Will Russian Nationalism Ultimately Strangle Russian Imperialism?

Russia is undoubtedly a former empire. The most important question today is whether it remains a post-imperium or becomes a neo-imperium. The post-imperial states, like Turkey, France, or Great Britain, gradually give up their imperial aspirations, although they retain the memory of their past for a long time and occasionally turn to old rhetoric. Neo-imperial states, on the other hand, return to imperial ideology and renew their imperial power structures, threatening not only their former territories but also further neighbors. The process of empire decay can be very long and painful.

Turkey committed the Armenian genocide in a post-imperial spasm, France had a terrorist organization defending its imperial status, and Britain was still waging war in the 1980s to defend the remnants of its overseas possessions. All of these countries ultimately gave up their imperial legacy, although they still play a significant role in world politics. Former empires can also return to their previous form after a period of weakness and disintegration. The best example of this is Tsarist Russia, which reemerged as a Soviet empire after several years of decline. But what is happening to contemporary Russia? Are we witnessing its transition to a post-imperial phase, or perhaps the beginning of another revival of a dangerous empire?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 seems to finally resolve this question. Russia has attacked a neighboring country for no specific reason, triggering a war of unprecedented scale, with terrible civilian casualties and apparently numerous war crimes. The war is accompanied by the strengthening of authoritarianism in Russia, massive propaganda, and the isolation of society from the free media. So far, control over Russian society seems to be successful. The war still enjoys the support of the majority of Russians, and the few protests were brutally suppressed. Bloody military aggression, cynical lies of propaganda, and the helplessness of the opposition are reminiscent of the worst days of the Soviet Union. No surprise then that it is widely believed that Putin is trying to rebuild a lost empire.

However, something seems to be missing in this obvious analogy. The former Soviet Union was formally a supranational empire based on a universalist ideology. The contemporary Russian Federation, while still uniting many nations, increasingly appeals to a particularist Russian nationalism. The officially declared goal of the “special military operation” in Ukraine is to protect Russians from alleged Ukrainian Nazis. It primarily concerns the Russian population living in Ukraine, but indirectly also the inhabitants of Russia. While it is clear that the idea of the defense of Russians was just a pretext for war, I think it should be taken seriously. This is because official ideology creates a conceptual framework that limits the possible actions of power. Every previous form of Russian imperialism appealed to some supranational ideas, such as the Enlightenment, Orthodoxy, Pan-Slavism, or Communism.

Contemporary Russia, for the first time in its history, has begun a major war against another country officially appealing not to universalistic ideas, but to Russian nationalism. However, the point is that nationalism is fundamentally opposed to imperialism. It is impossible to build a multinational empire on the basis of the open domination of a single nation. So perhaps, ironically, the war in Ukraine is evidence of the final end of Russian imperialism and the beginning of a new national Russia. Unfortunately, the face of this new Russia appears to be no less repulsive than that of the former empire.

The question of the post-imperial or neo-imperial character of contemporary Russia has been the focus of an important debate between two prominent specialists in Russian affairs associated with important pro-Atlantic and pro-European think tanks, Dmitri Trenin and Marcel Van Herpen. In 2011, Trenin, director of the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, widely recognized as one of the most pro-Western Russian commentators, published a book with the telling title Post-Imperium. He wrote emphatically:

The Russian empire is over, never to return. The enterprise that had lasted for hundreds of years simply lost the drive. The élan is gone. In the two decades since the collapse, imperial restoration was never considered seriously by the leaders, nor demanded by the wider public.[1]

It should be noted that Trenin wrote these words several years after a clear shift in Russian policy toward strengthening its international position, after Putin's infamous claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” in 2005, after Putin's harsh speech against the United States in Munich in 2007, and after the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008. Despite all this, Trenin argued that, contrary to the fears of many Western experts and the hopes of some Russian ideologists, none of these events actually reflected a revival of Russian imperialism. According to him, Russia simply wanted to remain one of the major players in the international game, a great power with a privileged zone of influence, but this had nothing to do with building a universal empire like Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union.

