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  • The Nations of the USSR
  • Martha Brill Olcott (bio)
The Hidden Nations: The People Challenge the Soviet Union by Nadia Diuk and Adrian Karatnycky. William Morrow and Co., 1990. 284 pp.

It is hard to think of a more timely book than The Hidden Nations. The rapid deterioration of the political situation in the USSR over the past several years caught most Western leaders—to say nothing of the informed public—unawares. Yet an attentive reading of Nadia Diuk and Adrian Karatnycky's book provides a clear and well-documented explanation of why the multinational Soviet "pot" is boiling over.

The authors masterfully uncover the root causes of Gorbachev's current "national problem," introducing the reader to the principal claims for national self-determination of all the major Soviet nationalities. They survey both the historical origins of these claims and the contemporary grievances feeding the present crisis. They do all this, moreover, in just over 250 pages of pleasant and lucid prose. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a better introduction to the problem for the general reader.

Yet the book's strength is also its principal limitation: the authors' commitment to painting a complete tableau of all the various and competing claims of the Soviet Union's many nationalities forces them to forego a more in-depth analysis. So anxious are Diuk and Karatnycky to allow the various nationalities to speak in their own voices and state their own cases for independence from both Moscow and the old Communist system that they tend to neglect the more systemic causes of the current Soviet nationalities crisis. Thus the reader is left without a full understanding of why the USSR's current nationality problems developed when they did, and why they spread so rapidly throughout the country, bringing on the terminal crisis of a political system that may have been federal in name, but was unitary in practice.

The authors seem convinced that there is an inherent "naturalness" to the current nationalities crisis in the USSR. Historic nations strive for independence, or at least a measure of autonomy, and those whose rights have been suppressed will make use of every opportunity to achieve their long-standing but long-deferred goals.

Nonetheless, many students of Soviet politics see the process of political disintegration as being more complex than the authors convey. For example, some view the current crisis as one in which power politics tried to imitate populist, participatory politics, inadvertently triggering nationalist reactions that defied the skills even of talented Kremlin manipulators. [End Page 118]

While the authors show how Gorbachev tried to use the political legitimacy of the nationalists to harness popular energy in support of his effort to reform the USSR's society and political structure, they fail to highlight the ways in which this strategy misfired. Gorbachev's underestimation of the fervor of nationalism and the endemic anti-Soviet feelings among many of the nationalities led him to foster the growth of nationalist movements whose demands quickly surpassed the concessions that he was willing to grant.

Diuk and Karatnycky are at their best when describing events in those parts of the USSR where the people believe that they are and have always been "captive nations" under Moscow's thumb. This is certainly true in the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as in substantial parts of the Ukraine. These are the areas that the authors know best, and the chapters devoted to them add a wealth of new detail and analysis to the existing literature on these regions.

The chapter on the political situation in the Baltic states portrays with great clarity the inherent tension between democratic norms and the continuation of Moscow's rule. Readers of The Hidden Nations could show no surprise at the results attained in the recent referendums held in these three republics, where Baltic nationals voted nearly as one for independence, and even a sizable proportion of the local Russian population voted to live as minority citizens of free Baltic states. Diuk and Karatnycky detail the growth of the independence movements in these republics and show how they are part of a process of democratic renewal with deep...


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pp. 118-120
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