Monday, December 21, 2020

Despite All Changes in Name, Russia has Always Been and Remains an Empire, Inozemtsev and Abalov Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 19 – In a new book, economist Vladislav Inozemtsev and historian Aleksandr Abalov argue that “Russia was and is a kind of unending empire, both before its formal proclamation as such [in the 18th century] and also many decades after it might have seemed final destruction.”

            Because that is so, they argue, it continues to behave strategically and tactically as an empire and thus remains “a threat for its neighbors” and to its own people by continuing to suppress any efforts to move toward federalism and democracy within its own borders, the two say.

            The book is now available both in hard copy and electronically as Unending Empire (in Russian, Moscow: Alpina Publishers, 2020, 426 pp., ISBN: 978-5-9614-3730-0) and has now been reviewed by Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal for the SibReal portal (

            Describing the book as “one of the significant intellectual events of the last year,” Shtepa notes that Russia has passed through several formats from Muscovy on but has remained an empire. “Post-Soviet Russia,” he summarizes the book’s argument as being, “appears as an attempt of a ‘post-modernist’ synthesis of all previous eras.”

            But no one should be misled by these changes in nomenclature. “All these imperial eras,” Inozemtsev and Abalov say, “are similar to one another because the powers have conducted a domestic policy of centralization and pursued aggressive foreign expansion as their primary goal.”

            The two authors, Shtepa continues, defend “the first flowerings of federalism and self-administration,” a very welcome development. But their insistence that Russia has always been an empire may lead some to conclude that it always must be, a view that if accepted becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            A major reason for this, the regionalist author argues, is that they view the empire from a Muscovite perspective and they define it much as Moscow does, as the rule of Russia over a non-Russian periphery. But in fact, the Russian empire now as in the past is directed in the first instance at Russians.

            Not only did the Muscovite kingdom begin its imperial path by suppressing the Novgorod and Pskov republics, but it and its successors have treated the Russian regions just as much as colonies as the non-Russian ones, something Inozemtsev and Abalov acknowledge but do not take as seriously as they should, Shtepa says.

            Thus, they are dismissive of Siberian regionalism as “an anti-colonial struggle,” even though the oblastnik movement in the 19th century, the formation of regional governments during the Civil War and the efforts to create republics in Russian areas there at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s suggest otherwise.

            Because the two authors do not focus on the importance of this struggle by Russian regions, they miss what is a critical “historical paradox,” Shtepa argues. And it is this: “the late perestroika USSR in reality conducted a much less imperial policy than does the current post-Soviet Russia.”

            The regionalist praises Inozemtsev and Abalov for concluding that “the unpreparedness of elites to accept the values of federalism [after 1991] became historically and logically the first fundamental cause of the rebirth of Russian imperial structures.” Those who don’t focus on that risk facilitating Russia remaining an empire rather than finally being transformed.

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