You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Empire Breaks Up

Gorbachev’s nationality crisis.

“Great Russia has forged forever the indestructible union of free republics.” —from the Soviet national anthem

From the beginning, Mikhail Gorbachev understood that his effort to restructure the Soviet economy would encounter at least two obstacles: the resistance of the Party bureaucracy and the passivity of a society kept for some 70 years under anesthesia. Hence his decision to supplement perestroika with glasnost. Greater freedom of speech was intended to expose the misdeeds of a “Brezhnevite” bureaucracy and thereby mobilize the support of a disgruntled populace. Glasnost has succeeded in bringing about a social awakening, but it is not the kind Gorbachev had in mind. It has developed on the Soviet periphery rather than in the heart of Russia, and it is committed not to a single reform program but to a variety of nationalistic movements. The last two years have seen Armenians fighting with Azerbaijanis over territory; anti-Russian riots in Kazakhstan; Crimean Tatars, who were deported by Stalin to Central Asia, demonstrating in Moscow for the right to return home; and people in the Baltic republics challenging the very foundation of their allegiance to the Soviet Union. From Central Asia to Europe, the Soviet Empire is cracking at its seams.

And the worst is yet to come. For the nationalist crises that have burst most fully into view—the Baltic and the Armenian—are minor compared with those that are likely to flare up before long, involving the Ukrainians and the Muslims of Central Asia, Unless a policy can be developed to keep these movements under control, Gorbachev’s perestroika—and even the Soviet empire itself—may be living on borrowed time.

The resurgence of nationalism has shattered the carefully manicured myth of the Soviet Union as a harmonious community of brotherly nations “drawn together” by the construction of socialism. Now that glasnost has rubbed off the ideological varnish, the Soviet Union appears as what it is: the last colonial empire still in existence. And it is an empire even more anachronistic than most. For demographic trends are about to turn the imperial nationality—the Russians—into a minority, and the Russians are seen by many non-Russians—especially the Balts and the Georgians—as economically and culturally backward. Can Gorbachev’s reforms, designed to bring the Soviet Union into the 21st century, sustain an increasingly absurd imperial system inherited from the 19th century?

It is ironic that Gorbachev’s first nationalist headache originated in Armenia, Though the Armenians now seek the preservation of their culture and language in the face of Russian influences, the basic orientation of Armenian nationalism is not separatist, or even anti-Soviet, Its strength derives, rather, from memory of the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks. Indeed, the current Armenian campaign to reclaim the Nagorno-Karabakh province is directed less at Moscow than at Azerbaijan, which has a Turkish population. On paper the claim is a rational one: to reunite a territory populated mainly by Armenians with the rest of Armenia. But the dispute acquired an irrational, tribal character after the anti-Armenian pogrom in Azerbaijan a year ago. The depth of the enmity was seen during the Armenian earthquake in December. In Azerbaijan, news of the earthquake, according to a Western reporter, “engendered a holiday atmosphere,” The tragedy was seen by young demonstrators as  “Allah’s punishment.”

The earthquake also revealed the depth of Gorbachev’s political skill. He turned the inefficiency of aid to the victims into an indictment against local officials not sympathetic to his policies. He tried to expose the triviality of tribal feuds in the face of a tragedy that called for a truly collective Soviet reconstruction effort. Most important, he decapitated the Armenian nationalist movement by putting behind bars the entire leadership of the Karabakh Committee, which tried to have the distribution of aid placed in the hands of Armenians rather than Soviet officials. It is unclear how many political prisoners there actually are in the Soviet Union today, but we know there are a dozen new ones: the 12 angry men from the Karabakh committee.

But all of Gorbachev’s savvy may not be up to the challenge. His imprisonment of Armenian nationalists has cost him popular support. And his longer term solution—a recent proposal to put Nagorno-Karabakh under a predominantly Russian “special administration” while keeping it within the borders of Azerbaijan—will not appease the nationalists. Yet he cannot afford to go further. Actually altering the borders between two Soviet republics would set a dangerous precedent in a multinational empire where ethnic and political borders often do not coincide. And, more immediately, such a move might provoke strong anti-Moscow reactions among the Shiite Muslims in Azerbaijan, which could have a spillover effect on the Sunni Muslims in Soviet Central Asia.

