Nostalgia after Empire

Professor Boris Sokolov in the studio of Radio Svoboda (RFE-RL)

 
We are publishing a brilliant historic analysis, which highlights the major differences in the understanding of the empire. The author differentiates between the Western understanding, and the one which he calls "Russian". The latter one is based on the desire for accumulation of lands without purpose. This reasoning guided some nations in other parts of the world, including China or Japan in Asia, which tried and failed to build an empire. It also reverberates in the modern political rhetoric of populism.

The figure of the author requires a short introduction. Professor Boris Sokolov is an eminent historian of modern Russia, who has been promoting democracy and defending human rights for many years. After his protest against the Russian government invasions of Georgia in 2008, he was laid off from Russian universities on the demand of the then Russian leader Dmytri Medvedev.

 

Two types of understanding of the Empire had long-term consequences, for the conqueror and the subjugated, which are still unknown.

 

Since the time of Peter the Great, the Russian people - not only the elite but also the masses - acquired imperial consciousness. It was entirely preserved in Soviet times, although it underwent a transformation from a monarchical to a pseudo-republican form - and gained a new breath after the collapse of the USSR, in already independent Russia.

A characteristic feature of Russian and Soviet imperialism, both past and present, is that it remained at a purely feudal stage when monarchs sought to maximise the expansion of their state, under the given conditions. They believed the rest, in the form of a population from which it would be possible to extort taxes and whose land the monarchs could hand out to their associates, would change by itself.

Take, for example, the Great Northern War, that initiated period of the Russian Great Empire. The war resulted in a net loss for Russia, its expenses were never paid back, and a round sum had to be paid for the conquered territories of Russia without receiving any indemnity from the defeated Swedes. In general, the classical colonial powers, especially England and France, first tried to understand why they needed this or that territory, and only then conquer it.

The senseless conquers
But the Russian rulers sought to tidy up any border territory, and only then they tried to understand what to do with it. Although in the context of hard serfdom, in the broad sense of the word, completely abolished only by the Stolypin reforms (the measures undertaken by the Russian government to allow peasants to own land individually) and restored in the USSR already in the early 1930s, free colonisation was almost absent, and the conquered lands were inhabited primarily by retired military and Cossacks (this process continued in the USSR). I also had to write out foreign colonists - Germans from the German states and the Balkan Slavs and Greeks. Most of the conquered lands therefore brought loss, not a profit.

There was no purpose in the conquer of some lands. For example, the North Caucasus was conquered for several decades only to open the land route to Georgia, although it would seem that it would be cheaper to build a merchant fleet. The last successful war of imperial Russia - the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 was also unprofitable. Russia acquired the steppes of southern Bessarabia, from which it was difficult to make a profit, and even paid high bill for the occupation of Bulgaria, from which at one time thought to make the Transdanubian province. The city of Dalniy (Dalian) became a monument to the colonial project of Sergei Witte. First Russian Prime Minister of the Russian Empire Witte built a huge city with the expectation that domestic colonists would flood in there, and “Russian Singapore” would emerge. But the colonists did not come, and the huge city stood empty until the Japanese conquest. Railway projects in the East were unprofitable, both the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was never loaded even close to its full capacity, and the Baikal-Amur Railway, which didn’t carry anything properly (the current bridge to the Crimea is the same kind).

The imperial syndrome has to die
Not only the bulk of the metropolitan population, but even the majority of the elite did not grow rich from the empire and the colonies it captured. And all these traditions have survived to the present day. Present-day Russian imperialism is also not cheap if the cost of maintaining Crimea, Donbas, and especially Syria is accepted, without any chance of recovering costs in the foreseeable future. Syria is especially expensive (possibly up to $ 50 billion a year), where you have to maintain your own military group, and the army of Bashar al-Assad, and the Iranian allies, and the bureaucracy, and city dwellers. In this country, with every victory of government troops and their allies, Russia's spending is only increasing.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Russian residents, even critical of Putin, retain imperial consciousness. Hence the cult of victory in the Great Patriotic War, which is absolutely unique in scale. People say: yes, Putin suppressed freedom, strangled business, raised his retirement age, this is all bad. But the fact that he annexed Crimea, is going to annex Donbas, is fighting against terrorists in Syria, all of this is correct since we need as much territory as possible to be considered in the world. And the majority of Russians blamed Stalin for everything except his conquests. For conquest, many are ready to forgive the victims. And until the imperial consciousness is worn out among the people, democracy cannot be defeated in Russia.

 

 

Professor Boris Sokolov - historian. A member of Russia's PEN-Center. Author of thirty books on the history of the modern history of Russia. Publicist in the opposition journals, banned in Russia, including Grani. In 2008 Professor Sokolov protested against the Russian invasion of Georgia. Afterwards, he was fired on the demand of the then Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev from the University. In 2010 together with a group of Russian intellectuals signed an open letter with a message "Putin Must Go" to Vladimir Putin. In 2015 Professor Sokolov protested against Russia's annexation of Crimean Peninsula and the war against Ukraine. Putin's regime banned him from Russian universities. He recently published his book "World War II, the Truth and Myths".

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