Russia and the New States of Eurasia. The Politics of Upheaval.


By Karen Dawisha & Bruce Parrott. Cambridge, New York and Melborne: Cambridge University Press. 1994. xx, 437 pp., maps, appendices, index.

ISBN 0-521-45262-7 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-45895-1 (paper).
The book under review is written by scholars of great erudition and of subtle professional intuition. It was the combination of these characteristics that permitted them to get into one book detailed information about the first three years of independent development of all post-soviet states. Step by step, country by country, event by event the authors draw the picture of hard process of transition from totalitarian communist regimes to more democratic and open political order, market economy, new forms of international interaction ­- at its own pace and with specific features in each country.

Some general problems of national policy and national relations in Russian Empire and in the former USSR are outlined by the authors in the introduction. Eight chapters that follow are devoted to such problems as: historical legacy and its impact on  the present-day transitional process in all newly independent states;  national identity and ethnicity factor in each country as a determinants of its strive for independence and of its internal ethnic policy;  the impact of religion; roots of civic culture and institutional  development of civil society and democracy (this process is investigated  against the background of  deliberate description of all political events that occurred here during 1991-1993); economic policy and its impact on internal political life and on international relations; foreign policy and problems of state and international security, including the nuclear factor. All chapters are constructed according to the common scheme: statement of  theoretical approaches to the particular  problem; analysis of the situation in Russia, then – in the Western newly independent states, then – in  the Southern ones, and , at last, a conclusion  to this particular chapter. General conclusions to the whole book embrace the evaluation of the causes, means and comparative perspectives of the process of upheaval on the vast Eurasian terrain as well as of their conceivable future and the ways of interaction with the Western world.

The tsarist regime’s experience in the field of inter-ethnic relations is described by the authors as being much milder than the subsequent policy of Bolshevik Party but still awakening national feelings among the Great Russians and launching “a policy of cultural and linguistic russification that was particularly harsh in the western provinces” of the empire. The Bolsheviks’ socialism is treated as an epitome of Russian imperial ambitions and stereotypes, especially in Stalin’s epoch. ”Notwithstanding his Georgian origins, Stalin made a chauvinistic brand of Russian nationalism a central part of the totalitarian system’s political scaffolding…” “It is particularly ironic, – the authors say, – that the Bolsheviks, who proclaimed themselves opponents of all forms of nationalism and prophesied its early disappearance, ultimately became the bearers of a new form of state sponsored Russian nationalism” (p.8). Their national policy has been changing from tactical commitment to the principle of self-determination in times of the struggle for power to highly repressive Stalinist treatment of nations, especially of their intellectual and peasant strata, and then to the Brezhnev regime’s policy of graduated coercion intended to suppress dissenters  (accused in the so called “bourgeois nationalism”) while reducing their opportunities to establish ties with other strata of the population. So, some degree of ethnic tolerance and temporary concessions to national elites were merely tactical manoeuvres of Bolshevik rulers of the USSR while the essence of their national policy was  unification of cultural and political life on the basis of Russian culture.

Considerable changes in political orientations and behaviour of the USSR’s rulers have been introduced to politics by Gorbachev. But in the final analysis, his attempts to revitalise the Soviet system “sought to re-establish Moscow’s power over the regional party machines…” (p. 18) and therefore he proved unable to  propose liberal solution of inter-ethnic and inter-republic issues.  The authors try to reveal his major mistakes  which resulted in the break-up of the Soviet Union. Among them: postponing of direct presidential elections in the Soviet Union – a step that “paved a way for an electoral alignment between democratic and separatist forces” (p.20); aligning himself with party and military conservatives in the time of rapid growth of popular hostility the CPSU etc. Some global changes were operating in the same direction. For example, the dramatic improvement in East -West relations “deprived Moscow of its strongest traditional argument for the preservation of the domestic empire” (no justification remained for maintaining a centralised state if the threat of foreign invasion had evaporated).

All these factors actually were at work. But authors’ evaluation of some concrete actions of Gorbachev are too cautious, to my mind. It’s difficult to agree, for example, with their estimation of the referendum  initiated by Gorbachev in March 1991 as a “carefully worded” endeavour. In fact it  may be easily placed in general  line of Bolshevik’s manoeuvres in the field of national policies. Gorbachev himself, despite all his peculiarities, is to be regarded as a true communist  leader for whom national liberalisation was just a question of tactics. By this reason he couldn’t believe in the transformation of  the USSR into an authentic confederation of sovereign republics or accept the idea of radical decentralisation of power in the USSR.  Traditional communist hypocrisy  looked out from every stroke of  wordy referendum question as well as from many articles of  designated in Moscow drafts of a new, presumably voluntary and highly decentralised union treaty, which had to be imposed on republic’s leaders. This hypocrisy has undermined not only authority of Gorbachev as a democratically oriented reformer but the Soviet empire itself. Real intentions of central powers were denounced at that times not only by Baltic states’ leaders but also by political analysts, democratic political leaders and the Head of Supreme Council of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk. Without firm negative position of Ukraine with regard to the proposed versions of the treaty the parody on coup d’etat in August 1991 would have not occur and  the final collapse of the Soviet Union would have been postponed. Therefore, the picture of actual circumstances of the Soviet empire’s beak-up could not be full or objective without careful evaluation of the Ukraine’s role in this process.

