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PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : ‘Relics’ Outlast the Mega-State : The breakaway republics defy our previous scorn for their cause and assault old beliefs on the immutability of power.

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There were the ruddy, white-haired Baltic exiles in their obscure little embassies in Washington, ministers with no ministry, from places called Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania.

And in the lobby of the stolid, dun-colored tourist hotel in Yerevan, furtive Armenian nationalists approached American visitors with whispered dispatches for kinsmen in London or Watertown, Mass. Their message was not some exotic espionage but the age-old promise of clan. “Tell them,” they said, “someday the homeland will be ours.”

At Kiev University, passionate Ukrainian students used to talk at private gatherings about the curse of foreign invasion. “The Nazi crimes were terrible,” an American joined in. “No, no,” they said. “We mean the Russians.”

They always seemed to be there during this nearly half-century of Cold War--the spectral figures of what we used to call the nationalities “problem” in the Soviet Union. Hovering forlornly on the edges of the vast rivalry, they were at once handy symbols of Communist tyranny and awkward spectators at the evolution of mega-state detente and accommodation.

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Most of all, we thought them relics, left behind in a world playing for higher stakes. We gave ritual service to their old committees and legations, and quietly wrote them off as hostages to immutable power.

Now, of course, the “problem” has become the most rapid, most dramatic, most ominous disintegration in the history of modern empires. It turns out that the stateless old envoys and nervous young people represented something all too contemporary and irrepressible--the sheer endurance and force of tribal nationalism.

In their triumph, they are not only dismembering and changing forever one of the world’s superpowers. They are assaulting, too, our own cynical dismissal of lost causes and the very pretense of foreign policy. The ancient memories and flags they carry into streets and parliaments attest once more to the ultimate geopolitical reality of this century--that genuine change is not drawn by de- partments or contained by expeditions, but grows broad and deep within the experience of a people.

The Russians have long had an underlying sense of the incongruity, the anachronism of their antique imperium. Kurittsa ne ptittsa, went a familiar, mocking little rhyme, I Ulan Bator ne za granittsa. “A chicken is not a bird, and Ulan Bator is not abroad.” Among die-hard Communists and reformers alike, there was for decades an understanding of how much the union depended on force, how little anything in Soviet rule had mitigated the mutual bigotry that coursed beneath the surface of propaganda and terror.

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If Lenin had once described czardom as a prison of nationalities, Stalin’s Russia had become their charnel house, whole peoples all but disappearing into the purges and gulags, whole cultures crushed by the Soviet version of Russification. Nowhere was the rotten order more visible than in the Soviet military, with its Central Asian levies and European officers like some grotesque imitation of a 19th-Century colonial army.

The splintering of sovereignties now in the wake of the failed Moscow coup is only the latest act in a rebellion that nationalism and nationalities spurred from the beginning. It was, of course, the Afghan resistance and Soviet defeat that provided a lethal shock to the old communist regime. Later it would be the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes, the bloody repression in Georgia and the abortive reconquest of the Baltics last winter that successively demonstrated the center’s impotence and indecision. In this great end-of-century Soviet revolution, nationalist revolt has been no less crucial than internal political and economic decay.

At that, the crisis is only beginning. Behind the happy crowds and newly empowered governments are still all the darker realities of the dead empire--the unhealed hatreds and unsettled scores of nearly two centuries. Thirty million Russians live in the old colonial territories, 30 million non-Russians in the Russian Republic--both populations potential victims. Almost none of the new successor nations is without its own minorities, its own incipient rebellions, its own bloody irredenta. As so often in the history of resurgent nationalism, the dreams of one patriot may be the nightmare of another.

In the matter of foreign affairs, the United States can only stand and wait on this vast glacial shift, careful not to make more violent or dangerous a long, complex unfolding that may shape much of the next century. Our own interests, like those of the crumbling empire, lie in the eventual emergence of a mutually tolerant and democratic new commonwealth of post-Soviet nations, an Eastern version of the post-civil-war Europe at last becoming reality.

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Meanwhile, there is at least the ironic lesson of those figures we used to dismiss, the faithful nationalists who did not accept the immutability of systems and power. To an America increasingly divided by its own cordons of class, its own colonies of vested interest, its own cynical resignation to corruption and decline, their example comes home.


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