Pål Kolstø: Political construction sites:  Nation-building in Russia and the post-Soviet States.

2000 Boulder, Colorado: Westview press 2000, pp. 30-52

Professor Pål Kolstø

Dept. of East European and Oriental Studies

University of Oslo

Box 1030, Blindern

N-0315 Oslo, Norway

tel (+47) 22 85 67 99/22 85 67 97

fax (+47)22  85 41 40

home address (weekends and Mondays):

Ramsvig 50 g

N-4015 Stavanger, Norway

tel/fax home (+47) 51  56 20 82

e-mail Pal.Kolsto@east.uio.no


Chapter 3: Discovering The Centuries-Old State Tradition



In his Considerations non Representative Government (1861), John Stuart Mill noted that people may experience a feeling of belonging to the same nation for various reasons. In some cases, it may be due to family bonds and common ancestors; in other cases, to a common language or religion. “But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents of the past.”[1]


On the other hand, it is debatable to what extent shared humiliations and sorrow can contribute towards uniting a group of people to become a nation. In some instances this may indeed happen, as we see from the Serbs, who even today commemorate their defeat at the hands of the Ottoman forces on the plains of Kosovo in 1389. In most cases, however, far more important is collective pride in connection with glorious events. And the most glorious of all, so it would seem, is to have an ancient history as a separate state. That it why it becomes necessary to link the nation to one or more earlier state-formations which are defined as nation-states, or as forerunners of their nation-state.


One case in point is Norwegian nation-building in the 19th century. Historians within what came to be called the “Norwegian historical school”--Rudolf Keyser, P.A. Munch and others--could trace a separate Norwegian identity all the way back to the days of the Vikings. They interpreted the nation-building that took place on Norwegian territory during the Middle Ages as a Norwegian nation-state. And this nation-state was, in turn, linked in with the modern-day Norwegian nation-building project that emerged after 1814 when Norway was ceded from Denmark and entered into a personal union with Sweden. All this was seen as varying guises of one and the same idea of the state--the Norwegian state--which had been interrupted by the centuries spent under Danish rule.[2]


It was the poet Henrik Wergeland (1808-45) who gave these ideas their most explicit and popularized expression. Wergeland drew on the metaphor of two halves of a broken ring: the one half being the era of Norwegian greatness in the Middle Ages, and other--Norway after the 1814 Eidsvoll Constitutional Convention. By simply excising the intervening “400-year night” of Danish rule, one would be able to see “our Norway and the Norway of the past as two interrupted halves of a ring, halves that fit together perfectly, with the interim period merely being the impure solder, interposed between the two genuine components.”[3] Similar types of silversmithing are actively practiced throughout the former Soviet republics today.


In the 19th century, a distinction was drawn in Europe between what were termed “historical” and “ahistorical” nations. “Historical” nations were those that had existed as separate states in the past, whether or not they continued to do so. The “ahistorical” states were those that lacked a political history of their own. This distinction was relevant for the way in which one regarded the future prospects of the various nations: the historical ones were entitled to re-establish their state, if they happened to have lost it. The prime example of such a nation were the Poles. The ahistorical nations, however, should abandon all thoughts of political independence. They were rather to be seen as “ethnographic material,” as mere building blocks in the nation-building projects of other, stronger peoples. Even radical thinkers like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels thought along these lines and employed this terminology.[4]


Very few--if indeed any--of the titular nations in the successor-states to the Soviet Union were considered as “historical” in the last century. Now that they have received their “own” status as separate states, however, most of them are managing to rediscover a political past, a state tradition, to dust off and burnish up. For some, this golden age lies buried in the far, far distant past, for others it may be of considerably more recent vintage.


{A}The Baltics{/A}


Not every earlier state-formation is equally well-suited as raw material for a modern nation-building project. Some such states may be seen as instances of foreign rule, and thus highly un-national. For example, between approx. 1290 and 1561 there existed a relatively firm state-formation in the Baltics, Livonia. The Livonian state covered most of present-day Latvia and Estonia, but in neither of these countries is there now any feeling that this was the forerunner, the ancestor, of today’s state. The reason is simple: the ruling class in Livonia were German-speaking estate-owners and they remained so after the region was conquered by the Swedes in the 16th century and later by the Russians in the 18th century. The Latvian- and Estonian-speaking population lived in serfdom, with no political rights.


When the Livonia state collapsed, its territory was conquered by various neighboring great powers: first Poland–Lithuania, then Sweden (after 1629) and finally the Russian Empire (with the Peace of Nystad in 1721). Nor are these periods seen as pre-incarnations of today’s independent Baltic states. True, the years with Sweden appear in a somewhat more rosy glow than the others. The Swedish kings sought to restrict the power of the German–Baltic aristocracy, and indirectly made conditions for the Estonian and Latvian peasantry somewhat better.[5] All the same, Sweden’s redoubtable Gustav Adolf has not been elevated to the status of trailbreaker for Latvian or Estonian independence.


The first independent Latvian and Estonian states did not arise until early in the present century, as a result of the defeat of the Tsarist regime and World War I. Today it is these states that in every respect--historical, national, legal--are seen as the precursors of the states that gained their independence in 1991. In fact, it is a matter not so much of precursors, as of one and the same state. This is a state that saw its existence broken off by the Soviet occupation of 1940, but has now been resurrected. Today’s Estonian and Latvian authorities insistently deny that their countries are to be reckoned among the “Soviet successor-states.” In distinction to all the other former Soviet republics, they have not established their political independence: they have re-established it. Nor did they seek any portion of the Soviet “inheritance” when the affairs of the deceased Soviet estate were being settled. And this view has become totally accepted in the international community.


Estonian and Latvian representations of the Soviet period may often seem reminiscent of Wergeland and his views on Norway’s years under the Danish crown: this was a period in the life of the people that brought them nothing good, only harm and suffering. It can--indeed, it must--be excised resolutely, preferably leaving no trace behind. However, among the undeniable traces of the Soviet Union in the Baltic we find today hundreds of thousands of human beings who moved there in the Communist years. Whereas Latvians and Estonian can rid themselves of the rusting remnants of deserted Soviet military bases by simply heaving it all on the scrap-heap, getting rid of the human material in the “impure solder” is quite another matter. And this is one of the most serious political, social and moral issues confronting these states today.


The third Baltic state, Lithuania, was an independent nation-state in the inter-war years, and thus enjoys the same position in international law as Estonia and Latvia. In historical terms, however, the Lithuanian nation-building project has a different, more distant starting point. The twenty-year period of independence in the inter-war period is not all that today’s national-builders in Lithuania have to conjure with. Whereas the northern Baltic territories were conquered by Teutonic knightly orders in the 1200s, the Baltic peoples further to the south managed to hold their own. The Teutonic Knights were defeated in several major battles in the 1200s and 1300s; the final, decisive one being that of Tannenberg (Grünewald) in 1410. It is from these battles that the primary emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has its motif: “The white knight.”[6]


The Lithuanian dukes not only retained control over the traditional areas of Lithuania, they also expanded their territory considerably in the 1300s, until the Lithuanian state extended all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. For a time Lithuania was among the largest states in Europe in land area. This was a very loose feudal state, characterized by a weak central power and a high degree of cultural and linguistic manifold. Although the ruling house and most the people in the north spoke the Lithuanian language, these “Lithuanians” were definitely in the minority in terms of the overall population.