In 2014, just before the annexation of Crimea, the Dutch commentator Marcel H. Van Herpen, director of the Cicero Foundation in Maastricht, published a book with the no less telling title Putin's Wars: The Rise of Russia's New Imperialism. As he wrote,

The thesis of this book is that—unlike in Western Europe, where the process of decolonization was definitive—the same is not necessarily true for Russia. For the Russian state colonizing neighboring territories and subduing neighboring peoples has been a continuous process. It is, one could almost say, part of Russia’s genetic makeup.[2]

Van Herpen analyzed in detail the tendencies of Russian internal and external policy. He noted the rise of authoritarian trends on the one hand and the growth of imperialist tendencies on the other. For him, Russian despotism is the most important cause of Russian expansion. It is so because imperialist aggression helps to neutralize social tensions produced by authoritarianism. The time of Putin's rule was supposed to be a period of transition from post-imperialism through pre-imperialism to neo-imperialism. According to Van Herpen, it was confirmed by the fact that just after the publication of Trenin's book, in December 2011, Moscow launched the Eurasian Union project, which he considered as the final effort to restore the lost empire. Recent events in Russia seem to strongly support his thesis. Shortly after Van Herpen's book was published, we witnessed the annexation of Crimea, followed by actual Russian intervention in Donbas and Luhansk, and finally the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I would like to present here the main arguments in the debate between neo-imperial and post-imperial interpretations of contemporary Russian politics. As it turns out, Marcel Van Herpen was right in his prediction of increasingly aggressive Russian internal and external politics. However, it seems to me that, contrary to him, the justification for current Russian aggression in fact rules out the possibility of realization of any imperial project in a strict sense. It is widely agreed that nationalism, chauvinism, and xenophobia have become increasingly influential in Russia in recent years and that the current aggression in Ukraine is being carried out in the name of defending the Russian World (russkii mir), that is, the community of Russians living in Russia and neighboring countries.

The problem, however, is that no true empire can be built on such foundations. After all, it was the rise of nationalism, and not just of the subjected nations, but above all of the Russians themselves, that led to the collapse of the USSR. Furthermore, it seems that current Russian ethnic rhetoric also threatens the integrity of the Russian Federation itself, which is after all a multinational and multiethnic state. Thus, it appears that Russia has fallen into a trap of nationalism that not only prevents the restoration of the former empire but also threatens the very integrity of what remains of it.


Russia has always been an imperial country. Its predecessor, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, was an ethnically homogeneous Ruthenian state, perhaps the only foreign element being the descendants of the Varangians who ruled it. Shortly after Grand Duke Ivan the Terrible assumed the title of Tsar in 1547, however, a process of rapid expansion began. The country became a true empire, incorporating lands formerly belonging to the Golden Horde with a predominantly Muslim population. In 1649, the Russians reached the coast of the Bering Sea. Then, in the middle of the seventeenth century, eastern Ukraine was incorporated, and the Cossacks conquered lands up to the Caucasus. The Traditional Russian Empire was thus established, forming the core of any subsequent imperial creation.

The conquests of Peter the Great, who assumed the title of emperor in 1721, led to a new formation that could be called the Classical Russian Empire. The victorious war with Sweden opened access to the Baltic. Then, during the reign of Catherine II, Lithuania, the rest of Ukraine, and a great part of Poland were conquered. Afterward, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Russia captured Finland. In the south, Crimea, the Black Sea coast, and Bessarabia were annexed; in the east, Central Asia, and the Far East. For a long time, there were fights over the North Caucasus. Russian colonists took over Alaska and even reached California, where they established the settlement of Fort Ross in 1812, slightly north of present-day San Francisco. For the most part, the new territories broke away from Russia at the first opportunity, in 1917, some forever, others only for the period of the civil war.

