All through the twentieth century the significance of ‘ethnicity’ in the structuring of social life and in setting patterns of political action has been extensive and usually unpredicted. Neither its treatment by 19th-century ‘rationalists’ as a retrograde piece of barbarism nor its biological-racial explanations by their ‘romantic’ foes stood well the test of further experience. Ethnic diversity and nationalist ideologies proved extra-biological, persistent, pernicious and inexplicable—a major tool in the arsenal of political demagogues, a determinant of repression, and a spanner in the works for socialist theory and action. The theoretical inadequacies and predictive failures of social scientists and political activists, especially on the Left, were a constant cause for disappointment. This was particularly true with regard to the Third World, where the analytical meaning of ethnic divisions was as under-researched as its significance was major for the prevailing ideologies, collective cognitions and political life. Even the debate on such questions was slack. To expand these theoretical fields by introducing a different vision rooted in a different political experience, rich in ethnic complexity, should be particularly useful. What follows is a brief review of the theoretical positions adopted in mainstream Soviet studies of ethnic phenomena after a major debate in the 1960s. These positions differ substantively from those of their West European counterparts, non-Marxist and Marxist alike. footnote

There are two possible misconceptions one must consider at the outset. The first is more general, more direct and less interesting. Contemporary social sciences fail to acknowledge the extent of their cultural/linguistic insularity. It is often repeated that scholarly research into humans and societies has assumed an increasingly global form. Yet, behind the humdrum of a hundred-score international conferences stands the fact that much of this supposed universalization involves an exercise in talking at cross-purposes. People meet and write, words are used and seemingly understood, and then, much later, it becomes clear that people of different cultural and ideological backgrounds have actually understood them differently, often staggeringly so. Such consistent misreadings are made worse by the fact that we admit to them much less than did mid-19th-century scholars, who had little doubt that the ‘critical idealist’ philosophy was German—that is, had to be understood in relation to the conceptual, political and terminological context of contemporary German scholarship—and that, in a similar sense, political economy was British, political theory Italian, and so on. When linked, as in much of Anglo-Saxon scholarly practice, with linguistic incompetence and a polite refusal to see the ‘otherness’ of others as anything but the sign of self-evident backwardness or a piece of exotica, such miscomprehensions rapidly thicken into major blinkers.

Soviet social sciences have been particularly vulnerable to this dismissive attitude on the part of outsiders. There are some good reasons for this. The ‘purge’ of the 1930s decimated a generation of Soviet social scientists and at times caused whole disciplines to go under (sociology, for example, was eradicated lock, stock and barrel for a quarter of a century as a ‘bourgeois discipline’). Ideological structuring and censorship often limited research and favoured smart, pliable and superficial men and women who made breath-taking careers as the administrators of sciences. The selection of ‘safe’ Soviet representatives for international conferences often left their Western counterparts with the impression of stolid plodding rather than theoretical élan. Sometimes, the persistent Soviet claims to supreme knowledge as a birthright elicited a childish reaction on the ‘Western’ side: a belief that since ‘they’ claim to be better in all, they must surely be worse on all scores. At other times, the scorn has been downright naive or petty, representing the anti-Russian xenophobia of old, mixed with half-literate rejection of anything labelled as ‘Marxist’ or socialist, all dressed in quasi-objective academic garb. The common denominator is a refusal to accept that anything useful can ever be learned from ‘them’. Such views plainly disregard the unevenness of the Soviet social sciences, which, despite considerable shortcomings, have performed very well in certain areas or even out-stripped Western research. The journalistic image of Soviet social sciences as monolithic, propagandist and ‘totalitarian’, simply and smartly reproducing what is ordered of them by the government, is also a piece of misinformation. Conceptual debate was constantly taking place in theussr during the 1960s and 1970s, and many of its results were far from a foregone conclusion, despite the ideological boundaries which could not be breached. This does not mean, of course, that Soviet social scientists are cushioned against political pressures and powerful institutional controls which harm their research. Far from it.

The second misconception concerning the work of Soviet ethnologists lies deeper and may throw more light on the subject of this note. The West/East differences of political experience are considerable and often represent a different ‘angle of vision’. The relevant difference of perception begins with common speech. Our social theory is mostly West European, and the term ‘nationality’ describes in English and French the passport one carries, i.e., the relationship to a specific state. To a Russian-speaker, the term natsional’nost’, the semantic equivalent of the above, has nothing directly to do with a state. One’s ‘belonging’ to a state is denoted as citizenship (grazhdanstvo). The inventory of human characteristics on everybody’s passport or other identity papers carries, together with citizenship, age, colour of the eyes and so on, the item natsional’nost’ as a specific characteristic inherited from one’s parents (sometimes replaced by ‘the language one uses at home’). It is not a matter of race—skin colour is not significant in itself, and the natsional’nost’ of an ‘assimilated’ Tatar or of Alexander Pushkin, who clearly displayed the genetic features of an Abyssinian ancestor, is indisputably Russian. Nor is it a question of citizenship—the grandchild of a Ukrainian who emigrated to Canada is Ukrainian in that sense; a Pole who has lived all his or her life in Russia and holds Soviet citizenship is still a Pole. The term ‘ethnicity’, as ordinarily used in English speech, does not quite catch the full meaning of the concept, for it was developed to denote ‘minorities’ who, being mostly unassimilated, presented a ‘problem’ to ‘the authorities’ as well as to their neighbours and themselves. But it is the natsional’nost’ of the Russians which is central to collective perceptions in the ussr.

The lack of a linguistic coin to translate fully into English or French the expression natsional’nost’ is highly significant. Every Russian, layman and scholar alike, understands it and treats it as a meaningful, manifest and major parameter of social orientation and living. So will a Pole, a Latvian, a Czech, a Georgian and usually a German, but not a Frenchman or a Briton, while the Yankee and some others will be ambivalent on that score. People in the Middle East or India belong to the ‘East’ in this common perception, but their scholarly language has been shaped mainly by ‘Western’ social science. The ‘case of the missing term’ is a good way to delimit a dimension of consistent mutual miscomprehension but also to ‘open up’ a set of major analytical problems. In what follows we shall use the word ‘ethnicity’ to designate natsional’nost’, remembering the particular ‘Eastern’ way in which it will be used.