In 1385 the Grand Duke Jagiello of Lithuania married a Polish princess in order to cement a strategic alliance against the Baltic/Teutonic forces. After this move, Poland–Lithuania remained a dual monarchy for over two hundred years; in 1569 the personal union was deepened to become a real union and a single state. It was the Polish cultural element that became dominant, with the Lithuanian upper class becoming gradually polonized as the political center of gravity moved westwards.


Today Lithuania’s past as a mediaeval great power is an important part of what Lithuanian children learn at school. Whereas most Western scholars point out that this was a pre-modern, dynastic and multi-cultural state,[7] Lithuanians themselves experience it as a Lithuanian national state. The interwar Lithuanian state was a restoration of their old, medieval state, much as the present-day Lithuanian republic is a restoration of the interwar state.[8]


This Lithuanian approach has also found its way into some of the Western literature. A Danish researcher team inquires: “Why are the Baltic countries so different after independence?” and finds much of the answer in their differing historical backgrounds: “The most decisive difference is probably that Lithuania is the only one of the three with a long history as an independent national state, one that only recently came under foreign (Russian) dominion.”[9]  This should at best be seen as a highly compressed and simplified explanation. On the other hand, the fact that Lithuanians themselves construe their history in this way is clearly important in explaining why Lithuania is different from the other two Baltic states today.




The Ukrainian declaration of independence of 24 August 1991 proclaims that the Ukrainians have “a thousand-year tradition of state-building.”[10] And indeed, if we go back one thousand years in time, on the territory of what is Ukraine today we find a relatively firm state formation with Kiev as the capital city, ruled by the legendary Kiev prince, Vladimir the Great. However, whether it was a Ukrainian state is quite another question.


This grand duchy was a very loosely organized entity. The lords of the various towns enjoyed a high degree of local power, whereas the ruler of the city of Kiev was recognized as a “grand duke” with a certain suzerainty over the others. When gradual dissolution of this state formation set in during the 1200s, the demographic and political center of gravity among eastern Slavs began to move towards the deep taiga forests to the northeast, towards the upper course of the Volga. This process gained momentum when the Mongol hordes came in 1240, as their mounted forces found the terrain forbiddingly difficult. Taking as its starting point what had been a minor town in this area, Moscow, a new realm arose among the eastern Slavs--the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, which in the 1700s was to become the Russian Empire.


Muscovy differed from Kiev in many respects. Customs and life-styles were influenced by the Finnish groups that were settled in the area when the Slavs arrived; there were strong cultural impulses from the Mongolians as well--witness the fact that the Muscovite ruler, unlike that of Kiev, demanded absolute power over his realm. On the other hand, there were also three important bonds linking the new Muscovite state to that of Kiev: the people had the same religion (Orthodox Christianity), largely the same language (Old East Slavonic); and the Muscovite rulers were the direct descendants of a branch of the Kiev ruling family, the Ryurik dynasty.


Thus, Russian historians have always considered the Kievan state as being the direct precursor of the Muscovite empire. All accounts of “the history of Russia” have commenced with the 800s--and not the 1100s, which was when Moscow started to emerge. From a Russian nation-building perspective, this had one clear advantage: it made the Russian nation a good three hundred years older than it otherwise would have been. In the Soviet Union--which was officially a multi- or supra-national state--this view was perpetuated. And so, to take one example, almost all celebrations marking the millennium of the Russian Church in 1988 were held in Moscow, even though the great St. Vladimir - the baptizer of the Russian lands - had in fact been a grand duke of Kiev. (Incidentally, according to the Ukrainians, he should be known not as “Vladimir” but as Volodymyr, since that was his name in the Ukrainian language.)


Also Western historians have generally accepted the Russian time-perspective. True enough, certain émigré Ukrainian historians have always maintained that this was a theft of the history of the Ukrainian people, but most of their Western colleagues have brushed these objections aside, dismissing them as rather pathetic manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism. In their view, whether or not Kievan Rus’ was “Ukrainian” or “Russian” is a totally anachronistic way of posing the question, since at the time of Kievan Rus’ there had not yet been any ethnic differentiation between those two groups of eastern Slavs.[11] Historians have argued and disagreed about the character and origin of Kievan Rus’--but this has been quite a different discussion, a question of whether the empire was founded by the Slavs themselves, or by Scandinavian Vikings.  


Now that Ukraine has become an independent state, the tug-of-war as to who are the bearers of the legacy of Kievan Rus’ has entered a new phase. Whereas the Russians maintain their view, the Ukrainian authorities have quite simply proclaimed that Kievan Rus’ was Ukrainian. And this is the view presented in Ukrainian schoolbooks.[12] Here there is little room for compromise, even though some of the main towns of Kievan Rus’--like Novgorod and Pskov--actually lie within the borders of today’s Russia.


Occasionally, this Ukrainian view of history may also assume a directly anti-Russian tone, as when schoolbooks feature drawings that show how “the Muscovites plundered Kiev in 1169.” The episode in question was one of the countless feuds involving various branches of the Ryurik family; on this occasion it was the Muscovy duke Andrey Bogolyubskiy who was on the warpath. Incidentally, the Ukrainian word for “Muscovite” used in the schoolbook, moskal’, has now taken on a second meaning in addition to the historical one: it has become a derogatory term for “Russians” in general. A Russian in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine showed me this particular textbook as an example of meaningless attacks on the Russian people in Ukrainian historiography.


At times it seems, however, as if the Ukrainians themselves feel that they are on shaky ground in seeking to expropriate the entire Kievian state for use as a construction site for the Ukrainian project of nation-building. Very often, when it is maintained that the Ukrainians have a centuries-old state tradition, what is being referred to is not Kievan Rus’, but the Ukrainian Cossacks. It was in the 1400s and 1500s that these Cossacks settled along the middle course of the Dniepr in the southernmost reaches of what was then the Polish–Lithuanian commonwealth. Here they established a belt of more or less autonomous communities, the most important of which was Sich with its main base on an island in the Dniepr, to the south of the Porogi rapids.


In today’s Ukraine, the Cossacks are represented as ethnic Ukrainians.[13] In fact they were of more mixed origins: over the centuries, fugitive serfs had intermingled with the horsemen of the plains. From the latter the Cossacks adopted many of their traditions and customs, not least their military skills and their abilities on horseback. All the same, they were not nomads, but tillers of the soil, like most other Ukrainian peasants. Unlike the Tatars and Nogai to the south, they were not Muslim, but Christian. Furthermore, unlike the Poles, they were Orthodox, not Roman Catholic. Taken together, these features provided the basis for the development of a separate Cossack identity.[14]


The Cossacks swore fealty to the Polish king, but retained an autonomous position within the Rzeczpospolita Polska and could, for instance, carry on their own diplomatic correspondence. To the Poles, they served as a buffer against the Tatars, but the Poles frequently came into open conflict with the Cossacks themselves. The most important uprising against the Polish king took place in 1648, when the Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmel’nytskyy undertook a series of victorious campaigns far to the north and west in the country, not stopping until he came to Lwow (Lvov, Lv’iv). For a time his forces represented a threat to the entire Polish state.


