Saturday, March 2, 2019

A Free Russian Empire is a Contradiction in Terms, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 1 – Russia cannot be free as long as it remains a centralized empire, Vadim Shtepa says, because “’free’ empires do not exist.” If Russia is to become free, it must either move toward a federal or confederal system or dissolve into a multiplicity of Russias that will then decide what their relations with each other may be.

            The regionalist theorist, who edits the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal, makes these points in the course of a critical commentary on three recent articles by Dimitry Savvin, a Riga-based Russian nationalist, who argues that a unitary Russia based on Russian nationalism is in fact a precondition for a Russian nation state (

            In the first of the three articles Shtepa considers, Savvin argues that Russia needs “exactly the same synthesis of democracy and nationalism as the East Europeans … employed at the end of the 1980s” (, discussed at

            If the East Europeans, Georgia and Ukraine have been able to use this combination, so too Russia should as well, Savvin continues.  All of these countries were able to achieve “independence from the Moscow empire,” but that was a different challenge than Russia faces “qualitatively rather than quantitatively.”

            In opposition to Savvin, Shtepa cites my 2004 article, “Russia as a Failed State” ( in which I argued that “the Russian state became an empire before the Russian people became a nation As a result, Russia has never been a nation state, based on a contract between the people and the government. Instead, the Russian people always has been a state nation whose interests are defined not by itself but by those in power.”

            That situation and practice continues, Shtepa says, and it is that relationship rather than just the Soviet experience that is at the root of the problems Russia faces, problems different in kind from those the Baltic nations and the others faced and responded to.

            That alternative Russian experience was described by Alexander Etkind in his 2011 book, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, the regionalist continues. There, the Russian writer argued that various Russian governments have colonized “not just ‘the national borderlands’ but essentially Russian territories as well.”

            That did not begin in Soviet times, Etkind says, but rather with the destruction of the Novgorod Republic by the Muscovite tsars.

             “It is indicative,” Shtepa says, that Savvin doesn’t mention federalism.  Instead, he treats the free Russia he wants to see established as a unitary and centralized state. But that is to ignore the fact that “the East European peoples typologically correspond not to ‘Russians in general’ but to Russian regionalists from Koenigsberg to Vladivostok.”

            Savvin argues that Russians are the same on the basis of his own experiences in various parts of the empire, but Shtepa says that his own, which also involved living and working in Karelia, Crimea, Krasnoyarsk Kray, the Komi Republic and Moscow, has led him to be impressed by and to value “the multiplicity of regional distinctions.”

            “From the point of view of a regionalist,” Shtepa says, “all regions have the right to political status, to the status of sovereign and equal republics which if they do desire can conclude among themselves a (con)federal agreement.” Those like Savvin who want a single unitary state give them no such rights.

            In Savvin’s second article, “Regionalism vs. Neo-Soviet Separatism” ( discussed at, the Riga-based commentator says that regionalists in effect work for “the present local quasi-elites.”

            That is simply not the case, Shtepa says. “Regionalists in fact are simply incompatible with the current ‘power vertical’ because their thinking is completely different. Most of them suggest that the rebirth of politics as such will occur only with the holding of free elections in all regions with the participation of all regional parties.”

            Such elections have never happened in post-Soviet Russia; and as a result, Shtepa says, no change of elites has occurred: “the former members of the CPSU have simply transferred into United Russia.” No genuine regionalists are to be found among them because regionalists start with democracy as a goal rather than the maintenance of a centralized and unitary state.

            Savvin does not recognize this. Instead, he creates the scarecrow of regionalists as the ideological backers of existing regional elites, arguing that there is a great danger of a repetition of 1991 and “the rise on the territory of the former empire of new states,” something he and others, including most regionalists, do not want to see happen.

            The Riga-based Russian nationalist like Aleksey Navalny does favor giving municipalities more power. So too do regionalists, but unlike Savvin and Navalny, regionalists recognize as Tatyana Vintsevskaya says ( that the subjects of a federal should be regions.

            Like Navalny, Savvin does not accept federalism. “Fearing ‘the separatism’ of the regions, the [Russian] opposition proposes to delegate authority to the municipalities as more secure in a political sense.” That is because for them “the only political subject is ‘All Russia,’ in the name of which ‘Moscow speaks.’” 

            And in his third essay, Savvin addresses a problem which may seem far distant from questions of federalism but in fact is central, Shtepa says.  Talking about nation building in Russia ( discussed at, he urges that Russia today reach back to the tsarist system in order to oppose the Soviet one.

            To do so, Savvin argues, Russia should follow the Greek approach which appealed to Byzantinism with its combination of church and state in order to overcome the consequences of the anti-Christian impact of the Soviet system. He says explicitly: “the USSR is our Ottoman yoke. The Russian Empire is our Byzantium.” 

            “It is possible that this opposition was still important for emigres in the 1920s and 1930s,” Shtepa says, “people who saw this contrast with their own eyes. But today it no longer works – or more precisely works in a sense completely different than the one recalled by those who speak about ‘the Russia which we have lost.’” 

            In fact, it is a variant on the theme promoted by Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medynsky who wants to promote the idea of “the succession of historical development from the Russian Empire through the USSR to present-day Russia,” by combining the ideas of the Bolsheviks, the Whites, and the tsars into one single pastiche.

            (That Savvin is reaching back to the pre-World War II emigration for inspiration is suggested, Shtepa argues, by the fact that he has named his portal in Riga “Harbin,” a city in the Far East where the Russian Fascist Party was established in 1931. (On this, see John Stephan’s 1978 study, The Russian Fascists.))

            What is especially strange, Shtepa says, is that Savvin’s centralist and authoritarian articles have appeared on a site, After Empire, which until recently had been informed by a very different set of ideas. Now, it offers Savvin’s which are not far removed from the imperialists in Moscow and in the central Russian opposition.

            It and they somehow assume as did their predecessors in 1991 that Russia can be both unitary and free. That is why both the putschists and the democrats in that year did not want to see a new union treaty signed.  Both wanted to build “’a Free Russia’ which would become an even more aggressive and repressive state than the USSR of perestroika times.”

            As a result, Shtepa concludes, “instead of liquidating the empire, its reset happened. And today the Russian opposition again dreams of ‘entering the Kremlin.’ But this will be only a new spiral of the empire” unless and until there is either a federal system, a confederal one or the appearance of multiple Russias.

            Both the current powers that be and the mainstream opposition talk about a free Russia, but there will only be freedom for “the post-Russian republics” when the empire no longer exists.

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