Staunton, May 13 – Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine which to so many appears only as an act of aggression is in back “profoundly defensive,” an effort to stop the disintegration of the Russian empire by injecting “patriotic morphine” into the veins of Russians, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
But like the use of any drug for that purpose, the St. Antony’s scholar says, Moscow will have to administer it in ever greater doses, “moving from one war to another” and possibly dying from “an overdose of patriotism” or face the next round of collapse of the Russian imperial project.
In an article in yesterday’s Novaya Gazeta, the Russian scholar argues that “the longer the imperial ream of the Russian people lasts, the more difficult will be its awakening” and that it is even possible that the Russian people “will not wake up at all.” The consequences of that will be truly terrifying.
Pastukhov approaches this issue historically. After reaching its apogee in the 19th century, he suggests, Russia has been in imperial decline for more than a century, with periods of near total collapse alternating with massive and self-defeating efforts to save the empire in one form or another.
After the collapse of the empire in 1917, the Russian Empire was restored under “the brand name ‘USSR’ by the application of total ideological, political and economic mobilization of the resources of society.” But “unfortunately, this could not stop the process of disintegration but only slow it down.”
By the end of the 1980s, the collapse began again in earnest, and this time around, “practically the entire periphery where the titular ethnoses had their own state infrastructure fell away from the center.” But because this process was peaceful, “Russia by a miracle succeeded in stabilizing its empire.”
“Many of those who today condemn Gorbachev for the collapse of the country,” Pastukhov says, fail to appreciate that if things had gone in 1991 as far as they are going now, “then the very subject of discussion would long ago have ceased to exist.”
But the post-Soviet leaders were not able to ensure the stability of the system with “the old methods” or by “a total mobilization of society.” “Stepping into one and the same ideological water turns out to be impossible.” Imported liberalization didn’t fit the needs of empire, and Russia lacked the forces to do it itself.
Consequently, Pastukhov continues, “Russia was transformed at the beginning of the 21st century into a ‘political technology’ empire,” one that continued less because of real resources than through “cheap tricks.” It rests on three foundations: “the manipulation of mass consciousness, the use of the criminal world as the ‘fourth power,’ and the suppression of social protest by the redistribution of ‘natural rents’ to the population.”
This “rickety stability” supported by Putin’s personalist rule, “exhausted itself already at the end” of his second term, Pastukhov says. Now, the third phase of the collapse of the empire has begun with the appearance of “a series of local military conflicts which have arisen practically out of nowhere like the horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
The Russian-Ukrainian war arose so quickly, he continues, that “the majority in Russia (but not in Ukraine) even has not been able to recognize that this is really a war.” In large measure, that is because it is not an act of aggression as much as an act of defense, an effort to preserve the empire by appearing to be capable of extending it.
Russians have been encouraged to fall into a dreamlike state in which they imagine that they are back in the USSR. But “in fact, contemporary Russia is like the Soviet Union in the same way that the Moon is like the Sun – it is lit [only] by reflected light,” and “the source of this light” no longer exists.
As a result, the historian says, “Russia has been converted into a land of eternal twilights, the future of which is in the past and it lives by the illusion that it can stop the hands of the clock of history.”
The supporters of the empire are building “a Soviet period park” in Russia, but however superficially justified the parallels are, Russia is not the USSR in the first instance because “the ideology of communism and that eclectic combination of partially communistic and partially Black Hundreds ideas” which make up “the Putin doctrine” have little in common.
For all its shortcomings, Pastukhov points out, “’Russian communism’” had a creative component and was “in ‘the mainstream’ of the development of international spiritual culture of its times.” The current ideological hash has “no creative basis” and only has reproduced “the external attributes of Soviet ideology.”
It is an imitation rather than something real, he argues, and “Russia has been converted into an enormous show room where politics, economics and administration are reduced to the level of spectacle.” Even the propaganda effort is pathetic at least with regard to quality, and it works only “because it is easy to deceive those who are glad to be.”
“People in Russia for a long time have not been looking for truth; they want instead to be told stories,” Pastukhov says, because they implicitly fear reality and “do not believe in any miraculous salvation either.” These fears of the end of empire were only deepened by the Ukrainian revolution, which led to hysteria among Russians.
Hysteria, of course, is “a form of psychological defense: people use it to push away from themselves a frightening reality,” Pastukhov continues. And it is easier to live with myths than to face up to harsh reality.
The situation is only going to get worse, he suggests. “The spasms of the empire are like epileptic fits: each new one can be stronger than its predecessor,” [and] the probability is very great that after the next episode, Russia already will never more ‘rise from its knees,’” as Putin promises and many want to believe.
The dividing up of the empire among the Great Russians, the Russians, and in the near term the Belarusians is perhaps manageable psychologically, but the splitting of the internal empire between the Russians and the Tatars will be something else. And Moscow has brought that day closer by annexing Crimea and thus bringing “a Trojan horse” into its house.
That is because “the Crimean Tatar movement may become the catalyst of conflict between Moscow and Kazan,” Pastukhov says. “If things reach that point, then it will be too late to cure Russia.”
Trying to save the empire “at any price” is a dead end because “those who do not develop cannot survive by definition either in nature or in history.” And Russia now finds itself caught between “dynamically developing civilizational platforms” in all directions: in Europe, in China, and in the south with Turkey and Iran.
“Today,” Pastukhov argues, “Russia like a poor chess player, has sacrificed Siberia for Crimea at the very beginning of the game. The withdrawal from Europe to Asia may end with the country’s disappearance altogether.”
If Russia is to preserve “its statehood,” he concludes, “it must escape from its imperial illusions and ambitions by concentrating on the resolution of its own internal problems, including constitutional arrangements and the modernization of the economy.” What Putin is offering will not do that.
Today, Pastukhov says, “Russia needs a surgeon, not an anesthesiologist. [Its] illness must be cured rather having the victim drugged and deceived.” Russians “must find in themselves the strength to look truth in the eye” and to recognize that they can only prosper if they stop thinking that they can restore what they imagine to be a glorious past.