Political Construction Sites: Nation-Building in Russia and the Post-Soviet States

By Harasymiw, Bohdan | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Political Construction Sites: Nation-Building in Russia and the Post-Soviet States


Harasymiw, Bohdan, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Pil Kolsto. Political Construction Sites: Nation-Building in Russia and the Post-Soviet States. Translated from Norwegian by Susan Hoivik. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. xi, 308 pp. Tables and Maps. Notes. Selected Bibliography. Index. $65.00, cloth. $24.00, paper.

Are democracy, stability, and cultural diversity within the bounds of one nation-state truly compatible? Are the nation-building efforts of certain "new" states more respectable or feasible than those of others? Will all the post-Soviet states manage to become viable? These are the basic questions raised and discussed at length in Pal Kolsto's book so aptly subsumed under the title of Political Construction Sites.

Rather than deal with all fifteen post-Soviet states, the author wisely concentrates on only six of them: Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakstan, and Russia. This allows fuller treatment of each, instead of a quick survey, and provides a contextually richer presentation. Furthermore, each of the six has been selected because it illustrates some important aspect of nation-building-the two Romanias and two Moldavias in Moldova; the "dog that didn't bark" in non-nationalist Belarus; and the task of building on marginal differences in Ukraine. Nation-building is, Kolsto believes, a process that will be as significant in the coming century as it has been in the past two, notwithstanding the prejudices of such eminent historians as Britain's Eric Hobsbawm.

This is a book firmly connected to nation-building theory in political science, but readers should not follow Kolsto's proffered option of skipping altogether its theoretical chapter (chap. 2). This is theory that is very easy to understand. Indeed, the whole book is written in a vigorous and clear style that makes it a good text for students.

It is also refreshing in Canada to encounter a perspective on the post-Soviet states that is other than American. Kolsto's Nordic vantage point is a welcome one and is incidentally significantly underlined in the book's final endnote citing the late, great Norwegian political scientist Stein Rokkan. Unfortunately, the author makes no reference to the massive path-breaking series of publications by Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott.

For all of its superlative clarity, comprehensiveness, and conceptual strength, however, this is a book that can stimulate much further discussion. Moreover, it recommends itself as a good text for students. Like so many other scholars, Kolsto subscribes to the view that nationalism can be divided into two varieties-civic and ethnic-of which the civic type is positive while the ethnic is negative. This is fine as a starting-point, until you realize that even contemporary, fully-evolved Western European nations are not purely of the civic kind, and therefore there is no normative basis for judging which or whose nationalism is good or bad. It is to be hoped that new states will evolve more along civic rather than ethnic lines in their nationbuilding, but there are no guaranteed methods or models of doing so. …

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