The Gendarme′s Return: On the Nature of Russian Imperialism
Stalinists of all stripes have been praising Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an attempt to restore the Soviet Union or create an altogether new entity capable of opposing the might of the United States and the imperialism of Western Europe. Their arguments smack of nothing but sheer stupidity.
What Putin has done in South-Eastern Ukraine has simply been to send Russia back some two hundred years into the past by restoring the country’s status as the “Gendarme of Europe,” a moniker the Russian Empire earned in the nineteenth century after dispatching a one hundred forty thousand man strong punitive expedition to crush the 1848–1849 democratic revolution in Hungary.*
The ruling elites of the west and the east have been trying to use the conflict to their advantage. Yet while western imperialism is quite pragmatic, motivated by the desire to secure control of resources, Russian imperialism’s rationale is fundamentally different.
Russia does not need control over other people’s resources: it has quite enough of its own. But to be able to go on controlling them and disposing of these resources as it will, the Russian oligarchical elite requires strictly authoritarian rule. Anything that threatens to undermine the regime is, therefore, suppressed quickly and ruthlessly, be it freedom of the press, the movement for fair elections or the right of NGOs to operate freely. And the emergence of alternative systems, states whose governance is based on democracy, in immediate geographical proximity to Russia, does undermine Putin’s regime, for they can nourish and inspire the dissident movement and popular unrest within Russia itself.
This is why Russia provides huge loans to Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime and severely punishes those countries where it suspects the beginnings of democratic rule. Thus, Moldova was punished, in its time, with the secession of Transnistria. More recently, Georgia paid with the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and now the Ukrainian Maidan has been punished with the loss of Crimea.
The Gendarme’s logic at work: “Punish and let others beware.” This was the motto of the nineteenth-century Russian emperors when they sent punitive expeditions to Europe.
At the same time, Russia has little use for these territories: it has more than its fair share of economically depressed regions. It is the logic of the Gendarme that is at work here: “Punish and let others beware!” And it wants to weaken these countries: without their annexed territories, democratic governments will be unable to build sustainable economies. Heaven forbid that uncorrupt, free, and democratic countries should emerge along unwashed Russia’s borders.
This was what motivated the nineteenth-century Russian emperors when they sent punitive expeditions to Europe. Their Stalinist successors adhered to the same logic when they suppressed popular uprisings in Eastern and Central Europe in the twentieth century, but the Soviet Union, at least rhetorically, tried to imagine itself as a non-capitalist society. Today’s Russia in no way represents an alternative to the capitalist system. It differs from the major capitalist powers only in terms of the monstrous levels of hyper-exploitation to which its workers are subjected, a state of affairs maintained by a blatantly repressive system of labor relations.
* A gendarmerie is a military force charged with police duties among civilian populations.
This comment was originally published in Russian at gaslo.info. It was translated into English by the author, and has been slightly edited by The Russian Reader and published here with Mr. Buketov′s kind permission.