The Sovereignty Script
Red Book for Russian Revolutionaries
In December 1991, Russia allegedly reacquired its sovereignty from the Soviet Union, a sovereignty that the new leaders of the Russian state claimed had been lost for almost seventy years. Compared to other transfers of sovereignty in the twentieth century, however, it was a strange event. Like dramatic moments in the history of decolonization in Africa and Asia, this transfer of sovereignty from colonizer to colonized was punctuated with the lowering of the Soviet red hammer and sickle and raising of the Russian tricolor. Yet the flag ceremony did not take place on the periphery of a former empire; it was held in the capital city of the metropole itself. For Russia to become a sovereign state, the entire empire had to be destroyed.
Moreover, the players in this decolonization drama also were not out of central casting. In most transfers of sovereignty, especially in the twentieth century, European colonizers have attended the flag ceremonies first to retire or take home their flag and then to celebrate (or at least recognize) the hoisting of the new flag of the formerly colonized non-Europeans. The multiethnic composition of most newly independent states confused the question regarding to whom sovereignty was being transferred (for instance in Nigeria, was it to Hausa, Ibo, or “Nigerians”?), but most transfers of sovereignty took place between two different ethnic groups. Usually, the colonizers were European and the colonized were not. Such was not the case in Russia's independence struggle, however, as leaders of both the Soviet Union (Mikhail Gorbachev) and the new Russian state (Boris Yeltsin) were ethnic Russians.