Where Is the Russian Empire Today?
University of St Andrews
During the past decade many observers have remarked on the resurgence of Russian imperialism, or rather neoimperialism. But little is discussed the question where this ‘neo-empire’ may be located in spatial, demographic or functional terms. Actually, it is nowhere to be seen on the world’s political map. A map of this type just features the Russian Federation, or the globe’s polity with the largest territory. The term ‘empire’ is not included in the polity’s official name or mentioned in its constitution.
Russian world = Russian Neoempire
|Unredeemed parts of the Soviet bloc and tsarist Russia
nositeli russkogo iazyka =
|All non-Russkiis should at least learn Russian
|Soviet bloc + Finland
Diagram: The spatial and demographic dimensions of the ideology of Russian neoimperialism (Russian world)
The empire is dead, long live the empire!
Recently, the Russian leadership officially took to expressing regrets on the 1991 dismantling of the Soviet Union. Today’s Russia is the sole legal successor of this communist state. Despite its founders’ ravings against capitalism and imperialism, undoubtedly, the Soviet Union was an empire. This concept stems from the Latin verb imperare, or ‘to command, impose, order and push [subjected peoples] around.’ Indeed, with its ambition of making all of the globe into a single communist state, alongside its totalitarian system of governance, the Soviet Union’s appetite for conquest and total control of the Soviet population was insatiable. The growing territory of the Soviet Union, to which the unwilling members of the Soviet bloc were added after 1945, was a testament to the Bolsheviks’ ideologically-driven goal of exporting communist revolution around the world. On the other hand, between the 1920s and 1960s, Moscow imprisoned around a fifth of the Soviet population in the vast network of gulag concentration camps. The inmates were made into slave laborers. This free and disposable workforce was indispensable for pharaonic-style construction and mining projects of the Soviet-style heavy-industry modernity of unfreedom.
The name of today’s Russia rather connects it more directly to the Russian Empire, which the Bolsheviks both destroyed and inherited in 1917. They did away with the nascent elements of democratic governance introduced after 1905 and with private ownership. Yet, the Soviet top leader and its inner party coterie de facto owned the state, its economy and resources, like the tsarist aristocracy had done before them. ‘General secretary’ was a novel – more modern and bureaucratic – name for the Soviet tsar. After 1861, the Russian Empire’s serfs were progressively freed from forced labor, which the law obliged them to render for free to their noble owners. But as mentioned above, the Soviets reintroduced even a more brutal system of extracting forced labor from the entire population in the form of the gulag system of concentration camps.
The Soviets tacitly justified their conquests and annexations by pointing to the fact that most of the territories gained in such a manner had previously belonged to the Russian Empire. It was the Soviet leadership who were in the right, no matter what the former subjected peoples – be it the Estonians, the Finns, the Poles or the Ukrainians – might think. From Moscow’s perspective, these ‘small nations’ were destined to be imperared – bossed around – in the imperial fashion. Ideologies change, empires remain.
The renewed Russian Empire
In the first decade of the 21st century, the ideology of the русский мир Russkii mir (Russian world) was formulated and adopted by the current Russian leadership. In it, the Kremlin combines the preferred and most usable elements of both tsarist Russia’s and Soviet imperialisms. The toolbox is ready for deployment, as recently evidenced by the successful Russian military onslaughts against Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-).
In late 2021 and early 2022, Moscow put a gun to Ukraine’s head by amassing over 100 thousand troops and weaponry around the country ready for an imminent multi-pronged invasion (also from Belarus). The Russian government presents this offensive action as a mere defense against the West’s and Ukraine’s incessant attacks of the past three post-Soviet decades, supposedly aimed at endangering the very territorial integrity of Russia. The Kremlin’s Orwellian doublespeak is so pervasive that hardly anyone cares to remember that neither Nato nor Ukraine has attacked or annexed any territory of a single post-Soviet or postcommunist state. What is more, Nato did not attack any Soviet bloc country during the Cold War period either.
It was none other but the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact that developed the unprecedented tradition of launching ‘defensive’ attacks against its own member states, that is, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Despite its oft-repeated disavowals, post-Soviet Russia’s armies unabashedly attacked targets in Moldova (1992), Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-), leading to the founding of a string of Russia-supported unrecognized de facto states (Transnistria; Abkhazia and South Ossetia, alongside Donetsk and Lugansk ‘people’s republics’) and to the outright annexation of Crimea. As proved by its actions – granted, on a more modest scale than in the case of its tsarist and Soviet predecessors – the Russian Federation has become an aspiring empire. Likewise, Moscow quenches with ruthlessness any pro-independence movements within the Russian boundaries, as proved by the ‘successful’ genocidal-scale war against Chechnya (1994-2000).
