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  • The Last Empire
  • Paul B. Henze (bio)

It is now unmistakably clear that Marxist-Leninist rule has not only failed to solve ethnic tensions in the Soviet Union, it has exacerbated them. For a long time, this was a controversial issue among both academics and government officials in the West. The debate was seldom heated, however, because those who considered Soviet nationality questions of little importance held center stage. Confident of the correctness of their conventional wisdom, they ignored the prodigious body of literature on nationalism produced during the past 150 years, which cautions against underestimating national feeling and its practical ramifications—anywhere, anytime. The Soviet Union, they believed, was different.

Until two or three years ago, a poll of American scholars specializing in Soviet affairs would probably have produced a majority in favor of the proposition that interethnic relations were only an incidental source of tension and were of little importance in political and economic decision making. A majority would probably also have held that whatever problems did exist were likely to decline in significance. Students of the USSR who persisted in closely examining ethnic and religious issues were tolerated, but often regarded as somewhat outside the mainstream of scholarly respectability. Their view that nationalism [End Page 27] posed a fundamental problem for the Kremlin was widely disparaged, especially by those academics most charitably inclined toward the Soviet system. Some of the latter have every reason to hope that the negative reviews they wrote of serious work on nationality problems will now be forgotten.

Journalists for the most part have a better record. Many reporters who lived in Moscow for two or three years and took advantage of the opportunity to travel saw much evidence of submerged ethnic pride and actual or potential intercommunal tension. But they generally discovered their home desks were not very interested in a subject regarded as esoteric. They were discouraged from probing deeply or reporting in great detail. How quickly times have changed! It is not uncommon now for leading Western newspapers to carry three substantial dispatches on Soviet nationality problems on a single day.

Even most specialists in Soviet nationality affairs would probably confess that they are surprised at the speed with which ethnic passions have erupted. Only a few years ago, no one would have dared to predict that demands for secession would be publicly proclaimed in several republics simultaneously. No one could foresee that organizations championing nationality rights would quickly gain far larger memberships than republican communist parties, or that republican communist leaders would find themselves compelled to join the dissident movements to retain their own positions.

All these developments would not have been possible without Gorbachev's daring approach to perestroika—his willingness to let difficult issues be widely aired and examined in the hope that people's own perceptions of their concerns will become more rational. In thinking that this approach would make it easier to correct the dysfunctions of "socialism," Gorbachev appears to have miscalculated. A rationalist who thinks primarily in Marxist-Leninist categories, he still believes that "scientific socialism" is a valid method of analysis and governance—if only people would respect it and their leaders would practice it conscientiously. In this attitude he is doubly mistaken: the premises on which "scientific socialism" rests are fundamentally questionable; and even if they were valid, people could not be persuaded to follow them on the basis of rationality alone. National feelings and ethnic attitudes are deeply emotional. Gorbachev's whole life history and professional background provided him almost no exposure to non-Russian ethnic groups and very little experience with nationalities issues.

The Roots of Unrest

The problem goes much deeper than Gorbachev; it is rooted in Marxism-Leninism itself. Karl Marx displayed some understanding of religious and ethnic issues when he was writing about the Crimean War [End Page 28] and the peoples of the Balkans and the Caucasus in the 1850s, but he never penetrated further into what we now call the Third World than Algiers. His preoccupation with class as the key to understanding societies and governmental systems led him to neglect culture, religion, and nationalism.

Lenin, for his part, provided a laboratory for Marx's...


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