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One often describes USSR in ethnic terms, as Russian domination over other nations (many of which later became independent states). While the USSR certainly practiced ethnic policies (such as discrimination of Jews, population transfers, etc.), was there really ethnic profiling in terms of access to the higher power levels? More specifically, was it discriminative towards other Slavs, such Ukrainians or Belorussians?

There was obviously great diversity in the early period (E.g., Trotsky was Jewish, Dzerzhinsky was Polish, Stalin was Georgian), so I am mainly interested in the post-Stalin period.

I checked that

  • Khrushchev was Russian, although he spent much time living in Ukraine
  • Brezhnev was of Russian origin, although born in Ukraine
  • Andropov was half-Cossack (i.e. essentially Ukrainian) and half-Jewish (which he kept secret)
  • Shevarnadze (late Soviet minister of foreign affairs and then a president of independent Georgia) was Georgian

I am however more interested in overall composition of the Soviet government and whether there was any deliberate ethnic profiling to favor ethnic Russians.

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    The last paragraph makes me concerned about the possibility of an XY problem; do you want the ethnic profile, or do you want to know if the ethnic profile was manipulated to favor ethnic Russians? As @RogerVadim states, the two might be independent - it isn't clear which of the two questions you'd like H:SE to answer.
    – MCW
    Mar 22, 2022 at 12:50
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    @MCW these seem to be independent to me: one might have no deliberate ethnic selection, and still an unequal composition for various reasons.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 13:27
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    Russia today has several ethnic regions with considerable autonomy where the local languages enjoy official status alongside Russian. Was it also true for the Soviet Union? For example today the Bashkir language has official status in Bashkiria, but was that true in the Soviet Union too? (wikipedia lists it as official for Russia, but has no info about Soviet times)
    – vsz
    Mar 23, 2022 at 9:00
  • @vsz USSR sanctioned some ethnicities - notably those corresponding to the 15 republics and Jews, but prohibited many others. Thus, when obtaining a passport/ID card, people had to choose among the existing categories - e.g., a Cossack had to write that they are a Russian or Ukrainian, same applied to numerous small ethnic groups in Siberia, etc. Note that ethnicity (natsionalnost) was indicated in the personal documents - cancelling "the fifth record" in official forms, i.e., the indication of ethnicity was a big deal after the fall of the USSR.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 23, 2022 at 9:10
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    @vsz Of course - in fact, Soviet Ruble bank note had writings in 14 languages, there was even a separate name for ruble in each of Republics' languages.
    – alamar
    Mar 23, 2022 at 11:33

3 Answers 3

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Historical Background

Continuity is the key word when you think about Russia.

There have been major upheavals in Russian history in the 20th century (the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 - and the ensuing civil war!, and the relatively peaceful collapse of the USSR in 1991) which temporarily took Russia away from its "normal" path, but it returned to it within ~10 years.

Russia's national ("state", not "ethnic") mentality is the inevitable necessity of expansion to improve security (see Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger). Russia is "peaceful" while it is digesting the newly acquired lands (the aggression is directed against the remnants of the independence movements), and aggressive, when it feels that the recently digested territories are threatened by the still-independent neighbors.

Ethnic Policy

The ethnic policy in Russia (except for the brief aberrations after the 1917 and 1991 upheavals, when the state is weak and fears national break up) has always been the same: "Russification" of all non-Russians. It was a very persistent but somewhat inconsistent (not pushed equally hard everywhere) policy, which was clothed differently depending on the way the national ideology was currently formulated.

E.g., during the Soviet epoch it was called "national in form, socialist in content", which meant that local languages could be used to spread the official ideology.

Use of local languages beyond secondary education was actively discouraged. (Similar to medieval universities teaching in Latin ;-).

Cadre Policy

Now for the question asked: the key attribute in a person aspiring for a political position has always been loyalty to the ideology, i.e., Russian Imperial world view in the current incarnation (e.g., 1920-ies - world revolution lead by Russia, 1930-ies - "socialism in one country", before 1917 and now - "Russian world").

Thus, Russians were always preferred, but not because of "racism", but because a Russian is more likely to support Russian expansionism and Russification of non-Russians. Ukrainians and Belorussians were second best because they were ethnically and linguistically close. Jews could never be trusted, like everywhere else - see the excellent other answer.