For six years the Sich community was not only autonomous but in practice totally independent. In 1654, however, Khmel’nytskyy realized that he needed an ally in order to stand against the Poles, and thus concluded a pact with the Russian Tsar, Aleksey Mikhaylovich, in Pereyaslav. Today this agreement is interpreted quite differently in Ukraine and in Russia. According to the Ukrainians, this was merely a temporary tactical alliance; Russian and Soviet historiographers, however, hail it as the “reunification of the Ukrainian and Russian lands.” In 1954, Khrushchev celebrated the 300-year anniversary of this agreement by transferring to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic jurisdiction over the Crimean peninsula, which until then had been under the Russian S.S.R.


For almost a century and a half after the Pereyaslav union, the Ukrainian Cossacks retained a degree of autonomy within the Russian state, but there were uprisings also against their new lords. The most famous of these is the rebellion under the hetman Ivan Mazepa in 1708. Mazepa joined with Charles XII of Sweden against Peter the Great of Russia in the Great Northern War. In 1709, however, the Swedes were defeated in the battle of Poltava. In Russian historiography, Mazepa has been represented as the arch-traitor incarnate--today he is celebrated as a freedom fighter in Ukraine.


In 1775 Russia’s Catherine the Great decided she had had enough of the unruly Cossacks. She dissolved what was left of their autonomous communities and removed some Cossacks to the Kuban area east of the Black Sea, whereas others were re-settled in Ottoman-controlled areas in the Balkans. Although this meant the end of the Ukrainian Cossacks, they lived on in memory, not least in the literary works of Nikolai Gogol and of Ukraine’s “national poet,” Taras Shevchenko.


With perestroika, tales of the Cossacks re-surfaced, circulated by Ukrainian nationalists in western Ukraine--which may seem a bit ironic, since there had never been any Cossacks in that area.[15] The explanation was probably that many other issues vital to the western Ukrainians--such as the struggle for the Ukrainian Catholic Church or against the Russian language--could have split the Ukrainian people rather than uniting them, whereas the Cossack-issue might provide a rallying point also for the eastern parts of the country.


Cossack society was now depicted as decidedly democratic and egalitarian; indeed, the Cossacks were even held to have produced the first democratic constitution in Europe.[16] At one point Ukrainian military journals featured articles on how Cossack battle techniques could be put to use in the military doctrine of the new Ukraine. The national anthem praised the Ukrainian people as the literal descendants of the Cossacks--a rather dubious claim, since the great majority of the Cossack population had left the country after 1775.


Today the Ukrainian Cossacks have been “resurrected,” with several divisions around the country. Their main headquarters is located on Bohdan Khmel’nytskyy Street in Kiev, but when I paid a visit in 1994, the premises were almost deserted. The new hetman said that the Cossacks felt they had again been forgotten; support--both financial and moral--had withered after Ukraine regained its independence. The Cossacks had done their job, and now they were no longer needed.


In fact, the modern Ukrainian state has not two, but three or four, perhaps five-six, precursors--all depending on how one approaches the question. The fall of the tsarist empire saw the establishment of several, very short-lived, Ukrainian republics which partly overlapped and partly succeeded one another. One of these was led by a former general under the Tsar, Pavlo Skoropadskyy ,whose right-wing regime (April–December 1918) collaborated with the Germans, who occupied most of Ukraine during World War I. Skoropadskyy assumed the title of “hetman” and maintained that he had Cossack blood in his veins.


The other republics of the years 1917–1919, Narodna Rada and the Directorate, were national-socialist in character. The president of the former was Mykola Khrushevskyy, the leading contemporary Ukrainian historian. It was he who first developed the thesis that there was no organic link between the Kievan state and that of Muscovy. Khrushevskyy was responsible for designing the new national coat of arms--with the trident, an heraldic symbol harkening back to the days of Kievan Rus’. The trident has been reintroduced into the Ukrainian coat of arms after 1991, thereby binding together two historical threads--one going back to 1918, and one to the early Middle Ages.


These short-lived Ukrainian state formations were established while the “Red” Bolsheviks and “White” Russian troops were fighting out a civil war--and largely on Ukrainian territory. Neither the Reds nor the Whites were willing to grant political independence to Ukraine; for that matter, exactly how many Ukrainians were aspiring towards a separate Ukrainian state is also hard to say. In eastern Ukraine there was a strong guerrilla movement during the civil war under the leadership of Nestor Makhno, fighting against both the Whites and the Communists. However, Makhno was an anarchist and agrarian populist, rather than a Ukrainian nationalist. His goal was not so much to free Ukraine from Russia as it was to free the countryside from the tyranny of the towns and cities.


The years of World War II saw yet another attempt at establishing a Ukrainian national state, this time in western Ukraine (Galicia), where an independent Ukrainian state was proclaimed. Galicia had never been part of the Russian Empire, but had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the signing of the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact of 1939. The UPA--the Ukrainian Insurgent Army -put up steadfast resistance against the Soviet forces, working at times together with the Germans in an attempt to achieve its goal of a separate Ukrainian state.


The Germans may well have appreciated the fact that the Ukrainians wanted to fight against the Bolsheviks, but they were less enthusiastic about the idea of a separate Ukrainian state; and in June 1941 they put the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist organization, Stepan Bandera, in prison. With hindsight, we can see that this was in fact the best thing that the Nazis could have done for the cause of Ukrainian nationalism, since this make it appear far less of a “brown-shirt” movement. In Soviet Ukraine, however, Bandera was always branded the arch-villain, and many eastern Ukrainians saw no reason for celebration in 1990–91 when western Ukrainians began to commemorate him as a hero. Millions of Ukrainians have a parent or a grandparent who died in the fight against Hitler’s Germany and against traitors in their own country. Soviet veterans in the cities of eastern Ukraine have continued to celebrate the victory in World War II  with mass gathering on the 9th of May every year. On these occasions, I imagine that the Ukrainian police are grateful for the many hundreds of intervening kilometers between eastern Ukraine and the city of L’viv to the west, where UPA veterans march, demanding the right to receive war pensions. If these two demonstrations had taken place in the same town, bloodshed could easily ensue. And on such days, one may begin to wonder whether there is in fact any hope for the Ukrainian nation-building project.


