Course Content

Total learning: 15 lessons Time: 1 semester

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Weeks 11-12. The Soviet “Affirmative Action Empire” vs. the “Empire of Nations:” Ethnicity without Nationalism in a (Post)Imperial Setting

A. The “Terry Martin Thesis:” How Innovative Was Soviet Nationality Policy? (Week 11)

The two classes on Weeks 11 and 12 will address one of the most fruitful and productive polemics in recent historiography, centering on the nature and dynamics of the Soviet nationalities policy (or ‘politics of ethnicity’) during the immediate postwar period. In his seminal book The Affirmative Action Empire, Terry Martin forcefully argued that the new Bolshevik government attempted to circumvent the danger of nationalism at the peripheries by effectively devising a revolutionary nationalities policy, based on four factors / premises: 1) the ‘Marxist premise’ (granting the external forms of nationhood in order to thwart nationalism); 2) the ‘modernization premise’ (national consciousness as an inevitable historical stage to be experienced by all peoples on their way to internationalism); 3) the ‘colonial premise’ and the ‘greatest danger principle’ (non-Russian nationalism was justifiable as a response to oppression, while ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ was a greater danger than local nationalism); and 4) the ‘Piedmont principle’ (the exploitation of cross-border ethnic ties to project political influence into neighboring states). In Martin’s view, this policy found its concrete application in the process of korenizatsiia (indigenization), which meant fostering and supporting the following ‘four national forms: national territories, national languages, national elites, and national cultures.’ This system purportedly functioned between 1923 and the mid-1930s, when it was dismantled by Stalin and replaced by terror and a Russo-centric approach. We will closely look at Martin’s thesis and question its validity and analytical effectiveness in order to answer the following questions: How innovative and revolutionary was the early Soviet nationalities policy? How was it affected by WWI?


  • Ronald Grigor Suny, “The Empire Strikes Out: Imperial Russia, “National” Identity, and Theories of Empire,” Martin and Suny, A State of Nations, 2001, 23-66.
  • Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, chapters 1 (“The Soviet Affirmative Action Empire”), 1-27 and 2 (“Borders and Ethnic Conflict,” 31-55.
  • Martin, “The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing,” in: Journal of Modern History, 70, 4, 1998, 813-861.


B. The “Francine Hirsch” Thesis: Continuity vs. Rupture in the Soviet View of Ethnicity (Week 12)

Contrary to Martin, who emphasized rupture and innovation, in her book Empire of Nations Francine Hirsch argued for continuity between the imperial and Soviet ‘politics of ethnicity.’ She did this by closely focusing on the history of Soviet ethnography and boundary-making. Hirsch showed that early Soviet ethnography practiced an approach she called ‘state-sponsored evolutionism.’ She insisted that the Soviet state pursued a more gradual pace of change, epitomized by the forging of a temporary ‘alliance’ between ethnographic knowledge (symbolized by the experts associated to the ancien régime) and the new revolutionary government. Again, contrary to Martin, who focused on ‘central’ signals originating in the party apparatus, Hirsch emphasized the importance of the local contexts of reception and manipulation of centrally-generated policies and the construction of a specific language for dealing with Soviet authorities. While Martin perceived a radical break in central policy, signaled by the Ukrainian case of ‘local nationalism’ (1932-33) and completed during the Great Terror, Hirsch denied the existence of a ‘Great Retreat’ and saw the eventual consolidation of national territories as a logical outcome of ‘state-sponsored evolutionism’. Hirsch was also interested in the issue of connections to and borrowings from the wider interwar European context. She closely examined the Soviet response to the ‘Nazi ideological threat’ of racial science and eugenics, which resulted in the creation of a self-consciously anti-racist Soviet ‘racial science.’ We will address the following final questions: Are these two visions mutually exclusive or complementary? What kind of ‘modernity’ did the USSR represent, judging by the peculiarities of its ‘nationalities policy’?


  • Roshwald, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires, chapter 6 (“Defining the Boundaries of the Nation, 1918-1923”), 171-183.
  • Hirsch, Empire of Nations, Introduction (1-20) and chapter 6 (“State-Sponsored Evolutionism and the Struggle against German Biological Determinism”), 231-272.