(Eisel Mazard, 2016, all rights reserved, etc.)
In reading the history of Sakhalin in the Soviet period, there is nothing more striking than how closely every stage is tied to the same themes and incidents as the "central" Russian political narrative: despite the geographical remoteness of the island, it is stunning to see how politically centralized it was from about 1925 forward. Almost every twist and turn closely resembles what we read in a standard textbook (such as Kenez, 2006) focused on the "core" Slavic areas: the N.E.P., the first 5 year plan, collectivization, anti-kulak campaigns, endless purges of local party leadership, and so on --with the periphery following the same patterns as the core to an astonishing extent (down to the details of denunciations, interrogations, etc.). On the outermost edge of the empire, we seem to be examining a more intense and detailed portrait of the same society, rather than a distinctive, different and separate one, despite the unique geographic-and-cultural position of the island (on the brink of Russian, Chinese and Japanese empires, i.e., a place, historically, claimed by all three at different times). Nevertheless, we know that we can search out the unique historical experience of the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin somewhere in this political history, and that we must be able to trace out some kind of logic behind the local manifestation of Moscow's policies. Terry Martin's 2001 book, The Affirmative Action Empire sets out a new paradigm for the analysis of ethnic-minority policy, and he applied it to many examples within the U.S.S.R.'s sphere-of-influence (especially the Ukrainians); however, he did not apply it to Sakhalin Island. Could this new set of ideas make sense out of the violent (and somewhat self-contradictory) history of Soviet Sakhalin?
One aspect of Martin's approach (the Piedmont Principle, explained in the pages to follow) helps us to understand both what happened and why it happened: it makes sense of the overtly-paradoxical Soviet policy to uplift (and promote) local nationalism (local languages, local culture, etc.) while simultaneously forcing that nation to assimilate with tremendous violence. This paradox unfolds on a background of political intrigues so "standard" to Soviet history (i.e., so familiar from the history of Moscow, the Slavic center, etc.) that they require very little discussion in this paper.
I start with the tenet that everyone's borderland is somebody's heartland: Sakhalin Island is imagined as impossibly-remote from both the Russian and the Japanese perspectives, but, of course, it was the middle of the world for its indigenous peoples (plural), including the Nivkhi (a.k.a. Gilyak) and the Ainu.
Sakhalin has been a contested borderland for centuries, and, at least in theory, it continues to be contested today, as Russia refused to sign the San Francisco Treaty at the end of World War Two, and never resolved its border-negotiations with Japan (thus, technically, the two are still at war today, most overtly disputing four smaller islands adjacent to Sakhalin, but Sakhalin itself is an implicit part of the slow-motion dispute).* Prior to 1800, Sakhalin had been the mid-way point on a triangular trade-route linking China to Japan along the Amur River, with much stronger links to Beijing than might be obvious from a modern map;** from this perspective, also, the island was "the center" (and not the terminus) of trade, and the material cultures of the indigenous people very much adapted-and-developed (over centuries) in response to this economic position (as "middlemen" in Sino-Japanese exchange). As with so many things in Russia, it is hardly an overstatement to say that the slate of history was wiped clean by Communism, or, at least, the patterns described above (of trade, culture, etc.) were forever changed.
