Russia's Future Shadowed by Centuries of Conquest despite the End of Soviet Communism, Russia Still Wields Broad Influence in Its Once `Captive' Nations. at the Close of Four Years as Moscow Bureau Chief, Daniel Sneider Examines the Country's Struggle to Define Itself as Either a Nation or an Imperial Power. Series: AFTERMATH OF AN EMPIRE GLOBAL Second in a Two-Part Series. Last Week: Russians Yearn for Normalcy

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SEVERAL days after my arrival in Moscow on May 23, 1990, Boris Yeltsin, on a platform of sovereignty for Russia, narrowly won election as the chairman of the Russian parliament that had been formed earlier that spring.

The issue of national sovereignty has driven all the key events that followed: the attempted counterrevolution in 1991; the breakup of the Soviet Union that followed; the emergence of 15 independent nations on the soil of the Soviet empire; and the turmoil of Russia's search for a post-imperial identity.

The demise of the Soviet Union came as a shock to many, including those in the West. But if we had better understood the true nature of this state, the collapse might not have been so surprising.

I vividly recall my first visit to Uzbekistan about six months after my arrival in Moscow. In the offices of the Uzbek elite, where portraits of Lenin were measured in acreage, the bureaucrats spoke the fluent Russian learned in the universities and party academies of the metropolis.

Even there, the tensions were easy to discern. They complained of the distortions of a cotton-producing monoculture forced upon them by Moscow, about unequal terms of trade in which cheap raw materials were shipped off to Russia and expensive cotton clothing sent back. It was a conversation I had had many times before - in Lima, Delhi, and Jakarta.

But another element of tension emerged: A Tashkent taxi driver spoke to me in broken Russian about Allah and about the sharia, or Islamic holy laws, that were violated. In the old city, I clandestinely met Islamic extremists who were plotting revolution.

Here I first truly understood that the Soviet Union was a classical empire, that decades of communism, of forging a "Soviet" identity, had produced nothing fundamentally different than centuries of czarism. Beneath the thin layer of colonial administration lay rich cultures, proud and resistant and flush with the fevers of national revolt. Each nation possessed a political life as complex in itself as that of Moscow. Centuries of conquest fade slowly for Russia

Most Russians persist in the belief, however - despite a centuries-long history of expansion and conquest to form the territory called the Soviet Union - that this was never an empire.

Late in 1990, I met with Col. Gen. Alexei Mironov, then a senior Soviet General Staff official and now the deputy defense minister of Russia, to discuss military reform. Before we started our interview, General Mironov, a tall, craggy, gray-haired man, launched into an explanation of his love for the motherland.

"By the way," he said, "the US and Russia have something in common, since neither of them ever possessed colonies. Unfortunately, the fate of our people was such that they were enslaved during serfdom, but we never had any colonies, or Negroes overseas.... Having had such a history, someone like me, or just any patriot, has every reason to be proud of his motherland."

Given that belief, it is not surprising that the eruption of nationalism in the surrounding Soviet republics came as a shock to the rulers in Moscow - and even to Western governments. After by decades of secrecy and repression, Moscow and the West had little knowledge of the real life of these "captive nations." Even when nationalism emerged as a clear force in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the West's own ethnocentrism made the national movements of the Baltics far more important than those of Tajikistan or Georgia.

Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev never understood this phenom- enon. To the end, he clung to the myths of the Soviet empire, perhaps even believed them. To him, a single nation-state had been forged. Nationalism was an irrational emotion to be overcome by the rational force of economic necessity.

So Mr. Gorbachev stood by, even approved, when the KGB and the Soviet Army tried to crush the move to Baltic independence in the dark days of January 1991. …