Modern Russia: Still An Empire? – OpEd


The 20th century was a century of collapsing empires. Even though it is considered that the last of them, the French and British, disintegrated following World War II, the Soviet Union fitted in many ways into an empire model.

The Soviets hated the word “empire”. It was associated with everything negative that the leaders of the Soviet state of the 1920s had fought against. The Soviets intended to give more autonomy to the peoples, Georgians, Ukrainians and others, of the former Russian Empire, thus creating a state where every big nation was equal and small ethnic groups were given some sort of autonomy.

But from the 1930s onwards, the new Soviet elite started to evolve in such a way that more and more ethnic Russians were taking over major positions in state structures. The rise of the Russians within all the major cultural, political and industrial positions might be seen as proportionate to the number of Russians in the Soviet Union. True, the Russians constituted the biggest single nation in the Union, but they were still fewer than 50% of the total number of the population. This very fact makes the Soviet Union, bastion of anti-imperialism, a pure imperial state, a state where the Russians had to take on huge financial and human resources to control and develop the outlying territories around the Russian heartland: the space from the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains southwards to the Black and Caspian Seas.

Almost the same distribution, 44%, of ethnic Russians existed in the Russian Empire before 1917 and, again, the political elite put pressure on the core Russian resources to control the imperial periphery and wage wars with the neighboring states. In a way, the dissolution of the Russian and Soviet Empires was a result of the unwillingness of the Russian nation to bear further the brunt of administering Ukraine, Belarus, the South Caucasus and the Central Asia.

Modern Russia

Thus, when the Soviet state broke up in 1991, the Russians, for the first time in the last 500 years, had a possibility to build a nation-state within the borders of the modern Russian Federation. Ethnic Russians now constitute around 80% of the total population and, based on the numbers, it can be argued that a Russian nation-state has been achieved.

However, when one looks at the map of the country, the territories populated by the non-Russians are large and located at the borders with neighboring countries. Moreover, the Chechens, Tatars, Bashkirs and others have already been experiencing for a long period of time their own political and historical conscience (not necessarily based on democratic principles).

Where the ethnic Russians still hold a comfortable majority in the federation, various projections claim that that number will significantly decrease in the coming decades, while the number of the Muslim population will increase. This is troublesome for Moscow, as it will undermine the very base on which the modern borders of the Russian Federation exist. More Muslims will force Moscow to make concessions to North Caucasian and other minority-populated territories.

This is purely an imperial concern, which shows how, despite their numerical superiority, the balance of power within Russia is fluid (though spanning several decades) and depends on the core Russian elites and their loyalty to the government in Moscow.

These problems also reflect that an imperial pattern is still existent in Russia and, like many other empires of the 20th century, the modern Russian state too tries to homogenize the issues such as state structures, language of instruction at schools, etc.

The same happened under the Romanovs and the Soviets. Both systems started out giving concessions to large ethnic minorities to win their favor by taking into account the local and regional context when it came to methods of rule. However, later on they began implementing policies of gradual Russification (primarily through advancing the instruction of the Russian language), homogenization of government mechanism and inculcation of Russian patriotism.

Thus, what we are seeing in Russia, the non-continuation of the power-sharing agreement with Tatarstan, diminution of instruction of ethnic languages in the regions, as well as the Kremlin’s concern about Russian nationals living abroad, is highly reminiscent of the Romanov and Soviet policies.

Perhaps, we can expect in the near future an intensification of the process within Russia.

This article was published at Georgia Today

Dr. Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles focused on military and political developments across the former Soviet sphere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *