Return of the Empire


At the end of 2013 veteran US statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski, known for his fierce anti-Soviet stance, wrote in the Financial Times that Russia would find it impossible to revive its former empire. But how convincing are his arguments?

Poel Karp
31 January 2014

Brzezinski is of course right to state that ‘commitment to national independence is becoming the dominant political reality.’ This agenda first took root in the Netherlands in the last thirty years of the 16th century and spread from there to the rest of Europe and the USA, providing a blueprint for social and technical development. Now, it is true, the rest of the world is also after independence and development. Brzezinski is right here. But back in 1917 history countered this agenda with another one - totalitarian imperialism. 

The totalitarian Soviet regime created unbelievable possibilities for mobilisation.

Brzezinski insists that ‘Today’s Russia is in no position to assert a violent restoration of its old empire. It is too weak, too backward and too poor.’ But surely the Soviet Union, when it revived the Russian Empire in 1922, was poor, often weak and lagged behind other countries in many scientific, cultural and technical spheres. Its totalitarian system and power vertical brought the country terrible catastrophes (most of them hushed up) – the famine of the 30s, the devastating rout of the Red Army in its first year of war with Nazi Germany, and eventually its own collapse.


Zbigniew Brzezinski, pictured here (left) in the White House, was well known for his anti-Soviet stance. Photo cc: wikipedia

At the same time its totalitarian regime created unbelievable possibilities for mobilisation, by concentrating its resources and efforts on a few high priority areas, such as atomic bombs and the means of their deployment. The whole world, including the USA, trembled in expectation of a Soviet attack, just hoping that the Soviet leadership was aware that this would be followed by automatic retaliation. The Soviet leadership, who had lived through the Second World War, refrained from attacking the West, although there were a few amongst them who supported the idea of a pre-emptive strike.

Russia redux

Now Russia’s military aspirations are once more raising their ugly head. How else can one explain a threefold increase in military expenditure in such a hard-up country? The West is unthinkingly supplying it with the latest weaponry, and this poor, weak and backward country is developing its strike capability. It has already tested it against Georgia: there were no grand ideological declarations, such as accompanied the USSR’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but in practice it was the same old totalitarian ideology, and Russia’s poverty, cited by Brzezinski, didn’t save Georgia.

Totalitarian regimes – whether Nazi, Soviet or today’s Russia - are dangerous not only by virtue of their aggressive tendencies, but by their claim to a special place in the world and special rights. The concept of reciprocity is alien to them, and if their special rights are not recognised, or if others claim similar ones, they feel aggrieved. Russia has a law requiring any organisation that receives funding from abroad to declare itself a ‘foreign agent’, but Russia itself maintains numerous institutions and organisations in other countries, not to mention political movements and whole regimes. Another Russian law allows its security services to murder people who have displeased the regime in any other country (even though there is no death penalty in Russia itself), but doesn’t recognise a reciprocal right for others to murder people in Russia.


Does Moscow's recent threefold increase in military expenditure speak to its imperial ambitions? Photo cc:russianmilitaryphotos.com

Totalitarian regimes are dangerous not only by virtue of their aggressive tendencies, but by their claim to a special place in the world.

Another law, just passed, forbids any discussion, even, of self-determination, let alone independence, for ethnic groups within the Russian Federation - a de facto admission that the Federation was set up against the will of these groups. At the same time the Russian army encouraged the self-determination of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet Union was in its time equally guilty of all these activities, but it kept quiet or invented pretexts for them, whereas the present regime is quite open about its illegal pursuits, which give the lie to Brzezinski’s predictions – a fact he forgets to mention in his article. 

Ukraine, Russia and Europe

Brzezinski also regards the present unrest in Ukraine as a spontaneous expression of Ukrainian patriotism. But what has spontaneity got to do with over three centuries of subjugation and the suppression of numerous attempts to break free from it? When in the 17th century Bohdan Khmelnytsky led an uprising against Poland, Ukraine’s rulers at the time, and signed a treaty of unification with Russia, the Ukrainian peasantry was free, but a century later Catherine the Great extended the Russian institution of serfdom to Ukraine. Let’s not believe the lie that it’s only the Western part of the country, where many people belong to the Greek Catholic Church (which recognises the Pope as its head), that wants independence. Ukraine is not against Russia, but it is against Russian domination, against taking orders from Moscow. This subjugation to Russia was anathema not only to not only to 20th century anti-Soviet Ukrainian independence  fighter Stepan Bandera, but also to the great 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, who denounced Khmelnytsky’s treaty. It’s the same for young Ukrainians today, from whatever part of the country, who want to be part of Europe.

Of course many Russians are also drawn to Europe, and millions of them have left and settled there, but it’s not the same. Brzezinski puts Putin’s neo-imperial policies down to naivety, and even tries to explain to him that the leaders of Russia’s minority republics are insincere when they pledge their loyalty to him. However, Putin is not driven by naivety, but by the knowledge that a majority of Russians probably support him – something Brzezinski is also silent about. To the Russian mindset, however, Ukraine and other colonies belong to Russia, and whether this was their ‘free choice’ or they were forced into it, they are now part of Russia for ever.

