Staunton, July 6 – Many Russians blame the demise of the Soviet Union on this or that non-Russian nationality, most commonly the Baltics, the Ukrainians, and the Georgians, Leonid Mlechin says; but in fact, the USSR was destroyed by the virus of nationalism which infected almost all of the nations within the USSR, including the Russian.
The Soviet and Russian commentator’s words are relevant not only as an argument in favor of changing the popular understanding of what happened 30 years ago but also as a warning of what can happen in the future if Russian nationalism strengthens both in response to and also as a provocation of the nationalisms of other nations within the Russian Federation.
Mlechin discusses this problem by focusing first on the competition between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev seemed to have everything and Yeltsin envied him to the point of not using his name. But Gorbachev envied Yeltsin because the latter had the votes of ordinary Russians (mk.ru/politics/2021/07/06/kak-elcin-stal-prezidentom.html).
Yeltsin insisted that the only way out of the worsening situation in the country was the creation of am RSFSR president, elections to which were held in June 1991 and which he won. He swore that “for the first time in the thousand-year history of Russia, a president solemnly declares there is not higher honor than that which is given to an individual by his people.”
What Yeltsin did and the reason Russians voted for him was the result of a decision other nations in the USSR had reached that “if it was impossible to save everyone together, then it was necessary to try to save each separately.” In short, what Yeltsin and the Russians did exactly paralleled what leaders and nations elsewhere in the USSR did.
But in addition to solving immediate challenges, the Russians and non-Russians “wanted to construct their nation-state existence in correspondence with historical traditions, cultural heritage, spiritual values, and political thought.” Those things too drove them apart even though they prepared the ground for future conflicts.
Thus what happened in 1991 represented the restoration of a process that first broke out in 1917 when various nations tried to form their own states. The Soviet system sought to suppress these drives, but its actions could not eliminate the basis for them, however carefully it balanced the ethnic mix of officials.
During the Soviet period, Mlechin continues, “the nationality problem became not just a problem of language, culture, and economic self-sufficiency. It became a question of life and death. Ethnic conflicts acquired a bloody aspect. People died. And the forces were transformed into ‘first aid’ units dispatched to various regions.”
“The atmosphere in society was infected with nationalist attitudes,” and members of each nationality felt free to insult others. Party leaders tried to master these attitudes first at the all-union level and then when that failed at the republic level, including at the level of the Russian Republic.
As a result, the commentator concludes, “the country was confronted by the reality that not one ethnic group or two but almost the entire country wanted to assert its claims at the expense of others. Nationality interests came to the fore, crushing all others. And few understood how dangerous it is to encourage such sentiments in a multi-national state.”