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The Politics of Crisis: Economy, Ethnicity, and Trotskyism in Belorussia
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Following the expulsion of Lev Trotskii, Grigorii Zinov´ev, and Lev Kamenev from the party ranks during the 15th Party Congress in December 1927, the Belorussian Communist Party (KPB) undertook a sweeping campaign to wipe out vestiges of “Trotskyist” opposition in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). Across Belorussia, the KPB organized mass meetings to draw oppositionists into open debate and force them to recant their ideas or face expulsion. Records of these proceedings reveal an unmistakable pattern. In Minsk, 144 party members voted against or abstained from voting on a resolution supporting the expulsion of Trotskii and Zinov´ev from the party; of these, 116 were Jews. In Vitebsk, Jewish party members accounted for 55 of 72 identified oppositionists. In Bobruisk, 46 of the 49 party members opposed to the expulsion of the opposition leaders were Jews. In total, some 326 party members in Minsk, Vitebsk, Bobruisk, and Gomel´ abstained from voting or voted against the expulsion of the opposition leaders and/or the theses supporting the Five-Year Plan and collectivization. Of these, 264 (81 percent) were Jews. Ultimately, of the 36 party members excluded from the KPB as particularly recalcitrant oppositionists, 23 were Jews.

The marked concentration of Jews among the supporters of the United Opposition in Belorussia suggests two commonsensical explanations. First, it is possible that Jewish party members gravitated toward the opposition out of a sense of ethnic solidarity. Perhaps it was “natural” that in Belorussia, where Jews constituted half of the urbanized population and the most influential nontitular nationality, Jewish party members should have sided with the “Jewish” triumvirate of Trotskii, Zinov´ev, and Kamenev. Second, antisemitism in the party mainstream may have driven Jewish members into the oppositional camp. Indeed, records of the anti-Trotskyist campaigns in Belorussia appear to lend credence to Trotskii’s assertions that antisemitism played a critical role in the campaign against the opposition. In either case, the prevalence of Jews in the opposition ranks seems to suggest a struggle defined by nationality.

A radically different picture emerges, however, if one turns from the question of nationality to that of the occupations of the accused oppositionists. While students, teachers, clerks, bookkeepers, administrators, and white-collar workers (sluzhashchie) made up one-quarter of the identified oppositionists, workers “from the bench” (ot stanka) formed the vast bulk of Jewish oppositionists. Shoemakers (37) constituted the single largest occupational group among the accused, followed by sizable contingents of tailors and seamstresses (29), leatherworkers (26), and woodworkers and carpenters (25). A dozen bristle makers, eight typesetters, six housepainters, three locksmiths, and assorted joiners, bakers, brewers, slaughterers, milliners, furriers, mechanics, metalworkers, and unskilled laborers rounded out the ranks. The high concentration of shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses, and leatherworkers among the opposition suggests a pattern familiar in the history of labor radicalism in Europe: the opposition seemed to draw its strongest support from industries resting on the fault line separating petty manufacturing from full-blown industrial production.

The apparent dichotomy between occupation (a social category) and nationality (a category of constructed identity) embodied in the oppositionists of Belorussia reflects a dichotomy prevalent in studies of worker opposition in the Soviet Union. Social historians have generally stressed that worker opposition emerged as a direct response to the state-driven attempt to intensify the pace and scale of industrial production. According to a recent variation, the opposition drew its primary support from workers who expressed their “class consciousness” by opposing the new Stalinist regime of industrial rationalization and forcible accumulation. Scholars embracing postmodern theoretical approaches, in contrast, have questioned the primacy of the social, challenging the social historical emphasis placed on economic and industrial policy. Igal Halfin, most notably, has argued that the increasingly violent campaign against “the Opposition” should be understood as the product of the totalizing, Manichean language of politics endemic to the Russian Revolution itself. The quasi-religious language of Bolshevik redemption necessitated the construction of existential enemies possessed of debased souls in need of reformation at best and, at worst, annihilation. Ultimately, it was not substantive policy disputes (the “why” of Soviet history) but rather the logic of “quasi-Messianic” political rhetoric and “language games” (the “what and the how” of Soviet history) that drove...



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