Since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, fierce debates have raged in the western media as well as among Russian thinkers about the significance of Russia’s imperial traditions, the inherited predisposition of Russians to authoritarianism, and cruelty and violence as the basis of their collective identity. Having been started by the Ukrainian side, these emotionally charged debates have triggered a deafening response by most Russians who are against the war, as well as attempts at justification and fissures within that group. The Russians who consider themselves “good Russians” are offended by the unfair, from their point of view, attitude of the West and separately by the supposed “cancellation” of Russian culture.
Presently, I consider their grievances tactless and unintelligent, though the accusations leveled against Russians as a whole seem unnecessarily generalized. Both sides have made it difficult to think through what role “imperialism” plays inside Russia today and where the legacy of “empire” is actually reflected. The confrontation leads to primitive thinking and begets rigid definitions of “friend,” “foe” or indifferent.
The issue of empires as unique state entities, their emergence and collapse, including the Russian empire, became especially relevant in academic research after the downfall of the USSR and the Socialist Bloc. A whole, new area of post-colonialism emerged. However, in the matter at hand, I am not interested in the history of empires broadly, but rather in the problems associated with it. The very fact that Russia’s imperial legacy has inertia in the mass consciousness is beyond doubt. Both supporters and opponents of the current regime turn to it as the only and common symbolic and political resource.
Modernization without society’s emancipation from the state
The concept of “empire” is associated with an expansionist policy, the violent taking of new territories, and the establishment of a centralized system of governance over and control of territories that are diverse in cultural, linguistic, economic and civilizational terms. Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was a driver and a form of the external Europeanization of Russia, its entry into what was then global politics. “Society” (if we understand it as a set of self-organizing social entities – business unions, civil associations, class and non-class associations, like the intelligentsia, universities, zemstvos, etc.) could emerge only within the imperial state, which shaped the inevitable social contradictions in the self-identification of the empire’s subjects. Despite the rapid modernization of the country before the revolution in 1917, the political and civil emancipation of “society” from the state did not take place, though some signs appeared back before the totalitarian Soviet state was established.
The more than 30 years (since 1989) of sociological research done by the Levada Center have shown that we are dealing with mixed consequences of the disintegration of imperial institutions. The efforts of the ruling regime to restore the institutional system of Russia’s dominance in the post-Soviet space ran up against the widespread desire among citizens for peace and prosperity, which are hardly compatible with the militarization of the country and Putin’s anti-Western policy. Still, that policy did not come out of nowhere.
The collapse of the USSR spurred frustration and disorientation in the mass consciousness, creating a palpable need for common symbols and mechanisms of collective identity and integration. The elite and the masses found them only in the ideological resources of previous periods and eras. Communist ideology (class struggle, building socialism, etc.) died before the end of the USSR, during the Brezhnev stagnation. Belief in communism was gradually supplanted by “Russian nationalism,” the consciousness of being the chosen people of the “Great Power,” the victor in the war against Nazism.
Hence came the belief in the right of the Elder Brother to dictate his will to other peoples, as well as the ideas about the “unity of the peoples” of the USSR and their “voluntary union.” After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was left as the successor of the USSR with the phantom pains of the former metropolis – the “grudge of the Big Brother” toward the peripheral regions that had fallen away. Still, “society” as such, even after decades of half-hearted reforms, did not emerge. Thus, no other, pluralistic, civic collective identity emerged.
The Russian “Great Power” discourse differs from the post-imperial experiences of other former empires: in Russia, imperial rhetoric disguises routine and unrationalized ideas about the Soviet totalitarian system of domination.
The ideology of Putinism tries to glue together from these remnants, fragments, debris of propaganda from the Soviet era something majestic that could serve as the basis to legitimize the regime, justifying the power vertical by linking it to the mythological past of “thousand-year-old Russia,” a state that has developed in an endless struggle against “external enemies.” It is awkward, but the current regime has no other material to legitimize its rule.
What does the Great Power myth consist of?