At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Social Democrats agonized over the emerging ‘national question’, Russian Marxists sought at one and the same time to win allies among the non-Russian nationalities and to combat the project of the nationalists to splinter the unitary state.footnote1 Secure in their faith that ‘national differences and antagonisms between peoples are vanishing gradually from day to day’, and that ‘the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster’, Bolshevik theorists were opposed to political solutions that would divert the flow of history and promote ethnic identity. Lenin, Stalin, the Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shahumian, and others were adamant in their opposition to federalism, and to both the Austro-Marxist principle of ‘extraterritorial national cultural autonomy’ (each nationality represented in parliament no matter where its members live) and the moderate nationalist principle of ‘territorial national cultural autonomy’ (ethnicity defining autonomous territorial political units). Leninists preferred ‘regional autonomy’, in which political units would not have ethnic designations. The ‘proletarian solution’ to the nationality question was to preserve the unitary state while allowing for local self-government. Within the socialist state complete cultural and linguistic freedom was to be guaranteed. While for Lenin national self-determination meant that a nationality could choose to become fully independent, those nationalities that stayed within the socialist state would have neither the right to an autonomous political territory nor to a federative relationship to the centre.

The Bolsheviks’ pre-revolutionary thinking on the national question did not survive the Revolution intact. The new Soviet state was both federative, at least in name and theory, and based on ethnic political units. Moreover, the very expectation that such an arrangement would lead to the consolidation of ethnicity, rather than its disappearance, proved to be correct for the larger nationalities. Rather than a ‘melting pot’, the Soviet Union became the incubator of new nations. In Transcaucasia, the freer movement of peoples that marked the tsarist period, which had led to cosmopolitan populations in the largest cities, was reversed, and ethnic nationals gravitated toward their own republic.footnote2 By 1990 Armenia and Azerbaijan were almost completely ethnically homogeneous, or monoethnic, societies. Georgians desperately desire such a goal for their own republic, and those surviving minorities who live in the republics face an uncertain future. Thousands of refugees from Armenia and Azerbaijan may soon be joined by those from Georgia. As the Soviet Union enters a new age of freedom, as a thousand flowers bloom in its intellectual and political gardens, the noxious weeds of intolerant nationalism divide the small and increasingly vulnerable nations of Transcaucasia.

Whatever the ultimate aims of Soviet nationality policy (before the Gorbachev revolution)—acculturation and bilingualism, assimilation, or the creation of a multinational ‘Soviet people’—the dominant developments in the southern Soviet republics of Transcaucasia have moved in a different direction. Two contradictory processes dominated all others: (1) a forced modernization that transformed agrarian societies into urban industrial ones; and (2) the ethnic consolidation and growing cohesion of the major nationalities. The intensification of national identification within the republics has blended toxically with a growing anxiety about the effects of modernization, mobility, and accommodation to Soviet norms. While other Soviet republics might complain of demographic and linguistic Russification, or too great interference from the Kremlin, Transcaucasia has enjoyed an unusual degree of cultural and political autonomy that has unevenly benefited and disadvantaged the peoples within each republic. By the eve of perestroika, Transcaucasia was governed by powerful ethnic mafias that both fostered local nationalisms and encouraged the rise of ‘second economies’. Ethnic minorities within Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—among them the Armenians of Baku and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region; the Georgians (Ingilos), Jews, Talysh, Tats, and Udins in Azerbaijan; the Abkhaz, Ajars, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Osetins in Georgia; and Azerbaijanis and Kurds in the Armenian republic (not to mention Russians in all three republics)—have experienced a progressive marginalization and discrimination from the dominant, so-called ‘titular’ nationalities that run the republics.footnote3 The discontents of the peoples of Transcaucasia, both with Soviet socialism as they had known it and with their own local leaderships, exploded in the winter of 1988 into the first massive expressions of popular nationalism that the ussr had known in nearly seventy years.

The ironies of the effects of an ostensibly Marxist nationality policy on the Transcaucasian peoples had become progressively more apparent in each decade of Soviet rule. A largely Russian leadership in Moscow with an ostensibly internationalist ideology had overseen the demographic and cultural renationalization of the southern republics. One hundred years earlier, Erevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, had had a Muslim majority; Tbilisi (Georgia) and Baku (Azerbaijan) had been largely Russian and Armenian cities in the early years of Soviet rule. As the Soviet Union entered its seventh decade, these cities had become, in the full ethnic sense, the capitals of national states. After decades of silence, an urbanized population, the children of former peasants, inspired by a dissident nationalism, now poured into the streets.

Armenians began the wave of mass nationalist mobilizations in the Soviet Union in mid February 1988, when they marched, with exemplary discipline, first in Stepanakert (Karabakh) and then in Erevan. When news came of the killing of an Azerbaijani near Karabakh, young Azerbaijanis rampaged through Sumgait attacking Armenians. Casual observers, now more than ever willing to demonize the forces of Islam, saw those obscure struggles at the edge of Europe as examples of ‘tribal conflict’, ‘religious war’, or ‘ancient enmity’ between Muslims and Christians. Yet from its inception the Karabakh conflict was a layered problem—in part structured by quite separate religious and cultural allegiances, in part based on the uneven social and political development of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. A nationalist struggle for recovery of ethnic irredenta was combined with a broader movement for political reform and ecological survival. As complex and obscure as the causes of the battles of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and later the Georgians and Abkhaz, might be for Western observers; however deep their historical roots; these first—and to date, most intractable—nationality wars can be understood as the conscious responses of individuals and groups with definite ideas of their interests, their enemies, and the dangers that face their nation.