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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Korenizatsiya and The Curious Case of the Railways

Arthur McFarlane

Many of Stalin’s subjects dreamt of becoming railway workers as the industry offered material benefits and rapid upward social mobility.[1] In Ukraine and Central Asia however, locals’ attempts to enter the industry were frequently derailed by the very people who were supposed to be enforcing a policy of preferentially employing them.

Undated French brochure depicting the Trans-Siberian Railway.

This policy – korenizatsiya, or “indigenisation” is frequently invoked as an underlying cause of the current conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.[2] Journalists and political commentators rely on the work of historians, who have often failed to critically engage issues relating to Soviet nationality policy, as Jeremy Smith has recently highlighted.[3] In this brief article, I will draw on interviews from the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, diaries, and some archival documents to demonstrate that, despite being official Soviet policy, korenizatsiya was not implemented in the railway sectors of Ukraine and Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, local actors in these peripheries were able to utilise concerns about trust and efficiency to ignore the demands of korenizatsiya and pursue their own agendas. These facts raise questions about the oft-cited significance of the policy and about the distribution of power during Stalin’s reign.


Having failed to ignite global revolution in Germany through invading Poland and having accepted the borders laid out in the Treaty of Riga, the Bolsheviks began the process of building a state. They consequently had to address the ‘national question’, which they did by adopting the policy of korenizatsiya at the 12th Party Congress in 1923. In summary, ‘new national elites were trained and promoted to leadership positions in the government, schools, and industrial enterprises of… newly formed [‘autonomous’] territories’.[4] The 1923 nationality policy decrees also called for the creation of national proletariats in as-of-yet unindustrialised areas, most notably in Central Asia, and defined ‘economic investment’ in non-Russian areas as a ‘categorical right’ of Soviet citizens.[5]

The policy had immediate limitations. The focus on the titular minorities of the constituent Soviet republics often led to the concerns of minorities within republics being totally ignored.[6] Meanwhile in the Russian north and east, ethnic groups without significant national movements were similarly neglected.[7] More broadly, historians have tended to overlook the deliberately flexible nature of the policy, which – through a coherent internal logic – could justify the promotion of some national movements and the suppression of others based on whether or not the group in question’s interests were deemed to coincide with the path to socialism.[8]


The Soviet government began to fire Ukrainian railway workers and replace them with Russians en masse from 1923 onwards.[9] This fact is particularly puzzling, as those same workers would be mandated to learn Ukrainian shortly afterwards.[10] However, unlike in most sectors of the Ukrainian economy, Ukrainisation made little headway in the railway sector. In 1930 party inspectors reported that ‘among all transport workers reigns the opinion that in the transportation sector, the Ukrainian language is forbidden’.[11] A 1931 report on the state of Ukrainisation stated that the transport sector in Ukraine was not only ignoring the central government’s calls for Ukrainisation but doing the precise opposite, ‘conducting a Russification policy’.[12] In June 1932, only 3% of the Ukrainian Railway Union’s cultural evenings took place in Ukrainian, compared to 39.7% of miners’ union evenings and 91% of printers’ union evenings.[13] This was before Ukrainisation was officially abandoned in December later that year.[14] Even compared to other heavy industry, which was far less Ukrainised than light industry and agriculture, the railway sector stood out as particularly Russian.[15]

A Ukrainian Harvard interviewee’s interpretation of this fact was that only Russians were deemed ‘reliable’ enough to work in the transport sector – the industry upon which all other industries depended.[16] This echoes the language of a Ukrainian Social Democratic Labour Party report which described Russian workers, more disparagingly, as ‘pliable’.[17]

Central Asia

Interviews with Soviet Central Asians conducted as part of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System likewise reveal that railway workers in Central Asia were largely Russian in this period.[18] In 1925 just 8.5% of Central Asia’s railway employees were Central Asian.[19] The state often went to great lengths to employ Russians – conscripting engineers from as far away as St Petersburg.[20] Russians even made up a majority of workers on the Chinese-Manchurian railway based in Kharbin in northern China, which was owned and operated by the Soviet Union until the mid 1930s.[21]

Security concerns likely motivated some of the preferential employment of Russians. Anti-Soviet Basmachi rebels had planned to blow up the railway bridge across the Amu Darya river in 1937, as ‘it is the railway that ties all of the Soviet Central Asian Republics together’.[22] Soviet sensitivity about its railways also manifested itself in a USSR-wide purge of railway specialists that accompanied the Great Terror of 1937.[23]

While trust was one factor explaining the relative absence of non-Russians, Kazakhs were denied employment opportunities on the Turk-Sib line connecting Tashkent to Novosibirsk with reference to ‘the rhetoric of efficiency’, as Matthew Payne noted.[24]By asserting that non-Russians could not be trusted, or were not capable of working on the railways, Russians were able to dominate the sector despite quotas mandating that workforces become more diverse.[25] Even as the railway sector began to employ more non-Russians, discrimination continued in other forms. Payne described an ‘atmosphere of humiliation, harassment, individual beatings, and group violence… making it a very unpleasant place for new Kazakh workers’.[26]

A 1929 poster for the Soviet documentary film ‘Turksib’, documenting the building of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway.


