Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?: Scholarly Debate and the Realities of Eastern Europe

Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?: Scholarly Debate and the Realities of Eastern Europe

Mini Teaser: The problem set the West by the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1995 was at bottom a simple one: whether to intervene on the ground to defeat the Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia, and then stay.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

Once again, though, it is dangerous to over-generalize. The essay
from which the phrase "the invention of tradition" is taken is Hugh
Trevor-Roper's famous study of the creation of the "ancient Highland
dress", the kilt, by an enterprising eighteenth-century Quaker
industrialist; but the whole point of the real Highland Scottish
tradition and society is that they were irrevocably smashed, first at
Culloden and then by the Highland Clearances and the progressive
destruction of the Gaelic language. This left the British free to
impose on the Highlanders whatever twee and artificial version of
Highland tradition they chose.

Next door in Ireland, the British found the human material a bit more
recalcitrant. To engage in a little counterfactual history, if the
Scottish Highlanders had won at Culloden, they might very well have
ended up adopting the kilt anyway, and coming to believe in its
antiquity--but this would have been part of the organic development
of their own living, fighting tradition, as with Irish nationalist
songs sung in the language of the conqueror. Similarly, the most
popular Chechen national song during the latest war with the Russians
was sung in Russian, to an essentially Russian pop tune with vaguely
"oriental" flourishes, and with lyrics allegedly borrowed from
"Patria o Muerte." That may seem strangely artificial and inauthentic
to us--but it clearly had no ill effect on the fighting spirit of the
Chechens who sung it.

From a practical, non-academic point of view, therefore, it is of
secondary importance where nationalist ideas and national passions
came from, how "genuine" or "artificial" they may be, or how recently
they were generated. The test is: Do they work? Do they succeed in
mobilizing and holding together the community to which they appeal?
In the past, and in all too many parts of the world today, there is
an even simpler test: Do they make people willing to fight and die?
If they do, then however inconvenient for intellectuals and scholars,
their origins are moot as far as the policymaker and working
journalist are concerned.

A crude, popularized version of Gellner's approach runs certain risks
traditionally associated with Marxist analysis. It attributes
conscious--and even hypocritical--will and strategy to actions that
are often more likely (as Gellner himself would have recognized) to
be the result either of unconscious changes of attitude, or feelings
that the authors of change themselves share to the full. It rather
recalls the old Marxist belief that the bourgeoisie (or, in Germany
before 1914, the old landowning elites) consciously "manipulated" and
exploited nationalism so as to distract the workers and peasants and
maintain their grip on power. Of course there is an element of truth
in this, just as the important role of Milosevic and the Serbian
(and some Croat) communists in inflaming nationalism is also not to
be denied. But it is far from the whole truth. These people would not
have been so successful in their manipulations if they had not had a
mass of suitably conditioned human material to work on, and if they
had not at least partly ascribed to their own version of nationalist

As far as the manipulated masses themselves were concerned, in the
traditional Marxist schema they were at risk of "false
consciousness." Notoriously, the Marxist belief that national,
religious, and other allegiances among the proletariat were a symptom
of this "false consciousness" (as opposed to the "true" and correct
consciousness, which they should have possessed as proletarians) led
communists in the past to dismiss these loyalties and ideologies as
unworthy of serious study. Rather than seeking to understand and
analyze them as the product of old and genuinely held traditions, the
cruder version of the old communist approach was to denounce their
holders as misguided dupes, and hunt around for the wicked
manipulators who had gulled them. The parallels with Johnathan
Sunley's tendency to blame all national conflicts on the hand of
Moscow or the old communists could hardly be clearer.

Conservatives, Marxists, and Positivists

Which brings us back to the debate on contemporary national conflicts
in Europe: That an arch cold warrior like Sunley should now find
himself on the same side of the fence as a Marxist is only
superficially paradoxical. For many of today's "conservatives",
especially in America, are not conservatives in the traditional
sense, but essentially nineteenth-century free-market liberals. They
differ from true conservatives on one absolutely critical point:
their basically optimistic view of humanity, and their belief that in
virtually all conditions human society can be greatly improved by the
introduction of a relatively simple, pre-ordained, fixed set of laws
based on universally applicable rules of reason. They have tremendous
difficulty with the idea that in some circumstances these guidelines
simply will not work, that traditions and emotions and indeed facts
may prove stronger. In this respect, contemporary liberals, Marxists,
and Wall Street Journal editorialists all show their ultimate descent
from the same positivist stable.

