Will Russia Transform Into a Nationalist Empire?
No. 2 2005 April/June
Emil Pain

Professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics; General Director of the Center for Ethno-Political Studies. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

When we look at Russia as a “decaying empire,” many
peculiarities of its development – including ethno-political ones –
can be more readily explained.
As it is with former empires, the main imperial function
(geopolitical expansion) becomes redundant as the landmass begins
to atrophy noticeably. A decaying empire seeks only to preserve
itself – above all, its imperial body. The present political
project of the Russian regime can be described as an attempt to
reanimate the empire, and I will attempt to show in the following
pages that this project is utopian by nature and any attempt to
implement it may destabilize the ethno-political situation in the


Once an empire shows signs of decay, its positive potential
comes to an end and is replaced by negative manifestations; these
pose an even greater threat to the empire itself than to the outer
world. The inherently imperialistic tendencies that seem to go
hand-in-hand with power in Russia predetermined its “catch-up
modernization:” since the first quarter of the 19th century, this
country has been reformed only in an authoritarian way, that is,
“from above.” This sort of modernization did not permit Russia to
break out of specific frameworks of catch-up development because
its leaders have always halted the renovation process once the
country had ensured its self-preservation under various changing
conditions. At this point, the reforms were cut short.

Modernization has never been supported by the bulk of the
Russian population which has traditionally viewed this process as
something external, alien and foreign. This is why modernization
has always triggered outbursts of traditionalism, occasionally in
the more extreme form known as fundamentalism. And since attempts
at modernization in Russia are never fully accepted, there is a
rather similar reoccurrence of events throughout Russian history.
Reforms have always alternated with counter-reforms: the reformer
Alexander I was succeeded by the counter-reformer Nicholas I; then
came the reformer Alexander II, who was succeeded by the
counter-reformers Alexander III and Nicholas II (for the larger
part of his rule). Russia’s recent history has also had its share
of reformers (Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin) and
counter-reformers. In each such cycle, the goals of progress (for
example, “We shall catch and overtake the West”) were replaced with
goals of traditionalism (“We shall retire into ourselves” or “We
shall find the Golden Age in our past”).

The reader may be asking why I have chosen to use the term
“empire” instead of “monarchy,” for example, or “authoritarian
regime.” The answer is because the continuing legacy of
authoritarianism in Russia is largely explained by ‘imperial
syndrome,’ which makes it possible to regenerate the old empire if
at least some of its parts have survived. The imperial syndrome, or
imperial system, includes several basic elements.

The first element comprises the “imperial body,” that is, those
territories that have retained the scars of colonial conquests.
This is not just those areas of compact settlement of the colonized
ethnic communities, but all territorial entities which are opposed
to being part of the empire, but are kept within a single state.
The imperial principle calls for the ‘retention of territories
(opposite to the principle of ‘voluntary and interested
integration’) and has been assimilated into Russia’s policy. In his
address to the Federal Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin
described the “retention of the state on a vast area” as Russia’s
thousand-year project.
The second element is the ‘imperial consciousness.’ This is made up
of an intricate set of traditional stereotypes, such as imperial
ambitions, a servile mentality (such as the continuing hopes for a
“wise czar” and a “strong arm”) and the idea of hierarchy among the
peoples of Russia, which are divided between the main state-forming
“Big Brother” and all the other “younger brothers.”

The third element is imperial power, or imperial order. This is
a supranational regime that is estranged from society and which
views it, if not as a subjugated population, then at least as an
obedient manpower resource and raw material for political

The historically established mechanisms for reproducing the
imperial syndrome at each cycle of the counter-reforms are
deliberately repeated and reanimated by the authorities.
Predictably, the reform process, when it occurs, is viewed as
disorder and chaos, and gives rise to fears that Russia may further
atrophy or even completely disintegrate.

For as long as the imperial body continues to exist, there
remain fears of its possible destruction. These fears have
essentially increased following the breakup of the Soviet Union,
which the majority of Russians describe as the main event, and most
painful event, in the last 20 years of Russian history, according
to sociological studies conducted by the Yuri Levada Center.
Vladimir Putin came to power playing on these sentiments, promising
to pacify Chechnya, “take out terrorists even in the toilet” and
put an end to separatism.

