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 be 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.

It was a system, and had to be made to work. Under Brezhnev it became a vast network of deals between the centre and the provinces, in which the ethnic barons kept the peace and met the targets, for which the centre duly rewarded them. One of the rewards was an effective amnesty from action against increasing corruption, especially among the Central Asian and Caucasian leaders, whose political cultures were most dependent on Russia. But the driving belief for Soviet man, both official and – it seems from Gorbachev’s naive approach to what J.L. Talmon has called ‘the demoniacal, obsessive character of the nationalist passion’ – private, was in the efficacy of the system and its ability, over time, to achieve the goals which Marx had said were ineluctable consequences of progress and socialism.

In the finest essay of the Motyl collection, Neil Harding puts it like this:

The happy and harmonious condominium of all the Soviet people was not just a constitutional fiction, it was an obligatory article of faith in all public discourse – the whole metaphysic, from which the integrity of the systems of power derived, demanded it. Those systems of power had as their goal and object the positive role of transcending all particularisms. The Union had to be expressly and grandly anti-national. It was the last grand and perverse attempt to realise the universal goals of the Enlightenment, to create a human society.

The view that ethnicity is a residual matter which progress will leave behind is not confined to Marx. It was and remains a commonplace of liberal thought. Of the two ‘large ideas’, as Moynihan calls them, prevailing in the early part of the 20th century, he takes liberalism to be quintessentially American. ‘Ethnic identities were seen as recessive, readily explained by immigrant experience, but essentially transitional. A proper “American” would emerge in time.’ Moynihan is more than a little schadenfroh. He is at pains to remind us that he and Nathan Glazer opposed the liberal consensus through the lean years of the Sixties and Seventies, when it seemed to be working – as did Marxism; he can thus maintain with confidence, quoting himself and Glazer, that ‘the notion that the intense and unprecedented mixture of ethnic and religious groups in American life was soon to blend into a homogeneous end product has outlived its credibility ... The point about the melting pot ... is that it did not happen.’ Anatol Lieven, in his compendious and elegant book on the former Soviet states of the Baltics, makes the point for the East: ‘The issue ... is how to regulate the relationship of nations, each with their own language, culture and, above all, set of national loyalties and priorities.’ Lieven adds that ‘the West, too, is facing these problems, given the presence of immigrant communities, but has not yet begun to solve them. In Eastern Europe this century, the failure to resolve this issue has led and is leading to repeated catastrophes.’

Nearer home, the continued intractability of the Northern Ireland conflict has led Simon Jenkins, in the Spectator, to condemn the current initiative by the British and Irish Governments to hold new talks on the province for its ‘centralism’. Instead, Jenkins offers the prospect of devolution to ethnic enclaves, the Catholic ones being allowed to form their own economic and other links to the South. He sees any kind of centrally-fostered mixing merely as a repetition of the twenty-year-old liberal fallacy in British policy. The assumption here is that ethnicity is at least a given, if not a good – the grain that a successful politics must go with.

If the liberal fallacy can still exercise so much power in states where periodic consultations of the people’s will would have revealed it to be out of kilter with popular belief, how much more must that have been the case for the governing idea in Communist societies? It is now a commonplace of post-Soviet comment and scholarship that two generations of Sovietologists were very largely at fault for failing to spot that nationalism was the dynamite beneath the edifice waiting for the spark. And there is a new roll of honour containing those – Hélène Carrière d’Encausse, Robert Conquest, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Pipes – who did see the fuse peeping out from the foundations and said as much. Indeed, a whole issue (Spring 1993) of the conservative US journal National Interest was largely devoted to a celebration of the Right’s greater prescience in perceiving that human beings cannot put up with tyranny indefinitely. Conquest’s essay in this collection, ‘Academe and the Soviet Myth’, is a robust lashing of those who, in the Sixties and Seventies, pandered to the Soviet establishment and believed that the Soviet Union was at least stable, if not actually democratic.

Most of these scholars believed they were dealing with an observable fact. In the poorest Republics of Central Asia, huge advances had been made – much more, in terms of industrialisation and education, than in comparable states outside the Soviet arena. Serious ethnic struggle, even allowing for the mendacity of the Party and its press, seemed to be rare. Dissidents were also few, and by the nature of the existence they had to lead, became obsessive and easy to dismiss as cranks. Observation, frequent visits (inevitably circumscribed) and knowledge of Russian were not necessarily of any help. Indeed they could be seductively confusing because of the evidence they appeared to give of a general, growing contentment. A certain theoretical and moral framework was needed in order to make the a priori assumption that any state so constructed and run was unlikely to be stable for ever.

