In This Review

Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union
By Ronald Grigor Suny
Stanford University Press, 1994, 200 pp.

Here is the book of choice if one wants a succinct treatment of nationalism past and present in the former Soviet Union. Suny, a noted historian of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and more broadly of the late Imperial Russian and early Soviet periods, compresses into a little more than 150 pages incisive summaries of nationalism among all the key peoples in the Russian empire before 1917. To this he adds an analysis of the notions, initially rather liberal ones, that Lenin brought to the problem of nationalism and self-determination, of the evolution away from these ideas and the particular warp that Stalin gave them, and the hidden problems silently swelling as the regime went about its authoritarian and repressive objectives while simultaneously fostering forces and features guaranteed to undermine them.

Suny brings to the subject a particularly subtle understanding of what nationalism and nationality are all about, one that makes these phenomena modern, subject to invention and constantly evolving (not mystical, eternal, inevitable or primordial). This in turn permits a probing exploration of the relationships between class and nationalism, the state and nationality. The stage is then set for an imaginative, penetrating explanation of the empire's collapse and the emergence of new states, not the crude, commonplace notion that the Soviet "national question" was by Gorbachev's day a time bomb sure to go off when the system was jostled. Thus, the concluding chapter is something of a disappointment when it delivers the latter, albeit in sophisticated form, rather than the former.