Industrious Nations: Reconsidering Nationality and Economy in the Soviet Union

Industrious Nations: Reconsidering Nationality and Economy in the Soviet Union

Sohee Ryuk / Sam Coggeshall, Columbia University; Jonathan Raspe, Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey
United States
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
28.10.2022 - 29.10.2022
Jonathan Raspe, Department of History, Princeton University

In the Soviet Union, the pursuit of economic equality among all national groups was an explicit goal of state policy. While the extent to which this was achieved preoccupied social scientists on either side of the Iron Curtain while the Soviet Union existed, this interest did not translate into a similar level of attention from historians to the interplay of nationality and economic issues after 1991. Within the study of Soviet history, nationality and the economy have instead largely constituted separate fields. Historians writing on nationality in the Soviet Union have long focused on the politics of language and culture, national delimitation, and mass repression. At the same time, scholars researching the Soviet economy have often tacitly assumed a uniform, technocratic, de-nationalized society, revealing an imagined binary of Soviet vs. national. In a similar vein, studies of the Soviet working class have long centered on ethnic Russians, paying little attention to other national groups.

In order to bridge this analytical gap, this workshop brought together a group of scholars whose work engages with both topics. Marking the centennial of the Soviet Union’s founding in 1922, the workshop provided a platform to exchange ideas on how to combine both issues in a meaningful way. A dozen presenters were invited to pre-circulate papers, which formed the basis of discussion. The papers touched on a broad range of topics, including labor migration and recruitment, the impact of national considerations on economic arguments, and the relationship between economic imagination and perceptions of nationality. The workshop included a keynote lecture and concluded with a roundtable discussion to reflect on the panels.

The first panel focused on policymaking. EPP ANNUS (Columbus/Tallinn) explored the emergence of republican self-management as an idea among Estonian economists and intellectuals during Perestroika. Relaxation of ideological control combined with the center’s renewed interest in economic self-management allowed for the creation of a discursive space in which Estonian intellectuals reconceived Estonian economic activity as resource-efficient self-responsibility (peremehetunne) in opposition to the existing wasteful Soviet system.

DAVID BRANDENBERGER (Richmond) examined half a dozen party program drafts commissioned by A. A. Zhdanov in 1947 for their vision of nationalities policy. Minor differences notwithstanding, the proposals all underlined the leading role of the Russians and of the Russian language in economic development. While they maintained that national differences would continue to exist in the foreseeable future, they took no interest in the historical agency of the non-Russian nationalities and measured their progress in terms of their emulation of the Russian model.

NIKOLAY MITROKHIN (Bremen) investigated the emergence of Belarusian self-interest in economic affairs based on partisan warfare during the Second World War. Belarus paved the way for Gorbachev’s economic reforms in two regards: on the one hand as a testing site for experiments in self-management, on the other hand through the involvement of former managers and engineers from the Minsk machine-building industry in the design of the reforms.

The comment provided by Wendy Goldman (Pittsburgh) and the following discussion focused on the prevalence of national categories in economic thought and practice, as well as on the specificity of individual republics. Why did Estonian and Moscow-based politicians focus on nationality rather than class in their proposals? How did initiatives for greater self-management in Belarus and Estonia relate to events in other republics? To which extent did the development of these ideas over time reflect more general Soviet experiences rather than national peculiarities?

The second panel compared nationally colored ideas of industrialization. ALEKSANDR KOROBEINIKOV (Vienna/Budapest) examined the interplay of early postrevolutionary visions of a prosperous future and the delimitation and institutionalization of national autonomy in the 1920s. This so-called opportunities period allowed Sakha intellectuals to imagine a prosperous Yakut republic based on revenues from the Aldan gold fields, which facilitated local control over these resources.

BEATRICE PENATI (Liverpool) followed the debates of four Russian economists and their schools in Soviet Turkestan on the eve of collectivization: as they discussed the prevalence of capitalism in Central Asia prior to 1917 and the ideal scale of cotton farming, they promoted differing visions of regional agricultural development and industrialization.

TAMAR QEBURIA (Tbilisi/Göttingen) examined how technological innovation in metallurgy became a focal point for images of national development and steppingstone for local engineers in postwar Georgia. To the engineers and managers that her paper traces, socialist industrialization and national aspirations were two sides of the same coin.