The third form of the Russian empire was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Revolutionary Russia, having withdrawn briefly to its seventeenth-century borders, began a new expansion, annexing the Baltic states, parts of Poland, Bessarabia, Karelia, Tuva, and after World War II, parts of East Prussia, southern Sakhalin, and the Kuriles. The Soviet empire created a powerful domain of influence that covered almost the entire world. Soviet troops were stationed in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Mongolia. Yugoslavia and Albania also belonged for some time to this strict zone of influence. Looser Soviet influence included North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Laos, Egypt, Syria, South Yemen, Ghana, Mali, Congo, Ethiopia, and Angola. It is worth recalling that the flag of Mozambique still features a Kalashnikov gun.

Being an empire, however, is not merely about having vast and diverse territories, but also, and perhaps most importantly, about establishing the ideas that justify the power. For no empire is based solely on force; each presents some legitimizing formula, which, at least officially, provides the justification for rule over it. The role of imperial ideas should not be underestimated; for whether or not they are sincerely accepted by the rulers and the ruled, they form an official worldview that defines the framework of their possible operations. During the 500 years of the Russian empire, there have been several different ways of its legitimization.

The Traditional Russian Empire was explicitly religious in nature. The mission of the authority was to protect and spread Orthodoxy. Such a mission resulted especially from the adoption of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, which implied that the Russian state was the heir of ancient Rome and Constantinople and the only defender of true Christianity in the world. Religious legitimacy was also present later. It was the religious mission that drove Russian leaders to fight for the territories inhabited by Orthodox Christians and sometimes led to dramatic choices. A conflict with the Ottoman Empire and France over Russia's role as protector of Orthodox believers in the Balkans and the holy sites in Jerusalem led to the Crimean War in 1853, which ended in a stunning Russian defeat and an earthquake in internal politics.

The Classical Russian empire under Peter and Catherine initially changed its emphasis from a religious mission to a civilizing one. Russia’s new rulers officially proclaimed that their rule brought peace, culture, and enlightenment to their peoples. Russian imperial rhetoric of this type was close to the concept of the “white man's burden” later developed in the West. The conquests were presented as a beneficial emancipatory action of the peoples who could thus enjoy the achievements of European civilization.

Subsequently, the universal civilizing mission was slowly replaced by a more particular nationalistic idea. As early as 1833, Count Sergei Uvarov formulated the famous triple principle of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality, which constituted the ideological basis of the Russian Empire. Such a formula obviously excluded non-Orthodox and non-Russian inhabitants of the empire. The pan-Slavic concept of the unity of the Slavic peoples, which justified Russian claims to rule in Poland and the Balkans, was somewhat broader. An elaborate theory substantiating the Slavic alliance was put forward by Nikolai Danilevsky, who many years before Feliks Koneczny and Samuel Huntington wrote about the “plurality of civilizations.” Russia was to be the political organization of the cultural type “Slavic.” Ultimately, however, Alexander III, after his father's assassination in 1881, adopted a decidedly more nationalist course, which resulted in a massive Russification and Jewish pogroms. Nevertheless, Pan-Slavic ideas were still alive, and Russian support for the Slavs in the Balkans finally led to the outbreak of World War I.

It seems that it was the general shift from universal civilizational principles to a particularistic national formula that in the end led to the collapse of the Russian Empire. This process has been admirably described by a prominent contemporary Polish historian, Andrzej Nowak.[3] The initial open civilizational formula naturally privileged the most culturally developed peoples of the empire. As it happened, these were predominantly Poles. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, more subjects of Alexander I read Polish than Russian. The Polish nobility made up more than half of the entire nobility of the Russian empire. This provoked opposition from the Russian elite, who called for the empire to be based on a more national basis that would privilege their position.