The rise of nationalism in the three Baltic countries is less violent and tribal and more political, channeled through existing institutions. Nonetheless, it too challenges the very basis of Moscow’s relations with the Soviet republics. The subject of the forced annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940 and the subsequent mass imprisonment of elites and political opponents had been taboo until glasnost. Now commemoration of the events of 1939-40 has become the occasion for national self-assertion. Stretching glasnost to the utmost, the Lithuanian publication Sajudzio Zinios last year printed the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. Balts could read for the first time the agreement that “in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic states (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania will represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R.” Thus the denunciation of Stalinist crimes— a favorite theme of glasnost—led to a debunking of the official Soviet myth about the “voluntary union” of 1940, and thus to questions about the very legitimacy of Soviet rule.

SINCE THE Balts were the last to “join” the Soviet Union, it seems only natural that they would be the most sensitive to constraints on their autonomy. Two recently proposed amendments to the Soviet Constitution raised this issue and thereby stirred political nationalism. The first strengthened the right of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow to overrule decisions by the republican parliaments. The second gave the Soviets the right to declare martial law and other “special forms of administration.” The first was rejected by the Balts as negating the “right to secession” ostensibly recognized by the Soviet Constitution. The “special powers” amendment, though probably introduced with the Armenian conflict in mind, was also taken personally by Balts, who feared it could apply to them. Both amendments finally passed, although in watered-down form.

Moscow’s insensitivity in pushing through the amendments transformed the hitherto primarily cultural and economic quest for the autonomy of Baltic states into an overtly political one. The popular fronts, the mass organizations that have mushroomed in the Baltic republics, are now raising the question of sovereignty. In Latvia this aim was cautiously worded by the front as “a true government by the people . . . and the settlement of the nationality problem.” In Lithuania the front boldly seeks “democracy and the restoration of the political, cultural, and economic sovereignty in Lithuania.” The Estonian Parliament went further, proclaiming at an extraordinary session in November its right to veto laws passed by the Supreme Soviet (see page 24). The resolution also declared all Estonian land, natural resources, and industries the property of the republic.

For Gorbachev, accepting the republic’s right to veto Moscow’s decisions is just as unthinkable a precedent as the redrawing of boundaries demanded by the Armenians. Once again the very basis of the empire is being challenged. This explains the vehemence of Gorbachev’s rebuff. In a major speech in November, he issued his strongest condemnation of nationalism yet, saying that Estonia’s defiance of central power affected “the destiny of our whole union.” Estonian land and property, he said, belong to all Soviet people. Nationalism was now presented as the main threat to his economic reforms: “Comrades, it would be disastrous, it would put in jeopardy our perestroika.”

The solution to Gorbachev’s Baltic problem may be to make a virtue of necessity and turn the Baltic republics into a laboratory for perestroika. The Balts have a long prior history of free markets and are probably the most economically advanced of the Soviet peoples. They are keen to develop closer economic ties with northern Europe and Scandinavia—whose historical links to them are as strong as Russia’s. Moscow could defuse the drive for political autonomy by granting economic autonomy: let the Baltic states liberate their economies at whatever pace they see fit, and let them trade with their neighbors to the west on their own terms, free from Moscow’s regulation. The Baltic countries as a showcase for perestroika and a channel for Western technology transfer to the Soviet Union—as the Hong Kong of the U.S.S.R.? It would be a daring move, but Gorbachev has shown no aversion to departures from tradition.

