09.11.2004
Russia’s Disintegration: Factors and Prospects
№4 2004 October/December

It is only
human nature to have illusions. These include the belief that
identification categories, such as people/nation, faith/ideology,
state, and civilization are eternal. Meanwhile, these entities,
having existed for some time (often a rather long time), disappear,
becoming a thing of the past.



 

The state,
as a substance, is finite. It emerges once, and therefore it will
one day inevitably cease to exist. Specific modalities of a state
are finite, as well. In this sense, the Russian state is no
exception. The specialists, focusing their attention on one of the
heated debates of the decade, have provided many reasons why the
Soviet Union broke up. Yet, none of them has mentioned the main,
and universal, reason – the Soviet Union was finite, like any other
state. It could have disappeared earlier or later. The only thing
that could not have happened in principle was its eternal
existence. Thus, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a natural
event.

 

The
Russian Federation is a young state, and this circumstance inspires
a certain amount of optimism. But young age is not enough. The
Russian state formerly did not exist within its present borders or
in the present historical conditions (after the empire’s breakup).
Is it stable enough? Formal optimism or an a priori belief are no
grounds for a scientific judgment.

 

Integrative and disintegrative trends exist in every state.
The predominance of integrative tendencies ensures the stable
existence of a state. But if disintegrative trends take the upper
hand, the state will collapse. The Russian Federation is now being
built anew. Its historical prospects depend, above all, on the
degree of “integrative integrity” of its society, and the Russian
Federation is the political shell of this society. No policy can
stop the irresistible process of fragmentation if centrifugal
tendencies dominate in the country.

 

Research
into this problem presupposes an answer to the key question: In
strategically terms, is the Russian Federation a united whole? Is
it a united body economically, civilizationally and
ethnoculturally? Is this state viable at the present stage of its
general historical development? Does this historically established
part of the globe correspond to the global processes of separation
of individual loci, economic areas, local civilizations and
ethnocultural regions?

 

These are
most difficult questions, each deserving an extensive and
independent study. There is no theory that would be able to
formulate criteria for a state’s stability, or outline parameters
leading to its destruction. However, history shows that states
disintegrate along the boundaries of their constituent elements.
Therefore, we should establish the elements (entities) of which the
Russian state consists and, second, offer an expert opinion on the
degree of these elements’ integration, on the stability of the ties
that bind them, and on the prospects for preserving the
whole.

 

NORTH,
SOUTH AND EAST

 

At this
point, we must ask ourselves what entities make up the Russian
Federation? What visible and invisible boundaries pass through it?

First of
all, the Russian Federation includes regions of the East European
cultural realm which is Orthodox in origin. It comprises the
country’s core which has territorial dominance, as well as the
greatest percentage of the population. The bearers of the East
European identity – Russians – make up 82 percent of the country’s
population. The second largest cultural realm, Islam, comprises two
large enclaves in the North Caucasus and in the Volga Region. These
areas are populated by 20-22 million people. Furthermore, many
Moslems are scattered throughout Russia’s European and Asian
territories.

 

These are
followed by enclaves of the Buddhist (Lamaistic) cultural realm
(Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia). There are also cultural provinces of
non-monotheistic (syncretic) civilizations of the East, which at
some time in the past were superficially Christianized and then
superficially Sovietized. They are scattered throughout Siberia and
Russia’s Far East.

 

The East
European cultural realm is all-sufficient and views itself as the
center of the Orthodox world. The remaining civilizational entities
have centers of gravitation outside the Russian Federation and are
fragments of other local civilizations integrated into Russia. The
religious, civilizational and ethnocultural identities have pushed
these spaces out of the Russian Federation. Even quite recently,
Soviet ideology united the country into a single whole, offered
common identities and concealed the civilizational differences
between various regions. The collapse of Marxism, as the foundation
of a new civilization, has breathed new life into the basic
identities. The regionalization of the Russian Federation,
according to traditional affiliation of the regions with the world
religions, is acquiring special importance.

