I wanted to go back to Scotland after the April election in order to see what had happened to the country I sometimes claim as my own. In the former Soviet Union, people say the British are either from Anglia or from Velikobritania. To reject the first means to accept the second, with its Imperial echoes. Indeed, when I correct officials or acquaintances who use Anglia, as the English themselves do, to mean Britain, they often assume that I am claiming, not non-English Britishness, but Great Britishness. This is not, in fact, inappropriate.
Going back to Scotland, after a year living in Moscow and travelling about the former USSR, was to return with a considerable baggage of new thoughts, especially on the matter of the building and rebuilding of nations. The tables are being turned on Russians living outside Russia in republics they themselves assumed to be part of Greater Russia. The Balts are setting out to treat them as the second-class, lower-cultured citizens the Balts always thought they were; the Central Asians see them as Christian oppressors. Christian Armenians prosecute a war in the Caucasus which they define almost as holy: as the struggle of a (naturally superior) Christian culture against a Moslem one. ‘We are fighting for you,’ they say, meaning for the West and its values. Ukraine is shaking off the Russian-Soviet embrace with a fierceness which Russians found hurtful at first, then annoying. Russian democrats, accustomed to act as elder brothers in the radical movements of the past five years, now see their former Ukrainian comrades as overcome by nationalism: the Ukrainians think the Russian democrats are chauvinists whose gloss has peeled away.
Moldovans are engaged in struggles with Russians living in their republic because the latter, fearing incorporation of Moldova into Romania, have set up their own ‘republic’. Tatars and Chechens and Ingush and Yakuts and other nationalities living in the Russian Federation resurrect their old oppressions. New leaders, often the old leaders in new uniforms, manufacture a sudden ersatz militancy of national sentiment and use it to mobilise masses in whom the instinct to follow the obvious power has been ingrained; and thus the struggle for wealth and privilege is unleashed in states where the people’s living standards are sinking steadily.
In all this, huge stores of human energy are let loose. Much more real emotion is consumed, in most Republics, by national claims and counter-claims than is expended on the dismal task of rebuilding economies and wresting property away from the grip of state oligarchies. The place is a rising cacophony of claims of right: right to land, right to resources, right to define who is and is not a citizen, right to use armed force, right to make and break treaties, right to trade.
Naturally, what strikes most about Scotland is the lack of such energy, especially when set against the rhetoric mobilised before the election. If the ‘nightmare scenario’ of another Conservative victory in Britain were to come to pass, it was held, then a Scots society on the way to becoming a ‘Tory free zone’ would be in a ‘constitutional crisis’. As crises go, however, this one seemed to lack the necessary urgency.