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An interesting fact about Mikhail Gorbachev is that the handful of times the typically cool-headed general secretary raised his voice, it was over the “nationality question” in the Soviet Union. With his declaration of glasnost in the mid-1980s, Gorbachev had thrown open the floodgates that had long suppressed the expression of national identity, and unwittingly paved the way for the nationalist mobilization that helped topple the regime.

RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published a new Special Report on the 20 Years since the Fall of the Soviet Union. The reports contains fourteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors, who try to analyze the many changes that have taken place in Russian society since then and attempt to answer two perennial questions: was the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, as Vladimir Putin once said, or a blessing for its people? And how far has present-day Russia departed from its Soviet past?

The “Nationality Question” Still Haunts Modern Russia.

An interesting fact about Mikhail Gorbachev is that the handful of times the typically cool-headed general secretary raised his voice, it was over the “nationality question” in the Soviet Union. With his declaration of glasnost in the mid-1980s, Gorbachev had thrown open the floodgates that had long suppressed the expression of national identity, and unwittingly paved the way for the nationalist mobilization that helped topple the regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, independent states emerged, wars erupted and ended, and the 15 former republics became free to chart their own ethnic course.

But 20 years after the Soviet collapse emancipated these nations, the question still remains: was the Soviet Union a nation-building or a nation-destroying experiment? On the one hand, the regime created largely self-governing ethnic units (often in places that had little prior experience in governance), industrialized vast expanses of territory and laid the foundation for independent states for the years to come. But on the other, it also stifled national ambitions and blurred ethnic identities through Stalinism and intermittent periods of “Russification.”

Though scholars and observers the world over have debated the positive and negative legacies of Soviet nationality policy, a consensus is still a long way off. “There were negative aspects to it—restrictions on political rights, on real sovereignty—but there was also a development of cultures, of national identities,” said historian Ronald Grigor Suny. “It’s really a mixed picture.” Nevertheless, after two decades of reflection, it’s clear just how strong a role the Soviet Union played in shaping the states of modern-day Eurasia.

The father of all states

Probably the most visible legacy of Soviet nationality policy is the very existence of the 15 independent nation-states that emerged from the collapse. In many ways, the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Belarusians and others have the Soviet Union to thank for the virtual creation of their contemporary states.

The Soviet Union was not only a multinational empire, but one which consciously promoted and encouraged—at the outset, at least—the concept of national identity. Even during the union’s embryonic stages, both Stalin, whose first scholarly publication was 1913’s “Marxism and the National Question,” and Lenin, had considered the concept of “nationalism” and the role it would play in a newly christened communist state. Nationalism, they believed, was a necessary evil which had to be overcome on the path toward socialism. As such, national identities were to be quickly embraced, so that the working classes of the Soviet Union could recognize their limitations and then forsake them in favor of “internationalism.”

The result was a tremendous flourishing of nations throughout the 1920s, of a kind never seen before within such a vast empire. Somewhat curious was the union’s conscious effort to downplay Russian identity—to counter what Stalin believed to be the danger of “Great Power chauvinism”—in favor of smaller and less-represented nations. In short order, native language schools, institutes and cultural organizations appeared in each of the republics and their smaller autonomous territories, transforming the Soviet Union into a “crucible of nations,” according to Suny.

“The Leninist period was a period of nation building, of the rooting of these cultures, and of reaching over backward to promote the non-Russians,” said Suny, the author of “The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union.” “The communist government had to find a way of integrating local interests with their overall interests, and they did this by making all kinds of concessions and encouraging national cultural development within the context of political unification in the Soviet Union.”

In addition to developing national identities, the Soviet Union pursued a policy of “korenizatsiya” (“nativization”) by promoting local elites to positions of power within their titular republics. For Moscow, the policy served a twofold purpose: to placate the republican populations with homegrown leadership while ensuring that leadership’s loyalty to the center. Soon, Ukraine was led by Ukrainians, Armenia by Armenians, and so forth—all of whom, however, remained answerable to Moscow. The arrangement, in principal and in practice, worked well; conflict remained low and the Soviet Union was able to rapidly industrialize while consolidating its political power.

The supreme nation

Yet the honeymoon of cultural development would not last long. With the ascension to power of Stalin, the onset of widespread terror and the outbreak of World War II, the flourishing of nations quickly turned into the destruction of nations. The great irony was that Stalin, the man who essentially formed the foundation of early nationality policy, would be the one to quickly reverse Soviet policy as he consolidated his grip on power.

As the 1930s rolled on, Stalin grew increasingly worried that the nation-building project he had put into motion would soon overtake its creator. The original principle was to develop the literacy and intellectual capacity of various nations of the Soviet Union, so that they would become productive members of the communist state; “nationalism” per se, Stalin believed, was still among the greatest threats to the regime.

According to Harvard University historian Terry Martin, Stalin began to perceive a rise in “national communism,” in which party leaders in the peripheries in some cases favored their own nationalities too heavily and posed a threat to centralized power. “Stalin believed that national sentiments were a powerful mobilizing political force,” said Martin. “There would have been no point in building all these republics if nationalism wasn’t a potentially powerful force.” Moreover, as Stalin glanced at the European map, he saw the rise of extreme nationalist governments with potential claims to ethnic diasporas in the Soviet Union, among them Germans and Poles. As his fears grew, he took further measures to prevent a splintering of the Soviet Union along ethnic lines. “Stalin decided that existing policy wasn’t providing enough national unity, so he moved toward this system that he called ‘Friendship of the People,’ whereby the Russians were rehabilitated and were given a primary status,” said Martin, who authored the book “The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939.”

