Russia’s five circles of empire

Boris Yeltsin applauds Vladimir Putin at Russian Independence Day ceremony in 2003
June 12, 2003: Boris Yeltsin (R), the man who nearly buried the Russian empire, applauds Vladimir Putin, whose life mission is to restore it (source: dpa)
  • Russia’s imperial core survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and its outer empire
  • Vladimir Putin’s restoration follows 1990s doctrine worked out by Soviet-era diplomats
  • The new empire’s shaky foundations will be tested by the post-Putin succession

The collapse of the Soviet Union was regarded by some analysts as a watershed event, a closed historical chapter. But now, almost precisely a quarter century after the fall of this great communist state, we are not so sure. Russia is returning to its roots. The hybrid system erected by Vladimir Putin combines two elements of traditional Russian imperialism – centralized control over a vast territory, and the harnessing of modern technology to the service of an all-powerful autocrat. Mr. Putin invokes the First (Romanov) and Second (Soviet) Empires, while seeing himself as the founder of the Third. The key to understanding events in Russia today is history, which is one good reason why the USSR’s collapse cannot be consigned to the past.

One thing that has become evident over the past 25 years is that the Russian imperial system survived the Soviet Union’s demise. An interesting description of this system comes from the late Russian political scientist Alexei Salmin. The core of the empire was Soviet Russia. This was not a national state like France or Germany, but a highly variegated entity – precisely congruent with Russia’s current borders – that existed as the Soviet Union’s precursor in 1917-1922.

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