Russia: A Special Imperial Way?
No. 1 2006 January/March
Alexey Arbatov

Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

© «Russia in Global Affairs». № 1, January — March

Alexei Arbatov is a Corresponding Member of the Russian
Academy of Sciences; the director of the International Security
Center of the Institute of the World Economy and International
Relations. This article develops the author’s arguments discussed
in the brochure European Russia: Heresy, Utopia, Project, published
in Russian by ‘Russia in United Europe’ Committee in 2004.

From a historical point of view, the development, prosperity,
decline and collapse of each of the great empires was unique. Yet,
all of them had one common feature. Witnesses to the collapse of
empires, such as Anicius Boethius, a Roman historian and
philosopher of the 5th-6th centuries, believed that all the other
great powers fell naturally, while their own empires collapsed due
to the accidental combination of circumstances, such as the
incompetence of rulers, and malicious intentions inside the country
and abroad. For reasons well understood, the breakup of own empire
was viewed as the greatest tragedy of the times, whereas the fall
of any other empire was portrayed as one link in a long chain of
similar historical mishaps.

Such views are common in contemporary Russia, as well, which
provides yet more proof that the Soviet Empire, for all its
peculiarities, developed according to the same universal laws of
social, economic, military, political, moral and psychological
cyclic development, just as its many predecessors had done.


In some major aspects the Russian and Soviet empires differed
from the great European empires of the 19th-20th centuries, such as
the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian or German
empires that exploited their colonies for the prosperity of the
mother country and maintained the gap between Europeans and the
aboriginal population of the colonies. Russia was never a typical
economic empire; it was a military-political empire that obtained
colonies in order to expand its security perimeter, build up its
political and military might and enhance its role in the world.

The Russian (Soviet) ruling elite was open to elites from its
colonial provinces. This “international nomenklatura” jointly and
ruthlessly exploited, robbed and suppressed all the peoples within
the empire; the imperial nation, i.e. ethnic Russians, was often
more harshly suppressed than other peoples. Nevertheless, Russia,
and later the Soviet Union, were full-fledged empires and similar
to the Byzantine, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires.

In order to redress such ill treatment of the largest ethnic
group in the empire, the elite always lavished praise on the
Russian people and placed it – if only in word – above all the
other nations. The Soviet Union was often referred to as ‘Russia’
or even ‘Rus’ [a more poetic name for Russia], while its citizens
were usually described abroad as Russians, much to the displeasure
of other ethnic groups. In reality, however, the elite treated
ordinary Russians with contempt, describing them as lazy drunkards
and using them as cheap manpower and worthless “cannon fodder.”

Both the czarist and Soviet empires rested on the following four
system-forming pillars, inseparable from each other.
The first pillar was the authoritarian or totalitarian, harshly
disciplined corporate political regime that ruled by suppression
and intimidation.
The second pillar was military might, which by far exceeded the
country’s economic resources. It developed to the detriment of all
the other functions of the state and the people’s wellbeing.

The third pillar was an centralized economy, which was run by
the state and aimed, above all, at strengthening the power of the
bureaucratic establishment and building up military might.

Finally, the fourth pillar rested on the messianic ideology,
which intended to legitimize and justify the other three pillars of
imperial might.
A belief about the security, secrecy and incessant struggle against
external and internal threats and conspiracies was an inseparable
element of this ideology. Initially it was based on harsh
historical experience, but later it became a necessary condition
for the regime’s existence. The support and legitimization of this
regime and the messianic ideology required continuous expansion of
the empire’s borders. This depleted the national economic and
manpower resources, brought about new vulnerability and discontent
inside the state, and evoked fear and hostility in surrounding
countries. As a result, the fixed idea about external and internal
threats became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The militant foreign and
domestic policies, based on the supposition of conspiracies inside
and outside the country, produced actual opposition in the country
and confrontation abroad.

In this sense, the Soviet Union really was the successor to the
Russian Empire. It inherited (after several years of civil war and
political inconsistencies in 1921-1925) all its major economic and
political features in their harshest and extreme forms, such as the
Gulag, replacing only their outward attributes, the official
religion, and the principle of succession to the throne.

