The Bear's Embrace

Reviewed by Rebecca Reich
Sunday, June 25, 2006


The Russians in the Soviet Union

By Geoffrey Hosking

Harvard Univ. 484 pp. $35

Westerners have often equated Russia with the Soviet Union, though it was only one of 15 republics in the USSR. Non-Russian citizens of the Soviet Union similarly had little doubt that Russians were the dominant -- and privileged -- national group. Yet despite Russians' seemingly favored position in the Soviet constellation, for a good part of the 20th century they were forced to stand by as their nationhood was subverted or suppressed to meet the needs of the state. That experience, which continues to affect Russian politics today, is magisterially and chillingly documented by the British historian Geoffrey Hosking in Rulers and Victims . "Russians were the state-bearers of the Soviet Union, but they were also rendered anonymous by it," Hosking writes. " 'Their' republic . . . was a puny and somnolent giant, a glaring anomaly that, if awoken, had the potential to destroy the Soviet Union."

Few concepts were more threatening to the Bolshevik vision of an international proletarian revolution than nationalism. Russian nationalism posed a particular threat due to the republic's obvious clout: In 1922, Russia accounted for 90 percent of Soviet land and 72 percent of the Soviet population, and served as the USSR's administrative center. Determined to offset what Lenin derisively called "great Russian chauvinism," the Bolsheviks ironically wound up playing the nationalism card in reverse, training non-Russians to run their own republics and dispatching ethnographers to catalog national traditions. In Ukraine, a system of "national soviets" dedicated to the promotion of local languages and culture was extended to all ethnic groups except for the Russians living there. And unlike other republics, Russia had no distinct Communist Party structure of its own.

Yet even as the Bolsheviks set about suppressing Russian national identity, they buttressed socialism with Russian traditions, in particular with the deeply rooted sense of Russia's messianic role in the world. Hosking argues that the Soviet vision of the country as the vanguard of international revolution drew in large part upon the popular pre-1917 idea of a holy Russian empire -- a "Third Rome" -- chosen by God to spread Orthodox Christianity. For Russians disillusioned with both church and tsar, the call for international revolution filled a spiritual void. But socialism also inherited the old regime's fatal tension with the village traditions of the Russian people, traditions the Bolsheviks never fully succeeded in suppressing. Stripped of its essence yet thoroughly exploited, Russian national identity was effectively hollowed out to support what Hosking calls a "supra-ethnic" state.

The state's dependence on the trappings of Russian identity grew stronger in the late 1930s, when Stalin declared Russians to be the centerpiece of a new Soviet patriotism -- the "first among equals." During World War II, Stalin dragged a group of bishops out of the labor camps to oversee the election of an Orthodox patriarch and turned a blind eye to private agriculture and trade. But the national identity that began to coalesce was never let off its very tight leash and was swiftly crushed after the war ended. At a banquet of victorious Red Army commanders on the eve of the Cold War, Stalin singled out the Russians as the "driving force" in defeating fascism, "the enemy of humanity." As Hosking makes clear, however, the Soviet leader had a way of using Russian rhetoric to benefit the very state that kept Russian identity down: "Superpower status was purchased at the cost of national degradation."

The formation of modern Russian identity, as portrayed in this penetrating account, was all too often a top-down process, which Hosking views from below, where leaders' decisions played out among the people. Yet Hosking takes pains to show how a battered Russian identity resurfaced in the 1950s and '60s as part of the post-Stalin cultural thaw, especially among the "village prose" writers, who looked to their rural roots for inspiration. Russian intellectuals began to revisit their heritage through the private dissemination of letters and literary works. Fast-forwarding through the 1980s, Hosking's all too brief overview of the cultural forces set loose by Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika comes as something of a surprise. In his eagerness to conclude (somewhat reductively) that it was the rebirth of Russian identity that actually toppled the Soviet Union, he gives short shrift to that very moment when Russians and the state finally faced off.

Russia emerged from the Soviet Union's wreckage no longer an empire, forced to breathe new life into a national tradition that had been steadily eroded for three quarters of a century. Yet recent years have seen a renewed association between Russia's national and imperial identities, with President Vladimir Putin lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union as "a national tragedy of enormous proportions" for Russia, and advancing an increasingly imperialistic foreign policy toward unruly neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine. Hosking's important and timely book provides an in-depth look at the forces shaping Russian identity, illuminating the aftershocks of the Soviet experience that are likely to reverberate for years to come. ?

Rebecca Reich is the books editor of the Moscow Times and a writer at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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