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No, Critical Race Theory was not a “thing” in the Soviet Union

November 5, 2021

According to a recent tweet, which I am not going to link to, “CRT” led to “multiple civil wars and transnational conflicts by the 1990s” in the Soviet Union. The simple answer is no, but let me explain in more detail.

Some have dubbed the Soviet Union an “affirmative action empire” that glorified internationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism; at home, however, one could see a much less rosy picture. The notion of nationality, which is bound in Western Europe to the concept of citizenship, derives in Russia from a Soviet atavism that included ‘Natsional’nost’ (ethnicity) in the vital passport data – the so-called “fifth box,” that indicated the ‘natsionalnost’ of each citizen and enabled the proportional representation of ethnic groups in governmental institutions (that’s probably what makes American conservatives falsely associate it with the CRT). 

However, a contradictory set of policies – which count together as nationalities policy – pervasively institutionalized territorial nationhood and ethnicity. This made it extremely conducive to nationalism. The only ethnic groups that received state recognition were connected to an officially designated territorial homeland – and specifically one that was an administrative unit within the federal structure of the Soviet Union (see, for example, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast).

As Morozov notes, “ethnicity was institutionally and discursively embedded through the system of ‘national’ autonomies and the organic idea of ethnicity as the only ‘real’ foundation for nationhood.” Moreover, the set of policies created a perverse hierarchy of “nations” and “ethnicities” with some of them deserving of a whole republic status (for instance, Kazakhs and Ukrainians) others not (such as Roma and Koreans), and still others being a part of other national republics (including Chechens, Lezgins, and Abkhaz). 

The Soviet Union emphasized the emancipation of “subjugated nations” under socialism in education with tropes like “liberated women of the East” in popular culture. However, schoolbooks and media neglected to mention ethnic deportations (of, for example, Germans, Chechens, and Crimean Tatars) or the trauma of the residential schools that operated in the Far East. Thus, the party line was that discrimination existed only under the Tsar. It was no longer a reality under socialism.

Of course, the “fifth box” data made both affirmative action and discrimination easier. Quotas for ethnic minorities in universities or in administrative positions bred resentment on both sides: majority-minority republican elites were wary of imported Russian cadres; Russians often felt that racialized minorities were given undeserved positions and access to public spaces.

The official stance pretended none of these tensions existed. It maintained, of course, that the Soviet Union was an example of the  friendship of the peoples. However, even in popular culture, ethnic Russians were portrayed as the “older brother” of the other nations. Soviet cinema contributed to the perception of ethnic minorities as ‘noble savages’ – each with their own traditions and culture in their territorial enclaves (this built directly on the related nineteenth-century Russian literary oeuvre). As a result, most contemporary Russian nationalists and far-right ideologues are vehemently ethnopluralists: they are fine with other ethnic groups living in Russia as long as those ethnic groups stay in their enclaves. Even worse, because of the anti-communist backlash, many liberal oppositional politicians in Russia espouse colonial and racist attitudes that sometimes include apartheid apologies, not to mention an anti-BLM stance.   

So, no, critical race theory was not “a thing” in the Soviet Union, mostly because if it was, those “multiple civil wars” would not have happened. 

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Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"