Robert V. Daniels
The collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the liquidation of the Union itself in 1991 are generally regarded both in the former Soviet republics and in the West as triumphs of democracy and national self- determination. These views are at best oversimplifications.
Whatever other judgments one may make about it, the breakup of the Soviet Union was a failure of federalism. Federalism failed in two ways. First, the conception and experience of federalism in the Soviet Union were inadequate. Second, the circumstances challenging the federalist experiment of the era of perestroika might have overwhelmed even the best-conceived institutions of federalism.
The great impediment to successful federalism in the Soviet Union was at the same time the reason for the nominally federal structure of the communist regime--namely, the diverse ethnic makeup of the country. This multinational character of the Soviet Union was of course the legacy of centuries of expansion and conquest by the Russian Empire, extending from the subjugation of the Tatars in the sixteenth century and the seizure of part of Ukraine from Poland in the seventeenth century, to the occupation of Central Asia in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Thus, the multiethnic character of the empire (and of the Soviet Union), based on peoples still living in their ancestral regions and using their respective languages, was quite different from the experience of the U.S.A., where different ethnic components migrated to North America (some--the Africans--involuntarily), and for the most part intermingled territorially and became assimilated linguistically into the English-speaking community. The only American equivalents of the Russian experience are the suppression of the Native Americans and the conquest of the Southwest from Mexico (and of Puerto Rico from Spain), incorporating settled