The dying process has begun," wrote Alexander Kugel, a journalist and theatre critic, a few months after the bloody Bolshevik revolution of 1917. "Everything that we see now is just part of the agony. Bolshevism is the death of Russia. And a body the size of Russia cannot die in one hour. It groans." The agony lasted more than 70 years. On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev relinquished his duties as the last president of the USSR. The hammer and sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin without fanfare. The empire expired with a sigh.
There was almost no blood on the streets of Moscow that year; the only deaths were those of three young men killed on the night of the failed coup in August 1991. The disintegration of the Soviet empire was "relatively peaceful and orderly", as Dmitri Trenin writes in a sober and analytical book, Post-Imperium. It could certainly have been worse, but the collapse unleashed civil and ethnic wars on the periphery — in the Caucasus, Moldova and, the most deadly one, Tajikistan. Estimates vary, but about 200,000 people are believed to have died in the post-Soviet conflicts.
8 Pieces of Empire, by Lawrence Scott Sheets, an American reporter who spent 20 years covering the post-Soviet conflagrations for Reuters and National Public Radio, is a powerful reminder of how relative the words "peaceful and orderly" really were. His book takes the reader inside some of these wars, which were largely ignored by a world preoccupied with the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Different in genre and scope, both books are nonetheless shaped by personal experience.
Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Centre, served the empire as a military officer in East Germany. Sheets, who now works for the International Crisis Group in south Caucasus, went to the Soviet Union to study Russian in 1987 and returned shortly before Gorbachev's final presidential speech, hoping to become a foreign correspondent. His book is an invaluable eyewitness account of the traumas of the Soviet collapse told through the lives of those who were caught up in it and often buried under it. The book is written with a disarming honesty, sympathy and humility.
The "pieces" in the title refer not only to geography but to people who were scattered: a Bulgakov-loving, rebellious racketeer in Leningrad; a Russian officer left behind at a forlorn border post between Armenia and Turkey, guarding a foreign frontier with another foreign state and trying to flog snake venom to passing journalists; an ageing former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped to end the Cold War but failed to prevent a hot one from starting in his native Georgia, which he came to rule in the 1990s.
Stalin's birthplace, the "wine-and-song-filled Georgia", was one of the first to descend into anarchy. In 1992, two gangsters (both with artistic backgrounds) pushed out a crazy nationalist president (himself a former writer) and roamed into an autonomous Abkhazia on the pretext of having to guard passenger trains with tanks. Soon, a nasty ethnic war followed. It was a "war that nobody started", as a Georgian put it at the time. It lacked a plan, strategy, front line or regular armies, but it had plenty of vandalism and ethnic hatred.
Russia's intervention in 1993 resulted in Georgia's defeat. But the wounds left by the wars never healed. They were reopened in 2008, when Russia attacked Nato-aspiring Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The consequences of Russia's own two wars with Chechnya, north of the Caucasus Mountains, have also been grievous. Sheets ends his book with a description of one of the most horrific episodes of those wars: the school siege in Beslan in 2004, when more than 1,000 people, mostly children, were taken hostage by terrorists. In the worst Soviet tradition, the state lied about the number of hostages and the terrorists' demands. After two days government forces stormed the school, using tanks and flame-throwers. Sheets met hostages emerging from the inferno, wounded, filthy and in shock.
Today Sheets works to prevent more conflicts. It is in this capacity that he warns darkly in the last paragraph of the book that the Russian empire could easily fragment still further. This might seem odd when so many are worried about Russia's neo-imperialist rhetoric. Yet, as Trenin convincingly argues, Russia is not a neo-imperialist state, but a post-imperialist one that lacks both vision and appeal, and the economic and human resources for any expansion. With a shrinking population, which accounts for only 2 per cent of the human race, and a declining share of former Soviet trade, "the Russian empire is over, never to return".
8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse By Lawrence Scott Sheets,Crown, 313 pages, $28
Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story By Dmitri Trenin,Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 270 pages, $49.95