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The Affirmative Action Empire

Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939

The Soviet Union was the first of Europe's multiethnic states to confront the rising tide of nationalism by systematically promoting the national consciousness of its ethnic minorities and establishing for them many of the institutional forms characteristic of the modern nation-state. In the 1920s, the Bolshevik government, seeking to defuse nationalist sentiment, created tens of thousands of national territories. It trained new national leaders, established national languages, and financed the production of national-language cultural products.This was a massive and fascinating historical experiment in governing a multiethnic state. Terry Martin provides a comprehensive survey and interpretation, based on newly available archival sources, of the Soviet management of the nationalities question. He traces the conflicts and tensions created by the geographic definition of national territories, the establishment of dozens of official national languages, and the world's first mass "affirmative action" programs. Martin examines the contradictions inherent in the Soviet nationality policy, which sought simultaneously to foster the growth of national consciousness among its minority populations while dictating the exact content of their cultures; to sponsor national liberation movements in neighboring countries, while eliminating all foreign influence on the Soviet Union's many diaspora nationalities. Martin explores the political logic of Stalin's policies as he responded to a perceived threat to Soviet unity in the 1930s by re-establishing the Russians as the state's leading nationality and deporting numerous "enemy nations."

Author Information

Terry Martin is Associate Professor of History at Harvard University.


"In the popular imagination, the Soviet Union was always synonymous with Russia, but in the U.S.S.R.'s early days Soviet leaders had a very different idea in mind: they wanted to establish a true multinational, multiethnic empire. . . . Yet, as Martin shows in this fascinating history, simply giving an order was not enough, even in the Stalin years, and the complex relationship between socialism and nationalism in places like Ukraine often frustrated Soviet intentions."—The New Yorker, June 10, 2002

"Martin significantly advances our understanding of the early, formative years of Soviet nationality policy, providing a subtle and lucid reconstruction of its unique conceptual underpinnings and its stormy evolution. . . . Martin's work is more than an important contribution to the field of Soviet history; it is a critical piece in comprehending contemporary Ukrainian and Russian nationality."—Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002

"The real virtue of Martin's book—and all of the best new Soviet scholarship—is not in the theoretical model it propounds, but in the power of its details, gleaned from previously unknown documents. . . . Martin is able, for the first time, to explain what it was that the Soviet Union's leaders actually intended their nationality policy to achieve. . . . Reading Martin's work, . . . one is struck, above all, by how much stranger the Soviet Union is beginning to seem, in retrospect, than we thought it was at the time, and how much more perverse. . . . Reading this history also gives us in the West an insight, however narrow, into the turmoil experienced in the non-Russian lands of the former Soviet Union during the last decade. Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Georgia: these are now 'free' and independent states. Yet how real is this freedom? Might it not be another illusion, foisted upon them by a still powerful, and still much wealthier, Russian republic."—The New York Review of Books, February 12, 2004

Audience: General/trade;