SEVERAL days after my arrival in Moscow on May 23, 1990, Boris Yeltsin, on a platform of sovereignty for Russia, narrowly won election as the chairman of the Russian parliament that had been formed earlier that spring.
The issue of national sovereignty has driven all the key events that followed: the attempted counterrevolution in 1991; the breakup of the Soviet Union that followed; the emergence of 15 independent nations on the soil of the Soviet empire; and the turmoil of Russia's search for a post-imperial identity.
The demise of the Soviet Union came as a shock to many, including those in the West. But if we had better understood the true nature of this state, the collapse might not have been so surprising.
I vividly recall my first visit to Uzbekistan about six months after my arrival in Moscow. In the offices of the Uzbek elite, where portraits of Lenin were measured in acreage, the bureaucrats spoke the fluent Russian learned in the universities and party academies of the metropolis.
Even there, the tensions were easy to discern. They complained of the distortions of a cotton-producing monoculture forced upon them by Moscow, about unequal terms of trade in which cheap raw materials were shipped off to Russia and expensive cotton clothing sent back. It was a conversation I had had many times before - in Lima, Delhi, and Jakarta.
But another element of tension emerged: A Tashkent taxi driver spoke to me in broken Russian about Allah and about the sharia, or Islamic holy laws, that were violated. In the old city, I clandestinely met Islamic extremists who were plotting revolution.
Here I first truly understood that the Soviet Union was a classical empire, that decades of communism, of forging a ``Soviet'' identity, had produced nothing fundamentally different than centuries of czarism. Beneath the thin layer of colonial administration lay rich cultures, proud and resistant and flush with the fevers of national revolt. Each nation possessed a political life as complex in itself as that of Moscow. Centuries of conquest fade slowly for Russia
Most Russians persist in the belief, however - despite a centuries-long history of expansion and conquest to form the territory called the Soviet Union - that this was never an empire.
Late in 1990, I met with Col. Gen. Alexei Mironov, then a senior Soviet General Staff official and now the deputy defense minister of Russia, to discuss military reform. Before we started our interview, General Mironov, a tall, craggy, gray-haired man, launched into an explanation of his love for the motherland.
``By the way,'' he said, ``the US and Russia have something in common, since neither of them ever possessed colonies. Unfortunately, the fate of our people was such that they were enslaved during serfdom, but we never had any colonies, or Negroes overseas.... Having had such a history, someone like me, or just any patriot, has every reason to be proud of his motherland.''
Given that belief, it is not surprising that the eruption of nationalism in the surrounding Soviet republics came as a shock to the rulers in Moscow - and even to Western governments. After by decades of secrecy and repression, Moscow and the West had little knowledge of the real life of these ``captive nations.'' Even when nationalism emerged as a clear force in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the West's own ethnocentrism made the national movements of the Baltics far more important than those of Tajikistan or Georgia.
Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev never understood this phenom- enon. To the end, he clung to the myths of the Soviet empire, perhaps even believed them. To him, a single nation-state had been forged. Nationalism was an irrational emotion to be overcome by the rational force of economic necessity.
So Mr. Gorbachev stood by, even approved, when the KGB and the Soviet Army tried to crush the move to Baltic independence in the dark days of January 1991. Little more than a day before troops opened fire on the Lithuanian television station, the Estonian leader Edgar Savisaar explained to me at a late-night session how only Mr. Yeltsin had openly resisted Gorbachev at a meeting earlier that day with republican leaders.
Even so, Yeltsin may not have understood the desire for nationhood much better. But he saw the Russian Federation as a vehicle for political struggle against his foes in the Communist Party and embraced the desire of Russians for their own distinct national identity as his cause. National sovereignty for Russians, ironically, was the mother of sovereignty for Russia's colonies.
Having opened that Pandora's box, Yeltsin could not close it, neither in the ``near abroad'' nor in Russia itself. National movements seized power in many republics, while elsewhere the Communist Party elites wrapped themselves quickly in national garb.
