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.
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.
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