Staunton, August 30 – Vladimir Putin is often accused of wanting to restore the Soviet system or at least its core values, but in fact, the Kremlin leader is interested in promoting the its “imperial-militarist” element and not its “revolutionary” component, a pattern that has the effect of limiting Russia’s ability to deal with the rest of the world, according to Vadim Shtepa.
In a new commentary, the Petrozavodsk-based federalist thinker notes that as a result of this, Putin is even more interested in promoting “the cult of ‘the Great Victory’” in World War II than Brezhnev, even though “it would seem” that that event is “ever further receding into history.”
Putin’s use of this “cult,” the commentator says, reflects the Kremlin’s understanding that it is “an extraordinarily useful technology for political repressions and territorial expansions” because “any opponent can with ease be designated ‘a fascist’” and thus deserving of destruction.
“And so,” he continues, “the post-Soviet evolution [of Russia] has led to a strange ideological remake from the Soviet inheritance and the pre-Soviet imperial tradition,” a combination that despite its obvious logical problems as “a post-modern mix” has nonetheless “proven quite popular.”
Shtepa traces the emergence of this particular approach to the past back to 1991. At that time, he writes, Russia was committed to democracy and integration in the international community and explicitly rejected the imperial, militarist and revolutionary characteristics of its Soviet predecessor. As a result, the August 1991 coup failed.
But while the coup failed, many of its values remained terribly widespread in Russia, and as a result, Shtepa says, “democratic Russia suddenly began to reproduce the archaic stereotypes of the Soviet empire,” one viewed by the world “not as one of the new states arising after the disintegration of the USSR but as a direct continuation of that same USSR only a little reduced in size as a result of the loss of formal control over the territories of the former union republics.
As a result, if 23 years ago, “Russia and the USSR were viewed as political antipodes,” in the years since, they have increasingly come to be viewed as closely linked and remarkably similar in key respects. And that shift has taken place not only among outsiders but also among members of the Russian elite.
That put Russia at odds with the other former republics of the USSR because “if they began a new and real history of their own, then Russia, the political center of which remained the Kremlin began an extension of Soviet history. And if at first this ‘succession’ involved narrowly legal issues such as membership in the UN, then later it became a matter of worldview as well.”
Because “no historical border between the USSR and the Russian Federation” was drawn, the two “began to be considered one and the same country,” even though it was Russia’s Boris Yeltsin who precipitated the demise of the Soviet Union by his actions at Beloveshchaya rather than any actions by non-Russian leaders or nations.
Many Russians today believe just the reverse and that shift in understanding “has led to a situation in which ‘the near abroad’ in contemporary Russia is conceived not as consisting of independent states but ever more as some kind of ‘separatist provinces.’” And that has been particularly true with regard to Ukraine.
According to Shtepa, ”the worldview sources of this conflict are rooted in the reborth imperial myth of ‘a triune people’ (the Great Russians, the Little Russians, and the Belorussians),” a myth that Shtepa argues is “incompatible with contemporary state-legal principles.”
Many in both Russia and the West imagined that Russia could make “a real historical breakthrough” with de-communization, Shtepa says, but that was clearly “insufficient.” Also needed was the full-scale development of federalism. “But even the most democratic and progressive Russian politicians traditionally did not view that as a priority.”
In Shtepa’s telling, “the first major political event of independent Russia was the signing in March 1992 of the Federal Treaty.” But even this document contained within itself “fatal imperial aspects:” It was not concluded by equal subjects but between “’the center’ and ‘the provinces.’”
And 18 months later, this document was superceded by a new Constitution which “gave the president almost tsar-like authority and significantly reduced the importance of the parliament.” And that bow to the past in turn in “a logical way” restarted “the endless Caucasian colonial wars.”
Putin’s power vertical “also completely logically arose from this restorationist trend,” Shtepa says. The Kremlin leader only had to eliminate the elections of governors and restart “great power propganda that presented Russia as ‘a beseiged fortress.’” Unlike Yeltsin who despite everything “distanced himself from the Soviet heritage,” Putin took to it, but only its “imperial and militarist” portions.
Among the contradictory products of this “imperial remake,” Shtepa says, is “imperial federalism,” which is “not a principle of the internal development of one’s own country but an instrument for the destruction of neighbors.” Indeed, while any Russian can call for it abroad, it has become dangerous to call for federalism at home.
But Russians in the age of Putin seem untroubled by this or by another contradiction, Shtepa says. “For a long time already, no one sees any contradiction” in the fact that the tricolor, the flag of the democratic Russia of August 1991 is raised with bands playing the melody of the anything but democratic Soviet Union.