There is another element that does not so much contradict the claims of the Right, as shed a different light on them. The system was seen by many to be stable because it did in fact provide a number of the things it promised. It was indeed egalitarian; it did redistribute wealth. It did establish basic literacy rapidly and continued to raise educational standards. It brought technical proficiency to areas which would probably have remained without industry (and for whom industry is now a great burden). It actually preserved some languages (but destroyed others) and encouraged them to produce literature. Above all – and we see this with nostalgia now – it kept the peace in the Caucasus and much of Central Asia, where war and hunger now seem to be a natural state of affairs.

The Soviet system delivered some of the goods, if you were prepared to tolerate the constraints and the bull, did not know or care that the economy vastly underperformed and had the guile or the gall, or the good luck, to do a bit better than average. Mikhail Gorbachev patently believed it had overcome national divisions. As a number of the writers here point out, he did not get round to considering the nationalities policy until 1988, never spoke of it in his first years in office and behaved as a man leading a homogeneous nation in which a greater devolution of power could only increase the dynamism of society and hasten the coming of socialism.

He was the first Soviet ruler who failed to realise that he was in fact an emperor. Since this kind of thing could not, perhaps, be said openly and was probably never vouchsafed him as an essential secret of his office before its seals were passed to him, he did not grasp that a consistently authoritarian stance was the least it required of him. He was part, and the largest part to date, of the ‘crisis of authoritarianism’ which Francis Fukuyama identifies in a number of states – Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, the Philippines, Nicaragua, South Africa – in the Seventies and Eighties. ‘The critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong states,’ he writes in The End of History, ‘was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy – that is, a crisis on the level of ideas.’ Gorbachev lacked the imperial idea as well as the will – one reason why he earns the contempt of Zhirinovsky, who believes himself to have both.

As soon as his incredulous subjects realised that Gorbachev seriously believed that his society was benign and would enjoy freer development under socialism, they responded with the nationalist agenda which had been denied them for seven decades. In those Republics where the nationalist cause remained closest to the hearts of the intellectuals who kept it alive through the years, it quickly entered the official bloodstream. As Theodor Friedgut says in the Motyl collection, Armenia showed the way by officially raising its irredentist claim on Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian enclave within the territory and jurisdiction of neighbouring Azerbaijan: ‘the resolution of the Armenian Supreme Soviet supporting the demands to bring Nagorno Karabakh into the Armenian Republic was contrary to the expressed decision of the Politburo and of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet. This was the first time in Soviet history that a Republican legislature had upheld its constituents’ demands against the wishes of Moscow, a precedent soon followed by a number of other national Republics.’ It was followed because, as the Soviet Union held its breath over this piece of lese-majesté, Gorbachev did not respond with force: there were no suppressions, nor was the Armenian Party leadership replaced by anti-nationalist hardliners. What he did instead was to debate the issue on the basis of rights. Such an approach spelled the end.

To some extent it had already been anticipated in the Baltics. During the critical years of 1990-2, Anatol Lieven was one of the very few journalists based in the region, writing about its development for the Times. The Baltic Revolution could hardly fail to be a personal book, since Lieven is descended from a Germanicised family of the Latvian nobility which left its estate of Mezotne, in southern Latvia, during the Civil War. It is stylish, with flourishes which most journalists have long since cut out, if they ever knew how to make them: ‘Jewish irony ... works on Lithuanian nationalists and their soupy certainties like garlic on vampires’; ‘a plump, elderly woman in a fake fur coat, like a turnip-eating herbivore swallowed whole by a rather mangy leopard’. But it is also the work of a reporter who has chosen to concentrate on areas (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia and now Russia) where he will meet extreme difficulty in recording and analysing, but who does so with remarkable patience.

