Why the Collapse of the Soviet Union Sparked Fierce Nationalism

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: A longing for law and order in Russia and in the former Soviet Republics is a recurring theme in Lawrence Sheets' new memoir. It's called "8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey through the Soviet Collapse". One of the characters Sheets describes in the wartime travel log is Leningrad resident, Nina Nikolaevna. She was a teenager during the 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad.

Lawrence Sheets; Nina Nikolaevna had stayed in the basement of one of Leningrad's most revered cathedrals during the war, sitting out the Nazi bombings by dint of the fact that her mother was a caretaker, cultural caretaker, and was entrusted with gathering things like Imperial heirlooms, the dress that had belong to Catherine the Great, for example, icons from around palaces from around the city. And the city was of course, at the time surrounded by Nazi troops. She came close to dying as many people did; close to starving to death. Came to the point where she could no longer walk, rations were down to sawdust, bread and water. And by chance of fate she was saved by the fact that a family friend knew zookeepers from the Leningrad Zoo, and at the Leningrad Zoo there'd been two seals. And Nina Nikolaevna ended up being given a rich hunk of seal blubber and she escaped.

Werman: It is an extraordinary story, Nina's story. In 2006 you went back and found Nina. She's 81, her home, Leningrad has become St. Petersburg, again. She supports Vladimir Putin. She says "our people need a bit of the iron hand." Can you tell us what she means and is her view representative of many Russians today?

Sheets: Nina Nikolaevna despite having a daughter who'd been exiled, and living through all sorts of privations, believed that the Soviet empire was not about to implode back in 1989. Her life had improved, I would say, rather dramatically. Food was no longer a problem. There was ready medical care, and there was a sense of order in the country: which for people who had lived through such tumultuous times, meant something.

Werman: So you were in Leningrad during the Soviet collapse. You had people as you say, of all walks of life, from all over Russia outside your door, some fighting, hence the title of the chapter "A Civil War Outside My Door", but a real civil war awaited you in Chechnya as a reporter, in 1999. You point out the Russians went into Grozny, it seemed that failure for them was not an option and they were pretty brutal in the prosecution of the war there in '99. This war coincided with the arrival of Vladimir Putin to power. What does that moment represent for Vladimir Putin?

Sheets: It is indeed how Vladimir Putin defined himself. This was a fundamentally different war than the first war. When the Russians went in the second time they just left absolutely no doubt that they were going to methodically retake the place, block by block if necessary, and that's exactly what they did- by pummeling it into the ground. And that quote "victory" helped define Mr. Putin as a man who could establish order and reverse what had been I would say 10-15 years of Russian humiliation. If they had not been well off economically under Soviet rule, they were at least respected as a country that had nuclear weapons and was listened to in the world. They saw themselves being reduced to the position of receiving humanitarian aid from the United States and Europe; food aid, which would befit a Third World country. Defeat at the hands of a tiny rag tag bunch of Chechen fighters who had little more than light weapons at their disposal. And Vladimir Putin reversed that, to many Russians.

Werman: You know, Lawrence, if we go back to Nina, your elderly host back in St. Petersburg, she said that Vladimir Putin instilled a sense of order with his heavy-handed ways, I'm wondering what she made of Putin's prosecution of the war in Chechnya or the horrific shootout after the hostage crisis at the school in Beslan?

Sheets: She felt in general that Putin, if anything, was not heavy handed enough -and needed to be even firmer. And I think that her views at that time in 2006 echoed the views of many Russians who saw their economic fortunes increasing. Indeed, one of the ironies I think of Putin's rule is that at this very time where we're seeing for the first time major opposition demonstrations in years against Putin's rule, it's also a time when Russians enjoy a higher standard of living arguably than they have in their history. So it's an interesting, I think, dichotomy where at the same time you have a tremendous amount of corruption, obviously, but relatively high living standards compared to what Russians had been used to over the last century. And yet, Vladimir Putin obviously facing incredible political problems.

Werman: So, how do you read what's going on in the streets right now of Moscow, people up in arms against Vladimir Putin, how do you see that?

Sheets: If you look at the opposition demonstrations we tend to see freedom versus democracy, or Putin versus opponents. The opposition demonstrations are very notable for their diversity. Yes, there are people who I would label typical Western intelligentsia types, but those demonstrations are equally populated by nationalists. And when I saw nationalists I mean people who would even like to see places like Chechnya and other predominantly Muslim republics in the Russian Federation stop being part of the Russian Federation. In other words, these people resent all the subsidies, which are going to many of these regional governments and are headed by local chieftains who run these places like Chechnya is -fiefdoms. There's a good bit of racism involved in that, and there's also a good bit of pragmatism because people see billions of dollars being corruptly poured down the drain and being divvied up between people in Moscow and people in the regions. So I think it's a very, very diverse crowd, and to try to label it as democracy versus freedom or anything more than an extremely complex set of circumstances, which I think is relatively typical for what is the gradual process of disintegration of an empire, which continues to this day, I think it would be a mistake. I think we have to see it for what it is, which is a very complex process. So the outcome of what is going on is going to be very unpredictable over the next few months and indeed few years.

Werman: Lawrence Sheets' new book is called "8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey through the Soviet Collapse". Lawrence, good to speak with you, thanks a lot.

Sheets: It's my pleasure.