The State of Nations: The Ex-Soviet Union and Its Peoples

The State of Nations: The Ex-Soviet Union and Its Peoples

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, pundits predicted that it would end up like Yugoslavia, with ethnic wars tearing the union into fragments. Russians left “abroad”—in Central Asia, Crimea, and the Baltic Republics—would become tinder for conflagrations. Islamic fundamentalism, some claimed, would infect the traditionally Muslim peoples of the south and the Volga region. Yet in the last five years, ethnic conflict, though explosive and bloody in several places, has not spread across the ex-USSR. The belief that ethnic difference must lead to ethnic conflict and even to ethnic cleansing has not been borne out by the post-Soviet experience. Despite weak state structures, disintegrating economies, and widespread anxiety about the future, ethnicity has not metastasized into open widespread violence.

Most of the Soviet republics were not ethnically homogeneous. With over 93 percent of its population Armenian, tiny Armenia was the most ethnically consolidated, especially after it drove out nearly two hundred thousand Azerbaijanis in 1988-1989. In Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Belarus more than 77 percent of the population consisted of the titular nationality. But Estonia (61.5 percent Estonian), Latvia (52 percent Latvian), and Kyrgyzstan (52.4 percent Kyrgyz) could be considered binational states, with very large Russian or Slavic minorities, and Kazakhs in Kazakhstan were actually a minority of the republic’s population (39 percent). Russia was fairly homogeneous, with 81.5 percent of the population ethnically Russian. Yet even in Russia, a look at an ethnographic map shows that the greatest concentration of Russians is in European Russia and along the southern border, extending out to the Pacific Ocean. In the Volga region, however, there are concentrated populations of Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashi, Udmurts, Mordva, Mari, and Komi. Much of Siberia is sparsely populated by Russians; the varied native peoples of Siberia, although not numerous, have their own national regions and republics. Even in the south there are concentrated pockets of non-Russians.