The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

PART 5
Nationalities and Federation

The Gorbachev reforms not only brought the "national question" to the top of the political agenda; they transformed the very premises of the discussion. The "national question" in the form in which it was inherited from the past ceased to exist; its place was taken by a major political struggle over the nature and future of the Soviet federation itself. It is therefore striking to recall that the national question was never initially part of the reformist agenda. Neither the reform-oriented intelligentsia nor the Gorbachev leadership anticipated the emergence of national movements, and both groups underestimated the potential explosiveness of the entire issue. Because they saw reform as an all-Union project, they responded to these movements with considerable ambivalence. On the one hand, they recognized that these movements shared a common stake in reform and were valuable political allies. On the other hand, the "separatist" tendencies among some of the non-Russian groups split the reformist coalition along national lines and, in the view of some of Gorbachev's supporters, jeopardized perestroika itself.

How and why the nationality problem was transformed from a marginal concern to the central issue on the Soviet political agenda and why it posed an unmanageable challenge and precipitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union are the themes of the chapters included in this part.

These chapters raise a number of controversial and unresolved issues. The first question involves the extent to which the reforms unleashed an already existing set of tensions and the extent to which they actively helped create them.

A second set of issues explores the slow and largely ineffective response of the leadership to the succession of ethnic conflicts and crises, from Alma-Ata and Nagorno‐ Karabakh to Novyi Uzen and Tbilisi and from Baltic assertions of independence to the series of proclamations of sovereignty by one republic after another. To what extent was the aggravation of the situation a product of the unpreparedness and incompetence of the center in handling these crises, and to what extent were the accumulated problems intrinsically unmanageable and the increasingly radical demands for autonomy and independence inherent in the logic of national revival itself?

A third issue examines the critical role of the Russian republic in this process. The emergence of Russia, long conflated with the Union, as an increasingly assertive political actor in opposition to the Union and of Boris Yeltsin in opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev bestowed a mantle of legitimacy on the demands of all republics for new federal or confederal arrangements. Was the political rivalry of Yeltsin and Gorbachev a central cause of or merely the trigger for the collapse of the Soviet state?

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