Special displacement operations. Why do the empire and its strong managers need them?

Special displacement operations. Why do the empire and its strong managers need them?

With the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, people were forced to leave their homes. Legally speaking, they became internally displaced and refugees. Forced displacement is not always a spontaneous but at least partially controlled process. It is built within a state or international infrastructures, which can both smoothen and intensify the negative consequences: from so-called ‘interethnic conflicts’ to the loss of part of traditions and inability to integrate into a new life due to a change of lifestyle.

Nikolai Fedorovich Bugai seeks to show a complete history of the Soviet forced displacements called deportations in his book “The Problem of Territories under the Forced Displacements of the XXI Century” [In Russian: Проблемы территорий в условиях принудительных переселений ХХ века. Теория, практика]. While O. T., the author of this text, analyzes Bugai’s imperial mindset, which affects his assessment of the displacements and their consequences.

Is it true that deportations increased the ‘biological productivity of territories’ under ‘extreme conditions? And if so, can this justify forced relocations?

1. What are forced displacements, and why is it necessary to study their history?

The Territory Issue In Forced Displacements of the 20th Century: Theory And Practice [In Russian: Проблемы территорий в условиях принудительных переселений ХХ века. Теория, практика] is a book by Russian historian Nikolai Bugai published in 2018. This book tells about Soviet deportations and their consequences. Unlike many other works on the subject, this research is not focused on people of a single ethnicity who had to migrate by the government's decree but instead is aimed to map all the forced migrations inside the Soviet Union. Which groups have been deported? Who had to move in order to inhabit the abandoned lands? How did the rehabilitated descendants of the displaced return to the territories already taken by other people?

Forced displacements have always been and still are a process that comes with meaningful historical events, or rather a political instrument. Forced displacements are rarely spontaneous. For instance, the Ukrainians fleeing from Russian military aggression find themselves incorporated into specially organized international logistics, be it Russian filtration camps or European refugee coordination programs.

Sometimes the states or international organizations not only react to migration flows but initiate them. For example, in 1923, the League of Nations planned a Turkish-Greek population exchange. About two million people were affected by the decree: the Muslims from the Greek side were sent to the Turkish Republic, and the Greeks were transferred to Greece from Turkish territory. In the summer of 1945, the USSR, the USA and Great Britain agreed to relocate Germans from several European countries during the preparations for the Potsdam conference. Approximately seven million people were moved from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia to temporary occupation zones inside former Nazi territory.

The Soviets called the displacements “planned”. The sources Bugai references in his book are government decrees and committee reports that allow us to understand how exactly the state was planning these deportations. However, the book tells more about the modern Russian imperial project than about Soviet history.

Bugai, N F. The Territory Issue In Forced Displacements of the 20th Century. Theory and Practice. Nauka, 2018

In the 1990s-2000s, Nikolai Bugai has been working as the Head of the Department for Deported and Repressed Nations, as well as the Head of the Department for Nationalities in the Government of the Russian Federation. Now he is doing academic work at the Institute of History of RAS.

By looking at history through his lens, we can learn how the Russian government positions itself in regard to its predecessors—the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire—and, most importantly, unravels its plans for future policies (spoiler: the book from 2018 states that “a new Constitution of Russia is required”).

2. How and why does the imperial discourse justify forced displacements in the Soviets?

“The solution to the territory issue regarding ethnic groups which were affected by destructive actions of the state in the 1920s–1950s led to a ubiquitous achieving of peace and stability in interethnic relations.” This convoluted thought is repeated throughout the book in variations, and it indeed contains the logic behind Bugai’s views. In order to understand it, we have to trace back the course of events.

Bugai’s first point: in the 1920s–1950s, some ethnic groups were affected by the destructive actions of the state. This condemns forced displacements, not justifies them, right? Yes, but there is a caveat.

