The Treatment of Ethnic Minorities in the Soviet Union

While the Soviet Union’s leaders and authorities officially condemned nationalism and proclaimed internationalism, including their support of self-determination, in actual truth, many ethnic groups within the Soviet Union were treated horrendously.

While the founder of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin, had implemented a policy of korenization (which meant the integration of non-Russian nationalities into the governments of their specific Soviet republics) Stalin doubled down on many of these policies, instead branding a number of ethnic groups as ‘traitors’ and exiling them to Siberia or Central Asia as second-class citizens with restricted freedom and rights. In fact, the actions taken by Stalin can be described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ as they resulted in the forced deportation of millions of people and a large number of deaths. 

Deportation of Asian Ethnic Minorities

• The Deportation of Koreans (and Chinese)

Soviet ethnic cleansing commenced in the mid-1930s. The deportation of Koreans was the first mass transfer of an ethnic group in the Soviet Union. The idea originated in 1926, was initiated in 1930, and carried out through September and October 1937. During the operation, 171,781 people, almost the entire population of Ethnic Koreans living within the bounds of Soviet Russia, were deported from the Far East to unpopulated areas of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan via train. 

The Soviet justification for this was that the Chinese and Koreans living in the USSR were working as spies for Japan. It is estimated that the deportation contributed to up to 50,000 deaths of those who were forcefully moved, with people dying due to starvation, disease and difficulty adjusting to the unfamiliar environment. 

Due to similar reasoning, approximately 15,000 Chinese living in Soviet Russia were deported by 1937.

• The Deportation of the Kalmyk people (Operation Ulussy)

Meanwhile, under Operation Ulussy, 97,000–98,000 Kalmyk people, including Russian women married to Kalmyks, but with the exception of Kalmyk women married to another nationality, were deported to Siberia. The Kalmyk people had been collectively accused of collaboration with the Nazis and were packed into cargo wagons and deported or registered for future deportation. Around half of the Kalmyk people who were deported to Siberia died before Nikita Khrushchev finally allowed them to return home in 1957.

The map above shows the origin and destination of the ethnic Koreans who were deported by the Soviet Union.

The map above shows the origin and destinations of the Kalmyk people who were forcefully relocated by the government of the Soviet Union.

*Images from Wikimedia Commons

The Treatment of Eastern European Ethnic Groups

• The Deportation of Crimean Tartars

The forcible deportation of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea was ordered by Stalin in 1944 as another example of collective punishment for the Tartar's alleged collaboration with the occupying Nazi regime in the Taurida Subdistrict during 1942–1943. Overall, the entire ethnic Crimean Tatar population, constituting more than 230,000 people, were deported, with most of them going to Uzbekistan. According to a 1960s survey by Crimean Tatar activists, more than 100,000 died from starvation or disease as a direct result of deportation. After extensive anti-tartar propaganda, even after the end of Stalin's rule, their persecution continued as the vast majority of Crimean Tatars were forced to remain in exile under the household registration system until 1989, and the detartarisation campaign took place, which involved encouraging Slavs from Ukraine and Russia to repopulate the Crimean peninsula and replacing the Crimean names of most toponyms with Slavic names.

• The Genocide of the Cossacks

An example of genocide which took place in the Soviet Union was against the Cossacks in the Don and the Kuban. From 1919 to 1933, quote-in-quote "selfish and wealthy Cossack rebels" were arrested, deported and executed by the Cheka and Red Army. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 500,000 people died during the campaign, with up to 500,000 killed or deported from 1919 to 1920, out of a population of three million.

(Above) The winning song of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest performed in English and Crimean Tatar by Jamala (from Ukraine) was about the deportation of the Tartars at the hands of Joseph Stalin.

The Treatment of Western European Ethnic Groups

• The Attack on Ethnic Germans

As Stalin declared that “all Germans working in our military and chemical factories, electrical stations and at construction sites in all regions, must be arrested”, between 1937 and 1938, 56,787 ethnic Germans were arrested, of whom 41,898 were shot. Of them, just 820 of them were citizens of the German Reich, so referring to them as spies was a largely false claim. Later, within months of the Nazi invasion of Russia, more than 400,000 German descendants who were living along the Volga were transported east to Central Asia and Siberia. 

• The Attack on Soviet Poles and Latvians

Meanwhile, 139,815 Soviet Poles were arrested and 111,071 of them were executed. During the Latvian operation in December 1937, 17,851 Soviet citizens, most of whom were Latvian, were arrested and 13,444 were executed. Overall, between August 1937 and October 1938, over 335,000 people were arrested and 247,000 of them were shot by the NKVD.