For as long as fears of the empire’s disintegration persist,
there remain hopes for a “strong arm” and a “wise czar.” These
stereotypes, in turn, are used to restore and strengthen
centralization. The incumbent regime used the slogan of combating
separatism to justify its basic reforms: from the introduction of
federal districts to the replacement of elected governors with
appointed ones.

The growth of an imperial consciousness is also caused by many
other factors, among them is the perception that the Yeltsin era –
a period of liberal reforms – was characterized by dismal setbacks
and even “national disgrace.” Russians remember this period as a
time when their country lost its geopolitical role in the world.
Finally, there is the painful perception by the ethnic majority of
a demographic crisis which has reduced the total number of ethnic
Russians nationwide, as well as their proportion of the total
population. And yet, the increasing hope for a “strong arm” and the
traditionalization of the Russian consciousness are, in my view,
connected primarily with the Chechen war, which is a product of
imperial policy and, at the same time, a major factor in its

The Chechen war has largely determined the approach to and the
set of instruments for the solution of the entire range of regional
and ethnic problems, as well as the new style and methods of
Russian policy. Above all, these include a method of pressure (not
necessarily military in nature, yet firm) for keeping the regional
leaders obedient to the Kremlin. The recent law On the Formation of
State Power Bodies in the Entities of the Russian Federation
pursues the same goal. The Chechen war has stimulated the present
reform of regional policy and provided a moral legitimization of
it. Thus, it was only logical that the boundaries of the federal
districts – the first element of this reform – coincided with those
of military districts: five out of the first seven envoys of the
president to those districts were generals and the other two
(Kazantsev and Pulikovsky) had taken part in the Chechen war. Since
we are presently engaged in two counterterrorist operations – one
in Chechnya and the other across the whole of Russia, it is only
natural that the same figures may be involved in both campaigns. On
the whole, the war has brought about an unprecedented increase in
the influence of the security agencies within the political
spectrum. In comparison with Yeltsin’s epoch, for example, the
percentage of scientists in the incumbent power structures has
decreased by almost threefold, while the percentage of military
personnel has increased by the same amount.
As we can see, the basic mechanisms of the imperial system have
been activated, but will they make the governance of Russia any
more effective?


The “war against terrorism” being waged on Chechen battlefields
has only caused terrorism to spill over from that embattled region
into the whole of Russia. Neighboring Ingushetia has been a
permanent front of the Chechen war since 2004. Other neighbors of
Chechnya – Dagestan, Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria –
are increasingly becoming battlefields in the struggle against
armed terrorism.

The “war against terrorism,” and the consequential state reforms
it has prompted, has not brought any more order to Russia. The
Kremlin has made its choice – instead of authoritative but
inconvenient regional leaders, it has begun to place them with weak
but obedient ones. However, such leaders cannot ensure stability in
their regions. This has been proven by numerous excesses connected
with various attempts by the security agencies to liquidate groups
of radical Islamists in Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria
and Karachai-Cherkessia. The network of armed fundamentalist
organizations has acquired an unprecedented scope.
Most of the unrest mentioned above is occurring in Russia’s
periphery populated by ethnic minorities. At the same time,
however, the rest of the country is experiencing little
ethno-political stabilization as well. What is usually taken for
stability in reality is only a continuously changing form of
instability. In the early 1990s, ethno-political activity was
demonstrated mostly by ethnic minorities. Suffice it to recall the
“parade of sovereignties” in the numerous ethnic republics of the
Russian Federation. Since the end of the 1990s, however, this
activity and anxiety has largely been manifested by representatives
of Russia’s ethnic majority. The number of members of extremist
organizations, for example, that support slogans such as “Russia
for Russians” has dramatically increased over the last ten years.
According to official estimates by law-enforcement agencies, these
organizations now have over 30,000 members, while independent
experts put their numbers at 50,000 to 60,000. An even more
alarming sign is that the above slogan is supported, in one way or
another, by almost 60 percent of Russia’s population.

