"No issue was more important to the formation of the Soviet Union than what people at the time called the ‘nationality question,'" said Francine Hirsch, associate professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and former Title VIII-supported short-term scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 16 January 2007 noon discussion. In presenting the findings of her book Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union, Hirsch addressed three main topics: the role of ethnographers in the creation of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1941, the activation of national identities among the population through the actions of the Soviet state, and the relationship between knowledge and terror in the Soviet Union.

After coming to power in 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly realized that they knew little about the multitude of ethnic groups and nationalities that inhabited the former Russian Empire, said Hirsch. For this reason, they decided to enlist the help of experts—ethnographers, geographers, and anthropologists. "The Bolsheviks may have claimed a monopoly on truth, but they did not have a monopoly on knowledge, and they could not accomplish their goals alone," Hirsch stated.

The Bolsheviks had supported the right of all nationalities to self-determination during their time as a revolutionary underground party, Hirsch said. She added that, after they came to power, it fell to them to decide how to put this into practice. The Bolsheviks introduced a union-wide census, in which all people would be classified according to nationality. To accomplish this goal, they enlisted the help of ethnographers who had been doing ethnographic research and had been educated under the tsarist regime. Many of these specialists disliked the Bolsheviks, Hirsch noted, but they shared the ideal of scientific government with the Bolsheviks and agreed to take part in the project.

Hirsch said there were two main reasons the Bolsheviks decided to categorize every person in the Soviet Union by nationality. First, it would integrate the vast territory and diverse population organizationally according to one category, while also integrating the various peoples into the Soviet order, she said.

The second and more important reason, according to Hirsch, was ideological. As part of their push toward communism, they intended to pursue a policy of "state-sponsored evolutionism," she said. In much the same way that they thought they could accelerate historical progress from Feudalism to Capitalism to Communism, she said, the Bolsheviks thought they could accelerate the progress of the peoples of their territory from tribes to ethnic groups to nations. Indeed the Russian words narodnost' and natsionalnost', both commonly translated as "nationality," represented different stages of development to the Bolsheviks. Natsionalnost' was a more advanced form of social organization than a narodnost'. The multitude of narodnosti would naturally amalgamate into a smaller number of natsionalnosti, although this process would take centuries. The Bolsheviks were not willing to wait this long and sought to move the process forward, she continued.

One of the consequences of classifying people according to their nationality was that it reinforced those identities among the population. Where formerly people may have claimed to be Tajik-Uzbek, in the new census they were forced to choose Tajik or Uzbek. This choice would have profound repercussions in their lives, she explained.

The ethnographers on whom the Bolsheviks relied for ethnographic data were not working in a vacuum, however. The results of their studies were inherently political. In time, according to Hirsch, a feedback loop developed between the work ethnographers were doing, and the pressure the coercive arm of the party was applying to them. That pressure encouraged them to reach certain conclusions. "[These ethnograthers] ended up deluding themselves, and ended up giving scientific rationales to regime policies that persecuted certain nationalities," Hirsch noted.

The steadily declining number of official nationalities in the Soviet Union represents an example of this, according to Hirsch. Over time, as subsequent censuses were carried out, the number of officially sanctioned nationalities continued to decrease, from 172 down to 106, and then eventually to 60, a number Stalin had mentioned in a 1937 speech. Ethnographers interpreted his remarks to be a signal to them to whittle the list down further. The results of the 1937 census were suppressed and the specialists who had carried it out were arrested and many of them were shot. The general sense of terror that affected Soviet society as a whole affected the profession of ethnography no less.

Although many have seen an element of "divide and rule" in the Soviet policy of classifying people by nationality, Hirsch said, her view is that nationality was simply a part of Bolshevik policy designed to transform the people and territory of the Russian Empire. "The Bolsheviks did not just want to secure control over the peoples of the former Russian Empire; they set out to bring the population into the Revolution, and to secure the population's active involvement in the ‘Great Socialist Experiment,'" she said.