It is safer to focus on the tragic side, on those occasions where all have had to confront the same foe. The greatest Ukrainian catastrophe of modern times is undoubtedly the forced collectivization of agriculture that took place in the 1930s and was followed by devastating famine. Millions of Ukrainians died as a result; and many today maintain that the forced collectivization was intended not as a (totally unsuccessful) measure for improving agricultural production, but rather as a conscious effort to eradicate the Ukrainian people. True, collectivization was carried out throughout the entire Soviet Union, with catastrophic results everywhere--but in Ukraine, the crimes committed by Stalin are seen as reflecting his particular animus towards the Ukrainian people. A film depicting the famine of the 1930s in this light was shown on Ukrainian television immediately prior to the referendum on Ukrainian independence of 1 December 1991. And it has been given much of the honor for the result of the plebiscite--with a 90 percent vote in favor of independence.[17] 




The Belarusian Constitution of 1994 states that modern Belarusians pride themselves on having a “centuries-long history of the development of Belarusian statehood.”[18] This claim of a centuries-long tradition of statehood is, of course, somewhat more modest that the Ukrainian claim of a tradition a thousand years old. All the same, it came as a surprise to most observers, who had tended to believe that the first attempts at establishing a separate Belarusian state had taken place earlier in the present century. The nation-builders of Belarus, however, maintain that they have had a (perhaps considerable) share in two of the earlier state formations presented in this chapter: Kievan Rus’ and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.[19]


Two of the constituent principalities within Kievan Rus’, Polotsk and Turov, lay in what is today the territory of Belarus. When Ukrainian historians complain that the Russians have stolen their ancient history by making Kievan Rus’ into a Russian state, Belarusian nationalists react by accusing the Ukrainians of a similar historical theft. They maintain that the local rulers of Polotsk and Turov had always retained a high degree of independence in relations with Kiev, and cared little about the perpetual squabbles as to who was to title himself the “Grand Duke of Kiev.” Furthermore, the populations of Polotsk and Turov did not belong to the same east-Slavic tribes as those living further south in Kievan Rus’. As a German historian has remarked, “Thus, Polotsk and the neighboring principalities became an argument against the claim that it is only now that the Belarusians have a state of their own.”[20]


It is from the Kievan era that Belarusian nation-builders have taken their first national martyr as well. Princess Rahnieda of Polotsk was abducted by Duke Vladimir/Volodymyr the Great, who then forced her into marrying him after he had killed her father and her brothers. Later in life, the same Vladimir was to become a pious man, indeed a candidate for sainthood. To Belarusian nationalists, however, his abduction of their princess stands as a symbol of the sufferings of an assaulted, raped nation.


After the Mongol invaders had crushed Kievan Rus’ in the 1240s, Polotsk and Turov gradually became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which, as it expanded south-easterly in the 1300s received more and more Slavic subjects--proto-Belarusians, but also proto-Ukrainians and probably proto-Russians as well. It did not take long before the Slavic-speaking subjects outnumbered the Lithuanian-speaking ones. As administrative language for his vast realm, the Grand Duke therefore opted for an early variant of Belarusian, even though he himself and his court spoke Lithuanian. It is thus not surprising that Belarusians consider it misleading to represent this as a purely Lithuanian realm, as is often done. In fact the full name was not the “Grand Duchy of Lithuania” but the “Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus’ and Samogitia.” Samogitia was an area in the Northwest of the grand duchy, whereas Rus’ was the term then used for the east-Slavic areas. It is this part of the official title that Belarusians have seized upon to prove their centuries-long state tradition. When the grand duchy sought to defend itself against attacks from the Teutonic knightly orders in the 14th and 15th centuries, Belarusian nobles were also there. The Belarusian coat of arms which was adopted in 1991, the so-called Pohonia, has the same motif as the white knight of the Lithuanians, and has its origins in the same battles of mediaeval days.


When Lithuania ended up in the personal union with Poland in 1385, the Lithuanian ruling classes, and gradually all Lithuanian-speaking subjects, converted to Roman Catholicism. The Belarusians, however, kept their Orthodox faith, thereby gradually becoming a cultural-religious minority group. For a long time, however, this had scant consequences, as in both Lithuania and Poland religious tolerance was high.


With the establishment of the Polish–Lithuanian union in 1569, Lithuania retained a certain degree of autonomy--with its own state institutions, its own army and certain established privileges. Until 1696, the language of administration remained Old Belarusian, which, in the course of the 1500s, had developed into a literary language. The Belarusian humanist Francisak Skaryna translated the Bible into Old Belarusian in 1517–19--so it can be argued that the Belarusians not only have a tradition of statehood, but are an old cultural nation as well.


However, Belarusian fortunes took an abrupt downturn from the 1600s. When Poland was divided in 1772, in 1793 and in 1795, almost all of the Belarusian areas were ceded to the Russian Empire. In the wake of these political upheavals, Belarus was left as an even more un-developed peripheral province than it had been under Poland. Only the peasantry spoke Belarusian, which was no longer accounted a “proper” language. Russian linguistic scholars viewed it as a plebeian form of Russian; it was inconceivable that this should be used as the medium of instruction in the schools, for instance. Officially, (Great) Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were merely three variants of the same language, Russian--not three different languages.


The first to attempt to (re-) establish a separate Belarusian identity were the revolutionary socialists and populists who fought together with the Polish rebels in the uprising of 1863. There existed no organized movement for Belarusian independence, however, and when an independent, democratic Belarusian Republic was proclaimed in Minsk in March 1918, this should be seen basically as an effort to spare the country from the consequences of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. An elaborate version of Pohonia was now drawn as the new coat of arms. In the nationalist historiography of Belarus, the Republic is seen as proof of the Belarusians” will and ability to form a state of their own in modern times.[21]


However, this Republic was a short-lived one: it existed for less than one year, and then the Bolsheviks were back. The Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was established in January 1919, initially encompassing only the easternmost portions of today’s Belarus. The state of Poland, born after World War I, gained control over the westerly portions. In “their” Belarusian areas, the Poles pursued a harsh “polonization” policy--and in return, the Bolshevik regime went to the opposite extreme and promoted a vigorous “belorussification” of “its” territories. Belarusian was now introduced as the language of administration and the schools, also in places where the population scarcely understood a word of the language and definitely preferred Russian.


Ironically enough, Belarusian had not yet been codified as a modern written language. In all haste, language-builders in Minsk set about turning out Belarusian grammar compendia and dictionaries. Where the language lacked terms for modern concepts and phenomena, new ones were manufactured--and preferably not on the basis of Russian. Thus, pupils frequently found themselves memorizing words unfamiliar even to their teachers. According to one Western historian, some of these Belarusian “enlighteners” were killed by irate peasants who would have no truck with all this unnatural nonsense.[22]


Then, from the early 1930s, an abrupt end was put to the Belarusian cultural experiment in the Soviet Union. Russian was re-introduced in most schools, and it was only among some of the peasantry and some of the cultural intelligensia that the Belarusian language was still spoken.


Thus it came about that, when the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Belarusians had the status of a separate national group and indeed their own republic, which had even been a member of the UN since 1948. And yet, they scarcely had any culture to call their own, beyond a rather anemic official “folklorism” complete with “national” costumes and “national” songs alien to most of them.


It was with this point of departure that, in the early 1990s, Belarusian historians set about revising their national history. Not only did it emerge as anti-Soviet, it was to a considerable extent anti-Russian as well. “National identity was defined primarily in contrast to that of Greater Russia. The Belarusians’ new version of their national history would have to be first and foremost a non-Russian one.”[23]




Like the Ukrainian declaration of independence, the Moldovan declaration, adopted three days later, on 27 August 1991, also claimed a “thousand-year” tradition of statehood. Independence was proclaimed “in recognition of the thousand-year history of our people and our unbroken state tradition within the historical and ethnic boundaries of our nation.”[24] These somewhat vague formulations indicated that the Moldovan nation-builders sought to legitimize the new state in both ethnic and historical terms. This “unbroken state tradition” was, however, not so immediately apparent, unless the Moldovan latched on to the Romanian state tradition. And that was probably exactly what the Moldovan authorities at the time had wished to do.