The Russian mindset

The Russian state does not understand the concept of equality, of equal rights. It understands subjugation (for two and a half centuries it was itself part of the Mongol Empire) and it understands domination, having laid claim to be the Third Rome and rule the world after the fall of Constantinople (the ‘Second Rome’) in 1453. The Russian people think the way they do not because they are evil, but because of the way they have themselves been treated by their successive rulers. They have not only been subjugated in the same way as Russia’s colonial subjects, but have been forced to bear the weight of the Empire, first as serfs, and afterwards as nominally free people but without the right to land, self-government or real representation in the organs of power, a situation that persists to this day.

Ethnic Russians, with the exception of their self-appointed ruling elites, have been no freer than their colonial peoples. Indeed, after freeing itself from the Mongol yoke at the end of the 15th century, Russia didn’t turn into a nation state, but set out to conquer the Volga region, followed by the Urals and Siberia, and so became a multinational state. Imperial great power chauvinism replaced the defensive nationalism that had developed under the Mongols.

Real Russian nationalism would recognise the right of minority groups to self-determination.

Nowadays there is a lot of talk about a Russian national state: what the term often implies is the entire current multinational federation, but with the present nominal borders of the pseudo-autonomous federal territories removed. In fact those who hold this view would also like to remove the borders of former Soviet, now independent, republics such as Ukraine and to recreate the Soviet Union. However, real Russian nationalism would recognise the right of minority groups to self-determination and would continue to have good relations with them after they had become independent of Moscow. Then people of different nationalities and faiths, Russians and non-Russians, could live and exercise their full civil rights peacefully in Russia or these other states. But a state built on non-democratic principles, where all are officially equal but one group is much more equal than the others, cannot become a democracy without radical social and psychological change. 

Brzezinski believes that when Putin goes, ‘Russia, and especially its growing middle class, will realise that the only sensible way ahead is a genuine transformation into a democratic… state.' But it’s not just a question of wanting change, nor is it a question of getting rid of Putin. He just happened to become president by gaining Boris Yeltsin’s confidence, and has justified his patron’s trust by continuing his policies – none of which had anything to do with democracy in the first place.

Empire is the enemy of democracy

Russians are not too clear about what democracy actually is. They talk about government by all the people, but then they hand over the right to speak for the people to a Tsar, Communist Party General Secretary or President. In any case, in Athenian democracy ‘the people’ meant free adult males born in the city, but there was no place in it for women or men from other cities (of whom there were many), let alone freedmen or slaves. Today democratic rule is based on the representation of all social groups and classes at all levels of government and on compromise between them. A situation where all power is concentrated in the hands of one person, however fairly elected, cannot be called democratic. Despite what Brzezinski believes, it’s not a question of Putin’s totalitarian regime and its elites realising that Russians would be better off in a free Russia and that such a Russia would become one of the leading countries in Europe. Both the regime and the elites are quite aware of this, but they are better off as things are now.


A state Russian victory parade in St Petersburg. Photo cc: wikipedia

Russia could become a democracy and, alongside Germany, a leading country in Europe, if only Russians would reject their Empire along with its Imperial Socialism in the same way as Germany did after its National Socialism. They should think instead about their national self preservation and about not defeating Europe and the USA, but living in harmony with them and concentrating, as they did in their best years, on their own affairs rather than interfering in other people’s. But in Russia we are taught to value not our homeland itself, but the state that has been trampling on it for centuries. Ivan the Terrible, the effective creator of the Russian Empire and serfdom, said of his subjects, ‘They are my chattels and have to serve me’. If Ukraine has to liberate itself from Russia in order to become a democracy, Russia has to liberate itself from itself and renounce its claims to special rights, and this requires a change in its national consciousness.

Russia could become a democracy and, alongside Germany, a leading country in Europe, if only Russians would reject their Empire in the same way as Germany did its National Socialism.

If this does not happen we shall continue to live under our totalitarian regime, each time calling it something different and with Marx and Lenin removed from the posters. A quarter century of much hyped changes in Russia has brought no revolution; the same old ruling class is still in charge of a slightly modified version of the old Soviet regime, no longer absolutely Leninist-Stalinist, and aware of the need to balance the books, like Mussolini or Deng Xiaoping. If the old anti-communist Brzezinski can’t see that, it’s probably because he was always more afraid of the Marxist utopia which the Bolsheviks were already retreating from in 1917 than the real totalitarian regime initiated by Lenin and completed by Stalin. Unlike his party colleague Obama, he doesn’t idealise our imitation democracy, but has forgotten that only radical social change can bring real democracy in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its opponents lost all further desire to see the world as it really is. But euphoria is a dangerous thing.              

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData