Saturday, August 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: If Yeltsin Had Divided Russia into Seven Republics…

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 17 – Had Boris Yeltsin implemented his plan to divide the Russian Republic into seven units, Russia would have overcome its imperial pretensions, its authoritarianism, and its almost inevitable anti-Western attitudes, according to one of the country’s leading advocates of regionalist movements.

            In his blog, Aleksey Shiropayev says the collapse of the Soviet Union of course affected Russian political mentality but that “the empire remained, albeit in the changed format of the Russian Federation.” And as a result, so too did “the entire complex of mass myths” about how Russia has to be organized (

            “The single serious change in this mental construct,” he argues, “was connected with the fact of the independence of Ukraine or more precisely with the forced necessity of recognizing Ukraine as ANOTHER country.”  That alone constitutes “a very strong blow” to traditional Russian understandings about the unqualified value of empire.”

            Russians have had to recognize, Shiropayev argues, that “an empire is not eternal, that it may not only grow (‘something normal’) but contract,” and that has been a shock, generating among some “imperial-revaunchist attitudes” and among others a sense that “their historical fate can be other than imperial.”

            Those in the latter camp – and Shiropayev acknowledges that it is still “relatively small” – are prepared for “a further transformation” because they don’t see the end of the USSR as a horrific event or the future regionalization of the Russian Federation as “something catastrophic.”

            For a brief time, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was on their side. He proposed creating in place of the Russian Federation seven Russian republics. Had he done so, he continues, “Russians would have found themselves in a completely new geopolitical format and that in turn would have led to a change in all the parameters of their self-consciousness.”

            Such “a regionalization of the Russian ethnos would have led to the gradual erosion of a single unified Russian imperial consciousness and to the beginning of the formation of a whole series of regional-sub-ethnic self-consciousness with completely distinct (and above all non-imperial) system of values and a distinct cultural-historical myth.”

Had Yeltsin succeeded in that project, “the Russian ethnos both in reality and by its self-consciousness would have ceased to be imperial.”  Even more, it would have shifted from attachment to “an abstract ‘great motherland’” to a specific territory whose residents would view that as their own and as something to cherish and develop.

And at the same time, “the regionalization of the Russian people would have inevitably called forth a process of a common mental perestroika and the re-assessment of values as a result,” with an ensuring “collapse of the entire complex of imperial myths” about the need for “a strong centralized state” and “a tsar” and about the inevitability of hostility to the West.

            Such regionalization would also have called into question the obsession with the “Great Victory” of 1945, a myth which “to an enormous extent has lost its system-forming significant in independent Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova,” where the way this myth has been promoted by Moscow has been cast in doubt.

Under such an arrangement, “Russian regions as they proceeded along path of a non-imperial creation would have required their own history and their own heroes and they would have beyond doubt found them.”  And they also would have created “their own culture, one conditioned by regional and sub-ethnic distinctions.”

Despite the fears of some, this division of the Russian Federation into eight republics would “in no way” have led to the dismemberment of the Russian ethnos. Instead, these republics would have had close economic, political and cultural ties based on mutual agreement and real federalism.

Yeltsin undoubtedly could have carried out this project, but he was stopped both by “chimerical fears” and by “an apparat-nomenklatura striving to remain a Kremlin tsar,” something that “would have been impossible in the case of the radical federalist perestroika of the country.”

After raising the issue of seven Russian republics in the early 1990s, Yeltsin began to back away from it, suppressing the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, destroying the Urals Republic and removing its leaders, and at the end of 1994 launching the military “’pacification’” of Chechnya.

            Had Yeltsin realized his seven republic plan, Russian reality today would be quite different, but in many ways, the first Russian president was trapped because he “sat in the Kremlin” and wanted to be like his predecessors “’the gatherer of lands.’” Had he lived in a more modest place like Vladimir or Yaroslavl or Novgorod, he could have behaved differently.

“Objectively,” Shiropayev concludes, “the situation is moving toward one in which Russia will cease to be an empire and we Russians will cease to be an imperial people.” That will land us in new waters and we will either learn to swim or we will drown, “change or disappear in a banal manner,” having left behind materials for future archeologists, historians and psychoanalysts.


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