Saturday, January 13, 2018

Could Regionalism Save Russia – And Should It?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 13 – Twenty-seven years ago today, Soviet troops under orders from Mikhail Gorbachev shot and killed 14 peaceful demonstrators at the television tower in Vilnius in a failed attempt to block Lithuania’s drive for the recovery of its de facto independence, a goal it achieved less than nine months later.

            Also in August 1991, Estonia and Latvia recovered the independence that had been taken from them by Stalin; and four months later, the 12 Soviet republics became independent countries in their own right. For many of these nations, this marked a great achievement; for many Russians, it has become the defining fear of the last quarter century.

            Vladimir Putin has played on those fears to justify the resuscitation of a brutal and hyper-centralized dictatorship that many Russians have come to believe, at the Kremlin’s insistence, is the only way their country can be maintained in one piece. But that raises a question that few want to ask: if Russia can be held together only in that way, should it be?

            To ask that question is really to ask two questions at the same time: First, is there any way the world’s last remaining empire can be changed so that it can be democratic and free in its current borders? And, second, even if such changes are possible in part, should they preclude the final demise of the empire begun in 1917 and 1991?

            Many came to recognize that a significantly liberalized Soviet Union was a contradiction in terms. Roughly half of the population consisted of non-Russians, and a majority of these nations wanted and were pursuing independence. Only repression greater than that Gorbachev was ready or able to mete out could have blocked their departure.

            But with the departure of the formerly occupied Baltic countries and the 11 non-Russian union republics, many view Russia as being in an entirely different situation: Ethnic Russians form three-quarters of the population of the Russian Federation, and the non-Russians within it have less desire for and ability to pursue independence.

            Chechnya tried by force of arms to escape from the remaining imperial state; but its size and location – and the attitude of Western governments that any border changes were unacceptable – led to its suppression and transformation into Russian region more imperial even than the emperor.

            Other non-Russian republics, most prominently Tatarstan but also Buryatia and Tuva, sought greater autonomy or even eventual independence by more peaceful means; but they have been checkmated it would seem by Putin’s gradual suppression of their rights and by a singular lack of support from abroad for their anti-colonial struggles.

            As a result, there has been a shift in attention away from the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation to regions within it.  (For a discussion of this trend, see the current author’s “Regionalism is the Nationalism of the Next Russian Revolution” (in Russian) at

            Now, in a new 42-page pamphlet, Is Russia Possible After the Empire? (in Russian) Vadim Shtepa, the Karelian theorist of regionalism who as an émigré in Estonian currently edits the After Empire portal, has offered a thoughtful discussion of the relationship between regionalism, empire and freedom.

            As reviewer Pavel Mezerin points out, Shtepa prepared this book for the Fourth Free Russia forum which took place in Vilnius December 3-4 and offered his view that regionalist projects are capable of becoming “the basis of the organization of the post-imperial space of the last empire not to have fallen apart” (

            Russia really is “the last empire of the planet,” the regionalist says, representing “a synthesis” of the three criteria of imperial states: a large polyethnic space, hyper-centralization of power in one place and the treatment of the rest as “colonized ‘provinces,’” and a continuing striving to expand at the expense of other countries.

            Shtepa is certainly right, Mezerin says, that “the state formation called ‘the Russian Fedeeration is the direct political successor of the USSR, the Russian empire, the Muscovite principality, and the Golden Horde.” And he is also correctthat unlike the other countries which emerged from an imperial matrix, Russia remains “stuck in one and it is stuck in Russia.”

            “The majority of world empires ceased their existence in the 20th century,” Shtepa writes; “an empire was preserved only in Russia paradoxically because of the Bolshevik revolution. The Bolsheviks having struggle against autocracy later created a regime which conformed to the basic principles of empire.”

            In 1917, the regionalist says, things didn’t appear to be headed in that direction. Instead, the Russian Empire headed for the dustbin of history just as the other empires around the world were.  But the Soviet system proved to be “a bestial imperial-Bolshevik reincarnation of  Muscovite-Horde medievalism.”

            In 1991, the empire came apart again; but tragically, Moscow is “today again trying to become an empire. The present post-Soviet Moscow-centricity in Russia has become even more radical than it was in the USSR.  If the Soviet republics enjoyed at least nominal self-administration, today, all Russian regions are inside a harsh political and economic vertical.”

            Shtepa argues that the way out of this imperial dead end is “the development of regionalism” by allowing the regions to govern themselves.  That is the only way, he suggests, that “any real changes in Russian politics can begin.” All federal subjects must have the chance to become republics

            That will allow the regions the chance to “overcome the unifying ‘imperial culture.” Indeed, it may be the only way they can. Europe with its Euro-regions is a useful but imperfect for Russia model because there has never been a Europe with an imperial center against which others have defined themselves.

            Shtepa is in fact pessimistic about the future: The Russian Federation “does not want to become genuinely new and post-imperial but proclaims itself the continuation of the former Russian Empire. As a result, the more it wants to be an empire today, the lower is the chance that the post-imperial republics tomorrow will want to be called ‘Russian.’” 

            That is almost certainly true: If all regions were free, they would not all remain Russian. But there may very well be a place for regionalism in a much smaller state centered on Moscow that may eventually emerge. It would be tragic if regionalism incorrectly understood and applied were used to put a brake on this larger process for that would discredit a very valuable phenomenon.

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