Edward Walker has produced an excellent book that makes a unique contribution to the large and growing literature on the downfall of the Soviet Union. In focusing attention on the importance of notions of sovereignty in a concise, readable way, Walker's book is well suited not only for the edification of expert readers but also for assignment in university courses on Soviet history and issues related to nationalism and federalism.
After an introduction summarizing the argument, Walker discusses the institutions and norms of federalism in the USSR. He skillfully describes how Lenin came to advocate ethnoterritorial federalism, which was subsequently enshrined in the Soviet constitution. Walker particularly emphasizes the union republics' formal right to secede, which was affirmed in every Soviet constitution from 1924 on, and the norm that each union republic was in reality a "sovereign state." He notes that not only [End Page 169] Mikhail Gorbachev but many others in the Soviet Union came to believe that the "nationalities problem" had essentially been solved by the 1980s.
Walker then demonstrates that these formal norms on sovereignty and secession became central to the discourse of perestroika. The Baltic republics, for one thing, began their drive for independence by calling for the restoration of "Leninist norms of federalism," which implied a right to secession. The fact that ideas of republic sovereignty and the right to secede actually were central to formal Soviet thinking on center-periphery relations, Walker argues, greatly complicated the ability of pro-union forces to reject calls for ever more autonomy. In the late 1980s and 1990, the term "sovereignty" became the central term of the separatist cause, a term that was valuable precisely because its vagueness enabled it to be supported by both radical nationalists and moderates wanting merely to redress the hypercentralization of the Soviet state. Sovereignty even emerged as the rallying cry of Boris Yeltsin, who invoked it to unite both democrats and moderate Communists in Russia in a struggle for power with Gorbachev's central government. In 1990, Yeltsin took the notion to what appeared to be an extreme bordering on anarchy, as he proposed that sovereignty should be given first and foremost to individuals and only then be delegated "from the ground up" to various levels of government. One of the great strengths of Walker's book is its attention to the ethnically designated autonomous republics, regions, and districts in Russia, whose allegiance Yeltsin was attempting to secure in his battle with the Soviet regime.
By all indications, Gorbachev, in responding to Yeltsin, genuinely believed Leninist words that were never meant to be taken literally. Rather than formulate a reasonable law enabling secession and legislating a new union structure that would have rid the USSR of the troublesome Baltic states and kept the most important republics firmly in line, the Soviet leader opened a Pandora's box by attempting to negotiate a new union treaty that would have to be signed by all of the USSR's multifarious republics. Walker devotes most of chapter 5 to describing this as a hopeless endeavor, doomed to failure from the outset because of the various economic and political crises facing the union as well as conflicting interests among the union republics.
The August 1991 coup attempt only hastened what Walker believes was the inevitable disintegration of the union. After the coup, Gorbachev resurrected his effort to forge a new union treaty, believing that formal Leninist norms of federalism could be achieved without the use of force that had been essential to the USSR's actual practice of interrepublic relations. Walker convincingly rejects arguments that Yeltsin himself had worked to destroy the USSR all along, arguing that he opted for its dissolution only after learning of Ukraine's referendum vote for independence. Ukraine's leader Leonid Kravchuk, for his part, used the ambiguity of terms like "sovereignty" and even "independence" to win the referendum vote and to lull Gorbachev into supposing that Ukraine would not actually secede in the end.
Another of the book's strengths is its...