However, the adoption of the national formula blocked the elites from the peripheries. They were not able to realize their aspirations in the new system, which pushed them to undermine it. National repressions thus led not only to intended Russification, but also to the unintentional radicalization of oppressed minorities. Revolutionary activity was treated as the next, perhaps more effective, stage of struggle for national liberation. This explains the phenomenon of thousands of Russified Poles engaged in revolutionary movements in Russia. As a result, the Russian Empire was overthrown by the Russian-speaking Pole Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Jew Lev Bronstein, and the Georgian Yosif Dzhugashvili. This case clearly shows that it is impossible to build a lasting empire on a too narrow national base. The classical Russian empire collapsed because it became too nationalistic.

The third form of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, was based on admirable universal communist ideology. The USSR was not founded on a national principle, but on class one. It was to be the “homeland of the proletariat” and since the proletariat is everywhere, it was supposed to ultimately encompass the whole world. The first anthem of the Soviet Union announced quite literally that “with the International, the human race will rise.” Such a legitimizing formula had for a long time ensured the great successes of the empire, even after the new wartime anthem of the USSR referred to the “Great Russia” that had united the “free republics.” The conquered peoples always had an alibi for their situation, since they were not formally subject to the authority of a single nation, but to that of a state realizing the interests of the world proletariat.

On the one hand, for a long time, the universalist communist ideology legitimized Soviet domination over enormous ethnically diverse territories, but on the other hand, in a crisis situation, it prompted Russian patriots to dismantle the system from within. It was the national awakening of the Russians, who were the only nation in the USSR without their own Communist Party, that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Russian nationalism crushed Soviet imperialism. Russia was one of the first republics to detach itself from the USSR. Thus, a mechanism similar to that that led to the collapse of the classical Russian empire worked here. Again, the national principle undermined the imperial one. However, the Soviet empire fell not because it was too national, but because it was not national enough.


The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Russian Federation, although a quarter smaller than the former USSR, is still the largest country in the world. Present Russia, as many commentators note, with either satisfaction or concern, is surprisingly similar to the first Traditional Russian Empire, before the incorporation of Ukraine in the mid-seventeenth century. Apparently, the peoples of this imperial core have bonded strongly over 500 years of shared history. The new state is clearly more national in character, although it is still a mixture of many national and ethnic groups. At the end of the Soviet Union, roughly half of its citizens described themselves as ethnic Russians (russkie); today they form about 75% of the Russian Federation’s population. The process of the collapse of the Soviet empire was remarkably peaceful. Massive decolonization led to only a few local border conflicts, some of which have not been resolved to this day. Compared to other collapsing empires, which left a state of war of all against all, the Soviet Union disintegrated in a very decent way and certainly better than the French, British, or Portuguese empires.

“In retrospect,” Van Herpen says, “1991 offered the first real chance in modern Russian history to break the infernal cycle of imperialist expansion and colonial subjugation of neighboring peoples.”[4] The Russians rejected the restraining curse of empire and the ideology that legitimized it. This process was accompanied by a profound shift in attitudes toward pragmatism and individualism. Russia therefore faced a unique historical opportunity to transform its own consciousness and redefine the nature of its state. “Unfortunately,” Van Herpen urged, “in the Russian situation, after a short period of shock, the loss of empire did not result in a gradual acceptance, but in a swelling tidal wave of chauvinism and nationalism.”[5]

Russian imperial reconquest obviously needs a new state ideology. This ideology, according to Van Herpen, is increasingly nationalistic, or even “ultranationalistic.” As he indicated, this could be seen not only in the program of the governing party but also in the slogans of the opposition and in the demands of extreme groups that enjoy the silent support of the government. Van Herpen carefully analyzed Vladimir Putin’s famous speech, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” delivered on December 29, 1999, just before he became president. Van Herpen finds in Putin’s speech a typically Russian apotheosis of a strong state, ultranationalism, and a virtual negation of the principles of democracy and the free market, which acquire a worrisome local, Russian, rather than universal, sense. In his view, Putin's ideology, which proclaims the need for national rebirth, is close to Italian fascism.

