Exiled Peoples Return

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

An axiom of Soviet nationality policy, enshrined in the 1936 constitution, was that a “people” was a cohesive social grouping sharing a common cultural background (most often embodied by a language), and some territorial expression, a homeland. Although the policy sometimes led to the creation of artificial entities to conform to the axiom, as when the Jewish Autonomous Region was created in Birobidzhan, in many cases it was progressive, allowing small peoples (narodnosti in the Soviet terminology) some degree of cultural and political autonomy within Soviet reality.

Contradictions in the principle accumulated over the decades, leading to unexpected crises. Homeland can mean many things to many people. Freed by the October Revolution from the enforced Pale of Settlement, driven by Nazi extermination policies from the Ukrainian and Belorussian lands, and a vital presence in Soviet city life, where they experienced both satisfying integration and dismaying anti-Semitism, Soviet Jews found themselves once again facing an array of unsatisfactory choices. Immigration exerted an ever growing pull. Jews and other Soviet citizens who applied for exit visas were, in 1968, a small group subject to harsh reprisals. Applicants found themselves stripped of employment, sometimes housing and other necessities, and forced to wait years while deprived of most rights. Many were driven by the age-old dream of the homeland of Zion, now a reality in Israel; yet the large majority that preferred immigration to the capitalist West suggests that economic and other hardships were no less a factor. The Soviet government often seemed ambivalent about its Jewish citizens, distrusting them, yet making their exit difficult. The Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 which saw Soviet policies aligned with the Arabs, only exacerbated the distrust. Most bitter was the fate of the so-called “refuseniks,” applicants who were refused exit visas, but whose civil rights were nevertheless revoked. When new policies in the late 1980s made emigration easier, Jews left the Soviet Union and then Russia in a massive exodus.

The Tatars felt little ambivalence about their Crimean homeland, where they had settled as part of the Mongol Horde, and remained when the region passed to Ottoman, then Russian and finally Soviet rule. Uprooted by NKVD troops in 1944 under suspicion of collusion with the Germans, and exiled to Uzbekistan, the Tatars were not even allowed to return in 1957 when other unjustly exiled peoples were given back their homelands. Although the Supreme Soviet did rehabilitate the Tatars in 1967, it did not resolve the most difficult issue, what to do about the former Tatars lands, now long occupied by Russian and Ukrainian families. Tatar anger came to a head in April 1968 in public protests in Uzbekistan, which were not quelled by mass arrests. The right to return was restored only in post-Soviet times.

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