President George W. Bush’s recent attendance in the festivities in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat took place against the background of rising tensions between Washington and the Kremlin. The American leader’s decision to make historic first time visits to the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia drew an odd response from the Russian foreign minister, who went as far as sending a letter of protest. However inappropriate, the protest did not transpire without reason. Mr. Sergey Lavrov understood well the symbolic importance of an American president’s visit to democratic Latvia and Georgia, the countries Russia still considers to be subjects of its so-called sphere of influence. The Americans’ message to Moscow, in essence, was that these territories were no longer the backyard Russia could abuse at will. Perhaps predictably, during his stay in Latvia, President Bush took the opportunity to remind his Russian counterpart that it is “in his country's interests that there be democracies on his borders.” Unstated yet clearly implied in this comment was the inference that Putin must attend to his democratic responsibilities, instead of nurturing still more autocratic aspirations for Russia's future.
There was a time when skeptics of Russia’s democratic potential liked to cite frequently the well-known dictum: “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Mongol.” The logic went that their Asiatic origins prevented Russians from embracing Western liberalism. Given the changes that have taken place in the Asian landscape in the past half-century, it is long due to correct this gross historical injustice against the Asians, and in particular, the Mongols. According to the latest annual report by the prestigious Freedom House, Mongolia is a “free” country, whereas Russia is still listed in the category of “not free” nations alongside Syria, North Korea and Cuba. So, left without this easy rationale which for centuries helped many Westerners to excuse Russia’s tyrannical penchant, how is one to explain what currently transpires in Russia?
Make no mistake, the Russia of Vladimir Putin is headed anywhere except toward a democratic future. If the latest actions and statements by the Russian president are any indication, his country will not join the ranks of democratic nations anytime soon. Ever since coming to power, Vladimir Putin has consistently tried and often succeeded in wiping out what seemed to be sprouting elements of democracy. Having crushed the independent media and insubordinate business class, Putin first consolidated political power by stuffing key government posts with his pals from the KGB. Then, in a startling move, the Russian president decreed the liquidation of the system that had allowed citizens to choose their own governors. In order to increase the efficiency of the system, Putin claimed, from that point on, he was to appoint all the governors throughout the eight time zones of Russia. His appetite for power was not limited to the confines of Russia alone. In the Fall of 2004, Putin actively involved himself in the Ukrainian presidential elections trying to ensure that power remained in the hands of the authoritarian clique in Kiev. But something marvelous happened. This time, Putin failed.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, Putin’s foreign policy adventures have been nowhere near as successful as those in the domestic front. However, that has not stopped him from expressing his frustration at the fact that Russia can no longer dominate its neighbors and shape them in its own autocratic image. In a recent remark, the Russian leader observed that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th Century.” Forget the World War I, multiple Soviet famines that killed millions, the Gulag, Holocaust, or Pol Pot’s massacres in Cambodia. The mostly peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, in Putin’s mind, was the worst of them all. Adding to the insult, in response to the demands to acknowledge the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics, the Russian ambassador to the European Union, Sergey Yastrzhembski, argued with a straight face that the occupation of these countries took place in accordance with the wishes of the native peoples who, of course, were later to be shot, imprisoned and deported in large numbers to the death camps of Siberia.
The unwillingness to face up to its imperial past as well as its menacing behavior toward new democracies in its neighborhood has much to do with Russia’s imperial present. Unlike every other European colonial power that has apologized for the wrongdoings of the past, Russia to this day has not renounced imperialism. Russia, to be sure, remains an empire. Besides its genocidal oppression against Chechens, Russia has imposed a direct presidential rule over the Tatars, Bashkurts, and tens of other nationalities against their wishes. A handful of individuals within the walls of the Kremlin continue to decide the fate of millions of non-Russians who have very little say in their own governance.
From ferocious Romans in the late Antiquity period to benign Habsburgs in 19th Century, history demonstrates that empires and democracy have never blended well together. Empire, by nature, is the antithesis of republic. Democracy ordinarily takes root in a republic that is based on an identifiable constituency which sees itself at the center of the polity. Russia has never been a polity as such, or in any other way. As the renowned historian of Russia Richard Pipes has argued, throughout its long history, “Russia was not so much a society as an conglomeration of tens of thousands of separate rural settlements” kept together by awesome, all–powerful despots seated at the Kremlin. While all empires entail a great degree of oppression in regard to those colonized, its extreme centralization and unwillingness to relegate any sort of power to the localities made Russia exceptional even among traditional empires.
Through this method of rule, not only did the Russian state oppress the colonized but also the vast majority of its ethnic core – the Russians. The extreme atomization of the society is most evident in the fact that until 1861, nearly 80 percent of the Russians were serfs. Precisely, as a result of this deep lack of social cohesiveness among ethnic Russians, the modern Russian identity came to be formed almost solely around imperial notions of the self.
What is most disturbing about today’s Russia is not Vladimir Putin per se, but the fact that Putin represents the mindset of a great many Russians. It helps to know that unlike Peter the Great, Lenin or Stalin, Vladimir Putin has actually been elected to presidency by the majority of the Russian people. His career in KGB notwithstanding, Putin’s background contains features that are common with most ordinary Russians. In most of his actions, including the crude interference in the elections in Ukraine or strong friendship with the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenka, dubbed as the last dictator of Europe, Putin echoes the sentiments of large numbers of Russians who feel the need to maintain some type of barrier against the West. One could indeed argue that at the heart of this attitude stands the age-old enmity with the Teutonic folks. Still, this self-defeating course is more about Russia’s own identity that that of the West.
Russia cannot imagine itself as a democracy because, in the minds of many Russians, this would mean an end to “Great Russia.” They may even be right. In fact, every time Russia loosened up in the past, it did lose territories. During the revolutionary upheaval of 1917, Russia lost much of its empire, only to regain it later through the Bolshevik arms. Seventy years later, the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev cost Russia almost all of Eastern Europe and the parts of what was then the Soviet Union. Even in places like Chechnya, when given a slight chance, non-Russians have revolted against the Kremlin’s rule.
The question least asked however is what this “Great Russia” gave to the Russians in the first place? Having never achieved material prosperity in its history, Russia’s current economic output is less than that of Los Angeles county alone. Most Russians are living at a subsistence level. With such great economic and scientific potential, the nation has living standards below those of 96 countries. All of this reminds me of the old German war veteran who was recently asked about his thoughts on losing the World War II. He said: “We fought with all our might to prevent that outcome. At the time that was completely unacceptable to us. But looking back, I realize that it was a good thing that we lost.” If the Russians eventually embark on this uneasy path to democracy, perhaps some day they might look back and realize that it was good for them to lose their empire. Otherwise, they will forever remain captives of the Great Russia that brought such misery to so many.