K. Dawisha and B. Parrott stress the importance of historical legacy for present development of post-Soviet countries considering history both as a process and as  memory – memory that “is the result of continuous reinterpretation by persons whose attention is guided by contemporary concerns and whose preconceptions frequently shape the “lessons” they draw from historical episodes”(p. 24). The authors recognise existence of substantial difficulties in establishing relative influence of different periods of historical tradition on the present. “Still no assessment of contemporary developments in Eurasia can be complete without reflecting on legacy of the past…” (p.25). To a large extent this legacy  determines substantial national differences in the outcomes of seemingly the same processes of post-Soviet transformation. Criticising imperial ambitions of Russian historians as well as politicians in past and present times, lack of their interest to the history of non-Russian peoples the authors  think it is natural that historical views are in flux now in all newly independent states. At the same time they argue that current tendency for re-writing history separately in each country also contains the risk – risk of veering russophilic interpretation of historical events to russofobic one that also “oversimplifies past and exalts values that are narrowly nationalistic”(p.55). If historians and publicists would  see only positive lessons in the past of their countries it may bring new problems to national consciousness and inter-ethnic relations. Trying to avoid any one-sided approach authors themselves, in my view, remain, in some cases, under the influence of russophilic interpretations (are more russophilic than neutral), maybe because of the prevalence of Russian sources. I’ve noted  a few examples of such explanations and I’d like to touch a couple of them here.

The appearance of the so called Dnister Republic, for example, is linked in the book only with the threat of reincorporating of Moldova into Romanian state. Nothing is said about unwillingness of Russian-speaking population to study Moldavian after it was declared a state official language. The same is true about Ukraine. There are some passages in historical part of the book concerning Ukraine which seem to me either too brief or misleading.  Speaking about historical legacy and its political role the authors begin, in most cases (but not in the case of Ukraine), from Medieval times. They speak about the impact of vast colonisation on Russian political identity, about traditional for Russian historians and politicians justification of Russian expansion by the emphasis on the disasters inflicted on the country  in its early history. The Mongol era in the life of Inner Asian peoples is also mentioned.  But you cannot find a word about democratic political tradition of Ukraine materialised in Cossack Republic and Hetman’s Autonomy though this subject would allow authors  to reflect on a possible renewing of that tradition  at present  – in full accordance with their assertion that history influences contemporary development in form of “grand governing narrative” which gives people a sense of common roots as well as of common goals (p.24).

Of course, these political entities (arrangements) existed in the remote past. But if we agree with the authors’ assertion that history influences present  in that precise form in which it is interpreted and taught, then Ukrainian people has a chance not only to re-write but to rebirth its native historical tradition. The more so, if we take into consideration that it was a democratic tradition which is so needed in all post-totalitarian states today. Contrary to pessimistic views contemporary civilisation doesn’t require the hand-to-hand transfer of traditional values. They may be successfully derived (extracted) from historical works and other books even if some degree of mystification is present in that written sources. Precisely in this way Roman law has been regenerated  by European nations in modern times. Today, I think, rebirth of its native democratic political tradition is both desirable and achievable for Ukraine. But at first it has to be known.

Another striking omission concerns the issue of the so-called “consequences of collectivisation”.   Authors carefully avoid using the word “famine” (in case of Ukraine as well in the case of Kazakhstan – pp. 37, 39, 50) which  was not merely “the consequence”  but a deliberate plan of pacification (of appeasement) of recalcitrant Ukrainian and other peasants by such inconceivable, barbarian methods. These methods  reveal the antihuman nature of Communist regime better than anything else. Taking  into account that other arguable and very sharp from political point of view questions like the participation of Ukrainian formations in World War II on the side of Germany are mentioned twice (with an attempt of adequate evaluation) the former omission is not understandable.

I gave just a few examples of such one-sided explanations  because of lack of space and because  in most cases the authors managed to keep the balance of  impartial approaches to all countries and the book in general  may be considered as an admirable pattern of  unbiased analysis. The factual material of the book is predominantly taken from other monograph investigations. But in spite of this the authors present carefully conceptualised broad vision of the topic with new judgements and   conclusions which are both original and theoretically sound.

The main characteristics of the book, as I see it, lies in a combination of broad comparative approaches to the subject with very  accurate evaluations of political traditions and contemporary political practices  in every state. These particular qualities turn the reference work into an almost ideal handbook for those who want to study the upheaval in the newly independent states as a single process having  its peculiar pace and specific national features in each country. Chronology of events (Appendix A), a compendium of leadership and of institutional  changes in newly independent states (Appendix B); diagrams representing ethnic composition of the population in all Union or Autonomous republics of the former USSR ( Appendix C) as well as six maps on pages xii-xx fortunately supplement this encyclopaedic book making it more comprehen­sible and attractive for readers.

June 13, 1995