Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Warning Still Relevant: Russian Nationalism Played Key Role in Demise of USSR

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 14 – Most Russians and many others besides when focusing on the demise of the Soviet Union talk primarily about the role of the non-Russian republics or the way in which Lenin, by creating them, laid a delayed action mine under the entire structure and doomed it to eventual failure.

            And such people when they talk about the possibility that the Russian Federation will go the way of the USSR again focus on the non-Russian republics as the primary threat and argue that if another collapse is to be prevented, Moscow must do away with these “survivals of the past.”

            But both in their discussion of 1991 and their speculation about the future, most ignore “the big ‘nationality question,’ that is, the role of Russians and Russian nationalism in the demise of the Soviet Union.  A new article by Rafael Sattarov on the CAA-Network represents a happy exception (caa-network.org/archives/10749).

            Sattarov traces the ideas and evolution of what came to be called “the Russian party,” the collective name for “various social groups of Russia who spoke out in defense of the rights and interests of the ethnic Russian people” and who believed that the Russians were subject to move discrimination than any other nation within the USSR.

            These ideas began to take shape at the so-called Russian Club at the Moscow Society for the Preservation of Cultural Monuments and then spread in the 1970s to include a wide spectrum of people with “predominantly conservative views, including Stalinists and anti-Westernists,” who were famously attacked by Aleksandr Yakovlev in 1972.

            Historian Leonid Mlechin has pointed out that by that time many in the Russian Party rejected “not only the October but the February revolution” and argued that both were the work of “world Jewry” and aimed at “the destruction of Russia and Russian culture.” Yakovlev’s attack reflected the fears in part of the CPSU about the danger of “open nationalism.”

            By the 1980s, the Russian Party had “significantly evolved,” Sattarov says. It moved from being anti-Western, anti-Semitic and ruralist to being openly anti-communist. Among its most prominent exponents were the painter Ilya Glazunov and the writer Vladimir Soloukhin, both of whom enjoyed support from senior Komsomol officials.

            Andrey Amalrik, in the preface to the third edition of his essay, Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? noted the communist regime distrusted the Russian nationalists but treated them with a great deal of patience. He warned that “Russian nationalism will give the regime support for a certain time but in the end it will become a threat to the integrity of the country.”

            By the late 1980s, anti-communists were joined by pro-market forces at the top of the Russian Party, Sattarov says. And they began to promote the idea that the RSFSR needed independence in order to stop bearing the burdens of empire.  Boris Yeltsin took up that cause and spread it, winning support among Russians for saying it was time to focus on Russia.

            Yeltsin’s campaign had the effect of dividing the soviet and party elite in Moscow into two camps, the Soviet and the Russian; and as perestroika spun out of control, the latter became predominant especially after the August 1991 coup and after the West made clear that the republics should have access to the world economy.

            As one KGB senior officer put it, “the bitter truth is that it was not the American CIA and its ‘agents of influence in the USSR’ that destroyed our great state, but we ourselves.” And it was not the non-Russians but the Russians themselves who took the lead in doing that whatever anyone thinks.

            “In the disintegration of major empires,” Sattarov argues, “internal events in the metropolitan center play the key role.” When central elites begin to think that the empire is keeping them from achieving their goals, they will act in ways that will trigger the end of empire regardless of what the periphery does.

            “Today,” he continues, “in Russia itself, it has become fashionable to be nostalgic about the Soviet Union and to regret the collapse of the USSR.’  But those who fall into that trap need to recognize that it was “the Russian question” that played the central role in the demise of that empire and not any other, however much they may have deceived themselves.

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