Centenary of collapsed empire. Brief guide for the nostalgic. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The lesson for the Republic of Moldova consists in the acknowledgment of the necessity of counteracting the danger of Soviet nostalgia in Moldovan society through sustained state policies, with the restoration for the Moldovan state of the quality of colony of the revanchist Russian empire being the alternative...


Anatol Țăranu

The USSR was officially established 100 years ago, on December 30, 1922, but has its origins in the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, when the Bolshevik party led by Lenin and Trotsky on the night of November 7 caused an armed insurrection that led to the overthrowing of the provisional Government that was formed as a result of the revolution of February 1917. The insurrection took place almost without bloodshed, but the history that followed was marked by terror policies, by the horrors of the civil war, by the abolition of the economic and social system based on private ownership and its replacement with collectivization and centralized economic planning, bloody conflicts, deportations and famine, the establishment of a totalitarian political regime. The attempt to do democratic reforms in the USSR led to its swift collapse. On Christmas Day in 1991, the red flag adorned with the hammer and sickle flied above the Kremlin for the last time as the official death of the first Socialist state in the world was announced on December 26, 1991.

“Russified national minorities always inflate?”

The formation of the USSR was an attempt to given birth to one state on the territory of the former Russian Empire and, objectively, to maintain the empire in a new sociopolitical form. The tsarist empire and its successor of the Soviets developed by conquering multiple foreign territories, with different nations across Eurasia. All these nations had big historical resentments towards  the central Russian authorities, either they were tsarist or then Soviet. The necessity of overcoming these historical incongruences caused a heated dispute between the Bolshevik leaders over the form of organization of the first Socialist state in the world. Joseph Stalin, who was considered the main expert of the party in interethnic relations, and as the people’s commissar for nationalities of the RSFSR, was responsible for solving the problem and he suggested including national republics in the composition of the Russian Federation as autonomous units. Many prominent Communists, especially Lev Kamenev, supported this idea.

But the Bolshevik leader Lenin harshly criticized the “autonomization” project of Stalin, calling it “a fundamentally mistaken enterprise” and accused him of “administrative hurry and passion”, adding that “the Russified national minorities always inflated the really Russian state of spirit”. Lenin insisted that the RSFSR should be recognized as having equal rights with other republics and should join the union on equal terms with them. Even if Stalin remained unconvinced in this issue and in a note to the members of the Political Bureau named Lenin’s position “national liberalism”, the authority of the Bolshevik leader, even if he was seriously ill at that moment, remained incontestable. The USSR formally became a state of union republics, each benefitting theoretically from the right to secession.

Fixed idea of world revolution was at the basis of creation of USSR
Evidently, Lenin wanted, not less than Stalin, a unitary state to be created with a vertical of the political power according to the thesis about “dictatorship of the proletariat”, but in this issue guided himself primarily by the fixed Communist idea of the so-called world revolution. The new state was to be deliberately attributed the supranational character so that any “Soviet Socialist republic” from any corner of the world could be accepted into its composition. Initially, it was proposed that the state should be called the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia, but it was then decided to give up such a geographical reference. Later, on June 17, 1924, from the rostrum of the fifth congress of the Comintern, chairman of the Communist International Grigory Zinoviev formulated this imperial desideratum of the Bolsheviks as follows: “We must conquer five 1/6s more of the globe’s area so that an USSR exists all over the world”.

In the USSR, the Leninist theory insisted on the understanding that the nations should keep their identity and territorial autonomy for an unlimited period of time, while the affiliation to one state and a common ideology were imposed as more important than the national feelings. In the 1970s already, the national contradictions accumulated silently in Moldovan society and caused the necessity of modifying the perspective of developing the national factor and led to the tacit aligning of the Communist ideologists with the “melting-pot” bourgeois theory by officially proclaiming that “a new historical community of people – the Soviet people” appeared in the development course of the USSR. This way the Soviet empire tried to attenuate the increasing dysfunctionality of the interethnic relations of Soviet society in which 185 nations and nationalities were divided, according to the number, into four categories. Some of them received the right to form union republics with direct subordination to Moscow. The second category included the autonomous republics within union republics, the third - autonomous regions within territories (an autonomous region was different from an administrative region because it included national autonomy), while the fourth – national districts within regions.