Therefore, it is no wonder that contemporary Russian Communists,
who have proclaimed themselves successors to the party that “led
and guided” the Soviet people – the party that for 70 years sought
to wipe out religion and any traces of monarchy – have turned into
zealous followers of Russian Orthodoxy, not to mention imperial and
monarchic traditions. Except for fringe fundamentalists, the
majority of contemporary Communists, together with nationalists of
every hue, embrace the idea of Russia’s revival as an Orthodox,
authoritarian and expansionist power. Their sacramental doctrine of
restoring the U.S.S.R. could be described as being more of a
neo-imperial mission than a Soviet-Communist one.

Yet, this factor does not change the essence of the matter. The
Communist ideology is now based not so much on Marxism-Leninism as
on an anti-democratic, authoritarian and messianic state doctrine.
Actually, it is only this doctrine that can assimilate many diverse
peoples at different levels of social development – from the
industrial economy to nomadic cattle breeding – and living on a
vast space in a monolithic society, as happened before 1917 and in
the next 70 years thereafter. This is yet another difference from
the main European empires (except for authoritarian Portugal),
which combined democracy in the mother country and suppression in
their overseas colonies. As a result, they lost their colonies
without the collapse of their own political regimes.

It is not surprising that, in view of the above distinguishing
features, the Soviet Union’s allies included, as a rule, the most
authoritarian, despotic and militarized regimes – from Nazi Germany
in 1939 to the Chinese, Cuban, North Korean, Ethiopian, Libyan and
Iraqi dictatorships in the 1950s-1980s. The only exception was the
short-term coalition of the Soviet Union and Western democracies in
the struggle against Nazi powers in 1941-1945. However, generally
speaking, the Soviet Union viewed democratic states as enemies or,
at least, as “vassals against their will” (e.g. Finland).

However, beginning in the mid-1950s, the Soviet empire put aside
its ambitions for a Communist global victory and settled instead
for the expansion of its own geopolitical influence and military
might. Thus, it feared a global war and was ready to make pragmatic
compromises for specific “traffic regulations” with the West in
order to avoid a head-on collision. Hence, there arose agreements
on the partial reduction and limitation of armaments, the
establishment of international security organizations (the United
Nations, the Conference/Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe), and assistance in the settlement of some regional
conflicts (the agreements on the Korean Peninsula and Indochina in
the 1950s, and on Vietnam in the 1970s). At the same time,
international organizations (most importantly, the United Nations),
as mechanisms for resolving international conflicts, were actually
paralyzed by the Cold War and served rather as propaganda forums on
the world stage.

Today, against the background of a sharp weakening of Russia,
together with an offensive disregard for its interests on the part
of the West, many myths are surfacing about the Soviet Union’s past
military might and firm foreign policy. Actually, the Communist
leaders were very cautious in estimating the correlation of
opposing forces and feared a direct confrontation with the U.S.
Characteristically, even when the global strategic balance of
forces was much more balanced, the Soviet nuclear superpower
withdrew its missiles from Cuba in 1962 and failed to prevent its
Arab allies from a crushing defeat by Israel in 1967 and 1973
(although maintenance specialists from the Soviet Union serviced
Soviet armaments in Egypt and Syria, Soviet pilots participated in
air fighting, and a Soviet naval squadron ploughed the
Mediterranean). Furthermore, in 1972, during the massive bombings
of Hanoi and Haiphong, Leonid Brezhnev met with Richard Nixon to
sign agreements on strategic armaments, as well as to receive loans
for the purchase of U.S. grain.

The attitude of Soviet foreign policy to the supremacy of
international law and moral standards with regard to Moscow’s
behavior on the international stage was very peculiar. Those rules
were observed only if they met the geopolitical, military or
ideological goals of the Soviet Union or if they could be used to
justify its actions. Not a single member of the Soviet ruling elite
was ever punished or even criticized for violating or disregarding
those norms if that was done to meet pragmatic national interests.
Disregard for law and reliance on force, practiced inside the
country, determined its behavior in the outside world. As former
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger aptly put it, “Empires are not
interested in being within an international system; they want to be
the international system.”