The internal politics of the government and the rise of nationalist attitudes of the people were followed by concrete statements and actions of Russia in the international sphere. In 2005 Putin called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and in 2007 in Munich, he threatened a new Cold War. Next, in 2008 Medvedev included into the principles of Russian foreign policy “protecting the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they live," and a law passed in 2009 allowed the use of Russian troops abroad for this purpose.

Finally, Russia initiated various integration projects apparently aimed at rebuilding an empire in the former Soviet space. “Under the guise of the Eurasian Customs Union, Eurasian Economic Union, and—most recently—Eurasian Union, new efforts of empire-building have begun.”[6] Subsequent well-known events seem to fit this pattern perfectly. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and created a crisis in eastern Ukraine, and in 2022 he carried out an open attack on Ukraine.


Dmitri Trenin offered a completely different diagnosis of contemporary Russia. In his opinion, it is a post-imperial country, not a pre- or neo-imperial one. It means that “the country is no longer an empire and it is not going to be one again. However, the many features that were established in the imperial period are still felt to this day.”[7] However, these features, which may continue for decades to come, should not obscure a fundamental, substantive change in the very nature of the Russian state.

The most important feature of the imperial legacy in modern Russia is its internal political system. In its general description, Trenin would probably agree with Van Herpen to a great extent. Russia is an authoritarian country, although it is a rather soft, moderate and not, in fact, very repressive authoritarianism. Democratic mechanisms function merely superficially, political parties do not truly represent the population, the courts do not preserve proper neutrality, the media are not independent, and there are no sufficient guarantees of individual freedoms. For Trenin, authoritarianism, however, contrary to Van Herpen's suggestion, is not the same as imperialism. On the one hand, a state can be non-democratic and show no expansionist tendencies, while on the other hand, there can be democratic states that adopt imperialist policies.

The second feature of the imperial legacy is the expansionist rhetoric adopted by various Russian ideologists, historians, publicists, and sometimes politicians. Trenin, however, insisted that we should not attach undue importance to the words. They are just irritating but, in fact, ineffective expressions of the post-imperial syndrome. “Words substituted for action . . . Troubled souls could vent their feelings and relieve themselves, but—apart from a few ruffled feathers—everything remained in place.”[8] This is particularly evident in the comments of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who in reality discredits, rather than promotes, imperial ideas. Moreover, in Trenin's view, the widespread nostalgia for the Soviet Union observed by sociologists among Russians is not due at all to its imperial character, but rather to the social security it provided. The Russians, according to Trenin, yearn for the lost stability, equality, protective government, and ultimately their youth spent in the Land of Soviets rather than its status as a global empire.

Trenin argued that Russia has fundamentally changed its priorities in international politics. It has renounced imperialism but still wants to maintain its status as a great world power. Putin directly wrote about this in the article quoted and linked above. Trenin explains this shift in the following way: “While no longer a pretender to world hegemony and staying within its new, shrunken borders, Russia has been trying hard to establish itself in the top league of the world’s major players and as the dominant power in its neighborhood.”[9] The transformation of an empire into a great power may seem like a nuance, but it is of great importance. Great powers realize their own interests, not imperial missions. The problem is that they can adopt aggressive politics that, to outside observers, may not differ from the former imperial politics.

What does it mean that Russia wants to be a great power? Trenin pointed to three components of the Russian idea of great power. First, Russia wants to be internally sovereign, second, it wants to be externally sovereign, and third, it wants to maintain its own zone of influence.

Internal sovereignty means that no country should influence Russia's internal affairs. This idea was developed in the doctrine of sovereign democracy, elaborated primarily by Vladislav Surkov. The doctrine was clearly intended to protect Russia from another “color revolution” supported by Western powers, but it also stemmed from a deep belief in the uniqueness of Russian culture, incommensurable with Western experience and categories. The pursuit of political, economic, and cultural autarky, however, is not characteristic of an empire. From an empire, we would expect bold expansion rather than desperate defense.