When it comes to ‘defense,’ Moscow excels at attacking members of Russia’s own post-Soviet international organizations. Georgia and Ukraine under Russian attack were then members – however, unwilling – of the Kremlin’s Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS originally aspired to gather all the post-Soviet states ‘orphaned’ by the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Rather unsurprisingly, following the Russian wars against them, Georgia and Ukraine left this organization. Russia, alongside Britain and the United States, signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. This document was contracted with Ukraine for Kyiv’s agreement to give up its Soviet-time stockpiles of nuclear warheads. In return, in light of the Helsinki Final Act, the three signatories guaranteed the inviolability of Ukraine’s frontiers and the country’s territorial integrity. Two decades later, Russia unilaterally tore up this memorandum by attacking Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
The CIS’s military counterpart – a kind of a neo-Warsaw Pact – is the little-known Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Modelled on Nato, it is styled as a defense organization. Hence, the CSTO remains inactive when one member state attacks another as in the aforementioned cases of the Russian invasions in Georgia and Ukraine. In 2010 Kyrgyzstan requested the CSTO’s assistance with quelling the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic conflict in the south of this country. As the de facto commander of the CSTO, the Russian president then replied that this organization is not design to help its members with any domestic problems or disturbances. Yet, in 2020 the CSTO chose not to act when Azerbaijan (a non-member) attacked Armenia that belongs to this organization. So, it is clear that the CSTO is a Russian organization that does the Kremlin’s bidding, like the Warsaw Pact used to.
Tellingly, two years later, in 2022, the CSTO swiftly intervened in Kazakhstan to prevent any change in the obtaining power relations of the country’s governance system. This intervention closely resembles the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In this way, the Kremlin appears to have adopted a neo-Brezhnev Doctrine of the right to intervene anywhere in the post-Soviet space where Russia’s interest are imperiled according to the current Russian leadership’s arbitrary assessment. No need to refer to any founding charters or international documents. The Kremlin’s decision must suffice. That is the way of empire, or to imperare; the others must listen, the West included.
The imperial pecking order established among the CSTO member states is a replication of Russia’s ‘vertical’ system of governance. The Russian president is the ultimate autocrat in the Russian Federation. He governs unilaterally – imperares – over a myriad of regional and local autocrats in state administration and economy. All the ‘little tyrants’ owe their positions to the Kremlin dictator. They must pay homage and support Russia’s president unwaveringly, or perish. The Russian president de facto owns the country and is above the law. He – invariably, a male – is the tsar. After the departure of Georgia and Ukraine, which to Moscow’s ire opted for liberal parliamentary democracy, all the CSTO’s remaining members (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) are ‘presidential republics,’ that is, Russia-style autocracies (with a qualified exception of Armenia). Each member state boasts its own ‘vertical ruler,’ a local ‘tsar.’ However, the Russian president has gradually reasserted its role of the ‘super-tsar’ across the CSTO area. He is the king-maker, whose fickle support, for now, keeps in power the Belarusian dictator. On the other hand, he ditched Kazakhstan’s old dictator of the three past decades, who had retired in 2019, but intended to keep ruling the country from the back seat. It did not wash with the Kremlin.
Between metropolis and colonies
The Russian Federation-turned-empire is a landmass empire, like its tsarist and Soviet predecessors. This raises the question what is the metropolis in this case and what counts as the colonies and other imperial possessions. Without establishing this distinction, there is no clarity who rules whom, who imposes their will on whom, and most importantly, who exploits whom. The internal dynamics is hard to disentangle for Western observers, who fall back on Western Europe’s former maritime empires. In this model the metropolis is located on the old continent and separated by the vastness of seas and oceans from its colonial possessions on the proverbial other side of the planet.
Eurasia is different, a continuous ocean of steppe that enables armies and peoples to walk on ‘grass waves,’ with no substantial bodies of water to stop them in their tracks. In this sense, today’s China and Iran also remain land empires. Ideologies and political systems have changed in both polities but their character as land empires has remained unchanged for millennia. Colonizers and the colonized intermingle much more and in many more ways than in maritime empires.
