Prison Of Nations
issue 190 - December 1988
Photo: CAMERA PRESS
Prison of nations
From the deserts of Asia to the beaches of the Baltic, people in the
Soviet Union speak over a hundred different languages. But they have
all been ruled from Moscow - sometimes with respect, often with brutality.
Today their demands for recognition and change are shaking the
very walls of the Kremlin. Ronald Suny reports.
It was a clear night. For six hours the twenty thousand people marched quietly through the old city. As they made their way down darkened streets they chanted softly 'Karabagh, Karabagh'. Their sense of common purpose and determination was underlined by the way in which demonstrators from all walks of life kept themselves in disciplined columns. The sight was both eery and moving for bystanders not used to such a spectacle. The place: Erevan, capital of the southern Soviet state of Armenia. The cause: The return of a traditional part of Armenia - Karabagh - to the Armenian Soviet Republic. The inspiration: The new climate of reform that encourages people to let their political concerns be known.
Twenty years after the rest of Europe, the street politics of the 1960s have arrived in the Soviet Union. Like street politics elsewhere they are messy and sometimes shocking. The most dramatic events were those in Armenia where mass demonstrations to get back Karabagh - from the neighbouring Moslem Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan - gained the support of local communists and resulted in an explosion of Azerbaijani resentment. This came to a head in a two-day pogrom in the industrial town of Sumgait. Azerbaijanis surged through the streets, into homes and even hospitals, beating and killing Armenians. The atrocities shocked Soviet society. And the government attempted to placate both sides with a compromise. Karabagh would remain in Azerbaijan but a sweeping program of reforms would be introduced in the region in an attempt to redress the grievances of the local Armenians. This has failed to placate Armenian opinion.
Growing nationalist ferment inside the Soviet Union casts doubt on Mikhail Gorbachev's recent claim that; 'The successes of the nationality policy of our party are indisputable and we take pride in them.' Today the Soviet press is willing to look at what is really happening with the non-Russian peoples that make up nearly half of Soviet society. The old days of simply celebrating 'achievements' are a thing of the past. In Gorbachev's vision of the future, socialism is clearly tied to building democracy in what is still a very authoritarian political system. But the new generation of reformers are confronted with an unwelcome surprise. The politics from below is not being inspired by class-based issues (as Marxists would desire), but has burst forth as ethno-politics. Economic shortcomings and the arbitrariness of state power may underlie ethnic discontent. But the crowds in the streets are expressing grievances as national aspirations.
The Soviet Union cannot escape its own history. For half a century knowledge of the past has been shaped and reshaped by official historians according to the needs of those in power. But these elaborate fictions have failed to erase the memories of ordinary people. Armenians have not forgotten the genocide of 1915, when perhaps as many as a million or more of their ancestors were massacred by the Ottoman Turks. That memory has fueled a heightened sense of national danger. Nine-tenths of their historic homeland lies across the Arax river in Turkey. Thus the Armenian sensitivity in claiming those historic parts of Armenia from the neighbouring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan - mountainous Karabagh and Nakhichevan. And the Azerbaijanis - a Turkish people - have their own memories of a dominant Armenian middle class that played a disproportionate role in the economy and politics of their cities in Tsarist times. The Azerbaijanis have gained a lot in recent times. Their gradual rise to positions of power in the Communist Party and local government - positions previously held by Armenians and Russians - have given them a degree of control over their own national destiny.
Photo: CAMERA PRESS
In the small Baltic states in the north of the USSR the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians remember well that their peoples had twenty years of independence before Stalin ordered their annexation. Today their political demands range from greater autonomy to a restoration of independence. Crimean Tatars have not forgotten the homeland from which they were deported by Stalin. Ukrainians cannot erase from their minds the famine of the 1930s that wiped out hundreds of thousands of their compatriots. Each nationality has discomforting memories and fears of assimilation by the most powerful people of the USSR - the ethnic Russians - who erode their national character and culture.
The peoples of the Baltic have the highest standards of living and literacy in the USSR but the lowest birthrates. They find themselves threatened by Russians moving into the region, as if Estonia or Latvia were a fashionable suburb of greater Leningrad. Their concern is to restrict immigration into their republics. Soviet Muslims have a very high birthrate and enjoy life in their warm homelands in Central Asia or Azerbaijan. They disdain marriage with non-Muslims and are not tempted to take better paying jobs in less hospitable parts of the country. With labor shortages in industry and lack of manpower for the army, the idle hands of Central Asia mock the best-laid efforts of central planners to allocate human resources.
