Will the Empire ever end?

John Lloyd

  • Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics by Daniel Patrick Moynihan
    Oxford, 221 pp, £17.95, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 827787 3
  • Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States edited by Ian Bremner and Ray Taras
    Cambridge, 577 pp, £55.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 521 43281 2
  • The Post-Soviet Nations edited by Alexander Motyl
    Columbia, 322 pp, £23.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 231 07894 3
  • The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence by Anatol Lieven
    Yale, 454 pp, £22.50, June 1993, ISBN 0 300 05552 8

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a lens through which we can see the character of contemporary Russians close up and grotesquely exaggerated. The Zhirinovsky glass reveals and enlightens like a Francis Bacon portrait.

Even before the elections shot him to prominence, Zhirinovsky was in the habit of issuing threats of an apocalyptic kind – nuclear strikes against Japan and Germany, Russian expansion to the Indian Ocean, the ‘annihilation’ of the Nato armies. These are the customary draughts of vodka which enliven the feast of Russian rhetoric. The main fare, however, is a view of race with which most former Soviet citizens of Zhirinovsky’s generation – just post-war – will be quite familiar, and to which they can give a measure of assent. Roughly, Zhirinovsky divides the world into two categories: the lesser races, who are to be subordinated if they are within reach, and those who are more or less equal, in terms of development, and are to be treated at all times as potential adversaries.

In this sense, Zhirinovsky is quite different from most of the European neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists with whom he has had contact. In Austria, Germany and France, the quest for ethnic purity requires the expulsion of Algerians or Turks or Jews. Zhirinovsky would rather subordinate other races. (Confronted by a black American reporter at one of his pre-election press conferences, Zhirinovsky told him: ‘Blacks are my second favourite people after the Balts. Come here, work, we will look after you.’) He has no desire to cleanse ethnicities from Russia, but rather to raise them, as he would see it, by ruling them. His Russia is a heavily armed superpower which has reconquered its ‘natural’ space (the former Soviet Union at least) and within which a world of nations lives in peace under Russian domination. It is, in fact, the Soviet Union stripped of its Communism, its nationalism expressed without the tortuous accommodations that Communism demanded.

In his autobiographical sketch Posledny Brosok na Yug (‘The Last Push to the South’), he writes about his childhood in the Kazakhstan capital of Alma Ata, about the poverty and deprivation that he suffered and about his love for his equally adoring mother. Zhirinovsky claims to have suffered, in a city at least 50 per cent of which was ethnic Russian, from a policy which promoted Kazakhs to better jobs and better housing, discriminating against the Russians who had, after all, brought civilisation to Kazakhstan. Thus, his family – a mother and six children – was condemned to live in one room of an old communal flat while Kazakhs, he implies, got the new housing.

It has to he said that many, even most Soviet families in the post-war period lived that way. Boris Yeltsin, for example, or Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen who also grew up in Kazakhstan, lived through similar conditions or worse. Zhirinovsky notes with contempt, however, that Mikhail Gorbachev, son of the chairman of a collective farm in the rich Stavropol area of southern Russia, led the life of a little ‘country lord’. They all shared in the experience of racial mixing and Russian domination, in which the problem of ethnicity was solved by a unique and once envied form of suppression, disguised by both the pretence and the reality of a general levelling.

The Soviet Union contained more than a hundred ethnic groups, of which the Russians were only just the majority, with 52 per cent of the Soviet population and 80 per cent of the population of the Russian Federation. It was divided into 15 ‘independent’ Republics which have now become 15 independent nations. Within these, especially within Russia, were autonomous republics, areas and districts defined by race (even if, as was often the case, the titular nationality was no longer the majority) and arranged in a descending order of rights and institutional autonomy. Within each of these ethnic-territorial units, Ian Bremner writes in the Introduction to the very useful collection he has edited with Ray Taras,

institutions were set up identically, with replications of not only party but also cultural, scientific and educational facilities. Economic policy also appeared egalitarian in structure, based on the premise of giving to each according to his needs and taking from each according to ability. Economic levelling could thereby occur, with state-controlled subsidies following policies of redistribution. It was in essence a massive state programme of nation-based affirmative action. In all appearances nations possessed substantial, though by no means complete, control over their own governance.

Over this structure, much of which is still intact, lay what Bremner calls ‘the ambiguous Soviet culture’ that ‘was presumed to dominate all other cultures save the Russian’. The phrase ‘presumed to dominate’ is exactly right. It could never be said to do so: Lenin had had very harsh words to say about Russian imperialism – his party had banished it officially and for ever. But the ‘elder brother’ among the nations provided the personnel, the language, the revolutionary prestige and, above all, the force which held the empire together even while denying it was an empire. To be sure, it was very different from the overseas ‘possessions’ of the British and French and also from the other great contiguous empires of the Austro-Hungarians and the Turks. Even so, Evelyn Waugh’s famous observation, cited here by Daniel Moynihan, applies to them all: ‘the foundations of empire are often occasions of woe; their dismemberment always.’

‘There was nothing,’ Bremner writes, ‘in Marx’s model of successive social formations that pointed to nationalism as a historic force capable of accelerating or retarding progress to the next stage of development. Accordingly the only solution to the national problem was to eliminate national differences.’ Communism ‘knew’ from Marx that national differences would disappear with progress. Stuck with the obstinate facts of national ambition in the territories it took over, the Soviet leadership produced the famous ‘national in form, socialist in content’ formula which allowed nations to be recognised within the Soviet sphere – and indeed, in many ways promoted – while at the same time their essence was eroded through economic development, centrally inspired programmes of socialist education and the drawing together (sblizhenie) of the races, until they merged into a new human formation, Socialist Man, a nearly inextricable mixture of ideology, politics, pragmatism and economic imperatives.

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