Population & Society

To the Victor Goes the Narrative: Understanding Minorities in the Past and Present

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the former republics of the Soviet Union have become a major issue in understanding the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Moscow has asserted that protecting these communities was a key motivation for going to war. Historian Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend examines the complexities and sensitivities relating to these groups from before World War I through to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and how they contrast with mainstream politically correct narratives.

To the Victor Goes the Narrative: Understanding Minorities in the Past and Present

Putin promotes his perspective: At a concert in Moscow, the president celebrates the annexation of regions of Ukraine inhabited by Russians and Russian-speaking people, September 30, 2022 (Credit: Sergei Karpukhin/TASS/President of Russia)

When it comes to politically sensitive issues, it is a truism that both sides of an argument or conflict will construct the past and interpret the present to suit their needs, wrapping their conclusions and solutions with a moral mission. Each will cast the dispute with their opponents as a fight against evil, a battle to right a wrong. If one of the combatants is totally defeated, then the loser’s narrative fades, deleted from memory just as Egypt’s pharaohs chiseled away the names of predecessors they held in contempt or whose deeds or misdeeds they wanted people to forget. The winner and their successors are free to rewrite history as they see fit and in whatever way in in their political interest. To the victor goes the narrative.

So, it has been the Americans and indeed the West that controlled the story line after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This has included how Russia’s relationships with the now independent Soviet republics are perceived – especially in light of conflicts between Russia and neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine. As has become evident in the war with Ukraine, the minority ethnic Russians in these countries, how they are treated and their allegiance have become key issues.

Now, concern for minorities is something of a sacred shibboleth of American politics. Affirmative action, a principle that stipulates the importance of race and, to a degree, gender in university admissions and hiring, was applied by law in the US nearly 50 years ago and upheld as constitutional in 1978. (The Supreme Court is currently deliberating a case that could reverse that judgement.) To achieve their overarching goals of diversity and inclusion, universities made race a major factor in how they selected students and teachers. The argument has been that minorities have been historically discriminated against, with bright and hardworking members of these groups brushed aside because of the color of their skin. In addition, the reason goes, diversity – the gathering of individuals of different backgrounds and experiences – is critical for creating the best environment for learning and research.

However valid the rationales for affirmative action, the reality is that in the US, the policy was implemented and has been maintained for purely political reasons. In practice, affirmative action did not resolve the problem of the lack of diversity and inclusion. It was clear that not all minorities were equal – to paraphrase George Orwell, some are more equal than others. In the implementation of affirmative action, institutions tended to focus on recruiting Blacks, regardless of country of origin, though they and Hispanics remained underrepresented on campuses, particularly at elite institutions. By contrast, while there was less of an effort to increase the numbers of Asians, particularly Chinese, they along with Whites are overrepresented. 

A matter of perception: Differentiating between minority groups

The reason for this discrepancy in the US was the perception of Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, as typically law-abiding, productive citizens who reside in low-crime neighborhoods and whose children tend to excel in school. Despite this, suspicions about loyalty have hung over Chinese Americans. These questions have surfaced in the context of China’s significant technological and scientific progress – concerns that some Chinese American academics are somehow transferring knowhow and information to China, even though proven cases are rare.

The perception of African-Americans is very different. Black neighborhoods in major cities are typically poor and riddled with crime, with daily gun violence making them seem like war zones. In Chicago alone, there were nearly 700 homicides in 2022, mostly in the low-income predominantly Black and Hispanic districts. Without recourse to authoritarian methods to deal with these abject conditions, the government (whether at city, state or national level) and society essentially “buys” acceptance of or at least the “silence” of these disadvantaged minorities by pursuing inclusion and diversity initiatives. The reality was simply not politically correct and so these groups were the focus of the remedies, while the issues of other minorities – deemed to be in far less precarious positions – were practically ignored or tolerated.

Forgotten Germans

In Nazi Germany, the racism and murderous, genocidal policies against those regarded as dangerous or simply unworthy of living, subhuman Untermensch, are well known. The other side of the story is practically ignored, and it could provide a clue as to why the malevolent policies did not have to be imposed from above, but were fully accepted by quite a few, if not the majority, of Germans. The reason was that after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, a considerable number of ethnic Germans emerged as minorities among a basically hostile population. This was the case in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where before the war, Czechs were powerless minorities among the dominant Austrians, actually Germans, and Hungarians. 

