Expropriation, assimilation, elimination: Understanding Soviet Settler Colonialism
by Botakoz Kassymbekova and Aminat Chokobaeva
We cannot do without the petroleum of Azerbaijan or the cotton of Turkestan. We take these products which are necessary for us not as the former exploiters, but as older brothers bearing the torch of civilization.Grigory Zinoviev in Michael Rywkin, Russia in Central Asia
Settler Colonialism as a Principle
The Soviet Union is often described as an empire with heavily centralized rule over a large multiethnic territory, which suppressed anti-imperial resistance (Kappeler, 2001). Yet many scholars view the Soviet Union as more similar to a multinational state that stopped discriminating between the former colonizers and the colonized (Khalid, 2021). But as we will argue in this essay, the Soviet Union shared more than a passing similarity with colonial empires: the key to understanding both the Soviet Union’s interventionist policies and its use of violence in the peripheries lies in the concept of settler colonialism. In this article, we present schematic principles of Soviet settler colonialism and open discussion for a further rethinking of the Soviet field through the lens of settler colonialism.
The literature on settler colonialism has so far ignored the case of the Soviet Union. Yet Soviet settler colonialism offers a unique opportunity to study non-capitalist colonialisms and their modes of domination, violence, and racial hierarchization. It can explain how the elimination of private property did not alter inequalities or eliminate racialized violence. The settler colonial framework offers a step toward dismantling Soviet imperial innocence and challenging the popular view that the Soviet Union was an egalitarian project.
The key principle of settler colonialism, according to Patrick Wolfe (2006), is territorial acquisition through the elimination of indigenous peoples and the dissolution of the native body politic. Settler colonialism cannot be reduced to a single event of conquest, but rather is a structure that must permanently eliminate indigenous claims to sovereignty (Wolfe, 2006: 388). The elimination of native societies may take violent or coercive forms and involves assimilation, ethnic cleansing, and forced displacement. Forced removal and decimation of natives frees the land for permanent settlement by colonists, and cultural erasure is facilitated through the dissolution of indigenous institutions, the co-optation of colonized cultures, and the assimilation of indigenous peoples. Cultural erasure eliminates a sense of autonomy, and prevents claims to sovereignty, amongst native populations (ibid).
Settler colonialism shares many dynamics with overseas extractive colonialism (Mendoza, 2020), but we find the distinct features of settler colonialism as set out by Patrick Wolfe (2006) useful to understand the Soviet form of colonialism. Wolfe observes that while the ‘franchise’ colonies, such as the British Raj and the Dutch East Indies, sought to “extract surplus value by mixing their (natives’) labour with a colony’s natural resources,” settler colonialism is distinguished by its prioritization of territorial control (Wolfe, 2001: 868). Hence, since for the latter the main goal is (labor) exploitation, its logic is to legitimize the subjugation of the colonized by establishing a strictly enforced racial hierarchy and segregation. In contrast, the settler colonial order prioritizes the land over the native labor. The original owners of the land must be removed, contained, or assimilated into settler society to prevent indigenous claims to sovereignty.
The continued settlement of borderlands with colonists helped the fledgling Soviet regime to establish control over the colonized territories of the former Tsarist Empire, i.e., Siberia, Central Asia, North and South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, and later the Baltic states. At the same time, state-sponsored repression of native populations’ elites, cultures, and institutions for reorganization or destruction facilitated the assimilation of native peoples into the Soviet project. Thus, for example, a state-sponsored campaign of universal literacy in non-Slavic national republics of the USSR involved the introduction of Cyrillic script, which simultaneously cut off post-revolutionary generations from their traditional literary cultures and facilitated the adoption of Russian and assimilation into Russian culture.
This is not to say, however, that the Bolsheviks did not extract labor or other resources from these borderlands. In Central Asia, which was turned into a vast cotton plantation, the Bolshevik regime combined settler principles with practices of extracting labor and resources, where cotton-producing areas of the region became a source of labor and raw cotton, and the forcibly settled nomads relinquished land that was settled by Slavic colonists.