The fact that korenizatsiya was not enforced in the Ukrainian and Central Asian railway sectors is significant in and of itself as the policy unambiguously mandated the promotion of non-Russians in industry. However, when one considers railway work’s facilitation of social mobility in this period, this phenomenon takes on additional significance. By the mid-1930s railway workers earned roughly double the average monthly salary – some 300 rubles per month.[27] Furthermore, this was subject to fewer taxes than salaries of other workers.[28] Additional benefits included travel expenses, free train tickets, and longer than average holidays.[29] This, at a time when train tickets were expensive, always in short supply and often only obtainable to the normal worker through blat.[30] Benefits were also extended to the families of railway workers – their children were eligible to attend exclusive schools, gymnasiums and sanitoriums.[31] In 1937, a Russian railway worker named Zhenya was sent to work in Tashkent – he described how every worker had a bicycle and a gramophone and more money ‘than they know what to do with’.[32]He and his colleagues spent their free time getting drunk and chasing Uzbek women with the goal of tearing their yashmaks off.[33] One Soviet citizen even claimed that ‘the railway men live better than anybody in the Soviet Union’.[34] These facts reveal a wider failure of korenizatsiya to challenge Tsarist-era socioeconomic inequalities.


It should be noted that the railway sector was not microcosmic of Soviet society at large and that geography, convenience, and levels of education likely compounded the relative absence of non-Russians in the railway sector. Additionally, in other sectors huge gains were made for non-Russians, not least in Ukraine. It should also be noted that ethnic Russians themselves could be subject to discrimination. For example, Russians who had worked on the Chinese-Manchurian railway based in Kharbin and returned to the USSR after the railway was sold to Japan were branded ‘Kharbintsy’ – an ‘enemy nation’ who were consequently targeted in the Great Terror for their supposed cross-border links with the Japanese.[35] Thus, even the categories of ‘Russian’ and ‘non-Russian’ were far from total.

At times, actors in the peripheries were able to ignore korenizatsiya. In Ukraine, often cited as a successful case study of the policy, one of the most significant sectors of the economy remained Russian dominated throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, in Central Asia Russian workers were imported from as far away as St Petersburg while korenizatsiya officially mandated that a local proletariat be cultivated instead. Adding insult to injury, these Russians often lived among Central Asians relatively richly. In both instances, local actors were able to utilise concerns about trust and efficiency to resist central government policy.

These case studies reveal that central government policy could be appropriated, circumvented or ignored by local actors with their own priorities, motivations and capabilities. Even during Stalin’s reign, the bureaucracy and federalism of the Soviet Union created spaces for people to pursue their own agendas – sometimes even directly contradicting the state, as in the case of the Ukrainian and Central Asian railway sectors. These facts also question the extent to which it is meaningful to speak about korenizatsiya in a general sense. If historians do not specify precisely where and when they are invoking the term in relation to, they could be referring to areas and industries where korenizatsiya was in fact not taking place.

Arthur McFarlane holds an MA in History from University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies and a BA in History from the University of Bristol. His research focuses on nationality policy and interethnic relations in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s.

[1] HPSSS Schedule A, Vol. 22, Case 438, Page 24; HPSSS Schedule A, Vol. 34, Case 90, Page 29. [2] Ohannes Geukjian, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Legacy of Soviet Nationalities Policy (London: Routledge, 2012); Volodymyr Kulyk, ‘Soviet Nationalities Policies and the Discrepancy Between Ethnocultural Identification and Language Practice in Ukraine’, in Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014 eds. Mark R. Beissinger and Stephen Kotkin). [3] Jeremy Smith, ‘Was There a Soviet Nationality Policy?’ Europe-Asia Studies, 71:6, 972-993 (2019), 972. [4] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, NY & London, Cornell University Press), 1. [5] Tainy natsional’noi politiki, 283; Martin, Affirmative Action, 132. [6] Smith, ‘Was There a Soviet Nationality Policy?’, 985. [7] Slezkine, Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 138. [8] Conquest, Nation Killers, 10. [9] Ukrainskaia sotsial-demokraticheskaia rabochaia partiia, Famine in the Ukraine (Berlin: J.H.W Dietz, 1923), 21. [10] Martin, Affirmative Action, 75. [11] Tsentral'nii derzhavnii arkhiv gromads'kikh ob'ednan' Ukraini 1/20/4171 (1933), 2-5. [12] TsDAHOU 1/20/4172 (1931), 12-15. [13] Martin, Affirmative Action, 102. [14] Rossisskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii F 17, Op 3, D 2025, L 42. [15] Martin, Affirmative Action, 102. [16] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 34, Case 148, Page 10. [17] Ukrainskaia sotsial-demokraticheskaia rabochaia partiia, Famine, 21. [18] HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 9, Case 448, Page 5; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 8, Case 221, Page 13; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 8, Case 252, Page 14; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 9, Case 448, Page 5; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 8, Case 221. [19] Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2015), 166. [20] ‘Diary of Galina Vladimirovna Shtange’ in Véronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen (eds.) Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s (New York: The New Press, 1995), 195-196. [21] Martin, Affirmative Action, 343. [22] HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 8, Case 182, Page 11. [23] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 31, Case 307, Page 7-8. [24] Matthew Payne, Stalin’s Railroad: Turksib and the building of socialism (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), 138. [25] Payne, Turksib, 137. [26] Payne, Turksib, 127. [27] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 5, Case 58, Page 5; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 12, Case 156, Page 4; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 24, Case 213, Page 3; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 28, Case 532, Page 57; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 24, Case 213, Page 3; Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialisation (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 187. [28] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 24, Case 473, Page 59; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 5, Case 58, Page 5. [29] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 5, Case 58, Page 5; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 12, Case 156, Page 4; HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 24, Case 213, Page 3. [30] HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 18, Case 639, Page 32; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 29, Case 629, Page 6; HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 12, Case 156, Page 11. [31] HPSSS. Schedule A, Vol. 25, Case 483, Page 54; ‘Diary of Galina Vladimirovna Shtange’, p171. [32] ‘Diary of Galina Vladimirovna Shtange’, p195-196. [33] ‘Diary of Galina Vladimirovna Shtange’, p195-196. [34] HPSSS. Schedule B, Vol. 20, Case 494, Page 17. [35] Martin, Affirmative Action, 343.

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