The Phantom Subject of “National Indifference”: A Response to Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 94

Alex Toshkov, Doctoral candidate, Department of History, Columbia University

In the spring of 1928, the Soviet authorities announced the discovery of a group of saboteurs amongst the engineers working in the mining industry in the town of Shakhty in the Donbass. The immediate outcome of the Shakhty show trial was the sentencing of eleven engineers to death and thirty-eight others to imprisonment from one to ten years. However, the Shakhty trial is more notable for popularizing the threat of “wrecking” (vreditel’stvo) and for manufacturing an insidious group of enemies of the Soviet State, the “wreckers.” In its aftermath, from 1928 to 1931, it is estimated that between 2,000 and 7,000 engineers were arrested, or between 6 and 20 percent of that workforce.[1] As a result, Mark Beissinger claims, “The Shakhty trial was the opening shot of what has been called Stalin’s “Revolution from above”[2] and Sheila Fitzpatrick writes, “[The Shahkty trial] marked the ‘great turning-point’ (velikii perelom) in Soviet policy towards education and the intelligentsia. The Shakhty engineers were essentially on trial not as individuals but as representatives of a class: in the words of one of the accused, ‘all technical personnel brought up in the spirit of the old regime, with a very few exceptions, are tarred with the same brush and are equally unreliable for Soviet construction.’”[3] Elaborated in the 1920s, “wrecking” remained in the Criminal Code of the RSFSR even after de-Stalinization, albeit with a reduction of the penalty from execution to imprisonment of eight to fifteen years as well as possible exile for two to five years.[4]

With the classification of the “wreckers,” the Soviet state identified an enemy, and that discursive construction turned into much more than an ephemeral bogeyman. Not only was it instrumentalized towards the defense of the Soviet socialist experiment, but also towards the larger social transformation of Soviet society. “Wreckers” joined the ranks of NEPmen or kulaks as enemies or undesirables along lines of exclusion. On top of mistrust or discrimination, at the very least, thousands of actual people faced criminal prosecution for purportedly belonging to this group. It is noteworthy, however, that in the scholarship of the Soviet Union, the Shakhty trial and “wreckers” have been exclusively used to illuminate the logic of the Stalinist regime. Even though the Stalinist terror apparatus identified actual people and made them suffer, I know of no serious scholar who has taken the actual existence of thousands of “wreckers” seriously. To impute a mentality to this “group” and then mine it for a sense of “socialist indifference” is a nonstarter, to say the least. To say this differently, loyalty to the socialist experiment was far from a given and indifference to it is probably the best way to characterize its final years. The efforts of the Soviet state notwithstanding, Homo sovieticus did not materialize. The question then is whether the reification of an internal enemy, in this case the “wreckers” is necessary to make the arguments that 1) people did not feel the way the state wished that they would and 2) that this group was united in an identity external to socialism by virtue of its “othering” and that therefore, we, as historians, can use it to excavate the history and language of nonsocialism.

Tara Zahra’s recent article in Slavic Review, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis” (vol. 69, no. 1, Spring 2010), is driven by laudable aims. In fact, five major interventions underpin her project. 1) In the spirit of critical theory, she wants to interrogate the historical profession’s complicity in projects of nation-building.[5] 2) She wants to supplant the view that indifference to nationalism was solely a premodern artifact with a nuanced view in which it “was produced and reinforced by modern mass politics.”[6] 3) Grounded in discourse analysis, Zahra seeks to provide a firm foundation for her subject by arguing, “Once imagined, indifference to nationalism became as real and meaningful a category as the nation itself and had significant social, cultural, and political consequences.”[7] 4) Focusing on the subaltern position of her subjects, she not only seeks to excavate the history of this “imagined noncommunity” but also tries to deconstruct the imposition of fixed identities by the classificatory projects of states and scholars. 5) Finally, through a critique of the shortcomings of what she calls “transnationalism,” Zahra advances the study of indifference as a “promising strategy for problematizing the preconceived relationships between individual subjectivity and collective affiliation.”[8]

The effect of her article is initially mesmerizing. At the same time it seems to offer a novel subject to join the ranks of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat in the pantheon of transformative social agents, a category of analysis with which to construct a revisionist interpretation, and a field to achieve what transnational history has been unable to accomplish. The initial impression is carried by Tara Zahra’s seductive writing style that constantly advances the notion of “national indifference” even as she weaves her five claims into a seamless whole. After the initial reading, however, a sense of disquietude emerges from the fact that some of the claims are not compatible and lead to false inferences. For example, the import of Claim 3 is eroded by the small numbers she can identify in Claim 4 or the project of “rescuing History from the Nation” in Claim 1 is insufficiently supported by her critique of identity in Claim 4, which in turn is outright contradicted by the construction of an “imagined noncommunity” in Claim 3.

