Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Short Road to Nostalgia

The first person I met who supported the August 1991 coup was a Greek in the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi. A young teacher turned entrepreneur, he was a charming man, not the kind of person you could imagine rolling into Moscow on a tank.


As a typical Western liberal I was shocked by Petros' attitude. It was May 1992 and many things seemed a lot better for the demise of the Soviet Union. But three months later the Georgian army stormed the Abkhazian parliament, war broke out and I still don't know if he is dead or alive. Nowadays I can understand why he argued that way.


There are a lot of Petroses in the ex-Soviet Union, people who virtually overnight felt themselves foreigners in their own lands. Abkhazia was always a Russian-speaking province, as much turned to Sochi and Russia in the north as Tbilisi in the south. Suddenly it was part of a young, fiercely nationalistic Georgia.


What kind of a future do I have with them, Petros said contemptuously of the Georgians? He spoke Greek and Russian, but not Georgian. His friends were Greek, Armenian, Abkhaz, Russian, again not Georgian.


"If that so-called putsch happened again I bet 99 percent of the population would support it this time," he said.


The list of minorities who think that way is a long one -- the Greeks of Abkhazia, the Abkhaz themselves, Germans in Kazakhstan, Tajiks in Uzbekistan, Crimean Tatars to name but a few.


What most of them have in common is an old Soviet passport. Under citizenship it still says "Soviet" and under nationality "Greek," "Tatar" or "German" with no mention of the new independent country to which they nominally belong.


The ones who have taken the end of empire hardest are the 25 million Russians in Russia's neighboring states. They went from being the elite -- tribunes of Moscow on the edges of the empire -- to being resented minorities who do not speak the language and do not belong. They share a nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union when Russians abroad were a little more than equal.


Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is palpable in the political debate at the moment. The liberal ex-Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov freely admits that he finds it hard to think of Odessa, the city where his father came from, as part of a foreign country. Nothing too remarkable in that, it is a common feeling among Russians in all walks of life. What was interesting was that he felt the need to say it in a newspaper interview.


Even Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader of breakaway Chechnya, has signed up to the Soviet nostalgia craze. Dudayev, who used to be a Soviet airforce general, has started complaining that the break-up of the USSR was illegal and even talked about bringing charges against Yeltsin for being the man to do the dirty deed. This from the man who the rest of the time preaches "freedom or death" for his independent Moslem state, Chechnya.


A grain of rationality can be discerned even in the general's ramblings. Chechnya, like Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, has become a twilight nation in the Caucasus. All three have broken away from the states that claim to rule them, Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but have not been recognized internationally as independent. They must feel tempted by the idea of some kind of post-Soviet successor state.


This cartographical nightmare is one of the main reasons the anniversary of August 1991 will probably be marked quietly this weekend. For the democratic dawn that promised to do clean away with the evil empire only seems to have brought a nasty hybrid in its place.


The race is now on in Russia as to who can promise the fastest and smoothest re-integration. It is probably no exaggeration to say the candidate who puts his case best will be the next president of Russia.


Boris Yeltsin is moving fast to catch up on the men who have a head start on him, such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former vice president, Alexander Rutskoi.


His new decree creating a powerful government commission to look after Russians abroad is the clearest signal yet of where the president is heading. Yeltsin clearly wants to add a new title to his elected one as president of Russia -- protector of all the Russians. Given current electoral schedules, he or his crown prince have less than two years to pull it off.