This is the reason that relations between the Soviet Union and
the West were always marked by antagonisms and incompatibility. The
brief periods of dйtente in the mid-1950s, the early 1960s and the
early 1970s were caused by the countries’ mutual fear of nuclear
war, but their search for rapprochement was always tactical and
superficial. Furthermore, this rapprochement, which presupposed
greater openness and contacts with the outside world, threatened
the internal breakdown of the Soviet regime, which provoked
Moscow’s quick retreat back to the Cold War. Only once, in the
early 1990s, did the Soviet leadership refrain from following the
habit of retrogression. The result of that decision is well

Certainly, U.S. and other Western leaders in general were not
idealists in their domestic and foreign policies, as many foreign
ideologists and their rather ignorant liberal adherents in Russia
now portray them. The brutal use of military force, clandestine
revolutionary operations, and violations of international law and
morals were commonplace in Western policies during the decades of
the Cold War. However, such was the cost of global rivalry, rather
than a natural extrapolation of the internal behavior of the
country onto the outside world. It was not uncommon that the
disclosure of such excesses brought about public scandals,
resignations, the fall of governments, and criminal proceedings
against the guilty.

The termination of the global confrontation came into bitter
conflict with the internal life of the Soviet empire, but the
Western democracies got over it rather painlessly. This is the main
reason why Western military and political institutions survived the
end of the Cold War, while those in the East did not.
Ironically and yet quite naturally, after the end of the Cold War,
when the West no longer had a powerful and guileful opponent, its
foreign policy evolved as it began to borrow many of the unseemly
principles and means of Soviet foreign policy.

After all, Russia’s “special” features are not rooted in the
“mysterious Russian soul,” but rather stem from the social and
political conditions of the country’s historical development. Many
similar features are found in various historical periods of
Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and even France, yet the
European nature of these countries is never called into

Messianism is characteristic of all empires and mighty powers.
The British and French empires, for example, suffered from
megalomania and justified their expansionism with “lofty aims.”
Nazi Germany sought to establish a “Thousand-Year Reich” of the
Nordic race. Italy, led by Mussolini, wanted to revive the Roman
Empire in Europe. Japan used force to expand a “co-prosperity zone”
in Asia under the salutary power of the Mikado. And the Soviet
Union proclaimed the “victory of Communism in the whole world” as
its final goal and supported the “triumphal march of socialism” and
national-liberation movements across the planet.

American messianism was a special case in this respect. Having
developed in a quite traditional way in the 19th-early 20th
centuries, it acquired a unique nature after World War II. Fleeing
the Communist expansion of the Soviet Union and China, and
attracted by the American model of freedom and prosperity, the
majority of European and Asian states voluntarily sought U.S.
military protection and economic aid. At its peak, this protection
covered about 40 countries around the world. There were, of course,
exceptions to this rule (Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Iran and Nicaragua),
where American influence was imposed by force and/or where peoples
fought this influence militarily. Furthermore, U.S. influence did
not always bring prosperity to other nations; this refers both to
the Third World and Europe (Portugal under Salazar, for example,
and Greece under the military junta).

Nevertheless, most of the American alliances were based on the
economic superiority and political attractiveness of the U.S., on a
voluntary basis, and on the mutual interest of the parties. This is
why these alliances survived the end of the Cold War and even began
to expand in some regions (Central and Eastern Europe, Central
Asia, and Transcaucasia).

However, in the mid-1990s, the United States began to suffer
delusions from its grandeur, wealth and might. Having become the
world’s only superpower, it began to consider itself master of the
world. More and more often, the U.S. transgressed the fundamental
border between global justice and American justice, between the
search for international accord and unilateral actions, between the
provision of protection and the imposition of American will by
force. Washington’s policies in the Balkans in the late 1990s, and
in Iraq since 2003, are the most illustrative examples of this
malignant change. The extension of U.S. policy to other regions of
the world would trigger fierce opposition and unite countries that
do not wish to be done such a great favor by force. These countries
include China, India, Iran, Russia, some countries in Western
Europe, and Turkey. In the long run, America’s policy will bring it
much suffering and losses.

The “Russian idea,” or the “Russian mission,” was the result of
the country’s internal evolution and interaction with other peoples
and states. The “Russian idea” was nonexistent in the Russia of the
9th century, while in subsequent centuries it had different faces –
in the Russian state of the 17th century, in the Russian Empire of
the 17th-19th centuries, and in doctrines of its advocates in
today’s Russian Federation.

Historically, the “Russian idea/mission” was in many respects
the necessary psychological protection and support of the nation
through centuries of bitter struggle for its very survival. This
philosophy was partially typical of the colonial consciousness of a
nation that extended civilization to peoples that were less
developed socially, economically and technically.

