It is rare to write this in a review, but I am thrilled by reading Adrienne Edgar’s book on interethnic marriage. This is not only because her research speaks to me on a personal level (my wife is from Central Asia), but also because it is such an original work of scholarship on the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the 20th century. Edgar’s book is based on a series of interviews conducted by the author in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. While these may not be representative in a statistical sense, the collected material is varied enough to represent a wide range of social strata, generations, and ethnicities. At the same time, the life stories in Edgar’s book also reveal common experiences and concerns that were shaped by specific Soviet values and beliefs.
It is well-known that the Soviet state promoted ethnic differences by establishing national republics. At the same time, the state and its social scientists encouraged the rapprochement of nationalities, and thus tended to view interethnic marriage as a positive sign of the amalgamation of different ethnic groups. The Soviet state contrasted its enlightened encouragement of interethnic marriage with racist policies elsewhere – in Nazi Germany, but also in the United States and South Africa. Soviet social scientists actively promoted marriages that would help to strengthen the bonds between different nationalities, and lead to the emergence of a “new historical community – [the Soviet] people” (p. 24). At the same time, Edgar argues that implicitly biological assumptions about ethnicity did not completely fade away, and even had a comeback in the so-called “ethnos theory” during the late Soviet era.
Interethnic couples thus had to navigate a complex discursive environment. Their choice of partner was encouraged as a sign of interethnic rapprochement, yet at the same time, they had to cope with primordial assumptions about inescapable ethnic identity. The most frequent and unproblematic type of intermarriage occurred between culturally close groups such as Russians and Ukrainians. Such marriages were presented as a sign of a larger trend toward intermarriage in the Soviet Union, but their ubiquity somewhat obscured the fact that other types of interethnic marriages remained rare. In her research, Edgar instead focuses on marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.), particularly between “Muslim” men and “non-Muslim”, usually Russian-speaking, women. While Muslim women rarely had the chance to meet, let alone marry, a Russian man, Muslim men moved more freely and could more easily overcome their families’ opposition. What is more, the repression of religion in public life made it easier to transgress ethnic and cultural divides.
Marriage was influenced by its traditional conceptualization as a bond between families rather than an individual choice. During the Soviet era, a minority of young people began to opt instead for love, and the encouragement of interethnic marriages by the Soviet state helped them to overcome the resistance of their families. Edgar shows how in the late Soviet Union, some interethnic couples aspired to be particularly Soviet. Within such marriages, the Russian language became dominant, and some couples claimed that they identified with communist, atheist, and internationalist ideals. At the same time, Edgar’s research reveals that gender roles among such couples did not necessarily correspond to the emancipatory ideals promoted by the socialist state. While some couples did transgress gender norms, it is also well-known that the domestic division of labor remained highly unequal throughout the Soviet Union. For non-Muslim women marrying a Central Asian man, there was additional pressure to adapt to the ideals of an “Eastern Woman.” This usually entailed subordination to her husband and his family, and an almost complete disregard for her personal needs or ambitions.
Many mixed couples encountered dilemmas of identity and belonging, making difficult choices about the names of their children and the values to be conveyed in their education. Upon reaching adulthood, children of mixed couples were forced to choose one passport identity, and they had to deal with implicit or explicit assumptions of others about them and their identity. Some mixed people identified as culturally and linguistically Russian, but due to racial markers such as hair and skin tone others identified them as Asian. That racial markers often overrule cultural or linguistic signs of belonging is not unique to the Soviet Union, but the ubiquity of such implicitly racist assumptions about mixed people undermines the anti-racist self-image promoted by the Soviet state.
The book’s last chapter is devoted to the evolution of interethnic marriage after the end of the Soviet Union, since which the societies of Central Asia have changed profoundly. Ethno-nationalist views have gained strength and Islam has made a comeback as a marker of cultural identity, while the supra-ethnic and atheist Soviet identity has ceased to be an alternative. State feminism made room for essentialized visions of gender relations. At the same time, marriages with foreigners from outside the former Soviet Union have become more frequent. The author mentions various reasons for this trend, above all economic. Within this new context of post-Soviet nation-building, interethnic marriage remains accepted but also contested. Nevertheless, despite the profound societal changes since the collapse of the USSR, Edgar avoids labeling such developments a retraditionalization. In fact, the roots of the more primordial and biological ways of conceptualizing ethnicity are to be found in the Soviet past. In Edgar’s words: “Paradoxically, the state that celebrated intermarriage also nurtured the ideas that would ultimately be used to reject it.” (p. 211)
Edgar’s research is in many ways original and innovative, and it thus opens a wide new field of research in Soviet studies that others might want to expand. First, it might be interesting to find out more about the relevance of religion, including Christianity, and its intersections with ethnicity. Edgar does mention this aspect, but I wonder whether it is enough to characterize Russians or Ukrainians as “non-Muslim” (while unquestioningly identifying all Central Asians as “Muslim”). Second, Edgar has conducted a complex case study in one of the regions of the former USSR that was profoundly affected by the immigration of Russian speakers, and by the increasing dominance of so-called Soviet cultural values and beliefs. While reading the book, I wondered about the prevalence of colonial categories and perceptions and their reflection on interethnic marriages. It might be relevant to study marriage choices among the party elite, who had to know not only the Russian language but also assimilate in one way or another to succeed. Finally, in the future, it might be of interest to study other seemingly ethnically close regions’ interethnic couples and their relevance, including Russian-Ukrainian couples. Even if such marriages were more frequent and seemingly unproblematic, a closer study might challenge the perception of interethnic harmony. In particular, it will be important to study how such Ukrainian-Russian couples navigated the civil turned uncivil divorce between Russia and Ukraine that continues to unfold in front of our eyes.
From a more global perspective, I read Edgar’s book as an analysis of the possibilities and challenges of interethnic marriage. The author shows how a socialist state created opportunities for overcoming ethnic barriers. Many mixed couples and their children felt comfortable living in a state that promoted the friendship of its peoples. Nevertheless, Soviet attempts to integrate and merge ethnic groups also remained contradictory and created new divisions. By promoting passport identities, the Soviet state nurtured increasingly fixed categories of difference. In some ways, interethnic couples were the vanguard of the struggle to de-emphasize ethnic divisions but, just like elsewhere throughout the modern world, they also found themselves at the heart of the struggle over competing conceptualizations of difference. Instead of undoing ethnic divisions, the Soviet state helped to nurture and redefine them in increasingly racialized terms.