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Have you ever wondered why some of the borders in Europe and Central Asia are the source of so much conflict? This is the area we sometimes call the “post-Soviet space,” a term that is now something of an insult to the people who live there. (I do it myself now and then, but after three full decades, that’s getting to be like calling the U.S. and Canada the “post-British space.”)

You probably haven’t thought much about this, and I don’t blame you.

But because these borders have led to war, civil unrest, and smaller military clashes multiple times since 1991 throughout the former Soviet empire, and as we now seem to be on the verge of the biggest military mobilization in Europe since the Nazis went on the march more than 80 years ago, it might be helpful to think about how we got here. So I’m offering this post as a brief (if overly elliptical) history lesson.

Empires collapsing and leaving messy borders isn’t a new thing. What makes the Soviet case unique, however, is that Soviet leaders nearly a century ago intentionally drew these borders to create the situation we’re living with today. They locked up nationalities and ethnic groups within bizarre administrative lines drawn specifically to ensure that the U.S.S.R. could never come apart without bloodshed.

To understand all this, we need to go back to the very creation of the Soviet Union itself. (And if you never knew what Soviet meant, you’re about to find out.)  

The key thing to understand about Lenin and the other Bolsheviks is that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was, for them, about overthrowing an empire and sparking a chain reaction of communist revolutions around the world.

They really expected this. The victorious Bolsheviks were so optimistic about revolution spreading throughout Europe that they attacked Poland while they were still in the middle of fighting their own people in the Russian Civil War. Indeed, Lenin was practically giddy; as the Red Army advanced on Warsaw in 1920, he sent a secret cable to Stalin saying, “It is time to encourage revolution in Italy. My view is that for this to happen, Hungary must be sovietized, and maybe also the Czech lands and Romania. This has to be carefully thought out.”

“Carefully” indeed. The reality here is that the Bolsheviks were basically muddle-headed intellectuals whose actual political experience hadn’t gone much beyond the years they spent bloviating in cafés and at party meetings. They had no real idea what they were doing, and in the ensuing years, they charged ahead with a lot of dumb ideas—such as crowding people onto collective farms and starving millions of people.

The half-baked idea that concerns us here is their commitment to “national self-determination.” In theory, this seems like a principled position. Who could be against freedom for oppressed ethnic minorities? Lenin and his party were not imperialists, of course—God forbid! (Well, not God, because they were also atheists, but I digress.) They were committed to overthrowing a monarch and freeing people from the bonds of empire.

Sort of.

Almost immediately, this position on national self-determination bit the new Soviet leadership in the zhopa. The Bolsheviks, as it turned out, weren’t really against empires so much as they were against other people’s empires. After winning the civil war in late 1920, the Kremlin’s new bosses controlled most of the former Tsarist empire, and they weren’t about to let go of all that in the name of some rhetorical commitment to national liberation that they never meant in the first place.

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