The issue that urgently demands effective management.By March

The Soviet Union: From ‘Federation’ to ‘Commonwealth’ INTRODUCTION        Following Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession to office in 1985, the nationalities issue attained a political salience that few observers would have predicted. The national question had been ‘solved’ thanks to the ‘Leninist’ nationalities policy, and that all ethnic groups lived peaceably together in a ‘fraternal family of nations’ known as ‘the Soviet people’.               The spread of ethnic tension, unrest and violence, combined with nationwide declarations of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ by sub-national units, has demonstrated both the fragility of the earlier inter-ethnic peace and the complexity of an issue that urgently demands effective management.

By March 1991, when a referendum on the future of the USSR was held, 76 actual or potential ethnoterritorial disputes were identified, and official figures had ascribed at least 632 deaths directly to inter-ethnic conflicts. Ethnicity could clearly not be wished away, subsumed under a bland slogan such as ‘fraternal family of nations’ or resolved simply by declaring policies of sblizhenie (‘drawing together’) and eventual sliyanie (‘merging’). The evidence suggested that the various policies adopted by successive governments had failed, in an area of policymaking in which the claims of success, however exaggerated, appeared in the past to possess some substance.              Gorbachev’s policies allowed the expression of perceived interests on a scale previously unknown, either in the Soviet period or under the Tsars. Recent political developments have added new significance to the relationship between territory and ethnicity, with the very integrity of the state being challenged.       The ethnic question would have been a serious one for any government with responsibility for managing the particular territory that constituted the USSR, itself very close to that of the old Russian Empire.

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The problem developed as the Empire spread outwards, across Siberia to the Pacific, and indeed beyond in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, towards the south and into the Caucasus in the later eighteenth century, and south-east to Central Asia in the nineteenth. This expansion embraced scores-  by some counts hundreds of ethnic units, which were generally treated as culturally inferior to the dominant Russians in what Lenin, among others, referred to as a ‘prison of nations’. This prompted a build-up of resentments that was a significant factor in the fall of the Empire following the Bolshevik seizure of power in the revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks felt a special responsibility for the nationalities, who had been led to expect different treatment by the revolutionary regime from that which the Empire had meted out. Lenin, a convinced internationalist, had favoured ‘self-determination’ and condemned national chauvinism, but nationality policy, earlier than other policy areas, came under the domination of Stalin, who was relied on principally because of his own   non- Russian (specifically, Georgian) identity.

The ethnic distribution of the Soviet population, given its linkage with many other social issues, demanded a whole Complex of policies if the problem were to be successfully managed, whatever the government’s ideological disposition. Territorial adjustments and population redistribution might mitigate the difficulties, but the scale of the issues implied that even the dismemberment of the country would be insufficient to eliminate the problem, as post-Soviet experience to date has shown. This complexity stemmed from two main circumstances: the extent of ethnic diversity, which takes a number of forms; and the geographical distribution of ethnic groups


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