The persistent myth about the present stability is largely due
to the changing face of ethno-political activity: Russian
extremists are not recognized as such by ethnic Russians, while the
authorities and the general public take no notice of them (“How can
you call them extremists? They are Russian fellows, our
In the 1990s, nationalist movements were more politicized than
ethnicized, and their leaders during the “parade of sovereignties”
voiced their complaints against the authorities, rather than people
of a different nationality. Today, however, it is more often the
people of a different nationality rather than the authorities who
are labeled as the “enemy.”

The authorities of some territories in southern Russia, above
all, in the Krasnodar Region, actively exploit the ethnicization of
social and political problems: they have borrowed nationalistic
slogans from organizations like the Russian National Unity to win
political support by displacing discontent to “internal” and
“external” enemies. The growth of social and economic problems in
the country will almost inevitably make the federal authorities
more inclined to use this simple method of shunting


Initially, the reanimation of the empire was void of any ethnic
coloring and rested on the slogan: “The authorities are the only
Europeans in Russia, so don’t hinder their efforts to make you
happy.” Surprisingly, however, it rather quickly turned out that
the newly built power vertical not only was unable to solve old
problems, but it also generated new ones. The arbitrariness of the
officials increased, as did popular discontent. Pensioners were the
first to take to the streets to protest against the ill-prepared
reform which replaced non-monetary social benefits with cash
payments. The senior citizens proved to be not only the most
destitute, but also the most fearless part of the population. The
pensioners’ protests may soon be joined by other, less fearless
groups of society, including businesspeople who are increasingly
suffering from the arbitrariness of officials. Yet, this does not
mean that the myth about a “good empire” is no longer applicable.
Most likely, it will only be modified by providing it with an
ethnic tinge.

An ethnic version of the “good-czar, good-boyars” model,
expressed by the formula: “Power will immediately become people’s
power as soon as it is made Russian” is more attractive emotionally
and less vulnerable logically than a non-ethnic version. Today’s
Russia is completely dominated by a primordial understanding of
ethnicity as a natural, almost racial, feature – representatives of
one or another ethnos are “bad” or “good” due simply to their
nature. Rational reasoning is powerless against such views; that is
why there is a high probability for the implementation of the
second model – ethnicized, national-imperial or national-statist –
of strengthening the power vertical in Russia.

The ethnicization of the imperial model may cause a shift of
accents in building an image of “ethnic aliens.” The authorities
cannot encourage anti-Chechen sentiments in society and, at the
same time, drag Chechnya into Russia. The authorities will not gain
from the growth of anti-Islamic sentiments, since Muslims make up a
majority in several constituent republics of the Russian
Federation. This factor may alter patterns of xenophobia and – most
importantly – spark a growth of anti-Semitism. This is the oldest
and most traditional image of an enemy; moreover, it is a
convenient outgrowth as the empire is grappling with crisis: the
kindling of anti-Semitism will not provoke a growth of separatism
as there are no compact settlements of Jews in Russia; this
includes Birobidzhan, the administrative center of the formal
Jewish Autonomous Republic. Furthermore, anti-Semitism does not
split various nationalistic movements; on the contrary, it serves
to consolidate them. Anti-Semitism in Islamic fundamentalism is no
weaker than in Russian fundamentalism. Finally, and most
importantly, anti-Semitism corresponds with the anti-oligarchic
sentiments of the majority of the population.

There are other forms of ethnic nationalism that are quite
harmless to the imperial order and actually serve to strengthen it
for some time. This may surface for example, as mistrust – and
other forms of negative attitudes – toward foreigners whose
governments have assumed a policy of integration into the European
Community. Sociological studies conducted in the last few months
have revealed an increase in phobias toward Ukrainians, Georgians
and Moldovans.
The political exploitation of mass ethnic prejudices can become an
instrument for transforming the existing political regime. There
are at least two possible scenarios for Russia’s transformation
into a national-imperial system. According to the first variant,
the incumbent authorities will be partially renewed through the
infiltration of political figures with strongly pronounced
national-imperial views. The ruling regime will then discard the
remainder of its liberal drapery and start building, with an
ever-increasing zeal, the power vertical, relying on
anti-oligarchic and statist rhetoric.

