Between Empire and Nation State
No. 1 2017 January/March
Why Russia Should Not Make This Choice

Synopsis of an expert discussion

Over the 25 years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, its legal successor, Russia, has walked a hard road, ridding itself of illusions and never stopping to search for answers to intricate questions that invariably arise as a new society and a new state take shape. The country was trying to get back to its own roots and to give a meaning to the dashing and hectic changes in the world around. This search is still far from achieving tangible long-term results, the more so because the global changes are about to enter a new stage, quite unexpected to many. However, some interim results are already available for analysis.

Faced with drastic and profound transformations taking place around the world and the social, economic and political challenges they entail, large segments of the Russian political class and society have formed their self-identity on the “negation principle.” In other words, both have developed the awareness of what they are not and what they do not want to be. The setbacks that afflicted the European policies over the past few years have led this group of Russians to the conclusion that it will be impossible for Russia to become a subordinate partaker of any integration project (Greater Europe as understood by the European Union and NATO) and causes them to reject the idea of pan-European values as running counter to their understanding of sovereignty, ethnic identity and government stability. The failure of multi-culturalism, recognized by Europe’s political elites, can be regarded as another major experience, although just several years ago that model was proposed to all countries, including Russia, as an example to follow.


However, an identity based on negation is obviously not sufficient. Russian identity needs a positive agenda—in building up and perfecting the government machinery and in conducting foreign policy. The Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, in cooperation with the Russia in Global Affairs magazine and the School of World Economics and International Affairs of the Research Universuty–Higher School of Economics at the end of 2016 held several expert discussions under one theme “The Empire in the Post-Imperial Era and the Nation in the Post-National World.” From this angle the participants in these discussions tried to take a look at the dialogue and mutual enrichment of the cultures of Russia’s peoples in the process of shaping a new ethnic, cultural and political identity.

They proceeded from the assumption that only a solid ideological groundwork may serve as a guarantee of the country’s successful development in the world where customary models are being broken and development cycles being replaced by new ones. Conservatism in Russia’s socio-political establishment must be complemented by a streamlined conservative concept of foreign policy. The linkage between external and internal aspects has been invariably crucial, but today it gains particular importance by virtue of the transnational nature of the global environment and the disappearance of border lines in addressing the national and international tasks of the state.

The organizers asked the invited pundits to answer a number of inter-related questions concerning the main aspects of the abovementioned theme, such as:

  • Is Russia capable of becoming a classical nation state? How justified is the intention to “legitimate” the Russian nation?
  • Is a modern version of “imperial” policies possible?
  • Is Russia capable of establishing “smart” imperialism? Is it necessary?
  • What will it take to become an “integrator” in the 21st century?

The analysts (their names are listed at the end of the article) said one of the basic problems in providing answers to the questions put to them was the lack of professional and public consensus regarding the status, goals and role of Russia in the world and its borders. Some influential forces maintain that the borders must be expanded; there are also people who argue that they should be shrunk in some places (suffice it to recall some nationalist slogans like “Stop Feeding the Caucasus!”).

The “empire or nation state” choice invariably present in discussions over these problems (where the empire is a synonym of everything bad and the nation state is an equivalent of everything good) is a great hindrance to taking a sober look at the real state of affairs. This construct should be scrapped the sooner the better. Contrasting empires with nation states is fundamentally false. The 18th, 19th and even the first half of the 20th century were not a time when empires and nation states were fighting each other. It was a time when empires were slowly but surely getting accustomed to the new ideological principle that had emerged in Europe—the principle of nationalism.

Modern Russia stands upon the ruins of two empires, above all the Soviet one. These days we are witnesses to the institutionalization and territorialization of ethnicity. As a result, the Russian Federation incorporates 21 autonomous republics established on ethnic principles. In each of them the titular ethnic groups regard themselves—no matter if they have a good reason for that or no reason at all—as nations and owners of that territory. In a situation like this building a classical nation state is impossible.

There is no way to abolish these republics. The nation state implies that one political nation is the master of the state, while the minorities recognize themselves as such, and not as separate nations. But these mobilized political groups are many, so some other system will have to be built. Some schemes devised by foreign experts propose a state-nation system, described as parliamentary rather than a presidential one, but this contradicts Russia’s modern political tradition.


What is Russia today? Is it a nation or an empire? It is certainly not an empire. This status is bygone. Nor is it a nation state, because in the current Russian realities it is impossible to build a nation state. The lack of political involvement constitutes a problem. A civic nation’s inalienable feature is democracy. There where is no democracy, no civic nation is possible. Russia is not even a federation in its genuine sense, because this type of the state system implies the existence of regional political actors possessing a high degree of autonomy. For the time being there are none and there are no reasons to expect any of them to emerge soon.

