An Historical Overview of Minorities in Russia

Russia has often had its problems when dealing with the minority populations within its borders. From alienation to outright genocidal extermination the Russians have proved to be incredibly xenophobic at times. Between the Principality of Rus to the modern distorted, democratic Russia minorities have often been oppressed, at times even beyond the borders of Russia itself.

Some of the largest groups to have suffered under Russia, and which I will cover in the proceeding paragraphs are the Jews, Ukrainians and Poles. This is largely because they’ve always bordered the Russian people and have at times have been integrated into the folds of the empire. More recently there are problems with Islamic provinces since the breakup of the Soviet Union along with the infiltration of the Chinese along the Siberian border. But to center on this for a moment, Islam was one of the rare instances where a religion or people weren’t as persecuted. Catherine the Great encouraged Islamic expansion to create solidarity among Russia’s more outlying provinces, and more recently the Chinese should be welcomed into Siberia, a region that had been largely ignored and has since become a caricature after the Soviets expanded their gulag prison system.

Russia has made it a priority to subjugate anyone who wasn’t Russian. A big part of this reason has to lay with its low population scattered across the steppes. Whenever a new region was integrated or conquered into the Russian territorial folds the total percentage of true Russians as a population dropped to make room for Tartars, Poles, Ukrainians, Finns and the like. To make a distinction for this point, Geoffrey Hosking cited in Russia and the Russians that, “[In 1897] Ukrainians formed the second-largest nationality… nearly 18 percent of the population” (335). The distrust the Russian people have for all minorities seems to stem from not having a large enough majority.

Ivan IV, or the Terrible, once spoke, “Though I am a sinner as a man, as Tsar I am righteous.” Even when Russia wasn’t ruled by Tsars the phrase has been adopted through time ad infinitum. Therefore, when the Ukrainians were subjected by Russia, it set a precedent. However, this didn’t truly come to a catastrophic force until more modern times.

The droughts of the 1890s which affected Ukraine and Central Asia seemed to give the Soviets an idea when requisitions were proposed for Ukraine in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Ukraine was often believed to have been the breadbasket of the empire but unfortunately for the Ukrainians, they weren’t Russian. Genocide through agriculture was initiated by Stalin in the 1930’s. In The Ukrainians: An Unexpected Nation, Andrew Wilson wrote, “…the key cause of famine was Stalin’s 44% increase in Ukraine’s grain procurement quota in 1932” (145). He later added in the same paragraph that guards were even posted on the Ukrainian-Russian border. This is the equivalent of segregation, theft and an obvious attempt to starve an entire people.

The intentional starvation of Ukrainians was so widespread that there were claims of cannibalism within the region. Further illustrating this point Rupert Butler wrote in Stalin’s Instruments of Terror, “’…the stations were lined with begging peasants with swollen hands and feet, the women holding up to the carriage windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, sticklike limbs and swollen, pointed bellies’” (53). The treatment of a people as though they were less than living was a Stalinist staple but it was an established precedent in Russia.

Ukraine had been devastated through 1921 to 1933. But the devastation of land and men was exacerbated by the Second World War. Hosking cited the agriculture events of the 1930s again when he wrote, “…by 1952 [grain in Ukraine] still had not reached prewar levels” (526). From the time Stalin took power after Lenin’s death until Stalin’s own demise, Ukraine had been a ravaged black scar on the face of the Russian Empire which wasn’t able to heal until long after Stalin’s eyes had closed for the final time.

Even with Stalin gone the Ukrainians wouldn’t be left alone. In The Ukrainians, Wilson added that, “…an estimated 50% of all political prisoners in the USSR in the late 1960’s were Ukrainians” (153). This is a staggering number that continued to harass the survivors of what was essentially a localized man-made drought of the 1930’s.

The Poles were attacked even more, particularly after the last Partition of Poland. Norman Davies in Europe: A History stated, “Of 800,000… conquered ‘souls’ redistributed by Catherine II, no fewer than 500,000 came from Poland-Lithuania alone” (655). This clearly indicates a philosophy early on that Poles were no more than slaves, or chattel to be transferred across Russia. While slavery was still prominent during these times, serfdom was declining in the western world; in Eastern Europe it was undoubtedly increasing which would only enhance Russia’s troubles for future generations.

Progress against the Poles continued in later decades through Alexander II. Davies reported again that eighty thousand Poles had to traverse the steppes of Russia and Central Asia until they had finally arrived in Siberia, January 1863 (828). However, crimes would continue and would become more violent and widespread under the Soviet government.

World War II offered Stalin lucrative opportunities to rid the empire of those who objected or were a perceived as an affront to how Russia ought to be shaped. Stalin was an opportunistic man in this regard. Anne Applebaum’s book, Gulag: A History reported “In April 1940, the NKVD secretly murdered more than 20,000 of the captured Polish officers…” (430). The sheer size of this massacre against the Poles is incredible.

