Staunton, September 14 – Many speak about “the imperial curse” Russia has suffered from because of its enormous size and the consequences of which not only are very much in evidence now but likely to be for some time to come, Moscow commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev says.
But size alone does not define that “curse.” Instead, three special features of the Russian imperial experience do, each of which now in “ricochet fashion” has come back to haunt the residents of that enormous space and can even be said to have played a key role in driving it into a dead end (afterempire.info/2017/09/14/damn/).
First of all, the analyst says, there is “the factor of time.” If one takes the gradual colonization of Northwestern Rus by the Kievan state in the tenth century, the process has been going on “more than a thousand years.” If one dates it from the beginning of the 16th century, “no less than five hundred.”
Even the second shorter period is unprecedented in modern times and is equaled only by the Roman Empire in classical ones. But the expansion was not only long but “practically constant.” It simply didn’t stop for any length of time during which the country might have consolidated itself.
“Therefore,” Inozemtsev says, “it is not so much the size of the territory as the unintending character of its increase that was Russia’s visiting card.” Other empires had expanded in one direction while contracting in another. Russia didn’t have that experience and so the post-imperial stress syndrome it is feeling now is especially severe.
Second, there is the factor of direction. Most sea-based empires evolve quickly, he points out, while continental empires “can exist for thousands of years but in relatively stable borders.” In this regard, “Russia is an exception: having borrowed many Mongol practices for ruling space, it expanded precisely into territories located far from seaways.”
The idea of “a heartland,” which the British invented but which Russians have been guided by to this day, has played an evil trick on the Russian people: Today, “about 70 percent of GDP is created on territories less than 100 miles from sea coasts.” These form “less than ten percent” of the land surface of the planet but a far greater share of Russia’s space.
According to Inozemtsev, “Russia formed its own identity in the form of endless expansion” without much regard for acquiring useful territory but rather focused on gaining territory as such. As a result, its leaders have assumed that their task is “to struggle with nature rather than to take its special features into consideration.”
As a result, Russia has lost not only a geopolitical cold war but a banal one with cold as such, “having constructed enterprises and cities in completely unsuitable locations and condemned itself to ineffectiveness without end.” That in turn, the analyst says, makes Russia “a completely uncontemporary country which can hardly be reformed.”
And third, Russians have viewed their expansion as something beyond discussion: the price of the acquisition of new territories is something that can’t be discussed; and the price or even benefit of losing others is something that can’t be borne, as the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Crimean Anschluss show.
“Politicians and the people in Russia have not been interested and are not interested now by the economic and political losses they will be subject to by the latest expansion of the country. For that goal, almost all are practically prepared to do anything.” And losses are inevitably treated as treason. That allows the Kremlin to manipulate Russians with ease.
In Inozemtsev’s opinion, this likely means that “Russia has no chances to transform its imperial essence and become a ‘normal’ country,” however desirable that would be” for its own people and the world. At present that puts Russia on the outs with the rest of the world, but the situation may change in the future.
And that means, the analyst continues, that “even if Russia will not change its ‘imperial’ position at some moment it may be in relative demand,” in the same way that even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. Indeed, given the small chance that Russia can change, the real question about the Russian Empire is whether and when the rest of the world will.