How Stalin Created Some of the Post-Soviet World's Worst Ethnic Conflicts

From bizarre border policies to the forced deportation of ethnic groups, Stalin oversaw the policies that gave rise to today's Central Asian strife.

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Investigators and security personnel work at a scene of suicide blast near a police camp in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, October 24, 2010. A policeman was killed, and seven people were injured in the attack. (Reuters)

Eighty-one-year-old Nikolai Khasig was born in Sukhumi in 1932. It was just one year after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin stripped Abkhazia of its short-lived status as a full-fledged republic of the USSR and made it a region of Soviet Georgia.

At the end of 1936, Lavrenty Beria -- at that time the head of the Transcaucasia region and later the sadistic head of Stalin's secret police -- invited the popular Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba to dinner at his house in Tbilisi. Lakoba died suddenly -- officially, of a heart attack, but it was widely believed that the former revolutionary comrade of Stalin's had been poisoned.

In the repressions that began in 1937, the entire Abkhaz government was arrested and subjected to show trials. Soviet archives later revealed that Beria had ordered them all executed before the trials even began. Collectivization came to Abkhazia with a vengeance. Soviet publications began arguing that the Abkhaz were actually of Georgian origin in the first place.

"Such violence, such humiliation, such abuse, such genocide," Khasig recalls. "Our people never experienced such things before."

In a sense, World War II was something of a respite, but the work begun in the 1930s continued as soon as the war was over. By that time, Khasig was in high school.

"In 1945, after the end of the war, Abkhaz schools were shut down and the policy of forced assimilation was begun," he says. "Our children -- we ourselves -- studied in the Georgian language and didn't know a single word [of Abkhaz]. We were simply cut off."

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all this old resentment and more surged to the surface.

In 1992, war broke out in Abkhazia -- with Abkhaz separatists joined in their struggle by representatives of other aggrieved Caucasus nations such as Chechens, Circassians, Ossetians, and Cossacks.

The Abkhaz were also actively supported by the Russian military. An estimated 8,000 people were killed and as many as 240,000 ethnic Georgians were displaced.

After the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazia's de facto independence was recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries. Georgia and most of the international community says the region is occupied by Russia. Khasig, despairingly, describes Abkhazia as "a Russian colony."

Bizarre Border Policies, Wholesale Deportations

The guns of war flared elsewhere as well in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. And these similar ethnic conflicts, many of which were exacerbated by Soviet polices six decades earlier, have come to be called "Stalin's time bombs."

Such conflicts, spanning from Central Europe to the intricate patchwork of exclaves that comprises the borders of Central Asia, are in many ways direct legacies of the shifting nationalities policies that were often brutally implemented during the nearly 30 years that Stalin towered over the Soviet Union.

These disputed places include the disputed ethnic-Armenian region of Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia's North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, its neighboring republics, and the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester.

From bizarre border policies and the wholesale deportation of ethnic groups to the mass importation of ethnic Russians to various regions, Stalin's policies created or aggravated conflicts that remain central to understanding Eurasia today.

Under Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin -- and later in the early years of Stalin's rule -- the Soviet government argued that nationalism was the bane of the imperial system. They tried to develop policies that would transform the multinational Eurasian space into a unified Soviet, socialist state.

"It was only by transforming the economic and social bases -- and the cultural basis, because [Stalin] paid a lot of attention to that -- of the nationalities that they would become fully integrated into a single socialist state," says Stephen Blank, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College and the author of a book on Stalin's time as Soviet nationalities commissar. "And the overwhelming thrust of his policies [was] to create that centralized, socialist system and that, he believed, would answer the nationalities problem."

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