Contested Privilege: Ethnic Russians and the Unmaking of the Soviet Union

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As national movements coalesced across the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, ethnic Russians penned thousands of letters to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to complain about alleged discrimination and to demand protection and aid. Analyzing the contents of 650 public letters, this article interprets Russians’ complaints as a strategy for justifying and maintaining privilege, a discourse that is situated in the history of Russian privilege and non-Russian challenges to it. Under the guise of advocating equality, Russian letter writers demonstrated their understanding of ethnolinguistic and racial hierarchies, emphasized their paternalistic role in developing non-Russian republics, and sought to depart for Russia from non-Russian republics. In dialogue with scholarship on racial formation, whiteness, and privilege in the United States, this analysis highlights the discursive practices that shaped the Soviet social order, revealing citizens’ role in forming and maintaining interrelated racial, ethnolinguistic, economic, and spatial hierarchies. Problematizing US-centered frameworks, the article proposes privilege as a capacious analytical lens for describing the complex matrix of advantages and oppression built into societies founded on principles of equality. Soviet stability depended on tacit advantages afforded Russians and an emphasis on concepts like friendship and equality. In the Soviet context, privilege persisted in silences and informal practices. By encouraging citizens to address grievances openly, glasnost laid bare the systemic inequalities that had long structured society and contributed to the Soviet Union’s destabilization and collapse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)887-927
Number of pages41
JournalThe Journal of modern history
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


Dive into the research topics of 'Contested Privilege: Ethnic Russians and the Unmaking of the Soviet Union'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this