A Smaller Empire?

27 march 2011

The Notion of Empire as Applied to Today’s Russia

Alexei Levinson is head of the Sociocultural Research Department at the Levada Center.

Resume: Among the respondents favoring Chechen secession only a very small number believe that Chechnya should be entitled to independence by virtue of its right to self-determination. Remarkably, these respondents have Russia’s interests in mind (“It would be better for Russia”), not Chechnya’s.

The Levada Center asked in a recent Russian poll if the word “empire” has a positive, negative or neutral connotation. The poll apparently coincided with society’s reappraisal of its attitude towards the notion of empire and the meanings behind it. A total of 38 percent of the respondents said their attitude towards empire was neutral and 11 percent said they were undecided. The rest of the responses split into two almost equal halves, with 27 percent stating that the connotations were positive and another 24 percent saying they were negative.

The semantics of “empire” are complex, since the word can have different content and divergent evaluative shades of meaning in various contexts, i.e., when used by different social groups.

Wikipedia, a collective process for fixing normative meanings, defines the norm in modern society as accord and compromise in the global outlook of different social groups. Wikipedia’s English version points out various uses of the word “empire.” The Russian version has an article on “empire” as well, but it does not provide a clear definition and is open for editing. This fact clearly testifies to the high diversity of discourse on this subject in Russia, as well as to the impossibility of forming a social norm for the interpretation of the word “empire” by intellectual groups. One can assume that this factor reflects the current stage of conflict between Russia’s political culture and culture at large; that is, a conflict between the positive and negative perceptions of one’s own country as an empire.

The conflict between positive and negative perceptions of one’s own country as an empire signifies a new stage in the development of the inner conflict of Russia’s political culture and culture per se. The views on Russia from both inside the country and abroad, the discourse about “a great people” and “smaller peoples,” the intellectual traditions of Westernizers and Slavophiles, the “democrats” (alternatively labeled as Russophobes) and the “patriots” (advocates of strong state power) develop one and the same conflict. This major constitutive conflict for Russian culture must be a subject for historical, political and socio-linguistic research. This article discusses only one aspect of the phenomenon and uses the methods of socio-cultural research based on a study of Russian society and culture using specific tools of public opinion polls. The format of this approach helps register how various social groups and institutions, each with their own interpretation of the notion of “empire,” apply it to their own country.

 A CONTINUOUS RETHINKING

Let us go further than just referring to different opinions over the term “empire” in the discourse between intellectual groups. If we look at another section of society, where words of this type are used to generate instantaneous emotional echoes or images as evaluative/semantic formations, and not at all as terms, we see an accord in the interpretation of “empire.” If you search for “empire” on Yandex and the Russian version of Google, you will find a long list of trading companies and supermarkets, such as Sushi Empire or Empire of Handbags – in much the same way the words “house” and “the world” are used in consumer advertising (the House of Tapestry, the World of Tiles). “Empire” appears in these contexts partly as a synonym of “house” and “the world,” words widely used to promote goods thanks to a simultaneous meaning of totality and internal harmony. However, “empire” seems to be different from those words, as it unites both attributes and emphasizes them. In an empire everything is subjugated to a single cause and rule, and this cause reigns across the entire space imaginable. It is also presumed that the causes and rules governing an empire are friendly to and beneficial for anyone who goes there – the customer in this case.

One can easily notice the differences in the semantic use of a word that occurs in the field of political propaganda. The goals of the latter are similar to those of advertising: it aims at producing a reaction and shaping an image. In Soviet propaganda “empire” had special meanings as well, related to dominance and power over an immense territory. It was implied, though, that the power-wielding forces were hostile; therefore the space was alien and hostile to the audiences to which the propaganda was addressed. The objects emanating hostility were the “imperialistic powers” and one’s own country – prior to the revolution of 1917, of course. 

The Soviet interpretation of “empire” was consistent with the interpretation that had arisen in European society by the time the majority of empires had collapsed. The new outlooks could be called anti-imperialistic. They stipulated the rights of peoples and minorities to self-determination and independence. One could say that the discourse of people who had been previously conquered gained the upper hand over the discourse of the victors. The seizure of foreign lands and countries and violence against the indigenous population would be recognized as an injustice now by those who found themselves responsible for (former) metropolises. For instance, leftwing forces would describe the Russian Empire as a “prison for nations.” Once the leftwing forces achieved victory and the Russian Empire was formally dismantled in February 1917, and when the Russian Republic turned into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), this negative attitude towards empires in general and the Russian Empire in particular was retained and entered official parlance.