History resumed where it had left off seven decades before, when the Russian empire fell apart only to be restored by the Bolsheviks. The Armenians resumed their struggle for self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Abkhazians once again sought separation from Georgia.
From dissident to leader
Dissidents who had gone to prison for nationalist ideas emerged as leaders of new states. In Armenia, there was Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the son of an Armenian from Syria who had organized the Arab Communist movement in the 1920s and `30s, returning to Soviet Armenia after World War II. Mr. Ter-Petrosyan was a scholar of ancient Assyrian when he helped organize the nationalist Karabakh Committee, which in the late 1980s led millions into the streets.
In neighboring Azerbaijan, a parallel movement of the Popular Front was led by yet another dissident scholar, Abulfaz Elchibey, ironically also a student of Oriental languages. Bearded, soft-spoken, he came to power finally in 1992, and promptly tried to return Azerbaijan to its Turkic heritage.
Tragically, the Karabakh conflict made both men foes, despite the common heritage and even the professorial manner they both shared. Both men observed to me, in separate conversations, that they might have been academic colleagues in another time.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the empire awakened geopolitical forces dormant during the freeze of the cold war. In the waiting room of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the powerful leader of the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, the envoys of Turkey and Iran jockeyed for influence among their long-separated Muslim brethren, reinvigorating the Great Game played by their Ottoman and Persian imperial predecessors. Swedes, Finns, and Germans eagerly filled Baltic hotel rooms and offices. Poles and Czechs tentatively explored common ground with Ukrainians in creating a Central European bridge to the West.
Playing a delicate game
The newly independent nations, struggling to establish true sovereignty, play a delicate game with Moscow. In desert-covered Turkmenistan, former Communist boss Saparmurat Niyazov heaps praise on Moscow, signing treaties to keep Russian troops stationed on his borders. But Mr. Niyazov's aide told me privately that they are waiting to drive a pipeline to transport their oil and gas riches across Iran to the Persian Gulf, freeing them from dependence on a route through Russia.
The Russians, for the first time in several hundred years, have to define themselves as a nation distinct from empire. Picking up the threads of an intellectual debate begun in the 18th century and buried in the 20th under the heavy blanket of Stalinist state ideology, they ask: What does it mean to be Russian?
Some seek the answer in the doctrine of the Eurasianists, who suggest Russia represents a unique civilization, neither Asian nor European. Others, such as the now-returned dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, stress the brotherhood of Eastern Slavic civilization, rejecting not only the empire's expansion into the Caucasus and Central Asia but also a submersion into the West.
And the Westernizers, like their 19th-century cousins, desperately wish to end once and for all Russia's cultural and economic isolation from Europe.
They reject empire, seeing it as an anchor dragging them back into an Oriental despotism and poverty. ``We should finally learn what country we live in, we should have stable borders,'' reformist Yegor Gaidar wrote last February. ``Our country is not a `fragment of the empire,' not a temporary formation. We have no dreams about reunifying all the republics of the former Union at our expense.''
But Russia's fall from the status of a superpower has been swift and disturbing for most of its citizens. Some cling to the nostalgic belief that the empire can be restored. Others want to join NATO and the European Union as soon as possible. In between these two extremes lies a desire for the revival of Russian greatness, but within a vaguely defined sphere of preeminence rather than direct imperial control.
Out of this confused yearning, fed by the economic chaos of Russia's halting transition to a market economy, emerge the forces of extreme nationalism and neofascism. While Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks to the emotions of fear and anger among Russians, he is far from alone in tapping into the search for Russian nationhood.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who may yet be the more powerful opposition figure, is an avowed Eurasianist, a sophisticated blender of Soviet nostalgia with new nationalism. Even reformers are not adverse, as Yeltsin has shown many times, to go to the well of Russian nationalism at a point of crisis.
Meanwhile, current Russian policy is merely a holding action, a waiting period until times are better and a more coherent definition of national security emerges. The Commonwealth of Independent States is an empty vessel, yet to be filled with the content of community or of renewed imperial domination.
