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Russia Today Neither National Nor Imperial But Rather ‘Privatized Soviet’ System – OpEd

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Putin’s Russia is “a land of imitations,” one that is neither imperial nor clerical nor traditionalist nor national but rather a “privatized” version of the Soviet system whose goal – the enrichment of the elite – is something that precludes any of those things and that it cannot admit openly, according to Dimitry Savvin.

The editor of the Riga-based Harbin portal says that Russia today is “not a living political thing but a collection of manikins, cadavers and imitations” whose supporters and opponents are both willing to take for something else because doing so is useful for both of them (harbin.lv/strana-imitatsiy).

“We hear so often that Putin’s Russian Federation is conducting ‘an imperial policy’ and has ‘imperial ambitions’ that we somehow even forget to ask: what in fact is an Empire?” Or we are told that it is a budding nation state without enquiring as to what that would require it to become, Savvin says.

Those who view Russia today as an empire assume that centralization and the suppression of national and religious minorities makes it one, forgetting that empires are universalistic in their goals. And those who say it is a nation state in waiting ignore the fact that nation states in contrast are always specifically local rather than universal in orientation.

“If for an Empire, striving for the synthesis of various traditions, cultures and even religions is natural,” the Riga-based Russian analyst continues, “then a nation state is directed at the opposite, at the defense and development of its own ethnic, cultural and religious identity.” But Russia now is not the one or the other.

“The Soviet Union was an empire … filled with anti-human and unnatural content. Its demise theoretically should have led to the formation of new nation states – and this occurred for example in the Baltic countries,” Savvin says. “However, for most of the former USSR, it didn’t happen.”

The reason is simple and was predicted in 1935 by émigré philosopher Ivan Solonevich in his book, Russia in a Concentration Camp. In that work, Solonevich argued that the Soviet system had created in the Soviet nomenklatura “a quasi-elite” that, in the event the USSR collapsed, would nonetheless have enough power to maintain control for itself.

That is exactly what happened in the Russian Federation after 1991. “The nomenklatura quasi elite and state apparatus, not having suffered serious losses and maintaining control in the political system and economy,” remained true to their Soviet origins in terms of methods but changed their goals for imperial outreach to personal enrichment.

They began sometimes consciously and sometimes not “but always consistently” to restore the practice and institutions” of the USSR which “in the end led to the final formation of the neo-Soviet system under Putin,” one in which power was deployed in much the same way but to new ends.

This development created serious ideological problems for the regime. Under the Soviets, the quasi-elite extracted resources from the population to promote world revolution. But after 1991, this same elite continued to extract resources but not for a new empire but for their own wealth.

“In essence,” Savvin says, “this nomenklatura-oligarchic corporation was transformed into internal colonizers like the British East India company,” but with this difference: “The latter never concealed that it was a private commercial enterprise involved in making money” for its owners.

“For understandable reasons,” he continues, “the neo-Soviet regime of the Russian Federation could not openly acknowledge that. But it also couldn’t and didn’t want to return to classical bolshevism with its struggle for world rule;” and it was equally incapable of promoting Russian nationalism because that “obviously contradicted the interests of the quasi-elite.”

But the vacuum had to be filled, and it has been, not with something real but rather with “virtual” things which have taken the form of “a parade of imitations.” Putin promoted the cult of victory in World War II as the basis of state ideology, something that suggested he was in fact interested in Soviet-type goals.

However, he wasn’t able to articulate an imperial ideology and so put out “various imitations” of that. “Why imitations?” Savvin asks rhetorically. Because such an ideology would require the quasi-elite to make sacrifices it was and is not prepared to make. Fake imperialism for this elite is fine; real imperialism is not.

But this imperialism fooled many in the West or, worse, led them to act as if they took it seriously, the Russian analyst says. For Russians, it gave them a feeling of renewed power; and for many in the West, it provided the comforting notion that Russia hadn’t changed, something some were pleased and others horrified by.

This would all be very amusing were it not for one thing, Savvin says. It means that the West is not aware of what is actually happening and that it will not respond correctly when the Putin system weakens. Instead, it will assume it is fighting imperialism or nationalism rather than the nomenklatura-oligarchic-quasi-elite.

And it will again as was the case in the early 1990s accept the reassurance of this elite that it is against both these things and thus end by supporting the same old rulers and attacking everyone else rather than recognizing that these rulers themselves are the problem that must be addressed and removed.

But even before the Moscow-centered state fails, this lack of understanding in the West will have extremely negative consequences for Russia by allowing this elite to continue its thievery and for “many neighboring countries” who will suffer attack as the Moscow quasi-elite tries to put on a virtual show for both its own people and the West – while hiding its own crimes.


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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