Discussions of racial injustice in the United States are shaking the public sphere. Much of the onus in these discussions is on the white West as the locus and perpetrator of racism, especially on the United States with its lingering legacy of slavery. But racism, injustice, and discrimination are not prerogatives of the West. They ride on the back of power disparities the world over.
Often overlooked by academics and activists have been the racial dynamics in the Soviet Union. Embedded in the broader hierarchy that had ordered its 200 plus nationalities, these dynamics are still playing out in the post-Soviet space. The reasons behind the omission might be multiple: the hangover from Soviet propaganda, which proudly insisted that racism — and other Western ‘vices’ like homosexuality — simply did not exist in the socialist paradise, the Soviet mobilization of the anti-colonial cause in the developing world, or the tendency of racism’s harshest critics on the left to treat the Soviet Union more charitably than other oppressive regimes.
The most nefarious feature of Soviet — and post-Soviet — racism lies in its denial. One of the few existing sources on the subject is Robert Robinson, a Black toolmaker from Detroit who got trapped in the Soviet Union for 44 years from 1930 to 1974 and survived to tell the tale. In his autobiography he wrote: “Because the Russians pride themselves on being free of prejudice, their racism is more virulent than any I encountered in the United States as a young man. I rarely met a Russian who thought Blacks — or for that matter, Orientals or any non-whites — were equal to him.” Racism might seem like the lesser of the evils perpetrated by the Soviet regime yet there is no good reason why it should remain unexposed.
We are two women born at opposite ends of the vast Soviet empire: Mariana in Soviet Ukraine, in the city of Lviv close to the Polish border; Togzhan in Soviet Kazakhstan, in the then-capital Almaty, close to the Chinese border. From these two remote vantage points, we watched the Soviet Union crumble, and our national states arise. We lived through Kazakhstan’s and Ukraine’s struggles to find their place in a world that was not expecting them, and deal with the burdens of the Soviet nuclear legacy. We both ended up writing about our countries’ nuclear history.
Counterintuitively perhaps, there’s something patronizing and discriminatory in the very assumption that the Russians — or Indians, or Chinese, or Cubans, for that matter — have a lesser moral, cultural, and societal capacity to grasp and grapple with racial injustice, that it’s less offensive when discrimination happens in ‘dysfunctional’ geographies outside of the Western contexts.
Nuclear weapons might seem like a field immune to racial overtones. An explosion of even a minuscule portion of the megatonnage in the nuclear powers’ arsenals would murder millions indiscriminately of the color of skin. It would melt skin off. The nuclear enterprise that brings these weapons into existence, however, is not colorblind. A recent analysis exposes how racial injustices manifest themselves in the nuclear field. Neither of us knows what it is like to be Black in our adopted country, the United States. But we both know what it was like to be non-Russian in the Soviet Union, and one of us knows what it was like to be non-white. When racial reckoning erupted in the United States, both of us knew that we, too, had a story to tell about the subtle and not-so-subtle shades of Soviet, ‘red’ racism in the nuclear field.
INVISIBLE KAZAKHS IN THE ‘UNINHABITED’ STEPPE
Those shades of racism provided an undertone to the heavy brunt of the Soviet nuclear program that Kazakhstan and its people were forced to bear.
American bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 sealed Joseph Stalin’s resolve to end the American nuclear monopoly as soon as possible. He spared no resources of his impoverished, hungry, war-ravaged nation and no amount of conscript and prison labor to build the Soviet bomb. To ensure that the bomb worked, it had to be tested. The enormous territory of the Soviet Union offered plenty of desolate uninhabited and uninhabitable land for nuclear testing. The Soviet military, however, zeroed in on a site in the steppes of north-eastern Kazakhstan 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city of Semipalatinsk, a decision in which native Kazakhs had no say but which would tragically imprint on the fate of their nation.
The reasons for choosing the Semipalatinsk region as the site of the Soviet Union’s main nuclear test-site were multiple. Soviet military planners described these in their dry technical language: access to necessary construction materials, relative distance from major transportation hubs to avoid intelligence gathering by the enemy, geographical features of a flat steppe.
The drawbacks were negligible: the planners claimed the land was “uninhabited.” This assertion was the epitome of how Moscow viewed the Soviet periphery. The “uninhabited” steppe was, in fact, the source of livelihood for thousands of people. It was the land of pastures where numerous farmers grazed their livestock, supplying substantial amounts of meat and dairy to feed the population of Kazakhstan and beyond. The meat processing plant in the nearest major city of Semipalatinsk was one of the largest in the Soviet Union; the canned meat it produced fed the Soviet Army during WWII.
