WASHINGTON — In the bewildering swirl of events surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Thursday's arrest in Kiev of Igor Smirnov barely rated as even a ripple.
But for Western analysts peering ahead at what may happen in the disintegrating country, the activities of Smirnov, a leader of Russians living in the newly independent republic of Moldova accused of promoting last week's coup attempt, are a troubling portent.
Although Smirnov himself is obscure, the force he represents is one of the most powerful--and at times destructive--in modern politics: nationalism.
For seven decades, the Soviet Union has been held together as a multinational state by force combined with the ideology of socialism. As that ideology became fully discredited, force alone has proven insufficient to bind a society of more than 100 national groups spread across one-sixth of the Earth.
"So what is now available as an ideological glue" to hold together the new societies that are forming? asks Ronald G. Suny, a historian at the University of Michigan. Liberalism, tolerance and attempts to imitate the West may hold sway among intellectuals in Moscow and Leningrad, he notes. But "in terms of a broad movement that would reach beyond the cities, nationalism is the most likely."
Nationalism, patriotism and love of country have often been positive forces. And some experts on Soviet history believe that the cohesion and sense of purpose that nationalism can provide may prove to be the driving force that will allow the diverse peoples of the Soviet Union to survive the hardships that they are likely to face in the future.
"National self-determination is not the problem," says Harvard University's Roman Szporluk. "The collapse of communism is the problem, and the rise of nations is a solution." On the other hand, he admits, "it often happens to solutions that they cause new problems."
National sentiment can easily be twisted to malignant ends. Already, for example, in some republics, such as Byelorussia, the Old Guard Communist leaders have tried to use nationalist sentiment--and independence declarations--as a way to shield themselves against the tide of reform that is flowing from Moscow.
In other cases, such as Russia itself, nationalism's positive side has often been overtaken by a darker, brutal and aggressive cast through the years--a conviction that Russians are an imperial people destined to rule over smaller nationalities around them.
Because of that history, the sight of Russia--in the person of Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin--emerging to grab for the power that was once in the hands of the multinational Soviet Union can be frightening for many--both within the Soviet Union itself and in neighboring countries.
Neighbors remember the czarist regime's centuries of expansionist warfare. Earlier this week, for example, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, warned on Tehran Radio that Yeltsin was emerging as "a partisan of modern czarism" and encouraging "the spread of nationalist tendencies" that could be dangerous for neighboring countries. Russian armies clashed often with what was then known as Persia in the last two centuries. In this century, the Soviet army briefly occupied part of Iran's territory after World War II.
Within the country, minority groups recall that during the days of the czars, particularly in the 19th Century, Russian policy tried to suppress other native languages and cultures within the empire. Moscow banned the use of Polish, Ukrainian or the Baltic languages in secondary or higher education, for example. In Central Asia, the czars seized vast tracts of land from the semi-nomadic residents and distributed it among Russian peasants.
Under Soviet rule, Moscow followed a more complex policy. V. I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, disdained nationalism, arguing that it was merely a tool used by the wealthy to divide the working class. But at the same time, Lenin was not above using nationalist feelings to divide his opponents when necessary. And his successors, particularly Josef Stalin, frequently sought to manipulate national feelings as part of a "divide and rule" strategy.
Official Soviet ideology--except during World War II, when Stalin used appeals to nationalism and Russia's past to try to rally his people against the invading Germans--was to try to replace Russian nationalism with "Sovietism." And in the republics, the policy was designed to foster loyalty to Moscow by creating national "homelands" and local elites.
The policy has had some success, according to those who have studied Soviet public opinion.
A recent extensive survey of attitudes in Russia, the Ukraine and Lithuania by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, for example, found that a large percentage of Russians said they did not know whether they would describe their countrymen as patriotic or unpatriotic.