* [Footnote:] This is known in Japanese as "The Northern Territories Dispute", 北方領土問題. For the Japanese government's perspective on the matter I may cite an official publication (with the caveat that the source is propagandistic): "The Northern Territories are still under illegal Soviet occupation and this is the sole unsettled issue left for Japan resulting from World War II. This issue has delayed the conclusion of a peace treaty with the Soviet Union […]. The Japanese people remain strongly attached to these integral parts of Japan's national territory and the attachment can only be strengthened in years to come." (Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Anonymous), 1987a, p.3) The Japanese tend to be intentionally vague as to the status of Sakhalin itself (and "Northern Territory" may or may not include it), stating, for example, "that its status has yet to be determined by international law". (Stephan, 1971, p. 167)
** [Footnote:] When the Japanese started seriously observing Sakhalin island (circa 1792) they found that the indigenous leaders had regularly "traveled as far as Beijing, where they participated in official tributary visits", and had links of marriage to cement their Chinese alliances, and so on. (Walker, 2001, p. 152) All accounts indicate that during a period of several centuries (ending in 1799) the island's economic and cultural life was absolutely dominated by (1) procuring furs to trade with China, and (2) exporting Chinese-manufactured goods to Japan: "…in short, their subsistence practice had become synchronized to their role as middlemen in trade between Japanese and Qing posts." (Walker, 2001, p. 145)
The most dramatic change is one that I'll say relatively little about, as it is mostly evident through an absence: the Ainu of Sakhalin had been one of the most important groups of indigenous people (especially on the southern half of the island), and they were extirpated and expelled from all of the Russian-controlled territory (along with the ethnically-Japanese settlers) at the conclusion of World War Two.* The history of this displacement (that could perhaps be described as localized genocide, of a sort) is outside of the scope of this paper, as our attention remains on Sakhalin Island itself, where the Nivkhi, Oroki and Evenki remained as indigenous ethnic groups under Soviet occupation. The relations of these indigenous peoples to the Soviet state are the focus of the present study, although the sudden absence of the Ainu from the equation (after WW2) should be noted as a tremendously-important political and cultural change unto itself. Obviously, while Nivkhi culture had developed in constant contact with both China and Japan, they had been in even-more-constant contact with the Ainu, and the incorporation of Sakhalin into Russia entailed the sudden disappearance of all three of these sources of influence in daily life, along with (of course) the intensification of Russian influence. All of the questions of Russian ethnic-minority policy for this area would be different if they had not effectively deleted one of the indigenous peoples (although that deletion was in part accomplished by ceasing to count the Ainu in the census, i.e., the state ceasing to recognize any who may have remained).**
* [Footnote:] "The Karafuto Ainu [i.e., the Ainu indigenous to Sakhalin Island], who were formally counted [by the Soviets] as Japanese citizens, were 'repatriated' after the Pacific War to a place with which they had no ancestral ties, and which many of them had never seen before." (Morris-Suzuki, 2001, p. 667)
** [Footnote:] I was unable to find a single reputable/academic source on the number of Ainu remaining in Sakhalin (i.e., if there are any), but a number of non-reputable sources (Wikipedia, etc.) repeat rumors from the Russian press that perhaps 100 Ainu remain today, categorized as other ethnic groups in the census data. Although plausible, I must regard this as dubious. Occasionally, I have seen sources claim that significantly-more-than-zero Ainu remain, e.g., Stephan (1971, p. 193) reports one source from 1967 claiming that about 600 Ainu remained, but this may be entirely spurious. Individual ethnic-Japanese remaining in Soviet Sakhalin after the war (in extremely small numbers) are the subject of many newspaper stories, indicating that the Soviets did tolerate a few exceptions to the rule (due to intermarriage or other peculiar circumstances).
