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We might be well into the 21st century, but it seems that we haven’t learned enough from the sins and bloodshed of our past. As evidenced by the current state of global geopolitics, destructive patterns will persist until we finally recognize that a lot of non-negotiating negotiations hamper humanity from moving forward to a truly inclusive world.
For my first read this year, I curiously flipped through Lawrence Scotts Sheets’ memoir Eight Pieces of Empire, where he revisited (at times, with pain) his 20 years’ worth of work as a foreign correspondent in several areas of the former Soviet Union, or formally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). And if you must know, I’m also an amateur admirer of everything related to the Second World.
Sheets was cursed with witnessing the last moments of the mighty Soviet Empire, which went out with just a whimper – a far cry from the Bolsheviks’ forceful overtaking of St. Petersburg several decades earlier. But unlike the Western perception of the dissolution as a victory, the former republics would continue to struggle during the ensuing decades of transitioning into fully-functioning democracies. (This is an ongoing conversation.)
One of the most striking case studies – and perhaps, the saddest – was the Russian region of Chechnya, which, according to Sheets, has devolved into warfare. The Chechens had been fiercely resistant to Russian rule ever since, and their hostile sentiments only grew when the Soviet break-up retained the small Islamic ‘republic’ under Russian territory. The freedom fighters came and died advocating for its independence, while extremism grew as Middle East imports brought the more fundamentalist ideologies of yore. Neighboring Caucasus countries Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan weren’t spared; ethnic tensions resulted in frequent flare-ups, themselves a result of a foreign power intervening and defining their borders more than a century ago.
Most of the Central Asian “stans”, on the other hand, might have inherited the despotic character of Soviet rule. Turkmenistan’s rulers fashioned themselves into messiahs, while Uzbekistan’s Karimov, at the time of Sheets’ visit, was increasingly censoring most aspects of Uzbek life. And while not technically a Soviet state, a portion was also devoted to nearby Afghanistan, which was invaded by Russian forces up until late 1989; spoiler – USSR lost and retreated. Afghanistan wasn’t a winner either, as the war established a dangerous trend of push-and-pull between the Taliban and foreign-backed governments for the years to come. We all know how that turned out.
Also worth mentioning are the connections that Sheets formed with the republics he was assigned to – hooligan, rebel, KGB officer, president, parent, or ethnic minority. (It helped that he spoke Russian). Whatever side they were on, Sheets made them out to be more than just footnotes on the devastating after-effects of Soviet rule. They were living and breathing remnants of an empire that had so much faith in its own glory – that it pained them to create new, post-USSR identities and habits. For example, in mother Russia itself, Scotts illustrated the irony of how the end of kolkhoz (the management of state farms) spelled the end for the Ultas’ tradition of reindeer herding, simply because the regimentation regulated the trade. The Ultas are natives of Sakhalin Island, a territory in far east Russia just above Japan.
Sheets also gave insights on how his relationships with his superiors from the news bureaus in the US and UK were. Most of them wanted him to defy all odds to get the scoop at the “latest” war, which is fairly normal, but without minding the perils he had to go through. This brings the age-old issue of representation to light, where Western outlets focused much on the chaotic aspects of the Eastern bloc that helped reinforce the communism versus capitalism dichotomy. Only Sheets was able to see these countries from multiple dimensions – until he shared these with us.
Why retreat to pivotal moments in history? Some of these are still haunting humankind – religious friction, ethnic tensions, authoritarianism – and will keep doing so until we realize that we should accept each other’s differences. Otherwise, repressive structures of power will just be passed on from leader to leader, society to society.
There’s more to life than misplaced nationalism. As Sheets succinctly puts it, the USSR’s demise is “an object lesson about the ephemeral and perhaps our own sense of mortality, as nations and as human beings.” – Rappler.com