It is not the purpose of this piece to quibble over small points of fact or interpretation. Its main aim is to recognize the laudable ambitions of Zahra’s work, but not to do so at the price of foregoing a critical evaluation of whether these interventions are properly substantiated. We can leave aside the straw-man description of a “modernist orthodoxy” or the questionable attempt at quantification by identifying multilingual groups. On a fundamental level, the major issue is the question of nationalization. Zahra is not interested in just showing that prenational identities persisted into the twentieth century. Instead of treating national indifference as a premodern artifact, she argues for its birth in the crucible of modern politics, “Nationalists both invented national indifference and, until recently, deliberately obscured it.”[9] The problem is that “national indifference” thus appears in subjects that already speak the language of nationalism and are articulate citizens within a nation state. To me, the fact that “300,000 Czechs had ‘become German’ during the Nazi occupation of the Bohemian Lands”[10] is illustrative of an acute awareness of identity politics as well as a mastery of the role of being a national subject; that is the exact opposite of indifference to nationalism. In Bourdieuian terms, they operate exclusively within the “Field” of the Nation, and in terms of “Habitus,” their subjectivity is a problem only in the eyes of those ideologues who would see “Czechs” and “Germans” as immutable groups. The existence of fluid national identities is indeed subversive to exclusionary nationalist practices, but ipso facto it precludes the possibility that these subjects are disengaged from and indifferent to the nation. The rescue of History from the Nation thus contracts to a rescue of History from extreme nationalists, a project that is far from novel.

“National indifference” can be a useful category, but not for the reasons given. It can reveal a lot about nationalist discourse, it can help historicize inclusive and exclusive moments, and it can bring attention to the fact that the categories of national identity are mutable and not primordial. If we push the idea of variations within the degree of membership in a national group, we might even begin to think in terms of fuzzy sets instead of mutually exclusive “others.”[11] That being said, “national indifference” reveals very little about the people that were identified as such by exclusive nationalists.

I began with the Shakhty trial in order to draw attention to the gap between the identification of a group with an imputed agency, and the actual exercise of that agency. The “wreckers” were identified as enemies, thousands were persecuted, and as such they exist as a subject of the Soviet repressive apparatus. Their subjectivity, however, never materialized towards an anti-socialist stance, even though their discursive construction as enemies of the Soviet state would have us believe that they were a grave danger. So it is with the “nationally indifferent.”

Tara Zahra’s appeal to “excavate the history of national indifference” in order to “enable[s] historians to better understand the limits of nationalization and thereby [to] challenge[s] the nationalist narratives, categories, and frameworks that have traditionally dominated the historiography of eastern Europe,” will not be achieved by recourse to a phantom subject.[12] I mean that in both senses of the word, for, in the absence of an articulate social agent who can populate her “imagined noncommunity” or conceptual clarity from which a research methodology can develop, we are left with just the insights that the categories of national identity are not as monolithic as their ideologues would like them to be, and that everyday people have engaged in identity politics. To privilege “national indifference” as an antipode to integral nationalism and to ascribe to it a non-national logic is not only misleading but obscures genuine efforts to oppose or reimagine the nation that were articulated in communist, federalist, and even populist circles.



[1] Mark R. Beissinger, Scientific Management, Socialist Discipline, and Soviet Power (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 95.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shelia Fitzpatrick, Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921–1934 (Cambridge, Eng., 1979), 113.

[4] Harold J. Berman, Soviet Criminal Law and Procedure, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 40.

[5] Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 94.

[6] Ibid., 99.

[7] Ibid., 105.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Ibid., 106.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] I am indebted to Stephen Ruszczyk for pointing me in this direction.

[12] Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities,” 94.