With all of these caveats having been stated, the removal of the Ainu relates to the consolidation of the Nivkhi in a dynamic way: Russia was remaking the "nationality" of Sakhalin in accordance with what Terry Martin has termed the Piedmont Principle. (Martin, 2001, p. 313) Under this axiom, from at least the 1930s forward, Soviet leaders worked within the assumption that ethnic groups transcended borders and acted as a sort of ideological conduit; they therefore (1) designed ethnic policy with an eagerness to project an image of Soviet greatness outward via this imagined network of ethnic influence (e.g., in the grandiose plans for Siberia's Jewish Autonomous Oblast), but, at the same time, (2) this entailed an almost hysterical fear that ethnic groups could carry anti-Soviet sentiments inward by the same means (and, e.g., starting in 1948, Stalin did indeed reverse his policy on Judaism, in accordance with fears that Israel had become a conduit for American and bourgeois influence into the U.S.S.R.). The Soviets struggled to apply this logic (consistently) to the ethnicities that existed in multiple nation-states (as well as within the U.S.S.R.), such as the Jews and the Koreans. (Martin, 2001, p. 318–9)
Martin's theory explains Soviet xenophobia as fundamentally based on a fear of foreign influence as contamination, and thus "[it] was ideological, not ethnic" in principle. (Ibid., p. 313) Inevitably, this leads to the policymakers demonstrating a paranoid fear of even small and powerless ethnic groups (Koreans, Jews, etc.) as a serious threat to state power, not because of their ethnicity (sensu stricto), but because their ethnicity is thus imagined to be able to convey bourgeois ideals across borders; and, under this heading, Martin feels the most intense fear was directed toward ethnic Finns, Poles and Germans (living within Russia) because of the particular borders they were thought to "transcend". (Ibid., p. 315) This paranoia (from the top down) thus leads to a familiar pattern of persecution and repression, seen throughout the U.S.S.R., despite the (seemingly-paradoxical) tendency to promote the ethnic minority's national identity as part of Soviet grandeur.
Martin does not apply this theoretical framework to Sakhalin, but we may do so here: within the Piedmont Principle mentality, (1) the Ainu would inevitably be perceived as a threat because they could carry Japanese influence into the U.S.S.R., whereas (2) the Nivkhi presented the opportunity for social planners to completely consolidate the nationality within Russian territory (cut off from the outside world, to be blunt). We may add that this fear of contamination from foreign (and capitalist) ideas was intensified by (3) the location of Sakhalin in an actively-disputed border zone, and (4) the longstanding Japanese claims that the Ainu (in some sense) were Japanese, or at least proto-Japanese (whereas this was never claimed for the Nivkhi, i.e., not even as part of Japanese propaganda).
This mind-set (that Martin identified) of regarding ethnicity as the medium for the transmission of bourgeois ideas across borders helps to explain both the extirpation of the Ainu (at the end of World War Two), and, also, the government's alternation between extremes of promoting and suppressing Nivkhi ethnic nationalism (from 1925 forward, i.e., during the whole Soviet period on Sakhalin, aside from the interruptions caused by Japanese rule, etc.).
Martin's theory thus helps us to understand the Soviet prevarication between the promotion of local ethnic identity and the suppression (even outright slaughter) of ethnic minorities. The Nivkhi were not an exception to this rule. As an illustrative statistic, 36% of the adult Nivkhi population in North-West Sakhalin (Rybnovsk district) were executed in 1937–38 alone. (Grant, 1995b, p. 167) The slaughter of party leaders in the 1930s is well-known throughout Russia, but Grant argues that it was even more extreme in Russia's Far East: of the 139 members of the Central Committee representing the Far East in 1934 (including both candidates and full members), every single one was dead by 1939, with 98 executed and the remainder committing suicide. (Grant, 1995a, p. 106) As another indirect indicator of the intensity of the purges: the Far East region had 44,909 Communist Party members on Jan. 1st, 1933, and this fell to only 24,885 in 1938. (Ibidem) Anti-kulak campaigns were especially bloody, too, as Stalin's analysis of the kulak problem had been based on Siberia in the first place. (Wood, 2011, p. 195)
This essay has largely omitted-to-describe the terror under Stalin's rule in Sakhalin, aside from remarking on how closely it followed the same pattern seen throughout the U.S.S.R. We may say, however, that there was added intensity due to Japan's proximity: "Local Nationalism" could be persecuted as "Japanophilism" --and both were treated as serious crimes of sedition. (Grant, 1995a, p. 101) The Nivkhi were presumed to be part of a vast conspiracy installed by Japanese intelligence agents, and were thus even more liable to be arrested or executed. (Ibid., p. 102) This surreal conspiracy-theory sometimes included Zinoviev and Trotsky, in league with the Japanese and the Nivkhis. (Ibid., p. 104) Overall, a high body-count resulted from the sudden reversal of policy that rendered the promotion of local culture a crime almost immediately after it had been celebrated by the central government, i.e., with no time for anyone to adapt to the new policy. (Grant, 1995a, p. 101 et seq.) As remarked above, these dynamics were not confined neatly to the 1930s, as the pressure to relocate and rebuild brought new waves of coercion through to the end of the 1960s (although, admittedly, the persecution was of a different character).
