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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Imperialness as a way to hold on to power

20 February, 2014 - 11:45
Sketch by Mykhailo ZLATKOVSKY

One of the rather funny mental designs in the past few years has been an attempt to oppose Russian imperial nationalism to Russian non-imperial nationalism, if I may say so, aimed at domestic development rather than at expansion. This was caused by disputes inside the nationalistic segment of the socially active population over what is better – to seize new territories or to drive out the migrants. Sometimes people living in the former Soviet republics readily attach the label of a diehard nationalist to those who clamor for a visa regime. They say it is anti-imperialness. I have only one answer to this: ask a visa enthusiast about his attitude to Ukrainian independence, aggression against Georgia, and developments in the Baltic countries, about Poland, the US, etc.

His words will not differ from those of a nationalist-expansionist. Navalny was so much hyped up, and he even tried to say something good about the Maidan, but he never retracted the words he had said in 2012 (references are available):

“Ukraine and Belarus are Russia’s main geopolitical allies. Our foreign policy should be aimed, as much as possible, at integrating with Ukraine and Belarus. We are in fact the same nation. We must reinforce integration.”

“It is a natural political process. There is a bigger country and a smaller one. Hence, naturally, [is the behavior of] the political elites: one is trying to bring down the other, and the other is trying to hold back as many powers as possible. We can well assess things and set an acceptable pattern.”

So it is still imperialness, a self-identification based on hostility to the world to be conquered. So, instead of theoretically searching for constructive nationalism, which some intellectuals are, unfortunately, doing, we must take the next step – to drop the rational and pragmatic justification of Russian imperialness. To be more exact, this should be searched in a different place.

It can sometimes be heard: Russia will give up very soon, for it will be unable to pay for a ruinous – which is, thank God, clear to many – imperial expansion. But money will always be found for this because imperialness is a way to hold on to power inside the country. This has no other explanation than the one associated with power.

The 25th anniversary of Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has been marked. A lot of bull was said. State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin went on record for saying shortly before the “jubilee” that the USSR had invaded Afghanistan… to fight the Taliban. Something like “Herzen went abroad to prepare, together with Marx, the October Revolution.” And, of course, nobody pondered over why the invasion occurred four-something years after the USSR’s absolute victory – the signing of the Helsinki Act which legitimized the postwar borders and the partition of Europe.

Or did the human rights advocates really arouse fear, for they believed that inviolability of borders should be also accompanied by observing the “third basket” – observing human rights in the USSR and the countries of tank-imposed socialism? I think this was an essential, if not the main, factor. The leaders who engineered detente and supposedly worked in the interests of the Soviet Union which received a chance to converge with the civilized world were unable to rule the country in the new conditions. So they made a decision that was absolutely rational as far as retention of their power is concerned – they opened a new stage of international confrontation.

The decision was rational because it became clear less than ten years later that even the faintest relaxation of confrontation was ruinous for the Soviet empire. It was rational for the leaders but not for the country because, as is known, the invasion made the Soviet Union the main enemy of the Islamic world, although this role had been assigned to the US after the Iranian revolution and the failed operation to free the hostages. Zbigniew Brzezinski is quite right to think that Soviet involvement in the Afghan war was America’s greatest achievement.

At the same time, this war remained a banned subject for a long time. The agitprop tended to turn confrontation with the entire world and, above all, the US to advantage. The situation in the country resulted in the same consensus and the same social contract that we have now. The Russians received a confirmation of their great power status and equality with other major states, after they had agreed to suffer heavy losses in the war and have the growing economic problems that were obviously leading to poverty and starvation. This is the rational core of Russian imperialness.

The present-day Russian expansion has a number of particularities. Its anti-American component has weakened because of Obama’s inadequate policies, his “reset,” departure from the Middle East, etc. America and relations with it were for a long time and still are the basis of Russian identity. A true US-centrism began when Khrushchev called for “catching up with and overtaking.” And, incidentally, a true arms race in fact began in the Khrushchev era.

Of course, many things have changed, but the main one still remains. What is left is the Russian political elite’s desire “to be American.” And all this is, naturally, closely linked with the domestic policy. The Russian authorities are trying to correct what I would call “Gorbachev’s mistake” – namely, the fact that his “new thinking” was not confined to the foreign policy. For it would have been so nice: the Soviet nomenklatura would have integrated with the Western political elite without changing anything in the country’s internal political setup. A partially open society of sorts…

This is the way the Russian national identity has been realized – no more and no less. For this reason, political changes in Russia cannot be associated with implementation of applied political programs, replacement or updating of the elite, let alone with revolutions and mutinies. It may be the question of radical, fundamental, and profound motivations of political behavior – not only on the part of the elite alone. There will be no changes unless the imperial social contract is revised and a new national consensus is reached.

The current events show that Russia is developing in an entirely different direction. Attempts are being made again to explain the current expansion in purely pragmatic and linear terms – representatives of the uniformed services have grabbed everything in Russia and are heading for Europe now. Europe and the European Union have upstaged the United States as the main adversary. This has also brought about noticeable changes in the confrontation vocabulary. While, formerly, the American way of life (copied by the elite and a part of the populace) was being condemned, now Russia emerges as bearer and guardian of the true European Christian values and traditions.

This alone does not allow us to confine ourselves to utilitarian explanations. Another factor is that the seizure of the national economy leads to its partition. This is already underway at various levels – suffice it to recall a confrontation between Rosneft and Gazprom. And the new Russian expansion into Europe and the new Russian imperialness are often a private and corporate affair.

The state seems to have decided to intervene into this process. We can only presume to what extent the state takes part in the penetration into the European financial system, all the more so that the Russian state has been privatized and the participation of bureaucrats in this is of a dual nature. Yet some features of a centralized expansion are visible.

It has been assumed until now that economic top managers and governmental officials are open to corruption. Putin and his regime have an increasingly large number of political admirers in Europe now, such as right-wing populist, nationalistic, and “people’s” parties which position themselves as conservative. The new Russian diaspora is also a potential lobbyist. It is again an occasion to recall the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony.

In the very beginning, we heard something like a declaration of new Russian imperialness. This text puzzled many, for high on the list of the persons who represented Russia were also people who had achieved success as citizens of other countries. And, while Nabokov was the last century’s best Russian writer who began to write in English only after the war, Zworykin and Sikorsky were American scientists and designers. By this logic, Hollywood could have also been listed as Russia’s achievement.

By all accounts, the Russian diaspora is going to adhere to the principle of allegiance to blood and soil rather than to the flag. So if the whole Russia is our garden, the rest of the world is our Sudetenland.

By Dmitry SHUSHARIN, historian, political journalist, Moscow, special to The Day