During the decade of the 1940s the Soviet regime carried out the forced relocation of numerous nationalities from the Eurasian steppe and the Caucasus to the sparsely populated regions of Central Asia and the Russian north. The deportation of large numbers of people began early in the history of the Soviet Union with the removal of class-based enemies from economically or strategically sensitive areas. However, deportations of an explicitly ethnic character began only in the 1930s and culminated during and immediately after World War II.
According to historian Terry Martin, the Soviet Union deported its Balkar, Chechen, Crimean Tatar, Ingush, Kalmyk, Karachai, and Meskhetian Turk populations from their homelands in the Steppe and Caucasus to Central Asia in response to these nations’ alleged collaboration with the Wermacht; the Soviet German population had been deported to Siberia immediately following the outbreak of war. The deportations did not end with the removal of the Nazi threat, however: potentially dangerous groups such as Greeks, Kurds, Bulgarians, and Iranians were deported from sensitive border regions between 1944 and 1953 – the year of Stalin’s death. Furthermore, planning for the deportation of the entire Jewish population may have been under way during Stalin’s last months in power (Martin, 820).
Although official Soviet ideology explicitly denied the existence of a biological foundation for nationality, the practice of deporting elements of enemy classes soon grew into the removal of entire nations, which were now held to exhibit certain problematic characteristics collectively (Weitz, 11-12). The early deportations of the 1920s targeted exploitative classes, which were defined at least in part by their ties to foreign nationalities (Weitz, 13). In the second half of the 1930s, Soviet authorities began the relocation of “diaspora nationalities – that is, national minorities (such as Poles, Germans, Finns) with cross-border ethnic ties to a foreign nation-state” (Martin, 847). The first deportation of an entire ethnic group occurred in 1937, when the Koreans were “administratively resettled” to Central Asia (Weitz, 13). This and future deportations were carried out rapidly and efficiently, employing the full technological and bureaucratic apparatus of the Soviet state (Martin, 823). Martin notes that the Great Terror that followed “witnessed the culmination of a gradual shift from predominantly class-based terror to terror that targeted (among others) entire nations” (Martin, 852).
The deportation of ethnic groups residing in strategically significant regions of the Soviet Union during the Stalin period should be viewed within the broader context of Sovietnationality policy. As Martin points out, “[a]lthough ethnic cleansing has generally been carried out to increase the ethnic homogeneity of the states in question, . . . this was decidedly not the case in the multi-ethnic Soviet Union” (Martin, 825). In fact, Martin contends that the practice of deporting entire ethnic groups was motivated primarily by Soviet ideology rather than by nationalism or racism:
the Soviet belief in the political salience of ethnicity, which was reflected in the government’s entire policy of supporting national institutions, led to its adoption of the Piedmont Principle: the attempt to exploit cross-border ethnic ties to project influence abroad. However, the exaggerated Soviet fear of foreign capitalist influence and contamination – what I have called Soviet xenophobia – also made such cross-border ties potentially suspect. Once it became clear to the Soviet leadership that cross-border ethnic ties could not be exploited to undermine neighboring countries, but instead had the opposite potential, their response was ethnic cleansing of the Soviet borderlands and, ultimately, ethnic terror throughout the Soviet Union (Martin, 859-860).
The deportations reached a peak during World War II, when first the Germans, and then the “Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and…other groups” were forcibly relocated (Weitz, 14). It should be noted that “the deportation of the Kalmyks, the Crimean Tatars and the four North Caucasian nationalities all took place after the German armies had been expelled from their territories – clearly a punitive measure with no parallel anywhere, at least not in the 20th century” (Kreindler, 391).
In the case of the Caucasian and steppe nationalities, historical relations between these peoples and the Russians may have played as great a role in their selection for deportation as their collaboration with the Germans. As Andreas Kappeler points out, “Stalin had recourse to Russian national traditions” when selecting the ethnic groups to deport for collaboration with the Germans (Kappeler, 385). Collaboration had, after all, occurred among other groups occupied by the Germans, and there had been widespread resistance among the deported nationalities to the German presence (Kriendler, 391). The Meshketians, who had lived near the Soviet border with Turkey before their deportation to Kazakhstan, present a remarkable case: the Wermacht never reached their territory, and, at the time of their removal in November 1944, there was no risk of deeper German advances into the Caucasus (Kriendler, 392).
The history of Soviet deportations points to a fundamental vacillation on the question of race in Soviet nationality policy. Throughout its first decades, the Soviet leadership explicitly contrasted its ideology against the determinist and biological conceptions of nationality characteristic of Nazism in Germany and racist policies in the United States. On the other hand, the project of Soviet nation-building required the search for primordial customs and characteristics that would distinguish one group from another. The presence of such features implied a certain homogeneity among, and distinctiveness between, nations, and encouraged the identification of certain groups with certain ways of thinking. Such an association, in turn, effectively “opened the doors to an essentialist, racialized understanding of the nation” (Weitz, 17). The party hierarchy’s categorization and description of the Soviet Union’s disparate nations resulted, at least at times, in the reification of nationality into objective, biological characteristics and the ascription of certain problematic tendencies to every single member of a given nation. The result was the collective punishment for certain entire nations for crimes, which, even if committed only by some of their members, were held to be typical of their populations as a whole.
- Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2001).
- Eric D. Weitz, “Racial Politics without the Concept of Race: Reevaluating Soviet Ethnic and National Purges,” Slavic Review 61, no. 1 (2002), 1-29.
- Isabelle Kreindler, “The Soviet Deported Nationalities: A Summary and an Update,” Soviet Studies 38, no. 3 (1986), 387-405.
- Terry Martin, “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,” Journal of Modern History 70, no. 4 (1998), 813-861.