Soviet-era phenotype chart used by police to identify ethnicity.

Soviet-era phenotype chart used by police to identify ethnicity.

This card was used by police in the Soviet Union to identify different nationalities by facial phenotypes. Originally it was developed by a group of Soviet criminologists based on various mugshot collections. The exact date is unknown, however, based on few Soviet sources, these typical faces sketches were made in 1960-1965. In the nomenclature of the USSR people weren’t classified based on their race or ethnicity.

USSR documents carried two entries: grazhdanstvo (citizenship): Soviet and nationalnost’ (nationality): Armenian, Russian, Jew, Kazakh etc. This “nationality” was not equal to citizenship or residence in one of the constituent SSRs, but independent. You could be a Soviet citizen with “nationality: Kazakh” born and raised in the Ukrainian SSR.

The Soviet Union was an ethnically diverse country, with more than 100 distinct ethnic groups. According to a 1990 estimate, the majority were Russians (50.78%), followed by Ukrainians (15.45%) and Uzbeks (5.84%).

All citizens of the USSR had their own ethnic affiliation. The ethnicity of a person was chosen at the age of sixteen by the child’s parents. If the parents did not agree, the child was automatically assigned the ethnicity of the father.

Typical faces of different ethnicities in Soviet Union.

Typical faces of different ethnicities in Soviet Union.

Partly due to Soviet policies, some of the smaller minority ethnic groups were considered part of larger ones, such as the Mingrelians of Georgia, who were classified with the linguistically related Georgians. Some ethnic groups voluntarily assimilated, while others were brought in by force. Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians shared close cultural ties, while other groups did not.

Some nationalities developed a relatively strong sense of nationalism that was based on resentment against incorporation into the Russian (and subsequently Soviet) empire, dissatisfaction with subordinate status within this system, and some desire for autonomy and even independence.

At this same time, other nationalities were characterized by what might be called a weaker sense of nationalism, that did not attach such significance to historical, cultural, territorial, and linguistic differences.

Examples of the weaker definitions of nationalism included Belorussia, Moldavia, and especially the predominantly Muslim populations in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, where religious and cultural identities that transcended territorial boundaries coexisted with patterns of economic underdevelopment.

(Photo credit: State Archive of the Russian Federation).