The Future of the Soviet Union

By Hecht, James L.; Modisett, Lawrence E. | The Futurist, November-December 1991 | Go to article overview

The Future of the Soviet Union


Hecht, James L., Modisett, Lawrence E., The Futurist


Nationalistic forces have surged to the forefront of political life in the Soviet Union with breathtaking swiftness. Nationalist fervor has been fed by frustration over the economy and encouraged by the new freedom of expression, by the Communist party's loss of control over Soviet life, and by the Eastern European example.

For the first time, mass movements reflecting the popular will toward national self-determination and other deeply felt issues have arisen throughout the Soviet Union. These movements will shape Soviet political, economic, and social developments for the foreseeable future and will determine how the Soviet Union interacts with the rest of the world.

Within the various Soviet republics, nationalism has taken two principal forms: resentment over domination by Moscow and animosity toward ethnic rivals. The outpouring of nationalist sentiment has expressed itself in many ways, including renewed emphasis on traditional languages, culture, and religion; public demonstrations; calls for economic autonomy; declarations of sovereignty; calls for economic autonomy; declarations of sovereignty; secessionist movements; and inter-ethnic violence bordering on civil war.

A third form of nationalism--xenophobic opposition to foreign influences--also is experiencing a revival in some circles, particularly in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Its adherents, traditionally known as "Slavophiles," hold Russian culture to be superior to that of the West and blame Russia's problems on foreign influence. Opponents of this view, traditionally known as "Westernizers," hold that Russia is historically backward and must look to the West for intellectual models and up-to-date technology. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev followed the eighteenth-century example of Peter the Great in embracing the Westnizers' view. Nonetheless, the strength of present-day Slavophiles was evidenced by Gorbachev's appointment to his short-lived Presidential Council of one of their leading representatives, the Russian nationalist writer Valentin Rasputin.

The Implications of Rising

Nationalism

What does nationalism portend for the future of the Soviet Union? Writing in 1969, the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik predicted that when the breakup of the Soviet empire came it would take one of two forms. Either power would pass to extremist elements and the country would "disintegrate into anarchy, violence, and intense national hatred," or the end would come peacefully and lead to a federation like the British Commonwealth or the European Common Market.

Now, more than 20 years later, the Soviet Union seems increasingly likely to follow one of the scenarios Amalrik described. A number of trends appear to favor the gloomier alternative: public discontent, loss of confidence in the central authorities, and resurgent nationalism have fanned disintegrative tendencies, while rising crime and ethnic violence seem to bear out of Amalrik's warning that "anarchy, violence, and intense national hatred" could become endemic.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the dissolution of the Soviet Union is inevitable or that violence will become pervasive. Some apocalyptic forecasts reflect the natural propensity to fear the worst in times of uncertainty. Secessionist rhetoric and separatist measures passed by legislators at the republic and sub-republic level are not inevitably harbingers of the future; to some extent they represent political posturing and a relatively easy way to vent nationalist emotions long suppressed. On occasion, these symbolic acts could even reduce the pressure for more-drastic steps toward independence.

It is important to note that the Soviet Union already has weathered enormous political changes and economic stress without massive disorder. The violence that has occurred, while tragic, pales in comparison with the calamities that swept the country during its first three decades.

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