Date: February 1995
In 1992, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a political entity, and any semblance of a "national identity" which the ex-superpower had professed rapidly disintegrated thereafter. We, perhaps the last generation of Cold War children, must all remember wel l the simple, red, hammer-and-sickle flag of the USSR, prominently featured on television screens next to Dan Rather's head while he talked about the most recent nuclear arms summit, Reagan's latest anti-Soviet foot-in-mouth insertions, or any of the othe r delightful amusements of a Cold War. That flag, the supposed symbol of all things we opposed, was a harsh symbol that suggested a unified, coherent nation, as well as a unified, coherent ideology.
But the Soviet "Grand Flag," the Old Glory, if you like, of the USSR, flown at congresses of the Supreme Soviet, was slightly different; it featured not only a hammer and sickle superimposed over an image of the globe, but also the phrase "Workers of the world, unite!" in roughly 16 languages, all spoken within the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was always a federalized hodgepodge of ethnicities and cultures. Even in 1905, Leon Trotsky, one of the prime architects of the 1917 Russian Revolution, described what was then the Russian empire, encompassing much of what was to become the USSR, as "a massive country, encompassing within itself all levels of culture and civilization at once, all the way from northern nomads who worship blocks of wood to political ly conscious socialist workers in St. Petersburg who follow debates in the Reichstag and keep informed on affairs in the Balkans." Add a revolution and an Eastern bloc to this equation, and one has quite a Communist patchwork quilt to hold together.
Yet somehow, for 75 years, the Kremlin did so. The Soviet republics always possessed a nominal autonomy, as had the Eastern bloc countries. But as Hungarian and Czechoslovakian attempts at independence proved, "nominal" was the operative word in that phr ase. It was only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that autonomy became a reality for many who fancied themselves rightfully independent nations, and things became rather complicated. The great majority of the Soviet republics, which considered th emselves to be non-Russian, had always felt under the thumb of the RSFSR, or the Great Russian Republic. After the fall, these republics hastened to remove themselves from that hegemony.
Ignorance as Bliss
The West's confusion regarding the historical relationship between Russia and the other former Soviet republics has led to precisely the sort of misunderstanding of post-Soviet "internal" conflicts such as the one in Chechnya. When the Iron Curtain ceased to exist, when the USSR became the Commonwealth of Independent States, initial Western reactions were almost unanimously ecstatic. Understandably so: Western archaeologists traveled to areas of the world never open to them before, families were reunited across Iron Curtain borders, scientists of the formerly opposed blocs were newly capable of sharing information, secret police forces were for the most part disbanded, and writers' and journalists' tongues were untied.
But revolution, as many called the events surrounding the fall of the Eastern bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union, must consist of more than the destruction of a repressive paradigm. It also requires a new and liberated paradigm to fill the result ing void. But, soon after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, a phenomenon began which has since taken on many names in the media, the best-known of which is "ethnic conflict." The negative space which the dead USSR had left behind itself was filled w ith more violence than democracy. Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Balkans-these are two of the earliest conflicts to have developed. Some, of the Bushite "look mommy, I killed Communism!" attitude, claimed that such conflicts were merely the "birth pangs of f reedom, of nationhood." Others, with a bit more insight, recognized that the principle of self-determination, that U.N. sacred cow which we had so vociferously defended in the course of our opposition to the Communist bloc, was in fact a double-edged swor d. If nations have the right to be free and independent, then what defines a nation? Locale? Not necessarily. If this were true, there would be no battle for liebensraum by the Serbs in Bosnia: one can find maps dating from prior to the 16th century showi ng quite clearly that Bosnia has for some time been precisely where it claims presently to deserve to be. Is it a common ethnicity which defines a nation? If so, then what exactly defines ethnicity? Apparently family trees have lost their popularity in wa r-torn Eurasia and the Balkans, and ethnicity is defined more practically, with the bullets and mortars of war.
It seems that ethnicity is, in reality, an amorphous social construct which, once more in a long historical tradition, is being called upon conveniently for the sake of justifying genocide. But until now we have ignored the evidence to this fact. The Arme nian-Azerbaijani conflict, though by no means quelled, has been quieted to a level which the world media cannot hear. We have been able to successfully duck the issue of Bosnia: rape, mass slaughter, and an absolutely raw will-to-power have been allowed t o run their course. The "birth pangs of freedom" came, and their were no more portraits of Lenin on the schoolroom walls; in fact, there were no schoolroom walls at all anymore, what with the shelling and all. The best among us muttered about possible act ion, but we did nothing-this would pass, we'd never see the mass graves. At least there wasn't a Cold War on anymore.
