Michael Khodarkovsky, May 18, 2017, New York Times
Emperor Nicholas I in a sleigh, 1850. Artist unknown
In the 1960s, American and European cities were convulsed by riots and
antiwar protests, and in the early 1970s the Watergate scandal threatened to derail
American democracy. Then, as now, the Kremlin was jubilant as Western
democracies seemed to teeter on the brink.
But soon enough, Americans were landing on the moon, the Vietnam War
ended, Nixon was forced to resign, and it was the Soviet Union’s crumbling facade
that could no longer disguise its own social rifts and divisions. Within the next two
decades, Western democracies continued to thrive, if unevenly, while the Soviet
Union lost its empire and itself fell apart.
A century ago, preparing the ground for the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir
Lenin famously predicted that the chain of imperialism could be broken at one of its
weaker links, Russia. Today, too, behind a seemingly resurgent Russia and its
strongman leader lies a weak and fragile Russian state that may prove Lenin
The Russian Federation has an economy overdependent on oil and gas; together
with armaments, they account for 90 percent of its exports. With long-term
economic prospects ever dimmer, Russian demographers are also warning that the
country is about to enter a demographic crisis similar to the one in the 1990s. Even
when there is a population growth, the numbers of the newborn vary dramatically
depending on religion and ethnicity, with an average Muslim growth rate far
exceeding the national average. If this trend continues, Russia is on track to become
a majority-Muslim country in the middle of this century. Like Israel, Russia may one
day face a choice between ruling over a predominantly Muslim population or giving
sovereignty to its Muslim enclaves.
To forestall that possibility, two months ago the Russian parliament passed a
law that would allow anyone who speaks Russian or has any connection to Russia
and the former Soviet Union to become a Russian citizen. The goal is to increase
Russia’s population by millions from among those living in neighboring countries
and occupied territories. It is one indicator of how large a role Russia’s demographic
crisis plays in Moscow’s expansionist ambitions toward neighbors that used to be part
of the Soviet Union.
But attempts to increase Russia’s Slavic population do not help define Russian
national identity, an existential question that has consumed many generations of
educated Russians. It continues to raise questions about the sustainability of the
Russian Federation, in which a multitude of ethnic and religious groups are spread
across 21 republics and occupied Crimea.
“Who are we and why?” asks the protagonist in a recent novel, “Maidenhair,” by
the Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin. Where does the Russian empire end and the
Russian nation begin? On a global scale, what is Russia’s relationship to the West?
These have always been the principal questions in Russia’s perennial search for its
national identity, and still there is no clear answer in sight.
The Kremlin’s most recent idea of a law defining the Russian nation came to an
inglorious end on March 2, after five months of deliberations. It had not even
reached the draft stage, despite President Vladimir V. Putin’s full support and
encouragement. The resistance came from many quarters: Russian nationalists who
want the dominant status of Russians enshrined in law; the Orthodox Church, which
fears losing its present position as a national church; and above all, the non-Russian
ethnic elites, who suspect that this was a Kremlin ploy to deprive them of the
privileges that their current national and territorial autonomy allows them within
the Russian Federation.
Emil Pain, an expert on national issues in Russia and a prominent critic of the
law, compared it to the notorious notion of “official nationality” — an imperial,
autocratic idea adopted under Emperor Nicholas I in the 1820s. The problem, Mr.
Pain maintains, is that instead of promoting the idea of a nation of free citizens, the
Kremlin wants a nation subordinate to the state and its leader. As Valery Tishkov, an
adviser to Mr. Putin who was charged with drafting the law, acknowledged, “The
society is not quite ready to accept a notion of a united nation that encompasses all
nationalities” — yet another reminder that Russia remains less than the sum of its
Here lies Russia’s historic conundrum, born of its enormous size and diversity:
One cannot forge what Mr. Pain calls a “civic nation” — a pluralistic and
participatory democracy — from a tapestry of religions, tongues and customs
without devolving power away from Moscow. But that would risk encouraging
demands for more autonomy from some of the 21 non-Russian republics within the
Russian Federation. On the other hand, concentrating power solely in the Kremlin
and its strong leader means continuing an imperial tradition of keeping the country
together through what the Soviet-era human rights leader Andrei Sakharov derided
as a “messianic expansionism.” So defining Russia in opposition to the outside
world, the West in particular, has become the standard Kremlin default position.
In the last decade, Mr. Putin tried to find a path toward restoring Russia’s
imperial identity through a number of ill-fated projects: the Eurasian
Commonwealth, the Russian World and the Russian Civilization — all in opposition
to the West and its liberal political ideals.
If the 19th century gave us Russian literature and arts, and the 20th science and
a fatally flawed ideology of totalitarian socialism, 21st-century Russia has little to
offer beyond subversion of Western democracies and revanchist forays along its
borders. Stuck between apocalypse and revolution, in the words of the 20th-century
Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, fragile Russia is still searching for a sense of
Recent anti-corruption demonstrations have occurred in more than 100 Russian
cities, a strike by truckers is now in its third month, and a younger generation has
grown less susceptible to television propaganda. With Mr. Putin clearly not ready for
any compromise, those are among a few indications that Putinism, as a political
system, may be headed for a crisis — one in which Russia could ultimately go the
way of the Soviet Union.
If it does, however, given the ruthlessness of its leader and the enormous
fortunes at stake, the next demise may turn out to be far less peaceful than that of
the Soviet empire that Lenin began.
Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, is
completing a book titled “Russia’s Twentieth Century.”