The philosophy also partly served as consolation and
compensation for a relatively low standard of living, actual
deprivations, as well as the absence of many basic conveniences
inherent to the European way of life. A psychological justification
for the difficulties brought about by the centralized military
economy and ineffective bureaucracy was required, above all, for
reconciling in the minds of the Russian people their sufferings and
eternal deprivations with the vast spaces, the colossal natural
resources of their country, as well as the talents of its great
people (as the saying goes, “The mind’s unable to fathom Russia”).
Finally, spiritual quests and metaphysical values were a vent for
the nation’s intellectual potential because the reactionary ruling
regime rigidly limited the freedom of political activity or
A centralized command economy, authoritarian traditions,
militarism, messianic ideology, expansionism and an ongoing
confrontation with the West – these are not part and parcel of the
Russian mentality or national character. Rather, these elements
stem from the peculiarities of Russia’s development and therefore
can and must change together with the internal living conditions
and external environs of the nation.

At the same time, these traditions may occasionally revive and
receive public support as reforms fail, society becomes
disillusioned about the possibility of developing along the path of
European civilization, and the hardships and difficulties caused by
the need to adapt to changes increase. The upsurge of such
sentiments may be a reaction to the unjust and disrespectful
attitude toward Russia by other states, and their attempts to
exploit its weakness and make it accept a dependent and dishonored
position. Meanwhile, as the Russian authorities continue to regress
in their domestic and foreign policies, they may be tempted to
conjure up these traditions. However, by doing so they risk turning
them into self-sufficient forces that would prevent the country
from achieving normal development. It would lead Russia down a
blind alley of self-isolation, messianic fetishism, militarized
authoritarianism, internal stagnation and external hostility. As
the 19th century Russian historian Vassily Klyuchevsky said,
“History does not teach anything, it only punishes people who do
not learn its lessons.”


Like other empires, the Soviet Union had its moments of glory,
together with times of disgrace and humiliation. For example, after
Stalin’s terror subsided, it ensured a high degree of stability,
security and predictability within the guidelines of its strict
regime. Furthermore, besides creating a colossal military power and
a huge defense industry, the Soviet empire achieved a modest, yet
very effective system of universal and equal healthcare, education,
social safety nets, and housing conditions for the whole of its
multinational population. It enjoyed monumental achievements – by
the highest world standards – in culture, science and technology.
But still, like all other empires, it collapsed in 1991 under the
pressure of internal conflicts and the external imperial

However, unlike the majority of other empires, including czarist
Russia, the Soviet power in 1991 was not defeated or fatally
undermined in an all-out war. Nor did it break up as a result of
exhausting small colonial conflicts (despite the quagmire of the
war in Afghanistan in 1979-1989 or the bloody conflicts in Georgia,
Lithuania and Latvia in 1989-1991). In order to have a better
understanding of Russia’s present interaction with other
post-Soviet countries and large global powers, it is extremely
important to realize that the Soviet Union, contrary to the
widespread view abroad and in Russia, was not defeated in the Cold
War and did not collapse under the burden of the arms race. Many
people are misled by the fact that the breakup of the Soviet empire
coincided in time with the end of the Cold War. In history,
however, “after” is not always equivalent to “because of.”

The Soviet empire was created and built up for an arms race,
confrontation and, if necessary, war with the rest of the world
(Stalin’s initial doctrine of industrialization provided for
building socialism in one single country in the “imperialistic
encirclement”). In reality, the Soviet empire could have existed
for long after 1991 had it not been totally broken down by internal
factors, such as the harsh political regime and its dogmatic and
hypocritical ideology. It was also undermined by the inefficient
centralized economy with its all-absorbing military-industrial
Moloch set against the growing material, political and spiritual
requirements of the population. Ironically, the latter were
generated by the empire’s policy of industrialization, universal
education and the most advanced system of higher learning, which
the Communist leadership pursued for the purpose of global imperial
rivalry and for building up its military might, thus involuntarily
nurturing its own demise.

The total mismatch between official ideological dogma on the one
hand, and real life inside the Soviet Union on the other, generated
disillusionment amongst much of the population, together with its
alienation from the ruling regime, thus depriving the latter of
social support. The established system of “natural” selection, with
rare exception, replenished the ruling class of nomenklatura with
personnel imbued with the spirit of cynicism, careerism and greed.
They proved incapable of implementing reasonable reforms or
erecting a resolute defense of the state system, taking instead a
wait-and-see position at the time of its final disintegration in
1990-1991. (Later, the majority of the second and third echelons of
the Communist Party and Young Communist League elite adapted fairly
well to the market economy and painlessly evolved into the class of
“New Russians,” as well as centrist, leftist and nationalistic
political parties, while taking lucrative official posts in the new
democratic government in the center and in the provinces.)

