Russia: A Special Imperial Way?

8 february 2006

Alexei Arbatov is 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).

Resume: 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?

© "Russia in Global Affairs". № 1, January - March 2006

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 known.

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 question.

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 business.    
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 burden.

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 1970s.

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 countries.

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 politics.

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 view.

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 bring.

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 industries.

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.

Last updated 8 february 2006, 23:50

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