Moldova, or Moldavia, is one of the three main historical regions of Romania, the other two being Wallachia and Transylvania. Over the centuries, Moldavia has been situated on the border between the Russian and the Turkish-Ottoman Empires, tossed back and forth between these two great powers. The area known to history as Moldavia is considerably larger than the independent Moldovan state of today, which is composed mainly of the easternmost portions of the historical territory, the remainder of which lies in Romania.


Eastern Moldova is often termed “Bessarabia,” a name that was not commonly used before the beginning of the 19th century and which has nothing to do with Arabia--it is derived instead from the Romanian nobility, the house of Basarab. Bessarabia denotes the lands between the rivers Dniestr, Danube and Prut, the latter being a tributary of the Danube. The main portion of Bessarabia comprises the core of today’s Moldova. From the 10th century up until the middle of the 12th century, the territories of Bessarabia were part of Kievan Rus’. With the collapse of this realm, Bessarabia gradually came under the expanding Lithuanian Grand Duchy.


Somewhat further to the south and west there emerged the proto-Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, later also known as the “Danubian Principalities.” The Moldovans and the Wallachians spoke a language related to Vulgar Latin, unlike their Slavic neighbors, although they shared the same Orthodox faith. These states were characterized by a considerable degree of Slavic cultural influence; for instance, in the principality of Moldavia, the language of administration and the liturgical language was Old Church Slavonic, written with the Cyrillic alphabet.


The territory of the Moldavian princes was gradually expanded; in 1367 they gained control over Bessarabia as well. By that time, the Ottomans had begun their march northward into the Balkans, conquering one area after another. Moldavia’s resistance was led by their prince Stefan the Great (Stefan cel mare, 1457–1504), who managed to ensure the independence of the principality and even expanded it somewhat. Today he is one of the great heroes of Moldovan (and Romanian) history, and the main street of Chisinau now bears his name. During the Soviet era, this was called Lenin Prospect; prior to that, it had been named after Tsar Alexander I, who conquered the area.


All the same, shortly after the death of Stefan, Moldavia became a vassal state of the Ottomans. In 1538 the most famous of all the Ottoman sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent, conquered most of Bessarabia as well, and the Dniestr now became the outermost border of the Ottoman Empire. The lands to the east of the river had long been nearly uninhabited. The steppes north of the Black Sea were harried by fierce horsemen and few peasants dared to settle there.


In the course of the 1700s, Russian influence over the Danubian Principalities became steadily stronger. Following one of the countless Russo–Turkish wars, both Moldova and Wallachia became de facto protectorates of Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Küchük–Kainarji in 1774. Then in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars, Bessarabia became part of the Russian Empire. It was only much later that the nation-state of Romania was established, when Wallachia and the remainder of Moldova merged into one state under one monarch. This was a gradual process over the years between 1859 and 1881.


Romanian nationalists had never come to terms with the loss of Bessarabia. Together with other “unredeemed” areas with Romanian-speaking populations--Transylvania to the west, Bukovina to the north, Dobrudja to the south--Bessarabia was part of what they called--and still call--Romania mare, or Greater Romania. Today most of these territories have been “redeemed,” with the exception of some smaller areas lying in Ukraine, as well as the lands of the state of Moldova.


During the Russian Revolution in 1919 the Romanians took the opportunity to annex Bessarabia. For the Moldovans this meant that they were reunited with their ethnic brethren--not, however, that this brought many improvements. Today many older Moldovans complain that the Russian administrators and estate owners in the interwar years were merely replaced by rather arrogant administrators from Bucharest. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the Moldovans wished a return to Russia, or to the USSR, as it then was known.


However, the rulers in Moscow had no intentions of accepting the loss of Bessarabia. The first signals of plans for re-conquest came in 1924, when the “Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic” (MASSR) was established on the left (eastern) bank of the Dniestr as a separate administrative area within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This area is also known as “Transnistria”--the land on the “other” side of the Dniestr as seen from Bucharest. Transnistria had never been part of the Romanian state, and was populated mainly by Ukrainians and other Slavic groups, with, however, a considerable Moldovan/Romanian minority. Moscow’s intention behind demarcating this as a separate autonomous area under the name of “Moldavia” was fairly obvious: for use as a platform from which to regain control of Bessarabia. And this was what happened during World War II.


In the secret additional protocol to the 1939 Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact, Bessarabia is mentioned as belonging to the Soviet sphere of influence; one year later, Moscow forced Romania to cede the area. When the Romanians joined with the Axis powers during the war, they regained control of Bessarabia again, for a brief interlude, even marching further well into Ukraine before they were halted. But when 1945 came, the Soviet flag was once again flying over Chisinau--or Kishinev, as Russians called the town.


The next step was the establishment of a Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR), formed by joining half of the MASSR together with most of Bessarabia. The southernmost areas by the Black Sea, with considerable Ukrainian and Bulgarian populations, were not made part of the MSSR but went instead to Ukraine, the UkSSR.


After World War II, Romania turned Communist, becoming a “Socialist brotherly country” of the USSR. All the same, nearly all contact between Romania and Moldavia was broken off. In the Soviet Union it was forbidden to write the Moldavian/Romanian language with the Latin alphabet (as the Romanians do); the Moldovans were now to use the Cyrillic alphabet.


The historiography of Soviet Moldavia emphasized the Slavic cultural influence and the close historical ties to Russia[25]. These ties are undoubtedly both many and strong, but the Soviet regime exaggerated them out of all proportion. Soviet linguistics, for example, maintained that as much as 40 percent of the vocabulary of Moldavian consists of Slavic loan-words.[26] More than most other non-Russian republics, Moldavia was administered by bureaucrats sent from Moscow--including two party bosses who were later to make their careers in the Kremlin: Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko.


Almost all of the borders of the Moldavian Soviet Republic were brand-new. Its territory overlapped with the historical lands of Bessarabia, with certain additions and subtractions. Many have seen in this a classical instance of the divide-and-rule tactics of Stalin, who deliberately set borders so as to interweave a whole series of political/ethnic conflicts to play ethnic groups off against each other. For example, the MSSR was given a sizable Slavic minority with the inclusion of the strip of land east of the Dniestr.


On the other hand, this cannot be the entire explanation. Moldavia would have received a large Slavic population no matter what, since there live even more Russians and Ukrainians to the west of the river. Throughout the Soviet Union, the various ethnic groups lived so intermingled and admixed that constructing “ethnically pure” units would have been an impossibility. Actually, a US scholar has maintained that in the Soviet Union a great many boundaries were drawn up precisely with the aim of creating republics that were as ethnically homogeneous as possible.[27] It may well be that this was the case with Moldavia as well.


At any rate, these new borders are clearly an important reason why Moldova has not been reunited with Romania after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Moldovan Popular Front, so instrumental in the 1989–91 struggle for independence, pressured for such reunification, insisting that all of Moldova should be part of a reunited Romania--not only the areas that were historically Romanian. The map of Romania mare displayed in the Front’s Chisinau headquarters includes the Dniestr region as well, as I noticed on a visit in September 1992.


