The Long History of Russian Imperialism

Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has changed Germany’s perspec­tive of Russia by high­lighting the country’s impe­ri­alism and Ukraine’s central role as the empire’s crown jewel.

Talking about the history of Russian impe­ri­alism marks a change of perspec­tive in the German debate. Until the open war of conquest against Ukraine, the term “colo­nialism” was almost exclu­sively applied to the Western powers that had subju­gated large parts of the globe since the 16th century.

Portrait von Ralf Fücks

Ralf Fücks is managing director of the Center for Liberal Modernity.

The term “impe­ri­alism” was also used almost exclu­sively to char­ac­terize the West. In the left, “impe­ri­alism” was largely synony­mous with “US impe­ri­alism”, while the Soviet Union (as well as China) was perceived as an “anti-impe­ri­alist power”. Strangely enough, the fact that the Soviet govern­ment crushed all aspi­ra­tions for freedom within its own sphere of influence was not perceived as a mani­fes­ta­tion of imperial power.

The invasion of Ukraine has changed the view of Russia. Almost overnight, the long tradition of Russian impe­ri­alism became visible – and with it the key role of Ukraine as the crown jewel of the Russian empire. Even German Chan­cellor Olaf Scholz now sometimes speaks about Russian “neo-impe­ri­alism.”

Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is not a personal whim. Ukraine has been the object of Russian desire for centuries – as a mytho­log­ical cradle of Russian statehood, as a bread­basket of Europe, as a gateway to Central Europe and later also as an indus­trial center for the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, too, dominion over Ukraine was a central imper­a­tive for securing Soviet power. The Holodomor was a weapon to break the backbone of the Ukrainian nation.

Putin’s treatise “On the Histor­ical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” from July 2021 openly denies Ukraine’s existence as an inde­pen­dent nation. The text is an undis­guised threat that the Kremlin will not tolerate Ukraine leaving the Russian orbit and becoming part of the Western world. There were enough voices that under­stood this as ideo­log­ical decla­ra­tion of war — unfor­tu­nately, almost nobody in Berlin and other Western capitals wanted to hear them.

Russia’s Colonial Expansion

Russia’s colonial expansion spanned eight centuries. It was no less belligerent and cruel than that of the Western colonial powers. Never­the­less, there are signif­i­cant char­ac­ter­is­tics. The Russian empire was conti­nental, its enlarge­ment was an expansion of a terri­to­rial continuum. It went hand in hand with settler colo­nialism, installed Russian elites in the conquered terri­to­ries and forced local elites to choose between assim­i­la­tion or annihilation.

Judging from its terri­to­rial expansion and duration, the Russian Empire was the most successful of all empires of the modern age. At its peak, it extended over one sixth of the earth’s land mass. More than 130 languages were spoken within the borders of the Tsarist Empire; it included Chris­tians of various denom­i­na­tions, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews (at the end of the 19th century, around two thirds of all Jews lived in the Russian Empire) and followers of animistic natural religions.

This sounds like a multi­cul­tural idyll, but it conceals a policy of Russi­fi­ca­tion aimed at erad­i­cating the cultural identity of national minori­ties, whose language and culture were marginalized.

From the Soviet Union to Putin’s neo-imperialism

When Russia became the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik lead­er­ship drew on imperial tradi­tions. It did every­thing in its power to reconquer the republics that had fallen away at the end of the First World War. This phase of imperial restora­tion only ended with the failed march on Warsaw.

The next stage was the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which led to the occu­pa­tion of eastern Poland, western Belarus, western Ukraine and Bessarabia as well as the annex­a­tion of the three Baltic states in 1940. The attempt to force Finland back “home to the Reich” also failed in the Winter War of 1939/​40.

After the end of the Second World War, a new form of imperial expansion began: the estab­lish­ment of puppet republics in Central and Eastern Europe, including Eastern Germany. In form they were friendly states, but in fact they were controlled by Moscow. Only the Soviet Union was sovereign; all others were subject to the doctrine of “limited sovereignty”.

The subju­gated nations’ striving for self-deter­mi­na­tion was the strongest driving force behind the collapse of the empire and the disso­lu­tion of the USSR between 1989 and 1991.

Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union early on as the “greatest geopo­lit­ical cata­strophe of the 20th century”. In his eyes, the Russian nation is scattered across the entire post-Soviet space and must be reunited. The core of the empire is formed by the holy trinity of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

The military inter­ven­tion in Georgia in 2008 was already a demon­stra­tion of the new claim to power. It was preceded by two brutal campaigns in Chechnya, in which tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives and the capital Grozny was almost completely devas­tated — a drastic message that Moscow will not tolerate any further national secessions.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the Soviet empire came to a halt halfway through the 1990s. When Putin came to power, a threefold restora­tion developed: from stalled democ­ra­ti­za­tion to author­i­tar­i­anism, from market-economy reforms back to a state-run economy and from a post-imperial Russia oriented towards the West to a neo-imperial policy.

Russia’s imperial mindset must fail in Ukraine

It is hardly an exag­ger­a­tion to say that Russia’s future will be decided in Ukraine. The departure from empire will not be voluntary, even less so than in the European democ­ra­cies. Conversely, there is no stronger lever for Russia’s internal trans­for­ma­tion than a demo­c­ratic, econom­i­cally pros­perous Ukraine that is inte­grated into the Western community.

We should therefore do every­thing to ensure that Russian impe­ri­alism fails in Ukraine. As long as Russia clings to imperial nostalgia, there will be neither a turning away from author­i­tar­i­anism nor any sustain­able peace in Europe.

This text is based on a lecture held at the Univer­sity of Kassel on 25 May 2022. The German original is published here.



Did you like this article? If yes, you can support the inde­pen­dent editorial work and jour­nalism of LibMod via a simple donation tool.

Donate via PayPal

We are recog­nized as a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion, accord­ingly donations are tax deductible. For a donation receipt (necessary for an amount over 200 EUR), please send your address data to

Related topics

order Newsletter

Stay tuned with our regular newsletter about all our relevant subjects.

Mit unseren Daten­schutzbes­tim­mungen
erklären Sie sich einverstanden.