The extent of Stalin's persecutions

Approximately one million people were removed by the NKVD from their homelands in the North Caucasus and Crimea for resettlement in Kazakhstan and Central Asia between 1943 and 1944. The efficiency of these operations was clearly demonstrated one night in February 1944, when tens of thousands of NKVD troops were assembled with an hour’s notice and deported the vast majority of the Chechen and Ingush populations. Those who were uncooperative or too ill to be moved were killed, while those that remained were transported by cattle cars and trucks, with many dying en route to Kazakhstan. Also in the mid-late 1940s, Stalin deported between 150,000 and 200,000, mostly Armenians and Azerbaijanis from the South Caucasus, and approximately 150,000 Turks, Kurds and Hemshils.

In fact, many ethnicities underwent the same sort of ethnic cleansing; being relocated to Kazakhstan and Siberia. They also encouraged Russian migration to these areas to tilt the population balance and discouraged the use of indigenous language, tried to suppress culture and eliminated minorities. The Soviets actively removed the threat of potential future ethnic leaders and opposition. As a part of the Polish operation, they shot 14,000 Polish officers.

National consciousness among the ethnic groups of the Northern Caucasus and the indigenous peoples of Siberia did not exist prior to the Soviet regime. Specifically, regarding the ethnic groups of North Caucasus, they saw themselves as members of clans, and then as members of a huge ethnic society of North Caucasian peoples. Two policies enacted by the Bolsheviks were critical to the development of national consciousness in the region: the 1921-22 creation of ethnically defined republics, and Stalin's 1944 deportation of the entire populations of the Karachay, Ingush, Balkar and Chechen national groups.

What other policies and actions did Stalin take toward ethnic minorities?

Stalin pursued a policy of Russianisation, in what was known as sblizhenie. He saw Russian culture and language as the links that would connect the various ethnicities in Soviet Russia. In the Great Terror, native communist elites were purged and replaced with Russians or those who had been educated on Russian culture, beliefs and language. Teaching the Russian language in all schools became mandatory and authority became more centralised in Moscow as the power of the SSRs were reduced.

Russian chauvinism was quickly revived under Stalin's rule in the 1930s. Although the federal state structure was preserved, the support for self-determination and regional autonomy was drastically reduced. In order to weaken the potential for uprisings, Stalin would randomly combine two or more unrelated ethnic groups within a single ethnic territory. For example, in the area which became Karachay-Cherkessia, Stalin combined the Caucasian and Turkic ethnicities, whose languages had no similarities with each other. He used a similar policy to form the Kabardino-Balkarian republic.

Another way of weakening ethnic groups was to draw artificial borders, which separated ethnicities and resources. In 1937 Stalin created three separate ethnic entities out of the former Mongolian Buryat Autonomous Republic: the republic of Buryatia, the Aga Buryat area within Chita oblast, which contained a particularly large amount of the former Buryat-Mongolia's cattle and farm areas, and the Ust' Orda area located in Irkutsk oblast, which was rich in lead. This created issues of conflict as resources were not shared equally.

Non-Russians in the USSR underwent harsh treatment and suppression. The Great Terror and the policies following World War II were particularly effective in destroying the non-Russian elites and allowing the Soviet Union to expand and strengthen its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, Stalin used the events of World War II to strengthen Russian nationalism, glorifying the importance of the Soviet and Bolshevik power within Russia's glorious history. Following the USSR's victory in the Second World War, Stalin celebrated the glory achieved by the Russians, whilst accusing and punishing other nationalities in the Soviet Union for treason.

The reality of the Jewish Liberation by the Red Army

The Soviet Union's Red Army is often celebrated for its liberation of the Jews from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War, however, under Stalin, Soviet Russia denied that the Holocaust ever existed, removed Jewish scholars from the sciences, censored literature which mentioned the genocide of the Jews, and denied emigration rights to the Jews.

On the 12th of August 1952, Stalin’s antisemitism became more visible. In the Night of the Murdered Poets, he called for the execution of the most prominent Yiddish authors in the Soviet Union, and in 1953 began an anti-semitic campaign known as the “Doctor’s Plot”, accusing Jewish doctors of plotting against the state. He died before the latter took place. Stalin’s beliefs became more anti-semitic prior to his death, and his beliefs shared a clear similarity with the Nazi’s beliefs of a ‘Jewish world conspiracy’. 

(Above) Jewish inmates of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The complex was liberated by the Soviet Union on the 27th of January 1945.