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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/9/20

Why Stalin ordered the forced relocation of ethnic groups

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Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
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Deportations are one of the most tragic pages in Soviet history, and continue to be a sensitive issue for many members of the repressed ethnic and social groups. So what was the goal of that policy?

Millions of people in the USSR were caught up in the turmoil of political reprisals and deportations that swept the country in the 1930s-1950s. Their children and grandchildren today are still deeply affected by those tragic events.

The fact that wounds inflicted more than 70 years ago remain traumatic was highlighted by the success of two recent best-sellers by novelist Guzel Yakhina, who is a new star in Russian literature. Both touch on the theme of the deportations, and the tragic impact they left both in the lives of individuals and entire ethnic groups.

Yakhina's very successful debut novel, Zuleikha, has been translated into 30 languages and has been adapted for TV. The book describes the deportation of kulaks - wealthy peasants - from a Tatar village in the 1930s. All their property, provisions and livestock are taken by the Bolsheviks. Those who resist are shot; while others, having been deprived of their homes, are taken in freight cars, like cattle, away from their native villages and mosques - to the Siberian wilderness. There, they are supposed to build from scratch an exemplary Soviet settlement, where they'll have work, live in a regimented routine, with no God and, generally speaking, have a more modern life, albeit one imposed by force.

Her other novel, Children of Mine, tells the tale of the Volga Germans. They arrived in the Russian Empire a long time ago, at the invitation of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, and built towns on the banks of the Volga River with a distinctive culture and way of life. But the Soviet authorities also destroyed that and drove them from the Volga region, which long was their homeland, into the harsh steppes of Kazakhstan. In the novel, readers are presented with a heart-breaking description of deserted German villages: "The seal of devastation and years of sadness has fallen on the facades of houses, streets and people's faces."

Why were people deported?

The deportations were one form of Stalin-era political reprisals and one way to strengthen and centralize Joseph Stalin's personal power. The goal was to deplete the population of those areas with a large concentration of certain ethnic groups who had a distinctive lifestyle, as well as who spoke, raised their children and published newspapers in their ethnic languages.

Many of those areas enjoyed a certain autonomy because at the dawn of the Soviet Union many republics and regions were formed along ethnic lines.

A researcher into Soviet deportations, historian Nikolai Bugai, says that Stalin and his associate, Lavrentiy Beria, saw deportations "as a way of settling interethnic conflicts, 'rectifying' their own mistakes and suppressing any manifestations of discontent with the anti-democratic, totalitarian regime".

Although Stalin, as Bugai points out, declared a course towards "mandatory observance of visible internationalism", it was important for him to eliminate all autonomies that could potentially secede, and to prevent any possibility of opposition to centralized power.

This method had been repeatedly used in Russia before. For example, when Moscow Prince Vasily III annexed Pskov in 1510, he evicted all influential families from Pskov. They were given land in other parts of Russia, but not in their native Pskov, so that the local elite could not, relying on the common people, further oppose the authorities in Moscow.

Vasily III borrowed this method from his father, the founder of the medieval Moscow state, Ivan Vasilyevich III. In 1478, after a victory over the Novgorod Republic, Ivan Vasilyevich carried out the first Russian deportation - he evicted more than 30 of the richest boyar families from Novgorod, and confiscated their property and land. The boyars were given new properties in Moscow and in cities in central Russia. In the late 1480s, more than 7,000 people were deported from Novgorod: boyars, wealthy citizens and merchants with their families. They were resettled in small groups in different cities - Vladimir, Rostov, Murom, and Kostroma - in order to "dissolve" the former Novgorod nobility among the population of central Russian. Following their deportation, the Novgorod families lost their elevated status, becoming "ordinary" nobles in their new place of residence.

The practice of deportations was also used in Tsarist Russia in later years, such as when the authorities sought to suppress local uprisings. For example, after the Polish uprisings of 1830 and 1863, thousands of Poles - participants in the uprisings and their sympathizers - were exiled to the heartlands of Russia, mainly to Siberia.

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