Fortunately for the world, no matter how “Asian” the Russian leadership may become, the Russians have been and remain an inherently European people.
During the most part of 2014, Russia’s leaders tried to become (or to be considered) as ones of the former Soviet Union—the intervention into Crimea sought to be somewhat similar to the behavior of the USSR in Czechoslovakia in 1968; increasing military spending was intended to revive memories of the strong nuclear power, while inside Russia’ borders a non-democratic system, reminiscent of the Communist era, was built and secured. Russian “politologists” begun to label President Putin’s close circle as “Politburo,” following the old Soviet habit. In the West, Russia’s policy was increasingly described as imperial, and the developments that followed the annexation of Crimea were called a new Cold War.
However, today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and its “imperial” course is rather an attempt to simulate the past than to recreate it. One can talk about Russia’s economy, whose share in the gross global product is now 4–5 times less significant than that of the Soviet Union, and which critically depends on imports of goods and technologies from abroad. One can argue about the patterns of social behavior, completely subordinated to the materialist motives. One may recall the number of allies the Soviet Union possessed, and the amount thereof, which the current Russian Federation has still preserved. But all this, in my opinion, is much less important than the fundamental difference, which now attracts far less attention—both by the analysts and the general public.
The times when the Soviet Union stood against another great power—the United States, were quite unique times. Although today it is widely believed it was a period of greatest advances of nation-states, small attention is paid to an obvious fact the main competitors were not nation-states in the full sense of the word. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America were—and I think it was by no means a coincidence—the only major powers being named in a way that rejected any national or ethnic connotations. In some way, each of them can even be called an ideological negation of the nation-state. Of course, they had allies that have been historical nations in the Herderian sense: on the one hand there were Britain, France, Germany, Japan; on the other—Poland, Hungary, Vietnam, at some time China, but both superpowers were largely the constructs that were designed to deny history’s familiarity, and that was evident at every point, starting even from the name of the country. The United States were built as a “city upon a hill,” as the indispensable nation, nurtured by the American Creed—by the idea that human freedom and the pursuit of happiness are natural and essential for each individual. Priority of the private over the public was considered here as an absolute principle— much more imperative than it was taken even in Europe. The Soviet Union was created as an ideological state on the basis of the communist concept of social equality; it was born with the hope for the worldwide revolution and was regarded as an instrument of liberating the world from the domination of capitalists over the working class. The underlying idea was the domination of the collective over the private, the priority of the common good over the individualistic incentives. The clash of the superpowers during the Cold War was a clash not of “civilizations,” but of ideologies— and even while one of them was defeated, one should recognize that for many decades they seemed to be almost equally attractive. No one among the historians of the 20th century would say that the opposing camps were motivated only by their economic and geopolitical considerations. The influence of messianic concepts at the time was huge, if not decisive.
The collapse of the Soviet Union confirmed that one of these ideologies, if not less attractive than the other, at least proved to be less effective in creating a viable society capable of delivering high living standards to its citizens and becoming competitive in the global economy. The period that followed the Cold War, became for some European and former Soviet countries a time to rethink the previous guidelines and to choose a new trends in their development.
The bigger part of the European countries chose the path of incorporating into the European Union. I would note it as one more polity, which not only lacked a pronounced national identity (the “European” union had the same connotation as the united states “of America”), but also emerged as a means of suppression and overcoming excessive nationalism that ravaged Europe in the mid-20th century. The notion of “Europeanness” in this project, of course, had not assumed any universality comparable with that presupposed by the founding fathers of the United States or by Soviet revolutionaries, but it gave the system a high degree of flexibility in a new globalized world—allowing it, in particular, to become the only one case of expansion of a supranational polity in the past half-century. The European Union, in my view, is the first ever example of a non-ideological negation of the nation-state. United Europe doesn’t profess neither individualism nor collectivism; it does not seek to impose forcefully its own model as widely as possible in the world—but it’s obvious that it promotes the idea of a peaceful society, based on the rule of law and social solidarity, seeking to move away, as the two superpowers of the 20th century once did, from any national, ethnic, historical, and (unlike the United States, but not unlike the Soviet Union), even religious factors which can distort the social fabric.
