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Book explores diasporas, ethnicities within Soviet Union's history and culture

Thursday, March 31, 2016

LAWRENCE — Among the general public the Soviet Union is primarily thought of as a Russian empire, even though it consisted of more than 100 nationalities.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union into 15 separate republics in 1991, historians have grappled with how to understand these diverse national groups, but they often focused on each post-Soviet country separately.

In his new book, a University of Kansas researcher is the first scholar to describe Soviet nationalities as internal diasporas that both moved around the Soviet Union and preserved their ethnic distinctiveness in various ways.

"When we think of the Soviet Union, we think of a static place sealed behind an ‘Iron Curtain’ of strict borders," said Erik Scott, assistant professor in the Department of History. "However, within this relatively closed-off space there were a lot of opportunities for migration. In many ways the Soviet state created an infrastructure that encouraged the internal mobility of its many nationalities."

Scott's book, "Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire," released in April by Oxford University Press, focuses on the dramatic history of the Soviet Union’s Georgian diaspora, a group that had a profound influence on Soviet politics and culture even though Georgians represented less than 2 percent of the empire's population. The group’s prominence was all the more striking because members spoke a non-Slavic language and came from a nation whose history was more closely linked to the Ottoman and Persian empires than to Russia.

"The Georgians were the Soviet empire’s most visible internal diaspora because they emphasized and capitalized on their ethnic difference in ways that spoke for a profoundly multiethnic state," Scott said. "In looking at the important roles this group played at the heart of the Soviet empire, I'm trying to bring the study of non-Russian populations into the center of Soviet life rather than thinking of them as a peripheral phenomenon."

It was no coincidence that an ethnic Georgian soldier, Meliton Kantaria, was chosen to stand alongside a Russian soldier in raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag on May 1, 1945. The moment was captured in an iconic photograph that symbolized the defeat of German fascism and marked the Soviet Union’s emergence as a global superpower. It also reflected the outsized political influence of Joseph Stalin, the most famous representative of the Georgian diaspora. While Stalin’s Georgian origins are no secret, historians have often not known what to make of the fact that the Soviet leader, born Ioseb Jughashvili, was Georgian, Scott said.

"Many people have argued that Stalin cast aside his Georgian identity for a Russian identity and became 'Russified.' I found in looking at his correspondence that his Georgian identity was in fact quite important to who he was and connected him to the network of people who rose to power with him in the 1920s and 1930s," said Scott, who examined Stalin's letters to other prominent Georgian Bolsheviks in official positions.

The Soviet state was the product of a series of national revolutions that took place within the so-called Russian revolution, and Stalin’s connection to Georgia helped establish him as the ruler of a multiethnic state, he said.

"He continued to correspond in Georgian, and he continued to preside over Georgian feasts in the Kremlin," Scott said. "He still had a hands-on role in Georgian cultural production at the Soviet-wide level. In many ways, he continued to emphasize his ethnic difference and his ties to a non-Russian community."

Georgian institutions were however able to take advantage of their relatively privileged position of influence after Stalin’s death — even during times when many things associated with Stalin were criticized — and reinvented themselves, bringing Georgian cuisine, Georgian culture, Georgian goods and Georgian film to a wider Soviet audience.

In researching the book, Scott conducted interviews in multiple languages and examined previously untapped archival sources, including KGB records in Tbilisi that were recently opened up to the public. Scott serves on the international advisory board of the Georgian archives and was one of the first researchers to examine its KGB records in detail.

Among other things, the documents offer an interesting perspective on the operation of formal and informal Georgian networks, including the traders, particularly Georgians, who thrived in the burgeoning informal economy in the late Soviet period, he said.

"It's really interesting to piece together networks that were rooted in one republic but operated across the vast territory of the Soviet Union," Scott said.

The critical roles Georgians played in the rise and the fall of the Soviet Union reveal the importance of studying the internal dimensions of migration and offer a new perspective on the experience of minorities in multiethnic states more generally.

"It changes our understanding of what the Soviet Union was," Scott said. "It wasn't simply a Russian-dominated empire. It was an empire of diasporas, where nationalities moved around and blended together in dramatic and sometimes unpredictable ways. All of this has important implications for our understanding of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which transformed these previously internal groups into transnational populations divided by state borders.”