Twenty-five years ago, the RSFSR adopted a declaration of state sovereignty, an event Moscow has marked in various ways and now calls the Day of Russia. But unlike all the other Soviet republics which adopted similar declarations, Russia only briefly viewed itself as a newly independent state, separate from the empire it had been part of.
That explains both the strange evolution of today’s holiday and much about Russia’s behavior not only to its own regions but to neighboring states, according to Vadim Shtepa, a leading Russian regionalist.
Russia’s behavior in both these regards sharply “contrasts with that in other post-imperial countries of the world,” which for the most part view “the day of the proclamation of their sovereignty as the main national holiday,” he writes. But “in Russia up to the present has been retained a strange attitude toward this day.
At best, Russians consider it an additional day off during which they can spend time at their dachas. But given that it was often called “the Day of the Independence of Russia,” many of them continue to view it “ironically” and ask “’From whom did we become independent? From ourselves?’”
And such attitudes thus show “a surprising continuation of the Soviet-imperial mentality,” Shtepa suggests. Already in 1991, Russia declared itself the legal successor of the USSR. “But if initially this succession was treated as a strictly legal question, later it became ever more a worldview one.”
That change was reflected in the change in Russia’s behavior in 1990-1991 when it dealt with the other union republics on the basis of equality and with the non-Russian republics within its borders as potential future states with which it had to secure agreement by negotiation rather than force majeure.
That approach, Shtepa says, is one of the reasons why the disintegration of the USSR did not follow the Yugoslav model and why Russia was originally interested in confederal approaches and agreed to have the capital of the CIS be in Minsk, something that paralleled the decision of the EU to have its centers in Brussels and Strasbourg.
But Russia did not remain that way very long, Shtepa says. Instead, with each passing year, it “ever more stressed its dominating role on the post-Soviet space,” something that affected the political consciousness of Russians and reinforced the increasingly authoritarian approach of the government.
In December 1991, “it was obvious to everyone that the USSR ceased its existence as a result of an inter-governmental agreement of its creator republics,” he notes. But “later ever more was strengthened the propaganda stereotype as if the individual republics ‘separated from Russia.’ This marked the transformation of federal thinking into neo-imperial approach.”
The 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty “was the triumph of Russian federalism” because “then there really was a massive desire to build a genuinely new country which would secure broad rights to its citizens and the subjects of the federation” and even be willing to create on a voluntary and federal basis “’a renewed Union.’”
This all means, Shtepa continues, that “it is wrong to accuse this Declaration of striving toward ‘the collapse of the Union.’ It only liquidated the imperial ‘vertical’ of that time. But, regrettably,” he says, “this federative model did not hold on for long.”
“The sad historical paradox is that the ‘new Russia’ having won a victory over the August 1991 coup, later began to reproduce its behavior,” Shtepa says. “This began already under Yeltsin with the dispersal of a freely elected parliament, the beginning of a colonial Caucasian war, and the monarchical model of transferring power to ‘the successor.’”
Under Vladimir Putin, that trend continued and intensified. Governors were no longer elected but became an analogue of ‘the first secretaries’ appointed by the Kremlin ‘politburo.’ The melody of the Soviet hymn returned.” The cult of Stalin was encouraged – something “completely unthinkable in democratic Russia of the beginning of the 1990s.”
And consequently, “it has turned out that contemporary Russia is in no way a new state but a literal continuation of the USSR, only by some strange misunderstanding reduced in size.” But there has been not only a Soviet restoration; there has been a claim of continuity from the pre-Soviet Russian Empire, as absurd as the results of that sometimes are.
This latter “restoration of an imperial heritage” has been clearly reflected in the growth of clericalism and obscurantism. And it also means that “for this neo-imperial consciousness, all remaining post-Soviet states are not sovereign states but ‘separatist provinces’ which should be returned to the bosom of ‘great Russia.’”
Not only does that mean that Russia’s relations with her neighbors are “much worse” than they were at the time of the collapse of the USSR, but it also means that while “the other post-Soviet states… build their own new histories, present-day Russia somehow is going into the past and trying to synthesize in itself two historically lost empires.”
And as a result, Shtepa concludes sadly, the day of the proclamation of Russian sovereignty in 1990 now looks like the holiday of some other country,” and the official celebration of it like a day devoted to “the destruction of the Novgorod Republic with its veche” by the Muscovite tsars.