The RSFSR and later the Soviet Union were seen – by contrast with the Russian and other empires, especially the British Empire – as a territory fastened together by some good cause rather than by a domineering external force. An understanding of the country as a union of people who voluntarily accept the hegemony of Russia actually made up the first phrase of the Soviet Union’s national anthem (“United forever in friendship and labor// Our mighty republics will endure forever”). Versions of this interpretation of Russian history are still around. Historical textbooks and novels are being written in this vein, and modern Russian society prefers to view its own history in precisely this light.

“Was the Russian Empire a state based on the free unification of peoples or was it formed as a result of military conquests through the forcible subjugation of territories and peoples by the central government?” was a question that the Levada Center asked in a 1998 poll. A total of 51 percent of Russia’s adult population believed it had been based on the free unification of peoples. Another 28 percent chose “forcible subjugation” and 21 percent were undecided. This signaled a pivotal change in people’s attitudes. The idea of “peoples’ friendship” as the foundation of the state was taken from the Soviet era and transposed to tsarist Russia. The Russian Empire was thus exonerated of any guilt, as was the notion of empire with reference to Russia. I will dwell on the consequences of this pivotal change in people’s attitudes later. Let me just note here that the Levada Center asked the same question in January 2011. The difference in the results was minor and was marked by a further drift towards embellishing the nation’s past. This time the postulation about the Russian Empire as a free union of peoples was shared by 53 percent of the respondents, while 27 percent said the unification was carried out by force.                                   

One might think that people with a higher level of education would have a more critical view of this myth. Yet 55 percent of the respondents in this category spoke of free unification, and 58 percent of people with a vocational secondary education agree with it. This kind of treatment of history is strongly expressed among senior citizen respondents: as many as 60 percent of senior citizens claim that the Russian Empire was not based on colonialism. Among younger respondents, the question about voluntary unification was supported by 40 percent, and 30 percent admit that unification was forced.

There is one social group among all groups that took part in the study whose results are in sharp contrast with those revealed in all other groups – officials and top managers. In this group, 59 percent agrees that the Russian Empire incorporated other peoples forcibly. Presumably, Russian leaders of today are not subject to illusions or need to embellish the principles of force. Compared to the rest of society, the people in this group more energetically support the idea that Russia should remain a great empire. There are no grounds to suggest that they view a Russian Empire of the future as something not based on violence. The Levada Center experts have repeatedly noted cynicism as a characteristic feature of contemporary elites. There is a clear instance of this here, and it would be only logical to regard it as imperial cynicism.

But let us return to the intricate way “empire” was interpreted in the Soviet Union, especially at the advanced stages of its history. In 1937, the country exuberantly celebrated the centenary of Alexander Pushkin’s death. The official endorsement of Pushkin as the most important figure in Russian literature influenced people’s attitude to the characters described in his works. What Pushkin said about Peter the Great began to be treated as a political norm. Elementary and high school teachers would speak favorably about the emperor and his empire without any apprehension. The moves taken by Stalin, who at the beginning of the 1941-1945 war breathed new life into the shadows of the previously rejected history of tsarist and imperial Russia, played a significant role in the change in attitudes towards empires. In essence, the discourse of early Soviet-Marxist history advocating anti-monarchism, universalism and, specifically, the negative treatment of the Russian Empire was completely abandoned.

Stalin brought the imperial military commanders Suvorov, Kutuzov and Nakhimov back into the political inventory. Their names were given to prestigious military awards, cadet schools and city streets. The names linked with such institutions and the propaganda machine involved to cement them into the collective consciousness have embedded these images in historical mythology – the Russian collective knowledge about the country’s history. These public figures invariably occupy high positions on the lists of “outstanding people of all times and nations,” which Russians are asked to name in polls every four years. Naturally, many respondents have rather vague ideas about these figures – their images are generated by historical novels or – more often – by scenes from historical movies. Yet inside these vague perceptions there are easily formed positive assessments of how these military commanders served the emperors, fought for the maintenance and expansion of the empire’s territory, conquered other nations, etc. Imperial policies personified in this manner would acquire a favorable coloring in the public eye.

