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.”
With each passing year, however, the Prometheans faded deeper into obscurity. In 1932 France and Poland signed nonaggression agreements with Stalin, making their peace with the Soviet state and, therefore, with its borders. The United States recognized the Soviets as a legitimate power in 1933, and the next year the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations. The old Prometheans had few tools at their disposal besides the exclamation point. “Down with the Muscovite yoke!” they proclaimed in their journal and in public appeals. Western diplomats kept them at arm’s length. “The movement which he represents,” wrote a British Foreign Office bureaucrat about an émigré from the Caucasus, “seems somewhat academic.” Once Stalin became a full Western ally, during the Second World War, the captive nations looked as if they would be captive for good. Not a few exiles found their sympathies drifting toward Germany. Some even came to embrace the Nazi ideal of a “New Order” in Europe that would end Russian domination of the east and rectify allegedly unjust frontiers.
The Prometheans ended up as losers once again. At war’s end, not only were the old homelands still encased inside the Soviet Union, but a whole new array of countries—including Poland, the former Promethean protector—soon disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. But as the Cold War commenced, the old émigré circles found yet another opportunity.
In 1949 Prometheans organized a conference in Munich with the goal of re-igniting the movement. Attendees voted to shift their efforts to the United States, which had emerged as the new leader of the global struggle against the Bolshevik enemy. The journal was long gone, but the core ideas of the Prometheans were taken up by a new cohort of first-generation Americans who had been reared on stories of distant homelands suffering beneath the Russian heel. Lev Dobriansky, a New Yorker of Ukrainian heritage and an economics professor at Georgetown, rekindled the old flame in the 1950s. He successfully lobbied for the congressional resolution that created Captive Nations Week, a direct link to the “captive peoples” concept introduced by the Prometheans. He reportedly authored the text himself.
These were small victories: a resolution here, a commemorative statue to a national poet there. However, the liberation of communist-dominated Europe and of Russian-dominated Eurasia was now more than an exile’s dream. We should be clear: The old Prometheans were what would now be called separatists, and they were not always peaceful ones. But what had once looked like a lost cause dear to faded old men became a rhetorical weapon against Soviet-style communism.
The cause also became something of an American family heirloom. Dmitri Shalikashvili, a Georgian soldier put to flight by the invading Bolsheviks, spent part of the Second World War with a German unit fighting to release Georgia from Soviet control. He later wound up in America. His son John, also a soldier, wore the insignia of chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of Lev Dobriansky’s students, Catherine Chumachenko, eventually became the first lady of independent Ukraine, as the wife of pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko. Lev’s daughter, Paula Dobriansky, was the long-serving U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs.
The creators of the captive nations model were not given to nuance. They saw the world as populated by peoples, not people—that is, by discrete cultural nations that mystically yearned to breathe free. They sought an end to captivity because it was communists who guarded the jailhouse. They cared little for the plight of Kenyans, Angolans, or others then seeking liberation from noncommunist empires. Nor were they much concerned with national minorities inside the very countries they hoped to liberate.
Sometimes, however, monomaniacs turn out to be prophets. The map that came into existence in 1991 was more or less the one that would have existed if the Russian civil war had gone the Prometheans’ way. There are problems, of course: the authoritarian morass that is Belarus, the creepiness of Hungary’s right-wing government, ethnocratic tendencies in the Balkans, Ukraine’s unwillingness to deal honestly with the Holocaust, the tyrannical hold-outs in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. But in the core areas of concern to the Prometheans—eastern Europe and western Eurasia—an aspirational patriotism of “freedom, dignity, and opportunity for all” has by and large trumped the scarier nationalisms that the region has long been capable of producing.
Notwithstanding the ideas of the Prometheans and their successors, Russians are not congenitally imperial, nor could the antidote to Soviet communism possibly have been U.S. support for all forms of anti-Russian nationalism. Imagine the bloodshed and balkanization if that original parade of captives from 1959 had actually found freedom: a vast springtime of nations ranging from the reasonable (Ukraine) to the quixotic (White Ruthenia) to the noxious (Cossackia). But given the bizarreness and brutality into which Putin’s Russia has now sunk—a land of conspiracy theories and the state’s deeply cynical manipulation of reality—the captive nations idea seems to have had one prescient component: that if history afforded you the chance to leave the Russian orbit and take your homeland with you, it was probably worth getting out.