 

Although
the Russian Federation is populated by over 100 peoples and
nationalities, two major language families can be singled out:
Slavic (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians) and Turkic (Tatars,
Bashkirs, Yakuts, Karachais, and others). The pan-Slavic or
pan-Turkic identity is an essential reality for the ethnocultural
self-awareness of the citizens of the Russian
Federation,  and its significance
tends to increase in recent years. The division of people into
Slavs and Turks also has a religious basis: Slavs are mostly
Christians, while Turks are Moslems.

 

DIFFERENT
RUSSIANS

 

The
established stereotype portrays the Russian people as an undivided
whole. However, the Russian population, characterized by a
boundless diversity of local features, can be divided into two
large groups – Southerners and Northerners. In the 1920s, the
outstanding Russian ethnographer Dmitry Zelenin suggested that
there are two close, yet different, Russian nationalities: North
Russians (pronouncing unstressed “o” as “o” rather than “a”) and
South Russians (pronouncing unstressed “o” as “a”). In accordance
with his theory, Zelenin proposed dividing Eastern Slavs into
Ukrainians, Belarusians, North Russians and South
Russians.

 

Russia’s
North and South have retained their basic distinctions to this day.
At various historical stages, the North and the South have
repeatedly manifested their discrepancy and even certain
opposition. Recently, the consequences of this little-known
phenomenon told on the country’s real politics. Among the factors
that worked against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was his
ineradicable South Russian identity and strong accent.

 

Russians
emerged as a nation after Slavs assimilated the Ugro-Finnic tribes
and other nationalities that the Slavs had come into contact with
as they settled. The zone itself was divided into two sub-zones –
the vast forests and steppes of the landmass. Correspondingly,
ethnogenic flows became divided, as well. The mutual assimilation
of Slavs and Ugro-Finns produced the population of the forest
sub-zone, which was engaged mostly in farming. On the other hand,
the South Russian steppe came to be populated by nomads who often
attacked the farmers. The advance into the steppe tore the Russians
away from their native landscape and submerged them into a
basically new world. In the South, there eventually formed an
ethnos that became an organic part of the forest-steppe zone. The
assimilation of the South Russian Slavs with numerous steppe tribes
continued for centuries and resulted in an independent ethnic whole
which was perfectly adapted to life in the southern steppe and
capable of confronting any natural nomad.

 

The
distinctions between the North and the South are diverse. Apart
from the striking difference of the dialects, they differ in
everyday culture, cuisine, rites and folk songs. The North and
South Russians differ in their anthropologic type, temperament,
communication style and ways they engage in economic activities.
Another major difference lies in their social system. For example,
the Cossacks of South Russia preserved their main institution of
military democracy – the Military Assembly – until the Civil War
(1918-1920), while in the North it ceased to exist in the 13th-14th
centuries. Finally, there is a clear distinction between the North
Russian and South Russian mentalities. The South has preserved the
ethnos of a military democracy. For a Cossack, a man stands for a
soldier, and war comes as an initiation rite and sacral testing.
All these factors help shape a special character and
self-consciousness.

 

For
centuries, the North and the South had dramatic relations with each
other. The Time of Troubles (the early 1600s) was the most glaring
episode of the domination of the South over the North, an episode
which was traumatic for the historical consciousness. The North
scored a very difficult victory over the uncontrolled South
(Cossacks) who were a source of mortal fear. Then, the 1917
Bolshevik revolution triggered a civil war in Russia. The South
again emerged at the forefront and for a short period of time
determined Russia’s destiny. The Southern (Cossack) lands became
the domain of the anti-Bolshevik White Movement. A close look at
Civil War maps shows that the Whites won victories within the
territory of the Cossacks’ former Dikoye Pole (Wild Field), but
whenever they crossed the boundaries of the former Moscow
Principality they suffered a defeat. The Cossacks and the other
population of the South habitually took sides with the forces that
opposed the center (the North) and that promised to preserve their
traditional autonomy.

