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The Gulag of the Russian Mind

It is now 15 years since the failed coup of August 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev. At the time, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost were seen by Soviet hardliners as a sell-out of communist Russia to the capitalist West. But it is now clear that the KGB and the military who launched the coup were not defending the idea of communism. Instead, they were protecting their idea of Russia’s imperial mission, a notion that had given the Kremlin commissars greater control of the vast Russian empire, and of Russia’s neighbors, than any of the Tsars had ever enjoyed.

Gorbachev’s reforms not only liberated ordinary Russians from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, but also released the national aspirations of people who had been locked in the empire for centuries. Having seen the peoples of Central Europe free themselves from Soviet domination just two years before, the constituent nations of the USSR were beginning to seek the same freedom for themselves.

The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to insist on traveling their own national path, and have since linked their fate to Europe as members of the European Union and NATO. Others soon followed. By December 1991, the Soviet empire was no more.

But only the Baltics have secured the sort of independence dreamed of in 1991. Georgia, which is both European and Asiatic, teeters on the edge of instability. Traditionally Asian Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have resumed the tribal forms of autocracy they practiced throughout the centuries. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have in essence become their presidents’ wholly owned family fiefs.