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
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. …