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IN RUSSIA, RADICAL REVANCHISM BECOMING MAINSTREAM

One of the most dangerous traps into which political analysts can fall is to dismiss as outrageous and therefore irrelevant extremist ideas expressed in crude and radical ways by political leaders as somehow unimportant and unworthy of attention except perhaps as “playing to the base.” Observers repeatedly and sagely observe that notions ranging from locking up the leader’s political opponents to killing all the Jews to reconquering former empires are so radical that even those who say these things don’t really believe them and, in the end, won’t act upon them. But again and again over the past century in country after country, such notions which started at the marginal have gone mainstream and led to…

Window on Eurasia

Oct 25, 2020

Paul Goble

 

One of the most dangerous traps into which political analysts can fall is to dismiss as outrageous and therefore irrelevant extremist ideas expressed in crude and radical ways by political leaders as somehow unimportant and unworthy of attention except perhaps as “playing to the base.”

 

Observers repeatedly and sagely observe that notions ranging from locking up the leader’s political opponents to killing all the Jews to reconquering former empires are so radical that even those who say these things don’t really believe them and, in the end, won’t act upon them.

 

But again and again over the past century in country after country, such notions which started at the marginal have gone mainstream and led to horrific actions by those in power.  They thus deserve not dismissal but the closest possible attention, because having caught the imagination of leaders, they may come to form the basis of policy.

 

One such theme, marginal a decade or more ago, that is now increasingly going mainstream in Russia, at least at the level of state government talk shows, is that Russia must retake the former Soviet republics because they are “part of historic Russia” and because they aren’t “real” countries anyway.

 

In an especially important article, Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko says that if one listens to the talk shows on Russian state television channels one can only conclude that revanchism, the reconquest of the former Soviet space, has become “the chief Russian national idea” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5F91BB1A583C6).

 

And while it is likely that Russia, which is far weaker and more divided than most concede, won’t be able to achieve that goal, he suggests, there is every reason to think that people in and around the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin, believe that this is a proper goal and they will seek to realize it.

 

After all, Moscow has used direct military force against Georgia and Ukraine and has insisted that the entire post-Soviet space is Russia’s sphere of influence that no one, not the West and not China, has any right to play any role in. And it has succeeded in influencing both Russian and Western opinion in that regard.

 

Even Russians who don’t want to launch a revanchist campaign tend to accept the idea that the former Soviet republics are part of their patrimony, and even foreign governments which recognize these countries still often dismiss them as “newly independent states” or “Russia’s ‘near abroad.’”

And while Western governments and commentators use these terms less than they once did, they also appear to be less willing to support these countries against Russia, a shift that gives Moscow, despite its own inherent weaknesses, a greater chance to proceed in a revanchist direction.

 

Yakovenko’s article is important not only because he recounts some of the outrageousness now being expressed on Russian television, outrageousness that is almost never reported in the West, but also because he points to a recent article that provides a kind of summa for those Russians who accept revanchism as natural, inevitable and necessary.

 

The article Yakovenko points to is by Petr Akopov, a regular commentator for the Russian state news agency, Novosti, on its site entitled “Russia Has No Choice on the Post-Soviet Space” (ria.ru/20201008/rossiya-1578624414.html). It makes for disturbing reading, particularly because it appears to sum up what many other Russian TV talking heads are now saying.

 

“Russia itself,” Akopov writes, “is watching what is taking place in the republics of the former USSR with the closest attention and concern, and society is seeking an answer to the question: what are we to do about all these problems, stand aside and watch, actively interfere, or do something else?”

 

Many feel that all has been lost, including many Russian elites, who fear that the Americans or the Turks or the Chinese are advancing and Russia is in retreat and will continue that way, he argues. And they have accepted the false Western argument that the Russian Federation is the real Russia and should focus on its own problems alone.

 

“The ‘real’ Russia disintegrated in 1991,” Akopov insists, “and all the problems that have followed both in Russia and in the post-Soviet space are only the result of that. Yes, in 1991, Russia was called the USSR and in it there were many unjust arrangements regarding the Russian people, but this was a state built by Russians.”

 

“Russia never was a colonial empire, and the growth of its territory and the unification (more rarely, conquest) of other peoples was an objective process of the growth of the Russian people and its state,” Akopov continues. Those peoples who were included in it “kept their lands, culture and way of life.”

 

According to the Novosti commentator, “the disintegration of the USSR was not simply a geopolitical catastrophe. It was first of all a tragedy both for the Russian people (which became a divided people, not to mention the millions of refugees and resettlers) and also for practically all the people of great historic Russia.”

 

“All colonial empires fall apart,” our liberal Westernizers assure us. They are the ones who came to power in the 1990s, and they told us “Develop your own Russian Federation, and be satisfied with that.” But “this was a shameless lie because the Russian Federation could not develop by itself, as it is only a part of historic Russia.”

“Russia today in the form of the Russian Federation simply has no choice: it can be either a full-scale extension of historic Russia, the USSR, or it can cease to exist altogether.” Holding that view, Akopov says, is “not revanchism but simply an understanding of the laws of Russian history” and is “our responsibility before our ancestors and our descendants.”

 

But it is not just about Russia: “all the experience of post-Soviet history shows that none of the former Soviet republics have achieved any successful independent state construction.” Instead, they are failing at home and being drawn into conflicts with each other as in Karabakh or into serving as fighters against Russia for the West.

 

Russia in essence doesn’t have a choice in this situation: “we must gather in and restore our space and return to the main path of Russian history. Indeed, it is precisely this that Vladimir Putin and his comrades in arms have been working toward already for many years, without excessive PR or noise.”

 

The West’s efforts to drive Russia out of the post-Soviet space, Akopov says, have backfired because they are convincing ever more Russians that the battle for Russia is being waged there and that this is “the foundation of all our geopolitical strategy and in general the strategy for the life of Russian civilization as such.”