The Sinister Myth of Soviet Anti-imperialism | Georgia Leigha Leatherdale Gilholy

The definition of imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means. The definition of colonisation is the policy or practise of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. Colonisation and imperialism are two pillars of Empire. To me at least, the word Empire often invokes painful images of Atlantic slavery, sixteenth-century galleons shipping booty to Madrid and Lisbon or the remote memory of Roman centurions making ground on a Celtic beach. What rarely comes to mind for most of us, is the Soviet Union. Indeed, there has been a mission from the Soviet Union’s genesis in 1917, far past its disintegration from the late 1980s, to rehabilitate it as an anti-imperial power, particularly by a radical Left that finds commonality with its vision. We rarely use the word “Empire” to refer to the late USSR, nor do we speak of it as one in most history classes. Although not associating the USSR with “Empire” does not mean we completely fail to appreciate its complexities or its crimes, I think we lose something from not exploring the distinctly imperial flavour of Soviet life.

A Different Kind of Empire

The main reason why we fail to mentally join the dots of ”Soviet” and “Empire” is largely because of the relative success of its PR campaign among western intelligentsia, at least until many began to shy away from directly supporting the USSR when many of the Stalinist crimes were revealed and even more so in the wake of the brutally suppressed Hungarian (1956) and Czechoslovakian (1968) uprisings. The Soviet Union modelled itself as an anti-imperialist “Union”, and we decided to take that vocabulary at face value. The average westerner was of course not enthusiastic about the Soviet Union, but they did not regard it as an empire. The second prong of our failure to appreciate Soviet imperialism is because it looked very different from the Empires we are and were familiar with. The USSR was atheist and socialist. It was not ruled by a monarch or emperor. It declared itself- as do China and North Korea today- a “People’s Democracy”. Yet it doesn’t take much reading between the lines of Soviet history to rebut the idea of the anti-imperial utopia celebrated by an endless string of anonymous Twitter and Reddit threads.

The Case of Migration Rights: Jews and Meskhetians

With a population of over 2.5 million in 1926, Jews represented a significant minority throughout the Soviet period. Thus, their migration rights are a useful focus point for an examination of Soviet cultural imperialism. The 1917 Revolution laws emancipated Russian Jewry, who had been largely forbidden to reside outside of the Pale of Settlement established by Catherine the Great. However, Jewish movement rights were swiftly compromised by the Soviet understanding of rights, inaugurated by that year’s second revolution. This is best explained by its inhibition of outward migration after the independence of Israel in 1948, which in the wake of the Holocaust in which millions of Eastern European Jews perished, offered appealing safety and independence. Exit visas became mandatory for anyone seeking to leave Soviet borders, would-be Israelis included, and those who were denied- often multiple times without reason- were derogatorily referred to as treacherous “refuseniks” in (state-controlled) media and official proceedings. As well as inhibiting movement, this led to the social consequence of dissuading others to apply, for fear of being publicly ostracised as “recusants”. This demonstrates the Soviet Empire’s fundamental clash with Jews seeking rights to exit the state, and its lack of provision for personal rights to exit the political body at all. Despite the celebration of Jewish emancipation by many Soviet sympathisers, the state remained inflexible even to the appeals of recent Holocaust survivors’ pleas to seek new lives, and seek family reunification, with the guarantee of freedom from persecution.

The situation is further demonstrated in the wake of the Six-Day War (1967), in which the USSR cut all diplomatic ties with Israel, and a “diploma tax” was introduced. This was a specific financial penalty imposed upon those pursuing aliyah rights. The tax, though its statutes did not specify Jews, was intended as a penalty on would-be emigrants who had received a university education in the Soviet system, and often being as high as twenty times a yearly income, thus forcing those without the financial capacity to circumvent it, to be revoked of the right to emigrate, as Gal Beckerman in his 2012 book, When They Come For Us, We’ll All Be Gone. However, up to 13.5% of the Jews impacted by the policy had no higher education. This highlights several elements of the Soviet understanding of rights. First, it displays the state’s aim to restrict migration, for the purpose of preventing loss of (educated) human capital of a minority group, revealing how it did not see its population as individuals possessing political rights, but as a resource to benefit the collective economics through their labour, and as a pillar of strength for the process of achieving communism. However, the implementation of the tax on those not university-educated, further contributes to this idea of Soviet understandings, as consistent only with the state’s prerogatives, above even its own laws. 

