By Paul Goble
The process of the disintegration of the Russian empire will finally conclude sometime in the next few years until what some may still want to call Great Russia with a capital in Moscow will be limited to the space between Smolensk and Vladimir, according to Oleg Kashin.
But this development, the Russian journalist says, will have less to do with the actions of nationalist groups, Russian or non-Russian, than with the rise of a generation for whom Moscow is increasingly irrelevant to their identities and concerns, much as the Soviet center became irrelevant to the union republics a quarter of a century ago.
In a March 24 speech in Moscow that has been posted online and sparked widespread discussion, Kashin argues that it is instructive to consider Russia today by recalling how people “looked at the Soviet Union in 1983,” a time when “it was difficult to guess that eight years later it would not exist” (www.openspace.ru/society/russia/details/21660/).
Kashin points out that “in the Putin decade, the unity of Russia cased to be an absolute value,” and “for many Russia ceased to be a value in general because these by the millions each year have been leaving” to take up residence abroad, “from which they will not return in the near future.”
As a result of the declining significant of Russia and Moscow as sources of identity and influence, “the centers of the federal districts, and also places like Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg in principle [today] occupy just the same place that Kyiv, Minsk and Tbilisi occupied in the Soviet Union,” that is, as “potential new capitals of other countries.”
Because that is the case, the Yekaterinburg journalist argues, the ongoing disintegration of the Russian Federation is occurring along “purely political lines” and in ways that recall the Beloveshchaya accord by which the leaders of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus put an end to the USSR.
“Somewhere in some park will assemble a few key governors, they will sign a second Beloveshchaya accord, and that will be that,” Kashin continues. “The destruction of the Soviet Union was legally accomplished when the delegations of [the three Slavic republics] left the Supreme Soviet of the USSR” and the latter no longer had a quorum.
The sense of Moscow’s and even the Russian Federation’s growing irrelevance to people in many parts of the Russian Federation is clear to anyone who travels about the country, the journalist says. “It is especially felt” in large regional centers where “Moscow is ceasing to be the place towards which they are oriented as an economic and mental source.”
“We,” Kashin suggests, “are an empire that has not yet fallen apart.” But “sooner or later this process of disintegration must be concluded.” It is “completely wild,” he says, “that in the framework of one country should live such varied, literally, states as St. Petersburg and Daghestan.” This place is “already not one country;” these are “different countries.”
Kashin stresses that this process has less to do with ethnic conflicts than with political ones. “In contemporary Russia,” he suggests, there are no strongly felt inter-ethnic contradictions. If tomorrow the police disappeared from the streets and a public murder day began, it is hardly the case that this would take the form of ethnic cleansings.”
Instead, he argues, these conflicts would be “not inter-ethnic but rather between representatives of different social classes.” And he continues, within any of the national state formations, what is happening now is this: “the new generation of local residents is being educated not in the spirit of separatism [as such] but in that of the denial of Russia.”
Young Tatars, for example, are now focusing on Mintimir Shaimiyev’s refusal to sign the federal treaty in 1992 as “a colossal step in the development of national sovereignty an d a step toward future independence.” When this generation takes power there, Kashin says, “Tatarstan just like the Caucasus will cease to be part of Russia.”
Even in nominally ethnic Russian regions, the journalist continues, ever more people feel alienated and apart from Moscow and from Russia. One official in Kirov oblast, for example, said he hoped for a new “big war in the Caucasus” because that would allow more parts of the federation to escape and possibly have “a good life.”
Some may think that Moscow television is unifying people “populating the space from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.” That is nonsense, Kashin says, noting that in his native Kaliningrad, people look to Europe rather than to Moscow, view Russia as foreign. “Moscow is needed only by the Muscovites,” they now believe.
And as these developments take place, Kashin argues, identities will shift. After the collapse, “the Central Federal District lacking oil will feel itself somewhat worse than it does not, but everything will be fine in the Khanty-Mansiisk district.” And “sooner or later,” people who now call themselves Russians will describe themselves as “some kind of Khanty.”
“Of course, in this hypothetical collapse of Russia, the Far East will become very important for China, Japan and America and perhaps will life quite well. Because, of course, Russia now in essence doesn’t have it, and no one [in Moscow] needs it,” something people there strongly feel.
Twenty years ago, Moscow couldn’t prevent the disintegration of the country. “We saw,” Kashin says, “how the Kremlin reacted in 1991 – it introduced tanks in Vilnius and in Baku. Did that save the Soviet Union? Obviously, not.” And today’s vaunted “power vertical” has no better answer.
Indeed, the construction of that institution may have made the end closer, Kashin suggests. “When there was a strong regional power … the country was more stable. But in that same Vladivostok, when two years ago were revolts of car owners against increased fees, Moscow had to send in the Moscow OMON” because it couldn’t rely on local forces.
“This step means much more as far as the future hypothetical disintegration of Russia is concerned than any declarations of local politicians,” Kashin says.
Recent coverage of Gorbachev’s 80th birthday, Kashin says, has suggested to many in the Russian Federation that “the main beneficiary” of the end of the USSR was Estonia, “which got into the Euro zone first.” Clearly, some of “our oblasts,” such as Petersburg or Novgorod or Kaliningrad, are wondering whether they will be able to follow.
Although few are taking this possibility seriously just as few took Andrey Amalrik’s essay “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” when it was written, Kashin says, history is moving quickly, and the end of the Russian Federation is likely to take place sometime in the next five years or at least “during the life of our generation.”
In that event, Kashin concludes, Great Russia will be reduced to the space “from Smolensk to Vladimir.” Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, “will be on that side of the border. As will Kaliningrad [the already non-contiguous part of the Russian Federation], and as even more will be Vladivostok,” the major port on the Pacific.