I’m going to use this opportunity to speak to the Soviet side of Eric’s wonderful book, and to the way his research helps us to better understand the Soviet Union. Yesterday, in Eric’s comment on Alison’s thought-provoking essay, he said he tried to explain the policies of his subjects using a kind of rational cost-benefit analysis. It’s almost a cliché that the Soviet leadership did many things that—from a purely economic point of view—proved highly irrational. Although building socialism (the very goal of the regime) was tantamount to industrialization, Soviet citizenship policies did not do much to advance the goal of economic growth. Security concerns consistently trumped the needs of economic modernization.
Eric writes that, in the Soviet period, “the old regime formula of ‘attract and hold’ had been reduced to ‘hold.’” (179) At the same time, the two regimes pursued “hold” in different ways and for different reasons. The imperial regime believed it had a shortage of labor, while the Soviet regime did not. The Soviet Union’s “hold” was not motivated by a desire to maintain a valuable labor force. As we all know, the party leadership behaved (especially in the 1930s) as if it had an endless supply of labor. The Soviet agricultural labor force never recovered from collectivization and dekulakization. During the Great Terror, the regime shot three quarters of a million people, many of them able-bodied and skilled workers, the very kind the economy desperately needed. The Soviet regime was not holding in people because it valued laborers. Rather, “hold” (it seems) was about maintaining secrecy and security.
As I read Eric’s book, I was struck by the contrast between the imperial and Soviet regimes on this point. One believed that immigration and naturalization would expand its economic power, while another viewed these as politically threatening. Eric describes how the old regime wanted to attract workers in order to advance its goal of economic modernization. Yet Soviet leaders were arguably even more obsessed with economic development than their predecessors. Although the Bolshevik regime initially sought to attract foreign members of the working class and fellow travelers, its own conspiratorial mindset took over. Security concerns shaped Stalin’s autarkic model of economic development. As Eric writes, “the police view prevailed.” (157)
Indeed, the role of the police in shaping the citizenship policies of the Soviet regime is striking. I found it fascinating how control over citizenship policy steadily transitioned from state institutions to police organs, from the republics to the NKVD and OGPU. In the process, the xenophobic and conspiratorial culture of the police organs influenced Soviet citizenship policy. As Eric writes, “The police retained their security-state mentality and generally used their power to block any large-scale new immigration.” (160) To be sure, the security-state mentality did not reside in one institution, but grew out of the party’s own experience operating underground and fighting a civil war. And this mentality did not advance the party’s economic goals, but undermined them. Soviet development would have benefitted from foreign workers, but the police (and, certainly, the party leadership) did not want to grant citizenship to Persians, Chinese, and other foreigners. The police view prevailed.
One final point about the physical border. I am now working on a book on the gulag, and one of Eric’s descriptions made a great impression on me. Eric writes the following concerning the outer perimeter of the USSR in the 1930s: “The physical barriers at the border also rapidly expanded, with barbed wire, guard towers, trenches, walls, no man’s land zones, and generously funded border guards.” (180) I read that and immediately thought about the camps. Here was Solzhenitsyn’s image of the big zone. It was more than just a metaphor, but a real physical presence.