In her comment, Claire Roosien (New Haven) emphasized the role of space and time in this section, as all three papers focused on visions of future prosperity in a clearly demarcated place. How did conceptions of regionality interact with nationality? Why was progress imagined to be premised on industrialization? As other participants noted, the economic development that the actors of these papers lobbied were, in fact, primarily based on resource extraction: gold in Yakutia, cotton in Turkestan, and ferroalloys in Georgia. Yet any concerns about this were offset by the promise that industrialization would change modes of production—through economies of scale, rationality, and discipline—and thus help modernize the nation.

Following the first two panels, ARTEMY KALINOVSKY (Philadelphia) addressed the workshop in a keynote lecture on changes and continuity in development models proposed for Central Asian societies before and after 1991. Orthodox Soviet thought considered the Central Asian republics the least progressive parts of the country and most in need of assistance. By the 1980s, however, Soviet scholars arrived at the conclusion that while previous development schemes had largely failed to materialize, the local population was still better off than anticipated due to non-wage earnings ignored by standard models. Reflecting this perceived persistence of traditional patriarchal structures, scientists proposed formalizing home and cottage labor to better utilize the labor of women and improve their living conditions. During and after Perestroika, the assumption that Central Asia had been least affected by the Soviet mode of development turned the region into a seemingly ideal site for capitalist development. Assuming cross-border similarities among “Asian” societies, politicians in Moscow and regional capitals considered Central Asia perfectly suited to follow the successful path of countries such as Japan or South Korea. After 1991, the involvement of international development organization mirrored earlier Soviet trajectories: through their focus on the emancipation of women as a key driver of social change, this time through female entrepreneurship, but also through their gradual shift from attempting to import standardized models to struggling with a perceived Central Asian specificity.

The papers on the third panel focused on labor. ZOÉ ALLEN-MERCIER (Turku/Paris) examined the impact of industrialization and labor migration on Soviet Karelia. In combination with policies of linguistic Finnicization and Russification, the liquidation of smaller villages and urbanization chipped away at largely rural Karelian, Veps, and Ingrian communities, a trend that could not be addressed publicly prior to Glasnost.

KATERYNA BURKUSH (Berlin) explored changing patterns of seasonal out-migration in Transcarpathia. Increasing organized recruitment (orgnabor) across republican borders in the 1950s gave rise to unregulated seasonal labor migration for work in agriculture, forestry, and rural construction, which was attractive to both contractors and employers due to high earnings and reliable job completion. It was only through creating more jobs in Transcarpathia that the state was able to reduce the number of unregulated seasonal workers starting in the 1970s.

WENDY GOLDMAN (Pittsburgh) analyzed the recruitment of Central Asians into factory work in the Urals during the Second World War, a world previously unknown to many of the recruited rural dwellers. While many Central Asians were subject to discrimination based on their nationality, they were also the only group of workers pointing to their nationality in order to complain about the generally poor conditions of work.

JONATHAN RASPE (Princeton) compared campaigns to train future Belarusian and Kazakh industrial workers in Russia and Ukraine, which testified both to a commitment to creating a national working class and to concerns about the reliability of these workers. In addition, a comparison of the campaigns’ design and implementation illustrated the different status of Kazakhs and Belarusians on the factory shop floor.

Artemy Kalinovsky’s (Philadelphia) comment and the following discussion examined forms of, rationales for, and motivations behind labor migration. Several participants suggested approaches that question binaries such as voluntary vs. involuntary or organized vs. unregulated migration.

The fourth and final panel brought together papers that explored how economic activity contributed to imaginations of national communities. ROBERT GERACI (Urbana-Champaign) examined the interviews conducted in 1950/51 for the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (HPSSS) for national stereotypes. Indeed, many interviewees ascribed certain economic activities and behavior patterns to specific national groups, which testified to the persistence of such holdovers from the Tsarist period.

SOHEE RYUK (New York) traced how the Soviet state attempted to reorganize the carpet handicraft industry and categorize its products in interwar Dagestan, a territory with a diverse ethnic population. While the local character of carpets persisted, Soviet authorities successfully rebranded and commodified them as national products slated for hard currency exports.

JEFF SAHADEO (Ottawa) explored how Georgia’s rich river system inspired conflicting economic and ecological visions of the nation in the late Soviet period. Opposing interpretations of natural resources clashed as local environmental concerns – partially put forth by non-titular national communities – conflicted with plans to regulate and dam rivers for hydroelectric power stations in order to increase Georgia’s economic potential and prestige.

