So many of the scars history has left on the societies of the West have a common and often overlooked origin: the improbable rise, from the ethnic outlands of a multi-ethnic empire, of a super-nationalist, a man whose roots in an ethnic group other than the dominant one seem to ensure that, once in power, he transforms himself into something more than just another patriot.
This kind of man, thankfully in short supply these days, redefines loyalty to the state in terms of a cult of personality orbiting himself, leaving whatever loyalty he once owed to the region of his birth. A short list of such figures would include a Corsican (Napoleon Bonaparte), an Austrian (Adolf Hitler), a Croat (Josip Broz Tito), an Alawite (the late Syrian dictator Hafez al- Assad) and a Georgian (Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili).
Dzhugashvili, of course, is better known as Stalin, and the conflict that flared into conflagration last week between Russia and Georgia had much more than a coincidental connection to him.
Stalin, who murderously ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, was born in Gori, a Georgian city just south of the Ossetian district that was the focus of fighting over the past week. A significant debate is under way as to whether Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili overreached when he tried to dislodge ethnic Russian separatists who have prevented his country's rule of law from holding sway in South Osse tia.
Or, as some proposed, did Saakashvili fall into a carefully laid trap by the separatists' ally in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, allowing the Russian leader to send a warning shot across the bow of any so-called "independent" state that once made up part of the Soviet Union that dares chal lenge Moscow's writ?
Either way, Russia has asserted itself convincingly, and an old wound reopened in dramatic fashion.
History suggests the youthful Dzhugashvili would be deeply un happy at Georgia's humiliation. His earliest writings -- poetry mostly -- indicated his deep love for Georgia. Some historians have surmised this might stem from the fact that his parents were, in the words of a Sla vophile, former New York Times correspondent David Binder, "assimilated Georgians whose ethnic origin was Ossetian."
But Stalin's passion for Georgia dwindled after he joined the Bolshevik cause. During Lenin's rule, Stalin landed the job of devising a Soviet policy for nationalities, a vital issue given the many dozen ethnic groups that the Russian em pire had collected under the czarist tyranny over the centuries. Binder, with five decades of experience covering Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, says Stalin's plan by 1923 was to deny the major nationalities of the "Union" -- Ukrainians, Azeris, Kazakhs, Uz beks, Armenians, Georgians and dozens of smaller minorities -- any real authority over their government.
Lenin and other top Communists opposed this, citing Marxist principles of self-determination. But Lenin's days were numbered, and upon his death in 1924, the transformation of the assimilated Ossetian-cum-Georgian patriot- cum-Communist internationalist was complete. Stalin denuded eth nic minorities of all but superficial power, granting them "Soviet republics" but ensuring that, from the army on down, Great Russia would hold sway.
To understand the Russian- Georgian struggle at all, one must come to grips with Stalin. His last ing impact derives not only from his influence on nationalities policy but, more recently and virulently, his persecution of selected "sus pect" groups before and after World War II. Stalin's bloody purges during the 1930s, which claimed as many as 10 million lives, fell hardest on non-Russian Soviet citizens, particularly those in the army or holding positions of authority or cultural prominence.
Jews, Tatars, anyone who had held high office in czarist times, "kulaks" or landed peasants, Mus lim activists and any national minority that even hinted at a desire for greater autonomy -- all were targets of the Kremlin's murder machine. When Hitler invaded in 1941 and the Soviet army, hollowed out by Stalin's murderous paranoia, collapsed before the German advance, many of these ethnic minorities -- among them Georgians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Chechens, Central Asians and, yes, even some Russians -- could hardly imagine German rule would outdo the Kremlin in butchery, a debate that continues to rage among these groups.
In any case, prominent members of all of these societies formed anti-Soviet militias, joined German army units and, most famously, took jobs as guards in concentra tion and death camps. The retribution visited upon them, like most Soviet methods, was collective, not individual: Entire peoples were uprooted from their native lands and moved to Siberia or Central Asia. Historians estimate some 3.5 million people were transported to remote areas -- the lucky ones to settle uninhabited tundra, the unlucky to the gulag prison camps made infamous by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died earlier this month.
So it should not surprise anyone that on Wednesday, the Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian leaders turned up in the Georgian capital, Tblilisi, to pledge support for the embattled state. "I am a Georgian," said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Unlike John F. Kennedy, who made a similar as sertion in West Berlin in 1962, however, Ilves and his fellow leaders flew home to nations still bordering Russia. They may not believe Georgia's president acted wisely, but they feel his pain.
Putin, of course, is not an ethnic minority. He is Russian through and through, and his Soviet cre dentials, too, are impeccable due to his long service in the KGB. So perhaps that demonstrates the limitations of broad historical comparisons like the one above. On the other hand, Putin's use of grievance as a way of stirring support among Russians, his casual disdain for democracy and his willingness to call the bluff of the West when he sees the chance to gain all recall a different, overlapping pattern.
"It is very queer that the unhap piness of the world is often brought on by small men," wrote the German novelist Erich Maria Remar que. His 1927 book "All Quiet on the Western Front" is widely re garded as the greatest war novel of all time. To write those words about an abusive martinet named Himmelstoss years before the rise of Hitler is prescience defined. Whether Putin, all 5-foot-5 of him, fits the same bill, the reader alone must decide.
Michael Moran is executive editor of CFR.org, website of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He lives in Nutley.
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