Compared with Gorbachev’s other nationalism problems, the unrest in the Baltics is fairly manageable. There are only seven million people in the Baltic region, one-fourth of whom are ethnic Russians, Besides, the unrest is channeled through political institutions; local Communist elites have joined the popular fronts and are well positioned to moderate nationalist aspirations. The most serious nationalist threat to Gorbachev is likely to come not from the current crisis points in the Baltic or the Caucasus, but from three other sources: the Ukrainians, the Muslims of Central Asia, and ultimately the Russians themselves.

THE UKRAINE, with a population of 45 million, has sometimes been called the largest European nation without a state. So far it has been deceptively quiet—and uncharacteristically so. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and of World War II (which followed a Ukrainian famine provoked by Stalin’s terrorist collectivization drive), only brute force quashed Ukrainian bids for independence. Then in the 1960s and early 1970s, Ukrainian writers pioneered the revival of the national question in the Soviet Union. But after the purge of Shelest, then the local Party boss, the Ukraine was subjected to “normalization,” and its dissidents were sent to the Gulag.

While Balts were seizing the new opportunities of glasnost, the Ukraine had to wait because its leader, Vlodimir Shcherbitsky, 70, the last prominent Brezhnevite still in office and head of the second largest Communist Party in the U.S.S.R., kept the lid tightly on. But it was loosened by the celebration last year of the millennial anniversary of the Christian Church in Kiev. (It had also been loosened a few years earlier by the Chernobyl disaster, which left the natives restless.) Ivan Dziuba, a prominent nationalist essayist whose work was once suppressed, has been published in the December issue of Kommunist, and writers in Kiev now openly call for Shcherbitsky’s resignation. When that happens there will almost certainly be a shift from cultural to political nationalism. And in the Ukraine such a movement would be more dangerous than in the Baltics. Here, where the Communist Party was purged of reformers only a decade ago, there are few Communist officials positioned to do what Baltic officials have done: join a nationalist movement and serve as a moderating influence. The Ukraine is fertile ground for a real revolt (only last month 60 activists were arrested in Kiev), and a potentially contagious one; the Ukraine has strong historical ties to Poland. One can imagine a chain reaction that would leave Gorbachev facing full blown crises on both the inner and outer peripheries of his empire.

Khrushchev had a clever way of placating the Ukrainians: treat the Ukraine as Moscow’s junior partner, Gorbachev would do well to take a leaf out of Nikita’s book, and promote more Ukrainians to the Central Committee and the Politburo, which are now overwhelmingly Russian.

IN CENTRAL ASIA, perestroika is virtually ignored, and here Gorbachev is likely to keep facing strong resistance to his policies. Whereas the Balts embrace and exploit political and economic reforms, the Central Asians fear change. Their culture is not economically modern, and they receive large government subsidies. Both Party elites and common folk fear being left by perestroika to sink or swim. Add to this a long-standing resentment against the culture of their Russian overlords, and you have a quite natural hostility toward Gorbachev, There are three reasons this opposition could pose big problems for him: demographics, Islam, and Afghanistan.

While the Russians are about to become a minority in the U.S.S.R., the 40 million Soviet Muslims (Uzbeks, Kazaks, Azeris, Tadzhiks, Turkomans, and Kirghiz) are by far the fastest growing population in the country. Within a century, assuming present growth rates, the Soviet Union will be predominantly a Muslim country. These trends have given new self-confidence to the peoples of Central Asia, the “land bridge” between the eastern lands of the Soviet empire, where most of the natural resources are located, and its Western metropolis, where political and economic power are based.

The rise of Islam, especially of fundamentalist Islam in neighboring countries, also has long-term implications for the Soviet Union. As Milan Hauner notes in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, the Soviets of Central Asia increasingly use Islamic forms to express their rejection of Russian culture and their misgivings about the Soviet political system. A Party leader from Tadzhikistan warned in 1986 that “Islam exercises a growing influence on our young generation. We must therefore use our legislation more energetically to halt the illegal activity of the clerics.”

Although it is too early to assess the impact of the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, it is bound to have a profound psychological effect on Central Asia’s Muslims. For them the lesson is that Islam can defeat the Red Army, that the Suffi can outwit the Commissar. It is always dangerous for an imperial power to lose a war. Last time that happened to Moscow was the Russian-Japanese war of 1904. We know what followed.