This was not something the Dniestr population was ready to accept. Historical experience had left its scars: during the W.W.II Romanian occupation, the soldiers of Marshal Antonescu had spread fear and terror throughout Transnistria. And so, from the top-hat of history, Dniestrian leaders now conjured up a separate Dniestrian statehood--the Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Republic of 1924, the MASSR. In September 1990 they resurrected the MASSR within the areas under their control, christening it the Dniestrian-Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic, PMSSR. (When the Soviet Union was dissolved in the following year, the terms “Socialist” and “Soviet” were dropped, leaving the name as the PMR.) Nor was that all: they had at their disposal the physical means to defend their independence when Moldovan forces attempted to regain the territory in the spring of 1992.


Thus, rather than having their cake and eating it too, Moldovan reunification enthusiasts in the Peoples” Front ended up with nothing: Moldova and Romania are still two separate states, with Moldova currently de facto split in two. History had given the reunificationists an appetite for more than they managed to swallow. In 1992–93 they were pressured off the political stage in Chisinau, to be replaced by Moldovan nationalists who concentrated instead on building a civil Moldovan nation-state.




After the dissolution of the USSR, Kazakhstan was the last of the Union republics to proclaim its independence. This had not take place until 16 December 1991. That Kazakhstan was “last past the post” indicates that the desire for political independence was not so pronounced--for various reasons. The country is linked to Russia through strong economic, structural and not least demographic ties. About half of the country’s approx. 18 million inhabitants are either Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Belarusians and Germans. As of 1990, at the most 40 percent of the total population were ethnic Kazakhs. But, once independence was a fact, the Kazakhs were determined to make the most of it. Also here a nation-building process was inaugurated, and a new national history was written.


Kazakhstan declared itself an independent nation-state: what was less clear was whose nation was meant. On the one hand, it was to be the country of all its inhabitants; and yet at the same time it was also the state of the ethnic Kazakhs in a special sense. Ever since independence, there have been signs pointing in various directions: now an ethnic nation-concept, now a political one.[28] All the same, a clear tendency seems to be emerging, with the Kazakhstani state increasing being presented as the culmination of what is seen as the uninterrupted 500-year-old state tradition of the Kazakh people. At a semi-official conference held in the capital city of Almaty in April 1996 on the “Development of Kazakhstan’s Statehood,” it was claimed that the Kazakh khanate which had been established in the mid-1400s was “the first nation-state in Central Asia established by a people who still exists.”[29]


What sort of state was this khanate then? The Kazakhs have traditionally been a nomadic people, and there exist few written sources on their earliest history. Russian archeologists and historians of the past century carried out a major job in collecting and systematizing the available material, and it is largely to their work that today’s Kazakh historians must turn in their attempts to re-write the history of their nation. However, the notion of a Kazakh nation-state existing backing in the 1400s does not appear in the work of these 19th century Russian scholars. That has been added more recently.


The Kazakh khanate was established as a loose federation of various tribes with diverging ethnic backgrounds. Its core area lay to the south of Lake Balkhash and along the rivers Chu and Talas in what is today southern Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs migrated with their herds, and had no towns or cities as such. The ruler himself--the khan--lived in a traditional nomad’s tent, a yurt. Any territorial control was highly rudimentary, as was the khan’s control of his subjects. He also had very limited powers of taxation. Indeed, when an American scholar ventured to refer to this khanate as a “state,” this was immediately countered by a colleague who held that the very concept of “state” is highly misleading for such a community.[30]


Gradually the Kazakh tribes went further north on their migrations, towards the rivers Irtysh and Ural, in search of good pasturelands for their herds. As a result of this territorial spread, plus internal rivalries in the ruling family, the khanate was split into three “zhuz” in the mid-1500s: the Great Horde, the Middle Horde and the Little Horde. In some periods all three were led by the same khan, whereas at other times each had its own leader. In either case, the khans and the Kazakh nobility had very little power. The individual tribes and the extended families enjoyed autonomy in all internal matters.


In the early 1700s the Kazakhs were threatened by the Mongol Jungars who had by then established a mighty and warlike khanate in southern Siberia. In hopes of withstanding this danger, the two northernmost zhuz, i.e. the Little and the Middle Horde, sought protection under the Russian state. This protection came in the forms of agreements concluded in 1731 and 1740, respectively. Quite parallel to the case of Ukrainian–Russian disagreement over the Pereyaslav Treaty of 1654, Kazakhs and Russians today see these agreements in very different terms. The Russians take them as proof that the Kazakhs voluntarily submitted to the Russian imperial power, whereas for the Kazakhs this was merely a matter of a short-term tactical alliance.


In support of their view, Kazakh historians point out how a whole series of Kazakh rebellions took place in the ensuing decades. This they see as an expression of national opposition to the foreign yoke. Russian historians, however, tend to see this as a natural reaction to the desperation felt by Kazakhs whenever they were unable to find enough areas to graze their herds.


Kazakh tribal society was marked by internal feuds. In bad years the tribes would often trespass on each other’s territories, stealing animals and plundering trade caravans. In order to keep them under control the Russian authorities erected fortresses throughout the steppes, manned largely by Cossacks. And, when hunger and poverty intensified, several of the Kazakh tribes were allowed new grazing lands on Russian territory west of the Ural River. It was here that the “inner zhuz” was established in 1801.


In the 1820s the northernmost khanates were dissolved and the Kazakh areas placed under regular Russian rule. The Russian statesman Mikhail Speranskiy prepared a new set of administrative regulations for the “Kirgiz” steppe. (At that time, and for the next hundred years, the Kazakhs were referred to as “Kirgiz.”) Several major Kazakh revolts against the Russian regime were put down in the 1830s and 1840s. The most important of these was led by Kenisary Qasimov, who in Soviet times was depicted as the greatest of all villains in the history of the Kazakhs, rebel and traitor par excellence, almost the counterpart to the Ukrainians” Mazepa. Today, however, he has been allocated quite a different role, as the great freedom hero of Kazakhstan.[31] Incidentally, his grandfather, Ablay Khan, who concluded the first voluntary pact with the Russians, is also still held in high esteem, as a great statesman of the Kazakh nation.


In the 1860s also the southern zhuz, the “Great Horde,” was conquered by tsarist Russia. Towards the end of that century, hundreds of thousands of land-starved Russian peasants migrated into Kazakh territory, settling down in the best areas. The Kazakh nomads had always traveled over vast areas with their animals; now, when they returned to a traditional grazing area, they often found that it had been taken over by Russian newcomers.


By the outbreak of World War I, Kazakhstan had over one million Slavic inhabitants. Kazakh bitterness peaked in 1916, culminating in a major revolt when the Tsar tried to conscript Central Asians for (non-combatant) military service. The revolt began as an apparently spontaneous uprising in several different places, among Kazakhs as well as among Kirgiz and Uzbeks. The rebels plundered and killed thousands of Slavic settler families, to which the soldiers of the Tsar responded by killing even more Central Asians. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs and Kirgiz then fled over the border to China. The uprising of 1916 is today one of the greatest traumas in the historical consciousness of the Kazakhs. Under the Soviet Union, more were to come.


