In Eurasia, empire has proved more durable than in other parts of the world. Whereas in Western Europe, empires have repeatedly broken down, further east, smaller political entities have tended to coalesce under a single supreme authority. For the past four centuries or so, Russian identity has been deeply entwined with empire. A Russian nation state didn’t emerge until 1991, and when it did, a swift descent into economic turmoil quickly helped fuel nostalgia for Soviet times. More recently, Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West has rekindled Russian ambitions for empire, presaging Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and his larger invasion of the country this year. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s confinement to the borders of an ethnic-territorial state still feels unnatural to many Russians.
Anointed to lead Russia in 1999 by Boris Yeltsin, the man who put the final nail in the Soviet coffin, Putin has devoted much of the last 20 years to reclaiming a Russian sphere of influence abroad and boosting Russia’s power vis-à-vis the West. But the empire he has sought to rebuild is not a Soviet or even Tsarist relic, but one that harkens to a pre-Western age when Russian identity was defined by Orthodox Christianity and Slavic traditions. Inspired by the Eurasianism of Lev Gumilev, a renowned Soviet expert on the steppe tribes of Eurasia, and more recently, by the far-right thinker Alexander Dugin, Putin’s imperial vision is nativist and illiberal—pitting a Eurasian union with Russia at its center against the Western world.
Putin’s war in Ukraine is part of this broader effort to re-create a Russian-led Eurasian empire. Like most projects driven by imperial nostalgia, however, it is more a product of imagination than a reflection of the past. From history, Putin has recycled not those qualities that made the Russian Empire endure, but those that destabilized it and contributed to its dissolution by fostering nationalist resentment and resistance. It is little surprise, then, that Putin’s imperial project in Ukraine is already weakening Russia from within and without.
The question of how Russia should relate to the West has always divided Russian politicians and intellectuals. Some saw Russia as European and believed it should imitate its Western neighbors by modernizing. Others rejected Europe and sought to develop a distinctive identity centered around Eurasian traditions. But since the seventeenth century, Russia has mostly leaned in the Western direction. Peter the Great, who reigned from 1682 to 1725, sought to make Russia Western—in part, by forcing all Russian men to cut their beards—while his successors, including not only the reformist Tsar Alexander II but also conservatives such as Tsar Nicholas I and Tsar Nicholas II, continued in this modernizing tradition. Throughout the empire’s existence, its government and elites considered Russia a European state and strived to overcome its backwardness and bring it in line with the Western world by any means possible. Even the Soviet Union, despite being avowedly anti-Western, was in fact built on a vision of modernization and progress that affirmed rather than rejected the Western Enlightenment.
This outlook tended to keep Russian nativism in check. Up until Tsar Nicholas I adopted a doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” in 1833, Russia’s imperial traditions of governance generally sought to accommodate differences rather than squash them. Most of the empire’s military elites consisted of non-Russians—mainly members of the Baltic German nobility. The Russian empire also relied on German, Polish, Swedish, Tatar, Cossack, and Ukrainian elites to administer its rule in their regions, helping to ensure that many non-Russians occupied privileged positions. And although the empire’s lingua franca was Russian, the elites who spoke it did not automatically assimilate into Russian culture. Ethnic Russians (russkie) remained distinct from Russian subjects of the empire (rossisskie), who could be ethnically Russian or not.
When the empire encouraged nationalism, it did so for purely instrumental reasons. After the Poles rose up against Russian rule in 1830, for instance, imperial officials mobilized another budding nationalist movement against them: the “Little Russians,” who would later become Ukrainian nationalists. The empire supported the Little Russians until 1863, when another Polish revolt took place. After that, the empire began clamping down on both Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, whom imperial officials had begun to suspect were in cahoots.
Since the seventeenth century, Russia has mostly leaned in a Western direction.
The Soviets took a similarly pragmatic view of nationalism a half century later. Although the Soviet Union was founded as an anti-imperialist power, it not only preserved but expanded the empire it inherited from the Romanov monarchy. It did so by effectively reorganizing the former Russian empire into ethno-territorial units with autonomous status. Built into this structure was an implicit ethnic hierarchy, as only ethnic groups that were considered culturally and politically developed were granted territories of their own. The Russians and Ukrainians got republics, for instance, while the Kalmyks and Bashkirs got only autonomous regions within republics.
Also built into the Soviet system was a commitment to undoing ethnic inequalities with modernization campaigns. This was the idea behind korenizatsiya, a nativization project launched in the 1920s that introduced schooling in non-Russian languages and promoted the appointment of “natives,” or members of the dominant ethnic-national group, to state and party institutions across the union’s republics and territories.
