BASEES Annual Conference 2022

“Affirmative action” and terror behind barbed wire?: the construction of ethnicity in the Soviet GULAG, 1930–1953

Fri8  Apr02:00pm(20 mins)
CWB Syndicate Room 1


Mikhail Nakonechnyi


After the partial opening of the Soviet archives, historians generated a prodigious body of meticulous research devoted to the artificial construction of ethnic minority identities by the Soviet state in the broader society. 2 However, the social environment behind barbed wire – the notorious GULAG– remained out of the scholarly spotlight or was mentioned only tangentially. Often historical scholarship uncritically reiterates the ubiquitous façade constructed by the penal authorities: that the USSR’s penitentiary system was “ethnically blind”. According to this official viewpoint, the use of ethnicity as a signifier, however nebulously and contradictory it was construed during the tumultuous years of Stalinism, was deliberately supressed within the context of the GULAG as irrelevant. In theory and practice, the penal administration treated all prisoners equally, despite their “nationality” (nat’sional’nost’), animated by so–called “Friendship of peoples” concept (Druzhba narodov). By contrast, in this paper I will try to prove that “nationality” or “ethnicity”, as a bureaucratic labelling device and socially constructed artefact, did, in fact, play an underestimated role in the decision–making of GULAG bureaucrats, despite the official repudiation of its saliency. My central argument is that “ethnicity” (understood here as socially constructed categorization tool of the state) was hidden (but invariably present) behind the façade of the “Friendship of peoples” ideology during more “stable” periods of the GULAG’s operation. Conversely, it became salient for the state actors in the times of crisis, for example during war, famines, state terror campaigns and political upheavals.