Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. This truth describes not only Russia but the entire Eurasian Plate that stretches between the West and Asia. Living in the Western world, we cannot forget the bellicose East, which crashes into Europe every hundred years. At the contemporary center of all this confusion is the Russian Federation, which, despite its great backwardness, scares us with almost half of the world’s nuking potential.
The cold nature of the East
To understand the processes taking place in the East we need to, first of all, understand the complicated nature of the people. The narrative created in the Kremlin promotes a vision of pan-Slavism that seeks to unite Slavic lands under the banner of the biggest Slavic nation, Russia. The main problem, however, is that what has formed the Russian mentality as we know it today is a long-forgotten event in Russian history. Russia is the region worst affected by Mongolian domination. The Mongols slaughtered a large part of the population, imposed terrible taxes, and devastated the region economically, isolating it from the rest of Europe. Lasting from the early 13th century until 1480, Mongolian rule periodizes Russian history into what came before and after the Mongols.
Authoritarianism, which is identified with Russia, remains a natural consequence of the oppression of the Mongols, who were so evil that people were able to sacrifice freedom at any cost just to be safe from the military. Combined with the orthodox position of the Tsar, the Mongolian heritage laid the foundation for modern Russian political and social philosophy, which was strengthened by the communist collective dictatorship. Fear of repeated domination caused future Russian elites to shift borders as far away from Moscow as possible. Over the centuries, this created a large land empire with all its problems as we know them today.
What remains interesting is how modern authoritarianism overlaps with the borders of the past Mongolian empire. Amid this legacy is the Russian Federation seeking to reunite the lands of the former USSR under a common banner. It is one of the last breaths of a pulsating empire that has grown steadily to gargantuan proportions over the past centuries, only to collapse under its size over and over.
The main ingredients for the success of the various variations of the Russian Empire were:
- A vast territory full of rich minerals, fertile lands, and navigable rivers.
- Huge rapidly recovering human resources.
While the first territorial pillar of the Russian Empire remains relevant despite the significant diminution of its territory, the second population pillar, along with the ineffectual economic system, is becoming a tremendous burden on Putin’s entire imperial project. Understanding the pressing problems of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin is trying to bring about another expansion of his country before it is too late.
An endless decline
One of the more surprising events of the 21st was the collapse of the USSR. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, the newly formed countries, except for the Baltic states, remained within the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation. Russian influence in the post-Soviet area was visible in various types of international organizations, the most important of which were the Commonwealth of Independent States (Russian: Содружество Независимых Государств) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Russian: Организация Договора о коллективной безопасности). At the turn of the twentieth-first century, it seemed that the erosion of the Russian world had been halted. Yeltsin’s Russia tried to fit into the globalizing world of the end of history by implementing Western Capitalism.
The turn of the century was also a period when the dissolution of the Russian Empire took a new shape. It started with the wars in Chechnya and the Caucasus. The ultimate confirmation of Russia’s resurgent position came with Putin’s rise to power. The progressive Putinization of Russia was tantamount to the end of the liberal-capitalist experiment. Importantly, Russia is the country, in which communism has lasted the longest. Russian Federation’s inability to find its way in the globalized world, combined with nostalgia for its Soviet heritage, has brought it back on the road to imperialism.
Doomed to lose?
Despite its desire to remain a global superpower, Russia is in a very disappointing condition. It has a smaller economy than five times less populated Canada. In addition, it remains neither politically nor culturally attractive. Even before the mass exodus of the youth associated with the war in Ukraine, the Russian intelligentsia was already trying to emigrate as soon as possible. Even within the elite itself, little faith in Russia is evident. This country has never developed any institution, not even a military one, which could testify to its strength.
Ukraine’s detachment from the Russian mir has resulted in Putin’s last attempt to expand the borders of the Russian world. The final act we observe reflects the disintegration of Putin’s project. The last pulse of the Russian Empire. Persisting in self-destruction is devastating for Russia and the whole world, which is losing the enormous potential it could develop in cooperation with this country. Russia has produced many eminent personalities, from artists, and philosophers to writers, and definitely has still a lot more to offer.
Szymon Polewka – student of international relations at the Jagiellonian University, specializing in the history of international relations, the Eurasian area, DACHL countries, intercultural relations and energy.