The uprooting and dispossession of native societies and their replacement with colonists was not novel or specific to the Bolshevik regime. In key aspects, the Soviet authorities intensified and expanded policies adopted by the Tsarist government. The latter had viewed the settling of borderlands with colonists as key to securing and integrating the newly annexed territories into the empire since the late sixteenth and seventeenth century (Breyfogle, Shrader, & Sunderland, 2007). In the late nineteenth century, Russian military statisticians designated those areas with a Russian population of over fifty percent as “reliable” – hence, loyal to the imperial government, – and those with less as unreliable (Polian, 2003: 23). More than a century later, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used this settler logic to warn against the independence of the Baltic and other national republics. He identified a large number of ethnic Russians – “sixty million living out there in nationality areas” – as a mitigating factor against “separatism.”
Settling Soviet Territory: Collectivization, Sedentarization, Deportations
Populating non-Russian peripheries with settlers was thus a crucial element of imperial and later Soviet securing and integration of colonies into an expanded Russia. We distinguish four types of Soviet settler colonization: (1) forced or penal, (2) mobilizational, (3) volunteer peasant, and (4) professional urban. The Soviet state used Gulag prisoners and special settlers (spetsposelentsy) to settle “the sparsely populated” and “underdeveloped” territories with difficult climatic conditions and poor or absent infrastructure (Shirokov, 2009). The Russian Communist Youth and Party members would be routinely recruited as “cultured” farmers or qualified industrial workforce (Pohl, 2007; Shulman, 2007). Volunteer peasant resettlement to non-Russian peripheries was organized with attractive benefits and prospects for social mobility (Moisenko, 2016: 111). The All-Union Resettlement Committee aimed to resettle five million “Europeans” to Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus between 1928 and 1933 for economic, military, and ideological purposes (Kassymbekova, 2011: 351). After World War II, the Virgin Lands campaign transferred at least 330,000 collective farmers from European Russia to the Kazakh steppe (Pohl, 2007) and between 1944 and 1952, the Soviet state deported (and “cleansed” the territory for settlement by Russians) around half a million people from the Baltic countries – mostly women and children – to the distant Siberian periphery.
Collectivization – the forced expropriation and transfer of land, livestock and farming implements to state-owned collective farms – was instrumental in facilitating settler colonization. While the primary goal of collectivization was the permanent control of resources, it also functioned to create pools of reserve labor that could be used for future colonization projects. The introduction of the passport and registration system stripped peasants of mobility and placed them under state supervision and control. When they were contained in collective farms, these collectivized peasants (kolkhozniki) could be moved at the convenience of the authorities to work on large-scale agricultural and industrial projects. Collectivization also helped lock in peasants in areas where intensive manual labor was needed. These collective farms were often concentrated in national republics. The cotton fields of Soviet Uzbekistan are an illustrative example. Uzbek collective farmers could neither choose what to grow nor were they offered opportunities to find employment on industrial or agricultural projects outside the republic. Social mobility was largely limited to a group that can be broadly defined as Slavic colonists (Lewis and Rowland, 1969: 795).
At the same time, as settlers were funneled into national republics and regions, these regions’ native populations were dispossessed, with some eliminated through deportations, such as Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Poles, and many others, and the deliberate creation of conditions that resulted in horrendous casualties. Dispossession strategies included the confiscation of land and property through collectivization, forced resettlements, and the forced sedentarization of nomadic communities. The latter was consciously designed to destroy native systems of land use by forcibly settling the nomads and denying them the use of pastureland, which was then used for agricultural settlement by Russian colonists. Overall, the deportations targeted six million people (including women, children, and older people) who were forcibly resettled from their native lands in conditions that led to mass deaths (Polian, 2003). Hence, up to half of the population of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and up to a quarter of Koreans died during their deportation to Central Asia from the Northern Caucasus, Crimea, and the eastern borderlands.
Collectivization contributed to deportations in forty percent of cases and was also used for military purposes to control frontier regions (Polian, 2003: 311), where ethnic groups that were deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime were deported and those considered loyal were settled. The establishment of ethnically Tajik collective farms in frontier regions in Central Asia aimed to secure the border with Afghanistan against Turkic nomads who resisted Soviet rule (Kassymbekova, 2011). In the “Far East,” the land of the deported Koreans was transferred to demobilized Red Army soldiers who formed “Red Army collective farms” in the strategically important but vulnerable frontiers of the Soviet Far East (Martin, 1998: 840).