Bugai's critique of deportations is based predominantly on their negative effect on the “biological productivity of the territories”. When an “ethnic group” has to move from its usual area of residence to a territory with a different set of natural characteristics, a decrease in agricultural productivity is likely to occur: their usual cultivation or pasture technologies might not work. Moreover, the “emptied” (as Bugai calls them) territories fall out of the agricultural cycle completely unless the second wave of forced displacements is launched to resolve the issue. However, the new inhabitants will also need time to settle in on new land. Thus, deportations lower the effectiveness of the agricultural sector little by little and decrease the economic power of the whole state accordingly.

Bugai's second point: the state was solving the territory issue concerning ethnic groups which were affected by destructive actions before. In the 1950s and 1990s, the state has indeed initiated the rehabilitation of the deported nations. It could have included:

  • lifting of the ban on choosing the territory of residence;
  • government programs of returning people to the places they were deported from;
  • creation or recreation of autonomies, up to the creation of autonomous republics (ASSRs).

The next wave of rehabilitation was unraveled in 1991 with the law “On Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples”. However, in 1995 Yeltsin, the President at the time, imposed a 20-year moratorium on this law by issuing Decree № 948. It concerned Part 6 of the law: “Territorial rehabilitation of the repressed peoples provides legal and organizational measures on the basis of their will to restore the national-territorial borders that existed before their unconstitutional violent change.” Many rehabilitation processes were thus paused.

Bugai's third point: thanks to solving the territorial issue, those ethnic groups which were affected by destructive actions are now living in peace, and inter-ethnic relations are stable. This statement clearly contradicts reality.

On the whole, Bugai is building a logic according to which the government has made a mistake but has acknowledged its guilt, is making up for its actions and even deserves forgiveness. The reason for forgiveness is the “extreme circumstances” in which the deportations took place. Bugai describes displacement as a governmental means of resistance against Nazi aggression as a part of national mobilization. He also notes that these means affected ethnic groups living in border areas. There is a logical loophole here as well. Bugai criticizes the first wave of deportations rather strictly but then goes on to consider its effects, one more factor contributing to the start of the second wave of displacements during World War II, the one that the government launched to feed the army and the people.

The resettlement ticket of Aishat Barieva. Issued on May 29, 1956. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bugai transfers this historically tried logic onto the current course of events. In the introduction and the afterword, he mentions external forces that threaten Russia's safety nowadays (with a special mention of Georgia and Ukraine). At the same time, he addresses his key thought: extreme times call for extreme measures because the government's role is to provide “biological productivity of the territories”, not equal social protection and political rights for citizens.

3. How the term “inter-ethnic conflicts” is used, and why does the government need the “governoration” program?

Rehabilitation, the right of ethnic groups for a full or partial return to the places they were deported from, led to conflicts. The deported or their descendants moved into houses or onto lands that were previously given to new inhabitants. In some cases, the government required to leave the land and give it back to the returned. In others, it obliged itself to provide the returned with new lands and money loans for housing construction. The impossibility of getting back home, the need to leave home and the government's delay in giving out new lands led to open outbursts of dissent. Self-authorized land grabs—illegal seizures of land and housing took place all over the country. Land grabs were and still are one of the most important practices of resistance towards governmental territorial policies.

The conflicts, some of which are described as “inter-ethnic”, often stem from Soviet and later Russian national politics.

The tension between ethnicities is sometimes presented as “inherent”; this allows the government to overlook and neglect to work with a history of violence. The policy of “damage control”, the attempt to literally turn the course of history backwards in many cases, led to new conflicts. Besides the waves of displacement, many people were affected by frequent reformations of borderlines between the regions and republics of the USSR.

Is it possible to not repeat the mistakes of Soviet and early post-Soviet politics? In Bugai's opinion, it is (however, let us not forget that he justifies any extreme measures taken by the government).

