CULTURE

Internal empire | Eurozine


As Russia’s attempt to reestablish its ‘external empire’ via its war on Ukraine enters its third year, Osteuropa focuses on the relations between Moscow and its ‘internal empire’, the myriad republics, oblasts and territories that make up the Russian Federation.

Though a federal system was enshrined in the Russian Constitution of 1993, ‘in reality, Russia has for the past twenty years been a de facto imperium’, note the editors in their preface,

In an article on ‘Russia’s internal empire’, political scientist Andreas Heinemann-Grüder lays out a capsule history of Russian federalism in the post-Soviet era, detailing the changing dynamics between Moscow and the hinterlands as the former alternately relaxed and tightened its grip on the latter.

The Russian Federation, a patchwork of 83 regions of varying ethnic composition and legal status, is a largely Soviet-era inheritance. Most regions were originally granted substantial autonomy by the Bolsheviks, who needed allies in the civil war and whose governmental apparatus was at that time not powerful enough to rule by repression alone.

The merciless centralization of the Stalinist era put an end to all this, however, and it would require the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union for the peripheries to again assert their respective claims to relative sovereignty, writes Heinemann-Grüder.

In addition to drafting the 1993 Constitution that formalized the federal separation of powers, the Yeltsin government negotiated 46 bilateral agreements with individual regions, each of which spelled out the precise powers to be delegated and the quantum of autonomy granted. This largely peaceful transition to a system in which regional governments enjoyed a relatively high degree of self-determination demonstrates that ‘Russia was not doomed to eternal empire; in the 1990s, it was still an open question as to how the situation would play out’.

The centralizing backlash in the wake of the First Chechen War (1994–96), however, exposed federalism’s shallow roots in Russia: unlike in the US, India or West Germany, for example, it has never been a constitutive part of Russia’s political culture. ‘In the end, federalism was simply a tactic to prevent the disintegration of the central state during phases of weakness’.

Russian nationalisms

By way of explaining the ideology behind the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, historian Nikolay Mitrokhin traces the development of three main strands of Russian nationalism.

The first he dubs ‘white racism’, which is represented by a motley assortment of neo-Nazis, skinheads, Pan-Slavists and anti-immigration cranks. (Mitrokhin notes the paradoxical fact that many members of such movements traveled to Ukraine in the ‘Russian Spring’ of 2014 to enlist in the Azov Brigade and fight against Russia, having concluded that such aggression against a ‘brother nation’ was misbegotten.)

Then there were the ‘traditional nationalists’ or ‘ethno-nationalists’, for whom the organizing (and exclusionary) principle was the specific constellation of language, culture and religion they would conceptualize as the ‘Russian world’.

Ultimately, however, it would be the third, ‘imperial’ brand of nationalism that carried the day, the kind Putin was referring to when, in 2018, he told think-tank conference-goers that he represented ‘genuine, successful nationalism’. This is a nationalism less concerned with the particulars of the Russian Weltanschauung, writes Mitrokhin, and more with ‘borders and territory’, and the ‘cult of victorious Russian weaponry’.

An open wound

In an interview with the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev, the Chechen activist and author Lana Estemirova – whose mother Natalia, a prominent human-rights campaigner, was murdered in 2009, almost certainly at the behest of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov – looks back at Russia’s wars against Chechnya and the ways Russian society has rationalized their brutality.

Thirty years after Russia launched its first campaign to subjugate the breakaway republic – and eighty years since the mass deportations of the entire Chechen population carried out by the Soviet NKVD (still unacknowledged in official Russian history) – Chechnya remains an ‘open wound’ on the Russian body politic, says Estemirova. It is one that continues to fester out of sight and whose memory has been systematically repressed in the collective consciousness.

Tyranically ruled by the brutally capricious Kadyrov, a former independence fighter turned Putinist satrap, Chechnya today is a ‘shiny husk’, the gleaming skyscrapers in its capital Grozny built on a foundation of ‘emptiness and poverty’, its society ‘totally traumatized’.

Estemirova applies the Chechen precedent to the war in Ukraine, claiming it is no accident Chechen troops have featured prominently (and notoriously) there: ‘Kadyrov’s troops have been deployed for propaganda purposes, for their intimidation effect: “Look at the Chechens. We broke them, we killed them – and now they are going to kill you”’.

Assault on intellectual freedoms

The issue also furnishes a disturbing illustration of the parlous state of intellectual freedom in Russia in the form of a stark editor’s note stating that, owing to the Russian government’s recent labeling of the German Association for East European Studies (the publisher of Osteuropa) as an ‘undesirable organisation’ means that any academic or journalist publishing in Osteuropa is now committing a criminal offence punishable by anything from a fine to several years’ imprisonment.

The issue was to have included a critique of how the longstanding bias towards the natural sciences and engineering in appointments to public office in the Republic of Tatarstan has led to the de-prioritisation of questions of culture, identity and religion. The text was almost ready. However, out of concerns for his own safety, the author chose to withdraw the contribution at the last moment.

‘With this policy, the Russian government is destroying academic freedom in the country,’ write the editors. ‘The Putin regime is undermining the international exchange of research findings and deepening Russia’s isolation. It is pursuing the aim of criminalizing social and academic dialogue and intimidating its own population. This attempt is destined to fail. We know from history that the truth will out.’

 

Review by Nick Sywak



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