THE RISE OF unrest around Russia’s periphery has so far overshadowed a no less formidable nationalist challenge, that of the imperial nation itself: the Russians. True, Russian nationalism has been politically less overt and less organized, but it can count on not only a large constituency among the silent majority of the Russian people, but also considerable influence in the Soviet bureaucracy and military, Russian nationalism has taken on the tormented, introspective tone of an imperial nation about to become a minority. Its spokesmen have been writers such as Vladimir Soloukhin and Valentin Rasputin, their mouthpieces journals such as Maladaia Guardia and Nash Sovremenik. In these pages Russia is depicted as dying under the combined effects of modernization, secularization, and Westernization, all of which are associated with communism, especially in its reformist, Gorbachevite guise. Russian nationalists abhor the resulting threat to the traditional values embodied in the Russian village and the Orthodox Church. At the same time, some Russians resent the many “ungrateful” nationalities who have become part of the Soviet empire, and may profit from it, yet complain about it.

During the Brezhnev era the emphasis of Russian nationalists was primarily on cultural nationalism and the development of associations such as Pamiat (Memory) for the preservation of the environment, of historical monuments, etc. But under Gorbachev, Pamiat has taken an increasingly strong stance in defense of an allegedly threatened Russian identity. This means identifying more clearly the nature of the threat, namely the “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy.” “There exists a powerful, determined, evil, and clandestine force for the purpose of the destruction of Russia,” writes Vasilii Belov in his last novel, published In 1987, He then proceeds to expose the Masonic plot and provide a personal interpretation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His book was published in 2.5 million copies. According to the nationalists, Gorbachev is a tool of the conspiracy; some of the leading “Gorbachevite” intellectuals are either Jewish (the playwright Mikhail Shatrov) or non-Russian (Abel Aganbegyan, the economic adviser, who is of Armenian descent).

The resurgence of right-wing Russian nationalism, with its traditional anti-Semitic and xenophobic component, is the byproduct of the collapse of Marxist ideology and the simultaneous shock of changes associated with Gorbachev. The introduction of perestroika and glasnost revived the 19th-century debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Contemporary nationalist essayists should be read in parallel with the most articulate of the great Russian Slavophiles, Dostoyevsky. In his 1881 essay “What is Asia to us?” he advocates that Russia turn inward, to the vast, unspoiled northeast: Siberia as the salvation of Russia. In contrast to this long-standing school stand Gorbachevites such as Alexander Yakovlev and even liberal dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, who see all nationalisms as a threat to Soviet modernization and Westernization.

The issue of Russian nationalism has helped crystallize the two main coalitions in Soviet politics today. The anti-perestroika coalition consists of Russian nationalists and neo-Stalinists (only last month a letter in Pravda signed by Russian nationalists and Party conservatives criticized the excesses of glasnost). The pro-perestroika coalition consists of Gorbachevites (or neo-Leninists) and liberal intellectuals (such as Sakharov), both committed to a supranational ideology. However, the contest may ultimately be decided by a third party: the various other nationalist movements on the Soviet periphery, which often profess to support glasnost but in fact play into the hands of reactionaries by vividly illustrating its dangers.

Gorbachev is now squeezed between the simultaneous rise of two nationalisms: that of the Russians and that of their subjects. To make concessions to the demands of either side is to strengthen both sides. And glasnost, an integral part of perestroika, ensures the growth of such demands. After four years in office, Gorbachev has discovered that the reform of the Soviet system and the stability of the Soviet empire are incompatible. Faced with that dilemma, he will doubtless be aware that (to paraphrase Churchill) he has not been appointed Soviet leader to preside over the liquidation of the empire.

Jacques Rupnik is senior fellow at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris and author of The Other Europe, companion volume to a British television series. This article ran in the February 20, 1989, issue of the magazine.