External sovereignty means independence in foreign policy decisions. Russia has finally given up its previous attempts at integration with the West. To recall, in the 1990s it seriously discussed joining NATO and the newly formed European Union. Then, in the first years of the twentieth century, Russia hoped to integrate not as a part of the West but rather with the West. Putin, after the September 11 attacks, proposed a strategic partnership with the United States.

According to Trenin, however, the West could not find a formula that would satisfy Russia, and Russia ultimately decided to go its own way. Most importantly, however, the concept of external sovereignty has a negative character. “The basic meaning of great power in Russian minds, then, was its own independence, rather than others’ dependence on it.”[10] Again, this is not a mark of empire.

Certainly, the most controversial element of the idea of great power is the concept of a sphere of privileged influences, which has been quite often voiced by representatives of the Russian government. Trenin sees it as a clear relic of imperial thinking. “As an international actor, Russia is at a point where it recognizes all former borderland republics as separate countries, even if it does not yet see all of them as foreign states.[11] The post-Soviet states, however, are not treated in the same way. The Baltic countries, for instance, seen as completely foreign, are one thing, whereas Belarus or Kazakhstan, still treated as close neighbors, are another. For Trenin, the idea of the influence sphere initially had defensive nature. It was evidenced, for instance, by the long stagnation in the process of Russia’s integration with Belarus. Undoubtedly, however, the idea of a sphere of influence, which presupposes the Russian expectation of at least neutrality, leads to unavoidable conflicts. Georgia’s and Ukraine’s attempts to leave the neutrality sphere by integrating with the EU and NATO-led to wars.

Trenin insisted that even famous aggressive statements of Russian leaders should be interpreted in the light of the idea of great power rather than empire. For example, Putin's notorious speech at the Munich conference was, according to Trenin, in fact, a legitimate defense of Russia's rights to retain its own status. “Accept us as we are; treat us as equals; and let’s do business where our interests meet.”[12]

The shift from the idea of empire to the idea of great power was grounded in a fundamental and permanent change in the dominant system of values. Russians have become less committed to grand collective projects and more focused on personal concerns. They also became much less willing to share their wealth, while the possession of an empire requires sacrifices. It is the natural selfishness, both at the level of individuals and the country as a whole, that is the deepest reason for the resignation from imperial ambitions. Indeed, the possession of colonies was extremely expensive, and people remember this very well. In 1991, the seven Soviet republics received large subsidies from the union budget; in the case of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the subsidy from the center was almost the same as their own budgets.

Today, simply no one would be willing to make such sacrifices. For Russia's ruling elite is painfully selfish. They are not hot idealists, but cold pragmatists. One can expect from them a firm defense of the interests of great power, but not the realization of demanding imperialistic ideals.

It seems, therefore, that the modern Russian state is a perfect realization of the principles of austere political realism. It is guided by hard economic interests, brutally defends them, and looks with contempt and incredulity at Western countries that sometimes still refer to values. All this, of course, shows Russia in a bad light, but at the same time, it proves that it does not seek to build an empire at all. For empire is based not so much on force as on ideas. Russia is therefore not an ordinary country, but its uniqueness lies not in the fact that it is a neo-imperial state, but in the fact that it is a predatory state. Russia is not, in other words, an ideocracy, but rather a kleptocracy.

Nationalism and Imperialism

A crucial point of the debate between the post-imperial and neo-imperial interpretations of contemporary Russia is the question of Russian nationalism. As I pointed out, following Polish historians Andrzej Nowak and Włodzimierz Marciniak, it was exactly the problem of nationalism that led to the collapse of the two previous forms of the Russian empire. Tsarist Russia became too national, whereas Soviet Russia was not national enough. As a result, the former was broken up by minorities revolting, whereas the latter was dismantled by a dissatisfied majority. Russian nationalism was thus paradoxically a main anti-imperial force throughout history.

