An empire dies slowly
Stalingrad is the center of action in one of the world’s great novels, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, spent months in Stalingrad in 1942 under constant bombardment. The description he gives of those who defended it against the encircling Wehrmacht is of a struggle, often hand-to-hand, across a ruined city between the troops of two totalitarian states. It was the war’s central turning point when the Red Army broke its hold on the encirclement.
Five years after Joseph Stalin fell from favor in 1956, Stalingrad become Volgograd. On Sunday bombs hit the city’s train station and a trolleybus, killing more than 30 people. There is a kind of symmetry in this attack and those that had reduced Stalingrad to rubble. The preservation of the city took a near suicidal feat of arms on the part of the Red Army, which in turn saved the Soviet Union. The bombings in Volgograd were Islamist suicide attacks, and they are likely to be a critical point in the slow death of the Soviet empire.
The passing of great empires can last for many years, and often decades. The effects of the withdrawal of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires from the vast territories they once commanded can still be felt. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s without a civil war like the one that nearly killed the new Soviet state between 1918-21. There have been, however, major conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kyrgizia and a full-on, if brief, invasion of Georgia by Russia. Only the first and the last of these have been extensively covered by journalists. The attack in Volgograd signals that there are more conflicts to come.
Islamist-inspired terrorism is now Russia’s most urgent problem. It threatens to stop the Winter Olympic Games that are set to take place in Sochi — a few hundred miles from Volgograd — in six weeks. In a July video message, Doku Umarov, who styles himself as “Emir” of the North Caucasus, enjoined others to “use maximum efforts on the path of Allah to do everything possible to disrupt these demonic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”
There are many who already see the Olympics and other grossly inflated sports occasions as nationalist posturing, and may even agree with their description as “demonic dances.” But the more telling phrase in the video is the “bones of our ancestors.” Umarov, a shrewd and ruthless man, is tending a fire that he hopes will become a conflagration across Russia. The Soviet Union buried the bones of many ancestors — most of these in the Stalin era — in the North Caucasus, the ethnically heterogeneous, mountainous region in Russia’s south. Various tribes there were pounded into submission through terror, deportation and a brutal semi-modernization of their economies.
Violence is growing in the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as in Chechnya, where all resistance was thought to have been wiped out after the second Chechen war was won by Russia. One of the first suspects of the suicide bombing of Volgograd’s train station was Oksana Aslanda – from the Tabasaran ethnic group in Dagestan, the members of which are Sunni Muslims. The group has been known for the current world champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, whose father is a Tabasaran. Isinbayeva and Aslanda illuminate the tragedy of the North Caucasus; half enfolded into Russian society (Isinbayeva’s mother is Russian) and half pulled toward the claims of its ancestors’ bones and toward extreme forms of a once-marginalized religion.
These groups are attracting Russians who are excited by their militancy and eager for an ideology that replaces the moral and ideological emptiness of modern Russia. Pavel Pechyonkin, an ethnic Russian and former paramedic from Dagestan, is the only suspect in the second Volgograd bomb in a trolleybus. In response to his parents’ pleas to end his dedication to terrorism, he responded that Allah had commanded him and, “Why shouldn’t we leave their children orphans?”
For Umarov, who wants to shift ethnic resentment from the passive to the active, the framework of resistance is Islamist jihad. Elsewhere it is more civic. The Ukrainian demonstrations in favor of an agreement with the European Union largely ended in mid-December, when Vladimir Putin promised cheap gas and financial aid in return for a continued allegiance to Russian geopolitics and possible membership in a Eurasian customs union. But the savage beating of the investigative journalist Tatyana Chernovol, who had been posting online photographs of the extensive estate of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, re-ignited mass protests in Kiev over Christmas.
Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union meets a ready response in some regions: Volgograd’s city council has proposed changing its name back to Stalingrad and has retained the Stalin-era names for city districts. The district in which the trolleybus was bombed is called Dzerzhinsky, after the first boss of the Soviet secret police, which became the KGB. For many Russians, continued imperial sovereignty over the neighboring states is still a natural state, but one that is now challenged by terrorist and civic movements.
The reconstitution of an empire as anything stronger than a benign and powerless shadow is impossible. Once political elites have acquired their own power and national sentiment pulls the country away from the imperial center — as has happened in the former Soviet Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia and is now happening in Ukraine — the empire is lost.
The Sochi Olympics will take place among the highest tension. The area will be flooded with secret service and other troops for dignitaries, athletes and spectators, who will be nervous about an atrocity. For all the lavishness of Putin’s $50 billion Olympic splurge, the events will take place not just on the bones of ancestors, but on the still crumbling infrastructure of a Soviet empire that money and hard power cannot rebuild. Russia needs to show that it is ready for a post-imperial era. Unfortunately, Putin is not the man to usher it in.
PHOTO: A woman reacts while standing near flowers placed at the site of an explosion on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 31, 2013. REUTERS/SERGEI KARPOV