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Without a “Concept”? Race as Discursive Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Eric D. Weitz argues that the Soviet Union promoted the development of national institutions and consciousness and explicidy rejected the ideology of race. Yet traces of racial politics crept into Soviet nationalities policies, especially between 1937 and 1953. In the Stalin period particular populations were endowed with immutable traits that every member of the group possessed and that were passed from one generation to the next. Recent scholarship, he suggests, has been resistant to drawing out the racial elements in the Stalinist purges of certain nationalities. Francine Hirsch challenges Weitz’s argument, arguing that the Soviet regime had a developed concept of “race,” but did not practice what contemporaries thought of as “racial politics.” Hirsch argues that while the Nazi regime attempted to enact social change by racial means, the Soviet regime aspired to build socialism dirough die manipulation of mass (national and class) consciousness. She contends that it is imperative to analyze the conceptual categories that both regimes used in order to undertake a true comparative analysis. Weiner proposes that Soviet population politics constandy fluctuated between sociological and biological categorization. Although the Soviets often came close to adapting bioracial principles and practices, at no point did they let human heredity become a defining feature of political schemes. Race in the Soviet world applied mainly to concerns for the health of population groups. Despite the capacity to conduct genocidal campaigns and operate death camps, the Soviets never sought the physical extermination of entire groups nor did they stop celebrating the multiethnicity of tiieir polity. The radicalization of state violence in the postwar era was triggered by die nature and role of the war in the Soviet world, the alleged conduct of those who failed to rise to the occasion, and the endemic unstable and unassimilated borderlands, and not by die genetic makeup of the internal enemies. Alaina Lemon’s contribution suggests that scholars seek racialized concepts by treating discourse as situated practice, rather than by separating discourse from practice. This allows consideration of the ways people use language not only to name categories but also to point to social relationships (such as “race”) with or without explicidy naming them as such. Doing so, however, is admittedly more difficult when die only available evidence of past discursive practices are printed texts or interviews. In conclusion, Weitz responds to these critics.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2002

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1 See especially Étienne Balibar, “Le Racisme encore un universalisme,” Mots 18 (March 1989): 7–19.

2 In die 1990s, some Roma recalled as hardship their failure to be evacuated to Tashkent along with the troupe of the Moscow Romani Theater during World War II. Before the war, according to oral accounts and published memoirs, mainly Roma in border areas and those perceived as “foreign Roma” were resettled. For memoirs, see Olga Demeter-Charskaia, Sud'ba Tsyganki (self-publication in Moscow, 1997); Rom-Lebedev, Ivan, Ot tsyganskogo khora do teatra “Romen” (Moscow, 1990).Google Scholar

3 See also Caroline Humphrey, “Myth-Making, Narratives and the Dispossessed in Russia” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 1993).

4 Slezkine, Yuri, “N. la. Marr and the National Origins of Soviet Ethnogenetics,” Slavic Review 55, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 853.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Slezkine, Yuri, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca, 1994), 324.Google Scholar

6 See essays in Silverstein, Michael and Urban, Greg, eds., Natural Histories of Discourse (Chicago, 1996).Google Scholar

7 Jakobson, Roman, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in T. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 398429.Google Scholar

8 See Friedrich, Paul, “Structural Implications of Russian Pronominal Usage,” in Bright, W., ed., Sociolinguistics (The Hague, 1966), 214–59.Google Scholar

9 See Clark, Katerina, Petersburg: Crucible of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 45, 208.Google Scholar But cf. Françoise Thorn, who claims that Soviet ideological language was deficient in referential function, instead suspiciously hyper-indexical, metalinguistic, and exhortative. Thorn, , Newspeak: The Language of Soviet Communism (London, 1989), 95100.Google Scholar

10 Lemon, Alaina, “‘What Are They Writing about Us Blacks’: Roma and ‘Race’ in Russia,” Anthropology of East Europe Review 13, no. 2 (Autumn 1995): 3440;Google Scholar Lemon, , “Your Eyes Are Green Like Dollars: Counterfeit Cash, National Substance and Currency Apartheid in 1990s’ Russia,” Cultural Anthropology 13, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 2255;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Lemon, , “Talking Transit and Spectating Transition: The Moscow Metro,” in Berdahl, Daphne, Bunzl, Matti, Lampland, Martha, eds., Altering Slates: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (Ann Arbor, 2000).Google Scholar

11 Shturmovik, 1995, no. 1; emphasis added.

12 A. A. Roback, A Dictionary of International Slurs (Ethnophaulisms) (1946; reprint, Waukesha, Wise, 1979).

13 For example, Rossi, Jacques, Spravochnik po gulagu: Istoricheskii slovar' sovetskikh penitentsiarnykh institutsiii i terminov , 2d ed. (Moscow, 1992).Google Scholar

14 Such “taxonomic dissolution” vexed nineteenth-century physical anthropologists in Russia, who found “some Finns to be Baits, some Baits to be Slavs, and some Slavs to be Turks.” Slezkine, “N. la. Marr,” 828. Recall also that chernii cuts in a different place than does “black” in the United States: in Russia chernii describes people with “olive” skin, dark eyes and hair (also temnii [dark] or smuglii [swarthy]). “Black” may also refer to social categories, that is, “black marketers,” but this does not negate its usage to describe bodies.

15 Lemon, “ɴWhat Are They Writing about Us Blacks,ɴ” and Lemon, “Your Eyes Are Green Like Dollars. “

16 Personal communication, Moscow, 22 March 1992.

17 Many Russians use the phrase “white person” without regard to color, to mean “person with civil rights or civilized status” (playing off Soviet reports about racism in the United States) as in phrases like, “When I drive along this new circle road highway I feel like a white person [chuvstvuiu sebia belym chelovekom]”. Yet tiiis Romani man was not playing ironically off reports of racism elsewhere but making a straightforward analogy to situations of color discrimination abroad.