My most impressive professor at Truman State University was Dr. John Ishiyama. He was a professor of political science but his specialization was Post Soviet Politics. He was widely regarded as our most accomplished political scientist not simply for his knowledge of the region, but his familiarity with political science methodology. Indeed, he did not simply teach political science, but comparative politics.
It helps to explain… There is just something different about comparative politics. There is a sort of intellectual swagger. American politics is often derided as too narrow. International relations and policy analysis are opportunist. The professors are waiting for positions in new administrations or think tanks to become available. Comparative politics, on the other hand, is a discipline for true academics who want to discover the truth of politics devoid of ideology or bias (or so they say).
But his area of expertise felt tragic to me. So many scholars at that time had studied the USSR early in their careers because this was the most consequential region outside the United States. And yet, the fall of the Soviet Union had changed all of this. Of course, its transformation had revitalized this subdiscipline, but the overabundance of scholars gave me the impression its importance was overemphasized.
I mean, I was a child when the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union’s disintegration was an historical fact before I was old enough to study politics. Its importance was lost on me because I was too young to feel the paradigm shift. I could only read about it. And because the Soviet Union was relegated to books, the entire region felt like its importance was in the past.
My generation did not recognize the importance of Russia until recently. So, when Barak Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia the greatest geopolitical threat of the United States, Obama spoke to my generation. The relevance of Russia was in the past. The future would become something different. Russia had lost its importance when I was just a child.
Two years later, Russia reasserted its importance through the annexation of Crimea and a shadow war in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. The interference in the 2016 American Presidential Election cemented its place as a boogeyman of the left. Russia had not simply reemerged as a political adversary but had undergone a complete rebranding of itself from communism to conservatism.
Of course, the importance of this region is not limited to Russia. Belarus has captured the popular imagination through a series of protests that threaten to topple the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko. Uzbekistan has largely flown under the radar but was recognized by The Economist as the most improved country of 2019. And most recently, a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the small Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The fall of the Soviet Union remade world maps with the emergence of new countries that remain unfamiliar to Americans. But the popular explanations for how these nation-states came into existence has never been clear. The collapse of the Soviet Union is generally described as a failure of communism, but this never explained its balkanization into fifteen distinct, independent states. In contrast, France endured the collapse of the Ancien Régime without any loss of its territorial integrity. Indeed, nationalism was strengthened through the French Revolution and its territory briefly expanded through Napoleon’s subsequent conquests.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was not simply an economic and political transformation but brought about a redesign in the shape of political boundaries and the identity of nations. There is an important distinction between the collapse of the Soviet State and the reordering of its political boundaries. Over a few short years, its collapse went from “the impossible to the inevitable.” Mark Beissinger begins his masterpiece Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State with a reflection on this dramatic reversal. The collapse of the USSR was never considered impossible because of the success of its economic or political system. Rather, it was considered stable as a modern state. Its boundaries were considered stable or consolidated after so many years of governance.
Indeed, the weakness of Soviet state capacity made its disintegration possible. A stronger political center may have held together the Soviet Republics. The economic collapse certainly created an opening for its territorial disintegration. And yet, many other countries have undergone economic and political collapse without bringing about multiple secessionist crises. For example, Venezuela faces an economic and humanitarian crisis of epic proportions but does not have a crisis of secession. Venezuelans continue to identify as Venezuelans. The dispute is largely political. Different sensibilities of nationalism have not emerged.
Beissinger disagrees with scholars who believed national sensibilities were bound to overtake the Soviet system. Instead, he argues national identities changed over a short period of time through a tide of nationalism. There was no latent demand for secession among the Soviet Republics. There was no latent sense of nationalism apart unmet by the Soviet State. Rather these sensibilities were formed during a period of “thickened history” where opinions, behaviors, and social norms adapted to new ideas over a period of months rather than generations.
The Baltic Republics were the most assertive in their demands for independence, but their cause influenced demands from other Republics who gave greater legitimacy to their own demands. The demands for secession were impossible until they were inevitable. The strength, credibility, and legitimacy of their efforts came from the wave of multiple crises compounding upon one another. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Perestroika. The policy of openness within Gorbachev’s administration allowed these demands for recognition to influence and compound upon each other. So rather than isolated efforts for independence, each successive campaign built upon one another and gave a sense of legitimacy to each other.
Beissinger goes on to explain why some national identities were awakened while others were not. He explains why some nationalities formed new Republics while other nationalities were subsumed in existing arrangements. It offers context for many of the conflicts the former Soviet Republics continue to face to this day. Indeed, the recent conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh comes up again and again throughout the book. This small enclave of Armenians surrounded by Azerbaijan has largely been forgotten by the West. But it was a flash point in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And has remained a point of contention between these neighboring countries so while the recent peace may resolve the conflict for now it is likely to resurface again in the future.
But his most important contribution goes beyond the specifics of Soviet politics. Tides are more common than political scientists and sociologists realize. The 2016 Presidential election was an example where the Midwest shifted from Democrats to Republicans. Many pundits created models to predict the election where Hillary Clinton was nearly guaranteed to win. They assumed each state was an independent variable rather than recognizing states moved together as a group. The key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have independent influence on the electoral college, but a shift in one of them will bring about a shift in the others. As these states shifted to the Republicans, it resembled a conservative tide or wave.
We can go beyond a single election to consider how tides may affect larger geopolitics once again. The unipolar moment and the rise of China have dominated how geopolitics has been discussed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Over this time, international relations theory has never come to terms with Beissinger’s thesis. Nationalist sensibilities are not fixed. This makes it impossible to recognize where nationalistic movements will emerge. A tide of nationalism can overtake any state in crisis. The United States and China are both taken for granted as stable states, but either country may face its own collapse from unexpected corners.
The United States has already overcome a secessionist crisis. The Civil War redefined national identity, but a new era of polarization may redefine them once again. Already California has developed a distinct culture with distinct political sentiments. China, on the other hand, is rarely described as a multiethnic state despite substantial populations of Tibetans, Uighurs, and other nationalities. Indeed, it already faces a crisis of governance in Hong Kong. A collapse of either nation into smaller governments would reduce their political and economic influence substantially.
International relations too often operate on an assumption of internal political stability. Beissinger demonstrates how political crisis can bring about a period of “thickened history” that redefines political and national identities. It is never clear when a tide of nationalism or any other kind of tide may emerge to disrupt political assumptions. But the world feels like it is on the precipice of a new political order. It is past time to take Beissinger’s thesis seriously. Transformations are rarely brought about through incremental change. Rather, change comes about as a tidal wave that affects everything and comes from everywhere all at once. So, whether we postulate about democratization in China or the rise of authoritarianism of the United States, it is important to remember Beissinger’s most important insight: It is a fine line which divides what we imagine impossible from what becomes inevitable.