A smaller part of the European countries, as well as many post-Soviet states chose a different path—the path of relying on their “glorious” history which presupposed a special look into the past and rapture of the national pride and uniqueness. Nationalism has become a natural support measure both for the new independent nations, which faced at least some difficulties in recalling their former significant achievements, and to the old imperial ones who have tried to restore their identity through an appeal to their former might and influence. Very often this approach brought conflicts and war—as it happened in Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova. Sometimes, it became a prerequisite for imperial policies (in the case of Yugoslavia they were not too successful, in the case of Russia they are already quite costly, but not yet realizing all its negative consequences). But nowhere had nationalism spawned new universal ideologies and nowhere had it opened new horizons, nowhere had it become—and was unable to become—a basis for international integration. In recent history, nationalism has always appealed to the primordial attributes of an individual, but not to her or his conscience and reason. Its opponents—sometimes intuitively, but always powerfully, rejected its reasonable nature: It may be noted as an example that in the famous Soviet song “Get Up, the Giant Country!”, written a few days after Hitler’s invasion into the USSR, the author appealed to repel the Nazi invaders, describing them firstly as the “oppressors of all the ardent thoughts” and only then as “rapists and murderers.”
It this radical shift in emphasis one may see a fundamental difference between the communist Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation. President Putin is deeply wrong, arguing that “the Soviet Union was the same Russia, but just called in another way.” A country without any ideology and any set of common ideas cannot become the heir to an ideological empire, and vice versa—an ideological empire cannot be regarded as the same kind of state as a historical nation.
The Soviet Union was based on a global ideological paradigm that denied any elements, actually and even potentially dividing people (ethnic, national and in the most radical way—religious ones).“Empire” that the USSR has built, could not always be based on voluntary accession to it by other countries and peoples, but it has never been based on exclusivity—on the contrary, its greatest people, the Russians, was often deprived of the attention it deserved being subjugated to the means of a large multiethnic country. It was this approach that allowed the Soviet Union—albeit not for his own benefit—to dominate almost half of the world, challenging its geopolitical and ideological opponents.
Russia today seems to be something complete opposite not only to the Soviet Union, but to some extent even to the old Russian Empire. The new center for Putin’s policies is now the idea of the “Russian world”—an idea that looks not only inherently nationalistic but deeply particularistic. One may speak as long as he or she wants of the “humanism” of the Russians, arguing that they wish to bring to the world the ideals of “conciliarity”, “communalism” and collectivism—but all this does not negate the main point: the fact that Russia had de facto recognized that it does not produce any sympathy outside the lands inhabited by the representatives of its “titular nation.” Russia exists where the Russians are present—and it disappears where they are not at hand. Therefore the “Russian World” doctrine is a clear step back not only from the Soviet universalist ideology, but even from the 19th-Century concept of Pan-Slavism shared at that time by many Russian thinkers and politicians who tried to find at least some way out from the narrow world inherently limited by its“Russianness.” One should also add to this an enhanced use of the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church by Russia’s ruling class, a confession that remains a marginal branch of Christianity, but over a thousand years turned from an independent moral authority into a humble servant of the state—and therefore being unable to produce any significant universalist ideological “product.”
In empires based on the promotion of ideas, the periphery may even benefit from formal subordination to the metropolis; in empires, whose aim is to satisfy the request of the titular nation for its own self-esteem, nothing like this can occur (and therefore the Eurasian Union, which Russia now plans to construct, will fail even before it is formally announced). The history is rich in proofs that nationalist empires are very dangerous both for their neighbors and for themselves as well.
The contemporary Russia is a very “sick” country. It is infected with its own past, which in many ways was even more inspiring than the story of the other great powers. While creating the largest continental empire in the world from the 16th to the 19th century, Russia found unique historical recipes for unifying and governing unimaginably huge landmasses. Being initially a historically closed ethnic-national state, the Russian Empire transformed itself into a relatively cosmopolitan one—and later turned into a country that debunked all primordial prejudices to the maximum extent. However, after finding itself at a great crossroads by the end of the 20th century, Russia had not risked to try the most successful social experiments, fearing to turn into just one of the many “European” or “Western” countries. At this crucial point particularism defeated universalism—and even if it probably may give the country some additional sources of vitality, this new particularism deprives Russia of any prospect of becoming the center of not only of an empire, but even of any successful economic integration project.