Not only was the land inhabited and used to support agriculture, it also carried special cultural significance for the Kazakh people. Semipalatinsk was Kazakhstan’s Piedmont, the birthplace of the nation’s most famous writers, poets, and educators. The father of the Kazakh literature, Abai, was born and lived a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the place where a century later, on August 29, 1949, the first Soviet nuclear bomb would explode. The contribution of Abai and other Semipalatinsk natives to Kazakh cultural heritage was so profound that it acquired an almost mystical quality. To this day, Kazakhs make pilgrimages to Abai’s burial site to receive the blessing of their ancestors.
While ethnic Kazakhs might not have been targeted intentionally and were not the only victims of the Soviet nuclear program, they ended up paying the highest price.
The city of Semipalatinsk was home to a multi-ethnic community, including many ethnic Russians who settled there as the Russian empire expanded. In the Soviet times, Stalin chose Central Asia as the landfill for discarding political exiles from the empire’s European part, and for disposing of entire disloyal ethnicities: Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens. In the 1950s, the Kazakh steppe became the target of Nikita Khruschev’s Virgin Lands campaign, an attempt to increase grain production that drew in youth from all over the Soviet Union. These voluntary and involuntary migrations contributed to Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic fabric. In that sense, nuclear tests did not discriminate. All locals, no matter their ethnic background, suffered from the nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk.
Yet ethnic Kazakhs, especially in the rural settlements in the immediate proximity to the testing grounds, suffered disproportionately because their livelihoods depended on the land. Their traditional way of life put them at a tragic disadvantage, a predicament they share with the Indigenous communities in other parts of the world where nuclear powers tested their weapons, be it the people of the Pacific islands, native tribes in South Australia and Algeria, Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or Native Americans in New Mexico.
The declassified KGB records contain many intercepted letters written by Semipalatinsk residents to their friends and families in other Soviet republics at the height of the nuclear tests. They contain one running theme: non-Kazakh families all wanted or planned to move to other republics where they had family ties. Kazakhs had nowhere else to go.
For forty years, over the course of 400-something nuclear tests conducted on the Kazakh soil, the locals were not only disregarded but often dehumanized. One of the more insulting explanations concocted by the Soviet military to dismiss the horrendous health problems plaguing the local population as a result of nuclear testing was that Kazakhs suffered from poor hygiene and lacked Vitamin C in their diet.
The Soviet regime was cruel in many incomprehensible ways. Human life was cheap, whether it was Kazakh, Russian, Polish, Jewish, or Ukrainian. Denial and cover-up added insult to injury. In 1979, anthrax was accidentally released from a Soviet military facility in Sverdlovsk, Russia. Dozens of people died painful, violent deaths. To hide the illegal bioweapons program, the Soviet government blamed their deaths on tainted meat. In 1986, after the meltdown of a nuclear reactor core at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the worst nuclear accident in history, the Soviet authorities chose to delay disclosing the truth and evacuating affected populations in Ukraine and Belarus, sentencing them to higher doses of ionizing radiation. These stories bear grim witness to the Soviet regime’s disregard for human life, dignity, and well-being.
To unpack racial injustices of the regime that devoured millions of its citizens of all nationalities and races with a voracious appetite might seem inapt. Yet while race (as distinct from nationality) might not have been the determining factor for how you died in the Soviet Union, it undoubtedly had a bearing on how you lived. Soviet lives mattered little, but some mattered even less.
“THE FRIENDSHIP OF PEOPLES”
The Soviet system praised internationalism and druzhba narodov, “the friendship of peoples.” In practice, the Soviet Union developed clear if unwritten hierarchies to order its multinational, multiracial empire. Ethnic Russians crowned this hierarchy. Russia was the Older Brother who trailblazed the way toward a bright communist future. (The supremacy of Russia translated into a policy of aggressive Russification of non-Russians. So successful was the narrative and the policy, that to the West the Soviet Union was — and to much astonishment remains! — synonymous with Russia.)
Nestled right below — and below it was — were the two fraternal Slavic peoples — the Belarusians and Ukrainians, who, though they could not match the revolutionary vanguard role of the Russians, nevertheless shared the whiteness of their faces.
The three Baltic peoples, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, were white, too, indeed too white — their excessive Europeanness made them both revered and distrusted by the Slavs.
Further down came the Moldovans, the slightly non-white, marginally European nations of the Caucasus, the Georgians, Armenians, and Turkic Azeris, then the distinctly “Oriental-looking” Central Asians — Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens, and Uzbeks. The Tatars, Buryats, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Dagestani and the like were somewhere on the way to the rock bottom where the Soviet Union’s Indigenous peoples wallowed, the Yakut, the Aleuts, and of course, the Chukchi, who fashioned the butt of many a Soviet anekdot, joke. The “prowling wandering Gypsies” and the “treacherously intelligent Jews” were in a loathsome category of their own.
