Allan L. Kagedan
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) on December 8, 1991, have left many questions unanswered. What went wrong with Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to save the U.S.S.R.? What does the future hold for the Soviet successor states? These queries in turn raise the question of whether the reintegration of the former Soviet republics is desirable and feasible.
The growing explosiveness of ethnic problems during the Gorbachev era was hardly Mikhail Sergeevich's fault; his predecessors laid the minefield. The U.S.S.R.'s founders constructed a tiered federalism that recognized, even rewarded, ethnic differences. Not only were all the federation's major subunits (the republics) also national entities, but so were lesser units, all the way down to regions (oblasti), districts (raiony), and collective farms (kolkhozy). By residing in one's own national enclave, a Soviet citizen earned the right to educate his children and communicate with officials in his native language; living there also improved his prospects for high-level jobs, plums awarded by the local party bureaucracy. The territorial system licensed ethnic group activity within certain boundaries. 1
By exercising strong, frequently brutal, political control, the Soviet government limited the terms of the licenses issued to the nationalities, but the republics resisted and became vehicles for national aspirations. In the 1920s, the republics successfully opposed Stalin's plan to incorporate them within the Russian federated republic. Stalin argued that the creation of numerous distinct national republics was a recipe for permanent ethnic strife. The Georgians, for instance, would battle the ethnic minorities in their midst, an unhappy situation that could be remedied only through strong central control. 2 In the 1980s, when central power had dwindled, Moscow found itself rediscovering Stalin's point.
Stalin lost the battle but won the war. From the late 1920s onward, republican leaders walked a tightrope between asserting national rights and toeing