Saturday, April 27, 2024

Kremlin’s Refusal to Break with Soviet Identity has Led to War and Will Lead to Russia’s Collapse, Eppl Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Apr. 22 – Had the Kremlin honestly faced up to and then rejected the failed Soviet past, Russia could have joined the West; but instead, it decided that its own survival depended on ensuring that Russia would continue in the Soviet tradition, a decision that has led directly to the war in Ukraine and will lead to Russia’s collapse, Nikolay Eppl says.

            In an essay for the Carnegie Endowment’s Berlin Center,, the Russian philologist and translator argues that “the unresolved question about “the identity of Russia as the heir of the USSR has defined all the zigzags of the country’s existence over the last 30 years” (

            The reformist course Moscow adopted in the early 1990s, Eppl continues, “increasingly came into contradiction with the unpreparedness of the New Russia to turn away from the identification of itself as an empire and from the former administrative practices as well as dissatisfaction with democratic institutes both by the state and by the society.”

            The experience of criticizing one’s own past could show the Russian leadership that reinventing oneself without committing suicide is possible, that admitting crimes and being willing to take responsibility for them is a manifestation of strength, not weakness,” he argues.

“The refusal to follow this path determined what is happening now with the Russian state.”

        Many Soviet crimes were so heinous that there was at the end of Soviet times and the beginning of post-Soviet ones a real demand for condemning that past, but the regime soon refused to go beyond “cosmetic” and indeed “fictional” denunciations lest the involvement of many of its members in those crimes led to attacks on them.


               According to Eppl, “the real dilemma for the Kremlin was whether to turn away from identifying with the USSR and Soviet practices and receive for this the advantages of compete entrance into the club of Western democracies or openly recognize that the former model hadn’t gone anywhere and continues to define the nature of the political regime in Russia.”


               For a few years, “the Kremlin allowed itself to avoid making a final choice and balanced between authoritarian and liberal-democratic models,” doing just enough to convince some that it was still headed to reform but protecting itself by using many of the methods drawn from the Soviet past.


               But after the protests of 2011-2012, the Kremlin recognized that a choice had to be made; and it made one, by launching the war in Ukraine by seizing Crimea and then using that to make the system inside the Russian Federation fully congruent with what had existed in Soviet times.


               “Without functioning democratic mechanisms,” he continues, “there was nothing to legitimate the regime besides patriotic mobilization,” first in Crimea, then in Syria, and then in Ukraine again with Putin’s launch of an expanded invasion of that former Soviet republic in February 2022.


               The collapse of an empire is always difficult, Eppl points out, noting that even between 1991 and 2014, the much-ballyhooed collapse of the USSR claimed “no fewer than 200,000 lives.” But collapses can be more or less difficult depending on whether the successor regime breaks with the past or refuses to do so.


               When it doesn’t and when it assumes its own survival and that of its own country is at risk if it were to do so, then the situation becomes worse. And for the Putin regime, the war in Ukraine is “critical to the survival of Russia in the form in which its leaders would like to keep it in a deep freeze.”


               That explains both the decision to go to war against Ukraine and the way Moscow has explained and fought this war, Eppl says. The Kremlin’s decision to refuse to break with Soviet identity did not and does not “leave it with any possibility besides a return to the USSR with all or at least very many of the characteristics of this process.”


               That reality “defines both the official explanations of the goals of this war and the particular ways it is being conducted,” he argues. If there is a war, it must be against fascism and so Ukraine must be declared a fascist state, however absurd that is; and Russian forces in Ukraine must act to restore Soviet symbols, including erecting Lenin statues in occupied areas.


               But there is an even more serious consequence of the Russian leadership’s refusal to give up Soviet identity and its efforts to recreate Soviet conditions and it is this, Eppl concludes. These efforts are restoring a system that already failed and will lead in the end to the final destruction of that system and the country that follows this mistaken past.

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