The collapse of the Soviet Union was precipitated by the
scientific, technological and information revolution which entailed
an exponential growth of contacts between the empire and the
outside world in the 1960s-1980s. The Soviet empire was built as a
fortress against an eternal siege; however, it did not have
immunity against wide contacts with the outside world and this
fortress collapsed once the siege was lifted. By the end of the
1980s, the Soviet Union had 60,000 battle tanks, 5,000 ballistic
missiles and 300 submarines, yet it was unable to produce a single
portable computer.

Mikhail Gorbachev brought democracy to Russian society and
introduced dйtente in relations with the West out of his sincere
wish to alleviate the internal conflicts of the Soviet empire,
remove the threat of nuclear war, while gaining a respite for
modernizing the Communist system. Instead, within five years the
Soviet Union fell like a house of cards: first, the “outer shell”
of its military occupation in Eastern Europe collapsed; in August
1991, the Communist regime in Russia broke down, and finally, the
Soviet Union itself in December of the same year.

It was not the United States, NATO, or the Strategic Defense
Initiative of President Reagan that demolished the dual phenomenon
of the Soviet Union – as a state-political system and as an empire.
Rather it was unintentionally destroyed by the Communist reformers
of the Gorbachev era, and later by Russia’s democratic movement led
by Boris Yeltsin. They removed the first brick of the empire when
they admitted, for example, to the horrors of the Gulag, the Katyn
massacre, the dispossession of the kulaks, and triggered the
collapse of the entire Soviet pyramid.

It was developments such as these that led to the end of the
Cold War and the arms race, but not vice versa. The Soviet empire
was defeated by dйtente and its attempts to carry out internal
reforms, as opposed to the effects of external pressure. Gorbachev
freed Eastern Europe in order to reinforce his political
cooperation with the West, while the Russian democrats freed the
remaining Soviet republics in order to put an end to Gorbachev’s
rule. In the end, it was Russia that emerged victorious in the Cold
War, not the U.S. and its allies, which only gave Russia passive
support in achieving this victory.

As for the burden of the arms race on the Soviet economy, the
crucial point was not the massive resources wasted for military
purposes instead of civil needs. Rather, the economic system –
created for making those huge efforts – was from the beginning
ineffective and wasteful. With the exhaustion of crucial resources
for extensive growth by the end of the 1960s (e.g. the development
of ever new lands and natural resources, together with the
introduction of new manpower), the economy began to steadily
decline (excluding temporary bursts of economic growth in the early
1970s owing to oil price hikes on the world market triggered by the
1973 embargo). The arms race per se was not a factor that
undermined the Soviet economy; nor was it the cause of the Soviet
empire’s disintegration. The arms race was the central force of the
entire planned economy and the core of the economic and
technology-based system. This system lost its effectiveness and
attractiveness for the people (mass consumers) by the end of the
1980s, together with numerous political and ideological dogmas,
myths and claims that propped up the political system and the
monopoly power of nomenklatura.

As subsequent developments proved, the loss of spending on the
arms race in the 1990s failed to spark immediate economic growth;
indeed, the loss only further aggravated economic problems as all
defense-related industries collapsed. Furthermore, there was no
free movement of capital, labor and goods into the civil industries
because severe militarization was a system feature of the Soviet
economy, and this system experienced no far-reaching reforms after
1992 (as was shown by the complete failure of the program for
converting defense industries to civil production).

Contrary to widespread belief, the acceleration of the arms race
by Ronald Reagan, and most notably his Strategic Defense Initiative
(SDI), did not deliver the final blow to the Soviet economy by
increasing the arms expenditure burden on it. An “adequate and
asymmetric response” by the Soviet Union to Reagan’s
military-technological challenge of the early 1980s – from the
point of view of the complete cycle of large defense programs,
including research and development, production and deployment –
would gain momentum (and achieve the peak of spending) not earlier
than the late 1990s. But Gorbachev’s dйtente began 15 years
earlier. The Soviet Union broke up in 1991 for quite different
reasons, whereas the majority of the defense programs implemented
in the early 1990s were the realization of decisions made in the