The Russian armed forces, their thinking still mired in an imperial mindset, intervene into - and at times instigate - conflicts in the Caucasus, Moldova, and Tajikistan. Russian diplomacy demands the West recognize this as their ``special'' zone of interest.
A question of honor
At the gates of his regiment in the southern Tajik city of Kurgan-Tyube, I talked with Col. Yevgeny Merkulov, a lean-faced, blue-eyed Russian warrior, there to bring ``peace'' to civil-war-torn Tajikistan. For him, this is a matter of honor, a duty perhaps shared with British Army officers stationed on the frontiers of India a century ago.
``We begot the Soviet Union, and we begot Tajikistan,'' he said in answer to the question of why he and his men are so far from home. ``We cannot just live to the mercy of fate. To leave it in such a difficult time would be a betrayal.''
The West itself is still searching for a response. It rightly hopes that the transformation of Russia into a liberal democracy with a market economy will end the threat of renewed imperialism. Western diplomacy and resources focus on this task, often deliberately ignoring the needs of the liberated colonies.
Yet there are those who suggest that the West, by appeasing the Russian impulse to exert its influence over the former empire, is undermining its own cause.
Imperialism and authoritarianism are the Siamese twins of Russian history, appearing and expanding always in tandem. If the door is not barred to imperial revival, can the West really help establish democracy in Russia? How can the West draw such lines, and can it do so without shaping a new confrontation with Russia?
Perhaps no region captures this issue more sharply than the Transcaucasus. It is an area of great strategic importance to Russia, a bridge to the Middle East. It is the central point of intersection between Slavic Christianity and Islamic civilization. The surfeit of tales of the conquest of the Caucasus in Russian historiography and literature testifies to the importance of this region in the Russian mind.
For Russia today, the Caucasus is a front line against the advance of Turkish and Iranian influence from the south. The people of the Caucasus were for a long time under Ottoman or Persian rule, and are renewing those ties today.
The region also serves as a barrier to the growth of separatism within Russia, first of all among the Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus. Both Russia and the West are vying, though not openly, for control over the Caspian Sea and access to the vast treasures of oil and gas that lie beneath it.
At the same time, the quest for nationhood in the three nations of the Transcaucasus - Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - is the most difficult and conflict-ridden of the former Soviet republics. Deeply rooted ethnic conflicts and unresolved issues of land and self-determination have drawn all three into bloody and tragic wars. The Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has alone caused tens of thousands of casualties, created more than a million refugees, and threatened at numerous points to broaden into a regional war.
Divide and stabilize?
Russia's role in these conflicts is fraught with contradiction and indecision. At times Moscow appears to instigate tensions, playing a classic game of divide and conquer, the features of which are sadly familiar. Yet Russians also seem moved by the sincere desire to end conflicts that could spread across their boundaries. Stability, not renewed domination, is the stated goal of the Russian ``peacekeeping troops'' now deployed in Georgia, and ready to be stationed around Karabakh.
But whatever the motive, Moscow has quickly recaptured the influence it lost in this region. Georgia and Azerbaijan, once defiantly outside the commonwealth, have now rejoined the bloc. The two leaders in both countries who led that nationalist resistance have been ousted in favor of more compliant formerly Communist figures. Russian troops, forced to leave Azerbaijan, are going back. New bases are being established in all three republics.
Not long ago, I went to see my friend Feliks Mamikonian, the thoughtful Armenian ambassador to Moscow. ``Is it really in your interest,'' I asked, ``if the price of peace in Karabakh is the reintroduction of Russian troops?''
``We cannot afford the naive beliefs we had in 1919,'' he replied, referring to the brief period of independence enjoyed by Armenia after the Russian empire collapsed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Then Armenia waited in vain, as did Ukraine and other liberated lands, for the West to make good on its promise to support their sovereignty. When the triumphant Bolshevik Army marched back in, restoring the empire in the name of socialist revolution, the West stood by.
Today, Armenia, like the other former Soviet nations, may again have to compromise its full sovereignty for the sake of survival in an indifferent world. ``Independence,'' Feliks told me, ``is a process.''