It is now 15 years since the failed coup of August 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev. At the time, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost were seen by Soviet hardliners as a sell-out of communist Russia to the capitalist West. But it is now clear that the KGB and the military who launched the coup were not defending the idea of communism. Instead, they were protecting their idea of Russia’s imperial mission, a notion that had given the Kremlin commissars greater control of the vast Russian empire, and of Russia’s neighbors, than any of the Tsars had ever enjoyed.
Gorbachev’s reforms not only liberated ordinary Russians from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, but also released the national aspirations of people who had been locked in the empire for centuries. Having seen the peoples of Central Europe free themselves from Soviet domination just two years before, the constituent nations of the USSR were beginning to seek the same freedom for themselves.
The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to insist on traveling their own national path, and have since linked their fate to Europe as members of the European Union and NATO. Others soon followed. By December 1991, the Soviet empire was no more.
But only the Baltics have secured the sort of independence dreamed of in 1991. Georgia, which is both European and Asiatic, teeters on the edge of instability. Traditionally Asian Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have resumed the tribal forms of autocracy they practiced throughout the centuries. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have in essence become their presidents’ wholly owned family fiefs.
Ukraine’s break with Russia was perhaps the most wrenching, both for those in the Kremlin nostalgic for imperial control and for ordinary Russians who see Ukraine as the wellspring of Russian civilization. The Orange Revolution of 2004, which overturned a rigged presidential election, proved that Ukraine was no longer a Malorossiya (a small Russia), an inferior and subordinate Slavic brother. Indeed, that peaceful revolution, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko, was a reminder of how enlightened Kievan Rus had been before it was forced to give way to the despotic princes of Moscow.
Two years after the Orange revolt, Yushchenko (a politician who seems out of his depth) has now accepted the Kremlin placeman Viktor Yanukovych, the foe he had vanquished in 2004, as his new prime minister. Nonetheless, the Orange movement – now led by Yushchenko’s former partner and prime minister, Tymoshenko – has not fully lost its way, and still aims to preserve Ukraine as a truly independent and free country. Malorossiya , for the majority of Ukrainians, remains a thing of the past.
Despite all these epochal changes, Russians cannot accept the loss of their imperial role. The dream of empire is, indeed, the gulag that imprisons the Russian mind. Most Russians do not regard Europe’s approach to their country’s borders as a sign that they have, at long last, fully united with the civilization of which they are a part, but as a source of insecurity.
Something more is at work here than mere nostalgia. During the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, it was perhaps understandable that Russians regretted their loss of great power status. Something had to be blamed for their dire economic conditions. Yet under President Vladimir Putin, with the economy growing robustly, these feelings have hardened, not diminished.
Russians are reverting to the past – to the grand pronouncements of Russia as a unique great nation, destined to rule the world. As before the advent of Gorbachev – indeed, restoring a centuries-old tendency – Russians yet again believe that the people should be willing to forfeit their freedoms for the sake of the greatness of the state, which wins wars and launches Sputniks. A free press, free speech, and free elections, it is feared, may diminish the brute power that is needed for Russia to assert itself.
Russians have long boasted of their various unique forms of greatness: first it was the holy Russian soul, so superior to Western practicality. In the fifteenth century, Moscow was declared a “Third Rome,” the savior of spiritual Christianity. The seventeenth century united this spiritual mission with imperial expansion, which eventually encompassed a landmass spanning 11 times zones. In the early twentieth century, the imperial and spiritual mission became one, as Russia became the bastion of world communism.
All these forms of greatness, however, demanded that ordinary Russians accept their debasement and enslavement. Development is not seen as a means of improving people’s lives, but as helping Russia prove itself to be superior to everybody else. So, ultimately, the material achievements of Russian development always come with a body count. Joseph Stalin’s industrialization killed millions – and became obsolete in only 30 years.
Putin’s Russia doesn’t go in for mass killing, yet it has not lost the country’s “superiority” complex. For Russia’s elite, a restaurant bill cannot be too expensive, and one can never have enough bodyguards waiting out front for you. On a grander scale, Putin’s Russia has become a great power in terms of energy production, but that looks to be temporary, as scant investment is being made to maintain and improve the oil and gas fields. What matters is selling the reserves and being rich now, not finding more for later.
So, as always, the trouble with Russia is that the state develops, but society doesn’t. The good of the people is sacrificed for the good of the nation. The dream of great Russia remains the gulag of the Russian mind.