Now we cannot ignore the evidence any longer. We are faced with Chechnya, a "Russian" republic in the Northern Caucasus, seeking independence and possessing valuable petroleum, which cash-strapped Russia cannot afford to part with. Chechnya is technically within Russia, and dwarfed by it. It was forcibly incorporated into tsarist Russia in the late 1860s, at the expense of more than 400,000 Chechen lives, and has remained a "Russian" province ever since. Today, the issue of Chechnya's independence is agai n being debated with bullets. And the Russian Republic, as headed by Boris Yeltsin, is bombing the living hell out of this little republic in order to keep from losing it.
Chechnya cannot be ignored as Bosnia and the Caucasus were. It was possible for the West to view Slobodan Milosevic, for example, president of Serbia and head of the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" machine, as a sort of political gangster from a reasonably inc onsequential country, scum emerging from the cracks of a world rid of Communism. And so he could still, essentially, be overlooked: Yugoslavia had never been a particularly earth-shattering player in international politics, much less its successor republi cs. Therefore the body count was, in a way, irrelevant. The United States had no "vested interests" in Bosnia.
But now, even for those who believe that our attentions should be devoted solely to places which are somehow endowed with "vested American interests", a crisis that could escalate to truly dangerous proportions has arisen: the president of Russia-our ally -is doing to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, what Milosevic and his companions have done to Sarajevo, using all means at his command to either force the submission of the republic, or to lay it to utter waste. In the past months, merciless bombing runs h ave been unleashed on Chechnya; remarkably, the republic has held out. In terms of ground fighting, it has been said that the Russian troops are not quite all they've been cracked up to be, and that the Chechen fighters are a great deal more than they've been cracked up to be. But it is indeterminate as to whether, or how long, the Chechens can hold out, and whether the rest of the world will take any sort of stand on the issue.
Conscience vs. "Internal Affairs"
The West's policy options are extremely limited. Which is more frightening: having Yeltsin, a man who is committing genocide upon a people he claims as his citizens for the sake of natural resources, as a close political ally, or challenging Russian polic y and perhaps risking another superpower struggle? For Russia may not be the Soviet Union, but a great many ex-Soviet nuclear weapons are still in place and are still as destructive as they were at the height of the USSR's power.
In terms of American policy at present, the Republican Party, always willing to be on the side of the angels when convenient, has taken an anti-Yeltsin stance. (Apparently, when a group of white national leaders starts to work ruin upon the lives of their own white people, this is bad; when the situation involves leaders and people who are black, the issue is irrelevant. See: Haiti.) Meanwhile, the befuddled Clinton-led Democratic party is clinging to Yeltsin with the very ends of its fingernails. And cur rently, both American political groups are so concerned with gaining/maintaining power that it is doubtful that any of the usually sterling foreign policy deliberation which normally goes on, will even take place.
What would an anti-Yeltsin stance entail? Certainly, if we have not been willing to take military action in the Balkans, it is ludicrous to imagine an invasion of Chechnya for the sake of driving off the Russians. Sanctions, then? This would certainly hit Russia in a weak spot; but would the final result be an end to the bombing of Grozny, or estranged relations with Russia? Should we attempt a temporary cutting-off of relations? What kind of gamble is this option? And what if American policy were one of cooperation with Russian policy, i.e. looking the other way, would we be taking dangerous chances on being on friendly terms with a nation drifting towards nationalist dictatorship? Would we also consent in the possible reversion of Russia from its declar ations of democracy in 1992 to a semblance of its historically autocratic past? Bluntly, shall we pay a price of conscience now, admittedly taking quite a gamble, or wait till later-or should we ignore the matter, muttering incoherencies about "their inte rnal affairs?" None of the options available to the West, and specifically the US, promise particularly constructive results. But post-1992 Western self-congratulation must now give way to realistic deliberation about the rapidly-worsening problems whic h plague that area.
The USSR ceased to exist when I was 17. I thought that this would mean I would be able to bring up my children differently, in a world where all life as they knew it couldn't be instantly incinerated on the political whim of a tiny group of people. Now we have learned that force, brutality, and dictatorship were not the sole, copyrighted possessions of the Soviet Union. They are commonly held commodities, and they are being practiced right now within the nation of one of our "allies." The New World Order, the "explosion of freedom" that came with the fall of Communism, has tripped over its own heels in the drunkenness of its celebration. Perhaps the bullets and mortars of Grozny will finally bring the West to sobriety.