Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
The national question was the Achilles heel of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to radically transform the Soviet Union into a democratic polity. If democratic self-government was one of Gorbachev’s objectives, and there is plenty of evidence to support such a proposition, it would have had to include the right of the nations comprising the Soviet Union to govern themselves independently of Moscow. This right, however, conflicted with Gorbachev’s unswerving commitment to preserve the integrity of the Union, which in many quarters increasingly came to be regarded as an outdated empire. Clearly, Gorbachev counted on the reforms he introduced as being sufficiently attractive to inspire a desire to remain within the Union. But just as clearly, his dismantling of the central controls put in place by his predecessors and the ensuing economic and political chaos encouraged Soviet-generated ethnic intelligentsias to emerge as credible claimants to national leadership, initially under the Soviet umbrella but eventually without it.
The first serious national-based conflict during the Gorbachev era occurred in the Kazakh capital of Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in December 1986. Its precipitant was Gorbachev’s replacement of the Politbiuro member and long-standing first secretary of the Kazakh party, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, with an ethnic Russian, Gennadii Kolbin. This break with the traditional practice of reserving the position of first secretary for members of union republics’ titular nationality provoked demonstrations that were severely repressed with some loss of life. Prominent among the demonstrators were students, but the anxiety among Kunaev’s large and corrupt network of appointees that their privileges were about to end also allegedly fueled the protest.
Over the next two years, national rights were asserted with ever greater forcefulness. In July 1987, Crimean Tatars who had been expelled from their homeland in 1944 peaceably demonstrated in Red Square to win the right of return. In February 1988 Armenians in the mountainous enclave of Karabakh in Azerbaijan began to demonstrate for a merger with the neighboring republic of Armenia. The demonstrations touched off even larger gatherings in the Armenian capital of Erevan, which in turn provoked angry Azerbaijanis to rampage through the industrial town of Sumgait and butcher Armenians. Similar conflicts between dominant and minority nationalities were to erupt in Moldavia, Georgia and Kirghizia. In April 1988 activists in the Baltic republics began forming popular fronts initially to press for the expansion of linguistic and cultural rights but soon for national sovereignty within and then independence from the Soviet Union.