Staunton, June 14 – The fact that Russians devote so little attention to their independence day even as they devote so much to Victory Day, Vadim Shtepa says, highlights a fundamental reality: Russia may not be a failed state according to the classic definitions, but it is a failed country, one that has not been able to break itself away from its imperial past.
In 1990, when the RSFSR declared its sovereignty relative to the USSR, the leaders of that republic and some of the population understood this action in what might be called “the ‘American’ sense, as an escape from the status of an imperial colony.” But other Russians “preserved an imperial mentality” (rufabula.com/articles/2016/06/14/day-of-a-failed-country).
This divide in the population and the failure of the Russian leadership to resolve it in favor of a post-imperial model meant that Russians began to ask what they had declared their independence from, even adding “from themselves,” and that the country failed to make this break and instead followed “a neo-imperial evolution.”
At roughly the same time the RSFSR adopted its sovereignty declaration, Shtepa continues, “all the remaining republics of the USSR” did the same. “But there was an essential difference in that they really sought to build new independent states, even if they declared as the Baltic countries did that they were ‘restoring their independence.’”
Yeltsin and his government “also loved to talk about ‘a new Russia,’ but already in the first post-Soviet years,” the Karelian analyst living in Estonia says, what they did and even said “recalled the old pre-revolutionary empire,” with the key moment being the suppression of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 and the adoption of an extreme presidentialist constitution.
If in 1990 Yeltsin had told Russia’s republics and regions to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” in 1994, Shtepa notes, the Russian president “unleashed a typically imperial colonial war against Chechnya.” And at the same time, he restored ever more imperial symbols and titles from the tsarist past.“The Putin era has led this restoration to its local conclusion,” with the Kremlin viewing the Russian Federation as “a direct continuation of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.” In such a state, the words of the 1990 declaration on sovereignty have little meaning, showing that Russians have not been able to build “’a new country.’”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned against this in his 1973 essay, “Remorse and Self-Restraint” (vehi.net/samizdat/izpodglyb/05.html) before falling victim to the very thing he had said Russians must avoid: an obsession with their special role in history and the centrality of the empire in their lives.
The Russian powers that be today may not declare this ideology “so openly” but they “in fact are attached to it. Putin in his speeches willingly cites the ‘greatness’ of Russian history both tsarist and soviet.” And this set of ideas has even been codified by Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky (pravmir.ru/vladimir-medinskiy-raznitsa-vo-mneniyah-o-revolyutsii-1917-goda-povod-dlya-dialoga-a-ne-konflikta-video-1/).
As a result of this imperialist approach, Shtepa argues, Russia increasingly celebrates its past wars; and despite its self-proclaimed “’anti-fascism,’” it in fact pursues “many typically fascist principles,” including not only the cult of military victory and expansionism but the Nazi-like pursuit of unifying all ethnic Russians in one state.
The Karelian analyst concludes by pointing to Fedor Krasheninnikov’s dystopian novel, “After Russia,” which suggests that “the Russian Federation will share the fate of the disintegrating Soviet Union” and for many of the same reasons. (On his ideas, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/04/can-russia-however-much-sub-divided.html.)
Today, both Krasheninnikov and Shtepa say, “Russian regions do not have even that formal self-standingness which the republics in the USSR enjoyed. The Putin regime of ‘the power vertical’ gives the impression of a harsh one, but in reality, this construction is very unstable because it opposes the power and the citizenry.”
Shtepa says he is not prepared to make the kind of sweeping conclusions that Krasheninnikov draws, but he does suggest that after the next turn of the historical wheel, it is entirely possible that “the very word ‘Russia’ will really disappear as disappeared at one time the names ‘Roman Empire,’ ‘Byzantium,’ and ‘the German Reich.’”
And that is because, he continues, “unfortunately, the Russian Federation after 1990 has not been able to build a new contemporary country.” Instead, the very name of the country “inevitably forces its residents to think in the imperial categories of the past” and sets them and their country at odds with the outside world.