Russia's Turning Point
After five centuries of being bound and impoverished by empire, Russia and its neighbors may finally be breaking free
(Page 2 of 2)
marshals. The KGB soon emerged as a target too.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As the military's coherence and reliability declined, and as the KGB's grip weakened, the national minority republics felt braver about asserting age-old desires for independence. This political development, of course, virtually ensured the breakup of the empire.
Most remarkable was that some Russian leaders and intellectuals, left and right, have come to believe that Russian culture and nationalism was as much a victim of Russian imperialism as the minority nationalities. Russian President Boris Yeltsin chose to carry their banner. It was not big news that the Baltic republics wanted to secede from the Union. It was dramatic news that Russia wanted to follow that path. The Western media virtually ignored this extraordinary turn of events.
The Soviet Communist Party, with its ideological rationale for empire, and the military and police were the only instruments capable of maintaining the structural predicament. The party is already officially dead, and the military is breaking up. That, of course, means new possibilities for economic and political development - a new answer to the old "peasant" question - and a new answer to the "nationality question self-determination. The search for these new answers has been at the core of Russian hist ory for nearly two centuries.
The breakup of an empire is unlikely to be entirely peaceful, but from the viewpoint of its citizens, the breakup is desirable if they want national self-determination and the right to choose their own political forms. The only thing that stands in the way is the Soviet military. And the prospect that someone can salvage it for maintenance of the empire looks very poor.
That is cause for celebration, not only in the old Soviet Union, but also in the West. Yet we mostly see hand-wringing by government officials and pundits about the dangers involved. This is a puzzling reaction, even if the current situation carries some risk of nuclear proliferation.
Can the West really ask 270 million people, against their will, to return to life in an empire simply because we are nervous about the very low risk that some nuclear weapons will fall into evil hands? This is not to suggest that the nuclear problem is not real. It is to put it into proper perspective. The former Soviet peoples are taking very big risks. Should we not be willing to take some small ones?
Mr. Chaadaev asked how long Russia must suffer. Some of our leaders are asking that Russia continue to suffer indefinitely. This is morally perverse and politically short-sighted. How can we do anything but welcome the incredible historical event - the end of the old vicious circle of the Russian Empire's three fundamental problems?
Breaking out of that circle, of course, does not ensure that democracy will spring up in the successor states. It probably means that considerable violence and suffering will occur. Most of the successor states will try and fail at democracy. But does that mean that they should not have the chance?
There is some risk that a new empire eventually will be restored. It depends largely on the politics in Russia. The level of violence will be fairly low unless Russia decides to reassert its traditional control over its neighbors.
Because Mr. Yeltsin's government has by and large avoided that path, we have every reason to support it. Gorbachev, before his departure from power, wanted our support; but once again, he did not understand the implications of his own policy preferences. Today they would lead back to empire. For about five years, his personal ambition contributed to public virtue: the de-colonialization of the empire. Today it would contribute to public vice: the re-colonization of the newly independent states.
It is still too soon to comprehend the events of recent months fully. They will either mark the greatest turning point in Russian history since the 15th century, or they will mark a failed effort to make that turn.
The West should celebrate this dramatic opportunity and think clearly about how to make it succeed. The problem with highest priority is political, not economic or military. It is how to ensure the independence of the successor states and their internal stability. Only when that is accomplished will the administrative and political conditions exist for providing effective economic assistance. If we continue to miss the point about Russia today, the world will be worse for it.