The Baltic states are, by their own legend, small nations of proud people who have for centuries been the pawns of larger powers, but who have preserved their heritage and national sense, winning through to freedom between the wars, and now again to a new era of independence after the collapse of the ideology in which they were imprisoned. This matrix has underlain a good deal of the writing about the Baltics and has sustained both exiles and courageous internal dissidents. As a myth, it is not without its uses, but as Lieven frequently makes clear, with a mixture of irony and irritation, it remains a myth:

A consciousness of the damage done to Baltic culture by Soviet rule, particularly among those intellectuals who came from educated families, has contributed to a desire to restore the forms of the pre-1940 republics as far as possible. The need to defend the Baltic cultures and traditions against Soviet influence prevented Baltic intellectuals, both within and outside the states themselves, from engaging critically with these traditions, as this would have seemed to give help to the enemy. The consequence was a conformist and unreflecting nationalism which characterises so much of Baltic life today.

Lieven singles out the figure of Vytautas Landsbergis, the music professor turned first President of Lithuania, the only one of the original post-Communist Baltic leaders without a Communist past. Lieven says that he attracted the support of the nationalist intelligentsia both because he was one of them and because he was able to carry off the heroic, absurd and grandiloquent rhetorical gestures which the nationalist tradition demanded. He was also, as Lieven notes, able to rise to the occasion of the (stillborn) Soviet attack on Vilnius in January 1991: when Gorbachev had rare recourse to his fists, roused to a fury by the nationalists’ inability to read the script of History, Landsbergis cast aside his normal foggy rhetoric and addressed the nation in sharp, clear sentences, laying out what had to be done. Yet the following year, in defeat at the hands of the former Communist leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, he was petty and dishonest, and removed from office snarling that Brazauskas would bring back Soviet rule. (Brazauskas has applied for membership of Nato.)

In the Baltics that section of the Communist establishment which had endorsed glasnost and perestroika became the force for a controlled transition to complete independence. Even the radical nationalists were surprised by the speed and painlessness of the process. Brazauskas in Lithuania, Anatoly Gorbunovs in Latvia and Indrek Toome in Estonia all helped to bury the ideology and party which had made them and survived or, in Brazauskas’s case, returned to high office and esteem.

The problem was not so much with the native Communists, though especially in Latvia, a few held fast to their principles, but with the Russians, of whom there are 2.5 million in the three tiny states. They are few in Lithuania, but over 30 per cent of Estonia’s 1.6 million inhabitants and 40 per cent of Latvia’s 2.5 million are Russians. In Estonia and Latvia they are disproportionately concentrated in the capitals of Tallin and Riga. Brought in largely after the war as an industrial labour force, they are now vulnerable on two counts: first, to unemployment, since it is overwhelmingly the large state-owned plants in which they work and which the governments are most likely to close or fail to support; and second, to political discrimination – in Estonia and Latvia they are mostly denied the right to vote until they learn the rudiments of the national languages.

Lieven is quite clear that most of the nationalists wish them to leave. They are almost entirely excluded from government. Even in Latvia, where one would expect them to have some representation, I have not come across a responsible Russian official, let alone a minister – in marked contrast to Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Lieven also argues that ‘strong pressure on the Russians to leave will endanger the peace of the region, and of Europe.’ He has little affection for the Baltic Russians and well understands the apprehension they arouse among Baltic leaders, who fear that their presence will provide a fifth column, as it did in 1990-1. They do not believe that Russians could ever ‘become’ Estonians or Latvians – a feeling I have found especially strong among Latvians, themselves unsure of their national identity.

Lieven recognises this as one of the most serious problems to arise from the withdrawal from empire – and one that strengthens Zhirinovsky’s hand. Lieven quotes General Denikin, the White commander in the Russian Civil War, writing after the victory of the Bolsheviks: ‘The state link of Russia with her borderlands was restored, either voluntarily or through compulsion – economic war or an army offensive. And that would have been chosen by any Russia – Red, Pink, White or Black – which did not want to suffocate inside the limits of these artificial boundaries to which world war and internal chaos had confined her.’

This sentiment is as old as the Soviet Union and, as Zhirinovsky’s success makes alarmingly clear, it is not only enshrined in the hearts of a handful of ‘empire loyalists’ but shared by millions and millions of Russians. Indeed, liberal Russians, who believe their country should confine itself to its present borders, often assent to the view that surrounding peoples were better ruled by Russians. They feel themselves shorn and defenceless in the face of the threat from the Muslim south – one that, for many, has replaced the threat of the West. Zhirinovsky’s ‘last push to the south’ is a pre-emptive strike against just such a threat.

