The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

NOT ALL RUSSIANS WANT THE EMPIRE MAY 1990

As in the last snapshot, Gorbachev seems not to understand that he cannot
have it both ways--he cannot simultaneously champion glasnost and de-
mocratization and still maintain the empire. As ethnic tensions increased,
so too did Gorbachev's inability to reconcile his mutually exclusive policies.

In his many speeches and addresses defending the USSR's rather aggressive posture in the conflict with Lithuania during the last year, Gorbachev has regularly cited letters and cables from various corners of Russia demanding the uncompromising suppression of the separatists. There is little reason to question the authenticity of these missives.

Similarly, several speakers at the March 1990 session of the Congress of People's Deputies expressed utter contempt for those who would undermine the Soviet empire. One of those speakers, Tengiz Avaliani, as gloomy a presence as Stalin, proclaimed himself more devoted to the Russian empire than many ethnic Russians. Eschewing the ambiguity typical of the speeches of the other deputies, he boldly hurled accusations at Gorbachev--accusations he hoped would resonate in the heart of every true Russian. Refusing to support Gorbachev's bid for the presidency, Avaliani declared that "for 600 years, Russia united other nations . . . but in the last five years, we have achieved the opposite."

Those deputies who were also professional military men passionately joined in denouncing the separatist movements in Lithuania and the other republics. One of these deputies, Colonel Nikolai Petrushenko, suggested that the Congress look upon the Lithuanians as malicious children in need of a good whipping.

Many people, both inside and outside the USSR, stubbornly cling to Russia's strong chauvinistic tradition, originally fomented by the tsars and carefully nurtured by every Soviet leader since Stalin. They suggest that the deputies they refer to as "the Russian patriots" accurately reflect the opinions held by the vast majority of the Soviet people. According to the chauvinists, the Soviet people cannot imagine life without the Baltic and Black Sea resorts or without Uzbek cotton and Moldavian wine, and want only to prevent the Russian empire from crumbling into the territories from which it grew centuries earlier. Of course, actual Soviet attitudes toward the empire are far more complex than the chauvinists are willing to admit.

____________________
This article originally appeared as "Who Needs an Empire?" in The Washington Post on April 29, 1990.

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