Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Helene Carrere d'Encausse on Nationalism

Having never read anything by one of France's most eminent and prolific historians of the Soviet Union, I decided to take a look at Helene Carrere d'Encausse's 1993 book, The End of the Soviet Empire.  Carrere d'Encausse's book analyzes the role of nationalism in the breakdown of the Soviet Union.  The role of nationalism in ending the dream of proletarian internationalism is no secret.  I can remember grading AP exams in European history ten years ago.  At that time every good AP European history student who attempted to perform an autopsy on the Soviet Union pointed to nationalism as its chief cause of death.  The Soviet Union collapsed, they argued, because people never really wanted to trade in their local identity for a Soviet one.  The AP students threw in a host of other poisons, and these included economic stagnation, a hostile pope, Afghanistan, and Reagan's defense unmatchable defense expenditures, but they always mentioned nationalism.  And of course the better answers included internal forms of ethnic resistance as well as the Eastern European variety of nationalism.

Carrere d'Encausse explores the role of nationalism in the Soviet Union's collapse but focuses on the Soviet regime's bad management of nationalism in great detail.   Perhaps no empire can endure forever in the modern world, but certainly the Soviet Union's ruling party managed this. Close examination reveals, perhaps, that the Soviet Union didn't just suffer from nationalism, it often promoted that nationalism, however unintentionally.  That is to say, Stalin and his successors exported ethnic Russians to the peripheries in order to exert control on those areas, but created fearful ethnic tensions in the process.

The irony is that Gorbachev began his report to his first party congress by insisting that although socialism had stumbled economically, and had perhaps unnecessarily stifled other forms of human initiative, it had at least solved the nationalism question.  As Carrere d'Encausse reminds us, although Gorbachev avoided party cliches on a variety of different questions, he entered the age of reform relying almost exclusively on the old rhetoric of proletarian internationalism.  The breakdown of the empire had roots in Baltic memories of independence, a partly Iranian-inspired Islamic revival, Caucasian geography, a Khazak population explosion, and Russian chauvinism.  But Carrere d'Encausse's contribution to our understanding of these ethnic revolts is to show that this wasn't entirely inevitable.  If Soviet leaders in Moscow had had experience in the smaller socialist republics, or Russians hadn't been exported elsewhere, or Gorbachev had thought to do something other than reenergize the drive toward Russification of the cadres, things might have worked out a little differently than they did.

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