The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

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

30 State, Civil Society and
Ethnic Cultural Consolidation
in the USSR: Roots
of the National Question

RONALD G. SUNY

The recent explosions of ethnic nationalism and separatism in Gorbachev's Soviet Union seem to confirm the metaphor of empire as appropriate to the Soviet regime. A century and a half ago the European traveller, the Marquis de Custine, called the tsarist empire "the prisonhouse of nations," and that term has enjoyed a long run as a description of the imperialism of tsardom's Soviet successor. The Soviet slogans that masked ethnic tensions and inequalities, the rhetoric of internationalism and Druzhba narodov, have been overwhelmed by the rainbow of national flags that proclaim the self-assertion of peoples whose identities had long been contained within prescribed formulae. Nations have emerged within the empire, and in that emergence the empire has begun to die. Whether it will miraculously spring back to life, or in its death agony transform itself into a new democratic multinational state, or simply disintegrate is, of course, one of the key political questions of our time. In exploring how that empire was made and how nations grew within it to overwhelm it is the subject of this talk tonight.

Conventionally, empire is understood to be a large state made up of many peoples or nationalities, ruled by a central power that usually represents one people holding a privileged position in the political and social hierarchy of the empire. 1 Thus, empire is inherently an inequitable political arrangement, a relationship of subordination and superordination, hierarchical, and usually exploitative of the subordinate ethnicities. Since few peoples willingly accept a subordinate role as exploited subject, at least in the age of nationalism, the imperial relationship is one that is ultimately maintained more by force and violence than by consensus. Given freedom of choice, subject nationalities would opt for either equality within the reformed state, a degree of autonomy based on ethnicity, or separation and independence. In this way, a multinational state is pulled between imperial, centralizing tendencies and disintegrating ones that include self-expression, autonomy, equality, and sovereignty.

Empire is understandably contrasted to nation, and the two often are seen as mutually exclusive, and subversive to one another, as in the Hapsburg or Ottoman Empires where the rise of nationalism and the formation of ethnic nations undermined the imperial, dynastic principles on which the multinational empires

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