By Paul Goble
Twenty-seven years ago this week, the “first and last” Soviet congress of delegates of both national-territorial formations and of peoples without their own statehood took place in Moscow, a meeting now recalled if at all as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to mobilize smaller non-Russian peoples against those having union republics.
As one of its participants, Vakhtang Ketsba, recalls, “the [two-day] congress took place in the building of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet. In its work, took part 106 delegates, of whom 72 were deputies of soviets of various levels, who represented 34 autonomous formations and 106 social movements” (ekhokavkaza.com/a/28756545.html).
Gorbachev was represented by Rafik Shinaov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet’s Council of Nationalities; and the meeting thus “took place with the obvious blessing and even support of the central party-soviet organs,” something Ketsba says appeared “quite unexpected” given Moscow’s opposition to demands for territorial units from nations without them.
Indeed, that is the key point. Throughout Soviet history with the exception of this meeting, Moscow has divided nations into two categories, those with recognized political territories and those without, and in almost every case has treated the former far better than it has treated the latter. That is a tradition the Russian Federation has followed since that time.
Gorbachev in his desperation and confusion was prepared to overlook this distinction, to bring together not just representatives of those nations and nationalities which formally had their own statehood in the form of union or autonomous republics but also those of peoples without such recognition.
And today at a time when the non-Russian republics are again under threat from Moscow, this raises the question: what can nations without officially recognized territories inside the borders of the Russian Federation do? The answer may be to consider the September 22-23, 1991, meeting and work to form a kind of committee of correspondence among themselves.
On the on hand, there is a danger that some in the Putin regime will try to coopt any such group if it cannot prevent it – and in the age of social media its ability to do the latter is probably much less than many think – and use it as the basis for launching an even broader attack on the autonomous state formations within the Russian Federation.
But on the other hand, there are some real possibilities for improving the lives of the more than 180 peoples of the Russian Federation that do not have their own state territories either by drawing up additional programs like the special subsidies handed out to the numerically small peoples of the North or by coming up with new extra-territorial ideas.
At least some of these nations may ultimately decide to pursue a territorial solution to their problems, seeking official government statehood, like some of the peoples without such territories did in the years after the 1990 meeting. In any case, it is time to rescue that meeting from neglect and focus on what such peoples might do, drawing from its lessons.