Saturday, December 9, 2017

Free Russia Forum for First Time Focuses on Regionalism and Federalism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – It is often said that “Russian liberalism ends with Ukraine” and that Russian liberals, many of whom are Moscow residents, are just as imperialistic and centralist as their opponents.  All too often those charges have been true, but the Fourth Forum of Free Russia that took place in Vilnius last weekend marks a breakthrough.

            In the previous forums, “the theme of regionalism and federalism were discussed in individual sessions, but now this issue became central and predominant and was taken up by the leading speakers as well, Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the After Empire portal who attended the meeting, says (

            According to Shtepa, this development shows “the importance of the issue” and a spreading awareness among the Russian liberal operation that only “the transformation of Russia into a real federation where residents will in the first instance think about the development of their own regions can become a reliable counterweight to imperial policies and propaganda.”

            He suggests that some of the focus on this issue reflects the fact that the meeting took place on the centenary of the 1917 revolution; but what is more important is that the participants at the meeting understood that de-Sovietization in the case of Russia is “organically combined” with “overcoming ‘the imperial curse’ Russia has long suffered under.

            “At one point it seemed that the Bolsheviks had destroyed the Russian Empire but then they built another more totalitarian one, the USSR. And at the beginning of the 1990s, it also seemed to many that ‘independent Russia’ had forever foresworn imperial ambitions; but today we observe their new awakening.”

            What was especially important is that participants did not simply mouth slogans but made arguments. Philosopher Igor Chubais said that in his view, “the gathering of lands around Moscow’ was a progressive phenomenon,” but economist Andrey Illarionov said it was important to remember that these were “foreign lands,” not genuinely Russian ones.

            Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabayev argued that “one should not ascribe the imperial policy only to this or that tsar or leader because behind it stands certain mental qualities of the people.” But political émigré Daniil Konstantinov responded that “in his view, the Russian people is the main victim of the empire.”

            Others, like Aleksandr Skobov and Gary Kasparov, argued for the reformation of Russia as a voluntary federation lest it remain simply a continuation of the USSR on a smaller territory and spark new efforts to reconstitute the entire formation.

            “Of course,” Shtepa says, “today, in advance of the latest ‘Putin elections,’ reflections about Russian de-imperialization and federalization may seem somewhat fantastic and far from reality.  People typically suppose that the current status quo is ‘eternal.’”  But Russian history suggests that there may be “unexpected surprises.”

            As Lenin observed from his Swiss exile in January 1917, “we, the members of the older generation, won’t live to see the revolution.”  Eleven months later, he was in power in Petrograd. 

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