- Nations and States in Russia and the West
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The disintegration of the USSR has forced Western observers to think more deeply about the complex interactions between nations and states. The seriousness of this matter is suggested by the fact that in ordinary English the words “nation” and “state” are often used interchangeably. The term “nation-state,” though more precise, still conceals a host of pitfalls. Nationally-minded intellectuals and politicians typically think of the nation as a natural social unit, and of particular states as the natural political embodiments of particular nations. In actuality, nations are human communities that change [End Page 185] continuously in response to events inside and outside their social boundaries, and states are institutional structures that are often created by the actions of elites rather than the wishes of pre-existing nations. It follows that the relationship between nations and the states that govern them is frequently problematic. One state may encompass more than one nation, and a trans-border nation may be governed by more than one state. Over time, a state governing several nations may blend them into a single nation, or the state itself may be divided into several states. The Eurasian upheaval of the past decade serves as a powerful reminder that the human boundaries of nations and states do not necessarily coincide, and that in these circumstances the distinction can take on enormous political importance.
Analyzing the ethnonational aspects of the Eurasian upheaval poses an uncommon challenge. If the recent turning points in the development of Russia and the other post-Soviet states sometimes appear obvious, that is a reflection of the problem: they are too obvious. Together with the extraordinary velocity of events, the political dynamics of policymaking in the Western democracies and in the post-Soviet states themselves have created pressures to seize on explanations that impart a sense of clarity, if not inevitability, to developments that still are poorly understood. Analysts now commonly describe the USSR, long regarded as a modernizing nation-state, as the last of the great multinational empires, doomed to extinction by its inability to modernize. More specifically, some observers explain the destruction of Soviet communism as the consequence of a powerful tide of repressed nationalism that purportedly existed before the communist era and resurfaced when Soviet ideology began to erode. Reasoning along similar lines, other commentators suggest that the past decade has witnessed the resurgence of an “eternal Russia” whose essential predisposition to autocratic rule can be traced as far back as the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. This pessimistic gloss on Russian nationhood is akin to the suggestion of some analysts that the “Eastern” type of nationalism in the former Soviet bloc is more destructive and harmful to individual freedom than the benign “Western” variant in the rest of Europe and North America.
But what is the East—or, for that matter, the West? These familiar geopolitical concepts have come unmoored. Most states in what used to be called Eastern Europe have committed themselves to integration with what used to be called Western Europe, and some of the USSR’s former republics have embraced the same objective. The push to emulate Western political and economic [End Page 186] systems has compelled analysts to ponder the permanence or changeability of national cultures, and the influence of a country’s national culture on its prospects for institutional convergence with the West. In the case of...