Towards the end of the last century, some of the Kazakh elite had become strongly influenced by Russian culture and lifestyles. They left their traditional yurt, built Russian-style houses, started to cultivate crops, and sent their sons off to Russia to be schooled. This was to lay the foundations for the emergence of a thin layer of Kazakh intelligentsia. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, a group of Western-oriented Kazakh intellectuals proclaimed an autonomous Kazakh state, “Alash Orda,” which supported the Provisional Russian Government against the Bolsheviks.


It was, however, the Bolsheviks who won the civil war. In 1920 they established a “Kirgiz” (read: Kazakh) Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federal Soviet Republic. Initially this administrative entity included only the northern part of today’s Kazakhstan (together with a narrow strip of the southern Urals and southern Siberia in what is today the Russian Federation). In 1924 and 1925, however, the territory was more than doubled when the provinces of Syr Darya and Semirech'e to the south were added on. And finally, when Stalin’s new constitution was adopted in 1936, Kazakhstan was elevated to the highest level in the hierarchy of autonomous units within the Soviet system. The area was now proclaimed a separate constituent republic within the Union, outside the Russian Federation (but of course very much within the USSR), under the name of “the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.”


Not only the outer boundaries of the Kazakh republic, but also its administrative center seemed always on the move--almost as if the whole affair were a nomad camp. To begin with the capital of the republic was located far to the north, in Orenburg--which today lies in Russia. In 1924 it was moved to Kzyl Orda in the southwest, and then finally found a relatively permanent home in Alma-Ata in the southeast in 1929. In recent years, however, the capital has once again taken up the wanderer’s staff, and has now pitched camp in Akmola, in the north of the country


Nor is that all. These capitals have also changed names at least once--Russian and Soviet names at one point, Kazakh at another. For a while during the Soviet era, Orenburg was re-christened Chkalov in honor of the first Russian transpolar pilot; Kzyl Orda was the Soviet name for the ancient oasis town of Aq Mechet, known as Perovsk under the tsars; Alma Ata, founded in the 1855 by Russian Cossacks as a garrison town under the name of Vernyy, has now been renamed Almaty; and finally, Akmola is the latest name for Akmolinsk, which was known as Tselinograd (‘The city of the virgin soil land”) under Khrushchev. Akmola (Aq Mola), however, means “White grave,” and present-day Kazakhstani state builders decided that this name had a too negative ring. In the spring of 1998, therefore, they changed the name of the city once more, this time to Astana, which simply means “capital.”


All these peregrinations in capitals and in nomenclature may well have left the reader confused: on the other hand, perhaps they should be seen as telling reflections of the highly complex, ambiguous and composite politico-cultural nature of the republic of Kazakhstan.


Forced collectivization under Stalin hit the Kazakhs hard indeed. In the 1930s most of them were still nomads or semi-nomads, so it was extremely difficult for them to adapt to the new system of collective farms which required a settled, agriculturist lifestyle. Their traditional source of livelihood was ruined. At least one million Kazakhs died, and others escaped to China and Mongolia. In terms of total population, the Kazakhs had probably the greatest demographic loss in the 1930s of any Soviet people. This also meant that Kazakh opposition to Soviet power was now broken. With time, the Kazakhs were to become more Russified and more closely integrated into Soviet society than any of the other peoples of Soviet Central Asia.


During and immediately prior to World War II, over one million Koreans, Germans, Poles, Chechens and several other ethnic groups were forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan from various other parts of the USSR. In the late 1950s, Khrushchev instigated a massive campaign for putting the so-called “virgin lands” of north Kazakhstan to the plough. Any Kazakh leaders who happened to oppose this, were simply removed. Hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians moved into the republic. As a result of all these demographic changes, the portion of Kazakhs in the total population of Kazakhstan had fallen to approx. 30 percent by 1959, whereas Russians accounted for 42 percent. In no other Soviet republic was the titular group so outnumbered. On the other hand, the Kazakhs had a far more rapid reproductive rate than the European groups; by the time of the 1989 census the former had regained their status as the largest single ethnic group, although still under the 40 percent mark.


Throughout the post-war period, Russians and other Slavic groups dominated the economic and political life of Kazakhstan--for instance, Leonid Brezhnev was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1954 to 1959. However, under the leadership of his Kazakh successor, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, more and more high positions in the republic and party apparatus were filled by ethnic Kazakhs. Indeed, Western scholars often touted Kazakhs in Kazakhstan as a striking example of a titular nation that had managed to put their mark on “their” Soviet republic, far over and beyond what their actual demographic weight would have led one to expect.[32]


The Kunayev regime was not only a nationalizing one--it was also corrupt. In an attempt to rectify matters, Gorbachev had Kunayev removed in 1986, replacing him with an ethnic Russian who had never before sat foot in the republic. This was taken as a clear infringement of the unwritten laws regulating relations between the ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, and as an unpardonable insult to the Kazakh people. Masses gathered in the streets of Alma Ata in protest, and when the police went to counter-attack, at least three persons were killed. This was the first, but not the last, time that Gorbachev’s lack of Fingerspitzengefühl in nationalities issues was to have violent consequences.


Today the memory of the “December massacre” has become an important part of the national Kazakh state mythology. It is presented as proof of the Kazakh desire for political independence, and, at the same time, given “global importance” as (allegedly) the “first blow against the totalitarian Soviet system,” the initial pebble that precipitated the landslide.[33] Kazakhstan gained its political independence, it is proclaimed, not as a result of external events and pressures, but as the inevitable outcome of the Kazakh people’s deep yearning for freedom.


* * *


The new national histories that are being written throughout the former Soviet republics focus on a whole series of events and individuals never mentioned during Communist times. Soviet historiography simply “removed” all persons who had fallen from grace, even central figures in important events of the past. The strategy was simply to act as if they had never existed at all--the classic example being the omission of Trotsky from all accounts of the 1917 October revolution, which he had in fact led. Even photographs in which he figured were often retouched.


In the new states of the former Soviet Union there are other “Trotskys”--historical actors whom the Communists transformed into non-persons. Precisely because it was so selective, Soviet historiography presents ample opportunities for those who now seek to write new, national histories. And because the Soviet versions serve to inspire so little confidence, any alternative versions may well appear all the more reliable.


But nation-building historiography is more than merely filling in the blanks left by the official Soviet versions. As Ernest Renan once remarked, creating a national history is as much a matter of collective forgetting as of collective remembering.[34] Not everything in the history of a nation is equally suitable as construction material in a nation-building project. The new versions of “history” are occasionally characterized by suppression of facts and “memory shifts.” The Latvians, for example, would prefer to present the Soviet regime as something forced upon them by the ethnic Russians, so the Communist era is often referred to as “krievu laiki,” the “Russian times.” What is thereby not mentioned is that Communism is an international ideology rooted in that same Western Europe that they so much want to be part of. That also means forgetting how Lenin’s propaganda was well received in the factories of Riga--among Russian and Latvian workers alike. In the Red Army there was a separate Latvian elite division, the Latvian Rifle Company. In November 1919, when the regime of Lenin was about to break down during the civil war, Petrograd was defended by precisely these Latvians. During the Soviet period, the Latvian Rifles had their own museum in the center of Riga. The museum still stands, but now re-christened the “Museum of the Occupation”--and the “occupation” in question is that of the Soviet era. Many of the old objects on display have been retained, whereas the descriptive accompanying text has been conveniently altered.