 

The
problem of the two sub-ethnoses of the Russian people is a taboo
subject which is concealed in the subconsciousness of Russian
culture. Meanwhile, the heterogeneity of North and South Russia is
a reality. When former factors of integration decay and the state
is experiencing a crisis, historically preceding structures become
more active. In such a situation, the dissimilarity of the South
and the North becomes an important factor.

 

INTERCONTINENTAL BREAK

 

Another
internal boundary within Russia is intercontinental by nature.
Russia is a Eurasian state, and the boundary between the two
continents of Europe and Asia travels the length of the Urals down
to the Caspian Sea. Russia’s geographical position gave rise to the
idea of “Eurasianship.” Piles of documents have been written about
Russia’s “special Eurasian mission” and numerous “advantages” of
its Eurasian status. Yet, the Russian Federation is not the only
Eurasian state in history. Let’s have a look at how other such
states developed.

 

The
ancient Persians tried to build a Eurasian empire but their
military defeat against the Greeks (480-449 BC) buried the first
Eurasian project. It was

implemented later (333-323 BC) by Alexander the Great, but his
sprawling empire began to fragment already in his lifetime. After
his death in 323 BC, the empire, which did not last longer than ten
years, broke up into African, Asian and European
fragments.

 

The Roman
Empire was one more Eurasian state. It existed for several
centuries until it was divided into two parts in 395 AD. The
farther it expanded into Asia and Africa, the more wars and
problems it faced on its outskirts, and thus the less stable it
became. In the long run, the empire fell into decline and broke
up.

 

The
Byzantine Empire, in various periods of its history, was Eurasian,
as well. As time went on, it lost most of its European territories,
and in its last three centuries it lost all its Asian territories.
Eventually, it became a small enclave in Europe.

 

The
Ummayad Caliphate never became a stable Eurasian empire. Less than
50 years after the Arabs conquered Spain (711 AD), the Cordova
Emirate, independent of the Arab caliphate, was established (756).
Actually, the Spanish provinces, even before they gained
independence, had belonged to the caliphate only
formally.

 

Turkey was
a Eurasian empire for five centuries. Those were five centuries of
continuous wars. From the beginning of the 19th century on, the
Ottomans kept losing their territories in Europe and were forced
out into Asia. The Republic of Turkey still has a handkerchief-size
territory in Europe and formally is a Eurasian state.

 

The Golden
Horde was one more Eurasian state (not so much geographically as
civilizationally) from the time it emerged until it lost its
Russian territories in 1480.

 

Muscovy
became a Eurasian empire with the advent of Ivan the Terrible.
After his death, however, in the Time of Trouble, it broke up.
Later, during the reign of Peter the Great, the country went
through a deep crisis. Amidst the Great Northern War with Sweden,
Ukraine made an attempt to separate from Russia, and a large region
in Ukraine and southern Russia was swept by an uprising led by the
Cossack Kondraty Bulavin.

 

Another
breakup of Russia followed a social revolution and Russia’s
separate withdrawal from World War I. The latest breakup occurred
following the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The
Russian Federation, as a result, has inherited its Eurasian status
from the Soviet Union.

 

As we can
see, Eurasian identity is a factor of instability which brings
about breakups, recurrent destruction, as well as weak integration
of the state’s tissue. In contemporary times, Eurasianship seems to
guarantee that a state will be unable to survive modernization. The
European and Asian regions of a Eurasian state enter the
modernization processes in different ways, thus tearing the state
apart. This was the cause of the disintegration of the Ottoman
Empire and the Russian Empire/Soviet Union. The present
developments in the North Caucasus were brought about by the same
dissymmetrical reaction to the modernization processes in the
Russian Federation’s European (Christian) and Islamic
societies.

 

SIBERIA AS
A SPECIAL SPACE

 

Speaking
of Siberia, we must bear in mind that this is a region thousands of
kilometers away from Europe which borders on Central Asia, China,
Korea and Japan. In other words, it is a non-European region not
only geographically but also geopolitically, civilizationally and
economically. Economically speaking, it belongs to the Asia-Pacific
Region and is the northern periphery of the Central Asian cultural
realm and Chinese civilization, and its indigenous population
gravitates toward these cultural centers. Siberia is not just a
part of Asia; it is the entire north of the Asian whole.