The following debate, initiated by a comment from Sarah Cameron (College Park), interrogated the origins of these national interpretations of economic activity. Did they reflect pre-Soviet or even non-Soviet ideas of the nation? How did such discourses respond to experiences of the Soviet era, and to what extent did they change in times of crises? In addition, part of the discussion turned to potential sources for these elusive phenomena, in particular how the answers to the above questions may depend on what kind of sources are used – interviews, memoirs, state-sanctioned publications, or internal reports in state archives, for example.

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring Sarah Cameron (College Park), Claire Roosien (New Haven), Lewis Siegelbaum (East Lansing), Andrew Sloin (New York), and Anna Whittington (Urbana-Champaign). Moderated by Sam Coggeshall (New York), the discussion set out to briefly contextualize the results of the panels within the study of Soviet history and propose avenues for future scholarship on nationality and the economy. After several rounds of responses from roundtable speakers, the debate was opened to the other workshop participants and attendees. There was a consensus about the timeliness of greater attention to questions of nationality, as Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine spawned urges to decolonize a field that many have identified as Russocentric. More broadly, some suggested that the workshop illustrated the need to examine economic matters in conjunction with cultural affairs, as well as vice versa. Issues that were raised for future consideration included the experience of non-titular and internal diaspora nationalities, the role of Russians, the working of national hierarchies, and factors explaining the long cohesiveness of the multinational Soviet system. Several participants also stressed the importance of crossing the established 1991 divide between Soviet and post-Soviet affairs, as well as ways to contextualize Soviet experiences in a global setting. In this regard, the question of whether it would be useful to apply concepts of race and racism to the Soviet Union emerged as a point of contention: while some participants cautioned against importing American debates to Soviet history, others pointed to what they considered similar practices of racialization in the postwar Soviet society. Another argument concerned the focus of research more fundamentally, as several speakers urged shifting attention away from discursive questions to strictly economic issues, in particular the financial relationship between the republics and the center and labor relations on the Soviet shop floor.

Conference overview:

Panel 1: Policies

Epp Annus (Columbus/Tallinn): Neoliberal Revolutionaries: The Idea of Economic Self-Management in the Late 1980s Estonian SSR

David Brandenberger (Richmond): Imagining the Communist Future: Soviet Nationality and Development Policy in the 1947 Party Program

Nikolay Mitrokhin (Bremen): How Belarusians Helped Gorbachev: The Minsk Clan in Soviet Economic Policy in the 1980s

Chair: Wendy Z. Goldman (Pittsburgh)

Panel 2: Interactions

Aleksandr Korobeinikov (Vienna/Budapest): “Gold and Furs are the Alpha and Omega of the Yakut Economy”: The Sakha Intellectuals in the Early Soviet Nationality and Economic Policy

Beatrice Penati (Liverpool): Cotton, Capitalism, and Colonial Legacies in Central Asia’s Own “Agrarian Debate”

Tamar Qeburia (Tbilisi/Göttingen): The Social Fabric of Industrial Technology: The Closed-Top Furnace Caught Between the Socialist and Nationalist Identity

Chair: Claire Roosien (New Haven)

Keynote Lecture

Artemy Kalinovsky (Philadelphia): Exceptions to Socialism: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Transformation of Soviet Development in Comparative Perspective

Panel 3: Labor

Zoé Allen-Mercier (Turku/Paris): “From Backward Outskirts of Tsarist Russia to a Republic with Developed Industry, Mechanized Agriculture and Advanced Socialist Culture”: The Intersection of Economy and Nationality in Soviet Karelia

Kateryna Burkush (Berlin): Industrious but Inglorious: On Regional History of Seasonal Workers from Transcarpathia and Their Public Image, 1950s–1980s

Wendy Z. Goldman (Pittsburgh): The War Economy: Central Asian Workers and Labor Mobilization

Jonathan Raspe (Princeton): Creating National Workers: Industrial Recruitment Campaigns in Kazakhstan and Belarus, 1944–1959

Chair: Artemy Kalinovsky (Philadelphia)

Panel 4: Communities

Robert Geraci (Urbana-Champaign): Out of the Bazaar and Back Again

Sohee Ryuk (New York): Locating the Nation in the Handicraft Carpet Industry in the Soviet Caucasus

Jeff Sahadeo (Ottawa): Rivers and Visions of Nation in Late Soviet Georgia

Chair: Sarah Cameron (College Park)

Roundtable Discussion

Sarah Cameron (College Park), Claire Roosien (New Haven), Lewis Siegelbaum (East Lansing), Andrew Sloin (New York), Anna Whittington (Urbana-Champaign)

Moderator: Sam Coggeshall (New York)