When pressed on the issue by the Reagan administration at a 1987 Summit in Washington, Premier Gorbachev protested: “What moral right do you have to lecture me, I am not on trial.” This retort summarises neatly the Soviet inability to conceive of a moral or natural “right” to mobility, that might be legitimately invoked against its imperial positivism. Furthermore, Israel’s swift alliance with the USA on the world stage, made it a threatening symbol of Western Capitalism to Soviet interests. Consequently, Jews aiming to migrate there- whether for political, religious or simply familial purposes- were perceived as servants of “American Imperialism”. Thus, it is clear that the Soviet regime conceived of any Jewish aliyot as destabilising to its international political clout, not simply due to the “Brain Drain” threat to economic productivity, but via the transfer of manpower from itself to a malevolent rival ideology, and thus requiring repression. Rather than individuals possessing innate rights to autonomy over their own geographic destiny, the state saw its power to give and take movement rights as absolute, based on whether they conformed to its ‘constant, ceaseless struggle’ for ideological monopoly.

Although the emigration tax was eventually phased out, (although never removed from the books), after much US pressure to abolish it, this, represented a shrewd Soviet move to save international face and did not represent an evolution toward personal migration rights. Yet Jewish groups remained dissatisfied and unable to access migration rights, and in 1978, 102 Jews from the USSR’s major urban centres, signed an open letter to the US Congress, demanding further action to protect their migration rights. Additionally, one of the most bizarre examples of the unaccommodating Soviet conception of minority emigration rights was the creation of the “Jewish Autonomous Oblast” SSR in 1934. This was established to provide a location for the resettlement of Soviet Jews, as an alternative to the Zionist mission to migrate to establish a Jewish state in the Mandate for Palestine prior to 1948. Although this policy did not directly inhibit Jewish migration rights, it attempted to use the “soft power of” state-funded posters, literature, and the promotion of prominent Jewish intellectuals, many of whom had prominent positions in the civil service until the upcoming purges, to ideologically subvert the idea of Zionist emigration, that was independent of Marxist-Leninist dogma and often posed an incompatible nationalist threat. Thus, it has been demonstrated that the Soviet government’s severe restriction of permanent migration rights, in this case of Zionist Jews, represented its dismissal of right to abandon the Soviet project, due to their dedication to overarching party mission to stamp out any ideological competitors, including Jewish-Zionist nationalists. Thus, its understanding of movement rights, placed communist priority for stamping out ethnic particularism, by personal political rights to not just advocate for an external homeland, but to relocate to it.

As discussed, this encroachment upon ideological and cultural minorities by the Soviet hierarchy was not just directed against Jews, but almost any group that was perceived to be subversive to the “greater good” of the Soviet vision. There were countless forced population transfers- often tantamount to ethnic cleansing- especially under the Stalinist regime. For example, during the planned Soviet attack of Turkey during a diplomatic crisis in the late 1930s, the brutal forced migration of over 100,00 Meskhetians- a Turkic minority in the Georgian SSR- was justified as a preventative tactic against the group’s potential security risk by the “fortifying” of “strategically vulnerable borders.” The regime claimed that Soviet Meskhetians might function as espionage or manpower against their state, in league with their Turkish cultural brethren. The Soviet government, like many an imperial junta before it, did not conceive of minority group as a collection of individuals with varying allegiances, but as a homogenous collective that might at any moment spark sedition in the ultimate good- their state’s strength and mission.The Soviet state perceived the infringement of their residence rights as not just admissible, but a duty to ensure socioeconomic and military unity against a foreign threat. They then used forced transfers of such groups to fortify their economic strength by employing millions of forced labourers in the Gulag system which persisted to varying degrees until the late 1980s.

What About Whataboutism?

In an era when another professed anti-imperial, socialistic power is forcibly transferring and “re-educating” indigenous minority groups, it is important to investigate the ongoing denial and deflection of historic Soviet imperialism. If it is high time to reexamine the imperial past of the west from a critical perspective, it is time to reinfuse our memory of the Soviet Union with the gritty reality of its imperial mission. Although I have focused in the issue of forced and denied migration here, not the least because millennials are often swayed by the issue of free movement, there is plenty more to be said about the Soviet penchant for imperial suppression.

Did the Soviet Union invade sovereign states and annex them against their will? Yes. Did the Soviet Union consider itself a carrier of a “greater good” that it sought to spread internationally? Yes. Was the Soviet Union a multinational entity trying to create ‘one people’ based on a certain ideology? Yes.Did the Soviet Union pump enormous resources into maintaining its controlled territories? Yes. Did the Soviet Union crush opposition and correct the “transgressions” in its dominions? Yes. Did the Soviet union censor and oppress dissidents to its ideological mission? Yes. Are these the policies of an anti-imperial power? Or one that sought to mask its crimes with the veneer of a leftist utopia? 

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