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Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism



This article examines the role of nationalism in the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, arguing that nationalism (both in its presence and its absence, and in the various conflicts and disorders that it unleashed) played an important role in structuring the way in which communism collapsed. Two institutions of international and cultural control in particular – the Warsaw Pact and ethnofederalism – played key roles in determining which communist regimes failed and which survived. The article argues that the collapse of communism was not a series of isolated, individual national stories of resistance but a set of interrelated streams of activity in which action in one context profoundly affected action in other contexts – part of a larger tide of assertions of national sovereignty that swept through the Soviet empire during this period.

Cet article analyse le rôle du nationalisme dans l'effondrement du communisme à la fin des années 1980 et au début des années 1990. L'auteur avance que le nationalisme (non seulement présent, mais aussi absent, et dans les différents conflits et troubles qu'il déclencha) a joué un rôle important dans la manière dont le communisme s'est effondré. Deux institutions d'un contrôle international et culturel en particulier – le Pacte de Varsovie et le fédéralisme ethnique – ont joué des rôles clés en déterminant quels régimes communistes échouaient et lesquels survivaient. L'argument de cet article est que l'effondrement du communisme n'a pas été un alignement de résistances nationales, individuelles et isolées, mais un groupe de courants d'activités enchevêtrés dans lequel des actions menées dans un contexte influençaient les actions menées dans d'autres contextes – en tant que partie d'un courant d'affirmations plus large.

Dieser Artikel erforscht die Rolle des Nationalismus im Zusammenhang mit dem Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus in den späten 1980er und frühen 1990er Jahren, indem er argumentiert, daß der Nationalismus (sowohl in seiner An- wie auch in seiner Abwesenheit, und in den diversen Konflikten und Unruhen die er verursachte) eine wichtige Rolle in der Art und Weise, wie der Kommunismus zusammenbrach, spielte. Zwei Institutionen mit internationaler und kultureller Macht – der Warschauer Pakt und der Ethno-Federalismus – haben im besonderen Schlüsselrollen in der Bestimmung, welche kommunistischen Regime scheiterten und welche überlebten, gespielt. Der Autor argumentiert, dass der Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus nicht eine Serie isolierter, individueller und nationaler Widerstandsgeschichten war, sondern ein Zusammentreffen von zusammenhängenden Handlungsströmungen, in denen die Handlung in einem Kontext die Handlung in anderen Kontexten stark beeinflusste – dies als Teil einer Flut von Geltendmachungen.



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1 See, for instance, Hough, Jerry F., Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985–1991 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1997); Solnick, Steven, Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Kotkin, Stephen, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

2 Darden, Keith and Grzymala-Busse, Anna, ‘The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse’, World Politics 59, 1 (October 2006), 83115.

3 See Martin K. Dimitrov, ‘Why Communism Didn't Collapse: Exploring Regime Resilience in China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba’, paper presented at a conference on ‘Why Communism Didn't Collapse: Understanding Regime Resilience in China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba’, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 25–26 May 2007.

4 The major exception was Yugoslavia. Minority nationalisms obviously played a major delegitimating role in the collapse of Yugoslav communism and in the unmaking of the Yugoslav state. But Serbian commitment to maintaining Yugoslavia's territorial integrity and to Serbian communists who peddled such an undertaking remained considerably stronger than the commitment of Russians to maintaining the territorial integrity of the USSR, accounting for the outbreak of ethnic civil war in Yugoslaviapersistence of communist control in Serbia (in the guise of the Socialist Party) over the decade of the 1990s. See Vujačić, Veljko, ‘Historical Legacies, Nationalist Mobilization, and Political Outcomes in Russia and Serbia: A Weberian View’, Theory and Society 25, 6 (December 1996), 763801.

5 Brandenberger, David, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

6 See, in particular, Szporluk, Roman, Russia, Ukraine, and the Break-up of the Soviet Union (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000).

7 These arguments are drawn from or are elaborations on my own work on the Soviet collapse. See Beissinger, Mark R., Nationalist Mobilisation and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

8 For a critique of the heavy determinism in the literature on the breakdown of communism, see Kalyvas, Stathis N., ‘The Decay and Breakdown of Communist One-Party Systems’, Annual Review of Political Science, 2 (1999), 323–43.

9 Gorbachev, Mikhail, Zhizn’ i reformy, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Novosti, 1995), xsp (emphasis in original).

10 Howard, Michael, ‘The Springtime of Nations’, Foreign Affairs, 69, 1 (1990), 1732.

11 Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization, 75–9.

12 Bunce, Valerie, Subversive Institutions: The Design and the Destruction of Socialism and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

13 Roeder, Philip G., Red Sunset: The Failure of Soviet Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); Suny, Ronald Grigor, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Brubaker, Rogers, ‘Nationhood and the National Question in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Eurasia: An Institutionalist Account’, Theory and Society, 23 (1994), 4778.

14 Plakans, Andrejs, The Latvians: A Short History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 162.

15 K. S. Hallik, quoted in Pravda, 7 June 1989, 2.

16 Ekspress khronika, no. 51, 17 December 1989, 1.

17 Vadim Medvedev, quoted in Soiuz mozhno bylo sokhranit’ (Moscow: Aprel’-85, 1995), 64.

18 Muiznieks, Nils R., ‘The Influence of the Baltic Popular Movements on the Process of Soviet Disintegration’, Europe-Asia Studies, 47, 1 (1995), 325.

19 See Szporluk, Roman, ed., The Influence of East Europe and the Soviet West on the USSR (New York: Praeger, 1975).

20 Berdyaev, Nikolai, The Origins of Russian Communism (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1960).

21 Slider, Darrell, ‘A Note on the Class Structure of Soviet Nationalities’, Soviet Studies, 37, 4 (October 1985), pp. 535540.

22 Tilly, Charles, European Revolutions, 1492–1992 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

23 Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

24 Nahaylo, Bohdan, ‘The Birth of an Independent Ukraine’, Report on the USSR, 3, 50 (13 December 1991), 12.

25 See Wyman, Matthew, Public Opinion in Postcommunist Russia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), 166.

26 Carr, Edward Hallett, What Is History? (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1962), 124.

27 Literaturnaia gazeta, 13 September 1989.

28 Vremia, 2 July 2008, 1.

29 Poslanie Prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii V. V. Putina Federal'nomu Sobraniiu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 25 April 2005, available at

Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism



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