Marxist class history. Stalin defined a natio n in terms of a unique history, with a stable language, economy, and psychology within a bounded territory; it was a real, existing entity and had rights within the socialist framework (Slezkine 1994b). The nationalities question was eventually reduced t o the language of "backwardness" where the Russians were the advanced people and served as an elder brother to lesser peoples. Stalin's autonomization plan called for greater centralization in essentials of economy and security and more autonomy in nones sentials of language and culture (Slezkine 1994b: 425). In 1934 Stalin had declared the "Great Transformation" finished and backwardness officially overcome. Russian language and culture became the national form of the USSR as a whole during the years 1 937-39, yet "the ethnic groups that already had their own republics and their own extensive bureaucracies were actually told to redouble their efforts at building distinct national cultures" (Slezkine 1994b: 445). Thus, from the beginning of the Soviet U nion and through the Terror, the state encouraged diversity in culture while simultaneously requiring uniformity in social and economic life. The result of this fetishization of culture and ethnic identity, as Slezkine argues, was "that when Gorbachev's reforms discarded the worn-out idioms of Marxism, the only language that remained was the well honed and long practiced language of nationalism" (Slezkine 1994b: 451; cf. Grant 1995). The Soviet state fetishized a select group cultural symbols as "safe" manifestations of difference and personal identity, while reaffirming the universal bonds of class history.

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1The Russian term narod is best translated by the German word das Volk . In different contexts it can be translated as "people" (with similar variations in meaning), "nation," "ethnicity," or "folk." Return to text

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Page Date: March 27, 2002

Alexander King, WEBMASTER (at) KORYAKS (dot) NET, University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK