Thursday, May 21, 2020

Moscow Allowed Punished Peoples to Return Home in 1950s Because It Lacked Forces to Hold Them in Exile, Emil Pain Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 20 – “The most important of the positive developments in the nationality policy of the USSR during the political thaw of the 1950 was the doing away with the special settlements in which were held representatives of forcibly resettled peoples and also the restoration of certain autonomous republics of the RSFSR,” Emil Pain says.

            In the fifth installment of his history of Soviet nationality policy, the Moscow expert on ethnic issues says that scholarship up to now has not come up with an answer to the question regarding what pushed the Soviet leadership to take these steps.  The answer clearly lies “not in humanism alone,” Pain says (

            Soviet historian Aleksandr Nekrich was only able to publish his thoughts on the matter in 1975 after he emigrated, a reflection of the fact, Pain says, that “the theme of the repressed peoples,” although much discussed behind closed doors in the Kremlin in the 1950s, “was prohibited for public discussion up to the end of the 1980s.”

            The explanation for this lies in the history of Lavrenty Beria’s involvement in the issue and the extent to which actions by the punished peoples themselves forced Moscow’s hand by highlighting the Soviet regime’s inability to enforce its will against them, the Russian specialist on the nationality question says.

            At Beria’s insistence, the CPSU Central Committee on April 10, 1953, ordered the release of all illegally exiled citizens. This in the first instance was designed to end the Mingrelian affair which Stalin’s last secret police chief naturally saw as directed against himself, an ethnic Mingrel.

            As a result of that decision, Pain says, “the Mingrelians returned to their motherland and in fact were the only case in the 1950s of the complete rehabilitation of the forcibly resettled ethnic communities.” Their treatment not surprisingly had an effect on members of the other punished peoples.

             They became restive, and because Moscow had reduced the number of siloviki, there weren’t enough to guard the special settlers effectively.  After Beria was arrested and shot, these reforms which he promoted were described in all cases “as one of the crimes of the Lubyanka marshal.”  Many Russians think that way to this day, Pain says. 

            But he argues Oleg Hlevnjuk and Marta Craveri offer a more compelling argument. In a 1995 article, they suggested “the reorganization which was undertaken in the spring of 1953 would have taken place even if Beria had not pushed it” as Stalin’s successors lacked the ability and the will to keep the number of jailors as high as it was (“The Crisis of the Economy of the MVD (End of the 1940s through the 1950s)” in Russian, in the Cahiers du Monde Russe, 36:1-2, pp. 179-190 at

            “The crisis of the GULAG coincided with the beginning of the Virgin Lands campaign in the spring of 1954,” Pain points out. The interior ministry was ordered to protect young people from Russian cities because clashes between them and the special settlers consisting of the punished peoples quickly broke out, and the interior ministry found it couldn’t.

            The first Soviet legal act about the repressed peoples was issued by the Supreme Soviet on December 13, 195 5 and lifted restrictions on the Soviet Germans. No one has explained why they were given this honor, especially given that anti-German attitudes sparked by the war remained strong.

            In Pain’s view, this decision reflected the fact that the Soviet Germans behaved well and did not get involved in clashes with the local population or with the interior ministry guards. Restrictions on their place of residence were lifted but they didn’t get their property or their autonomous republic back.

            Khrushchev mentioned the deported nationalities in his secret speech in 1956, but they were not mentioned in a series of decrees issued between February and June of that year reducing or eliminating restrictions on other special settlers. Only on July 16, 1956, did the Supreme Soviet Presidium issue a decree eliminating their restricted status.

            None of these decrees gave the repressed peoples the right to return to their homelands or any claim to the restoration of or compensation for property taken from them.  The lack of these provisions immediately sparked protests and risings among the punished peoples from the North Caucasus. 

            As a result, on October 25, 1956, the USSR Council of Ministers and the CPSU Central Committee adopted a secret decree “On improving the work of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs” that imposed restrictions on former special settlers from buying rail or air tickets back to their homelands.

            Interior ministry officers took some of the trains, but it soon became clear that the MVD lacked sufficient forces to do that and to maintain order in the regions to which the punished peoples had been sent. And so on November 24, 1956, the CPSU Central Committee Presidium restored the national autonomies of the Kalmyk, Karachay, Balkar, Chechen and Ingush peoples.

            Moscow decreed that the first three of these were to be restored in 1957-1958 but that that of the Chechens and Ingush would be put in place over a longer period (1957-1960). It further specified that all these peoples would be allowed to return home only in small groups lest a mass arrival destabilize the situation.

            That was the Kremlin’s plan, Pain says, “but in reality, the Chechens and Ingush began to arrive in the North Caucasus earlier than the others and in groups two to three times larger than had been planned. This gave rise to a multitude of local conflicts already in the places of the return of ‘the punished peoples.’”

            Pain’s article is important not only because it undercuts the Putin regime’s descriptions of Stalinist repression but also and even more because it shows that the actions of the punished peoples themselves forced the Kremlin’s hand rather than their being the recipients of a “humane” action by the Soviet authorities. 

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