For people with this mindset, the idea that some national conflicts
are insoluble by any means short of war or outside intervention and
suppression (that, in Lord Salisbury's words about Ireland, "the free
institutions which sustain the life of a free and united people,
sustain also the hatreds of a divided people") is intolerable. Take,
for example, Nagorno-Karabakh. I have seen some journalistic
colleagues and academic observers jib like frightened horses at a
ten-foot fence when confronted with the blindingly obvious truth that
once you have introduced the idea of full national self-determination
and unqualified independence to the Transcaucasus--and removed
outside military power--then, given the history and the ethnic
divisions of the area, there will inevitably be national-territorial
disputes that cannot be solved by any means short of war and the
victory of one side or the other. Rather than face this particular
fence, I have seen otherwise honest, intelligent people plunge into
veritable jungles of intellectual evasion, and swallow nationalist
lies and excuses in quantity.

It is particularly sad that some British analysts should have so far
forgotten their own history as to take this line; for, after all, we
have had some bitter experiences of our own in this regard. National
self-determination in the Transcaucasus could no more have been
effected without war than could separate self-determination for
British Indian Muslims and Hindu/Sikhs in Punjab in 1947. Once
separation for Pakistan and the partition of Punjab were agreed, then
it was inevitable that, in Sir Sikander Hayat Khan's prophetic words,
"Everyone on the wrong side of the line will get his balls cut off."
As in the Transcaucasus, both Indians and Pakistanis have bitterly
denounced the former colonial authorities (in this case, the
Ratcliffe Commission) for having "created conflict" by the way they
drew the national border--but when asked what kind of border would
have prevented conflict, they either fall silent or say that
everything should have been given to their side.

Likewise in a conversation I had with an Armenian nationalist, a
former Soviet political prisoner. In December 1990 I asked him, "If,
as you say, the Karabakh conflict has been created by Moscow, what do
you think will happen if Soviet rule collapses?" To which he replied,
"Well, as soon as the Azeris are no longer being deceived by Moscow's
propaganda, of course they will recognize of their own free will that
Karabakh is ours." This may well seem grotesque--but it is not much
more so than the explanations of the war in Karabakh offered by some
Western analysts, in their anxiety to avoid at all costs pinning the
blame on Armenian and Azeri nationalism.

Character Counts

Johnathan Sunley is quite right to ask "why some inflammable trouble
spots spontaneously combust while others do not." He just gives the
wrong answer. Or rather, he mechanically, dogmatically gives the same
answer--communist and Soviet/Russian manipulation and
destabilization--in each and every case. Sometimes it is, partially
at least, the right answer. There certainly have been cases where
both Moscow and other former colonial powers have manipulated ethnic
conflicts, and still more where they have tried to do so without
success. Thus while Soviet and Russian manipulation played a very
secondary role in the Karabakh conflict, it played an undeniably
important one in Abkhazia--though even there only on the basis of
previously existing and deeply felt conflicting claims. In no case
did Moscow or the communists "create" or "invent" a dispute out of

While it is reasonable, therefore, to see similar elements at work
across much of the former Soviet bloc, there is no reason whatsoever
to assume that these will combine in similar mixtures irrespective of
location and local history. While some Western journalists and
policymakers deserve criticism for seeing nationalists as always and
everywhere chauvinist and aggressive, so do those who try to pin the
blame for every single one of the ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe
and the former Soviet Union on the former communists and the Russian
government. While both communist and nationalist manipulators have
indeed been at work in many countries, the readiness of different
nations to respond to their provocations has differed enormously
according to local circumstance, local history, local culture, and,
yes, to "national character." To continue the analogy with Othello:
If the Moor of Venice had been a more secure individual
psychologically, if he had had a happier childhood, if he had not
been made to feel his color so painfully by his Venetian masters, if
for that matter he had not been a Moor at all but a Florentine or an
Aragonese--then instead of believing Iago he would have kicked him

Essay Types: Essay