The Russian Empire is a newcomer, but its underlying structures follow the same pattern that in the late middle ages the conquering Mongol armies spread across Eurasia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation poses itself as the neoimperial metropolis that wishes to impose its rule over the other former Soviet republics, and ideally over the countries and territories that used to belong to the Russian Empire, such as Finland or Poland. This is the spatial extent of the Russkii mir, or ‘Russian world.’ The term denotes these territories that in Moscow’s view ‘still should belong’ to the ethnic Russians, irrespective of the ethnic, linguistic or confessional makeup of the population in this or that area.
The English term ‘Russian’ conflates two Russian counterparts that, though related, are starkly different in meaing, namely, русский Russkii and россиянин Rossiianin. The former denotes the ethnic Russian, while the latter the inhabitant of Russia, irrespective of his or her ethnicity or religion. The ethnic Russian can be defined as a Russian-speaking and (at least culturally) Orthodox Christian. The definition of the Rossiianin is broader because it covers all Russia’s inhabitants, all Russian citizens, be them Muslims, practitioners of shamanism, Chuvash- or Korean-speakers. On the other hand, the meaning of Rossiianin is narrower than that of Russkii, because the legalistic construction of the former – as connected to Russian citizenship – limits the occurrence of Rossiianins to the territory of Russia. Outside the Russian Federation Rossiianins are a legal and political impossibility. It is the state’s territory that defines them. Obviously, should Russia happen to conquer a new territory, the annexed land’s population – irrespective of language, ethnicity or religion – would become Rossiianins, even against their will. That is the empire’s nature. It imposes, and one needs to follow at the pain of legal and extralegal repressions.
Because of its ethnic definition, the Russkii has a broader spatial meaning, which is not ring-fenced to the state territory, like the Rossiianin. Hence, Russkiis can and do live beyond today’s Russia, mainly across post-Soviet states. The legal term sootechestvennik (соотечественник) for ‘compatriot’ is typically used as a synonym for Rossiianin. But, nowadays, in the age of the ideology of the Russkii mir, the Russian legislation extends the meaning of the sootechestvennik to cover all the former Soviet citizens and their descendants.
These three overlapping types of population groups sketch the gradated boundary between the Russian neoempire’s colonizers and colonized. Within Russia’s current borders, the Russkiis are the former, while the non-Russkii Rossiianins the latter. This rather oversimplistic dichotomy leaves out the sootechestvenniks. By definition they live outside the Russian Federation, but in their vast majority, in the territories to which the Kremlin retains some claim and sees as part of the Russian world. From this ideological perspective the Kremlin believes that non-Russkii sootechestvenniks should be given the option to become loyal Rossiianins, especially after their countries are annexed or compelled to ‘join’ Russia.
On the other hand, the breakup of the Soviet Union left Russkii sootechestvenniks dangling in the cold. They are forgotten imperial populations, whose interests Moscow now purports to represent, guarantee and secure. As the name indicates, the Russkiis – ethnic Russians – are to lord over everyone else in the Russkii mir (Russian world). It is not any российсский мир Rossiiskii mir, or a hypothetical world of Russian citizens, though ironically Russia’s name in Russian is none other than Россия Rossiia. Although the Russkiis are less numerous than Rossiianins, let alone sootechestvenniks, the Russian world is named after the Russkiis, ethnic Russians. Resurgent Russia of the future is to cease being this legalistic Rossiia in emulation of a Western state, because it is destined to become a Russkii neoempire, the ethnic Russians’ empire.
As a result of this line of political reasoning, current Russia usurps for itself the right to intervene in post-Soviet countries where concentrations of Russkii sootechestvenniks (ethnic Russians) occur. If a territory with such a concentration directly borders on the Russian Federation, the Kremlin may even choose to annex it. That was the case of Crimea.
The ethnically non-Russkii provinces of the Russian Empire used to be referred with the imperial term окраина okrainas, the closest native Russian word for ‘colonies.’ This term is rarely used in this meaning in today’s Russian; now the word usually denotes the vicinity of a locality. But in the context of the ideology of the Russian world, the word okraina can be usefully employed as a handy notion for referring to what counts as the colonies in Russian neoimeprialism. The Russkii mir-empire’s okrainas are the Russian Federation’s non-Russkii autonomous republics inhabited by Rossiianins, potentially together with alls the post-Soviet states, where sootechestvenniks live.
Back to the future
The incumbent Russian president is so enamored of the Russian world that he hopes to broaden the ethnically Russkii territorial and demographic core of the Russian neoempire-in-making. He proposes that non-Russian-speaking and Russophone Belarusians and Ukrainians are members of the single (Great) Russian ([Veliko] Russkii) ethnolinguistic nation. In the tradition of tsarist Russia’s 19th-century program of Russification, the languages of Belarusian and Ukrainian are ‘explained away’ as ‘backward dialects’ of the ‘glorious imperial’ (Great) Russian language. In this manner the non-Russkii sootechestvenniks of Belarus and Ukraine are made into ‘genuine Russkiis,’ irrespective of whether they desire or not such a reclassification of their identity.