Between the nation and the empire there lies the term ‘civilization.’ A civilization state, as Patriarch Kirill says, is the sole term that incorporates ethnic identity, in other words, the prevalence of the Russian cultural element, and, on the other hand, tolerance towards other cultures.

In such a sensitive field of socio-political life any attempt at redundant regulation, such as the proposal to adopt a law on the Russian nation, will create far more problems than it may resolve. Not only regional ethnic groups are against. It draws protests from Russian nationalists, who suspect that “Russianism” or “Russism” are in fact another edition of “Sovietness,” that Russians are going to be stripped of their state, territory and sovereignty again. Any drastic steps in the field of inter-ethnic relations can trigger acute debates, quite often entailed by destructive action.

In fairness, it must be noted that in the course of the discussions some analysts disagreed with the postulate that the emergence of a nation state in Russia will be impossible for objective reasons. Several countries, like Belgium, Britain, India, Canada, and Switzerland, were mentioned as examples of poly-ethnic nation states. Each of them has its own problems. Some have more of these (Belgium, Britain and India) and others, less (Canada and Switzerland). India is an example of a rather successful poly-ethnic multi-lingual multi-religious civic nation and of the world’s largest (in terms of population) democratic federative state. Some unitarian nation states, like Belgium and Britain, are on the verge of breaking up.

In the early 1990s, the Boris Yeltsin team sensed that federalism might be a way out of the trap. On the one hand, it enabled Russia to remain a quasi-empire, keeping itself united mostly by economic or military and police force; on the other hand, Russia was not a monoethnic state, while a civic nation had not emerged yet. In only half of the more than a dozen ethnic republics of Russia the titular ethnic group constitutes a majority of the population (Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, North Ossetia, Tatarstan, Tyva, Chechnya, and Ingushetia). Federalism, therefore, provides the optimal solution for Russia, because it guarantees the legal personality of smaller nationalities and allows for establishing a correct balance between the interests of the central authorities and the federation’s constituents. Without reliable guarantees of well-developed federative relations latent regional nationalism (like in the Republic of Altai, Tyva, Yakutia, and a number of places in the North Caucasus) may blow up in a critical situation, if the federal government loses much of its strength, or the economic situation gets considerably worse, or regional inter-ethnic contradictions come to a head. It is essential to closely study the experience of federations and to move steadily towards a civic nation—multi-componential, multi-ethnic and federative, with responsible regional and local elites imbued with responsibility and authority.

Some voiced an opinion that Russian policymakers should think in nation state terms, not in imperial ones. For if a country considers things in imperial terms, it will logically face two tasks: 1) to secure the return of all former subjects, 2) not to let any of the current subjects go. The nation state logic is the opposite: we are creating a pan-Russian nation. Pan-Russian means that nobody is going to question the wish of any of the compatriots having the same citizenship to consider themselves nations. But co-existence within one state is beneficial for the implementation of other development tasks more effectively.

The participants in the discussions also drew attention to the issue of terminology. It is obvious that the initiators of a special law on the Russian nation interpret the term ‘nation’ as a political one, as a political entity, as a civic nation, and not as an ethnographic phenomenon or an ethnic entity. The nation as a political entity is relatively young. It is no older than the first nation states. When some mention the “Russian nation,” the “Tatar nation,” or the “Tyva nation,” the term ‘nation’ is used as an ethnic one. This meaning was put into use in the early days of the Soviet power and kept up in the public mind for nearly seven decades through the Soviet nationalities policy.

These days, analysts say, it is rather hard to explain to the Tatars, the Tuvinians, the Chechens or the Yakuts that they are only an ethnos, but not a nation, first of all because a nation is an actor having the title to its territory. Telling the people of Russia that Russians as an ethnos are in no way different from the standpoint of their rights from the Bashkir, Tatar, Chechen or Yakut ethnoses and that all together we are one Russian nation can be possible only in a situation of social and economic stability, and calm and sustainable development. In the current circumstances, amid global turmoil and smoldering nationalism inside Russia such awareness-raising work looks not only difficult, but also quite risky.


One analyst made a quick journey back in time to recall that the responsibility for the intellectual and political legacy in the nationalities policy, inherited from the Bolsheviks, should be placed not on Stalin alone, but also on Vladimir Lenin. Stalin’s idea was creating autonomies within the Russian Federation (including those republics that eventually acquired the status of union republics) without giving them the right of secession. In his correspondence with Stalin on that issue on the eve of establishing the Soviet Union Lenin tried to soothe these concerns—the Communist Party is united and everything will be fine. In reply Stalin wrote that young Communists in all republics tended to regard the Constitution in full seriousness and should Lenin’s draft constitution be adopted, in several years’ time certain problems will ensue. Shortly after that Lenin died, while Stalin preferred to resolve the arising problems using the methods he found most appropriate.

Arkady Volsky used to recall that Yuri Andropov, when he was already the Communist Party’s General Secretary, summoned him one day and said: “Take one or two men, not very many anyway, and draft a plan for abolishing the national-territorial structure of the Soviet Union.” Volsky and Soviet Academy of Sciences member Yevgeny Velikhov were working on proposals for changing the administrative division of the country by enlarging its constituent entities. Andropov gave his approval to none of the presented drafts. That was the last moment when such a reform could still have been carried out by decree.

What makes the perception of the term ‘Russian nation’ so difficult is the religious, Orthodox identity that goes with it as one of the innate “spiritual bonds.” Experts said that the Orthodoxy of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate essentially contests the role of official ideology in public life and at the state level. This will antagonize a wide area of predominantly Muslim republics, republics with titular ethnic groups professing Islam and with non-Muslim populations, including Altai, Buddhist republics and so on. Spiritual bonds must correlate properly with the term ‘sound conservatism,’ and be suitable for a majority of people and at the same time for ethnic and religious minorities. The nationalities and cultural policy must follow the sound conservative commandment: “Cause no harm.”

The panelists proposed four principles for such a conservative policy to rest upon. Firstly, rejection of the idea of revolutionary change. It is a matter of consensus as all say there should be no more revolutions. Secondly, the supremacy of national identity. There must be a plausible explanation of why the current state entity—the Russian Federation—stems from Russia’s thousand-year-long history. Next, there are two other principles that are far less likely to produce unanimity—anti-imperialism (stability of Russia’s borders), which, apparently will be dismissed by the “patriots,” and anti-globalism, which, apparently, the liberals will never agree to. Anti-globalism is important because the challenge to ethnic identity stems from the general idea of globalization as a redistribution of certain functions among countries and peoples: some produce oil, others make intellectual discoveries and certain countries provide cheap labor. The whole world has risen in revolt against that: the United States, the European countries and, in a sense, Russia did so in 2016. Russia is reluctant to be just a functional component, because the terms of its current relations with the outside world are very disadvantageous.

The discussion of changes in the nature of globalization will inevitably bring up the question: What Russia will be doing: curbing external influences along its borders or radiating something outward? Is Russia able today and will it be able in the future to project security and stability to the adjoining territories? As a rule, this is the function of an empire.

In discussing the problem of conservatism, the participants emphasized the need for making it clear what type of conservatism we need: that of Ivan IV (The Terrible), Nicholas I or Nicholas II, with their foreign policy adventures, who twice brought Russia close to the fatal point and eventually ruined it, or the salutary conservatism of Chancellor Gorchakov, who was always keen to avoid adventures and whose immortal legacy left to us is: “Russia is concentrating” on its own affairs.

Another expert hailed the process of clearing sound conservatism of ideology that had invariably accompanied it before. Two descriptions of ideologization were proposed: one is protective mythologization, with everybody being labeled as protectionist conservatives, and the other, imperialist ideologization—once you are a conservative, you pose an immediate threat of hardline expansion. Gorchakov, for instance, who is being turned into an idol of conservatism, was a member of Emperor Alexander II’s liberal team of reformers commissioned to clean up the debris left from the previous adventures.

Discussion participants observed that some basic conceptual aspects of the problems on the agenda were still under-analyzed and under-explored as borne out by the practice of contrasting the empire with the nation state. We are in the habit of using such terms as the ‘French nation,’ the ‘German nation’ or the ‘British nation,’ but we seldom realize that these nations were actually built by the empires within the empire’s kernel. The French Revolution occurred within an empire and it promptly evolved into an imperial project—Napoleon’s pan-European project. All of them were empires in the first place, and the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were not an era of nation states or nationalism, but an era of empires and nationalism. For this reason, the empire and the nation state are quite compatible.

Russia is an empire without clearly defined borders. If our peripheral territories and those who cooperate with them are kept from drifting apart, degrading and breaking up into segments and get consolidated instead, the economy will start working, too. Any empire has its own stages of expansion and consolidation. Apparently, Russia is now going through the consolidation phase.