Although Sakhalin's cultural policy went through repeated reversals, the directive to pursue consolidation at any cost was constant. Although the Nivkhis resisted and resented being reorganized into new ("centralized") communities, they had no choice but to accept this decision every time it came from Moscow, and it came not once, but repeatedly (over decades), entailing that permanent settlements were abandoned again and again:
[A Nivkhi survivor of the period reflected,] "none of us could believe the news when we heard it [i.e., that we would be forced to abandon our homes, yet again]. The town had grown to about 700 people, about 300 of us, Nivkhi. The government had spent so many years building us up! There was a school, a laboratory, two clubs, a farm… They had only just finished [constructing] a whole new set of houses and a two-story hospital on the edge of the village." (Grant, 1995b, p. 167)
Implicit in this quotation is the logic of consolidation of the Nivkhi and their isolation from the outside world (esp. China and Japan), but, notably, not isolating from their fellow Soviets: at an early stage (in the 1920s) the possibility of granting the natives of Sakhalin reservations (to protect them against Russianization) was proposed, debated, and ultimately rejected as non-Marxist. (Grant, 1995b, p. 167) This debate would resume after the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the early 1990s. (Grant, 1995a, p. 143) The following description of the process (of what I've termed consolidation) comes from a pro-Soviet source, but nevertheless provides a sense of the total devastation of indigenous culture (and livelihoods, etc.), along with a portrayal of the attitudes of the administrators:
In August 1945, the Soviet Army liberated southern Sakhalin from the Japanese invaders, and Soviet people came to the immemorially Russian lands. […]Formerly illiterate and extremely backward economically and culturally, the Nivkhi were gradually drawn into the work of various Soviet organizations —becoming part of a new, hitherto unknown culture.* […]The organization of collectives and their successful development were openly resisted by the rich Nivkhi and former elders. The greatest resistance was to the building of building of new collective-farm villages and the resettlement of the members in new sites. […]The former, primitive fishing methods have been abandoned. […]Agriculture is a new branch of economic activity among the Sakhalin Nivkhi. […] The collective farm has its own skilled agricultural personnel… although there was a time when the Nivkhi considered agriculture a great sin. As the old men used to say, "He who digs or plants will die." […]An essential prerequisite for the successful organization and development of collective farms was the unification of small villages, formerly scattered over large distances. […] Before the Revolution, most of the Sakhalin Nivkhi lived in dugouts, and most of the continental Nivkhi lived in frame huts resembling the Manchu-Chinese fanza.[Now] the most widespread of the new dwellings is the warm Russian log house. […] The internal furnishings of the Nivkhi home have also changed, and are today similar to those of Russian homes. [etc.]
(Levin & Potapov, 1956, p. 782–784)
Although many areas of the USSR underwent some sort of relocation at one point in time or another, for the Nivkhi this was a recurring source of cultural and economic trauma from 1925 through to the end of the 1960s, or early 1970s. (Ibid., p. 140–141) Within one lifetime, the total (material) transformation of their community was something that people would witness not once, but repeatedly, and (as even the pro-Soviet quotation above alludes to) community leaders ("elders", shamans, etc.) were susceptible to liquidation for opposing the change.
* [Footnote:] There is an unintentional paradox in the author's claim that Sakhalin had been Russian since time immemorial, and yet Russian culture was new and unknown to the native inhabitants; or else, perhaps, the nuance has been lost in translation, and the author means to imply that the ensuing synthesis was itself a new culture (a pseudo-Hegelian concept discussed below).
