Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Unlike Empires with Nation States at Their Centers, Those Like the Russian which Lack One Live and Die Violently, Smirnov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 15 – Russian regionalists and non-Russian nationalists must recognize that they live in a territorial rather than a colonial empire and that as a result, the demise of the Russian one is almost certain to be more explosive and protracted than the other kind, Andrey Smirnov, a Siberian activist says.

            He argues that there are “two polar types of empire, the territorial and the colonial,” and that they arise, live and die in fundamentally different ways. Territorial empires arise when a state expands either by attraction or by force and wants to transform its acquisitions into a people just like those at its center (

            Colonial empires in contrast, Smirnov continues, start with a nation state that is not interested in spreading its culture but rather in extracting resources for itself. The British empire had no interest in transforming the peoples of India into Englishmen, a sharp contrast with the Russian empire, an empire of the territorial kind, which wanted to make others into Russians.

            This difference, he suggests, plays a key role in how empires die. Those which are colonial find it relatively easy to accept the loss of colonies, while those which are territorial do not and see the loss instead as a kind of existential threat to their existence as states in and of themselves.

            What happened in 1991 was a remarkable exception given that the Soviet Union itself was for many a territorial empire, but it had enough characteristics of a colonial one that Russians were in many cases not unhappy to give up what they saw as an imperial burden to gain advantages for themselves.

            But when those advantages did not occur, a large number of Russians and especially among Russian elites came to view not only the former Soviet space but their own country as a territorial empire, an attitude that involves among other things denying the existence of the Ukrainian people and seeing non-Russians within the RF as hyphenates.

            For such people, the loss of any part of what they view as properly part of their empire is existential and something that must be blocked or, if it has already happened, reversed; and so the coming demise of the Russian empire will spark Russian resistance lest Russian identity which is so wrapped up with empire be called into further question.

            That is a reality those who want to see the regions and republics of the Russian Federation must recognize and be prepared to counter. Ignoring it or thinking that the future will be like 1991 is a profound mistake, the Siberian activist suggests. 

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