Staunton, March 12 – Russian presidential candidate Kseniya Sobchak notes that Vladimir Putin has often said that the disintegration of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” But she reasonably asks why that is so and why so many Russians continue to suffer from “phantom pains regarding the Soviet Union.”
On the Znak portal today, she suggests that one of the reasons for that is the efforts of the Putin regime to convince Russians that “the Soviet Union and Russia are almost one and the same thing and that one must put a equals sign between them” (znak.com/2018-03-12/kseniya_sobchak_kak_sdelat_chtoby_rossiyu_ne_tolko_boyalis_no_i_uvazhali).
But one needed and shouldn’t do that, Sobchak argues. What happened in 1991 was not the collapse of “a successful European power” but rather the coming apart of “the last European empire” which is what the Soviet Union was.”
“If one looks through the centuries, the history of Russia turns out to be not as unique as some try to present it,” she continues. Russia’s colonization efforts paralleled those of European powers first toward the East where Siberia was a colony and then to the North Caucasus and Central Asia which became colonies as well.
Besides the fact that the Europeans built their colonies overseas and Russians did theirs in adjoining territories, the only real difference between them is that “the European empires fell apart after World War II while the Russian empire 20 years before that had been transformed into a Soviet one.”
That happened, Sobchak says, “very simply.” The new Soviet government was able to “buy off the national minorities” by promising them funding and the defense of their national identities “in exchange for support for the Bolshevik regime.” The non-Russian elites held their peoples in check just as they are doing in present-day Chechnya and Daghestan.
According to the opposition candidate, “this was a bomb introduced by the worthless nationality policy of Joseph Stalin that blew up under the Soviet Union in 1991.” Thus, the pains the Russian elite feels now about that event are not from the loss in the cold war but simply from a “banal” loss of empire.
Is it appropriate to “dream about ‘a big Russia’ if we are not in a position to put the ‘small one’ in order? And “this ‘small Russia,’ by the way extends from Vladivostok to Narva. In it live 203 nationalities, peoples and ethnoses who speak 150 languages. How to preserve this multiplicity and administer it is a non-trivial task.”
In 1991, Sobchak recalls, “Russia lost enormous territories in which Russians were in a minority.” Ethnic Russians form 80 percent of the Russian Federation as against 50 percent in the USSR. Things ought to be better for the Russians and the others than they are, she argues.
“In certain subjects of the Rsusian Federation, the ethnic Russian population since Soviet times has declined essentially – for example, in Ingushetia, ethnic Russians form only 0.8 percent of the population and in Chechnya 1.9 percent. In other regions, the reverse is true.” Russians sent from Moscow rule over non-Russians.
As a result, she says, “a situation has arisen when everyone is upset at someone else and all are dissatisfied. If these arguments become a nationality question as this apparently is happening in Daghestan, then the situation could become explosive” [emphasis supplied], especially as Moscow imposes rulers and the opinions of the local populations are ignored.
What then should be done? Sobchak asks rhetorically. “The problems are so sharp and deep that the entire system of relations between the center and the regions must be reviewed. Russia must in fact become a federal state.” There must be serious decentralization of power and of popular responsibility as well.
“In Russia, this isn’t happening and not because the regions lack vital and healthy forces but because the federal center intentionally has taken for itself the process of taking decisions, the most valuable resources and finances as well.” The regions need to be able to elect their leaders and their reps to the Federation Council, which must become a real upper house.
Such “a liberation of the regions,” Sobchak continues, “is also important because the independence of the regions is the most powerful counterweight to the imperial mentality survivals of which as before remain strong in our people,” all the more so because of the “imperial rhetoric” used by many Moscow leaders and media.
“Having given the regions freedom including on language and cultural matters,” Sobchak says, “we will finally pull the ground out from under the nationalists of all kinds and show on own that Russia is not a nation: it is a unique regional civilization open for various peoples” [emphasis supplied].
Russians should be “proud of their large and diverse country” rather than running off after “territorial expansion,” as many still do because “this virus is inside us to this day.” Instead, Russians should be focused on making the population of the territory they have already prosperous and free.
“The national idea of Russia in the 21st century must be the idea of development not of expansion.”
“Today Russia is feared but it isn’t respected not only in the West but also by people within its own borders.” Hundreds of thousands refuse to remain there, and hundreds of thousands more are ready to leave when they can. If Russia becomes a land of opportunity, they won’t want to go anywhere else.
“When Russia ‘returned’ Crimea, one young Ukrainian poetess wrote a poem about Ukraine and Russia” in which she said “’you are enormous but we are great.’” Ukraine has not yet shown its greatness, but Russia can if it recognizes that “size and greatness really are different things. Today it is important for us to be not bigger but better, more effective and more tolerant.”
And Sobchak concludes: “the key to the unity and flourishing of Russia is precisely in this and not in the senseless expansion of territory.”