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The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (The Wilder House Series in Politics, History and Culture) (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This book is based primarily on Soviet sources. Unfortunately, the author does not appear to approach his sources critically, and seems to take Soviet pronouncements too much at face value.

There are already several other reviews which inform the reader about the general features of this book. My review emphasizes the fate of the Poles in the Soviet Union before WWII.

This book includes interesting information. For instance, Belorussian-speaking Catholics often considered themselves Poles and demanded Polish education for their children, and the same was true of many Ukrainian-speaking Catholics. (p. 129).


Communism is supposed to dismiss nationalism as the product of capitalism, and as something that is destined to fade away as the peoples develop authentic consciousness, which of course is class consciousness. A clue as to how the Soviet Union came to accommodate its many nationalities is provided by author Terry Martin, who writes, “Although Lenin always took the nationalities question seriously, the unexpected strength of nationalism as a mobilizing force during the revolution and civil war nevertheless greatly surprised and disturbed him. The Bolsheviks expected nationalism in Poland and Finland, but the numerous nationalist movements that sprang up across most of the former Russian empire were not expected. The strong nationalist movement in Ukraine was particularly unnerving. The direct confrontation with nationalism compelled the Bolsheviks to formulate a new nationalities policy.” (p. 2).


At one level, nationalities did not exist in the Soviet Union. All the “Soviet citizens” were supposed to be equal, and criticism of others’ nationalities was punishable by law. For instance, a primary school teacher reported how she had almost lost her job after being denounced for repeating this Russian proverb in public, “‘An untimely guest is worse than a Tatar.’” (p. 389).


The author tabulates the soviets (councils) according to nationality and year. (p. 49). Thus, in 1926, there were 20 soviets, of which 2 were Polish and 11 were Jewish. In 1933, there were 93 soviets, of which 40 were Polish and 24 were Jewish.


Poles are identified by Martin as the ones most active in flights across the western border. (p. 320). In addition, Martin writes, “They [Poles] were also subjected to the greatest degree of popular and local Communist hostility during collectivization. The popular identification of Pole and kulak was summed up by the rhyme: ‘RAZ POLIAK—ZNACHIT KULAK.’ Poles were bluntly told, ‘you are being dekulakized not because you are a kulak, but because you are a Pole.’” (pp. 320-321).


Although many nationalities suffered under Soviet rule, the Poles did especially so, and that not only during the Great Terror. For examples, see p. 330, 333, and 336.

It was Nikolai Ezhov (Yezhov) who launched the anti-Polish part of the Great Terror, specifying how, and under what pretexts, Poles were to be arrested. (p. 337). Its scale is uncertain. Martin comments, “Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how many members of the diaspora nationalities were arrested or executed, since not everyone arrested in the Polish operation was a Pole, nor were all arrested Poles included in the Polish operation.” (p. 229).

The targeting of Poles took on staggering dimensions. Author Terry Martin shows that, in the Leningrad oblast alone, and after their share of the population was pro-rated, Poles were 30.94 times more likely to be executed than non-Poles. (p. 339, 436). The figures for Odessa oblast were not much different. (p. 427).


Although author Martin does not use this term, he takes a middle view as to whether the Ukrainians were specifically targeted as an act of genocide, or whether the nationality of the victims was irrelevant. (p. 305). However, the main geographic foci of the HOLODOMOR were the North Caucasus and Ukraine. (p. 299). In any case, the stated goal was to crush the peasant resistance to collectivization. A commission headed by Lazar Kaganovich also blamed nationalist resistance, and called for savage repression. (p. 301).
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