Standing somewhat apart is Ivan the Terrible, who was also brought back from historical oblivion during Stalin’s rule. Despite the problems of interpreting this political figure, his imperial actions – wars of conquest, including the occupation of Kazan, campaigns to extend the borders of his kingdom and subdue all the “strangers” living in those territories – were not subjected to doubts or criticism. Thanks to Stalin, the collective consciousness put the figures of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great on equal footing. Ivan was perceived as a carrier of essentially the same imperial concept as Peter. Naturally, these historical implications were projected on to Stalin. The ideological campaigns of the late 1940s and the early 1950s meticulously borrowed a multitude of figures and events from the history of imperial Russia, projected them on to the modern screen, and used them as propaganda tools in the struggle for Russia’s superiority in all imaginable spheres of activity.

At the same time, the historical opposition of the Bolsheviks to the Tsar and their struggle with the Romanov Empire remained part and parcel of the same myth. One of the main rules was a ban on applying the word “empire” to one’s own country when the opponents of the Romanovs were holding the levers of power. It was not possible to call the Soviet Union an empire, even if one had the positive meaning of the word in mind. 

THE MAJORITY AND MINORITIES

However, this was done by people who did not consider themselves bound by such conventions. Russian poet Josef Brodsky was forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972. As he described his resettlement in the U.S., he said: “I have changed the empire” (Lullaby of Cape Cod, 1975). Valentina Polukhina, a much-credited researcher of Brodsky’s works, wrote: “Brodsky looked at Russia in terms of an empire […]. And his contemporaries view him as a poet of the state, of an empire […]. He always remembered that the language he wrote in was an imperial language, since he believed that ‘empires are driven by languages, not by political or military strength. An empire is, in the first place, a cultural formation, and the cohesion element in it is the language, not legions.’” Brodsky, in looking at empires from the standpoint of culture and language as opposed to the formal criteria of political science, put the Soviet Union and the U.S. into the equation as two empires. 

An ostentatious labeling of countries with no formal characteristics of empire focuses one’s attention on the socio-cultural aspect, thus enacting new meanings for the word “empire” in the minds of Russian-speaking readers. These meanings apply to the country, the people and the state constituted by the Russian language. Brodsky was very interested in English poetry and English-language culture in general. Britain, a metropolitan country that had a vast empire, has emphasized the principle of bringing together – in terms of culture and information – all English-speaking communities around the world as an important element in its state policy. Remarkably, the BBC made this principle a cornerstone. In an empire “under the sun,” political power is replaced by the ‘soft power’ of cultural influence through the communality of language.                       

By applying this principle to continental entities – which the Soviet Union and the U.S. were in fact – rather than to global ones, Brodsky obviously underlined the fact that people were united in these mega formations by an external force – the force of a common language and, consequently, (according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) by a common understanding of space and time. These are the features that unite people from essentially different status groups and govern their conduct in various circumstances that were observed by Brodsky, a man who traveled extensively around the Soviet Union and saw in a graphic form the key institutions of cultural and political organization of the country – from vodka to prisons, from criminal gangs to literary salons. 

The implementation of an imperial cause in such huge entities implies two entirely opposite phenomena. One is coercive totalizing (or totalitarian in political terms) collaboration; and this is what is usually mentioned when one thinks of empires. But there is a different aspect, too. Since empire implies an attempt to embrace, unite and align a multitude of heterogeneous social entities – countries, peoples or communities – the task of totalizing can only be partly achieved. Whatever the nature and tightness of external clinches, the body of an empire always remains heterogeneous and contains zones with unexpected cultural blends and opportunities. These individual circumstances form the micro-relief of an empire, complete with niches and cavities that minorities can see better than the majority and individuals rather than the powers that be.

The majority (ethnic, social or political) in an empire has its own uneasy fortune. Together with the privileges given to it, this group carries the major burden pertaining to the imperial mission. Minorities have dramas of their own. They are mostly persecuted or subjected to discrimination, and are morally or physically coerced to submission. Yet they can use the aforementioned niches in the social construction of the empire or tap social opportunities within it that are inaccessible for the majority. Let us reiterate that an empire is a complicated social organization subject to simplification and unification. An empire tends to continuously lose its diversity, but it never loses it completely.

