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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: December 2014

6 - The Nation That Wasn't There?


Unlike in Britain, Yugoslavia, India, or America, “Soviet” was never considered an ethnic or a national identity.

The internal passport system acted as a powerful instrument of social control but undermined the development of a common Soviet identity.

Soviet citizens have had internal passports that recorded their ethnicity since 1932. Dozens of ethnic groups benefitted from affirmative action policies and acquired autonomous territories on the basis of their ethnicity. Unfortunately, the deportation of all ethnic Germans, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and other ethnic groups, resulting in the decimation of their populations, was also made possible by “passport ethnicity,” which was also used to discriminate against Jews in politics and employment. Despite the push for the creation of a supraethnic Soviet identity, attempts to remove ethnicity from the passport failed from the 1950s until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Why?

I challenge the hegemonic view in the study of Soviet politics that “Soviet was never considered…a national identity.” In the course of this chapter, I demonstrate that there was an effort akin to “nation building” at the all-Soviet level, expressed by the increasingly ubiquitous notion of Sovetskii narod. The term is often translated as the “Soviet people,” but it can also be expressed in the English language as the “Soviet nation.” While demonstrating that there has been a concerted effort to promote a Soviet national identity, which intensified in the post-Stalinist period, I ask why Soviet authorities were unable to eliminate the ethnicity category in the internal passport, which I see as a parallel endeavor in the same direction that failed. This is a key question because “passport ethnicity” constituted the microfoundation of institutionalized multiethnicity in the Soviet Union and served as a major obstacle that prevented the much-anticipated “merger” (sliianie) of ethnicities into the supraethnic collectivity that the concept of Sovetskii narod encapsulates. Failure to remove ethnicity from the internal passport denotes a failure to change the ethnicity regime in the USSR. It is also this failure to overcome institutionalized ethnic divisions at the substate level that allowed some scholars to allege that “Soviet was never considered…a national identity.” Explaining the failure to abolish passport ethnicity in the post-Stalinist period while following the political trajectory and relevance of the Sovetskii narod idea provides a political history of an all-Soviet nation-building project. Its ultimate failure does not imply that “Soviet was never considered…a national identity.”

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