Why the empire wont strike back

February 13, 2000|By Jeffrey Brooks

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir V. Putin announces his intention to strengthen the role of the state and reminds the world and his country that Russia remains a great nuclear power.

Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administrations previously upbeat Russian policy maker, now sounds a distinctly less optimistic note in concern about a resurgent Russian past. Is empire again on Russia's agenda? We do not know the motives of Russias present leaders, but if they do yearn for restoration of an empire, they will have great difficulty bringing the voters along.

The Russian government cannot present the territory of the former republics of the Soviet Union -- the so-called near abroad -- as rich, exotic or exciting as did czarist promoters of newly conquered regions. Todays Muscovites and northern Russians are more likely to see the Caucasus as a death trap than as a frontier in which to test ones manhood, as young Leo Tolstoy described it in The Cossacks. Russians are not flocking to the near abroad in search of a better life, but fleeing its horrors and poverty. The rationale behind Soviet imperialism is equally irrelevant today.

The early Bolsheviks justified expansionism by arguing they were freeing peoples enslaved by capitalists and colonialists. The idea of a gift to oppressed people fit the logic of the Soviet political life, according to which all citizens were indebted to the leader and ruling group. Under Lenin, the people thanked the Revolution or Soviet power for their good fortune, but Stalin insisted on being thanked personally, as in the slogan Thank You, Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood!

Translated into the politics of the empire, non-Russians thanked the central authority and its agents, including the Russians, for incorporation into the bounty of the greater union. After World War II, the calculus of indebtedness extended to Eastern Europe, even though Stalin managed economic relations within the bloc in favor of the Soviet Union.

Later, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev oversaw an outflow of Soviet resources to client states that became a torrent, particularly as the Cold War extended to the Third World and as oil prices rose in the 1970s.

The notion that the leaders were giving away the store to ill-deserving foreigners took hold gradually, but so long as the Communist dictatorship persisted, the imperial projects unpopularity had little impact on national politics. When Communism fell, however, public opinion mattered and, as a result, the empire and the network of client states vanished with little clamor from the Russian majority.

The current Russian government may play politics in the Caucasus in the fashion of its czarist and Soviet predecessors, but public support is lacking for anything more than a defensive action. The Putin government cannot justify the brutal war in Chechnya as empire building, and we should not perceive it as empire building. The fall of Grozny on Feb. 6 changes nothing. The war is an inept muddle and an attempt to hold the country together, this time with baling wire, rather than the barbed wire of the past.

So long as Russia remains a democracy, there is little likelihood that imperialism will revive. In the weeks before the March 26 presidential election, Mr. Putin may win support as an anti-terrorist, but not as an imperialist. Nor is friction with the United States likely to attract a public eager for the prosperity that many believed would follow the fall of Communism. Although anti-American sentiment has increased in Russia, it is not likely to take an imperial form unless we go far out of our way to provoke it.

Given the domestic preoccupations of the Russian electorate and the bad memories of recent imperial adventures, the empire is unlikely to strike back.

Jeffrey Brooks is a professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University and the author of Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton University Press).

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