The outbreak of the war only made matters worse. The Nazi onslaught of 1941 only heightened the leader’s paranoia, and as a result, he ordered the wholesale deportations of entire ethnic groups—among them the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and others—for their alleged collaboration with the Germans. It was the Russians, he believed, who could lay the foundation for Soviet unity and carry the state to victory. In a famous speech delivered shortly after the Nazi defeat, Stalin praised the “Russian people” above all and credited them with the historic victory.

The Russians-first legacy would last long after Stalin’s death. No subsequent leader ever truly attempted to revert to the Leninist policy of nation building. In fact, most leaders, according to Martin, viewed the early Bolshevik nationality policy as “suspicious”—Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, among them. Years of intermittent waves of “russification” followed, further diluting the very national identities that the Soviet Union helped create, all in the name of centralization and consolidation of the Soviet state.

Peace against will

For all its perceived failures and shortcomings, the Soviet Union could perhaps claim at least one key success: the virtual non-existence of ethnic conflict throughout 70 years of rule. Given the country’s multitude of nationalities, as well as the potentially explosive power of nationalism, the regime’s management of potential conflict seems nothing short of impressive. The great irony, however, is that the very mechanism that kept ethnic animosities in check was what helped precipitate nationalist mobilization and ethnic war after the collapse: ethno-federalism.

Closely related to “korenizatsiya,” ethno-federal management allowed Soviet authorities to organize and control their peripheral subjects by creating a hierarchal system of rule according to each territory’s size and ethnic composition. At the top of the federal food chain were the union republics, followed by autonomous republics and autonomous regions—each with its own leadership structure. By hierarchically stacking its subjects, Moscow was able to keep ethnic groups separate from one another and delegate responsibilities to local leaders while still keeping an eye on their activities. In order to mitigate conflict, Moscow stepped in as arbiter when tensions appeared. After all, according to Suny, the Soviet Union was in reality a “pseudo-federal” state: “Power came from the center, and anyone could be removed by the center,” he said. “If a person was too nationalistic or, in some cases, too corrupt, then they would be removed and Moscow would send someone who would clean up corruption, end the nationalist expression and so forth.”

But glasnost changed everything. After Gorbachev’s endorsement of greater openness, national movements in many union republics sprang up with one goal on their agenda: independence. Of these, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the most vocal. Others, such as Georgia and Armenia, also expressed their desires for real sovereignty, but not without serious difficulties. Within these Caucasian republics lay subordinate ethnic enclaves—Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan—which Soviet policy created and endowed with the institutional and ethnic means with which to contend for power. As central authority eroded during late perestroika, conflicts erupted over the rights to these territories and their groups’ national self-determination.

Within only a couple of years, groups with clearly defined ties to territories found themselves engulfed in ethnic war with states that attempted to keep them subordinated—Chechens against Russia, the Abkhaz and Ossetians against Georgia, Armenians against Azerbaijan and Transdnestr against Moldova, among others. Their leaderships, meanwhile, played a key role in stoking violence. “These conflicts were clearly motivated by the commitment of the leaders to specific nationalist agendas—that is, the desire by the secessionists to have states of their own,” said Philip Roeder, a specialist in post-Soviet conflict and professor at the University of California at San Diego. “There really were conflicting nation-state agendas between these states.”

Today, many of these conflicts remain frozen in an internationally unrecognized limbo, while Moscow has assumed a more dubious role not as an arbiter, but as an enabler. Tensions still simmer in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and elsewhere and the Soviet legacy has only exacerbated these conflicts.

Civility versus ethnicity

The way in which the Soviet Union’s successor states have behaved as independent states is also a direct result of Soviet legacy. Upon gaining independence, the 15 former republics were forced to construct their own national policies, accommodating both the titular nationality and the minority populations that remained in the states. Yet the “sense of proprietorship” Soviet policy instilled in the dominant ethnic groups over their republics, according to political scientist Mark Beissinger, has in some cases created significant obstacles toward consolidating well-functioning states. “One of the consequences of Soviet nationality policy has been the strong nationalization of the state,” said Beissinger, the author of “Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State.” “There is a very weak sense of minority rights for those groups who are not a part of the titular group.”

The key dilemma involves two variations of the modern nation-state: “civic” and “ethnic.” The former denotes a state which values citizenship over ethnicity—a state of which one can become a citizen relatively easily and without any stringent ethnic requirements. An ethnicity-based state, however, places a premium on a sole—usually dominant—ethnicity and in doing so often carries the potential for disregarding or alienating minorities.

The trajectories of the post-Soviet states have most often reflected their Soviet- and pre-Soviet- era experiences. In places such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which had never experienced their own statehood per se until Soviet policy crafted one for them, the regimes are highly ethno-centric and regard the titular nationalities as dominant. In the Baltics and Ukraine, meanwhile, where some semblance of statehood and ethnic identity had existed prior to the Soviet annexation, the regimes tend to be more open to minority groups, not least because Russian political movements enjoy some popularity there.

But for the most part, Beissinger said, many of the post-Soviet states remain “civic in form and ethnic in content, in the sense that they make some pretense to be civic because they have some significant minorities. But in essence, they tend to tilt toward the dominant ethnic group and they don’t provide particular conditions for minority representation or voice.” And if constitutions are the most accurate reflections of states, then many of the successor states’ ambiguous constitutions leave plenty of room for uncertainty. Take, for example, Kazakhstan: “Is it a state that belongs to residents of Kazakhstan, or is it a state that belongs to Kazakhs? Legally, it’s the state of Kazakhstanis, but in actual fact, it’s become the state of the Kazakhs,” Beissinger said.

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