This post is provided by guest blogger André Förster who studies the Masters program “Sociology and empirical social Research” at the University of Cologne. Alongside his studies, he works as a student assistant at gesis – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Cologne.

book cover

Mark R. Beissinger, 2002: Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In this important book Mark R. Beissinger, director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and former professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sets out to explain how the collapse of the Soviet State  became viewed from the impossible to the inevitable within only a few years. While many studies refer to the inherent logic of the communist system as the main reason for its disintegration, Beissinger highlights the importance of nationalist events that took place during the years 1987 to 1991. Based on rich quantitative and qualitative data, the author argues that the tidal impact of these demonstration and protest events and their cross-country influence shaped a phase of history, in which institutions were changed not as the result of an inherent logic, but rather through the whole process itself.

Beissinger’s book offers a very productive combination of transnational and comparative sociological analysis. In the following review, I will focus on the second and fifth chapter of the book, in which Beissinger explains how the transnational glasnost tide of nationalism evolved and why some movements of nationalism succeded while others failed. On the basis of Beissinger’s analysis I will show that the development and the success of nationalist movements can be explained from a transnational perspective, whereas the failure of movements can rather be explained from a comparative view.

In Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, Mark R. Beissinger focuses on nationalism in order to explain the disintegration of the USSR. Beissinger follows the constructivist argument of mutual constitutiveness of structure and agency. He wants to explain why specific structural conditions led to collective nationalist action, and how action then shaped nationhood itself. This theoretical background is the basis for an empirical analysis that has its central focus on the study of nationalism in terms of events.

“An ‘eventful’ perspective places time and action centrally in its analysis and seeks to probe the relationship of action to subsequent outcomes, controlling for the influence of other factors. More than that, it implies that nationalism needs to be understood not only as a cause of action, but also as the product of action” (p. 11).

In his analysis, Beissinger follows the history of those events that caused the collapse of the USSR from 1987 to 1991. He states that in these years, one can examine a huge variety of relationships between structure and agency in terms of nationalism due to the diversity of peoples. There existed 127 different ethnic groups in the former Soviet State (p. 35).

Beissinger’s essential argument concerning the role of nationalism for the downfall of the Soviet State is the cross-country impact of nationalist movements. Without the tidal impact of one movement on another, Beissinger argues, the disintegration of the USSR would not have been possible. In this phase of “thickened” history with its numerous events, institutions were changed not as a result of certain preconditions, but rather through the process of protest itself (p. 36).

Beissinger employs small-n as well as large-n analyses in order to examine the structural influences of nationalist mobilization events. By using nonlinear event-count and event-history models, Beissinger takes the problem of endogeneity into account. The technique of process-tracing allows him to assume causal relationships. According to Beissinger, it is rather difficult to discover the change of the public opinion in the former USSR by opinion polls, as there were no systematic measurements available when the state collapsed. The focus on a dynamic and temporal event analysis is fruitful, as it allows identifying the context of action.

Beissinger’s empirical analysis is based on event data from 6,663 protest demonstrations and 2,177 mass violent events from January 1987 to December 1992, the “noisy phase of nationalism” (pp. 44-45). The  data was collected from press-based sources (p. 473). Although the Soviet State collapsed in August 1991, events until December 1992 are included to avoid the problem of right-censoring as well as to analyze the impact of the collapse itself. Furthermore, Beissinger adds data from 185 protest demonstrations and 50 mass violent events from 1965 to 1986, which serves as relevant data regarding the development of protest (p.44).

In his analysis Beissinger shows that the glasnost tide of nationalism was an outstanding and extraordinary period of history, which influenced other nationalist movements all over the world (p. 448).  He identifies four specific features of the former USSR that fostered the course of nationalist events, namely the institutional and ideological crises, the fusion of state and regime, the ethnic grievance and the Soviet overreach abroad. Five aspects were decisive for the success of nationalisms. These are a high level within the ethnofederal hierarchy, a large population size, own linguistic patterns, a high level of urbanization and – most important – high frequented interactions with other movements (pp. 450-451).

The factor of a high level inside the ethnofederal hierarchy refers to the multiethnicity within the USSR. Beissinger states that if an ethnical minority was able to maintain its political position for example by native-language schooling, this would be a guarantor for nationalist success (p. 50 f.). A similar mechanism applies for the linguistic pattern. If a group managed to prevent linguistic assimilation to the Russian, it enhanced its collective identity as well as its solidarity. A high level of urbanization matters because of the social networks it creates. Therefore, it was much more likely for nationalist movements to attract followers in an urban area (p. 451).

Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet State depended to a high degree on the outcome of events. Early rising nationalist movements had more structural advantages, whereas late rising movements could build upon the success of the early risers. This is what Beissinger calls the “bandwagoning effect” of nationalist movements (p. 454). As a consequence, the collapse of the USSR was not foreseen because the state was overwhelmed by a tide of nationalism. Thus, this is his argument for the importance of studying the cause of events and their impact instead of focusing too much on the analysis of thoughts and ideas (pp. 456-459).

Chapter 2: The Tide of Nationalism and the Mobilizational Cycle

In this chapter, Mark R. Beissinger examines the glasnost tide of nationalism and works out the preconditions, which made the USSR vulnerable to nationalist movements. However, the main focus is rather on how these movements turned into a transnational tide of nationalism, influencing and enriching each other. How did that happen?

Beissinger persuasively argues that there were two initial acts of protest in the summer of 1987 that shaped the structure of future demonstrations, the protest by Crimean Tatars and the demonstration at the Freedom Monument in Riga. Due to the disagreement in the Politburo over the question of how to deal with these ongoing protests, other movements, for example the Armenian mobilization over the Karabakh issue were encouraged to stick with further protest. Beissinger concludes that all the events at the beginning of mobilization can be defined as a chain reaction, or a “domino theory” (p. 68).

In my opinion, Beissinger’s analysis offers at this point even more than he explicitly states. On the background of his observations, I would conclude that transnational influences were the main driving force behind building up the protest mobilization. Nevertheless, I think it is quite convincing that Beissinger does not lose sight of the interplay between structure and agency. He states that Gorbachev – in opposing nationalist movements at first with regimental violence – reacted to the protests in a way that encouraged further demonstrations, although he intended to prevent them.

“We will never know, whether Gorbachev’s assessment was correct, but the subsequent failure of the approach taken raises the question of whether a space for a nonviolent politics of internal boundary change would have altered the course of events” (p. 69).

By looking at the core of the mobilizational development, the huge importance of transnational influences becomes once more obvious. Whereas during the Brezhnevian era of the USSR protest was rare, not diffused, and not clearly directed towards the state, this changed due to glasnost, as lowered institutional constraints shifted the opportunities of possible protest. All the protest groups had one thing in common, namely the (transnational) repression of the Soviet State, which led to the emergence of the mobilizational cycle.

Beissinger defines a mobilizational cycle among groups as “regularized and influencing (each other; A.F.)”, followed by “a broadening of challenge to encompass new groups and a growing causal role for the event” (p. 74). A transnational development of a cycle gets possible, when certain factors, such as contiguity in time and place, bandwagon effects, geographic proximity and similarity of issues are given. Referring to the Soviet case, the ethnofederal system, the economic structure, and the radicalization were analogous issues that fostered the development of a transnational mobilization.

As Beissinger defines tide as an “unusual force and attraction the(se) issues exercised across multiple contexts and within the cycle as a whole” (p. 79) nationalism was the main tidal force in the former USSR. To my mind, this is justified not only by the fusion of state and regime, the ethnic grievance, the ethnofederal state structure, and the overreach abroad, but also by the institutional change and the impact of action on subsequent action. Beissinger argues that after the Nineteenth Party Conference, nationalist contention had become diffused and quite normal, so that increased interrelations between the nationalist movements were possible. He backs this argument empirically by showing the parallel structure of periods of significant institutional change over several former USSR countries. As the number and frequency of protests grew, public opinion was shifted towards emphasizing protest behavior as normal as well as preferable.

Taking all these aspects together and considering the fact that political institutions were too slow to react to the events, I infer that the institutional collapse of the Communist Parties can be seen as a transnational product of transnational mobilization. With respect to Beissinger’s analysis in chapter 2 of his book, I conclude that the rise of the mobilizational cycle and the rise of the nationalist tide were transnational developments that would not have been possible without institutional change and the impact of action on subsequent action.

Chapter 5: Tides and the Failure of Nationalist Mobilization

In this part of his book, Beissinger analyzes the roles of opportunity and action concerning the success or the failure of nationalist movements. He distinguished between three types of nationalist success: Mobilizational success (a wide resonance of nationalist action within society can be perceived, issue success (movement aims are adopted as basis for state policy and political success (a movement gains control over the state).

Due to the fact that in the USSR some nationalist movements failed mobilizationally yet succeeded related to their issue and politically, Beissinger conceptualizes five possible outcomes of mobilization in the USSR, which are based on the three types of nationalist success mentioned above: “Irrelevancy (a particular frame is inappropriate and therefore unimagined), failures of action (a potentially relevant frame does not become the basis for significant efforts to mobilize), failures of mobilizational effect (efforts to mobilize around a particular frame fail to achieve sufficient resonance (…) to allow a movement to overcome institutional constraints), mobilizational failure but issue success (a challenging frame is strategically appropriated by the powerful even in the absence of effective mobilization) and mobilizational success (a mobilizational frame gains sufficient resonance (…) to allow a movement to break through institutional constraints, leading to capture of the state or control over its agenda)” (p. 205).

