Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Russia, Wishing to Shed Imperial Burdens, Not Non-Russians, Responsible for Disintegration of Soviet Empire, Valdai Club Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Dec. 25 – Timofey Bordachev, a senior analyst at the Valdai Club whose Russian members generally stay close to Vladimir Putin’s position, stakes out a very different position from those the Kremlin leader has expressed up to now on two critical issues: the imperial nature of the Soviet state and assignment of blame for the disintegration of the USSR.

            On the Profile portal, the analyst is explicit that the Soviet Union was an empire and that it fell apart not by the actions of the non-Russian nations but rather by Russia itself which finally concluded it could not sustain the burdens of empire and decided to shed some of its colonies (

            Specifically, Bordachev says, “the main cause of the disintegration of the Union became the inability of Russia itself to further sustain the pressures arising from its obligations, a revolt, if one uses the term of Domini Lieven [a professor at Cambridge], of the ethnic Russians against the burden of empire.”

            These words are striking both because Putin has generally refrained from referring to the Soviet Union as an empire and because he and his entourage have blamed Lenin and Gorbachev at the center and the non-Russians and especially the Balts and the Ukrainians for the demise of the Soviet state.

            But the Valdai Club which has often served as a testing ground for new ideas may be playing that role once again. On the one hand, Putin is increasingly comfortable talking about empire, past, present, and future and so in his single stream of history approach may be increasingly comfortable viewing the USSR as what it was, an imperial state.

            On the other, Bordyachev’s assignment of responsibility to Russia for the demise of the Soviet state may also be attractive as it has two further implications, one of which the Valdai analyst in fact draws. First of all, it undercuts the narratives of non-Russian elites that their peoples won their independence rather than being granted it by the Russians.

            And second, not only does it further discredit what happened in 1991, but this notion opens the way to another, the idea that Russia, having recovered and “risen from its knees,” is now quite prepared to bear at least some of the burdens of empire once again and that there is thus no reason why a Russian Empire of a new kind should not be restored.

            “It is no accident,” Bordyachev says, “that many observers think that in 1991 the history of the Russian Empire was concluded [given that] the USSR was a unique experiment in the transformation of a colonial European empire of the 19th century into a contemporary federative state.”

            And the leaders of the non-Russian republics which are now independent are among them because they have no wish to challenge the notion that they won their independence rather than having it given to them by the actions and decisions of Moscow. To do so would undercut their respective national myths.

            They do not recognize that they are still the products of that system, that Russia by shedding its responsibilities over them has achieved a much more beneficial situation, and that while it requires as the region’s paramount power that they defer to it in foreign policy, Moscow can’t and won’t dictate their domestic arrangements or pay for them.

            What it will do is to insist that on this space, any efforts by outside powers by countered and that the countries of the region will take their lead not from those but from Russia, Bordyachev says.

            And he concludes: “Now a change of political generations is taking place; and soon in Russia and the neighboring states decisions will be taken by people much less connected by common historical experience. And this, apparently is good because they will find it much easier to overcome the propensity to view themselves as the metropolitan center and the periphery.”

            When that happens, the Valdai Club analyst says, “the USSR finally will become history,” but only as he does not say explicitly to be replaced by a neo-colonial relationship in which Moscow dictates the rules of the relationship with outsiders to its neighbors and the latter will be forced to obey.

            In that, Bordyachev appears to have a position exactly congruent with Putin’s own.

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