April 29, 2002


Trashcanistan : A TOUR THROUGH THE WRECKAGE OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE. (Stephen Kotkin, 04.04.02, New Republic)
The Soviet Union was congenitally illiberal, plagued with divide-and-rule malignancies and guilty of crimes that few other states could rival; but the post-Soviet Union has been, for most ordinary people, one step forward and two steps back. The Soviet empire's crack-up was not an overseas decolonization. Seventy million people (one in four) resided outside their national "homeland," if they had one at all; and countless families woke up to find that their relatives, and sometimes their own children, lived not some distance away but abroad, making separation permanent unless one pulled off a tricky apartment barter with others who were similarly blindsided, or gave up everything to start over as an immigrant.

Economic interdependence meant that even potentially profitable enterprises nose-dived when they were suddenly cut off from suppliers and customers in what became foreign countries, with different currencies and convoluted rules, or non-rules, for foreign exchange. Politically, independence has often resulted in still more arbitrary rule. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, it was replaced by ... the Soviet Union, only with more border guards, more customs posts, more "tax" collectors, more state "inspectors"-in short, more greasy palms outstretched. Estonia stands out as the great bright spot (approaching the level of Slovenia, the star in East-Central Europe). But elsewhere around the former Soviet Union, we see a dreadful checkerboard of parasitic states and statelets, government-led extortion rackets and gangs in power, mass refugee camps, and shadow economies. Welcome to Trashcanistan.

Let us be clear. Readers should look elsewhere for yet another wrongheaded slam of the market. What brought about today's widespread poverty was not "reform," but the near complete absence of the neo-liberal reforms, and behind that the long-drawn-out planned economy, which in addition to a non-market incentive structure and corruption produced powerful social constituencies and other facts on the ground that were utterly inimical to reform. But another cause of the ongoing misery, I think, is the idolatry of "national" self-determination-usually attributed to Wilson, but equally attributable to Lenin-which continues to wreak havoc across the globe, as it did throughout the Cold War.
Although each case for a nation-state may appear just, and although those who have already achieved statehood may seem in no position to deny the same to others, "national" self-determination is too often a recipe for Trashcanistan-for systemic malfeasance and economic involution, with convenient cover for the worst political scoundrels and their legions of apologists ("Sure it is a criminal regime, but it is our criminal regime"). By contrast, self-government within an existing entity-or, better yet, an enlarged entity-where citizenship trumps ethnicity constitutes an altogether different proposition, especially when borders are open and markets are greatly broadened. What the European Union has been struggling mightily to transcend, the newly independent states of the dismembered Soviet Union have inflicted upon themselves.

The ironies here are exceptionally rich, for among the many causes of the Soviet state's demise, the most widely cited-I mean nationalism-was one of the least salient. If deep-seated nationalism brought down the multinational Soviet Union, as the analytical herd asserts, then what accounts for the profound post-1991 weakness of the nations and the nationalisms in almost all the successor states? A part of the answer is that they, too, are multinational. And equally important, of course, was the circumstance that when the Communist Party, which alone held the federal union together, underwent "reform" and disintegrated, the Soviet Union's internal Leninist nation-states became perfect vehicles for elite self-preservation and self-aggrandizement.

Consider further that despite the analysts' long-standing repudiation of the existence of a "Soviet nation," something funny confronts a traveler crisscrossing the former empire today: he encounters Sovietness at almost every turn. (Analysts had scoffed at the notion of a genuine East German identity, too, until post-reunification showed otherwise.) What should have been apparent from the Russian-speaking Jews who left the Soviet Union for Brighton Beach-transporting and freezing a 1970s moment of Soviet culture-is no less clear from today's Russian-speaking populations in most of the newly independent states, as well as the self-declared additional Trashcanistans within them: the various post-Soviet nations emerged deeply Soviet.

This contentious but fascinating review essay takes a look at the states of the former Soviet Union from the perspective of several new books on the region. Mr. Kotkin paints a pretty dismal picture of newborn nations plagued by corruption, violence, and chaos, with only a few relatively bright spots, including Russia itself. What's most interesting here is the conclusion he reaches : "Self-determination needs to be reconceived in terms of effective self-government." This somewhat anti-democratic lesson has been an awfully difficult one for us to learn, but you can't read Mr. Kotkin's long piece and remain sanguine about the prospects of places like China, Africa, and the Middle East if we continue to insist that every people have to have an opportunity for self-determination. Especially since, as Mr. Kotkin specifically points out, America, in some ways the most successful empire of all time, has succeeded precisely by subsuming various nationalities within one nation. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 29, 2002 7:14 PM
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