Modern Ukrainian history texts may praise Khmel’nytskyy and his struggle in the national cause, but they touch very lightly on the extensive anti-Jewish pogroms that followed in the wake of the Cossacks. Ukrainian nation-builders are also doing what they can to limit the damages of Bandera’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. If there is no way of hushing up this interlude completely, then relegating it to the footnotes of history may be the answer--likewise for the case of the SS “Galicia” division, recruited among west Ukrainians. A complicating factor, however, is that some Ukrainian nationalists have no desire to “forget” these persons and organizations, but in fact take pride in them. In similar fashion, certain Moldovan nationalists have sought to make a hero of Marshal Antonescu, and want to erect a statue of him in the center of Chisinau. Others, however, have realized that it is precisely such attitudes that make it difficult to get the entire population of the country to join hands in the shared project of building a nation.


The historiographical disputes within and among the Soviet successor states are often conducted in the same uncompromizing dogmatic spirit and onesideness as once characterized Soviet ideology. This, as Soviet marxists were prone to say, is “hardly a coincidence.” As Mark von Hagen of the Harriman institute has pointed out, it is often the very same historians who control the rewriting of the national history today as ruled supreme in the good old Communist days. They even sometimes occupy the same office as they used to have, only above the name plate is written “professor of Ukrainian history” or professor of Lithuanian history.” The sign which said “professor of the CPSU” has been removed.[35]


[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946): 29l. Originally published in 1861.

[2] Ottar Dahl, Norsk Historieforskning i 19. and 20. århundre  (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1970).

[3]  Henrik Wergeland “Til Forfædrenes Minde” (“To the memory of our ancestors”) [1834], quoted here from Arne Bergsgård, Norsk Historie 1814-1880 (Oslo: Det norske samlaget, 1975): 107.

[4] Arne Kommisrud, “«Historiske» og «historieløse folk». En historisk-sosiologisk teori om nasjonalitetskonflikter i Sentral-Europa,”  Sosiologi i dag 22, 3, 1992:  52-53.

[5]  Rein Taagepera, Estonia. Return to independence (Boulder CO: Westview, 1993):  23.

[6] Mikhas Tkachov, “Ob istoricheskom gerbe ‘Pogonya’,”Veter Baltiki, 1 (September 1990):  4.

[7]  See e.g. Alfred Erich Senn, “Lithuania: rights and responsibilities of independence,”  in Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras, eds.,  New States, new politics. Building the post-Soviet nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1997).

[8] Romuald J. Misiunas, “National Identity and Foreign Policy in the Baltic States,”  in  S. Frederick Starr, ed.,  The Legacy of History in Russia and the New States of Eurasia (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1994): 96;  Mette Skak, From Empire to Anarchy. Postcommunist Foreign policy and International Relations (London: C.Hurst, 1996): 196.

[9] Ole Nørgaard, ed., De baltiske land efter uafhængigheden. Hvorfor så forskellige? (Århus: Politica, 1994): 44.

[10] Andrew Wilson, Ukrainian nationalism in the 1990s  (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1997): 158.

[11]  “National historiographies always have the tendency to project the modern nation back in time. . . .  Kievan Rus’ was neither Russian nor Ukrainian, just as that of Charlemagne was neither French nor German.” Andreas Kappeler, “Ukrainian History from a German Perspective,”  Slavic Review 54, 3, 1995: 698.

[12] Germ Janmaat, “Ivan Mazepa and Stepan Bandera, Heroes or traitors?,” paper presented at the 4nd Annual Convention of the Association for the study of nationalities, Columbia University, April 15-17, 1999:  4-5.

[13] Wilson, Ukrainian nationalism: 160.

[14] Orest Subtelny, Ukraine. A History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2d ed., 1993).

[15] Serhiy M. Plokhy, “Historical Debates and Territorial Claims: Cossack Mythology in  the  Russian-Ukrainian Border Dispute,”  in Starr, The Legacy of History.

[16] Zenon Kohut, “History as a Battleground. Russian-Ukrainian relations and Historical Consciousness in contemporary Ukraine,” in Starr, The Legacy of History: 133.

[17]   Ibid.

[18] Novye konstitutsii stran SNG i Baltii. Sbornik dokumentov (Moscow: Manuskript, 1994): 84.

[19]  The following account is based mainly on Jan Zaprudnik, Belarus. At a Crossroads in History (Boulder CO: Westview, 1993).

[20] Rainer Lindner, “Nationsbildung durch Nationalgeschichte. Probleme der aktuellen Geschichtsdiskussion in Weissrussland,”  Osteuropa, 44, 6, 1994: 585.

[21] Barbara Törnquist Plewa, Språk och identitet in Vitryssland (Lund: Lunds universitet, 1997): 57.

[22] Nicholas P. Vakar, Belorussia. The Making of a Nation (Cambridge MA: Harvard University press, 1956):  139.

[23] Lindner, “Nationsbildung”: 579.

[24] “Deklaratsiya o nezavisimosti Respubliki Moldova,” Chisinau, August 27, 1991.

[25] Wim van Meurs, “Carving a Moldovan Identity Out of History,” Nationalities Papers 26, 1, 1998.

[26] V.I. Kozlov, Natsional’nosti SSSR, Etnodemograficheskiy obzor (Moscow: Finansy i statistika, 1982):  15.

[27] Lee Schwartz, “Regional Population Redistribution and National Homelands in the USSR,”   in Henry R. Huttenbach, ed., Soviet Nationality Policies. Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR (London: Mansell, 1990).

[28] Pål  Kolstø, “Anticipating Demographic Superiority. Kazakh Thinking On Integration And Nation-Building,”  Europe-Asia Studies 50, 1, 1998.

[29]  Kazakhstanskaya pravda, April 12, 1996.

[30] Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1995): passim; and Steven Sabol’s review of Olcott’s book in Nationalities Papers 25,  2 (June 1997).

[31] Martha Brill Olcott, “Kazakhstan: pushing for Eurasia,” in Bremmer and Taras, New states, new politics: 550.

[32] Grey Hodnett, Leadership in the Soviet National Republics (Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1979):  94-98; Rasma Karklins, “Ethnic Politics and Access to Higher Education: The Soviet Case,”  Comparative Politics 16, 3 (April 1984):  284;  Rasma Karklins, Ethnic Relations in the USSR. The Perspective From Below (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989):  82ff.

[33]  See Abish Kekilbayev’s long commemorative article in Kazakhstanskaya pravda, November 12, 1996.  Kekilbayev was State Secretary of Kazakhstan and a close co-worker  of President Nazarbaev.

[34] Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? et autres essais politiques (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1992).

[35] Mark von Hagen, ‘Does Ukraine have a History?,’  Slavic Review, 54, 3, 1995: 665.