The foreigners’ long-standing plans for the destruction of Russia, says Vladimir Putin, are all set out on paper. They will lead to the destruction of the Russian people, and its replacement with “Muscovites,” “Uralians,” and other oddments. The “fragments” of the former Russian Federation will then be integrated piecemeal into the West.
I doubt that, as the Russian president claims, this (to me quite attractive) idea is “on a sheet of paper” anywhere, let alone an official document. Conventional wisdom among most Russia watchers is that disintegration is unrealistic and potentially disastrous: loose nukes, economic dislocation, refugees, and quite possibly civil war.
But the topic is a hot one nonetheless. I took part at a conference in Brussels in late January organized by two Polish MEPs and the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, which brings together the ethnic, linguistic, and regional groupings who are united by dislike for centralized rule from Moscow. The event’s title was “Imperial Russia: Conquest, Colonization And Genocide.” It attracted well-known ethnic minorities such as the Chechens, Tatars, and Ingrians, as well as Cossacks and autonomy campaigners from the Pskov, Smolensk, and Tver regions of Russia.
Foes and fans alike exaggerate the importance of these mostly nascent movements. For now, Russia’s fractures run along economic as well as geographical lines. Even within the nominal territorial subdivisions, the urban/rural split may matter more than, say, the differences between ethnic Russians and other minorities.
More important is that they bolster the perception of weakness at the center. This was exemplified by Putin’s recent outburst. He may be remembering the “Urals sovereignty” movement of the 1990s, when a firm-handed governor of Sverdlovsk region, Eduard Rossel, briefly flirted with the idea of establishing his own currency, the Urals franc. But it is striking that the Russian leader would want to recall, even tacitly, the discord of the 1990s.
This Putindämmerung reflects not just the political turmoil bubbling below the surface in the Kremlin, with astonishing outbreaks of dissent and the mushrooming growth of private armies. It also involves the regime’s fragility in the world of ideas. As the butchers’ bill mounts in Ukraine, the war story contains only stale bombast. The lie machine insists that black is white. The result is cognitive dissonance between what Russians experience in their daily lives and what the state propaganda machine is telling them. As we know from Soviet times, that can last for a long time. But not indefinitely. The whiff of change is in the air.
As a framing concept to deal with political change in Russia, decentralization has much to recommend it. Centralized rule has brought catastrophic economic, cultural, and environmental results, as well as a disastrous war. Before anyone starts thinking about separatism, the natural next stage for everyone living on Russian territory would be to think about true federalism.
But decentralized rule is not a political accident. It is the result of centuries of imperialism, backed by “Great-Russian” chauvinism. Decentralization, in effect, means decolonization.
That is why I am heading to Brussels this week for another conference, titled “Pushing Pushkin: the imperialism and decolonization of Russian culture.” Together with the Lithuanian cultural critic Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, I will be highlighting the political baggage of much of Russian high culture, including Pushkin’s venomously polonophobic poem “To the Slanderers of Russia” and Joseph Brodsky’s similarly unpleasant (but unpublished) “On the Independence of Ukraine.” We will be asking whether Russian culture can or should face the same decolonizing critique currently promoted in western countries. Registration has sadly closed, but if Putin wants a ticket, I am sure we can arrange one.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.