 

Russia
colonized Siberia by consistently conquering successors to the
Golden Horde. Having left behind China and Central Asia in
launching modernization processes, Russia firmly established itself
in Siberia. It was the first to develop the region and introduce
mature statehood and civilization to it. This was Russia’s merit of
worldwide importance. However, as neighboring Asian countries
joined in the modernization processes, Russia began to lose its
temporary advantage in the region. Stable civilizational factors
began to take effect, moving Siberia out of Europe’s sphere of
influence in the broad historical perspective.

 

Present-day Orthodox observers express concern over the
achievements in Siberia and Russia’s Far East of “non-traditional”
syncretic cults and religious movements which, in fact, are
absolutely traditional and organic to those territories. These
movements originate from Asian culture. While attempts to halt
migration from neighboring China and Korea can be implemented by
police methods (although this is almost impossible in an open
market economy), how is it possible to stop the movement of ideas,
not to mention the establishment of new perspectives on life? The
entire history of mankind shows the futility of any administrative
measures to resist such processes, because here we see determinants
that are immeasurably more powerful than any state.

 

The
Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedia of 1896, under the entry ‘Russia’
wrote: “Russians account for 19.2 percent of the population of
Siberia and Central Asia.” Today, most of the people living in
Siberia consider themselves Russians. Yet, this is not a result of
migration. In most cases, it is a result of the change of identity
brought about by the cultural assimilation of the local population.
Meanwhile, a new identity that has taken shape in a similar way is
not stable. Russian colonization, together with the large-scale
cultural assimilation of the Siberian indigenous population,
continued for about 300 years, while thousands of years prior to
this the region had been a periphery of China and Central
Asia.

 

There are
many possible scenarios for Siberia’s return to Asian civilization.
These depend on numerous factors, many of which cannot be even
predicted. In the most peaceful variant, in the course of the
Russian Federation’s confederalization, the country may divide into
two parts along the Urals. This may result, for example, in the
emergence of a Federation of Siberia and the Far East, which would
retain a European civilizational identity but would be oriented
toward Asia. The Federation would balance between Russia, China,
Japan and the United States and complete the circle of countries in
the North. Later, Siberia will gradually but inevitably integrate,
ethnically and culturally, into the closest region – Asia. Speaking
of a more remote future, Russians in Siberia will repeat the fate
of the Greeks on territories controlled by the Seleucids. This is
neither good nor bad. The same could be said for the destiny of
Turks or Arabs in Europe. Peoples can cross the boundaries of
continents, but civilizations cannot. People arriving from Europe
settle in Asia and, likewise, people coming from Asia settle in
Europe at the cost of losing their original civilizational
identity.

 

THE NORTH
CAUCASUS:
WATERSHED BETWEEN
CIVILIZATIONS

 

Russia is
a largely heterogeneous state in historical terms, as well. It
includes regions where stable statehood was established a thousand
years ago, and regions where statehood was established only in the
17th-18th centuries. Finally, there are spaces where the state has
been establishing itself only in the last 150 years. These include,
above all, the North Caucasus – a very special ethnocultural
isolate, a mountainous land situated in a “no man’s zone” dividing
the civilizations of the West and the East.

 

The North
Caucasus poses a problem for Russia that will not be easy to solve.
It is a constantly subsidized region with an intricate and confused
ethnocultural situation. It is a conglomerate of heterogeneous
societies which were forcibly integrated into an area of mature
statehood 150 years ago. It is a land where the exit of sahibs
results in the stoppage of industry, a decline of the public health
system, and the revival of patriarchal slavery. The slave trade,
cattle stealing, and vendetta laws flourish. In other words, the
region is reverting back to its pre-state customs. Developing the
North Caucasus to the point when it is capable of self-development
will require from Russia huge resources, not to mention the efforts
of several generations of people. Until then, the region will
remain a stable factor for destabilizing Russian society, as it
continues to generate crime, drugs, and archaic social relations.
When, at long last, the modernization processes are over, the North
Caucasus will separate from the Russian Federation in a peaceful
and civilized manner.