Numerous migrants from Siberia and the central regions of Russia arrive at the port of Korsakov. Late 1940s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

В порт Корсаков прибывают многочисленные переселенцы из Сибири и центральных областей России. Конец 1940-х. Источник: Wikimedia Commons

Bugai offers a new substantial political project of territorial reorganization of Russia. In his opinion, the key mistake of the Soviet Union that has to be corrected is the creation of national-territorial autonomies. They are the source of borderline and internal separatist sentiments, according to his views. That's why Bugai offers to “regovernorate” Russia—make all federal subjects equal in status, i. e. lower republics in status to a region or a krai. The constitution he foresaw in 2018 has already been adopted, so we might see new steps towards “governoration” be taken, following the abolition of the institute of presidency in the republics.

After all, there is a historical ground to this. Turning to the history of the Russian Empire directly, Bugai claims that the formation of Russian statehood “has never been based on ethnic principles.” “Russians are not an ethnic, but an etatic community.” According to Brief Political Dictionary, “etatism considers the state of being the high point and the goal of community development.” Who is Russian has God with them and the State in front of them.

4. What does this book lack to form a complete image of the history of forced displacements?

Oral history.

The Territory Issue… is almost entirely based on sources from government archives. Among them are some texts written “from below” and telling about everyday matters, but they also are addressed to the government. Most of them are the activists' inquiries. Bugai does not refer to oral history, interviews, ego documents, etc. Thus, the book does not provide any information about the actual experience of going through deportation and rehabilitation whatsoever and does not treat archive sources critically.

A resettlement house in the municipality of Haklay. 1925. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Critical history of Cossacks.

There is only one section in the last chapter of the main part of the book that is dedicated to the Cossacks. However, other sections feature mentions of Cossacks, Soviet repressions towards them and Cossack organizations functioning these days (such as Kuban Cossacks, Terek Cossacks, and Don Cossacks).

According to the law “On Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples” (1991), Cossacks are one of the “peoples” (“a nation, ethnicity or an ethnic group or other historically formed cultural and ethnic community”) that were repressed. Bugai, however, uses repressions towards Cossacks multiple times as an argument of proof that Russians were damaged during deportations.

More fitting would be to use a three-way distinction: not only between Cossacks and Russians but also between modern Cossacks and historical Cossack communities. Sergey Markedonov, an expert on modern Cossackhood, explains in his text on the region's fight for autonomy on Kholod that “modern Cossackhood is actually neo-Cossack and has very little in common with the pre-Revolution Cossack way of living. The old Cossack territories have long been split between different regions, and the specific traditions of military service and land use that the Cossack community was built upon have obviously not survived.”

Adequate analysis of foreign literature.

Bugai refers to several foreign research papers, but the choice of materials appears to be random. There are such mistakes in the names of English and German language sources that are typical for people not speaking the language.

It is interesting, however, to see the notion of “ethnoterritorial corporations” by German professor Jahn Egbert mentioned at the end of the book. Bugai does not comment on the idea but cites it as a possible answer to the question of the possible future of territorial policies, including the territories explored in the book. This is how Egbert himself defines “ethnoterritorial corporations”:

“If one does not wish to see a Europe that is monolingual, monoethnic, i.e. probably Anglophone, and centuries later a world that functions along similar lines, then structures must be created in the world which instead of removing ethnic difference are designed to preserve it if they are to continuously enable changes to the ethnicities through processes of migration and assimilation in many directions. According to one concept, in the longer term, ethnic majorities will be replaced in all countries of the world by numerous ethnic minorities, and the nation-states will be diasporized. Instead of territorial nation statehood (in independent, federative or autonomous form), numerous ethnonational corporations would then emerge similar to the de-territorialized religious communities. This appears to me to be a long-term solution at best to the issue of language cultures. There is much evidence to suggest that the hybrid ethnonational state still has prospects for survival for a long time to come. The political majorities within it will probably ensure that immigration is restricted in such a manner that the ethnic majority does not become a minority. This means that in Europe, there will be as good as no monoethnic and also no polyethnic states, but only hybrid ethnonational states as before. The only state in Europe that is currently not a hybrid is, in precise terms, Bosnia-Herzegovina. And to date, it is not really a proper state.”