He and those who think like him regard it as their mission to guarantee the security of the 25 million Russians in the ‘near abroad’ who believe for the most part that they still live on Russian soil. Zhirinovsky and Co also fear for the security of the country as a whole and argue the need to protect it from potentially aggressive states with a buffer of neutral or compliant states. Thus when Zhirinovsky declared, just before the New Year, that Bulgaria would become the 16th state in his reconstituted Soviet Union/Russian Empire, he had this old imperative in mind – and no doubt, too, the fact that, in the early Sixties, the Bulgarian Communist Party, burdened with debt to the Soviet Union, urged precisely this.

The dismemberment of the Soviet Empire is now almost entirely an occasion of woe. The Republics and the smaller territorial entities which remain ‘subjects’ of the Russian Federation emerged from the empire with an agenda of old grudges against Russia. Forced to redistribute their surplus and spending much of the last phase of the Union indulging, as Richard Ericson writes in the Motyl collection, in ‘incessant national polemics around who is subsidising whom’, the wealthier ones made it plain that they would keep everything that was their own and negotiate for what was not. Having had Russian settlers thrust on them, the Baltics now officially discriminate against them while, in other states, criminal or guerrilla attacks on Russian soldiers and civilians are increasing. Having been part of a centrally planned economy, they all went for a ‘national’ economic strategy which deliberately broke the links between tightly integrated production lines. Having been obliged to bury the national hatchet, those who had national business to transact dug it up and set about hacking away at each other in the name of national liberation. Continuing to act in ways that do themselves and others huge harm, they are reckless with the patience and resources of a ‘West’ seen as soft and rich, and appear to be sinking further into the mire of corruption which was already deep in many of the Republics during the last two decades of the Soviet period.

This is fertile ground for a thousand Zhirinovskys. If he has not the stamina – or even the intention – to see his politics through, which I suspect is the case, he has been able to identify the constituency which others can work. Already, in the first few days of this year the Republic of Belarus, whose ten million inhabitants always appeared to accept their independence with more reluctance than rejoicing, decided to fold the experiment in all but name, and in an economic treaty with Russia, to readopt the rouble, submit to Russian Central Bank discipline and attempt to restore the connections between its own enterprises and those of Russia. Azerbaijan and Georgia, the two Caucasian states which tried to break clean away, have rejoined the Commonwealth of Independent States, now a wholly Russian-dominated forum, whose security and economic criteria are defined accordingly.

For Russia, the prize will be the reintegration of Ukraine along the same lines as Belarus – a prospect so tempting that it is difficult to see how any president or government of Russia can fail to have it as a medium or long-term objective. In an essay in the Bremner-Taras collection, Bohdan Kravchenko, the expert on Ukraine who is now a member of the Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk’s advisory council, gives the wily old former ideology secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party much of the credit for the country’s independence and perhaps only such an ambiguous figure could have achieved such an ambiguous independence. But he is disinclined to question seriously whether or not Kravchuk’s tutelage has provided Ukraine with the kind of economy which can sustain genuine independence. Ukraine is riven over its future between the pro-Russian east and the nationalist west. Conflicts with its Slav kin in Russia remain emotionally inconceivable but increasingly plausible.

The former Soviet states have been left with little in the way of a conceptual framework within which to situate relations among themselves, or with their own ‘sub’-national groups. Russia, with a multiplicity of peoples inside its borders and a weak central authority, has allowed the growth of inchoate demands for ‘independence’ – often little more than exemption from taxes and other obligations but continued access to subsidies and infrastructural support. In some of the states, notably the Baltics, the Russians are suddenly turned from a privileged to a disenfranchised minority. In others, such as Moldova and, to a less dramatic extent, Kazakhstan, they have carved out a geographical area for themselves where they practise effective self-government. In the Caucasus, the interwoven skein of little peoples continues to unravel in violence, with uncompromising claims for land and justice – but justice from whom?

None of this will ‘solve itself’. Zhirinovsky is the malign child striking matches at the edge of the pool of petrol and, for the moment, the worst has not happened. But now the leaders of all these states are under serious pressure to deliver something to their peoples. They will of course examine whether they cannot make matters better for their own by making them worse for others. If such a politics becomes general and there is no incentive to develop another, its best practitioners on the Russian scene will he Vladimir Zhirinovsky and anyone who shares his views. For the moment, things are going his way.