J.E. Mace argues that collectivization itself transformed nationalities policy (in praxis), as it was incompatible with local nationalism (of even the kind nominally approved of by Soviet authorities). (Mace, 1990, p. 179–180) The ultimate ideological justification for this was to appeal to pseudo-Hegelian/Marxist "dialectical" reasoning, to suggest that the policy (post 1930) was neither one of indigenization nor Russification, but, instead, an attempt to create a synthesis that would produce a (unified) Soviet identity. (Kaiser, 1994, p. 390–1) Although this rationale deserves to be remembered as a great feat in the history of Marxist apologetics, the underlying reality was of a conquered people struggling to meet impossible quotas under collectivization, and needing to recruit new laborers (and administrators) of any ethnicity (preferably literate) to replace those who had been executed, had disappeared, or had been fired as incompetent:
[On the Kolkhzoes of Sakhalin Island] simply not working hard was sufficient grounds for being labelled an enemy of the people. Between 1938 and 1940 the Freedom kolkhoz, with 120 members, let 44 members go and hired 72 new ones. In the same period, Red October [kolkhoz] let 60 members go and hired 89 new ones. Bearing in mind that these communities were quite small, each dominated by one kolkhoz, these were enormous turnovers. (Grant, 1995a, p. 105)
Those who were "let go" may have had worse fates than exile to Siberia (as they were already in Siberia), but from what source did the local government recruit new laborers? This was the reality of ethnic "synthesis", i.e., the desperate need to recruit laborers (amidst purges, etc.) on an island that was already infamous for being nearly uninhabitable, relying on convict-labor, etc., before the Soviet period even started.* Although the persecution of the indigenous people is tragic in many different ways, it also reduced the number of people positively motivated to work and live on the island (over the long term); the Soviets couldn't possibly recruit anyone (from Slavic areas, etc.) with a commitment to local development as sincere as the Nivkhi and the Ainu (but there was no way to settle the land with "new" indigenous people, after these indigenous people had been, variously, expelled, executed, etc.).
* [Footnote:] Although it is outside of the scope of this paper to explain this further, the account of the famous author (and medical doctor) Anton Chekhov's journey to Sakhalin may be named as a typical (and especially influential) example of the island's odious reputation in the pre-revolutionary period.
Terry Martin's approach (the Piedmont Principle) is rare in unifying psychological and bureaucratic factors: it explains the "securitarian" aspect of domestic ethnic-minority policy, and provides one guiding motive underlying the (paradoxical) tendency to both promote and punish local nationalism. Although his theory was not devised in relation to Sakhalin (nor even with a special interest in Siberia), it fits the case extremely well, and is consistent with our observation that Sakhalin followed the same historical-and-political patterns as the Soviet "core" to an astounding extent (i.e., in this sense, it was "centralized", in that every episode happening at the center had an impact on the periphery, down to the minutiae of anti-Trotsky-and-Zinoviev hysteria, something hard to imagine as relevant to the lives of native fisherman on Sakhalin Island). The same urge for control (against the imagined contagion of foreign, bourgeois ideas) can be seen as expressed in (1) the extirpation of the Ainu and (2) the consolidation of the Nivkhi (relocated and collectivized repeatedly, as explained), as well as (3) the swing back and forth between the promotion and suppression of local, ethnic-minority identity. From this perspective, both collectivization and nationality-policy are considered as the means (rather than the ends), with the defense against capitalist ideas providing the underlying principle. Of course, this analysis also entails that the Piedmont Principle could never be satisfied: someone celebrated as a local (pro-Communist) leader could be marked as an enemy of the people for wearing a Japanese wrist-watch, (Grant, 1995b, p. 167) and the Soviet authorities could never end the process of persecution, they could never conclude that they were"safe" against foreign influence (and, thus, could never feel safe even amidst truly-powerless ethnic minorities, such as the Nivkhi).
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