The Phantom Subject of “National
Indifference”: A Response to Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National
Indifference as a Category of Analysis,”
Alex Toshkov, Doctoral candidate,
Department of History,
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
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
Tara Zahra’s recent article in
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.” 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” 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.” That being said, “national indifference” reveals very little about the people that were identified as such by exclusive nationalists.
I began with the
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. 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.
 Mark R. Beissinger, Scientific Management, Socialist Discipline, and Soviet Power (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 95.
 Shelia Fitzpatrick, Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921–1934 (Cambridge, Eng., 1979), 113.
 Harold J. Berman, Soviet Criminal Law and Procedure, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 40.
Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 105.
 Ibid., 118.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 107.
 I am indebted to Stephen Ruszczyk for pointing me in this direction.
 Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities,” 94.