The USSR crumbled
The chauvinism Russia’s war against Ukraine has unleashed is becoming the grave digger of imperial consciousness among Russians, forcing them to recognize that the non-Russian countries don’t want to be part of Russia ever again and that parts of the Russian Federation aren’t really part of Russia either, according to Elizaveta Pokrovskaya.
And the death of the imperial idea marks the end of empire just as surely as when an empire loses its colonies, the Moscow analyst argues; and now that this is happening in Russia, it marks “the irreversible and absolute end of the era of Russian empires” that has existed for centuries.
“The death of the Russian imperial dragon has dragged out over a century,” she writes. In 1917, the Russian Empire died; in 1991, the restored empire died a second time; and now, “the imperial project under the name ‘Russian world’ is approaching to its end, having barely begun,” she argues.
That experience, Pokrovskaya says, underlines an important reality: “the era of empires ends not only when there are territorial changes but also when the imperial idea itself finally dies,” when people at the center recognize that the benefits they thought they were getting from the empire are illusory and that the burdens of empire are too heavy to bear.
That process, she suggests, is not taking place “at one and the same time on the fields of battle and in the consciousness of millions of people.” And it is happening precisely now when “much it would appear is pointing in the opposite direction.”
The reason for her conclusion, Pokrovskaya says, lies in the fact that many people include within the definition of Russia “territories and peoples which in fact do not have any relationship to it.” Abroad, many people with ancestors from Ukraine or Poland still think of themselves as being from Russia, she says.
And that has been reinforced for many both abroad and at home by the fact that there has been “an a priori application of the ethnonym ‘Russian’ to practically everything connected with the USSR,” something Moscow has used to get support from emigres and assumed is true for many people who identify otherwise.
“The imperial idea can die only when the myth about ‘the unity of the empire’ dies in its very center,” and that is what is happening now.
One can understand the absurdity of this situation if one imagines that an Arab asked where his family was from would say “’From Turkey, from Damascus” because that city was once part of the Ottoman Empire or that a Czech asked the same thing would say “from Austria, from Prague.” Such responses are unthinkable and impossible.
But they aren’t with Russians abroad or at home. “The Russian Empire should by rights have died at the same time with the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian ones, but in contrast to them, [its] remains after 20 years have been exhumed and galvanized” and many think that the past truly lives on for Russia as Russians imagine it.
For many in both the USSR and the West, “Russia finally became a synonym of the USSR,” she writes, and as a result the Communist party came up with the idea of “the Soviet people as ‘a new historical community’… which was simultaneously a goal and a euphemism for designating the absorption of the population of the USSR into the Russian imperial paradigm.”
Despite the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, “this imperial paradigm and the ideology corresponding to it did not pass into oblivion” either in Russia itself or in the non-Russian countries which emerged. In part, this can be explained as a classic case of “post-imperial syndrome,” Pokrovskaya argues, “but not by that alone.”
Many Russian imperialists continued to be encouraged by those like Yegor Gaidar and Vladimir Putin who talked about the end of the USSR as “the most important geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” And many non-Russians considered to feel themselves part of an entity larger than their new countries.
“In many post-Soviet republics” in the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin was called “’the main president,’” and in the first years of the 20th century, Vladimir Putin was viewed as “’the natural leader’ of the post-Soviet space.” Under those conditions, “the idea of rapprochement and even ‘unification with Russia in some form or other’ was quite popular” in many places.
So what is taking place “literally before our eyes?” Pokrovskaya asks. On the one hand, parts of some of the non-Russian countries – Transdniestria out of Moldova, Abkhazia and South Osetia out of Georgia and the eastern Donbas out of Ukraine – have been pulled into closer ties with the Russian center.
But on the other, “although the imperial skin has been maintained a bit, the food for supporting the imperial idea no longer is.” The events in Ukraine first the Maidan and then the Russian invasion have led to the appearance of “a new Ukrainian civic nation for which imperial Russia and for Russian imperial projects Ukraine has been lost and apparently so forever.”
The events in Ukraine first the Maidan and then the Russian invasion have led to the appearance of “a new Ukrainian civic nation for which imperial Russia and for Russian imperial projects Ukraine has been lost and apparently so forever.”
The Russian imperial project has lost far more than Ukraine, however. It has lost Belarus which is now increasingly ethnically conscious. It has lost Georgia because of the 2008 invasion. It has lost Moldova, and it is “slowly but consistently” losing any chance for including any of the Central Asian countries as well.
As a result, there are not very many candidates for inclusion, as a growing number of Russian imperialists are being forced to acknowledge as well. But, Pokrovskaya continues, “the imperial idea can die only when the myth about ‘the unity of the empire’ dies in its very center,” and that is what is happening now.
Russian imperialists no longer talk about Ukrainians and Russians being “one people.” Such assertions seem ever less plausible. But it is becoming obvious to ever more of them, now that “the genie of chauvinism” has come out of the bottle, that many of the peoples inside the borders of the Russian Federation can no longer be described as “one people” either.
“Only by breaking with the empire, with the imperial idea, and with imperial consciousness” can “a Russian civic nation” be formed. No imperial nation finds this an easy path. “But it is inevitable, and the experience of other former imperial nations, from the English and the French” and all the others “will be useful” for Russia.
“Only by breaking with the empire, with the imperial idea, and with imperial consciousness” can “a Russian civic nation” be formed.
A quarter of a century ago, “it became clear” to many that Russians no longer had the resources to maintain an empire, Pokrovskaya says. Now it is becoming clear that “there are no bases for the establishment of the so-called ‘Russian world,’ and that this means that the Russians simply have no other way out besides the creation of their own nation, a Russian civic nation.”
“The era of Russian empires is coming to an end. But this does not mean that the era of Russia and Russians is also ending. Another era is beginning, the era of the Russian civic nation, of Russian civil society, and of a Russian nation state,” she concludes.