Already for the sake of accelerated empire-building the recent Russian legislation tacitly equates all Russian-speaking sootechestvenniks (irrespective of ethnicity or religion) with Russkiis. They are referred to as ‘Russian native speakers,’ or носители русского языка nositeli russkogo iazyka in Russian. The Russian term literally means ‘carriers of the Russian language.’ It is derived from the highly ideologized German term Sprachträger, which in turn stems from the concept of Kulturträger ‘carrier of culture, civilization.’ In the realm of these 19th-century concepts some peoples are believed to have culture, civilization and ‘real languages,’ while other people do not. The latter in order to become ‘civilized’ or ‘modern,’ first of all, need to adopt the real (read: imperial) language of a civilized nation, be it the Russians or the Germans.
A similar linguistic-cum-civilizational ‘choice’ was imposed on the Czechs in wartime Germany’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The nazi propaganda presented the Czechs as the most German of all the Slavs, because ‘racially speaking’ they were Slavicized Germans, united with the German nation (Volk) through the shared German culture (civilization). In 1939 Germany annexed the western half of Czechoslovakia (or the present-day Czech Republic). German citizenship was imposed on them, and strenuous measures were introduced to make all Czechs speak and write German. After 2014, an eerily similar policy is pursued in annexed Crimea and Russia’s de facto polities of Donetsk and Lugansk. Russian citizenship was imposed on all, even if one does not consider oneself a Russkii or speaks Ukrainian. The Ukrainian language is de facto banned from public life, everyone is expected to read and write in Russian. Recalcitrants are told that their Ukrainian is just a Russian dialect.
The ideological deification of language, so widespread across Central Europe since the early 20th century, turns out to be of use for the ideology of the Russian world, too. Ethnolinguistic nationalism normatively excludes the possibility of several nations who would share the same language. In this view, all speakers of a single language ‘naturally’ constitute a ‘proper’ nation, whose all members should have the right of living in the same state. That is why, nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. From Berlin’s perspective Austria’s German-speakers were not Austrians, but Germans. Likewise, nowadays the Kremlin maintains that all Russian-speakers are none other than Russkiis. In the Russian president’s view a Russian-speaking Ukrainian is an impossibility. Hence, Russia had no choice but to annex Crimea, and occupy Donetsk and Lugansk.
The Kremlin’s Russkii mir-style neoempire-in-making appears to emulate nazi Germany’s use of ethnolinguistic nationalism for conquering Central and Eastern Europe as the desired ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) for the German nation. Worryingly, the Kremlin’s neoimperial ambition is much bigger. It extends from Finland and Poland in the west to Alaska in the east, and from Svalbard in the north to Afghanistan in the south.
In the wake of World War II, the Greater German Empire (Großdeutsches Reich, as the country was known beginning in 1943) was crushed. All of Western Europe’s metropolises gave up on their overseas empires: Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. Imperialism, or imposing one people’s rule on another, was assessed as a historic wrong. The Soviet Union was the only European country that retained, and actually enlarged, its empire after 1945. It did not do anything good for the imperial Russkiis, and resulted in waves of repressions against the subjected peoples. Hence, with a full clarity of mind, it should be remembered that above all the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was also an act of overdue decolonization.
This post-Soviet decolonization has never reached its logical conclusion, because over 20 ethnically non-Russkii autonomous republics remain imprisoned in today’s Russian Federation. Each of them could become an independent ethnolinguistic nation-state in its own right. On top of that the Kremlin gets increasingly determined to roll back as much of the 1991 decolonization as possible. This spells trouble. Empire is back. And again, as in the case of the Soviet Union, it does not do any good either for Russia’s Russkiis or Rossiianins. In the post-Soviet states, especially in Europe, sootechestvenniks fare much better than Russia’s own population. Some even became citizens of the European Union, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the organization in 2004. This is a genuine problem for Russian propaganda, because in the imperial line of thinking colonizers should enjoy a higher standard of living than the colonized. It is the former who should exploit the latter. Hence, plunging the European section of the post-Soviet area in a series of imperial wars would make the impoverished but peaceful life of Russkiis in the Russian hinterland and Siberia almost attractive in comparison.