Saturday, August 31, 2019

Moscow’s Influence in Former Soviet Republics Would Increase If Russians Accepted Their Irretrievable Loss, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – “If Russia could come to terms with the loss of empire,” Vitaly Portnikov says, “this would increase its influence across the post-Soviet space, strengthen the Russian state itself, and preserve the chances for the Russian church which would not then be viewed as a covert weapon of aggression.”

            Unfortunately, the Ukrainian commentator says, the Russia of Vladimir Putin can’t or won’t accept this loss of empire but instead continues to pursue policies that alienate ever more people in the non-Russian countries and consequently make their loss to Russia even more irretrievable (

            Sometimes, especially in recent times, this trend and Moscow’s contribution to it has been obscured by events that have led some in Moscow and even in capitals of the former Soviet republic to conclude that Moscow can really turn the clock back, events like the coming to power of a pro-Moscow president in Kyiv or the continuing occupation of the Donbass and Crimea.

            But these events on closer examination are superficial compared to the more fundamental shifts which are taking place in the opposite direction, Portnikov says, and they change little at least over the longer term.

            Far more important than the latest moves of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, he says, is the decision by the Greek Orthodox Church to recognize Ukrainian autocephaly, the first Orthodox church after Constantinople to do so (  “At first glance, “this may not seem to be the most important event … But on the other hand, it is the most significant.”

            The Greek church’s recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly, Portnikov continues, “confirms a trend which neither Ukrainians, who view their independence as something self-sufficient, or Russians, the residents of the metropolitan center who need to earn the inevitability of the historical processes which are taking place, can fully recognize.”

            The Russian empire has been disintegrating for a century. That process has been slowed at times by violent repression. But it has not been stopped. And “no ‘Russian world,’ no Russian language, and no Russian gas can hold it together any longer – and that concerns not only states: it also concerns the churches.”

            The Russian church grew with the expansion of empire, and it is now contracting as the empire is. Such church processes may be “slower and more inertial than political ones,” but they are more profound.  And the Greek action, the first but certainly not the last, underscores that reality even if most Russians and some Ukrainians don’t see it yet

             “Ukraine, like the majority of other former Soviet republics has been irretrievably lost by Russia, lost as a country, nation and civilization. Each new day, month and year will only deepen this divide because generations of people who do not have the experience of the soviet past will be entering adulthood.”

            “But Russia, which doesn’t understand why the lost territories aren’t going to return, will continue to conduct itself ever more aggressively and drive away even those who are connected with it by a common cultural past and by language, just as this occurred with many Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Ukrainian Russians after the start of the war in the Donbass.”

            Portnikov’s observation holds in other former Soviet republics as well where cultural shifts away from Russia are taking place even when there appear to be political shifts in the opposite direction.  In Belarus, for example, residents are circulating petitions opposing the construction of a Moscow church in Orsh (

            Some of the motivation behind this petition is the usual NIMBY attitude – “not in my backyard” – but it also reflects the fact that increasingly Belarusians view the Russian church just like Russian culture and the Russian state as alien and even offensive, especially when Moscow seeks to use such institutions against their interests. 

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