When Poland and Lithuania had shed some of the weight from of its master they still suffered under Russia’s domineering style. In a 2006 Foreign Affairs article, Danger and Opportunity in Eastern Europe, F. Stephen Larrabee wrote that Russia, “…halted crude oil deliveries to the Mazeikiai refinery, Lithuania’s largest oil refinery.” Coincidentally, a suspicious fire occurred within the plant in the same year.

The Jews throughout the history of the Russian state have often been targeted. The first of these major events travels all the way back to the “righteous” Tsar, Ivan IV when according to Albertas Gerutis who wrote in Lithuania 700 Years, “… when the stronghold of Polock fell [in 1563… Ivan IV] had the Jewish population drowned in the Daugalla River, killed the Bernardine monks…” (79). These atrocities, while not strangers to their time, show a repeated path taken by the Russian leaders through its history.

These policies permit one to explore the possibility that a violent revolution may have been prevented in 1917 if Russia’s minorities had been better protected. Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution says, “The assassin [of M.S. Uritskii, a chief of Petrograd Cheka] was a Jewish youth… It later transpired that he had acted on his own, to avenge the execution of a friend” (806). There can be little doubt that more crimes like this had occurred for these reasons. Crime against innocent people creates more crime.

More can be added to the plight of the Jews but much of it is common knowledge. The terrors they suffered under the Tsar’s White Army all the way through Stalin’s Doctor’s Plot. They have been the punching bag of Europe for centuries and even after the creation of a Jewish state after the Second World War, the Jews continue to be demonized throughout the continent just because its been ingrained within the European personality from one century to the next. It will take both Europe and Russia generations to eventually overcome their historic and irrational grievances against the Jewish people.

To survive the future Russia must change its policies. It is still a violent country which insists on handcuffing its minorities before giving them a chance to contribute to society. Nearly thirty years have passed since the Soviet Union crumbled, expelling numerous nationalities to create new national borders. Russia remains the dominant in the region but it hasn’t changed much of its policies towards it minorities. These policies are now being popularized against the gay communities as well.

Russia is still a restrictive place. The New Global Slave Trade by Ethan B. Kapstein cites Russia was one of the largest countries for slave abduction in 2006. One and a half years later a Foreign Affairs article, The Myth of the Authoritarian Model written by Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss noted that, “…Russia now ranks as the third-most-dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, behind only Iraq and Colombia.” Russia should be able to better protect its people, even if it has to protect them from itself.

The main purpose behind Russia needing to alter its behavior toward minorities is because it needs them. The Russian population is not growing. In fact, it has been declining. In 2007, Yuliya Tymoshenko’s article Containing Russia mentioned the loss of 700,000 Russians per year. By 2050 she expects that number to drop below 100 million people which would result in a smaller economy, even more diversity and a much smaller military. This would be disastrous for Russia’s hopes of returning to the status of being a great power.

Russia has not altered its path. When a politician or ex-spy is poisoned, it’s common to think of Russia. They have strong armed Poland to the point that other European powers have suggested Poland to give up some of its rights. Even the United States under President Obama had vowed to remove missiles from the area. And the Jews are no better off even if they flee to Israel since Russia commonly supports the more backward and oppressive governments surrounding that nation.

Without a cultural revolution and a rethinking of how they want the world to perceive them, the Russians will crumble without the aid of its neighbors or without the aid of the minorities currently living throughout Russia. Russia will never be the nation it had once been on this trajectory. If it is to be realized as a great power again it will not be in the way it was once under the Tsars or under the Soviets. It must be a democracy inclusive of its minorities. It has proven unwilling to change and for that reason it will continue to destroy itself in the process.

Works Cited

Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.

Butler, Rupert. Stalin’s Instruments of Terror from 1917-1991: CHEKA, OGPU, NKVD, KGB. London: Amber, 2006. Print.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Gerutis, Albertas. Lithuania 700 Years. New York: Maryland, 1969. Print.

Hosking, Geoffrey A. Russia and the Russians: A History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2001. Print.

Kapstein, Ethan B. “The New Global Slave Trade.” Foreign Affairs 1 Nov/Dec. 2006: Print.

Larrabee, F. Stephen. “Danger and Opportunity in Eastern Europe.” Foreign Affairs 1 Nov/Dec. 2006: Print.

McFaul, Michael, and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss. “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model.” Foreign Affairs 1 Jan/Feb. 2008: Print.

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1990. Print.

Tymoshenko, Yuliya. “Containing Russia.” Foreign Affairs 1 May/June 2007: Print.

Wilson, Andrew. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

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