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Who Defines Us? - A Lesson from the Buriats under Soviet Rule
by Valerie Sartor
2013-09-30 11:34:38
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who_defines_us_400For the Russians and Soviets, as with other imperialistic nations, how to talk about and to define nationality has been tricky, if not difficult. Oppressing people legally requires fine tuning language, so that both the oppressor and the oppressed are convinced that the definition is legal and correct. For the former USSR, officially, Stalin's definition of a nation (cited later as his definition of a nationality) was the party line: a nationality is "historically developed stable community with a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.” Earlier, the Russian imperial regime had also tried to define and control, by categorizing its subjects on the basis of religion and native language. After the tsar fell, the Soviet government came to power. It had also had aspirations to define, rule over, and ultimately transform the identities of its citizens, including the many Indigenous peoples and their ancient homelands. I assert that the impact of Soviet imperialism remains and influences the identity of modern Indigenous Buriat youth, young Siberians who have been affiliated with the Russian Federation since 1993.

Nationality in the USSR, as in other imperialistic countries, is an artificial construct. The Soviet empire generated territorial nations, composed of unnatural national subunits. Soviet ethnographers, (to be efficient?), simply added and combined  Indigenous peoples, if they felt that their populations were not suitably large enough to count. Despite the cultural and linguistic revitalization movements among the Buriat and other Indigenous peoples, after the breakup of the USSR, I assert that most Buriat youth accept the Soviet definition of nationality, and are not aware of any threat to their culture, language, or personal identity.

In the past, debates ranged whether nationality, and hence, identity, was a biological or a cultural construct. The USSR used nationality as a standard category of identity in official documents. In the 1920s, the Bolshevik promise of national self-determination was key to their rise in power. During the civil war between the Reds (Bolsheviks) and the Whites, approximately 140 million people lived on Soviet soil; with some 65 million being non-Slavic Russians. These people did not trust the Moscow-based regime, and so to woo them, the Bolsheviks promised equality to all Soviet citizens. If they registered their nationality, these non-Russian peoples (narod) were to be given the right to "establish its life in its own way" (ustraivat' svoiu zhizn' po svoemu). Unfortunately,  for many Indigenous peoples, they were also losing their right to define themselves, and to claim their homeland and its resources as their own.

The Russians had long been classifying non-mainstream people in order to control them. Until 1924, Soviet ethnographers had used a diverse list of characteristics to differentiate between peoples; language, religion, race, culture, byt (everyday life), and occupation. Criteria was selective and subjective. Here is an early Soviet ethnographer’s conundrum: What was the nationality of a woman who has always lived in the part of Russia populated by the Finnish peoples, whose parents were English and German, but who herself was educated in Russian schools and speaks English and German? In other words: Can a woman without a drop of Russian blood be Russian?

Many early Soviet ethnographers argued that language was the primary determinant of nationality and that religion and culture were important secondary factors. Yet peasants in European Russia often equated their "nationality" with where they were born or lived, while Central Asians saw religion as the most important component of their identity. Before the Soviet government standardized its definition of nationality, census takers reported that a person’s native language, conversational language, religion, and kinship group all could influence his choice of nationality.

Soviet terminology also caused confusion, as ethnographers could not initially agree which term to use : natsional'nost' or narodnost. By 1937, natsional'nost' was chosen to designate Soviet identity, as all administrative documents required this term on government documents. Soviet residents all had internal passports marking their ‘natsional'nost.’ Families of "mixed nationality," could choose one to register their child. Nationality could mean benefits: in the USSR, all administrative units from universities to the Soviet Army, filled nationality quotas as part of the affirmative action programs. It could also mean destruction, especially during Stalin’s years of terror.

By1937, the definition of nationality had become even clearer: nationality was connected to territory, and to be a nationality meant being a member of a large group of people making a living in a specific land. It also meant, to fulfill Stalin’s definition, having a unique culture and literacy in a language. To achieve adequate population numbers, the the term natsional'nost now included the subgroups of nations, (narodnosti), and national groups. Nations became "those peoples making up the main population of union and autonomous republics." Narodnosti  became "peoples making up the main population of autonomous oblasts and national regions," and "peoples of a significant number, living compactly in defined regions and having literacy in their own language."  National groups included "those peoples, which in their main mass live outside the USSR," and which "inside the USSR make up national minorities." By 1937, nationalities had been combined and shortened into 106 "natsional'nosti of the USSR.

One could not be a good Soviet citizen without having a nationality. By 1939, the USSR transformed itself into many territorial nationalities, all united under socialism. Moreover, in  Marxist terms, natsional'nost' now included only those peoples that had completed the more "primitive" stages of development. This is important to note, because the Chinese later also adopted the Russian terminology, which, by definition, designates any group that is non-dominant as inferior. In the USSR (and in China), most official ‘natsional'nost' had their own territory, language, culture, and economy. Those peoples deemed "too backward" by the rulers were consolidated with their neighbors. On the eve of World War II, the Soviet state again finalized a list of nationalities, which consolidated diverse ethnic elements and now created  57 major nationalities. The Chinese, later, also followed this categorization, omitting indigenous groups with small populations.

In sum, in the USSR (and in China), those peoples without territories or large populations were not nationalities. Luckily, the Buriats, being a sizable group, the largest Indigenous population in Siberia, received their own autonomous republic, and two oblasts (regions), which were later taken away from them. Their republic’s land mass was also reduced, along with the omission of the word “Mongol,” to prevent any feelings of solidarity toward the Mongolian peoples in Outer Mongolia.

During my research, in China and in Buriatia, when I asked young Buriats to define themselves, they all  said they were “Buriat by ‘natsional'nost' (nationality).” When I asked for further clarification, two factors came to the forefront: having been born on Buriat soil, and being Buddhist or following shamanic practices. However, Slavic born Buriats did not specify religion, although many were either Jewish or Old Believers. In interviews, Buriats older than 50 years also stated that being Buriat meant speaking the Buriat language, and hopefully reading it as well. For younger people, specifically the focal children in my research, being Buriat meant having one or two parents who were Buriat Mongols, and/or being born in Buriatia. Third, being Buddhist or following shamanic practices, was sometimes marked as important by young people. Speaking Buriat and knowing about their culture, however, appeared to be secondary to their identifications.

What does this mean to you, my dear reader? And to the Buriats, my young Indigenous friends? It signifies that the state, past and present, has had and still has great control over how we, ordinary people, both Indigenous, white, Maori, Finnish, or whatever, perceive ourselves. And that this power is great. What happened to our parents and our ancestors, has repercussions on today’s generation. Backlash is real; it exists; if we are not going to let the ruling forces control how we think, feel, and behave then we must wake up, know out history, and know how the governments of our respective countries seek to brainwash us. For Indigenous youth, for people of small populations and endangered languages, becoming aware is key to cultural and linguistic survival. You must know your culture, your language, and your past, to understand who you are today. Don’t allow the government or global forces to define you.

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