Egbert has been doing research on European nationalisms and the connection between nationalism and democracy since the early 2000s. Nationalism in Late and Post-Communist Europe, a three-tome essay compilation under his editorship, and a collection of his lectures under the title Political Issues Under Debate are available in Russian. Maybe now it is time to revisit (or read) them through a decolonial perspective.


Have you ever heard that new heads of departments and other government officials are sometimes called “strong managers”? Bugai's book makes it clear how a strong Russian manager's way of thinking works; it is based on numerical values of demography and production—territory population, land size, the volume of agricultural produce, livestock count, etc. The Territory Issue… is full of numbers and tables that demonstrate this very “biological productivity” (or unproductivity) of the land. If this is how the government thinks, then in its eyes, everything—from people to all the other things existing on its territory—is merely an instrument to multiply its economic power, and it does so via various special operations, either military or displacement.

Settlers in Krivoshchekovo. The picture is from the archive of Baron de Bai and his book “De Penza a Minusinsk”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

5. What else can be found in Bugai's book on the imperial project and imperial thinking?

This section is different from all the others. It offers not a critical retelling of Bugai's book but a guide to his 500-page research filled with facts and references. The guide is made for those who want to find imperial views on a particular case of deportations and links to the history of resistance in the book or venture deep into legal and economic details on their own. What does Bugai reference, whom he supports, and whom he argues with?

The legal basis of Russian territorial organizations

  • Articles 65-67 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Chapter 3 (“Federal Structure”).
  • The law “On Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples” (1991).
  • “The Strategy for State National Politics of the Russian Federation up to 2025” (2012).
  • In every section of the book (see below), there are also links to the legal basis of some particular cases of displacement.
  • Detailed characteristics of sources on the Soviet legal basis are on pages 93-94.

Programmatic ideological texts

  • Yuri Zhukov. A Landmine For The State. Literary Gazette, 2012. Part 1, part 2.
  • The articles on Russian federalism by Sergei Shakhrai, one of the authors of the Constitution of the Russian Federation and an ideologist of “governoration”.
  • Marianna Fadeicheva. A Person In Ethnopolitics. The Concept of Ethnonational Being. Ural Branch of RAS, Yekaterinburg, 2003. Bugai references this book; it is not available online, but Fadeicheva's articles are—for example, this one.

Researchers whose methodology the book is based on

From “territorial phenomenology” to “the semiosphere of the nation”.

  • Lev Mechnikov, an imperial historian and geographer, and his Soviet followers, Anatolii Chistobayev, Mikhail Sharygin and Anatolii Remnyov; their notion of “socio-geographical synthesis”, “socio-geographic issues of the relations between society and nature: geographical division of labor and spacial organization of society”.
  • Vladimir Kagansky, a geographer. The Cultural Landscape and the Soviet Living Space. New Literary Observer, Moscow, 2001. An interesting phrase from Kagansky's dissertation that Bugai quotes: “The logic of administrative subordination contradicts the natural logic of territorial relations (neighborhood, semantic unity of the landscape) and prevails over it.”
  • Mikhail Timofeev, philosopher. The Natiosphere: the Practice of Analyzing the Semiosphere of the Nations. Ivanovo State University, 2005.
  • Oleg Podvintsev, a politologist. The Postimperial Adaptation of Conservatism. Doctoral thesis in Politology. Perm, 2002. Also, his fellow politologist in Perm University, Konstantin Sulimov (Bugai speaks of “the school of Perm” in studying “the territorial factor”).

The projects of the alternative territorial organization that have not been implemented

  • Projects of dividing the USSR into “states” during Andropov's leadership (1980s). More details are here and here.
  • A project of dividing the USSR into economic regions, not union republics and autonomous regions, by Aleksandrov, an engineer (1920s). More details are here.

