MOSCOW — More than four centuries ago, Russian armies waving images of the saints overran and destroyed the great city of Kazan, the Tatar stronghold on the Volga. The extension of Moscow's rule and Orthodox Christianity overwhelmed Ivan the Terrible with piety and joy.
"Let the unbelievers receive the true God, the new subjects of Russia, and let them with us praise the Holy Trinity for ages unto ages," proclaimed the czar, who ordered a magnificent church built--St. Basil's on Red Square--to mark the victory.
This August, the Tatars counterattacked. Proclaiming the "Republic of Tatarstan," they claimed for themselves the same rights enjoyed by Russia and shook off the yoke of Muscovite control they had been subject to under czars and commissars since the reign of Ivan.
They were not alone. Latvians and Ingush, Armenians and Buryats, Karelians and Kazakhs, all have now demanded a fundamental redistribution of Soviet political power, an end to Moscow's imperial mind-set and in some cases nothing less than total independence.
Like a corrosive acid, rival nationalisms, reborn religious fervor, economic grievances and resentment over Russification are eating away at the bonds of the multinational state forged by Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Vladimir I. Lenin. Few believe it can survive in its present form.
"There is no future for the U.S.S.R.," Zurab Zulidze, deputy chief of Georgia's official Sakartvelo news agency, said after pro-independence parties swept to victory in parliamentary elections in his republic. "The world should enter the 21st Century without any colonies."
It is one of history's greatest ironies that the policies of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, which have done so much to end the East-West divide, are causing the breakup of his own homeland. To preserve it, Gorba chev is now offering the 100-plus ethnic groups of the Soviet Union a bargain: greater say over local economic and social affairs in exchange for deeding control over defense, foreign policy and other key sectors to the government in the Kremlin.
Gorbachev's proposal--codified in a "union treaty" that has been submitted to the country's constituent republics for approval--has already been turned down by a good number of local power brokers and nationalists. "It is yet another attempt to preserve the empire," commented Ivan Drach, chairman of the Ukrainian grass-roots organization Rukh.
Boris N. Yeltsin, leader of the Russian Federation--without which any attempt at rebuilding the Soviet Union will be stillborn--also has heaped scorn on Gorbachev's efforts, though he supports the concept of a much looser Soviet confederation. "Behind the barrage of verbiage on the widening rights of 'sovereign republics,' a concentration of power in the hands of the center is under way," Yeltsin has said.
Some political scientists say that what is happening is historical justice; that the Russians, after the British, French, Portuguese and Dutch, are finally losing their colonies.
"These republics feel they have missed the 20th Century because Moscow kept them locked up," said Prof. Roman Szporluk, director of the Center for Russian Studies at the University of Michigan. "They feel they are on a sinking ship and want out."
Gorbachev sees things through a different lens, stressing the shared heritage of the Soviet peoples, the need to hang together to construct an "all-union market" and achieve prosperity in common. He also stresses the "blood bath" that an ethnic free-for-all in the Soviet Union would bring.
"This union of sovereign states is, to use a military term, the last trench. Beyond that, the collapse of the state begins," Gorbachev warned. Without the treaty, he has said, the Soviet Union faces razval-- "disintegration." He is pressing local leaders to adopt the proposed union treaty within the next two months, but four republics flatly refuse, and numerous others--including Russia and the Ukraine--are unenthusiastic or impose additional demands.
The splintering of the world's biggest state and one of its two nuclear superpowers would have tremendous worldwide implications. Where, for example, would the SS-25 missiles end up? Although the Bush Administration remains committed to backing Gorbachev's perestroika reform campaign, U.S. officials are beginning to make contacts with leaders from the periphery, as well.
"There is political fragmentation going on in the Soviet Union now whose bounds we simply don't know. Some of it is unrealistic. Some of it is very threatening and ominous," said Raymond Seitz, assistant secretary of state for European affairs.