Vienna, September 24 – After Russia’s intervention in Georgia, many in Moscow and the West have been arguing that the Kremlin is simply seeking recognition of the former Soviet space as its sphere of influence, a demand that some see as reasonable but that others view as a threat to the international system.
But one Moscow analyst warns that in fact a growing number of increasingly influential people in the Russian capital have a far larger goal: They want Moscow to regain what it “lost” in 1991, and they want this new and expanded state to become a superpower resembling what the Soviet Union had been earlier.
In an essay posted on the Grani.ru portal this week, Irina Pavlova traces the history of the emergence of this neo-imperial worldview back to the mid-1990s and argues that in recent months, its advocates, often viewed as marginal in the past, have become part of the ideological mainstream (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.141751.html).
To understand why that is so, she says, one must recognize that “the people in Russia as a rule believe those in power” and that “the supreme power is untouchable and absolutely insured against any questions and even more demands by the people.” Consequently, when the Georgian conflict started, “the people believed [Moscow’s] explanations and supported [the government].”
Given how closed off the powers that be in Russia are, she writes, “the experts are assuring us that no, Putin and company do not have any ideology and that they are interested only in money.” But any serious consideration of the words they are using and the content of what they are saying shows that such a view is wrong, even delusional.
“For those who want to understand what is taking place,” Pavlova writes, “it is clear that the powers that be have changed the language they use. The prime minister, the president, and representative of the army, special services and church, that is, all the most influential forces in the country, now speak it.”
And this language -- one drawn from the writings of people like the Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin, Russian nationalist Sergei Kurginyan, and Patriarch Aleksii II -- and reflects the views of those “who up to now cannot come to terms with the collapse of the Soviet Union and who have been bringing up the idea of global revenge.”
A decade ago, there was a clear distinction between the words of Dugin, Kurginyan, and Aleksii, on the one hand, and the leaders of the state, on the other, but now they have converged, “a moment of truth has arrived when the vision of the world of the representatives of those in power and their secret intensions are becoming clear.”
Pavlova devotes most of her article to an analysis for the rising profile of the neo-imperialists in such places as the special issues of “Ekspert” entitled “Russia. Five Centuries of Empire” (www.expert.ru/printissues/expert/2008/01/) and of “Profil” on the national goals of Russia in the future (/www.expert.ru/printissues/expert/2008/01/).
“After the Russian government decided on the military operation in the Caucasus and then recognized the independence of south Ossetia and Abkhazia,” she says, “the next stage of converting into life the intention of the powers [to rebuild the empire and become a superpower] began,” as several writers have already pointed out (www.profile.ru/numbers/?number=625).
Perhaps the clearest articulation of the direction in which Moscow is moving, she says, is provided by “Profil’” editor Mikhail Leontyev’s recent influential book “Fortress Russia.” In it, he writes, “liberalism is the policy of the strong in relation to the weak, which deprives the weak of any chance to become strong” (www.chtivo.ru/chtivo=3&bkid=765390.htm).
Consequently, he continues, “the response of Russia to American challenges cannot be liberal. … Our country is an inaccessible fortress! As long as it isn’t surrendered without a battle by the ‘internal enemy.’ We have a reason for optimism! … [Especially] if the powers that be finally dispense with the liberalism hated by the people!”
Leontyev, Kurginyan, and Dugin believe that Russia must adopt “an alternative aggressive ideological and geopolitical project,” that it must “think and act in an imperial way,” and that it must become “a world power” which projects power from its borders “to the most distant corners of the planet.” And ever more people in the political elite agree, Pavlova says.
For both these writers and the political figures who follow them, their “unqualified ideal is a superpower like the Soviet Union,” a country with a core (the USSR) and a periphery consisting of the Warsaw Pact, the world communist system, the national liberation movement, the non-aligned countries and so on.”
“In these universal plans for the restoration of empire, the people of Russia is given only the privilege of serving the powers that be,” Pavlova says, a view that reinforces the traditional relationship between rulers and ruled in Russia rather than opening up the possibilities for a break with the past.
“But now is an entirely different time,” some will object, “it’s the 21st century after all.” But Pavlova says, while the external trappings have changed, inside Russia is “the same traditional, patriarchal country with the same type of power and the same mentality of the people which has learned nothing from its history.”
Even if Pavlova’s dire vision of the direction Russia is taking is overstated – and many will insist that it is – her argument represents a useful correction to those who refuse to pay attention to the influence that people like Dugin and Leontyev now have and to those who insist that Russia wants to be a traditional power in the Western understanding of that term.