Most
importantly, this refers to Chechnya, an autonomous constituent
republic of the Russian Federation, which has since 1995 been
waging a war for independence. Without delving into the history of
the conquest of the Caucasus, it is evident that Chechnya’s
150-year existence within the Russian Empire/Soviet Union has been
a negative experience for Russia. The cost of keeping Chechnya
inside Russia’s political borders has been either severe
repression, or a disproportionate amount of its actual autonomy. At
times, this reached the point of exterritoriality of individual
areas.

 

INTEGRATIVE AND DISINTEGRATIVE FACTORS

 

The main
integrative factor is historical inertia. It stems from the
commonality of historical destinies, which is expressed
institutionally, psychologically and culturally, and is fixed in
the system of economic ties. Historical inertia is supported by the
lack of a record of an alternative existence, as well as by the
general perception, which has taken shape inside the country and
abroad,  that Russia is a single
whole.

 

Another
factor for integration is largely an external one. This is the
stability of a geopolitical balance as an absolute value. Contrary
to the isolationist mythology, the international community is never
interested in the breakup of a large state. The disintegration of
such a large state as Russia would destroy the system of
geopolitical balances, create new problems and aggravate old ones
in the neighboring countries, and open a painful stage of
rebuilding a new political and civilizational balance. Such events
always lead to wars, refugees, urgent investment, and the growth of
uncertainty to a very dangerous point. In general, any redivision
of the world is dangerous in many aspects. This is why the late
Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, and later, the weak Soviet
Union of the 1980s, suited Europe. In the same way, today’s Russian
Federation suits the leaders of the international community much
more than would its breakup.

 

The main
disintegrative factor is modernization, or rather, its specific
stage in the context of the aforementioned heterogeneity of the
Russian Federation. At the previous stage of the modernization of
Russia/Soviet Union, internal and external factors of integration
were stronger than the disintegrative processes. Formerly, Russians
surpassed the population at the peripheral regions in the scale of
their integration into contemporary civilization. This factor
ensured their domination inside the country and integrated the
state. Struggling for separation from Russia had no prospects
(which has been proven by Poland’s example), whereas staying inside
Russia brought advantages to those who traditionally lagged behind.
Today, the critical frontier between various peoples of the Russian
Federation, in the degree of their integration into the
contemporary reality, has been overcome. All peoples, including
those remaining at the stage of the breakup of the military
democracy and the formation of an early state, have learned how to
use (but not create) modern technologies.

 

A similar
situation has evolved in the realm of foreign policy. Russia gained
certain advantages from its lead over neighboring countries
(Turkey, Persia and China). This advantage allowed it to expand its
territories, annexing land from backward neighbors, while thwarting
any disintegrative pressures from them. As global transformations
have begun in the world, Russia has exhausted its modernization
advantages. Disintegrative pressures from the East on ethnically
and civilizationally kindred regions in Russia have been
increasing.

 

Another
disintegrative factor is of a general historical nature. This is
the ‘Islamic revival,’ which is now proceeding at full speed. It
marks the completion of the ‘medieval’ period in the history of
Islamic civilization and its entering into a world of boundless
dynamics. Transformations of this kind always have tendencies
toward internal integration and territorial expansion.

 

Close on
the heels of the ‘Islamic revival’ is the modernization activity of
the syncretic civilizations of the East. The peak of these
processes is 10 to 15 years behind the growth of Islam. The
reinvigoration of civilizations east of the Islamic world will
cause the region’s restructuring, while increasing pressure on
Islam from the East. As a result, the pressed Islamic civilization
will increase its pressure on the European cultural realm.
Simultaneously, the civilizational pressure on Siberia and Russia’s
Far East will increase, as well.

 

FORMING A
NEW EUROPIAN NATION

 

The
modernization of the heterogeneous population scattered around the
critically large landmass means that there exists a high
probability for Russia’s breakup. The collapse of the country’s
uniform ideology has predetermined its civilizational (cultural and
religious) heterogeneity, while the transition to an open economy
orients the regions to alternative centers. In this sense, Russia
is ranked among such countries as India, China, Iraq and Turkey,
whose disintegration is also highly probable.

