Early in September, less than a month after the abortive coup in Moscow, Soviet ethnographers gathered in Bishkek (formerly Frunze), the capital of the newly independent Kyrgiz republic, for their annual national conference. Confronted by the radically transformed political situation in what was repeatedly referred to as ‘the former Soviet Union’, those professionals who had engaged for decades in the study of the ‘national question’ were forced to deal with the unravelling of the very policies and state structures they had long defended. From the opening plenary session in the marbled hall of the local Lenin museum, through the meetings of the ‘sections’, held in Kyrgiz elementary school in a village on Lake Issyk-Kul, the discussions reminded one more of a parliament than of a scholarly convention. The immediate impression was that 4,000 kilometres from Moscow the spectre of the Soviet Union still haunted the halls, even as the first tentative steps toward independence were being taken.

Scrambling to make sense of the events that had recently destroyed Gorbachev’s plans for a loose confederation based on a union treaty, the director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology in Moscow, Valery Tishkov, spoke of the ‘suicide of the centre’. The ‘putchisti’, the so-called gkchp (Gosudarstvennyi komitet chezvrychainogo polozheniya—State Committee for the Emergency), had tried to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union by destroying the democratic and nationalist movements, only to deal the final blow to their last hopes of empire. Thinking broadly about what might lie ahead, Sergei Arutiunov, a distinguished ethnographer whose work spanned the globe from Japan to the Caucasus, speculated about new nationalities, like the Cossacks of the North Caucasus, that were already being formed in the post-Soviet Union, and how in the relatively barren social world of the cities the intelligentsia might evolve into a new middle class. The Russian vice-president of Kyrgizstan, himself a relatively recent arrival, defended the government’s economic plans—privatization of industry and the renting of land. In an unplanned address the leader of the Kyrgiz Democratic Movement, Topchubek Turgunali, noted that though the republic was now independent, business in the congress was being carried on in the old way, in Russian with no effort at translation into Kyrgiz.

A new state was being born, yet the presence of the old remained overwhelming. Several people lamented the demoralization of young people in the republic, who suffered from unemployment in a land in which the great bulk of the working class is Russian. Kyrgiz intellectuals, who spoke Russian fluently and without accent, passionately discussed the tragic events a year earlier at Osh, where Uzbek and Kyrgiz peasants had killed each other in a dispute over land. The Mufti of Central Asia spoke of the need for Islamic revival and requested that the government allow the Muslims to buy one of the now-defunct Communist Party’s buildings. In contrast to those who emphasized the distinctiveness of the Kyrgiz, the Kazakhs and Uzbeks, the Mufti proclaimed that all the nationalities of Central Asia and Kazakhstan are one people and that the Muslim republics should be united. In Central Asia, at least, ethnic and religious identities were still being contested.

As we sat in the uncomfortable little chairs of the first-graders, with a portrait of the child Lenin benignly gazing down, evident were both the tensions that had splintered the once nerushimyi soyuz (indivisible union), and the reservoir of shared experience, interdependency, and even good will, that makes a complete disintegration of what was the ussr such a frightening prospect. Gail Lapidus, a political scientist from Berkeley, tried to locate the current confusing maelstrom of events in the broader process of global decolonization. The ussr was a unique empire, she suggested, an empire of ideology and institutions in which the totalitarian project of the state attempted to destroy civil society. Clear before all of us was how the revival of that social world, both in its democratic assertiveness and its ethno-national cohesion, had sundered the bonds of pseudo-federalism.

For all the reluctance of many on the Left to call the Soviet Union an empire, that conventional description revealed certain buried truths about the nature of the federation. If one thinks of empire as a state or system of states made up of diverse peoples or nationalities in which one people is privileged in its relationship with the central authority and other subordinate peoples, the inequitable relationship between Russians and non-Russians, reflected in the overrepresentation of the former in institutions of power and masked by the rhetoric of internationalism, was palpable on a daily basis to all the peoples of the Soviet Union. Non-Russians understood the necessity of conforming to Russified cultural practices, adopting the Russian language, and adapting to the political and social dominance of Moscow. The original impulses of Lenin’s nationality policies, intended to reverse Russian privilege and undermine Great Power chauvinism, had long ago been distorted by the dominance of a single Communist Party that stripped the federal units of any meaningful political autonomy, and by the particular policies of Stalin that curbed the possibility of ‘national communisms’ in the border republics.