The new Stalinism

August 17, 2008

By CHARLES BIERBAUER
Guest Columnist – The State

With one exception, Russians have never much liked Georgians. Perhaps they didn’t like Joseph Stalin, either, but they certainly feared him and, in a perverse way, admired how the Soviet leader flexed Russian muscle. Stalin, born Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Gori, the Georgian town we’ve been seeing crumbling under Russian shelling.

Gori, when I visited in the late 1970s, was one of the few places in the Soviet Union that still boasted a statue of Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev, a successor as head of the Soviet Communist Party, had condemned Stalin’s rule by brutality. Elsewhere, Stalin’s likeness disappeared. Mostly. I have not seen Stalin’s statue in video from embattled Gori. Perhaps you have. Online photos show it was still there last year.

Instead, the rubble in Gori and other Georgian towns is the monument to Stalin’s contemporary Kremlin inheritors. They still know how to flex Russian muscle.

Vladimir Putin, today’s strongman operating under the title of prime minister, claims the Russian offensive was provoked by Georgia. Putin has an arguable point.

Georgia and Russia have been in heated and sporadically violent dispute over South Ossetia, the breakaway province of Georgia that has sought to reunite with Russia. In the most recent eruption, Georgian troops had improvidently struck first in their attempt to regain control of South Ossetia.

On the other hand, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Georgia became a sovereign state. The Georgians have an arguable point that the Russian troops are invaders.

History and geography in this part of the world are complicated. The Cold War was relatively simple. East vs. West. The Soviet Union vs. the United States. Black hats vs. white hats, if you will, from an American perspective.

The post-Cold War world is blurred, murky and treacherous. In 1991, George H. W. Bush, emboldened by the collapse of communism in Europe and a Persian Gulf War victory, declared a “new world order.” On September 11, 2001, a new world disorder erupted.

Putinism — a revival of Russian expansionist dreams as old as Ivan the Terrible — has spread roots in the fallow field left untended as the United States struggled with its own devils in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia’s resurgence might have come about without a 9/11. But Washington’s distraction and the windfall riches of Russia’s oil and gas reserves have fueled Putin’s ambitions to reel back in as much of the old Soviet Union as he could.

Among the former Soviet republics, Georgia is an unusual case. It has grown particularly close to the United States. The young president Mikheil Saakashvili studied law at Columbia and Georgetown. The United States has backed the construction of pipelines across Georgia from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, purposefully bypassing Russia. Georgia has been encouraged to seek membership in NATO. The western alliance was created to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has now crept closer to Moscow with its inclusion of former Soviet satellites in East Europe.

Russian paranoia never lies deep below the surface. And underlying the current Georgian strife is the ethnic divide that rattled even the enormous Soviet Union. Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians are ethnic Slavs, but mistake a Ukrainian for a Russian at your own risk. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris are not. Nor are Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and more.

All of the former Soviet republics have substantial Russian minorities, an opportunity or excuse for Russia to claim it is defending the rights of fellow Russians.

But not all Russians see it that way. At a conference in Chicago last week, I chatted with a young doctoral student now at the University of Alabama, but originally from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. She described herself as Russian ethnically, but Uzbek nationally. She’s not interested in being a Russian (or Soviet) citizen.

Stalin had a simple way of dealing with ethnic matters. He simply ordered the expulsion of whole populations — Koreans, Turks, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens and more — to outposts of the empire. Where those minorities moved out, Russians moved in.

Stalin died in 1953, but in South Ossetia, Stalin’s legacy is still kicking up trouble.

Mr. Bierbauer was ABC News bureau chief in Moscow, 1978-80. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

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