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Opinion Putin's Peter the Great act and Russia's imperial politics

EDMUND GRIFFITHS traces the development of the new Russian nationalism that has burst forth in its attack on Ukraine

VLADIMIR PUTIN recently took advantage of Peter the Great’s 350th anniversary, celebrated on June 9, to claim to be continuing that emperor’s work.

Speaking after visiting an exhibition in Moscow entitled Peter the Great: Birth of an Empire, Putin told an audience of young entrepreneurs that Peter’s conquests had been defensive in nature and that Russia today needed to defend itself in similar fashion.

Appeals to the legacy of the Romanov dynasty are nothing new for Putin.

But neither are appeals to aspects of the Soviet legacy. One of his first acts as president was to bring back the Soviet anthem, with suitably modified words; and this year we have seen Russian tanks flying the red flag of the USSR as they drive into Ukraine.

The mixture of tsarist and Soviet themes may seem eccentric; but it was not invented for Kremlin public relations.

Something like it first took shape among sections of Russia’s communist and nationalist opposition in the 1990s.

The economic collapse that followed the breakup of the USSR inevitably resulted in widespread discontent — discontent that was frequently bound up with grievances about the loss of great power status and the new regime’s disrespect towards traditional military and patriotic symbols.

And the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the principal opposition party of the period, was quick to reach out to nationalist and neo-tsarist elements who could perhaps be rallied behind the idea of “state patriotism.”

The accusation that the USSR had been a “Soviet empire” may even have helped to bridge over the apparent inconsistency.

In 1996 the CPRF’s leader, Gennady Zyuganov, declared that “empire is the historically and geopolitically conditioned form of development of the Russian state” and traced the genealogy of the Russian imperial idea back beyond the USSR and the Romanovs, to medieval Russia and the Roman and Byzantine empires.

“The legal and governmental unity of Rome,” he wrote, “was enriched with the spiritual, moral, and Christian unity of Byzantium, and finally reached its fulfilment in the popular unity of Muscovy and then of Russia.”

Kremlin spokespeople were not yet usually talking in those terms in the mid-1990s.

They have caught up since.

Rhetoric of that kind would hardly have seemed appropriate, however, at a time when official Russia was still eager to celebrate American leadership in the post-Cold-War world.

This was the period when even Mikhail Gorbachev, never known for taking a tough line with the West, reportedly complained that Russia’s foreign ministry had become “a branch office of the State Department.”

Partly out of genuine ideological conviction and partly out of weakness, the Yeltsin government sought the closest possible alliance with the US and Nato — — even as a very junior partner.

The Kremlin has never been keener than it was then to take its place in the “rules-based international order” that Western ideologists are fond of proclaiming. It would certainly have done so, in fact, if such a rules-based order had turned out to exist at all.

But it was gradually brought home to Russian decision-makers that it did not. In Yugoslavia, in Iraq, and more recently in Libya, the United States ignored and overruled international institutions whenever it chose to.

This is the context within which Moscow, beginning in the last years of the Yeltsin presidency and gathering pace under Putin, has sought to reaffirm its position as a great power in its own right.

As well as telling the young entrepreneurs this month about Peter the Great, Putin also treated them to some reflections on state sovereignty. Either a state is able to take sovereign decisions, he said, or it is “a colony — whatever you choose to call it.”

He avoided mentioning any colonies by name, “so as not to offend anybody;” but, in a world of colonies and empires, he made it clear he wants to be leading one of the empires.

A Russian satirist (in another context) once imagined Putin as the Keanu Reeves character at the beginning of the film The Matrix. When Neo starts realising he’s trapped inside the matrix, all he can think about is how to escape it and how to fight it. But Putin is cleverer. He saves himself all that trouble — he just calmly sits down to construct a little “matrix” of his own.

In rather the same way, the Kremlin’s foreign policy can be seen as an attempt to run something like a US world empire in miniature, operating its own “rules-based order” inside its own sphere of influence.

This, broadly, is what the Kremlin means by a “multipolar world.”

It would probably have remained an unattainable dream, of course, if the Russian economy had stayed as weak as it was for most of the 1990s.

But the post-Yeltsin recovery has been driven by higher world prices for Russia’s exports, especially oil (historically cheap in the 1990s), much more than by anything the Kremlin has deliberately done.

Washington itself may have ended up helping, though — by invading Iraq and contributing to the destabilisation of the Middle East.

The late Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Shakespearean court jester who posed as an opposition politician, certainly thought so.

He had always been regarded in Moscow as a friend of the Iraqi government. “Saddam Hussein never gave me a single dinar,” he once announced. “If he had, I’d have taken it.”

But in 2004, following the invasion of Iraq, he endorsed George W Bush for a second presidential term — in the explicit hope that the “war on terror” would continue and the price per barrel would be pushed even higher.

“Bush in power means war for the Arabs,” said Zhirinovsky, “and free gifts for Russia.”

Putin was never that brazen about it, but the free gifts did keep coming.

In essence, however, Russia’s social and political order has changed relatively little since the Yeltsin years.

The extreme inequality of wealth and income is a Yeltsin legacy. And so is the hyper-presidential political system, imposed by force when Yeltsin’s tanks shelled the parliament in 1993.

What has changed, aside from foreign policy, is the wholesale adoption by the Kremlin of the opposition’s tsarist-Byzantine-Soviet “imperial” rhetoric.

In many ways it suits a conservative government — one that thinks 1917 and 1991 were both disasters, because radical change is always a disaster unless it is inspired from above — better than it ever did a putatively “irreconcilable” opposition.

Like any empire — the United States or Byzantium, the empire of Augustus or that of Peter the Great — the imperial Russian state of today exists to serve the interests of a specific ruling class, not those of any nation or people as a whole.

“State patriotism,” independent of class, is an illusion.

And, in a world of great power rivalry, it is more important than ever that the peace movement and the working class should refuse to fall in behind any imperial bloc.

Since the war began in February, there have been more than 15,000 arrests of anti-war protesters in Russia. Many Russian anti-war activists, including those from leftist organisations, have firmly condemned Nato and Western imperialism as well as attacking their own bourgeois government.

Here in Britain, people have largely reacted to the invasion of Ukraine with horror and indignation. That is the normal, human response.

Logically, there are two wider conclusions that could potentially follow from it. And no effort has been spared in official and media circles to encourage people to draw only one of those conclusions: that Russia is evil.

After all, the other possible conclusion would be that aggressive war itself is evil. And no imperial power wants people to start thinking that.


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