Beware the rise of Russia's new imperialism
Dr Robert Horvath
La Trobe Scholar, Politics
First published in the The Age on 21 August, 2008.
Perhaps the worst thing about the anti-American left is not its prejudices but its parochialism. Fixated upon the evils of US global hegemony, its publicists turn a blind eye to the imperialism of regimes opposed to that hegemony.
Consider this analysis by Guardian columnist Seumas Milne (The Age 16/8): "By any sensible reckoning, this is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power."
To deny that Russian imperialism is shaping the events unfolding in the Caucasus is to ignore the public pronouncements of Russian leaders and the climate of nationalist hysteria that permeates the Russian media. Within hours of his arrival in Vladikavkaz last week, Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia "for centuries" played a "positive, stabilising role (as) a guarantor of the security, progress and co-operation" in the Caucasus and "would remain so in the future".
That confident affirmation of Russia's imperial destiny is a tribute to the achievements of a decade of nationalist propaganda in the state-controlled media. No longer is public opinion agitated by the memory of Russia's 19th-century conquest of the Caucasus, Stalin's genocidal deportations, and the two brutal Chechen wars. As human rights activist Sergei Kovalev has lamented, the regime's tribunes "have drummed the values of the imperial state into the social mind".
This indoctrination was made possible by the subjugation of the mass media during Putin's early years in power. As a result of the displacement of liberal journalists by "patriotic" ideologues, Russian television became a forum for the most improbable conspiracy theories, sneering contempt for the West, sycophantic adulation of Putin and the celebration of Russian military power. It also provided a platform for charismatic commentators such as Mikhail Leontev and Vladimir Solovev, vehement converts to the imperial idea.
The ascent of the new Russian imperialism is exemplified by the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who emerged in the radical nationalist underground of the late 1980s. Languishing at the margins of politics during the Yeltsin years, he adopted Eurasianism, an ideology formulated in the 1920s by Russian emigres and popularised in the late Soviet period by the historian Lev Gumilev.
For Eurasianists, Russia was a unique Slavic-Turkic civilisation of the steppe and the eternal enemy of decadent Europe. In Dugin's reworking, Eurasianism became a justification for the resurrection of an empire on the ruins of the Soviet Union and for a struggle to the death against the Atlantic democracies.
Under Putin, Dugin has become a ubiquitous presence in Russia's circumscribed public sphere. On August 8, he amazed an interviewer on the radio station Ekho Moskvy by accusing Georgia of genocide in South Ossetia, a line that was subsequently taken up by Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Dugin is also the leader of the Eurasianist Youth Union, a militant Kremlin-sponsored youth movement. The authorities apply massive police force to suppress democratic protests, but Dugin's lads encounter few obstacles when exercising their right to assembly. On August 10, they protested outside the Defence Ministry in Moscow, chanting "Tanks to Tbilisi!" and "Glory to Russia! Glory to Empire!"
The doyen of the Russian imperialists is Aleksandr Prokhanov, whose novels, set in the battlefields of the Cold War, earned him a reputation as the Rudyard Kipling of the Soviet empire. A radical opponent of Yeltsin's "occupation regime", he became respectable under Putin. In his latest editorial in his newspaper, Zavtra, Prokhanov exulted that "we were not defeated by the West in the Cold War, because the Cold War continues. We lost gigantic territories, but we held Moscow. From here we launched our counterattack."
Imperialist passions are also being inflamed by influential nationalist clerics. In February this year, Russian television broadcast Demise of an Empire, a visually spectacular documentary narrated by the Orthodox abbot Tikhon Shevkunov, reputedly Putin's confessor. Ostensibly an account of the collapse of Byzantium, it was really an allegory about Putin's Russia: a warning against Western subversion and domestic traitors, and a celebration of empire. Enthused by Tikhon's "fiery imperial, great power rhetoric", one nationalist reviewer extolled this travesty of history as "a propaganda masterpiece".
The effects of this cult of empire extend far beyond the ranks of the nationalist intelligentsia and official patriotic movements such as Nashi. On the evening of Victory Day, May 9, I witnessed an annual spectacle that has alarmed liberals for years: gangs of aggressive, drunken youths marching around the Moscow metro, rhythmically chanting "Ros-siya, Ros-siya!" As Sergei Kovalev has pointed out, these children of the Putin era do not even realise they are behaving like fascists.
For too long, we in the West have ignored the xenophobic fulminations and the neo-imperial fantasies disseminated by the Russian state media. For too long, we pretended that the Kremlin's sabre-rattling was nothing more than a benign concession to the resentments of the downtrodden. It is time to confront the reality that we can no longer attribute the behaviour of the Russian state to the effects of Western power. Russian imperialism has become a fact of life.