The plight of the Czechs was illustrated well by Jaroslav Hašek in his novel Good Soldier Šwejk, in which a powerless conscript finds himself at the mercy of Austro-Hungarian officers. But after the war, the tables had turned. The Czechs emerged as the masters, whereas Germans, the Sudetendeutsche, became the persecuted minorities. 

The fate of Germans in Poland was even more bleak. Poland, partitioned among Prussia, Austria and Russia in the 18th century, was resurrected or, to be precise, reassembled after World War I. The fate of Germans who lived in the Prussian/German part of Poland was bleak. They were driven from their homes, their property taken and some were even killed. 

The mistreatment of German minorities in prewar Czechoslovakia and especially Poland is usually ignored for political reasons. Still, this part of history is essential to understand what happened later. Not only was the Nazi state’s absorption of the Sudetenland enthusiastically accepted by the Sudetendeutsche majority, but the next step, the occupation of Czechoslovakia – or more precisely, the Czech portion of the country, as Slovakia emerged as a puppet, pro-Nazi state – was also fully condoned by the German majority. 

The case of Poland was much bleaker. Nazi state terror was relentless, and the conquered Poles were treated more harshly. Poland ranks second among countries in Europe in the number of citizens that perished in the World War II as a proportion of the population, losing three million Jews and three million ethnic Poles. Most Germans saw no problem with the treatment of the Poles. It was not just because of their assumption that Poles, who were Slavs, were racially inferior to Aryan Germans, but also, one could assume,  because some Germans undoubtedly saw what they did as retribution for the their mistreatment after the First World War. 

The oppression of Germans by the Polish is practically erased from the historical narrative, one can assume, for political reasons. For Poles, revelations of their actions would tarnish their popular image as a peaceful, freedom-loving and just people, who have been incessantly attacked by Russians from the East and Germans from the West, always betrayed by their presumed allies. Consider the present-day Polish government’s request for a trillion dollars in reparations from Germany in this context. 

In the Germans’ case, the willful ignorance for a different reason. The discussion on Polish Germans’ plight could be interpreted as condoning the Nazi invasion. Consequently, both Polish and German historians have implicitly turned a blind eye to these situations, and the rest of the scholarly community has followed suit. Indeed, one could hardly expect that major publishers would be happy to take on this subject, and it is inconceivable that the study of this history would facilitate help anyone’s academic career. 

The mistreatment of minorities and the ignoring their plight is not just a phenomenon of the past but also of the present. Today, the conditions of minorities are differentiated (as described above in the case of the UA) and those not convenient to the prevailing political context are ignored. The consequences are equally tragic. 

Pro-Russia supporters in Donetsk, Ukraine, after Moscow took control of Crimea, March 2014 (Credit: Andrew Butko)

Pro-Russia supporters in Donetsk, Ukraine, after Moscow took control of Crimea, March 2014 (Credit: Andrew Butko)

“Sudeten Russians” in what was the Soviet Union

After the collapse of the USSR, ethnic Russians, the dominant ethnicity of the Soviet Union, became minorities in the independent republics. The approach to them was not even. While some leaders and societies in these post-Soviet states tried to accommodate these “Sudeten Russians”, others mistreated them. Not only were they deprived of citizenship, but their cultural and linguistic rights were trampled upon, and they were often humiliated.

The most recent actions of the Latvian government in regard to Soviet monuments relating to Word War II could serve as an example. Latvian authorities decided not just to remove but also to publicly destroy the monument to Soviet Army soldiers in Riga, the capital. To humiliate many ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population in the country in general, the authorities proclaimed that demolishing the monument amounted to cleaning the city of “trash”. Authorities justified these actions by noting that the Soviet Army was a conquering force which committed outrages, and that the Soviet regime, especially in the Stalinist era, brought death and suffering to many Latvians. 

