Staunton, May 2 – Two months ago, Mariya Snegova, a Russian sociologist at Columbia University, suggested that Vladimir Putin was drawing on Mikhail Yuryev’s 2006 novel, The Third Empire, as a guide to his moves against Ukraine and as a source for a new imperial ideology.
Snegova’s conclusions about the impact of Yuryev’s thinking on Putin have been eerily confirmed by subsequent events. And that in turn suggests that Putin, who often cites the works of other writers and who is said by aides to identify The Third Empire as his favorite novel, may plan to act in the future in ways the novelist wrote about eight years ago.
Consequently, because the Columbia scholar proved so prescient about Putin and Ukraine, it is worth revisiting what she wrote in early March as well as considering the broader implications for Russian policy contained in the Yuryev novel itself, the text of which is available online.
Over the past dozen years, Snegova noted, Putin has regularly cited Russian writers like Nicholas Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyev and Ivan Ilin, all of whom argued that Russia must have an enormous role in the international arena and build to that by promoting “Orthodoxy on the territories under its control.”
Indeed, despite the suggestion of many that the Kremlin leader does not have an ideology, Putin’s reading of these and other books suggests that he not only does but has been developing it for some time. Among the books that have most influenced him, she argued, is Yuryev’s The Third Empire: The Russian Which Must Be” published in 2006.
That book is a description of the world in 2054 purportedly written by a Latin American as a Russian history textbook. Drawing on Samuel Huntington’s vision, the book says that by 2053, “as a result of global wars,” there remained only “five state-civilizations, one of which was Russia in the form of the Third Empire.” (The tsarist and Soviet states were the first and second.)
In Yuryev’s telling, Snegova said, “the construction of the Third Empire began with the coming to power of Vladimir II the Restorer (the first, Vladimir Judas was Lenin) who was able to restore Russia to the status of a great power and to gather the Russian lands.”
That Putin views himself this way is clear, but what is more intriguing is Yuryev’s suggestion that “initially Vladimir the Ingatherer concealed his pro-imperialist impulses, built up reserves and waited for the weakening of the West,” that his state was “based on state corporatism and economic protection,” and that he destroyed the oligarchs and other “pro-Western agents of influence.”
In his book, Yuryev said that Vladimir the Ingatherer began with “an explosion in Ukraine” that led people in the eastern portions of Ukraine to appeal to Moscow to defend them “against ‘Western rule.’” Russia dispatched 80,000 troops, sparking a war with NATO.
As a result of this conflict, Ukraine was divided in two parts, one in the center and west linked with Europe and the West and a second, “Russian” part, consisting of Kharkiv, Dneprpetrivsk, Mykolayev and Odessa regions and oriented toward Moscow. Yuryev did get the date for all this wrong: he wrote that it would happen in 2008.
As Snegov wrote, Yuryev suggested that under Vladimir the Ingatherer, Russia would “gradually unify the territory of the Second Empire” because in his telling – and now in Putin’s – “the disintegration of the Second Empire in 1991 was not by the will of the peoples but rather was the result of a special operation of the West” in conjunction with internal “traitors.”
Yuryev then said that Vladimir the Ingatherer would, in order to establish “the real equality of all the peoples” of the Third Empire, disband the Russian Federation and replace it with a Russian (Eurasian or Customs!) Union.” Having restored a state with more than 200 million people and more than 20 million square kilometers, Russia begin a new “cold war” with the West.
Belarus could easily be next, Snegova said Yuryev’s novel suggests, adding that “if Lukashenka is acquainted with the content of ‘The Third Empire,’ then one should expect in the immediate future loud and active declarations from him about the normalization of relations with the European Union,” something that his government has been doing.
Moreover, she argued on the basis of her reading of Yuryev that the Moscow Patriarchate will be among the most active proponents of the idea of “the Russian people is divided on its historical territory and has the right to reestablish itself in a single state body,” another prophecy that has come true.
What is most terrible about these parallels, Snegova concluded, is that they indicate that the Kremlin had been planning to move in this direction “long ago” and that it has an ideology that is “based on the simple reproduction of a century-old idea,” something “more terrible than the absence of ideology as such.”
And that in turn means that “the real clash of civilizations has begun,” Snegova said, a clash potentially far more dangerous than the one many in the West have assumed was at the core of Huntington’s argument because in this one, Russia is on one side of a line and the West is on the other rather than the two being allied against the rising power of Islam.