There is yet another important point on this issue: unlike many
of the former empires, the breakup of the Soviet economic and
political system and its ideology preceded the collapse of the
empire, and not vice versa. This is what makes the Soviet empire
different from the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Portuguese and German
Kaiser empires. Nor was it similar to the British, French, Dutch
and Belgian empires, whose disintegration did not bring about
serious changes in the economic or political system of the mother

The existence of the Soviet Communist Empire was made possible
by its highly uniform economic, political and ideological system
which was required to ensure domination over its vast spaces and
multinational population and assimilate such diverse peoples as
Turkmens and Estonians to a common denominator. Incidentally, the
mother country was not isolated from its colonies by seas and
oceans. The abovementioned factors taken together resulted in a
mixed population in Russia and the other Soviet republics.

The Communist economic, political and ideological system was a
bonding factor that kept the empire together. It was only after
that system collapsed that the empire fell. It did not even require
a defeat in war, which was improbable anyway given the specter of
nuclear weapons. (This is why all present-day appeals by Russian
Communists to restore the Soviet Union, and by nationalists of
every hue to revive the czarist empire presuppose a return to the
authoritarian or totalitarian regime and are incompatible with
democracy or the market economy.)

Whatever the reasons for the Soviet empire’s breakup, for
millions of people it meant the catastrophic loss of their state
and national identity, as well as a separation from their relatives
and friends who were suddenly living in a foreign country. In some
of the former Soviet republics, millions of people had overnight
become defenseless, second-rate citizens deprived of their civil
rights. The sincere internationalism – once the natural basis of
everyday relations between ordinary people of all nationalities,
who for decades had lived and worked side by side, served in the
army and fought in wars, entered into intermarriages, brought up
children and overcome difficulties during times of war and peace –
suddenly gave way to militant, occasionally frantic, nationalism.
This emerged as a complete shock.

The situation was aggravated by the fact that many borders
throughout the Soviet republics had been drawn and redrawn by the
Soviet regime quite arbitrarily, without taking into account
historical aspects, ethnic backgrounds or economic ties. Once they
became state borders, they immediately turned into sources of
tension, territorial claims, nationalistic speculations and
transborder crime.

A large part of the population harbored negative attitudes to
that coup because the people could not really understand why the
Union was liquidated to begin with, especially considering that the
circumstances behind the collapse differed greatly from those of
other empires. The attitude of the other former Soviet republics to
the collapse of the Union varied, as well. Republics that were the
most advanced economically, socially and politically – for example,
the Baltic republics, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia – showed the
strongest desire for independence, irrespective of how ethnically
or economically close they were to Russia or whether they had
enough resources of their own. For other republics, such as
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the republics of Central Asia, the
Belovezha Forest agreements came as a total surprise.

As a matter of fact, ethnic closeness ranks only second to
economic and socio-political factors in the disintegration of
empires. The first large colony lost by Britain at the end of the
18th century as a result of a lost war was the North American
States, populated largely by descendants from England. Meanwhile,
British colonies in Asia and Africa, populated by ethnically alien
peoples that were completely different socially and culturally,
remained under the rule of the British crown for another two
hundred years.

As with many other cases before, in the course of the
disintegration of the Soviet empire the disillusionment and
confusion of the population aggravated the following developments:
economic decline (above all, in Russia due to the failure of
economic reform), social conflicts, the disruption of traditional
ties and communications, instability and bloody conflicts in former
Soviet republics and in Russia itself, and the loss of modest yet
guaranteed material benefits. Finally, there existed the
dishonorable behavior of the new state leaders in their own country
and abroad, mixed with the feeling of national humiliation as a
result of the loss of influence in the world and constant setbacks
in foreign policy.

These factors created fertile ground for the reanimation of
Russian nationalism, the search for a national identity or a
uniting idea, and attempts to revive traditional concepts and
values under the new conditions.

And yet, today’s Russia is basically different from the Soviet
Union, although it is its successor as a great power with a huge
army that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It
inherited the larger part of its defense industry from the Soviet
Union, as well as thousands of nuclear munitions, and tens of
thousands of tons of chemical weapons.

Indeed, Russia has inherited 76 percent of the territory and 60
percent of the economic potential and population of the former
Soviet Union. Furthermore, the majority of the Russian population
lives where it always has, while most Russians grew up under the
Soviet system. Thus, the population has successfully preserved its
centuries-old national traditions and character.