The decision to not just remove the monument but to destroy it in full public view was both politically unwise and morally wrong. It did not serve Latvia’s long-term interests. A more sensitive approach could have been taken. Latvia has a big Russian/Russian-speaking population, and the relationship between the Russian/Russian-speaking community and the rest of society is hardly harmonious. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine and towards other former Soviet republics are directly connected to the Russian war with Nazi Germany and its allies. The deliberate destruction of the monument would undoubtedly make many of the Russians extremely bitter, prompting them to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda that Russians are hated everywhere, that brutal force is needed in foreign policy, and that Russians should see Moscow as their only protector. 

Remember that Nazis employed the same tactics in exploiting the German minority’s feelings in Czechoslovakia. It is true that Latvia is protected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Still, it shares a border with the aggressive and much stronger Russia. It would be politically unwise in the long run to increase the number of the country’s residents who would look at a potential enemy as their protector. Those who decided to destroy the monument stated that it was the will of the people. Still, one should remember that many of the Russian/Russian-speaking people in Latvia are not citizens, and thus could not participate in the decision-making. 

The move was not only politically unwise but it also could not be supported on moral grounds. Latvian authorities presented the Red Army as a bunch of murderers and rapists. Undoubtedly, some Red Army soldiers fit these characteristics. Still, they were the minority among the almost 35 million Soviet citizens who fought and died in the war fighting Nazis. Many of my relatives and friends fought in the war, and I am sure none of them were rapists or murderers. And to be sure, most of the Western public from the US to Europe, saw the advancing Red Army not as a horde of rapists or murderers but as deliverers from Nazi tyranny. This was especially the case with Jews. At least 20 of my relatives were murdered by Nazis in Ukraine. Some were killed in Babi Yar, near Kyiv, the city where I was born.  

Those who died in the war were not responsible for what would be done in their names after the war. One can be sure that most soldiers, who included all ethnicities of the former USSR, including Latvians, would have had nothing to do with those who are fighting now in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, they would be probably be appalled by the current conflict. 

One could also add that, as in many other cases, Latvian society has engaged in a selective approach to history and related art. On one hand, the decision was made to destroy the monument to Soviet Army soldiers because they re-established a brutal totalitarian regime. On the other hand, there is a Soviet-era monument dedicated to Latvian riflemen, who were peculiar Janissaries of the Soviet Union, and actually saved it from collapse at the very beginning of the regime’s history. The monument to them is still in Riga. 

The authorities have provided a variety of explanations as to why this monument has not shared the fate of other Soviet monuments. The most likely explanation, not articulated of course, is that the riflemen shot mostly Russians, not Latvians. The Soviet Secret Police (the Cheka) had been engaged in the brutal Red Terror. In St Petersburg, historians recently discovered by accident the graves of its victims. Almost 100 persons had been shot. Several dozens of them were young women. The investigation revealed the victims’ ordeal; they were severely beaten before execution; one could also assume that at least some of these women had been raped. 

Latvians, together with other minorities, e.g., Jews, were widely represented in the Cheka. Revolutionaries Jēkabs Peterss and Martin Latsis were among the leaders of the secret police. Still, Latvians did not discuss much their role in maintaining the Soviet regime. Latvians were not just active participants in the violence, which made the regime survival possible, but also engaged in other ugly deeds. 

Removal of the "Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders", August 22, 2022 (Credit: Sintija Zandersone/LETA)

Removal of the "Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders", August 22, 2022 (Credit: Sintija Zandersone/LETA)

Latvia had a big Jewish community, decimated in the Holocaust. It is true that a museum dedicated to the Riga ghetto was built. But the Holocaust in Latvia, as well as in other parts of Eastern Europe, was not just German handiwork. Latvians also played a visible role in that tragedy. Yet, acknowledging these actions would tarnish the official image of Latvia as an innocent victim of its brutal neighbor, the USSR and now Russia. For this very reason, the facts have been erased from the historical narrative so as not to question the Latvian government’s policy toward local Russians.  

It is of course unlikely that the Latvian government will change their approach to the local Russian/Russian-speaking population, and the Western mass media pundits will pay no attention to their plight. Following the selective approach to history and the current dynamics, they will ignore the potentially unpleasant repercussions of these views. 

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Dmitry Shlapentokh

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Indiana University South Bend

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. Born in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He teaches world and Russian/Soviet and Post-Soviet history. He has been at IU South Bend since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

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