Under the second variant, the present regime will be replaced by
radical Russian nationalists who have already drawn up and widely
publicized their program for restoring the Russian Empire in order
to “regenerate the Russian nation.” Their leaders call themselves
“the third force” which will replace Communists and democrats (they
assign the incumbent regime to the second category). Nationalists
also describe the present federal authorities as anti-national, but
they understand this not as the regime’s estrangement from the
nation as a civil society, but as “racial defects” of some members
of the government. Such an interpretation meets with much more
understanding and approval of the population than discussions about
a civil nation. Whereas the ethnic nationalism of minorities is, as
a rule, of an anti-imperial nature, the ethno-nationalism of the
majority can be used for the restoration of the imperial system, as
it was used in Germany’s Third Reich. The theorists of Russian
national imperialism now use that experience. The present power
vertical is not enough for them; they want to combine it with a
vertical of peoples, ruled by a state-forming people (like the
“true Aryans” in the Third Reich). Incidentally, if there emerges a
new, racist empire in Russia, it will be the third one to have
existed – after the czarist and Soviet empires.


How stable would such an empire be today? It may last long
enough to let everyone plumb the depths of misfortune and further
trim the already tiny sprouts of liberal opposition. On a
historical scale, however, such an empire would be doomed to an
early death. In the first of the above variants, it would decay
slowly and bloodlessly. In the second variant, it would die fast
and, most likely, with many victims. But in any case, not a single
political force in Russia now has enough instruments or resources
to marshal the society and lead it toward one or another goal.
Fear, as a mobilization resource, was exhausted way back in the
1960s, as was demonstrated by the events in Novocherkassk [a
workers’ uprising in 1962 in protest against price hikes. The
uprising was brutally suppressed by the authorities. – Ed.]. The
recent pensioner protests came as one more proof that society has
lost its fear.

There has been yet another change of late reflected by the
bureaucrats – the main executor of the imperial project. In the
Stalin era, proprietors were fought by social groups from the
opposite class. Today, bureaucrats no longer combat private
property; they fight for its redistribution in their own favor. The
modernization of Chile during the times of Pinochet cannot serve as
an example for Russia. In Chile, generals of bourgeois origin
fought against the leftists. In Russia, generals of leftist origin
fight against the bourgeoisie. Russian officialdom is being
degenerated by corruption as if it were afflicted with leprosy.
Some officials manage to combine nationalistic ideas with pragmatic
cupidity. For example, the level of xenophobia among the police is
higher than among other social groups; this factor, however, does
not prevent the police from providing protection to ethnic criminal
groups and covering up illegal migration.

The servile mentality of the Russian people, although still
relevant, has been strongly reduced. People still readily believe
that “the state must care about us,” but they no longer want to be
in the service of the state and the sovereign. They still have
ambitions of citizens of a “great power,” but they no longer wish
to make any effort to achieve them – especially at the cost of
their life.

Empires can break up without obvious signs of separatism in
their provinces. Most of the former Soviet republics showed no sign
of separatism, yet the Soviet Union collapsed. Empires resemble a
wheel without a rim. All parts of this structure are held together
only through the center, and any overload there will cause the
entire structure to come apart.

Russia is not doomed to disintegration. Yet, its preservation
requires federalization, which, in turn, will take extraordinary
political efforts of all anti-imperial forces. Also, there must
emerge new remarkable figures and fresh ideas among those forces.
For the time being, however, such developments seem highly

* * *

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the peculiarities of
Russia’s transformation and the essence of its unique development
can be best understood from the position of its imperial past and
present. Judging by the experience of the East European countries,
the motivation to “escape from the empire” was one of the main
reasons for their success with democracy and modernization. It has
helped them survive shock-therapy reforms and prevented the very
possibility of reviving Communist ideas there. In contrast, Russia
has no such natural barrier to the revival of imperial
traditionalism. The larger part of its territory is the former
metropolitan country, in which the entire set of imperial
sentiments can easily revive: from the perception of the country as
a superpower to hopes for imperial order.
Russia cannot run away from the empire as it would from an external
enemy; the empire complex can only be removed through its own
efforts. In my view, this process will proceed slowly in Russia –
until all hopes for a “strong arm” and a “wise czar” die a natural