The ease of blending in with the dominant white Slavs — an indisputably racial factor — was only a part but an important part of this hierarchy of nationalities. Mariana, the light-haired green-eyed Ukrainian, visiting the Soviet capital as a child, could stand in the mile-long line to the Lenin mausoleum without standing out. As long as she kept her mouth shut, that is. Had she addressed her mother in her native Ukrainian, she would overhear the affectionately derogatory “khokhlushka” from someone nearby. (Khokhol and its feminine form khokhlushka derive from the scalp-lock worn by the Ukrainian cossacks. Gogol, as in Nikolai, is another derivation of that). When she visited Moscow years later for archival research, no one stopped her to check her residence registration. (All foreign visitors to Russia have to register with the local police within days of arrival.)
Togzhan, with her Asian features, dark hair and eyes was very visibly non-white and non-Slav. Even at home, in Almaty, where due to her father’s elevated position she attended an elite secondary school, a Russian teacher would arrange Slavic pupils in the front row for class pictures, while the native Kazakhs would be made to sit behind them.
When, like Mariana, she visited Moscow for archival research in the 2000s, she was repeatedly stopped by the police demanding her registration papers. That many of Russia’s own citizens, the Buryats, Kalmyks, Tatars, and others were ethnically Asian, made no difference to the Russian police, who picked out targets for document checks based solely on profiling those with non-Slavic non-white features. At the other extreme of Togzhan’s visits to Moscow were compliments on her proficiency in the Russian language (her mother tongue, as the Kazakh language was relegated to the villages in Soviet Kazakhstan) or assumptions, based on her urban looks, that she was from industrialized Japan, not backward Central Asia. The prevailing perception in the metropole was that no Central Asian could speak accentless Russian or have a sophisticated appearance.
Today, festering leftovers of this unrecognized and untreated Soviet racism are playing out forcefully on the streets of Moscow and other major Russian cities, where guest workers and visitors from Central Asia and the Caucasus are constantly and brutally harassed.
RED RACISM IN THE RED ARMY
Like in any society, in the Soviet Union, the military was a microcosm of its virtues and vices. And the elite Strategic Rocket Forces or SRF were a microcosm of that microcosm. Because the SRF commanded all land-based ballistic missiles, which were the core of the Soviet nuclear deterrent, service in that branch of the military was prestigious and coveted. With rare exceptions, Slavs comprised the entire officer corps of the SRF. This was no accident. A retired SRF general once revealed to Mariana during an interview that the Soviet General Staff had an unwritten proscription on the inclusion of non-Slavs in the SRF. Eight nationalities were barred altogether on the grounds of unreliability: Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Jews, Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, and Ingush. The number of ethnic Kazakhs serving in the SRF, including in missile divisions stationed in Kazakhstan at Zhangiz Tobe and Derzhavinsk, was so negligible that one observer claimed it could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
While the non-Slavs were not trustworthy enough to be let near the Soviet Union’s most powerful weapons, the gargantuan machinery of the Soviet nuclear program used and abused their land and resources without qualms. Kazakhstan’s rich uranium deposits, supplying 50% of Soviet uranium needs, meant that the Soviet military-industrial complex set up uranium processing and fuel fabrication facilities there. In addition to hosting the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk, huge swaths of land in Kazakhstan were used for other military testing grounds resulting in serious environmental degradation. Many nuclear facilities were simply abandoned by Moscow after the Soviet Union collapsed without regard for safety and security. One nuclear explosive device prepared for testing in the underground tunnels at Semipalatinsk was left there, undetonated, for several years after the test site was shut down by the decree of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev on August 29, 1991, forty-two years after the first nuclear explosion ravaged the country’s land and its people.
Accountability for committing and perpetuating racism and other injustices must be meted out wherever it is due. We tend to demand more of Western states and societies, implying that they are enlightened and should know better. Counterintuitively perhaps, there’s something patronizing and discriminatory in the very assumption that the Russians — or Indians, or Chinese, or Cubans, for that matter — have a lesser moral, cultural, and societal capacity to grasp and grapple with racial injustice, that it’s less offensive when discrimination happens in ‘dysfunctional’ geographies outside of the Western contexts.
The United States is our polis. It is where, through open, if difficult deliberations in the public forum, we can have a modest chance of influencing state and institutional policies on racial justice and inclusion. Yet if we are to combat racism, we must locate the beast in all its habitats and study it in all its permutations.
Dr. Mariana Budjeryn is a research associate at the Project of Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center. She is currently working on a book about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament.
Dr. Togzhan Kassenova is a senior fellow with the Center for Policy Research at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is an expert on nuclear politics and financial crime prevention. She is currently working on a book about Kazakhstan’s nuclear history.