Given the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the war in Gaza, you would be forgiven for having missed the fact that we are now in the middle of America’s annual Captive Nations Week. Every summer since 1959, the White House has invited the American people to observe the occasion with “appropriate ceremonies and activities,” according to the original law signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. On July 18, Barack Obama followed his predecessors and issued a proclamation calling on the American people to “reaffirm our deep ties to all governments and people committed to freedom, dignity, and opportunity for all.”
The captive nations legislation is a weird artifact of the Cold War. The original joint congressional resolution effectively committed the United States not just to the overthrow of communist governments around the world, a policy that was at odds with the doctrine of containment favored by contemporary strategists such as George F. Kennan. It also made the break-up of the Soviet Union, and indeed of Russia itself, an express goal of U.S. foreign policy.
The “imperialistic policies of Communist Russia,” the resolution read, had snuffed out the nationhood of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, and subjugated central European powers such as Poland and Hungary. The “liberation and independence” of all these “submerged nations” was deemed to be “vital to the national security of the United States.” These places did become fully sovereign in 1989 and 1991, with the demise of the Soviet bloc and then of the Soviet Union itself, but the clarion call of liberty was meant to extend even further. The original resolution contained a list of other forgotten places in eastern Europe and Eurasia that today make it sound like a gazetteer of Middle Earth: Cossackia, Idel-Ural, Turkestan, White Ruthenia.
The captive nations concept is a quaint relic of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Like the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C.—a diminutive replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which was unveiled in a lonely spot off Massachusetts Avenue in 2007—Captive Nations Week is a testament to the power of lobbying and bureaucratic inertia. The goddess statue satisfied determined cold warriors intent on commemorating the victims of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et al. The size and location of the statue managed to do that without creating a hiccup in relations with China. The annual captive nations proclamation likewise offends only those who regard tyranny and intolerance as political virtues. But it is also something more: an object lesson in the fact that even weird ideas can end up on the right side of history.
The origins of “captive nations” as a political precept lay in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. During the brutal Russian civil war, the Bolsheviks managed to gather together many of the old territories once contained within the czar’s defunct empire. Ukrainians had earlier declared their own state, as had Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. But by 1921, these were all once again within Moscow’s sphere. They eventually formed part of the newly constituted Soviet Union. Their former nationalist governments were arrested, shot, or exiled, finding refuge in independent Poland, Turkey, and elsewhere.
In the early interwar years, the survivors were welcomed in their adopted countries. Their hosts—Poles in particular—discovered that their own strategic vision aligned with that of the Eurasian exiles. For many states along Europe’s eastern frontiers, the great strategic problem of the era was how to deal with the existence of the Soviet Union, a neighbor whose guiding ideology—Bolshevism—was universal, revolutionary, and liberationist. The Bolsheviks rejected the notion of nationality and proclaimed the freedom of all toiling masses from the twin perils of imperialism and capitalism.
Yet they were also eager to stoke nationalist sentiment when the nationalists happened to be of the right stripe: those who were fighting other empires and nation-states that were themselves enemies of the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s forces overran independent Georgia, for example, but called for ethnic minorities in Romania and Poland to throw off their bourgeois oppressors and join the socialist cause. (Vladimir Putin would have recognized the pattern. That is why crushing the rebellion in Chechnya, annexing Crimea, keeping soldiers illegally in Transnistria, recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic are logically and historically consistent in Russian foreign policy.)
The answer to this strategic problem was what came to be called the Promethean project, after a journal, Prométhée, founded by nationalist governments-in-exile in Paris. The Prometheans (the metaphor of nations in chains was a bit too obvious) counted among their number old anti-Bolshevik politicians and intellectuals from Ukraine, the Caucasus, and beyond. Poland became a key supporter of the exile cause, providing financial assistance to the Eurasian émigrés and organizing its own covert war against the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 1930s. The Polish view was that an alliance of small states on the Soviet periphery would build a wall around Russia’s imperial ambitions.
The Prometheans lobbied foreign governments and sought to expose the horrors of life inside the Soviet Union. They sponsored conferences and lectures on the world situation, and initiated letter-writing campaigns to showcase the plight of what they called the “captive peoples” caught inside the Bolshevik web. Only with the emergence of an archipelago of small states around Russia, they believed, would the Bolshevik threat be fully contained. “With its left wing touching on Poland, passing by the friendly lands of the Cossacks of the Don, Kuban, and Urals, and with its right wing reaching out to the oppressed peoples of Asia, Turkestan, and other areas,” wrote a Ukrainian contributor to Prométhée in 1932, “this bloc of states will stop once and for all the imperialist tendencies of Russia, whether of the Red or White variety.”