December 12, 2010
Geopolitics For Dummies: What Does The Collapse Of The Soviet Union Really Mean?

Regardless of how one would characterize the collapse of the Soviet
Union -- as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" or
just its "major geopolitical disaster" -- everyone appears to agree
that it was one of the 20th century's most fateful geopolitical
events.  Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once called it a
"genuine drama" for the Russian nation.  In contrast, many in the West
celebrated the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a Cold War trophy
and a sign of the "end of history."

While the fact that the Soviet Union has "collapsed" is not in
dispute, little attention is being paid to what the Soviet Union, the
Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), actually was.  The
only thing everyone seems to remember is that the USSR was composed of
15 so-called Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR).  So when the USSR was
"collapsing", the "collapse" was supposed to proceed precisely along
the borders separating the SSRs, resulting in the creation of 15 newly
independent states.  Can it get any simpler than that?

Not so fast.  In 1991, the Soviet Union was a true administrative
monster that held together as many as 173 different territorial
entities: 15 above-mentioned SSRs, 20 Autonomous Soviet Socialist
Republics (ASSRs, parts of SSRs), 8 autonomous regions, 114 regions, 6
territories ("край"), and 10 autonomous districts.

Countless changes to this administrative puzzle have occurred in
almost 70 years (1922-1991) that the Soviet Union was in existence:
new districts, regions and republics emerged and then disappeared with
the speed of images on a slide show; borders between entities were
drawn and redrawn, and then redrawn again, by a restless hand of a
mysterious artist; shuffling smaller "republics" between bigger ones
was taking place almost as often as shuffling cards in professional
poker.  Just a few examples.  In 1936, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz ASSRs
ceased being parts of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
(RSFSR), the largest SSR in the USSR, and were "upgraded" to the
Kazakh and Kyrgyz SSRs, while the Karakalpak ASSR was transferred from
the RSFSR to the Uzbek SSR.  In the 1950's, a swath of RSFSR
territories bordering the Kazakh SSR went under the Kazakh SSR's
jurisdiction.  In 1954, the Ukraine SSR got a gift from the RSFSR:
Crimea (the Crimea region of the RSFSR).

Think about that for a moment.  Crimea has been an intrinsic part of
Russia for almost 200 years, with the Russian Empire spending blood
and treasure, during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, to keep the
peninsula within its borders.  And then, a Communist apparatchik,
Nikita Khrushchev, following the best traditions of the Soviet Union's
arbitrariness, just transferred Crimea from Russia proper to Ukraine.
(The reason for Khrushchev's decision -- to commemorate the 300th
anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia -- sounds
especially absurd today.)  Is it not incumbent upon anyone who wants
to put away the legacy of the Soviet Union to condemn this act of
supreme state stupidity (the term "state treason" would perhaps be
more appropriate) and to demand that Crimea be returned to where it
truly belongs: in Russia?

Granted, the borders of some Soviet Socialist Republics -- the three
Baltic SSRs (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) come to mind first -- did
reflect historically established demarcations between stable and
mature nations.  But others did not.  Instead, they were created by
the malicious mind of the world's most creative nation builder, Josef
Stalin.  Take the Georgian SSR.  This product of Stalin's imaginative
cartography included the Abkhaz ASSR and South Ossetia autonomous
region, both placed under Georgian rule in contradiction to historic
and common sense and despite protestations by both the Abkhazi and
Ossetian people.  So when in 1991, Georgia declared its independence
from the Soviet Union, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia rightfully
demanded their independence from Georgia.  They won it, after an armed
rebellion, in 1992-1993.  But the Western governments have  refused to
accept their de facto independence.  Western strategists apparently
believed that in this part of the Soviet Union, its "collapse" should
be partial, so that Georgia's independence from the USSR was
legitimate, despite the fact that Georgia joined the USSR voluntarily,
but the independence of Abkhasia and South Ossetia from Georgia was
not, despite the fact that both entities were made part of Georgia by
Stalin's order.

Our Secretary of State ought to consider this the next time she
articulates U.S. policy in the region.  The Madam Secretary should
remember that by vowing to uphold Georgia's "territorial integrity",
she is attempting to preserve the legacy of the Soviet Union (and
fulfill the dreams of its bloody dictator).

(The Soviet Union is hardly the only place where creative geopolitical
cartography was applied.  The West applauded the "collapse" of
Yugoslavia, a mini-"evil empire" for many.  But for the NATO
strategists, the "collapse" was not complete enough, so NATO took
away, by brutal force, Kosovo from Serbia.  But when Serbs in Western
Kosovo wanted to join their compatriots in Serbia to stop the ethnic
cleansing at the hands of the Kosovars, the West cried foul and vowed
to uphold the "territorial integrity" of the narcomafia heaven that
contemporary Kosovo is.)

It will take time to heal all the wounds -- political, economic,
social, cultural, and psychological -- the precipitious and disorderly
desintegration of the Soviet Union has caused to Russia and its
people.  It will also take time to fully understand what the Soviet
Union was and was not in the history of the Russian state.  The burden
of this work lies on the shoulders of the Russians themselves.  But we
in the West can help, too.  First, by accepting that today's Russia is
not a Soviet Union and will never be one.  Second, by realizing that
the "collapse" of the Soviet Union is still going on, and we can't
just end its history by whim.

Posted on December 12, 2010 | Permalink

Technorati Tags: Cold War, Crimea, Crimean War, end of history, Josef
Stalin, Kremlin, NATO, Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Union, USSR, Vladimir

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