Monday, August 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Empires Don’t Become Federations; They Only Collapse, Russian Regionalist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 19 – Speaking to a Moscow conference on “What Kind of Federation Do We Need?” one of the Russia’s leading regionalists says the answer is “none at all” because “empires [like the tsarist empire and Soviet Union in the past and the Russian Federation now] are not transformed into federations; they can only fall apart.”

            Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a senior instructor at the University of St. Petersburg and a frequent commentator on federalism, made this argument at a June 7th meeting organized by the Liberal Mission and chaired by Igor Klyamkin. The transcript of the session, however, was posted online only at the end of last week (

            When political freedom spreads across an empire, it disintegrates; it doesn’t transform itself. When perestroika appeared in the USSR, some portions that had been under Moscow’s control exercised their prerogative and escaped. Others, Kotsyubinsky says, which didn’t do so now will at the first opportunity in the future.

            Despite what many think, “federalism is not the most effective means of soft and conflict-free disintegration.”  A far better way is the formation of a confederation based on a “top to bottom” reorganization “along the principles of a parliamentary republic,” the St. Petersburg scholar says.

            Speaking of that city, he stresses that “Petersburg is not Russia,” just as Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Novgorod, the Urals, Siberia, the Far East and the Kuban are not Russian either. “Perhaps Russia in a narrow sense is Muscovia – that is Moscow plus those territories which historically identify themselves with Russia.”  But there aren’t many.

            According to Kotsyubinsky, Muscovia’s size is approximately equal to the area in which people during the 1970s took electric trains to the USSR capital in order to buy sausages.”  Those people “can certainly consider themselves authentic Russians.”  But all the other territories are ones that Moscow took by force and will ultimately fall away from it.

            The residents of all these other places, he continues, are “simply awaiting the time when they finally will cast aside the imperial exoskeleton which has confined them over the course of centuries and again become flourishing, independent and self-sufficient countries at the regional level.”

            This reality, Kotsyubinsky says, is reflected in the way in which “certain Moscow regionalists” talk. They speak of Moscow and “the provinces,” a terminology which shows that “Moscovia alas cannot be anything but a vertically integrated system.”
Petersburg is “not Russia” because it is “not a city built by Peter I.  This is a region which existed and developed for many centuries before the arrival of Muscovite rulers which after this began to call themselves Petersburg empires and will exist after the Russian Federation disintegrates. That is, after it follows the same path which the Soviet Union followed during perestroika.”

            Petersburgers admit “the Russian stage of this history” was beyond doubt “the brightest. “But this in no way means that the entire meaning [of their region] is exhausted by this 200-year period.”  Indeed, that period has been effectively ended by the departure of the Russian capital to Moscow, a move that converted Petersburg into “’a great city with the fate of an oblast capital.’”

St. Petersburg has suffered terribly from Moscow’s rule. It lacks a serious mass media, “there is no public opinion or sense that we are masters of our own regional fate.”  That is especially infuriating because “Petersburgers have no small civic potential,” as the situation during the brief perestroika years showed.

Some in St. Petersburg now think they can be co-rulers of the empire alongside Moscow, but “as soon as the next stage of the new imperial semi-collapse comes, Petersburg will see the activation of the European half of its consciousness as this happened during perestroika times” and the city and its region “will not remain under Moscow for a second!”

Once that happens, the city and its surrounding area will “conceive of itself as a Baltic region, a link in the chain of Baltic countries of the great European region which begins with Norway and ends with Denmark.   This ring will pass through Petersburg which today is artificially cut out of this context.”

Already at present, Kotsyubinsky says, Helsinki is “the near abroad” for Petersburgers, a place one goes for vacations, while Moscow is “the far abroad” they go to only because of the requirements of their jobs.  Petersburg is “a Baltic city, a North European city, and not a Muscovite-Russian one.”

Petersburgers only have to wait for that “hour when the empire again will demonstrate its incapacity to survive as this happened in Gorbachev’s time.”  According to Kotsyubinsky, “this moment is not far away.”

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