Another Soviet poet, David Samoylov, sensed the presence of this cultural dimension within the Soviet empire. He said in the 1980s: “I’m an imperial poet.” The positions Samoylov maintained in debates with his fellow-writers, who were seeking official patronage, showed unambiguously that by “imperial” he did not mean a “court poet” or a “glorifier of the empire.” It was not accidental that Samoylov found it necessary to take part in discussions on the fate of “a great people” and “smaller peoples” in Russia. Many people thought that anti-Semitism and Russophobia lurked behind these euphemisms; that they reflected reciprocal claims by both Russians and Jews. But Samoylov, who considered himself both a Jew and a Russian poet, was reluctant to take sides. He spoke out from positions of commonality that was the groundwork for uniting Jews and Russians. One can say that this groundwork stemmed from a common culture that had taken shape from imperial organization. It took a great deal of courage at that time to defend the empire from the positions of a political minority that was not treated well by the authorities. The word “empire” still had a derogatory connotation in the official narrative.

A major event for many Russians at the beginning of the 1980s was a speech by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who used “empire” in combination with “evil” to describe the Soviet Union. Reagan’s speech not only addressed his political adversaries in the Kremlin, the Soviet people and the people of the Soviet bloc, but also the “friendly forces,” authorities among Christian religious circles in the U.S. The “evil empire” was a phrase that was applied to the realm of Satan. (It was not accidental that NATO labeled the most powerful Soviet ballistic nuclear missile “Satan.”) Russians, too, felt the infernal connotations behind Reagan’s words. Calling your own country an “empire” in such a situation meant showing solidarity with its most bitter enemy. 

The democratic changes that began soon after acquired, whether consciously or spontaneously, an anti-imperial tone. Standing out in this context was an article called “Ethnos and the Political Power,” published in 1989 in the magazine Vek 20 i Mir (The Twentieth Century and the World), which was targeted at the intellectual elite. Its authors, Gassan Gusseinov, Denis Dragunsky, Victor Sergeyev and Vadim Tsimbursky, did not belong to officialdom, but their favorable assessment of empires, and the Russian Empire in particular, caught the public’s attention. It seems that the publication laid the groundwork for a positive look at empire as a home for minorities. Another version of the same idea suggests the presence of a limited universalism of some kind within an empire. Proponents of empire often compare it to the world at large. It looks like they do it to extol one’s “own world” and discard everything that lies beyond its boundaries. Still, there can be a different approach that emphasizes the complexity of the world within the boundaries of the empire and considers it to be similar to the world at large in precisely these terms. Consequently, the general imperial discourse comes to resemble the “global” one and is universalized in this sense.

Empires have built their relations with minorities differently – from creating privileged conditions to persecution for the purpose of expulsion or destruction. Nonetheless, professional, cultural, religious and ethnic minorities that benefited from the cosmopolitan environment or atmosphere (although the imperial cosmos had its own limitations) found imperial conditions – especially vivid in the metropolis – quite fitting.  

AN INSIDE-OUT EMPIRE 

Such were the circumstances for ideas and words related to the notion of empire during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods of Russian history. However, a drastic change took place in the wake of developments in the North Caucasus. I will not provide a systemic recounting of the events or assess the positions and actions of all the parties involved in the conflicts, but I will touch upon a few aspects that are associated in the collective consciousness with the notion of empire. In addition to polls’ results, I will rely on my own experience gained in interviews with members of focus groups. The polls were conducted in different parts of Russia (but not in the Caucasus) by VTsIOM and the Levada Center. The data presented below describes the most frequent opinions. There were also many personal opinions that deviated from these positions, but they always remained purely individual. This paper focuses on data that makes up a cohesive system, a myth of some type.

There is also a liberal version of the same history that proceeds from the anti-colonialist discourse, suggesting that the seizure of foreign territories and subduing the people living there is a crime against international law and common morality. This article does not describe the opinions of the people abiding by such norms. Suffice it to say that their positions are perfectly well-known to those with popular views and if their ideas have failed to rally broad support, it was not because they are not well-known.

Within Russia’s current borders, the North Caucasus is the latest colonial acquisition. The way it was conquered and subsequently assimilated proved less successful, from the metropolis’s point of view, than Russia’s actions in the Volga region and Siberia in earlier periods. Whereas Russian national consciousness views the latter two regions as absolutely “Russian,” things are more complicated with the Caucasus. The narrative about a voluntary union of peoples, united by Great Russia, stumbles precisely at the Caucasus. In this region positive and negative views of Russia’s imperial nature clash particularly dramatically, and the present generation feels especially acutely the effects of what its ancestors did.