Government Composition as a matter of Policy

One standard aspect of the Soviet system is that the power center was the Party, not the official Soviet administration. All the actual decisions for a region ("область") were made by the regional party bureau, chaired by the First Secretary of the regional party organization. The "Executive Committee Chairman" (председатель исполкома) was merely a bureau member, outranked not only by the First Secretary, but also by his 2 deputies (Second and Third Secretaries).

In the Russian regions, the power ranking was as one would expect: the First Secretary is the boss, the Second is his deputy &c. and they were always Russian (culturally if not ethnically, e.g., it might be a Ukrainian who speaks little Ukrainian language).

However, in ethnic regions the First and Third Secretaries were always "locals" (e.g., they were Uzbeks in Uzbekistan) and the Second was always a Russian, and the true power center was the Second Secretary, not the First one.

When Kazakh Kunaev was replaced as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan by Russian Kolbin in December 1986, there were violent protests.

Government Composition as a matter of Statistics

When talking about ethnic composition of the government, one has to decide the level of cut off.

E.g., if we limit ourselves to Politburo, the data will not be very representative - too small data set. There will be mostly Russians (and some Ukrainians and Belorussians), sprinkled with Latvians, Georgians, Kazakhs, Jews, Armenians &c The other answer collected the stats. The over-representation of Jews is due to the post-upheaval 1920-ies.

If we want to look at the nomenklatura as a whole, the statistics is not available because the lists of members thereof were always classified.

Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union

If we want to look at the official national government, we can rely on several lists for various dates, e.g., 1979-04-19: out of 93 names, only a handful can be suspected of non-Slavic heritage. Out of those, there are 2 Jews, and one Azeri, Bashkir, and German each. Two more "suspects" turned out to be half Russian and half non-Slavic, which, for all intents and purposes, means Russian (ideologically, not "racially", as explained above).

The same list for 1962-04-25: 56 names, 2 Armenians, 1 Jew.

The same list for 1946-03-19: 56 names, 4 Jews, 2 Georgians, 2 Armenians.

This is not very interesting though, as the Council of Ministers was a technical organ, not a political one (i.e., it did not decide policy, by merely implemented whatever the Party has already decided).

Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

For some dates there are full lists, but not everyone on the list has their own wiki page.

E.g., 1952: 125 full members (2 Azeri, 8 Central Asian, 4 Georgians, 2 Armenians, 3 Jews, 2 Baltic, 1 Finn), 111 candidates (1 Armenian, 3 Baltic, 2 Georgian, 1 Armenian, 1 Central Asian, 1 American(???!!!)). Again, this is based on names only, please take it with a grain of salt. Basically, the rest looked very Slavic, but these did not.

See also

Postscriptum

All 3 answers to this questions have several downvotes. I think this is a sad illustration of politicization of the site.

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    [citation needed]
    – alamar
    Mar 22, 2022 at 17:20
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    @alamar: what do you want me to cite? I lived there.
    – sds
    Mar 22, 2022 at 17:23
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    Thanks, you've made many useful points.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 17:34
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    @T.E.D.: USA was a melting pot for voluntary immigrants. USSR was lava coming out of a volcano consuming its unwilling neighbors.
    – sds
    Mar 22, 2022 at 19:12
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    @alamar I lived in the USSR before 1988, and followed the events in USSR/Russia/etc 1988-present. My experience is based on personal observations, on multiple discussions with diverse groups of people, on mass media reports, social media posts, history textbooks, books on current events, etc. The answer above by sds is better on many dimensions than my answer, it is accurate and precise, and I recommend upvoting and accepting the answer by sds. Thank you! Mar 22, 2022 at 20:19
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You can try googling and translating "этнический состав советской номенклатуры".

I have stumbled on an article which says:

В государстве, где «ядром политической системы» была единственная правительственная партия, элиту составляли в первую очередь лица, входившие в Политбюро (в 1952 – 1964 гг. оно называлось Президиумом), Оргбюро и Секретариат ЦК. Каков был их национальный состав?... Больше всего в этих органах было русских - 147 человек, что составляло 64 %; украинцев было 18 человек (7,9 %), евреев – 12 человек (5,2 %), белорусов и латышей – по 8 человек (по 3,5 %), грузин – 6 человек (2,6 %), армян и узбеков – по 4 человека (по 1,7 %), азербайджанцев было трое (1,3 %), казахов, киргиз, молдаван, немцев, поляков и эстонцев – по 2 человека (по 0,9 %), болгары, литовцы, осетины, таджики, татары, туркмены и финны – по одному человеку (по 0,4 %). Один человек () остался за рамками этих подсчетов (отец у него был молдаван, а мать – русская).

