Staunton, May 9 – The issue of the peoples who were forcibly resettled by Stalin remains a most sensitive one even though there is no agreement on the precise number. Some authors speak of nine, others of 11 or 14, and some, counting sub-ethnoses, social strata, and religious groups, as many as 61.
But even the best Russian scholars, reflecting political pressure from the Kremlin to present Stalin’s actions in the most favorable light, are now adding to the problem by preferring to avoid calling these nations “punished” as Robert Conquest famously did and speaking of them more neutrally as forcibly resettled as were many Soviet citizens during World War II.
That shift has moral, ideological and legal consequences. By shifting attention from the paranoia behind the deportations and the deadly manner in which they were carried out, it reduces these crimes to wartime necessities thereby letting the Soviet system off the hook, and even more, it justifies ignoring Russian laws calling for full rehabilitation of these nations.
Not surprisingly, journalists have casually elided the punished peoples and those Soviet citizens who were moved about by the Stalin regime because of the war. (For a discussion of one example, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/05/many-soviet-citizens-resettled-during.html.)
But now it is being supported by leading scholars, including Nikolay Bugay of the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences who did yeoman work in the 1990s exposing the crimes that were inflicted upon the punished peoples in the North Caucasus. Now he prefers not to talk about the fate of these peoples in that way.
In an interview conducted by the editor of the Nazaccent portal and published under the title “’Punished’ for Betrayal or Punished for ‘Betrayal’?” Bugay now says that he “in no way is justifying these measures, but under conditions of war, the most important thing was the preservation of the state” (nazaccent.ru/content/33056-rasstavit-kavychki.html).
“On the eve of the Great Fatherland War in the USSR, a complicated situation had emerged,” Bugay says. “One part of society supported the existing system; [but] another part was dissatisfied with the system established by Soviet power. One of the measures became resettlement to which 3.5 million representatives of ethnic minorities were subject to.”
The negative attitudes of these peoples toward the Soviet system manifested in various ways, including high levels of desertion, the Moscow scholar continues, convinced Stalin that they had to be moved away from the front lest they become a fifth column in the rear of Soviet forces.
Because of wartime conditions, their removal was often brutal and they were deposited in places where there were no facilities at all. Nonetheless and despite this brutality, Bugay says that he “prefers to use the term ‘resettlement’ than ‘the deportation of peoples” given that Russian historians of law argue for that approach.
Moreover, the historian argues, “the term ‘deportation’ does not always reflect the essence of events” which were that peoples were moved “within the borders of one country taking into account the interests of the state and war when a stable situation in the rear was needed.”
In the 1990s, when people were seeking to overcome the consequences of Soviet rule and when the RSFSR adopted its law “On the rehabilitation of repressed peoples,” no one considered these legal niceties. But they do matter and should inform how scholars and others discuss this issue in the future.
Many of those whose ancestors were deported will reject this linguistic sleight of hand, seeing it for what it is, an effort to excuse an action that has been condemned by people of good will for more than half a century. But the penetration of this vocabulary into the works of one of the best Russian historians is worrisome for three reasons.
First, it shows just how strong the Kremlin’s ideological pressure on this point has become over some scholars. Second, it suggests that Moscow will be even less willing now than in the past to live up to the terms of the law on repressed peoples. And third, it points to a further whitewashing of the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet system more generally.