The first point that is explicitly presented in the Russian collective historical consciousness concerns the actions of tsarist Russia in the Caucasus. People with this consciousness are aware of the harsh methods used by tsarist troops (General Yermolov’s campaign). Secondly, they know that the mountainous people – above all, the Chechens – put up fierce resistance and it took a long time to subdue them. Thirdly, they know that the resistance was broken eventually. The conclusions drawn from this are multifarious.

Conclusion number one stipulates that “They hate us, and it goes back to those days.” The fact that it was Russia that conquered Chechnya is taken for granted and here is where the imperial discourse comes into play. None of the respondents has ever called into question Russia’s right to this conquest or that the Caucasus belongs to Russia. Russia is an empire, and conquering territories constitutes an essential feature of an empire. It is her right, she is right to do so. That is why the Caucasians’ enmity and hatred towards Russia comes as something groundless or as a product of their own aggressiveness: “All of them are like this; they have hated us from time immemorial.” 

The second conclusion drawn from General Yermolov’s campaign suggests that “Force is the only thing that they understand.” In Russian collective  consciousness, there is neither historical drama nor historical guilt for the subjugation of the Caucasus through the use of force. However, the military operations carried out by the Russian Army and the cruelty displayed towards Caucasian ethnic groups are remembered and are a burden on the collective consciousness in what concerns issues of guilt, responsibility, etc. 

Other episodes of history should be taken account of here too. Russians know about the forcible deportations of Caucasian peoples, including Chechens, from the Caucasus under Stalin, even though they do not know as much about this event as the Caucasian wars. They also know, to a still smaller degree, that “the Chechens would favor the arrival of the Nazis” during World War II and the deportations have been recognized as a crime. Yet the legitimacy of the deportations is not discussed or assessed, since it is taken for granted that the empire and its rulers (Stalin and the Politburo) acted in line with imperial rules. The respondents implicitly admit the sufferings caused by the deportations when they say: “Chechens want to take revenge on us for that.”

In much the same way the Russian collective consciousness does not have any illusions about the conduct of federal troops in Chechnya. The respondents understand that this conduct was cruel, but they do not condemn it (the respondents’ approval of Colonel Budanov’s crimes offers another proof of this).

The Russian public feels that the people of the Caucasus harbor hatred towards Russians and have a desire for revenge. However, the Russian public also believes that the actions of separatists and terrorists are not unfounded. Yet recognition of the cause (within the framework of this myth) does not mean recognition of guilt.

What kinds of solutions are Russians proposing? The respondents expressed various, sometimes extreme, ideas during private talks. However, ideas regarding the empire’s integrity are most important for our study. At the end of the 1980s, a considerable number of Russians thought that “letting the Baltic republics go” would be the best thing to do. These days, however, the idea of allowing Chechnya to secede from the Russian Federation (or of reconciling themselves to its secession) is consistently present in the collective consciousness. About 16 percent of Russians suggested in 2009 (and 13 percent in 2010) that “Chechnya and other North Caucasian republics will break away from Russia sooner or later anyway.”

It should be noted that among the respondents favoring Chechen secession only a very small number believe that Chechnya should be entitled to independence by virtue of its right to self-determination. Remarkably, these respondents have Russia’s interests in mind (“It would be better for Russia”), not Chechnya’s.

The majority of Russians, however, are in favor of a different option. In a poll conducted in 2010 the respondents were asked whether the government should have placed troops in Chechnya in the fall of 1999 or whether it might have been enough to seal off the border with Chechnya. About 41 percent of those polled chose the seal-off option. When discussed in focus groups, this idea even grew into a proposal to build an impassible wall around Chechnya. (The first proposals of this kind had been voiced before they were actually implemented by Israel.) Also, there were proposals for the coercive repatriation of everyone who had moved from the Caucasus. “We don’t go there, so why should they come here?” The prospect of having a territory within Russia where “we don’t go” and “will be unable to go” for quite some time obviously scared Russians far less than the prospect of losing Chechnya’s formal presence in the empire state.

A study of the attitudes of ethnic Russians towards people of other ethnic groups shows that the atmosphere in the empire, which was molded by the war in Chechnya as an overt ethnic conflict, has started to change. The concept of the empire as a refuge for minorities has increasingly less support today. When respondents were asked if they felt any hostility towards themselves on the part of people of different ethnic origins,  10 percent of the respondents in 2005 said they felt it “frequently enough.” In 2010, the percentage increased to 16 percent. One might view this as proof of the increasingly wide-spreading tales about the aggressive behavior of the “aliens.” However, the next question asked was “Do you feel any hostility against people of other ethnic groups?” This one had a 12 percent positive response in 2005 and 19 percent in 2010. This means that, contrary to what the majority of Russians think about the situation, their own hostility towards minorities is the primary factor. 

