Debunking the Myths of Nationalism

Pseudo-history and pseudo-science bedevil all talk of nationality and ethnicity in the post-Soviet arena. If all the things the Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Ossetians and Ingush said about each other were true there would be war for 100 years.

Most works on the subject have been written by outsiders -- who may be objective, but who inevitably do not fully understand the way things operate here. Which is why The Mind Aflame, Valery Tishkov's insider's perspective on the nationalities issue, is particularly valuable and incisive. Tishkov briefly held the post of nationalities minister in Boris Yeltsin's reformist government in 1992. Now he is the director of Moscow's Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. So he is both a practitioner and theorist.

Tishkov distrusts big, unifying theories, but if he has a core thesis it is that ethnic conflict has generally been organized by regional leaders, who saw it as a chance to enhance their power within a new division of borders. Tishkov quickly dispenses with "primordial" theories of nationality still popular in Russia, giving examples of how arbitrary national identity can be. In Central Asia, for example, one ethnographer confessed "she had given birth to thousands of Tajiks" simply by registering them as such.

Tishkov is equally skeptical of the concept of "the triumph of nations," the idea that a sudden great reawakening of long repressed peoples swept the Soviet Union away. Of course there were grass-root nationalist movements, but one group's "national reawakening" all too often clashed with another's -- as happened with the Georgians and the Abkhazians, for example.

In academic mode, Tishkov uses statistics and opinion polls to map post-Soviet citizens' sense of ethnic identity. He also takes an anthropologist's delight in revealing how local elites tried to hang on to power under any regime at all costs. One of many revealing personal anecdotes dates back to the Federation Treaty negotiated between Moscow and the regions in 1992. When a deal was finally struck, deputy parliamentary speaker Yury Voronin admitted "that the agreement to sign the document had cost as many cars as there were people sitting at the table."

My main reservation is that Tishkov's skepticism is too extreme in the case of Chechnya. He rightly refutes the view of Chechen fighters as noble savages fresh from the wars of the 19th century. They too grew up in the Soviet Union and the two presidents they elected were both Soviet military officers.

But the Chechen conflict was more than just a falling out between different sections of the post-Soviet elite; it had deep roots. The Chechens are a compact ethnic group who, because of their strength in numbers, resilient traditions, historical memory and the persistent discrimination against them, struck out on their own against Moscow. The war against them was partially driven by sheer bigotry on the part of the Russians. In his enthusiastic demolition of nationalist myth-making Tishkov perhaps misses a sense of how menacing the big Russian state can seem to the tiny nations of the Caucasus.

"The Mind Aflame: Ethnicity, Nationality and Conflict in and after the Soviet Union" by Valery Tishkov, Sage Publications, 334 pages, ?14.95 ($24.75).