Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Georgia this month, the headlines have screamed: “Russia Is Back!”
Supposing this is the case, one might ask: which Russia is back?
Students of history might suggest a return of the Russia of Tsar Alexander I. After all, it was under him that Russia first invaded Georgia in 1801, detaching it from Iran, and triggering a chain of conquests that pushed the Iranians out of the Caucasus and, by 1830, extended the frontiers of the Tsarist Empire to the River Aras.
At that time, the Georgians, a Christian nation, sided with Russia against Iran while the Ossets, an Iranian people speaking an Iranic language, fought against the invaders.
Alexander had vowed not to stop until his empire had reached the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and linked up with Russia’s “ brother Slavs” in the Balkans.
Another theory could be that the Russia that is supposed to be back is the power that created the “prison of 100 nations”, the Gulag Archipelago, and the graves of 60 million victims of Bolshevism.
Finally, one might argue that the Russia that is supposed to be back is the same that sent tanks into Warsaw and Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968 to force Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks to resubmit to their Communist yokes.
Whatever the case, we know where those three Russias ended: in the dustbin of history, as Trotsky liked to quip.
It may well be that the invasion of Georgia, far from being a sign of Russia’s return as a great power, is the last gasp of an anachronistic system with no place in the modern world.
Ever since Russia was created as a state in 1547, its’ elite has been divided into two camps.
The first were pan-Slav nationalists, initially inspired by Vinko Pribojevic, who saw Russia as “ The Third Rome” and dreamed of uniting all Slavic nations in pursuit of world conquest in the name of their Orthodox brand of Christianity. They regarded Western Europe as corrupt, and dismissed democracy as a fatal disease.
Haunted by the memories of Mongol invasion and Tatar rule, pan-Slav intellectuals preached “derjavnost” which means creating a powerful state. The argument was that only a powerful state, which in practice meant a big army with plans of conquest, could protect Russia against humiliation and domination by others. Although many pan-Slavs were intellectuals themselves, they regarded intellectuals as enemies of the “ derjavnost”. Their ideal state would be run by “niekulturnyi”, men without culture and more comfortable with the exercise of raw power than the complexities of competitive democratic politics.
The second camp, known as Westrenisers, emerged in the 19th century thanks to such men as Herzen, Belinksy and Turgenev. They dreamed of a European-style democratic state in which culture, rather than military force, played the central role. In such a system the state would not be allowed to become stronger than society.
For a brief moment, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, it seemed as if the Westernisers would have their first real opportunity to dominate Russian politics.
Under Vladimir Putin, a modified version of “derjavnost” has dominated Russian politics. The state has become stronger and society weaker.
Many Russians, perhaps a majority at this time, support “derjavnost” in an emotional response to real or imagined humiliations in the wake of the empire’s disintegration. They admire the elite of “niekulturniy” led by Putin and their penchant for raw power and KGB style diplomacy.
The problem for Russia is that much of the power projected on television screens may be trompe l’oeil, a grand version of the Potemkin villages that fooled Catherine II.
It took Russia almost two years to plan its invasion of Georgia, a tiny nation of four million people. Even then, the invasion included scenes that resembled footage from the Keystone Cops rather than records of a modern efficient army.
No, the invasion of Georgia, regardless of its causes, does not mark the return of Russia as a major power.
Under Putin, Russia has become a monoculture economy.
Of the 6000 or so brands dominating the global market, not one is Russian. Russia accounts for less than one per cent of patents registered in the world each year. Apart from crude oil and natural gas, Russia has few goods to offer. Once the world’s number-one exporter of military hardware, it is now in fifth place. Even when it comes to caviar and vodka, Iran and Sweden respectively sell more of each than Russia. A tiny elite, perhaps one per cent of the population, controls some 70 per cent of the national income. (Some of its rowdy representatives roam the French Riviera and the Italian lakes every summer.)
Today’s Russia is not a rich country; it is a moneyed country.
A rich country has good schools, universities, hospitals, national parks, libraries, research centres, and sports facilities not to mention motorways, modern railways and airports. A moneyed country just has lots of money.
A rich country produces literature, art and culture, wins Nobel prizes in the scientific fields, and shines at international sports events. New Russia has produced a Mafia-style culture of materialism, greed and violence. The Beijing Olympics saw Russia knocked out of the top league of sporting nations.
Also, Russia is experiencing an unprecedented demographic decline. In the last decade, its population has declined by almost 10 million. If the present trend continues, Russia may end up with smaller population than Iran by 2020. The percentage of ethnic Russians is falling even more rapidly. If the present trends continue, Turkic ethnic groups would become the largest population bloc in the Federation. By mid-century, Russia could have a Turkic and Islamic majority.
No, Russia is not back in any of its previous epiphanies. It is not back because those versions of Russia no longer exist. What Russia needs is to go forward towards a strong society, not a return to a Potemkin-style strong state.
Sooner or later, a majority of Russians will see through the trompe l’oeil of Tsar Vladimir’s Caucasus campaign.