The Awakening of the Soviet Union
The USSR's Emerging Multiparty System
Glasnost in Jeopardy: Human Rights in the USSR
Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin
Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs and His Failure
The Second Russian Revolution Channel by Brian Lapping Associates
Gorbachev's Struggle for Economic Reform
What Went Wrong with Perestroika.
Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era
Comrade Lawyer: Inside Soviet Justice in an Era of Reform
Gorbachev, Glasnost & the Gospel
Inside the KGB: My Life in Soviet Espionage
On September 25 of this year the president of the Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, told President Bush that “the United States must accept the independence of republics such as the Ukraine, because central government in the Soviet Union no longer exists.”1 On October 4 he said, “I am against political union.”2 Earlier, the Ukraine’s defense minister had said, “We reject the idea of a unified military command. Our approach will be step-by-step towards an independent Ukrainian army.”3 Earlier still, a division of KGB special troops stationed in the Ukraine’s Kharkov region had, without asking Moscow’s approval, applied to the minister to join his embryonic army.4
In Central Asia, meanwhile, the president of Kyrgyzstan announced his opposition to the latest Moscow plan for an economic union, because it gave too much power to “the center,” i.e., the remaining government of the USSR. Instead, he supported the idea of an “economic community” of sovereign states of Europe and Asia. Kyrgyzstan would not sign an economic treaty that did not give its constituent members full authority in their economic affairs.5
In neighboring Uzbekistan, a journalist reported, “There is no sign of the democratic overthrow of communism.” The republic “remains firmly under the control of a Communist Party that appears intent on abandoning many of its ideological icons, but keeping all of its power.”6 On September 16 the Uzbek president told Western journalists that Uzbekistan would follow the Chinese model of economic reform, because it was not ready for full democracy or a market economy.
These random examples show that the world’s last major empire, which was “on the brink” in January,7 has, in the wake of the comic opera coup of August 19–22, disintegrated into at least fifteen different countries. While the coup was the catalyst, the approaching collapse had been clearly visible for two years or more. What was remarkable was the extreme suddenness of the end. Most empires have shrunk gradually over decades, or even, like that of the Ottomans, over centuries, before major wars finished them off. But in this case three powerful processes began to work together in 1988–1989, interacting with each other so potently that they emasculated the central government well before this year’s “August revolution” finally severed its myriad paralyzed parts. And except for the relatively minor, if psychologically important, and vain struggle against the Afghan mujaheddin, military defeat did not contribute to the disintegration.
The first process was the transformation of the hitherto suppressed nationalism of several republics into revolutionary, anti-imperial struggles for self-determination. Here the Balts took the lead, followed in different ways by, among others, the Georgians, the Moldavians, the Armenians, and the Ukrainians. The dynamic nature of these movements derived, first, from the widespread perception of the legitimacy of nationalism in the twentieth century, and from accumulated resentment of Moscow’s ruthlessness and hypocrisy in suppressing nationalism at home while exploiting it abroad. The dynamism was strengthened when the opportunity arose to turn the hollow institutions…
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