Due to the fact that Beissinger’s main focus is on mobilizational and not issue success, type 4 is excluded. Although Beissinger states that he leaves type 1 for others to explore (p. 205), he does not state a reason for this. The decisive question concerning success or failure is the following: Did the nationalist movements have the capacity to utilize the tidal forces generated by others? Beissinger analyzes 40 groups and observes that they can be assigned to three out of the five types of outcome, namely type 2, 3 and 5. There are those groups, which failed to generate significant separatist mobilizational activity (type 2), those whose movements generated some significant activity, but not enough to break through institutional constraints (type 3), and those whose movements generated significant activity and transcended the institutional constraints (type 5). The large population size, high ethnofederal status, and own linguistic patterns of the latter type guaranteed their success, whereas the contrary of these factors of the former types led to their failure (p. 209).

Again, concerning the question about success and failure of nationalist movements in the light of transnational and comparative analysis, I argue that Beissinger’s explications offer some room for a more general interpretation. Concerning the success of the nationalist groups, Beissinger argues convincingly that even if the factors such as population size, ethnofederal status and linguistic patterns were disadvantageous, certain groups could make nationalist movements successful (p. 229). He shows for Abkhaz, Gagauz, Bashkirs, Tuvans, and Turkmen that their movements were successful, because they took the chance of timing. The author explores three waves of separatism that made the success of mobilization more probable. In those cases, where the above mentioned disadvantageous factors were at play, the movements relied on other factors, such as the outcomes of prior tides of nationalism, the modernizing policies of government, and their demographic fortunes (p. 251). Regarding those cases, I conclude that mainly transnational aspects ensured mobilizational success, even if it had seemed impossible before.

Concerning the failure of groups, Beissinger admits that even if nationalism was imaginable, structural disadvantages could prevent success (p. 217). However, it was mainly the combination of disadvantages that ensured definitive failure. Beissinger proves this by referring to Belorussian, Uzbek, and Volga Tatar separatist movements. The Belorussian movement suffered from linguistic russification and weakened urban networks. The Uzbek movement from the fact that Russians had enhanced urbanization, and the Volga Tatars had no chance of successful mobilization not only because of institutional constraints, but also rather due to their secondary status in comparison to the Crimean Tatars (p. 252). Obviously a certain national structure, specifically applicable to Belorussia, Uzbekistan, and Crimea made success impossible.

All in all, I think that Beissinger’s analysis reveals that on the one hand, a transnational perspective is helpful to explain the rise as well as the success of nationalist movements in the former Soviet State. On the other hand, a comparative perspective is required to explain the failures of nationalism.

Reception of the Book

Since its publication several scholars have reviewed Beissinger’s book. None of these, however, pays sufficient attention to the argument that transnational mechanisms can account for nationalist success, while comparative patterns can explain nationalist failure.

Richard Sakwa, for example, approaches Beissinger’s book from a completely different perspective. He criticizes Beissinger’s work by arguing that the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet State have to be seen as two different things (Sakwa 2011: p. 9). While the collapse can be boiled down to a list of contributing factors, the disintegration should rather be regarded in the context of modernization theories than in the light of transnational and comparative analysis. Furthermore, Sakwa holds that Beissinger’s analysis is rather beside the point:

“While the Soviet collapse may have been inevitable, it was no less unpredictable. The old debate about the failure of Sovietologists to predict the systemic collapse is misleading. From the very beginning of Soviet power there had been voices proclaiming the system’s inherent lack of viability; but to anticipate the system’s collapse is not the same thing as to be able to predict the precise timing of the end of a particular order (…) In the end Beissinger’s impossible becoming the inevitable took place in the blink of historical time” (Sakwa 2011: p. 32).

To me, this criticism is beside Beissinger’s arguments. It is not the case that Beissinger writes about a non-existing problem. Instead, he tries to find an explanation not only for the developments themselves, but also for the fact that the downfall of the USSR became seen from the impossible to the inevitable.

Similar to Richard Sakwa, Zsuzsa Csergo and James M. Goldgeier are also unaware of a transnational perspective on the downfall of the Soviet State. In their 2004 paper, they rather demand for an even more nationalist view. The authors’ basic idea is that even in the light of European Integration, nationalist strategies remain important. Therefore, they work out a typology of nationalisms with four different types (Csergo/Goldgeier 2004: p. 23). As Beissinger’s analysis has a rather general concept of nationalism and focuses on the occurrence and structure of events, perhaps it would have been helpful to consider different types of nationalisms with different objectives. Csergo and Goldgeier plead in favor of a view that defines centralized communist states as traditional nationalism (Csergo/Goldgeier 2004: p. 31), although not all former USSR states can be assigned to that type. On the other hand, Beissinger’s analysis would not work by applying different typologies, because its strength rather lies in working out the influence of the transnational tide of nationalism.

