Social Engineering and Bonds in the USSR and Nazi Germany

In Beyond Totalitarianism, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer, two chapters discuss the framework and implementation of social engineering, and then the creation and destruction of bonds in both the USSR and Nazi Germany. Specifically, in chapter six, “Frameworks for Social Engineering,” authors Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H Siegelbaum focused on the trajectories of dictated social identities within both political systems. No attempt was made to homogenize the two systems; rather, differences regarding the criterion ascribed, the methodology of implementation, as well as what portion of each population was affected were all noted. Continuing on in chapter seven, “Energizing the Everyday,” authors Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke discussed various practices and relationships within both Nazi Germany and the USSR, and how these were demonstrative that bonds were created or transformed, connecting people in a myriad of ways. Several types of bonds and relationships were discussed in order to challenge the Arendtian notion that new and new types of bonds could not be generated in “totalitarian” societies.

In Yuri Slezkine’s article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism,” the author demonstrated the rationale behind the Party’s emphasis on nationality and the creation of national identities for the smaller minorities and nations under its control. Slezkine argued that with the eradication of class after the Russian Revolution, the resulting development of national cultures and subsequent administration system served as a way to organize society without the use of class, making nationality essential in a Soviet citizen’s identity. Browning and Siegelbaum address this topic in chapter six, but take it one step further. They argue that while the state certainly used nationality as a way to define and categorize the general population, Soviet citizens could exercises considerable latitude (or artifice) in constructing desirable social identities. ((Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Frameworks for Social Engineering,” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 235.)) I found it surprising that regulations regarding nationality were not as resolute as Slezkine’s article depicted. In reality, the policing of social identities was far from simple. Browning and Siegelbaum noted how for example, parents of nationally or socially mixed offspring would choose to emphasize the identity of the parent that would be more advantageous ((Ibid, 235.)) or children could publicly “disown” their parents in favor of a Soviet self. 

Reading this article in dialogue with Slezkine’s article, I realize that I should not be so surprised by the flexibility and subterfuge executed by the Soviet citizenry. In a practical sense, though Slezkine described the extensive work of ethnographers in categorizing and modernizing each nationality, there were simply too many nationalities to differentiate that regulation proved futile. I wonder how much Soviet officials knew of the subterfuge going on, and if they did know, did they ignore it? Why would they?

The USSR as a Communal Apartment

Author Yuri Slezkine poses an interesting view of the USSR in the late 1920’s and early 30’s in his chapter “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism” in the book Stalinism: New Directions. The chapter details the “Great Transformation” of 1928-1932, during which ethnic diversity was highlighted and celebrated; it then explains the “Great Retreat” during the 1930’s, when nationalism as a whole was discouraged except those select nationalities that reinforced socialist ideas and contributed to the overall success of the USSR.

The promotion of ethnic distinctions seemed strange to me at first, considering the Communist goal of eliminating classes and the inequalities that came with them. I assumed that defining and strengthening different ethnic identities would only lead to more inequality and struggle. It seems that at first, ethnic particularism was a way to accept the inevitable differences that arise between people but in a manner that avoids classes. Towards the end of the chapter, however, the author alludes to the fact that certain nationalities were seen as more worthy, therefore superior to others. It may not be along class lines, but the people of the Soviet Union were still divided. This promotion of nationalism most likely created more problems for the Soviet government in the long-term as nationalism grew stronger and threatened the Soviet’s unity and control. These struggles would also plague the Russian government after the fall of the Berlin Wall.