Ethnic Russians are alarmed at their own low birthrates. Nationalist protest from the Caspian to the Baltic is often sparked by industrial ministries in Moscow ignoring local environmental conditions - poisoning water and air - to meet planning targets.
But all that is rotten does not come from Moscow. Entrenched nationalities in many republics have been engaged in a set of illegal activities that include bribe-taking and extensive black marketeering. This perverse nationalism means patronage networks in the dominant ethnic group and a systematic 'ripping-off' of the official economy. At great risk to their own careers and even lives, dissidents have exposed these festering sores of discrimination, ethnic privilege, and anti-Semitism.
The end of Brezhnev's long reign, now invariably referred to as the 'period of stagnation', put a rethinking of nationalities policy on the agenda of the Kremlin. In a significant shifting of ground, officials conceded that interference in the development of nationalities ought to be avoided and admitted that full integration of all ethnic groups was a long way off. Some experts on the national question continue to see ethnic issues as closely dependent on economic factors and delude themselves into hoping that when the line-ups at the food stores disappear so will the remnants of 'bourgeois nationalism'. A few daring scholars are questioning this integrationist faith when the actual development of the non-Russians is not leading to assimilation or the weakening of ethnic culture. The hopes of orthodox Marxists (and liberals) that national differences and nationalism would dissolve in the acid bath of modernization are being dashed by the new political self-confidence being shown by the non-Russian nationalities.
Before Gorbachev could start to deal with the accumulation of ethnic grievances from the Brezhnev period, protesters had already taken to the streets. The first major crisis came in December 1986 when the long-time Kazakh boss of Kazakhstan was replaced by an ethnic Russian. Students rampaged through Alma-Ata, overturning cars and setting fires. Kazakhs, who were outnumbered in their own republic by Russians, were upset by the growing power of the non-Muslims. The Kazakh protest was a direct challenge to the new leadership's efforts to rid the ethnic republics of corrupt local élites. In various parts of the USSR popular national movements - liberated by the calls for reform and greater democracy - used the new freedom to express their own national protests.
In the Baltic republics glasnost encouraged people to protest against the loss of independence and to call for greater political and cultural autonomy within the Soviet Union. In Estonia a 300,000 strong Popular Front has been formed to press demands for greater democracy. In Latvia protesters are calling for restrictions on the influx of Russians into their republic, the designation of Latvian as their official language, and closer ties with the Latvian diaspora abroad. Speakers at nationalist rallies are demanding full investigations of deportations and purges of Latvians and Estonians in the 1940s. In Georgia there have been clashes with Meskhian 'Turks', Islamicized Georgians. And most ominously of all, ethnic Russians more and more openly express their own sense of outrage at the 'affirmative action' policies that appeared to favor national minorities. Confronted by the growing number of complaints Moscow appears paralyzed.
The events in Armenia - where the Government eventually called in the army to deal with protesters and strikes - shows the risks attached to more democracy in the USSR. The marchers in Erevan are the children of glasnost, practitioners of the new democratic socialism. A banner carried aloft by the protesters claimed 'Karabagh is the test of perestroika.'
Gorbachev has said that socialism requires democracy. His non-Russian supporters might add that both democracy and socialism require respect for the ethnic needs of the more than one hundred nationalities that he now rules. From Erevan or Tashkent or Tallinn the world is seen differently than from Moscow. A delicate series of negotiations are underway in the Soviet Union today - between state and society, between center and periphery, and between Russians and non-Russians. Commissions are appointed; appeals are made to public opinion; outspoken views flood the columns of the press; personal intervention is made from on high; demonstrations, protests and petitions are organized. In this ferment ethnic issues have come center stage. Predictions as to how these issues will be dealt with are impossible in the current period of flux. What is clear is that how they are resolved will shape the future contours of Soviet society and decide the fate of Mikhail Gorbachev's vision of socialism.
Ronald Grigor Suny teaches Armenian studies at the University of Michigan and has written several books on Soviet history.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.