SOVIET DISUNION

A History of the Nationalities

Problem in the USSR By Bohdan Nahaylo and Victor Swoboda Free Press. 432 pp.$29.95

THE YEAR 1989 is sure to go down in the history books. It will have a big place in a chapter, perhaps not quite yet the final chapter, on the history of the demise of the last of the great continental European empires. The war of 1914-18 brought immediately in its wake the utter destruction of two of the four great empires, the Ottoman and the Habsburg (in its final permutation as the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The German Empire fell but was resurrected by Hitler in the 1930s and it was over its resurrection that the Second World War was fought.

Alone, the Russian Empire, a true old-regime multinational empire, was not destroyed by the Great War. Although the monarchy fell, the empire was given a new lease on life by being infused with a new ideology and a new structure: Communism and federalism saved the empire, which survives to this day with essentially the same territory as the old, minus Finland and a good part of Congress of Vienna Poland. Nineteen-eighty-nine is pretty likely to go down in history as the year in which the disintegration of the empire began.

The story told in Soviet Disunion may be summarized as follows: After an initial attempt by the predominantly Great Russian and centrist-minded Bolsheviks to create a unitary state by absorbing the non-Russian areas of the empire into the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic using the fig leaf of "autonomy," they retreated, under the violent objections of the non-Russian Communist leaders and Lenin's exhortations, to the creation of a formally federalist Soviet Union in 1922. Like the New Economic Policy of 1921, aimed at placating the peasants, the more liberal nationality policy enshrined in the 1923 Constitution of the U.S.S.R. was a compromise designed to consolidate Soviet rule over as large an area as possible.

Following Lenin's death and in pace with his consolidation of power at the center, Stalin, a non-Russian who as commissar of nationalities in the early days of the new regime had been the most outspoken advocate of unitary rule, proceeded to forge the unitary party-state in a revived empire, making a mockery of the federal constitution in the process. Lenin's "principles" were put on the shelf, to become after Stalin's death "a standard and a shield for non-Russians," much as NEP was to become a rallying point of the economic reformers. Stalin relied on a combination of "Great-Russian chauvinism" and terror to keep the non-Russians subdued, and from the beginning a large part of the prison-camp population consisted of non-Russians.

Following Stalin's death, diminution of terror and schemes for economic and administrative decentralization stimulated non-Russian nationalisms and demands for a return to "Leninist" principles of true federalism. The response from the center fluctuated, but from the later Khrushchev years through the Brezhnev years its policy was pretty consistently a combination of repression and an attempt to implement a melting pot scheme designed to produce a " 'Soviet' amalgam with a distinct Russian flavor and color." The real product was, of course, increased national awareness and mounting tension.

By dramatically loosening controls as a means of stimulating economic development, Gorbachev has "inadvertently . . . let the genie out of the bottle": The non-Russians have used glasnost and democratization to press their claims with ever increasing vigor. Far from applying perestroika to relations between nationalities, Gorbachev and his advisers have from the beginning been pushed reluctantly to make changes in this area by pressure from below.

The U.S.S.R. today is in deep imperial crisis. One of several virtues of this timely new survey of the nationalities problem in the country is its demonstration that all the current "hot spots" on the nationalities front -- Nagornyi Karabakh and Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Tadzhikistan, the Baltics and on and on -- have been building up, with many warning signs for Moscow, over a period of many years.

The reader will not find in this book any nuanced analysis of the nature of nationalism in general or of the numerous Soviet nationalisms in particular. Its approach is descriptive and chronological, with the bulk of attention focused on the last 25 years. At the cost of resembling toward the end a series of Radio Liberty reports (the author of the text on the post-Stalin years, Bohdan Nahaylo, is an analyst of Soviet nationalities developments for Radio Liberty in Munich), the book manages to be remarkably up to date, incorporating developments dated as recently as February 1990, and, unlike any of its predecessors (such as Helene Carrere d'Encausse's 1979 Decline of an Empire), its authors have been able to exploit to good advantage the flood of memoirs and revelations about nationalities matters let loose by the advent of glasnost, especially since mid-1987. Altogether, this is an unusually timely and important book. Everybody concerned with the current Soviet crisis should get it, read it and keep it at hand in order to look up the historical background on the nationalities crisis that is sure to be reported in tomorrow's newspaper.

Terence Emmons is professor of Russian History at Stanford University. He is the translator and editor of "Time of Troubles: The Diary of Iurii Vladimirovich Got'e -- Moscow, July 8, 1917-July 22, 1922."