Courtesy Reuters

The Myth of Ethnic Warfare

In This Review

Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War

By Stuart J. Kaufman
Cornell University Press, 2001
262 pp. $45.00
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The deadly clashes that erupted between Russians and ethnic Tatars in the early 1990s were utterly predictable. Having invaded the Russian steppes alongside the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Tatars were seen by medieval Russian chroniclers as the epitome of Oriental barbarism. Although the power of the Tatars eventually waned, the Russians did not forget their misery at the hands of these Muslim invaders. In the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible razed the Tatar capital. Two centuries later, Tatar nomads were brutally driven as far as China. And during the Second World War, Stalin deported thousands of Tatar families to Central Asia. Once the Soviet Union began to falter, Tatars in several regions began to call for greater rights and eventual independence. Those demands set off a spiral of fear and loathing that drew fuel from the memory of bloodshed on both sides.

The only problem with this story is that there were no such deadly clashes in the 1990s. Russia devolved sovereignty to Tatarstan, one of the federation's constituent republics, without any violence. So successful was the process, in fact, that the "Tatar model" is now touted as a template for how Russia's relations with its other ethnic minorities should work.

Had modern Tatar autonomy not come about so painlessly, it would have been easy to read the bloodshed as yet another case of the inevitable clash of civilizations. Just such an impulse explains why Russia's ongoing war against Chechnya still sends observers scrambling for their Lermontov and Tolstoy: to search for historical allusions to Moscow's long-standing entanglement in the same zone. But as Stuart J. Kaufman shows in his ambitious new book, Modern Hatreds, explaining contemporary wars with reference to ancient troubles is not only a terrible cliche -- it is also fundamentally wrong.

THE SEEDS OF CONFLICT

In years to come, what looks today like a disconnected string of small, brutish wars across southeastern Europe and Eurasia -- five in the former Yugoslavia and six in the

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