Researchers of Soviet and Russian history and national politics to whom Bugay refers complimentarily

  • Tishkov V. The Social and the National in Historical-Anthropological Perspective. The Philosophy Issues, no. 2, 1990. P. 5–15.
  • Prazauskas A. A. Components of State Unity. Pro et contra, no. 2, 1997. P. 23.
  • Zdravomyslov A. G. Interethnic Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space. 2nd ed., Moscow, 1999. P. 286.
  • Shamba T. M. The Right of Nations for Self-Determination and Territorial Integrity of the State // Steshenko L. A. Multinational Russia: State and Legal Development of the X-XXI Centuries. Moscow, 2002. P. 183.
  • Fadeicheva M.A. A Person In Ethnopolitics. The Concept of Ethnonational Being. Yekaterinburg, 2003. P. 248.
  • Chebotaryova V. G. People's Commissariat for National Affairs of the RSFSR: Light and Shadows of National Policy. 1917–1924. Moscow, 2003. P. 266.
  • Amanzholova D. A. Stalinism in National Politics: Some Questions of Historiography. Historiography of Stalinism. Collection of articles. Edited by P. A. Simonia. Moscow, 2007.
  • Kuzin A. T. Historical Fate of the Sakhalin Koreans, vol. 1. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 2009. P. 232.

As well as the Izborsk Club community chaired by Alexander Prokhanov with the participation of “public figures of a state-patriotic orientation” and their conferences.

Leaders of anti-imperial movements, notable uprisings or protests of other forms

Each chapter of Bugai's book, except for the two in the beginning and one in the end, is organized as a series of sections named either by ethnic group or by territory. Many of them include names of the leaders of resistance movements, names of anti-imperial collectives and stories of particular protests. Here I include lists of sections in every chapter so that you could delve into a certain case of interest on your own.

Chapter 2The Far East, Koreans, ethnic minorities in the Northwest of the country, the Volga Region and other areas of residence of Soviet Germans, Chechens and Ingush, Balkars, ethnic minorities of Crimea, ethnic minorities of South Caucasus
Chapter 3. New inhabitants on the territories abandoned by the displaced: adaptation and integration in local communities, exploration of living spaceThe Northwest of the USSR, Koreans of the Far East, Soviet Germans, Karachaevs, Kalmyks, Chechens and Ingush, the displaced from the Dagestan ASSR and Georgia, Balkars, ethnic minorities of Georgian SSR, territory transformations of Soviet republics of the West of USSR (clarification: Moldavian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, Lithuanian SSR, Latvian SSR, Belorussian SSR)
Chapter 3. The “invasion” of ethnic groups under forced displacements and redeposition of their territory of residenceSoviet Koreans, Iranians, Polish, Ingrian Finns, citizens of the Volga German Autonomous Republic, Karachaevs, Kalmyks, Chechens and Ingush, Crimean Tatars, ethnic minorities of South Caucasus
Chapter 4. Restoration of the statehood of displaced titular peoples and ethnic minoritiesKoreans, Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Region, Kalmyk Autonomous Region, Koreans, Chechens and Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Region, Russian Greeks
Chapter 4. Arrangement of the territories returned to special settlers: characteristics, aggravation of the problem of mutual perception of citizensSoviet Germans, Kalmyks, Balkars, Greeks
Chapter 5. Implementation of measures for the territorial arrangement of the rehabilitated peoples Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Region, Kalmyks, Balkars (Kabardino-Balkarian Republic), Republic of Ingushetia, Soviet Germans, Koreans, Russian Cossacks, Soviet Kurds, Ingrian Finns 
Chapter 5. Inter-ethnic conflicts based on mutual territory claims and the problems of their resolutionRepublic of Crimea, Latvia
The editorial opinion may not coincide with the point of view of the author(s) and hero(es) of the published materials.