In 1998, the idea of “Russia for Russians” was endorsed by 54 percent of those polled. The figure increased to 54 percent in 2010 and to 58 percent in 2011. The Russian public witnessed the first, but far from last act of the imperial drama, during riots by young nationalists on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square in December 2010 and in other places where demonstrators called for a mass terror against “non-Russians.” More than a half of the respondents polled in January this year (and three-thirds of the respondents in Moscow) think that bloody clashes on the grounds of ethnic strife “are possible” in Russia today.

Some respondents in the focus groups repeated the well-known assertions of experts that today’s Russia is going through a delayed process of nation-building after shedding its role as a metropolitan country within an empire that was played by tsarist Russia and then by the Soviet Union. Consequently, Russia is passing through an unavoidable phase when there is a surge in nationalism, chauvinism, etc. I will not debate this idea here. Suffice it to say that if Russia really has to make a transition like this the current situation is actually a series of crises in the continuing imperial phase. This is quite possibly the last phase, which is why some phenomena, which are imperial in essence, are surfacing in the wrong form.

Here are a few examples. Like other metropolises, Russia and its capital are experiencing an inflow of migrants from former colonies or dependent countries. These post-colonial processes spark tensions in the former metropolis. The idea of restricting the inflow of migrants or deporting them from the country, widely exploited by rightwing parties, is taking center stage in Russia’s political life today. As many as 60 percent of the respondents said the government should restrict the number of immigrants. These “inside-out” imperial feelings form a resource that surely plays into the hands of various political forces.

The Soviet empire was built through direct territorial acquisitions (in addition to expansion in the tsarist era) and the formation of several belts of satellite, allied and friendly nations. The entire system collapsed in 1991. This was followed by a brief period of attempts to build a foreign policy for a “new Russia” on entirely new principles that rejected imperial constructs. The idea was to form communities of countries that had chosen similar paths to democratic societies that would rise from the ruins of the former empire. It turned out soon after, however, that the new countries had split into two groups – the first group was engaged in building democratic societies and the second was creating a different social order. Russia found itself in the second group, which was initially hostile towards countries in the first group. This might be seen as a natural result of the divergence of political vectors. In any case tensions became quite explicit. But it soon became clear that Russia also preferred tense rather than calm relations with countries reluctant to take the democratic path. A total of 70 percent of Russians are confident today that their country has foreign enemies. Around 20 percent of respondents believe former Soviet republics are hostile; 12 percent believe that former “fraternal” China is no longer friendly; and about 10 percent detect hostility from the countries in the former Socialist camp. This really looks like a map of the Soviet empire inside out.

Whether or not Russians are ready to shed the imperial mantel can be seen from the findings of opinion polls. VTsIOM asked in 1999 whether Russia should try to restore its empire; 35 percent of those polled said “definitely yes” and “rather yes than no,” while 44 percent said “rather no than yes” and “definitely no.” The Levada Center asked a slightly different question in 2010: “Do you think that Russia should restore its status as a great empire?” The results were very different – 78 percent said yes and 17 percent said no. The fact that Russians were fascinated with the “great empire” phrase clearly indicates that Russia does not belong to the category right now. Perhaps it is going through the difficult phase of a smaller empire.

Among major events of recent years, Russians make special mention of victories at international sports competitions. Even more valued are decisions by the international sporting bodies to award Russia to hold major sporting events. For countries like Russia, sports – in their international great-power dimension – rank close to war, as an attribute and the essence of the empire, and are close to it in reality in one way or another. The public at large believes it was also the achievements of this kind, among other factors, that encouraged the Russian elites to venture to launch the military actions outside its borders in the Caucasus. Many Russians believe the actions were successful because their country punished its small disobedient neighbor in an imperial way, showed its strength to the main adversary, and for the first time since “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” – the breakaway of its main former possessions – added, at least something, to its symbolic whole.

Whether Russia has real imperial interests and, if it does, whether it has intentions and the ability to uphold them through force is a matter that goes beyond the scope of this article. But the available information about sentiments in society indicates that the need for such actions, albeit in symbolic spheres, is very strong. It also indicates that moves beyond these spheres are not ruled out either.

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