Review: The Revenge of the Past by R.G. Suny

Here is the latest review I have written up for my independent study work with Hendrik Spruyt.  Although this is not my strongest review, it gets the basic points across.

Bottom line, if you ever want to read an exceptionally well written, well theorized, and methodical empirically-oriented work about the development of national identities, Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union is for you.

Check out the review below and, as always, feedback is welcome.  For this one, be kind.  I was running on a deadline.

Review: Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Revenge of the Past

Ronald Grigor Suny’s groundbreaking work, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, was one of the first to identify the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of its 15 successor states as a direct product of the Soviet Union’s policy of quasi-federal rule by ethnonational territorial administration.

Taking on a broad historical analysis of collective identity formation beginning in Tsarist Russia, Suny demonstrates that the emergent ethnonational identities which came to be associated with the respective Soviet republics were initially quite heterogeneous in their levels of group solidarity, nationalist mobilization, and class distribution. Even as the modus operandi of the USSR was to serve as the first stone in the future multinational socialist edifice projecting an ideology of international class mobilization, its political organization very much depended on the codification and institutionalization of ethnic identities in distinct territorial units. By empowering the very collective identities the Soviet state was meant to absorb and homogenize, the system ensured the persistence of alternative bases of local power and collective identification which ultimately contributed to the weakness and eventual downfall of the communist empire.

National identities are neither anthropological givens nor are they, in Marxist terms, mass expressions of false consciousness. Instead, Suny argues that class and nationality are “historically related to the actual practice of human actors, both individually and collectively, within changing social and discursive frameworks” (18). As the products of historically contingent processes, they can be seen neither as natural nor sociologically inevitable. The explicit ethnonational organization of movements which characterized anti-communist mobilization in the Soviet Republics must be understood in terms of delineating these processes.

For Suny, seven trends are critical to understanding the constitution of ethnonational identities and claims in the USSR: nativization, economic and social transformation, territorialization, imperialism, traditionalism, localism, and national mobilization.

Nativization meant the consolidation of nationality that resulted from the explicit cultivation of native language, a national intelligentsia and political elite, and the formal institutionalization of ethnicity within the state apparatus. This combined with rapid economic and social transformation meant the breaking down of old forms of social and economic organization resulting in the homogenization of Soviet administration but the preservation of ethnic identities. These now official identities were further entrenched by fixing the idea of nation to a particular territory made even more salient by explicit imperialism in which ethnic Russians enjoyed the disproportionate share of power even in the non-Russian republics. Traditional cultural practices and social structures, although threatened by the center, were partially protected and reinforced by the delegation of considerable power to local authorities. All these factors cultivated a sense of mutually exclusive and territorially privileged national identities which were readily mobilized in response to a weakening center.

In this account, the collapse of the Soviet system was an inevitable result of Gorbechev’s attempts to fundamentally alter the practices of command in the economic and political spheres while attempting to construct a newly democratic multinational federation. However well intentioned glasnost and perestroika were as efforts at systemic reform, they failed to account for the now deeply embedded ethnonational identities and interests which had developed in the non-Russian republics and were highly resistant to encroachment by the center.

Although Suny goes to great lengths to demonstrate the historical contingency and explicit political constructions that contributed to the formation of these national identities, it can be argued that his approach too easily accepts the nationalist framework as the critical explanatory factor for the breakup of the Soviet Union. Elite theorists would certainly argue that mass mobilization by ethnonational populations in the non-Russian republics did not matter nearly as much for the process of political destabilization as did the machinations of the individuals who made up the Soviet ruling cadre. Given that the storming of the Kremlin by Boris Yeltsin, the head of the Russian Soviet Republic, and his followers in response to the August Coup is often seen as the defining event that killed the USSR, it would seem disingenuous to claim that non-Russian nationalism in particular was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Moreover, the flagging Soviet economy and the increasing assertiveness of the Warsaw Pact states in response to Russian domination all challenge the manufactured nationalism thesis.

Even in the face of these critiques, Suny’s argument remains both powerfully convincing and analytically useful. His account of nationalist development and localization of political power feeds quite readily into accounts that focus on resistance to reform by the periphery. Insofar as local ethnic elites had grown accustomed to a relatively high degree of autonomy and dependable patronage from the center, it comes as no surprise that these actors would be among the first to contest economic and political openings that would challenge their means of power. Although it was certainly not non-Russian minority nationalism alone that took down the Soviet Empire, once competing groups within the Kremlin began to contest the cohesiveness of the leadership cadre and Soviet policy, it was the resulting open political expression and mobilization of these identities that ensured that the damage to the Empire’s political would not be reversed. Perhaps even more importantly, it was the mobilization and political expression of these national identities cultivated under the Soviet regime which in no small part determined both which Republics would secede, which would aggressively assert their independence from Russian domination, and which (like Georgia) would continue to be split along seemingly irreconcilable ethnic lines long after having achieved independence.

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