... and factor of state terror

This whole super-heavy construct that was formalized to the maximum as regards national organization of the Soviet empire resisted only due to the factor of state terror. In the USSR, any discussion, for example on secession, which formally didn’t contradict the provisions of the constitution, were treated as “bourgeois national” and was punished with many years in jail, while under Stalin even with execution. That’s why, when the perestroika policy led to a movement to the rule of law and the authorities started to demand to put the written laws into practice, the subjugated nations swiftly remembered the right to self-termination and withdrawal and this played a deceive political role, alongside the economic crises and the Communist ideology, in the collapse of the USSR.

It’s true that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had to adopt a policy of transformations owing to the difficult situation in which the economy of the USSR was, but started it only as an “intersystem” change designed to revitalize the one-party state by unleashing a particular spirit of initiative and entrepreneurship, the energies of the population inhibited by the Soviet oppression regime. Within the Soviet political culture in which the recognition of the possible shortages was discouraged, Gorbachev didn’t even want to use the term “reform”, speaking yet about “uskoreniye” or “perestroika”. When his policies met with the resistance of the groups of interest from party hierarchy, Gorbachev made a call to public opinion, ignoring his conservative colleagues: his “glasnost” policy represented rather a method of exerting pressure on the conservatives from the party, not of charting the political system. His goal was to mobilize the support of society for his economic and organizational modernization measures.

The USSR collapsed as multinational empire initially...

Once the process was triggered, it stopped only together with the complete dissolution of the USSR. The reformist Soviet leaders dramatically underestimated the national, even nationalist tensions inside the multinational Soviet society and in the states of the Socialist camp. Gorbachev was unable to follow the same strategy as Deng Xiaoping in China, who resorted to the gradual opening of the economy, simultaneously keeping the Communist party’s full control over the political sphere owing to the size of the nationalist movements aimed against the colonial yoke of the Soviet empire. The USSR failed firstly as a multinational empire and secondly as a nonfunctional social economy.

Currently, a reality that cannot be neglected is that the Soviet Union, with its policies inhibited by the national conscience and by forced Russification, still stimulates the nostalgic. These feelings are primarily kept by those who formed part of the Soviet imperial nation, with the affiliation to the Russian language and culture, which dominated in Soviet society over the national languages and cultures of other nations, being a distinctive feature. In fact, Soviet nostalgia can be described as nostalgia for a lost empire, for false grandeur that was imbedded in the people’s minds by an aggressive propaganda without a viable alternative.

Soviet nostalgia – danger to international security

The Russia President Vladimir Putin is one of the most evident Soviet nostalgic people. He described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century. Furthermore, without no respect for the people subjugated under the red flag, the leader from the Kremlin still tries to imbed the idea that the Soviet Union was ”historic Russia”, making now effort to resuscitate by war the Russian empire following the collapse of the USSR. This is actually a manifestation of a new type of neo-imperialism that encourages, according to polls, about 70% of the Russian citizens to accept such a kind of war policy. This way, Soviet nostalgia becomes not only a danger to the independence and freedom of the former Soviet republics and their people, but also to international security in general. The necessity of combating by all ways Soviet nostalgia by making the public perceive the disappearance of the Soviet empire as a blessing of history and as long-awaited freeing of the people subjugated by the Russian imperialism derives from this existential danger to civilization.

Lesson for the Republic of Moldova

Even if the USSR collapsed officially, the Soviet tradition continues to contaminate the minds of many people who are nostalgic for the imperial practices, provoking this way the reminiscences of the Russian imperialism. The decomposing Russian empire hasn’t yet died fully. It tries to take revenge through the war against Ukraine, through policies to intimidate the former Soviet republics that are now independent states. The Russian imperial revenge resorts not only to the methods of open military aggression against its neighbors. The propaganda and other kinds of encouragement of Soviet nostalgias and the strengthening this way of the pro-Russian fifth columns in the post-Soviet space are a not less efficient weapon. The lesson for the Republic of Moldova consists in the acknowledgment of the necessity of counteracting the danger of Soviet nostalgia in Moldovan society through sustained state policies, with the restoration for the Moldovan state of the quality of colony of the revanchist Russian empire being the alternative.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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