Saturday, April 10, 2021

Cities Russian Empire has Produced Repeatedly have Challenged that Empire, Luzin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 7 – “Cities played a most important role not only in the development of the [Russian] empire as trading cities, fortress cities, factory citizens and the capitals of other states it seized but also in its crisis,” and both the Russian Empire and the USSR were in large measure brought low because of this contradiction, Perm political scientist Pavel Luzin says.

            That they did so in the past suggests that they may play a similar role in the future, one even larger than Russia’s regions, few of which have long histories but which were in their current borders at least largely created during the Soviet period and thus merit more attention as far as their role now and in the future is concerned, he argues (

            The tsarist empire “in large measure ended precisely because of the will of the cities,” as expressed both in civic organizations like the All-Russian Union of Cities to aid victims of World War I and the working-class movements in major cities including not just the two capitals but centers like Warsaw, Odessa, Kyiv and so on.

            When the Russian Empire disintegrated, only two of the first ten major industrial centers of the Russian Empire remained in Russia, the two capitals, something that lay behind the Bolsheviks’ drive to bring under their control the cities that were not. Sometimes this was successful; but often it wasn’t, Luzin notes.

            The Bolsheviks “not only were concerned with the restoration of control over former imperial possessions,” but also with the building via forced march measures new imperial economic centers.  Their policies led to the rise of 23 millionaire cities, but when the USSR disintegrated, only twelve of these remained within Russia.

            That has prompted the post-Soviet Russian government to try to recover these cities whether they are in Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic countries or Belarus. But what is critical to understand is that the Russian imperial drive is in the first instance about the control of the cities which the empire had lost.

            The post-Soviet Russian powers have learned certain lessons from this history, the Perm analyst continues. Even as they have sought to reclaim cities that had been part of the empire earlier, they have also worked hard to “minimize the political possibilities” of cities lest those still within the borders of the Russian Federation become a threat.

            The Russian authorities today understand that these cities can again become a danger to the imperial center far larger than regions as such because “the majority of contemporary Russian regions, in contrast to German lander or even American states, do not have deep traditional roots: they appeared only in the 1920s to the 1940s,”

            Those concerned with regionalism and decentralization thus should pay far more attention to the cities than to the current “’subjects of the federation,’ the future of which are extremely cloudy.” That is because “despite the resistance of the powers, Russian cities are gathering strength” and will be able to challenge the center and seek more autonomy.

            The results of this process are both unpredictable and even may be contradictory. “Decentralization and economic liberalization when they begin at first glance may look like attempts to preserve the empire and not bring it down. But “in this, there is no paradox,” Luzin argues.

            “The political process always from the outset presupposes trade and not a war to destruction.” The cities will seek to gain more power for themselves against both the center and the regions within which they are contained, and some in Moscow may try for a time to form an alliance with the largest cities against the regions.

            “But,” Luzin concludes, “the logic of urban self-administration will inevitably acquire its own” momentum and lead to changes those at the center who seek to use it do not intend.

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