Russia is obliged to play the role of an empire. Just one look at the Caucasus indicates that it is forced to act there like an empire. We may or may not like it, but we are forced to act like an empire both inside and outside the country. In the Russian Empire Russians were not the main ethnos. The empire ruled the diversity that was at its disposal. A certain kind of multi-culturalism was always inherent in the empire. In the Caucasus, for instance, the method of military-popular government was used with great success. The local peoples were allowed to be ruled in accordance with their own adats (sets of local and traditional laws), provided they always remembered that there was one emperor above them all. The current developments in the Chechen Republic are in fact a replica of that military-popular government.


While considering practical political recommendations, the experts said that a new “concert of powers” like the one brought into being with Russia’s active participation 200 years ago, would be the optimal world order for Russia today. One idea from the imperial discourse should be accepted, and the other, rejected.

The imperial feeling of loneliness is worth accepting: an empire embodies a principle it does not share with anybody else, a quality that makes it so exceptional. These days, when the world order is undergoing transformation, constitutionalizing oneself through mutual recognition is an unreliable strategy for states to follow. Under that pattern Russia will be doomed to build its identity on the archetypes of civilizational loneliness. At the current moment, the feeling of strategic loneliness (an imperial feeling) looks inevitable, as there is no system to build oneself into to obtain guarantees of further existence. But nations move on in history as parts of a system.

What should not be borrowed from the experience of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union is the sense of global responsibility for the future of the world. Our area of concern should remain within our borders and the radius of our influence.

Experts voiced concern over references to Russian irredentism being heard in the discourse on the Russian nation. In other words, the theme of a divided nation that is to be put together again. It is unclear how that can be done without destabilizing a colossal part of the geopolitical space or without encouraging radical trends within Russian nationalism. In certain conditions irredentism as a state ideology is not something dangerous at all. German irredentism is an example. Its advocates insisted that the two German states should eventually unite somehow. In that sense, we in Russia can say that theoretically we would like to see the reunification of Russia and Belarus as two state entities through a referendum, in a democratic way and so on.

But in all other cases Russian irredentism would lay claim to some territories of the neighboring states. For instance, northern Kazakhstan, southern and eastern Ukraine and some areas of the Baltic States. Calling in question the borders of an existing state is clearly a casus belli. Therefore, Russia should focus its efforts—legislative, economic and other—on what the Germans were doing in relation to their fellow Germans outside the German borders. In other words, it should develop realistic programs that might facilitate resettlement and integration and provide support. We might achieve a great deal by adopting a law that would enable Russian citizens to deduct a certain share of their incomes to a special fund for the accommodation of resettled compatriots. In most developed countries, the taxpayer has the right to earmark a small share of his taxes for purposes he regards as worthy ones. A better instrument for bolstering national solidarity is hard to imagine. In that sense the idea of granting citizenship mostly to Russians must be complemented with a similar rule for other ethnic groups who regard Russia as their home country.

The Crimean issue should be proclaimed an exception, forced upon us by the circumstances, but by no means Russia’s normal foreign policy behavior. Without saying that it will be impossible to normalize relations with the neighbors, which will have to be done anyway.

The discussions also outlined major problems requiring close scrutiny and analysis from the conceptual point of view and in the interests of practical policies. The organizers and participants plan to address these issues in the course of future events the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and the Russia in Global Affairs magazine will hold.

Participants in the expert discussions were: Anatoly Vishnevsky, Director of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics; Alexei Kara-Murza, Chief Research Fellow, Head of the Section of Philosophy of Russian History, Chairman of the Social and Political Philosophy Section of the Academic Council of the Institute of Philosophy; Alexander Losev, CEO of Sputnik Capital Management Company; Alexei Malashenko, Member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center; Boris Mezhuyev, Editor-in-Chief of POLITanalitika.ru; Alexei Miller, Professor of the European University at St. Petersburg; Mikhail Remizov, President of the National Strategy Institute, Chairman of the Presidium of the Expert Council of the Military-Industrial Commission under the Government of Russia; Vladimir Ryzhkov, Chairman of “Russia’s Choice” non-governmental movement, Professor at the School of the World Economics and International Affairs at the Research University–Higher School of Economics; Damir Khairetdinov, Director of the Moscow Islamic Institute; Akhmet Yarlykapov, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Caucasus and Regional Security Problems, MGIMO University of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The discussions were moderated by Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Professor-Researcher of the the School of World Economics and International Affairs at the Research University–Higher School of Economics.