Soviet colonization was not only agricultural but also industrial and extractive (Suvorova and Filimonov, 2010: 53). Alongside the Russian Party officials and the security and military officials, skilled Russian workers, who were recruited by trade unions and factories to work on industrial projects in Central Asia and the Baltics enjoyed the greatest benefits (Timoshenko, 2007: 187-9). Closed secret cities that specialized in strategic military and nuclear production received direct provisioning from Moscow and were not subject to local republican or regional control.
Uprooting and Assimilation: Race, Space, and Status
Race, as Patrick Wolfe and others noted, is an organizing principle of settler colonial governance (Wolfe, 2001; Glenn, 2015; McKay, Vinyeta and Norgaard, 2020). It permits both assimilation and exclusion. In the Soviet Union, colonization and the high status afforded to Russian settlers were mutually constitutive and racialized (Law, 2012). Russianness bestowed a higher social status on those who bore the label, and it became synonymous with progress; it is hardly a coincidence that the “new Soviet person” was usually portrayed as ethnically Russian. As a result, ethnic Russians enjoyed greater mobility and privileged access to resources reserved for ethnic Russians (Lewis and Rowland, 1969: 795). For non-Russians, social mobility and access to privileges could be obtained through cultural erasure and assimilation: first into the Russian linguistic and cultural community, and then – if one’s background permitted it – assimilation into the ethnic group. Russian became a mandatory language in schools across the USSR, and intermarriage with Russians for the purposes of russification was advocated by the Soviet state from the mid-1930s onward (Edgar, 2022).
Although overt racial assimilation was never elevated to a comprehensive state-sponsored campaign, Sovietization implied the adoption of the Russian language and a lifestyle built on Russian models. Stalin’s formula, “National in form, socialist in essence,” was, for all intents and purposes, an assimilation formula based on the maintenance and cultivation of hallowed cultural forms stripped of any claims to sovereignty, which also allowed the Bolshevik government to establish its anti-imperial credentials. The formation of new national republics and districts sought to dismantle existing indigenous institutions of power and political geographies.
Consequently, russification and the celebration of consciously constructed highly stylized faux folk cultures were not antipodes, but mutually reinforcing processes. First, assimilation was a hierarchical process that necessitated the defining of backward “others” against the “civilized.” Second, the celebration of newly defined ethnic groups was strictly policed to ensure that it was limited to the folklorization of cultural diversity without allowing “native sovereign capacities” (Veracini, 2013: 30). Third, native cultural expression had to remain within the Soviet ideological canon. Cultural institutions and individuals that produced alternative meanings, political imaginaries, and systems of governance had to be eliminated. Since the folklorization of non-Russian ethnic groups was a controlled endeavor that permitted superficial diversity without political substance, it did not endanger the settler colonial regime. The policy of affirmative action co-opted natives on the individual level by producing “the rhetorical claim that indigenous individuals can participate in the political life,” while concealing the structural conditions that erased native collectives (Veracini, 2013: 30). The celebration of folkloristic attributes did not exclude cultural erasure.
Race, as a hierarchical organizing principle, was at the core of the Soviet settler colonial logic. Since Russianness was a racialized category through which settler colonial governance was organized, it was not automatically granted or available to everyone. As Eric Weitz (2002: 12) argues, “The Russian people and culture were seen as manifestations of primordial being and the model for other nationalities.” While Russianness was narrated through the prism of heroism and sacrifice, the term “enemy nations” racialized entire groups as dangerous, and referred exclusively to non-Russians (Ibid.: 5).
Different ethnic groups had a different status in the hierarchy of ethnicities: deported “enemy nations” occupied the bottom rung, whereas metropolitan Russians occupied the highest position. Ethnicity was registered in personal official documents, which then influenced one’s status in the Soviet hierarchy. Non-Russian Slavic groups could be situationally privileged in case they underwent russification in order to increase the Russian settler population in the peripheries and to enlarge the Russian metropolitan heartland. Thus, the racialization of status was spatialized, too: as urban spaces were political and cultural nodes of settler colonialism, they were also spaces of russification. Urban status russified non-Russian people vis-à-vis their rural kin. While serving as sites of assimilation, cities were also spaces that marked and produced exclusion. As places of privilege that were not shared with rural peasants, cities were constantly regulated through the system of registration. Especially after World War II, cities were the primary spaces for the settlement of Russian settlers throughout the Soviet Union, and Russians received the most prestigious urban jobs (Lewis and Rowland, 1969: 794–795). Russianness as an imperial status was increasingly associated with urbanity and “higher culture,” while indigenous groups were associated with peasant culture, which was bracketed in the category of folklore.