 

Yet, the
probability of Russia’s complete breakup is very low. Today, such a
scenario can take place only if its reforms end with a total
collapse, that is, if Russia proves that it is unable to proceed
from extensive to intensive development. In this case, the regional
elites, realizing the organic inability of a unified Russia to
complete the modernization process, may decide in favor of its
disintegration (confederalization or complete dissolution).
Russia’s massive size, together with its loose sense of statehood,
is steadily perceived as an obstacle to historical dynamics. In
other words, the modernization process could proceed much more
easily within smaller entities. This idea is supported by a
comparison of continental China and Taiwan.

 

This is a
hypothetical scenario, but should one wish to elaborate, such a
breakup may presuppose the separation of Siberia and the Far East,
as well as territories gravitating toward the Baltic region (the
St. Petersburg and Novgorod areas), as well as South Russia. A
complete disintegration of the Russian Federation may entail the
separation of the constituent republics in the Volga Region. With
the modernization period over, it is highly probable that the
former constituent entities of the Russian Federation, or at least
some of them, will re-integrate into a new Russian
state.

 

Russia’s
territories lying along its frontiers are much more likely to be
lost for this state. As Emil Pain once put it, there is a
probability that Russia may “peel along the edges.” This is why it
seems inevitable that in the long term Russia may lose Siberia, or
that the latter’s status may change dramatically. Russian
territories can be ranked depending on prospects for their further
retention within the Russian state.

 

The most
hopeless group comprises those territories that were included in
the Soviet Union after World War II. These territories have no
Russian roots, reminiscences or historical inertia, while the
degree of their development remains minimal. External
disintegrative pressures on these territories are maximal. The loss
of the Kuril Islands and Eastern Prussia, for example, may take
place already in the medium term.

 

Then there
are the territories that have been part of Russia for over a
century. These are the Islamic North Caucasus, as well as those
regions that are gravitating toward the Buddhist cultural realm –
Tuva, Buryatia and, perhaps, Kalmykia. However, the probability of
these territories’ separation is different, and is high with part
of the North Caucasus and much lower for the territories in the
Buddhist cultural realm.

 

The last
territories in the list of likely “defectors” are the constituent
republics in the Volga Region – Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. The
probability of their separation is infinitesimal. The integration
of these republics into Russia’s space is so high that their
separation can be imagined only if the Russian Federation breaks up
completely. Nevertheless, the region is pursuing a strategic line
toward still more autonomy. The logic of actions taken by the
political elites of the Volga Region republics can lead to Russia’s
confederalization.

 

Any
further analysis of possible disintegration scenarios would be
futile, as disintegration is a turbulent transitional process
driven by numerous specific, often short-lived, factors, many of
which cannot be taken into account and even predicted. Yet, it is
possible to name factors provoking disintegration. These are, above
all, industrial catastrophes and suicidal policies of the central
government.

 

A
large-scale industrial catastrophe (of the Chernobyl dimension)
would make inevitable the interference of international
organizations and would provoke a powerful disintegration movement
in the regions. Furthermore, such a catastrophe may produce a
domino effect. All available manpower and material resources would
be used to contain the aftermath of the catastrophe; this may bring
about ruptures in other weak links of Russia’s overstrained
technological chains.

 

Another
disintegration scenario may be provoked by attempts, especially if
they are made by force, to restore a single state by re-integrating
its former constituent parts. Such attempts would be in harsh
contrast with objective tendencies and would lead to Russia’s
collapse.

 

The
restless, horizon-bound imperial spirit is leaving the vistas of
our homeland. Today, Russia is entering an epoch of national
existence. A new European nation is being formed inside it, which
the authorities designate as Rossiyane (Russian people) although
this has not yet become a customary name for the Russian people.
History alone will tell where the stable frontiers will lie for
this new whole which is coming into being before our
eyes.