Members of Politburo, Orgburo and communist party secretariat were:

  • Russians: 64%
  • Ukrainians: 8%
  • Jewish: 5%
  • Belorussians and Latvians: 3.5% each
  • Georgians: 2.5%

...long tail follows...

It's hard to say whether the Russians sitting in the Politburo were representative of general Russian population or not, but it doesn't seem there's significantly more of them with regards to overall ethnic composition of the USSR, and you can spot some privileged minorities such as Georgians and Latvians (e.g. the second-to-last minister of interior of USSR, Boris Pugo, was Latvian, but born in Russia, in communist "Latvian Riflemen" family).

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  • This helps, thanks. You should have kept the year though - it seems this is the composition in the 1990s.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 13:25
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    This is about the approach I would have taken in an answer. The Politboro had the power to appoint, and sometimes to remove, the leader, so this is where I'd look to for what kind of people were really in power (plus there are more of them than Primere's, which makes any results more statistically significant)
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 14:09
  • This is a similar system to how many other communist countries were run, as well as how theological states like the Papal State/Catholic Church and Iran are run. Its common enough that you'd think there'd be a name for it, but there doesn't seem to be one. Technically you could go with "oligarchy", but that term has taken on republican overtones that it probably doesn't really historically deserve.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 14:12
  • Was this between 1952 – 1964, i.e. in Khrushchev's time? Are those stats similar in other periods? Mar 22, 2022 at 17:19
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    This statistics can be misleading. Most obviously, Khruschev and Brezhnev were ethnically Russians, but with strongest ties to Ukraine. (In today's understanding of nationality, they would be called 'Ukrainians of Russian descent'). Naturally, they favoured familiar people they worked with, which led to overrepresentation of Ukrainians at the highest ranks (at the expense of Belorussians, by the way, who somehow never 'made it'). But this was not 'ethnic', just normal 'clan' thing. Even mild nationalism was discouraged (e.g. Shelest).
    – Zeus
    Mar 23, 2022 at 0:26
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Yes, ethnic profiling against the Jews took place at least in 1970s-1980s, and, IIRC, at other times. The favored ethnicity was Russian, and other Slavic nations were acceptable as second-tier, but also favored.

Note also the ethnic Jews in other countries with weaker antisemitism than that in the USSR made up higher proportion of the political (and scientific) elite. As an example, take the lists of prestigious scientific award winners (Nobel prize, Fields medal), and calculate the fraction of ethnic Jews among those. I leave this an an exercise to the reader. I expect about this fraction of Jews in the ruling elite of the USSR, but AFAIR it was much, much lower. Feel free to search the interwebs for USSR antisemitism, to find a few good references re discrimination of Jews in favor of Russians and other Slavs at the state level.

REFERENCES:

I personally spoke in 1980s with a high-ranking Jewish scientist N., who had been working in the defense sector in USSR. N. explained to me that he had been explicitly told by a very high ranking Soviet official that they would have appointed N. to the minister or assistant minister position ("ministr" or "zamestitel' ministra" in Russian) had he not been a Jew. This was expressed with regret by that official, who was sympathetic to N., but who could not violate the orders from above.


I do not reveal the name of N. for fear of repressions that might be initiated against his family that currently lives on the territory controlled by Putin's regime. This was personal communication with me, and I cannot produce any written proof.

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    Thanks you. Soviet discrimination against Jews is well known. I am specifically interested in the attitudes towards Ukrainians.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 22, 2022 at 13:39
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    @RogerVadim It was very friendly. Not as good as Russian-to-Russian, but good enough. Ukrainians were derisively called "hohly" by the Russians and Ukrainian language was considered as a funny and backwaters dialect of Russian. Maybe a little like the attitude to the rednecks among the WASPs in the US. You can advance very high, but you will be considered an oakie from the skokie until the end of recorded time. Spoken from personal experience before 1988 in the USSR. :) Mar 22, 2022 at 13:55
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    Re " oakie from the skokie": I assume that should be "Okie from Muskogee" :-)
    – njuffa
    Mar 22, 2022 at 21:52
  • @njuffa You are so right! Thank you. Mar 23, 2022 at 4:50
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    @TimurShtatland An Okie from Skokie could exist too: born and raised in a conservative Jewish family in a near suburb of Chicago, the protagonist loses his job and moves to Broken Arrow after inheriting his deceased uncle's cattle ranch. Hilarity ensues. Mar 23, 2022 at 16:28

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