It seems to be the same today. Russian nationalism, even if it takes extremely aggressive forms, as nowadays, actually undermines Russian imperialism, which has been far more dangerous at times. Ethnic Russian nationalism (russkii) excludes non-Russian minorities from the national community, state nationalism (rossiiskii) concerns basically Russian citizens living in Russia and abroad, and even alleged Soviet nationalism, if exists at all, would be limited only to areas of the former Soviet Union.

Thus, in each case, nationalism limits the possible scope of the supposed empire. The radicalization of nationalism in Russia thus indicates a reduction in imperial sentiments. Paradoxically, the more nationalism, the less imperialism. Therefore, the recent rise of Russian nationalism gives at least hope for the final decline of the Russian empire. While we may be endangered by aggressive Russian chauvinists, we will not be threatened by far more ambitious Russian imperialists.

Now, what is the nature of the current Russian war against Ukraine? It seems that it is a nationalist reaction rather than an imperialist expansion. This is evidenced by the ideological justifications of the war in Ukraine in the statements of Russian politicians. The foundation of Russia's current claim to domination in the post-Soviet area is the doctrine of the Russian World (Russkii mir). It follows from the statements of Putin and his officials that the Russian World is supposed to be a specific cultural community of people who speak Russian, somehow identify with Orthodoxy and refer to some common values.

The center of the Russian world is, of course, Russia, but it also comprises Belarus, at least the eastern part of Ukraine, and perhaps other territories bordering Russia, but definitely not the whole post-Soviet space, not the mention the rest of the world. Russia merely presents itself as a defender of the rights of the Russian-speaking population in its neighboring countries. Van Herpen aptly calls this concept an “annexationist Pan-Russianism.”[13] However, there is no doubt that such an idea has a strong nationalist, not imperialist, sense.

What’s more, it seems that playing the nationalist card not only prevents the building of an empire but also threatens the disintegration of the Russian state itself. The concept of Russkii mir is very dangerous for the Russian Federation. In the short run, it may serve as a basis for local expansion, but in the long run, it may lead to an irreversible destabilization of the Russian state itself. It is so because the Russian Federation is still not a regular nation-state, but a semi-imperial remnant of a multiethnic and multicultural empire. So, if it became a one-nation country, it would inevitably trigger separatist tendencies.

It is worth recalling that, for instance, Dagestan, one of the eighty-five subjects of the Russian (Rossiiskaia) Federation, is inhabited by about thirty different nationalities that can by no means be considered as parts of the Russian (Russkii) World. The government's insistence on a national premise may thus open an ethnic Pandora's Box. If the Russian government today stands up for the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, then Russian residents of other nationalities become second-class citizens. It is only a matter of time when this thought will appear in the minds of the Chechens, Ingush, Buryats, or Yakuts fighting in Ukraine. The Russians may thus unwittingly hang themselves with the rope they wanted to impose around the necks of their neighbors. Instead of moving beyond the current borders of Tsar Alexei I Mikhailovich, they may return to the borders of Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from Pawel Rojek’s book Przekleństwo imperium. Źródła rosyjskiego zachowania [The Curse of Empire. Sources of Russian Conduct] (Krakow: Wydawnictwo M, 2014) updated to refelect recent events.

[1] D. Trenin, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011), 231.

[2] M. H. Van Herpen, Putin’s Wars: The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 2.

[3] A. Nowak, Putin. Źródła imperialnej agresji [Putin: The Sources of Imperial Aggresion] (Warsaw: Sic, 2014).

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Trenin, 13-14.

[8] Ibid., 208.

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] Ibid., 208.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Ibid., 27.

[13] Van Herpen, 56.

Featured Image: Boris Kustodiev, Tsar Nicholas II, 1915; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Paweł Rojek

Paweł Rojek is a philosopher, sociologist, and professor at the Institute of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He is the former editor-in-chief of Pressje. His academic and journalistic work explores metaphysics, cultural anthropology, and Russian philosophy.

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