At the same time, however, the Russian Federation of 1999
differs from the Soviet Union of 1991 in terms of territory and
borders; in the number, ethnic composition and structure of the
population; in natural resources and communication networks; in the
essential principles of the economy and the financial and tax
systems; in the political system; in ideological and moral values;
in the constitution, the federative structure, the legal system,
and the criminal code; and finally, in the name of the state, the
national flag, the state emblem, and the national anthem (after
2000, the Russian national anthem differs from the Soviet one at
least in words, while the musical score is the same). According to
all objective indices, today’s Russian Federation is a completely
different country.

Russia’s rise is unrelated to historical fortuity, conspiracy,
or some mistake of leadership. Rather, it is due to an objective
course of events over many years, whereas the coming of Gorbachev
to power, the rise of Yeltsin, and the failure of the August 1991
coup attempt were merely subjective catalysts of profound and long
overdue changes. Therefore, there can be no return to the past –
however much one would like that to happen.

The setback of many democratic norms and institutions in Russia
in recent years is in line with the formation of a
state-monopolistic model of the country’s economic development,
oriented to the export of raw materials and encouraged by high oil
prices. As a result, neo-imperial motives with regard to the
post-Soviet space are becoming increasingly manifest in the
sentiments of the political elite, if not in practical

It is a question of paramount historical and contemporary
political importance whether a military empire is a normal form of
existence for Russia. Or, on the contrary, has such a model finally
become obsolete after twice bringing this great country to
collapse? Is it time for Russia to search for another paradigm?
History, as always, provides no unequivocal and final answer; it
abounds in facts and events that can prove many different points of

In light of the events, however, it seems that the
military-imperial path is a blind alley fraught with yet another,
third, collapse (following the ones in 1917 and 1991), after which
Russia may never rise to its feet again. This is especially
relevant considering the economic and military challenge from the
West (the enlargement of NATO, for example, and the European Union)
and the Islamic ideological and terrorist challenge from the South.
Furthermore, in the future it may meet a military and economic
challenge from the East. Finally, there exists the threat of the
disintegration of Russia itself, as well as a forced division of
the post-Soviet space. In that case, Russia will follow in the
footsteps of the former continental empires of Europe – albeit with
the more serious consequences that our technological era can

This possibility can be avoided only if Russia goes over to an
innovation-driven economic model, which provides for the extension
of democratic institutions and norms and the construction of a
civil society. Russia’s vastness, together with its raw-material
resources east of the Urals, are not the eternal core of its
economy, but rather an invaluable resource for diversifying the
economy and attracting domestic and foreign investment in high-tech

The reorientation of economic (and, consequently, political)
ties from Europe to Asia – a  subject in vogue these days – is
a way to preserve Russia’s model of economic development, oriented
to the export of raw materials, together with its
authoritarian-oligarchic political superstructure, albeit in
democratic disguise. Asia does not need a high-tech Russia; it
needs Russia as an exporter of raw materials (as well as armaments
and nuclear reactors – at least, for the time being). An
authoritarian political system is not an obstacle here, but rather
a kind of advantage.

Western politicians have different views as to what kind of
Russia would be best for them. However, it is absolutely obvious
that their integration with a raw-material adjunct is out of the
question. The West would just take Russia’s oil and gas, while
taking care to avoid a monopoly dependence on it. Furthermore, it
will fence itself off with a military-political firewall from the
unpredictability and instability of the authoritarian regime.

*  *  *

It is now up to Russia to make its choice. Its transition to an
innovation economy and, as a necessary component, a well-planned
democratization of the political system, will inevitably and
naturally bring about the issue of consistent rapprochement and, in
the long term, integration of Russia with Greater Europe. The
specific forms, timeframe and conditions for this process will be
determined with time.

This is the main path of Russia’s postindustrial development,
which alone can spare it from the unenviable role of an
underdeveloped and dependent supplier of raw materials for the 21st
century economic giants. Only in this way will Russia obtain
socio-political stability, reliable modern defenses and a security
system that will be compatible with the most advanced powers of the
world. At the same time, however, it is only together with Russia
that Greater Europe can play the role of a global center of force
in the new century; a power that would enjoy economic, political
and military-strategic influence stretching beyond the continent,
to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The only optimistic variant for Russia’s future is not in the form
of an authoritarian military empire, but as a great democratic
European power.