Russia is by no means an heir to the Soviet Union. It had lost not only many significant territories of the former superpower, but its ideology, its spirit, and its principles. Today it’s a real fun to look how fiercely the Kremlin leaders try to oppose Russia to the US—and not so much because of the incompatibility of the economic and technological capacities of both countries, but because of their disproportionately different degrees of attractiveness to the world. One may only laugh seeing how Russian political elite, unable to settle dozens of quarrels even with Belarus, its closest ally, speculates about the forthcoming “inevitable” collapse of the European Union which has successfully expanded from 12 to 28 members just in the time that passed between the separation of three Baltic countries from the Soviet Union and the last re-election of Vladimir Putin as the President of Russia. Today one may become scared thinking about how many new military adventures and how many deaths and sufferings may the future “reunification” of Russia cause in presumably “Russian” territories, allegedly illegally pulled out from “the historical Russia” by Soviet communists.
If Russia’s Federation Council is unable to conform with the Constitution of the USSR the transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, why should Russia not challenge the expansion of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1940s, or even the fact of converting the status of Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic as a part of the RSFSR to a “full” Soviet Socialist Republic that happened back in 1936? Why shouldn’t be cancelled the recognition of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as independent states proclaimed by the USSR’ Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1991? Would this not be the next step following the actual rehabilitation of the Soviet leadership in the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? Appealing to the idea of the “Russian World,” Russia objectively becomes the main source of threats and instability in Europe; it forever turns away from the West and looks to the East with its largely monoethnic states, which—like China—see in their diasporas a powerful tool of economic mobilization and (quite probably) of future political expansion.
Fortunately for the world, no matter how “Asian” the Russian leadership may become, the Russians have been and remain an inherently European people. They can much better assimilate with other nations than Chinese. As many recent developments show (e.g., the failure of efforts to return a significant number of overseas Russian compatriots to their homeland and the increasing emigration of self-made educated young people from Russia), “Russian world” becomes increasingly dividing into two parts—into the world of “Russian professionals”who are able and willing to realize themselves almost in any society, and into the world of “professional Russians,” whose main business is to obtain financial benefits and organizational support from the Russian authorities.
The last of these “worlds” is limited in scope and power, since there are not too many Russians in the post-Soviet countries that have successfully resisted any incorporation into their new states, and because any repetition of events similar to those that occurred in Crimea and in the Donbass will lead to perception of the Russians living in the post-Soviet states as a “fifth column” and to treating them with increasing hostility and suspicion. The consequence will be “squeezing” the Russians back into Russia and, in the long term, the transformation of post-Soviet countries into the classic nationstates, reluctant to listen to any integration appeals from Moscow. I would add that the first of the “Russian worlds” is now estranged by the Russian authorities who increase pressure on individuals with dual citizenship, thereby preventing the Russians potentially willing to return to Russia from really returning. Therefore I’m confident that after a few years (or even decades) of “empire-building,” Russia will inevitably abandon them—perhaps becoming somewhat bigger in territorial terms, but being surrounded by states whose identity will be built on the denial of everything that may be regarded as Russian.
The Soviet Union was a typical 20th century power, engaged in social and geopolitical experiments alongside with other great powers of its times. It became a place of great achievements and great tragedies—but in neither of them was unique during its heyday. Russia, by a historical chance living in the 21st century world , has done and is doing everything it can to remain—with its imperial authoritarianism, inherited nationalism, and the Orthodox beliefs—a 19th century country. Until now it succeeds to live in this “another world”—and it means that the global community should be beware not of Russia’s appeal, but of Russia’s brutal force; but at the same time, it also means that the period when Russia could claim a truly global reach, has passed and never will be back. Whether is this good or bad, both Russia’s neighbors and other global political players need to analyze with all possible seriousness. To analyze, and to come to appropriate conclusions—the sooner, the better…
Share this on social media
The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.