In an attempt to understand that which seems incomprehensible — the politics of Vladimir Putin and the war that he started — people often resort to the idea of the “imperialist mindset”, which is allegedly ingrained in the majority of Russian citizens. Or in most ethnic Russians, depending on whom you ask.
There are two mistakes here.
Firstly, Russians do not have an imperialist mindset. Or, to be more precise, they do — but no more than any other nations that have gone through a period of imperialism.
The term “imperialist mindset” seemingly refers to a desire for one’s country to be an empire (i.e. rule over other peoples), the idea that such a state of affairs is natural, that it is the country’s destiny and mission — and involves a yearning for a return to the imperial status if it has been lost.
But when our empire — the Soviet Union — fell apart, nobody wept over the loss of Moscow’s power over, say, Tajikistan or demand to send in troops to prevent its independence. The “phantom-empire pain” came along much later, in the 2000s, as the authorities began actively exploiting the concept of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Even among those who agree that the fall of the Soviet Union was unfortunate (not the greatest catastrophe, of course, but sad nonetheless), nobody but a few TV-endorsed village idiots wants to once again rule the lost colonies and subjugate the eternally ungrateful natives. A distaste towards the peoples who were once under the reign of the Russian tsar persists — but a desire to reconquer them does not.
This is only natural. We had a very odd empire, whose regime did not share the profits of its conquests, real or mythical, with its subjects.
Ordinary people did not receive anything from their empire — neither materially nor even psychologically.
The civilising mission proudly claimed by the English was, in the mind of Russian people, boiled down to the idea that we are surrounded by savages all around. They will perish without us, of course, but neither are we leading them to the light, for they are incapable of reaching it.
The prevalence of the idea that Russians have imperialist longings simply because they are Russians has to do with the fact that this creates a simple and consistent worldview; an illusion of understanding — they are simply all imperialists! This justifies proposals for Russia’s isolation (not the current well-deserved one, but any potential future isolation) and legitimises ultimately racist stereotypes about the Russian people.
Our rulers were not all the same. We had Nicholas I, who wasn’t content with quashing all life in his own country and was ready to “saddle up” in response to any “attempted deposition of the legitimate government” anywhere, as Putin would have put it.
But we also had Gorbachev and Yeltsin, whose role in the freedom of the Soviet Union’s vassal colonies cannot be overestimated. Sure, Russia did have one colonial war after the fall of the USSR, and it was Yeltsin who started it — the conflict in Chechnya. But the French had Algeria, and the British had a pretty much uncountable number of such conflicts.
In reality, the term “imperialist mindset” is erroneously used for a completely different phenomenon, which is no less dangerous. A significant part of Russians believe that the country is surrounded by enemies wishing for its downfall. The party line of “they invariably hate us because they invariably envy us” doesn’t seem to enjoy a lot of popularity, but many people accept the idea that, for centuries, Russians have been targets of hate and an irrational desire to harm them.
It is this ages-old popular perception and not just propaganda that lets people believe the most bewildering things: for instance, that we didn’t attack Ukraine, but that it was NATO or whoever who attacked us — they had been planning it for a while, and we’re just defending ourselves. We had no other option, as Hitler put it after attacking Poland — and as Putin said upon declaring his “special military operation”.
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The second and more important mistake is to derive modern Russian politics from the people’s “imperialist mindset” or some other trait of the “mysterious Russian soul”. Russia is not a democracy. It was the attitude of the French people towards the Algerian issue that forced the French government to make changes in their policy towards Algeria. It was the backlash from a considerable part of American society that played a key role in stopping the war in Vietnam.
In an authoritarian country, such displays do not matter. The sole decision-maker first acts in accordance with his own ideals and only then observes the reaction of the people: persecutes the discontented, rewards the satisfied while his propaganda machine tirelessly works to ensure the numbers of those satisfied grow.
Indeed, many Russian citizens, unfortunately, support the insane actions of their government — something they are morally responsible for, — but they cannot influence them.
The belief of some Americans in the QAnon conspiracy affects the political situation in their country; the belief of some Russians that the US wants to seize Russian oil reserves does not.
Russia’s recent aggressive politics in general, and the war against Ukraine in particular, does not at all meet the demand of Russian society — this is not what it asked for, and even if it was, the regime would have ignored it. The current nightmare is also not a delayed consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union.
The war against Ukraine was not preordained, the relations between the two countries were developing normally, inevitable conflicts got resolved one way or another.
Crimea and Donbas were not issues on the mind of any ordinary citizen. The entire tragedy that is unfolding today is the consequence of the folly of one person — his illusions, ambitions, and a desire to go down in history not as he will, but as a great conqueror of everything that hurt his feelings.
The Russian people are definitely not angels — but neither is anyone else. We have many people who are spiteful, ignorant, and ready to believe any nonsense — but there are plenty of such people everywhere. There are also many courageous and noble people in Russia — like everywhere else in the world. However, the strategy of the Kremlin is determined by neither the first nor the second category of people. It is determined by the rulers’ folly.
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