Russians were granted a federal republic of their own, but, unlike the other nationalities, they were not given separate state or party institutions. Their relationship with the union was never spelled out. As the most politically mature—and allegedly the most advanced—people of the Soviet Union, Russians were identified with the Soviet project as a whole. As a result, non-Russians increasingly saw the union as a Russian empire in disguise, whereas Russians saw affirmative action policies for other groups as relegating them to a secondary status. By the 1980s, this resentment led many Russians to demand an ethnic state of their own—a call that politicians such as Yeltsin, who spearheaded Russia’s exit from the union in 1991, and the nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky capitalized on to advance their careers. On the whole, however, nationalism and nativism were not defining features of the Soviet Union—nor of any long-lived empire, for that matter. Recognizing it as a destabilizing, anti-imperial force, empires have generally approached nationalism with caution.
The collapse of the Soviet Union turned Russia into a struggling former power, too economically crippled and politically confused to have a major say in international affairs. But that moment, which overly optimistic Western observers took to be “the end of history,” was a fleeting one. Russia was bound to rise again. From the very beginning, former Soviet states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan coalesced around Russia. Although they were technically independent, in practice these republics remained bound to Russia through deep economic and cultural ties that benefitted not only the Kremlin but also their own national elites.
Putin has sought to bring the former Soviet world even more firmly under Russia’s thumb. He has also injected Russian imperial identity with new meaning, rejecting the empire’s traditionally pragmatic approach toward its multiethnic population in favor of nativism. The current war in Ukraine is only the most recent manifestation of a trend that observers date to the 2007 Munich Security Conference, when Putin excoriated the United States for creating a unipolar world “in which there is one master, one sovereign.” The following year, Russia invaded Georgia, marking the beginning of a decade-long process in which Putin sought to reassert Russia’s great power status and reclaim its influence over its neighbors.
Underpinning Putin’s war in Ukraine is a vision of Russian nationhood defined by blood, cultural, and spiritual traits.
Still, until 2014, and arguably even after that, Putin was generally considered a pragmatic and strategic thinker. His annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine that year began to alter this assessment, indicating a turn away from pragmatic pluralism and toward a nativist vision of empire that elevates ethnic Russians above all others. Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine this year was justified in precisely these terms. “People who identify as Russians and want to preserve their identity, language, and culture are getting the signal that they are not wanted in Ukraine,” Putin said in a speech on the eve of the invasion. Ethnic Russians, he claimed, were victims of genocide, “fighting for their elementary right to live on their own land, to speak their own language, and to preserve their culture and traditions.”
Underpinning Putin’s righteous battle for Russians in Ukraine is an organic vision of Russian nationhood defined by blood and cultural and spiritual traits rather than by political contract or choice. It is a vision shared by thinkers such as Gumilev and Dugin as well as the religious philosopher Ivan Ilyn, who has similarly described Russia as a “living organism” of “nature and the soul” that cannot be “divided, only dissected,” and whose writings Putin has been known to assign as “homework” to regional governors. Putin contrasts this organic vision of Russia with the Ukrainian nation and state, which in his view are artificial products of politics and mindless emulation “of foreign models.” Thus, while championing Russian nationalism, Putin simultaneously lambasts the nationalism of non-Russians as a “disease” and “virus.”
Putin’s nativist turn has inspired autocrats in other parts of the world, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who see Putin as the leader of a new kind of conservatism and anti-Westernism. His imperial dream is likely appealing also to the sizable number of Russians who believe that minorities such as Jews and Muslim Central Asians control the country. Yet the inherent weaknesses of his vision of a nativist empire have also become apparent. Rather than weaken NATO, the war in Ukraine has thus far strengthened it. In Ukraine, the war has galvanized a new post-Soviet Ukrainian identity that is defined both by its hostility toward Russia and by its embrace of pro-Western and pro-European sentiments. And inside Russia itself, Putin’s vision of empire is causing economic hardship on a scale not seen since the 1990s as economic sanctions have taken their toll.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
In his address to the Bundestag on February 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the war in Ukraine as indicative of Putin’s attempt to “turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers.” Yet Putin is trying to turn the clock back even further, to a partially imagined pre-Western era in which nativism reigned.
As historian Jane Burbank recently wrote in The New York Times, Putin’s imperial imagination can best be described as “Eurasianism”—the idea that Russia has been shaped primarily by its encounters with Asia rather than Europe. Dating back to the early twentieth century, when Russian émigré intellectuals used this idea to critique the Bolshevik Revolution as a product of unwanted Western influence in Russia, Eurasianism has sought to answer the fundamental question around which most of Russia’s intellectual and cultural life has revolved—namely, whether Russia belongs to Europe or Asia.
With or without Putin at the helm, Russia would likely have reemerged after 1991 as a revisionist power, just as it did after World War I. But that does not mean that Russia is doomed to be always in conflict with the West or to always expand at the expense of its neighbors. After it was completely defeated in both world wars, Germany—whose militarism and appetite for authoritarianism were once thought incurable—reemerged as an engine of European integration and democracy. Russia might one day undergo a similar transformation. But first it must be completely defeated, along with Putin’s illiberal and nativist vision of empire. And although Ukraine and its allies in the West can help with the former, only Russians can achieve the latter.