Only Barbara Christophe in her 2003 book review comes close to valuing the impact of Beissinger’s work in terms of transnational and comparative analysis. She states that Beissinger is right in arguing against deterministic theories and therefore accounts for theories of multiple modernities such as the work of Shmuel Eisenstadt (Christophe 2003: p. 333). She also works out convincingly that there are three reasons for the strength of Beissinger’s book:

“The results (…) are rooted in a firm theoretical grounding, which combines structuralist with actor-centered perspectives. Theory is translated into a convincing methodology that focuses on the analysis of events as the place where structure meets action. And last but not least, methodological tools are applied to a wide range of empirical data” (Christophe 2003: p. 333).

In a 2009 paper, Mark R. Beissinger extends his analysis on nationalisms and their role in the collapse of Soviet Communism. Following again a non-deterministic, activity-based approach he argues that nationalism – and not democratization – was the main driving force behind mobilization. He tries to prove this by using empirical evidence concerning the frequency of nationalist demands in demonstrations and concludes that nationalism was capable of spreading the collapse over ethnofederalism and the Warsaw Pact as multinational institutions (Beissinger 2009: pp. 334-335).

Again, Beissinger argues for transnational mechanisms to be at play leading to the Soviet “revolution” at the end of the 1980s. He suggests that the proceedings in the former USSR can indeed be seen as a revolution in the sense of Charles Tilly’s processual concept of revolution with a situation of „dual sovereignty“, or Theda Skocpol’s concept of revolution with respect to the specific outcome, which means that the state and its ideology have to be transformed (Beissinger 2009: p. 343).

The collapse of Soviet communism in a transnational and comparative perspective

In this review, I have assessed Mark R. Beissinger’s book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State from a transnational and comparative perspective. In my opinion, focusing on this specific view reveals the main achievement of Beissinger’s analysis. It provides a clear and comprehensive understanding of the disintegration of the former Soviet State and thus, makes this book worth reading. I have shown that according to Beissinger’s work, transnational mechanisms can explain the rise as well as the success of nationalisms in the former USSR. Additionally, the comparison of specific nationalisms is helpful to work out the explaining factors regarding the failures of nationalist movements. By referring to events Beissinger manages to step from theory into empiricism. Despite some points of criticism that I have stated in chapter 3 of this review it can be said that Beissinger provides a convincing insight into the structures and agents, as well as into events that cannot be by-passed in explaining the downfall of the Soviet State.

As Beissinger states in his 2009 article, nationalisms and national sovereignty still play an important role today, more than 20 years after the disintegration of the Soviet State. Thus, Beissinger’s theory about transnational influences of nationalist movements is not only convincing in reference to the former USSR. To a greater degree, the interplay between structure and agency as well as between transnational and national factors can be extended to recent mobilization processes.

The development of the Arab spring is only one example, where questions about nationalism and national sovereignty are raised. Though one cannot state that a superior regime such as in the USSR dominates the Middle East today, there seems to be a transnational network mainly driven by the United States, which has ensured stability rather than fostering democratization (Brownlee 2011). However, this is a significantly different mechanism than the one examined by Beissinger. It implies that transnational tidal forces do not enhance the chance of movement success, but rather reduce it. In general, it shows that transnational forces still play a great role when it comes to issues of nationalism. Therefore, nationalism and national sovereignty in terms of transnational and comparative analysis remain important topic areas, in science as well as in society.

Works cited

Beissinger, Mark R. (2009): Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism. In: Contemporary European History 18: 331-347.

Brownlee, Jason (2011): The Transnational Challenge to Arab Freedom. In: Current History 11/2011: 317-323.

Christophe, Barbara (2003): Book Review on Mark R. Beissinger’s Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. In: Nations and Nationalism 9: 332-334.
Csergo, Zsuzsa/Goldgeier, James M. (2004): Nationalist Strategies and European Integration. In: Perspectives on Politics 2: 21-37.
Sakwa, Richard (2011): The Soviet Collapse: Contradictions and Neo-Modernisation. Paper presented at the conference “20 Years since the Disintegration of the Soviet Union: Looking
Backward, Looking Forward”. Online: (12/01/2013)
Wendt, Alexander (1994): Collective Identity Formation and the International State. In: The American Political Science Review 88: 384-396.