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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Split Consciousness of Separatism

Back in my student days in the Soviet era, I often took my girlfriends on romantic getaways to Kiev. We traveled on the overnight train, and it goes without saying that we didn't get much sleep. These days, my wife and I also travel frequently to Ukraine, and we don't get much sleep either, but for very different reasons. The problem is that we're constantly being woken up by border guards and customs inspectors on both sides of the border. They check our passports and occasionally go through our luggage.

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On our last trip to Kiev, my wife forgot to bring her passport. At first the Ukrainian border guards wanted to kick her off the train and send her home. Then they started hinting that they'd let us through for a small consideration. Finally they gave up and allowed her to enter the territory of a sovereign country with no form of identification.

At heart, even the border guards don't really regard Russians as foreigners. And this helps to explain why relations between the Soviet successor states look more like domestic squabbles than the relations we expect between sovereign countries. Recent examples of such squabbling include the diplomatic spat that erupted last week when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to the Georgians who died in the 1992-93 war with Moscow-backed Abkhazia. Moldova has expelled Russian political operatives from the country, accusing them of spying in the run-up to Moldova's March 6 general election.

But these incidents would seem amusing only to someone who hasn't witnessed with his own eyes the devastation wrought in both Georgia and Moldova by armed conflicts between the center and the ethnically distinct breakaway regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If you want to understand how peaceful peoples can be brought to this state of affairs, I suggest reading the excerpts from an old article by the late Anatoly Sobchak that were published in Izvestia last Friday, the fifth anniversary of his death. Sobchak was a "first-wave democrat," an ally of Boris Yeltsin and one of the leaders of the separatist movement in Russia.

His argument went like this: Within the Soviet Union, Russia was not a sovereign state, and Soviet leaders therefore had no compunction about giving away Russian land to other republics -- Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan. In order to prevent this from happening in the future, Russia needed independence. But any attempt to restore Russia's native lands would lead to war with Ukraine, for example, and that must be avoided. The republics and ethnic minorities located within a new, post-Soviet Russia, however, should be denied the right to self-determination. Sobchak's argument betrays a split consciousness. The Soviet Union was Russia for all historical intents and purposes. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, whether within its 1922 or 1991 borders, was the brainchild of the Bolsheviks. The shifting of territory between republics had little practical significance until "democratic" Russia began to proclaim its sovereignty in earnest. But having asserted our own right to secede from the Soviet Union, why didn't Russian democrats now allow the same right to the various peoples who make up the Russian Federation?

Anti-Soviet separatists in other Soviet republics suffered from somewhat different complexes, but they were all united in their refusal to give up the territory they had once annexed at the Kremlin's whim. The real tragedy of the nations that made up the Soviet Union is that the country fell apart along artificial borders drawn by the Bolsheviks. In the name of their communist legacy, national democrats in Abkhazia, Ossetia, Chechnya, Transdnester, Nagorny Karabakh and Tajikistan killed huge numbers of people. All of the Soviet leaders after Stalin put together didn't send as many dissidents to jail.

And young lovers on a romantic trip to Kiev now have to go through passport control.

Alexei Pankin is opinion page editor at Izvestia.