Providing a background to the present: “The Multiethnic Soviet Union and Its Demise” by Brigid O’Keeffe6 min read

 In Baltics, Caucasus, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Review, Reviews, Russia

The Multiethnic Soviet Union and its Demise by Brigid O’Keeffe, published in 2022, provides an overview of the Soviet Union’s multi-ethnic makeup and the policies used towards various ethnicities across the Soviet Union. O’Keeffe convincingly shows that the Soviet Union held a paradoxical attitude towards ethnicities, in that the state chose to promote some yet destroy others, at the same time. Overall, the book can be seen as a good introduction to understand former Soviet countries’ attitudes towards Russia today.

The author, Brigid O’Keeffe, is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College in New York and a specialist in the history of late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Apart from The Multiethnic Soviet Union and its Demise, she has also written the books Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia and New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union.

In the newly established Soviet Union, ethnic minorities and nationalities became a fundamental aspect to the building of the developing socialist state. The revolutionary Bolsheviks understood the power of nationalism, and thus the various nationalities existing in the vast Russian empire became targeted in Bolshevik policies. While the long-term aim was for the national identities to wither away, the issue could not be ignored in the short-term, and so the Bolsheviks had to address it head on.

One of the key topics The Multiethnic Soviet Union and its Demise raises is how the nationality policy driven by the Soviet state could be seen as both strengthening and solidifying certain national identities, while others were brutally repressed through structural prejudices as well as ethnic cleansing. 

While a large emphasis was placed on the development of the various ethnicities’ cultures and languages, one of the aims of focusing on developing national cultures was simply to “civilise” the “backward” non-Russian people of the empire and promote the new socialist state’s ideas. Through theatre and schoolbooks, the ideology of the new state could be more easily disseminated. Ethnicity came to be an important factor in everyday Soviet life; it was written in Soviet citizens’ passports, and it could determine whether one would be deported or whether one’s language and culture would receive state sponsorship. 

However, while the promotion of some nationalities was a big part of the Soviet Union’s new policies, the removal and destruction of others went hand in hand. O’Keeffe herself mentions this “paradox of the Stalinist state’s efforts to destroy nations as well as to build them.” Violence became an inherent part of Soviet ethnicity policies in order to control and steer people. Deportation was a powerful tool that was used to remove and displace populations belonging to various ethnicities that did not fit into the Soviet system or who were seen as enemy nationalities, such as Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and Germans.

But it was not only deportations, but also famines that helped to force people into submission. One of the most famous was the Holodomor, a severe famine in the early 1930s in Ukraine, which today has been recognised as a genocide by many countries. Kazakhstan was also, around the same time, subjugated to a brutal famine which was the result of collectivisation and the Soviet state policies that attacked the nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakh people. As O’Keeffe writes, “Dekulakization, collectivization and sedentarization forced the transformation of Kazakh nomads into settled Kazakhs whose viable path forward could only be integration into the socialist economy and Soviet culture.”

O’Keeffe emphasises the role that the experience of the “Great Patriotic War” played in the USSR’s ethnicity policies. The Great Patriotic War resulted in nationalities mixing at the front, and for many, Russian became the joint language, which in turn helped establish Russian as the lingua franca. According to O’Keeffe, “In some ways, the war unified the multiethnic Soviet people to a degree never seen before the war.” 

However, while the Soviet Union attempted to create a union of friendship, and the official slogan was that all ethnicities were equal, the Russian identity, culture, and language was still highlighted as the primary one. Similarly to how the initial nationality projects had been a way to civilise the “backwards” people, the Russian Soviet republic held on to the role as older brother to the other nations that were part of the Soviet Union, and who helped to lead the country in the right direction. The Russian Soviet republic and Russian’s status as “first among equals” can clearly be seen in how school children across the Soviet Union were required to learn Russian, regardless of where they resided.

Topics of both antisemitism and racism are discussed in the book. With World War Two serving as a crux for national identity building, the concept that no suffering was as great as the suffering and sacrifice of the Soviet people was widespread throughout the Soviet Union. This view has led to the Holocaust being largely ignored in the Soviet Union, even though the victory against Nazi Germany has been emphasised. Moreover, the book outlines how, in the period after the war, antisemitism in the Soviet Union grew — one such example can be seen in the so-called Doctor’s plot of the 1950s. Similarly, the Soviet Union also tried to juxtapose itself with the capitalist west, and thus claim an antiracist stance. While this was promoted in Soviet propaganda, the reality was different. After moving to the centres of the union, Leningrad and Moscow, individuals from Central Asian and Caucasian nations testified to being met with hostility and racist remarks.

The final few chapters look at the “mature socialism” period under Brezhnev, when the “Friendship of Peoples” was promoted as an “unshakeable foundation of Soviet society,” as well as the role that the various nationalities played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Dedicated to her students, O’Keeffe delivers an accessible introduction to the role that ethnicity has played in the Soviet Union. The book’s strength lies in how it manages to provide an overview of a topic across almost 100 years on almost the same amount of pages. It touches upon a number of issues, and combines perspectives from above as well as below. Its weaknesses lie in the same vein —  it is difficult to cover so much in such a short text. However, with its notes and selected bibliography, O’Keeffe supplies an interested reader with further literature to learn more about the Soviet Union and its approach to ethnicity and nationalities.

While the Soviet state claimed to stand above the notion of nation as a constituent factor of a state, nationhood was central for the internal policy of the Soviet Union. In a clear and methodical way, O’Keeffe touches on the multiple layers of Soviet nationality policies from the onset of the Soviet project until its collapse. The book should also be seen as a good way to gain an understanding of former Soviet state’s attitudes to Russia and Russian imperialism today.

Book details: O’Keeffe, Brigid, The Multiethnic Soviet Union and its Demise, 2022, Bloomsbury. Buy it here.

Feature Image: Canva / Bloomsbury
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