Russification was uneven for Slavic vs. non-Slavic groups. Theoretically, a deported Ukrainian, Belarusian or Georgian (or, rather, their descendants) could become a recruited settler in the Baltics if they had become russified and educated in the city. A Tajik had fewer opportunities for moving to cities and, hence, for russification, but even so, their chances of becoming a russified settler in Tallinn were much lower, if they even existed at all. Groups that were neither russified nor urbanized could stay in the liminal position of neither settlers nor natives.
Mobility across the Soviet Union was equally racialized. The growth of the Muslim population in the 1970s was perceived in Moscow as a threat, and the Communist Party looked for ways of making the Slavic population larger by increasing birth rates (Lovett, 2022: 1). The migration of Central Asians to European parts of the Soviet Union as industrial laborers was prevented by both a lack of education due to the ethnic hierarchies and racial prejudice (Lovett, 2022). For non-Russian men, the army became the primary space for their russification. It is important to mention that a non-Russian minority could not be a majority ethnic group in an army unit, while purely Russian units existed (Laitin, 1998: 55) and were categorized as elite. During World War II, Central Asian soldiers were not allowed to train with arms, as they were considered suspect and were sent to the front untrained and used as cannon fodder (Carmack, 2019: 12–40). In the army, too, they faced systemic racism and violence.
Territorial and administrative reshuffling, the relocation of power centers, European architecture in non-European territories, and topocides fostered the uprooting of indigenous urban residents without their moving (Shelekpayev, 2018). Cities in the peripheries would then feel more familiar to Russian settlers than to the local population. When natives spoke their native language in russified settler spaces, these natives were considered foreign, while “the Russian colonists and their descendants remained overwhelmingly Russian in speech, customs, and religious beliefs” (Rieber, 2007: 265).
The settlement of national republics with settlers from Soviet Russia created a highly racialized spatial and economic division of labor. The expanded production of cotton in Central Asia was made possible by a system of child labor whereby children in the native countryside would spend around six months laboring in fields fertilized with highly toxic chemicals. This resulted in different educational outcomes and, therefore, employment opportunities for children from different ethnic groups. The children of ethnically Russian and/or Russian-speaking urban professionals and officials could go on to become qualified professionals themselves, while their native peers would continue to work the cotton fields. In the Soviet Union, race, land, and labor intersected to create hierarchies so that indigenous people perceived and experienced Soviet rule as Russian rule.
To date, the Soviet Union has largely been associated with anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, and has been ignored in debates over settler colonialism. Yet Soviet settler colonialism is crucial for reconsidering the links between socialism and colonialism. It shows how the abolition of private property and the market economy in the Soviet Union failed to eliminate colonial patterns of oppression, expropriation, physical and cultural violence against minorities, and racial hierarchies. The socialist economy and socialist governance perpetuated the very inequalities and colonial oppression that they claimed to eliminate. ∎
The authors would like to thank Nodira Kholmatova, Darren Byler, Tatiana Linkhoeva, Bruce Grant, Una Bergmane (for drawing attention to Bush–Gorbachev talks), Aija Lulle, Darya Tsymbalyuk, and Anna Engelhardt for valuable comments on earlier drafts of the article.
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About the contributors
Dr. Botakoz Kassymbekova is Assistant Professor in Modern History at the University of Basel, Switzerland. A native of Kazakhstan, she holds a Ph.D. from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She specializes in Soviet history, Stalinism, post-Stalinism, Russian imperial and Central Asian history.
Dr. Aminat Chokobaeva is an Assistant Professor of History at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. A native of Kyrgyzstan, she completed her PhD at the Australian National University in 2017. Her interests include the uprising of 1916 in nomadic Central Asia as well as the broader issues of state-building and governance in the region in the first two decades of Soviet rule.