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The collapse of the Russian Matrix: Farewell to the Imperialism

David Darchiashvili is a professor at Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia. He is the founder and director of the Center for Russian Studies. From 2008 to 2012, he led the Georgian parliamentary committee on European Integration.


The author argues that cooperation of the ruling class and the educated class, understood as an intellectual layer of the society, is one of the main variables for the stability of any political system. The main subject of this cooperation is the development and communication of the ideas, serving to build the collective identity. For too long Russia was giving an example of such cooperation and the idea, developed in various forms, was imperial. Things have changed in this respect since 24.02.2022: Russian ruling class is not any more supported by the most dynamic part of Russian intellectuals. It will unavoidably play at the detriment of the Putin’s regime. But ideas which would define the identity and purpose of Russia and Russians are still needed. Together with universal principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights, such ideational grounds can be created on the basis and novel interpretation of the experience of old Eastern European commonwealth – rzeczpospolita.


Matrix can be understood in various ways. We may think of this term as referring to the enduring socio-political environment or a system of interaction between the ideas/values, institutions and players, in which they form vertical and horizontal interconnections, interdependencies. In a way, Russian ideational and political system, can also be viewed as matrix which influences the attitudes and behaviour of its citizens. For instance, until today one of the leading patterns of thinking of not only rulers, high ranking officials or the political class at large, but also the average citizens or subjects of these vast country was an imperial form of nationalism, marked with the sense of belonging to the separate civilisation. It was based on particular sets of ideologemes, which have variations, and fluctuate, given the taste of particular leaders and opinion makers. This set of ideologemes and certain reading of the world’s past, present and future has been rather persistent in its core.

In the most recent form, Timothy Snider suggested to call it “Rushism”. Famous Russian literary/cultural critic, Mark Lipovetsky defines Rushism as not a political ideology but cultural phenomenon, consisting of a) the special form of conservative worldview, b) the cult of “just wars” eternally pursued by Russians, because they are “perpetual victims” of greedy alien aggressors; c) nostalgia for the USSR as a lost greatness and brotherhood; d) cynicism and aggressiveness; e) popularity of occultism.[1]  The Rushism is strengthened through institutions like media, state apparatus, schools. It is linked to particular reading of history, as well as the high literature which Russia is so rich with. All of that merges with patron-client relations in politics and beyond.

I would not risk to draw a virtual matrix/diagram out of this set of elements, since there hardly can be 100% assurances which of those elements are dependent variables and which are independent. Doing that we would have entered the realm of epistemic debates and hardly that would have been helpful for the essay. For its purpose I only wanted to single out three components of this matrix - upper layer of the political class, the educated class, and the idea of an Empire heavily embedded in peculiar reading of the regional history. Using these three variables the essay hypothesizes on the following:

  1. No ruling class can be stable without the support from the educated class and an ideology (or surrogate of it) is a linkage and common cause of their cooperation.

  2. Until 24.02. 2022 Russian ruling class has always had some kind of the bridge with the Russian educated class through the relative consensus over the idea of an empire. It was strengthening the ties among them.

  3. Now the gap between the two is very apparent and widening, since the educated class started to question the very idea of an empire as never before: Despite the existence of hired “talking heads” at Kremlin’s disposal and residual imperial sentiments among teachers or some other segments of the educated class, the best representatives oppose to not just rulers’ internal authoritarianism but also the centuries-old idea of the Russian state. Russian elite cannot sustain itself without genuine intellectual backing. The imperial matrix is increasingly seen as an anachronism and together with international sanctions and the western weaponry in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers it does not only become of the reason of the forthcoming end of Putin, but it rings the bell for Putinism, Rushism and any form of imperialism as such.


Tandem of Ruling and Educated Classes

Elite theories have strong explanatory power of the political developments. They may not go into the particularities of the concrete regime types, and the peculiarities of Russian regime typology may require insights of schools of thoughts, represented by Richard Pipes, Mark Galeotti, Henry Hale, Lev Gudkov, Sergei Medvedev or many others. However, without going into details of the different perspectives, like whether Russia was always on the path of Byzantine/Mongolian political and ideological heritage, or that is all about unique Soviet experience still resonating, or everything derives from rather wide-spread model of the patronal politics, some generalisations, drown from classical texts of Gaetano Mosca, Wilfredo Pareto or their modem descendants like John Higley give conceptual orientation for the understanding of present and future trajectory of Russia. They are especially relevant for analysing three above mentioned elements of Russian socio-political matrix: interaction and interdependency or the ruling and educated classes and the ideology which makes the cooperation among those two necessary.

Elite theorists also teach not only the fact that ruling minority constitutes any political model but these very models heavily depend on the particular type of the political elites. Besides material power, concentrated in their hands, the fortune of the elites depends on psycho-social derivations (Pareto), doctrines (Mosca), or to speak in modern terms, ideologies/ideologemes as a tool to communicate messages among elite members and down to the broader society for the mobilisation of support. In other words, to make the political system legitimate and stable, the rulers have to convince the ruled that they have to endure ruling and develop values/rules/norms which will be shared by main factions of the ruling minority.[2] Rulers/political class can hardly do it alone. For this purpose, they need “poets”/educated class. Of course, governments are always surrounded by those intellectuals, who are on their payroll and serve the system no matter what. Moreover, certain representatives of this class are constantly co-opted into the ruling elite itself. But the political stability suffers and crisis is unavoidable if the system relies only on those attracted through personal benefits. There is a need for the less selfish devotion to the cause and genuine talents from independent representatives of the educated class which cannot be recruited only by material interests or political ambitions. Some kind of like-mindedness, agreement on basic values is needed across the social spectrum to make rulers’ and intellectuals’ cooperation happen.

The Seminal collection of the essays published back in 1909, “Vekhi” was dedicated to the analysis of the role of so called intelligentsia in Russia. Their authors (for instance, Piotr Struve or Nkola Berdyaev) wrote that this segment of the educated class saw its purpose in non-conformist service of the society and frequently assumed the role of the opposition, even radical one vis-à-vis the state. At the same time, the educated class at large may be neutral or even loyal to the government. But the point is that neither in Russia, nor anywhere else, there was no clear division between critical and relatively obedient representatives of free professions, like lawyers, doctors, or scientists and writers. Critical mind and attitude was more or less general feature of the whole educated class and the ruling class at large should have been relatively tolerant to that. Hence to last, political system should have relied on certain equilibrium between the rulers and ruled and the educated class, intelligentsia included, should have been an instrumental factor for that.

By and large, Russian case showed this equilibrium with certain specificities: Not being a free country based on equality, the both, ruling and educated classes had been relatively isolated from the lower classes. In a long run, it should have produce the crisis, which eventually ended the regime. But due to traditional passivity of lower classes it did not cause any substantial trouble for the long time. On the other hand, there was a relatively small part of radical, basically marginal intelligentsia who went on the revolutionary or even terrorist path. But the large segment of intelligentsia, while being traditionally critical of Russian reality, was ready to cooperate with the government if the latter so wished. An example of exiled Alexander Herzen could be a good example, when he compared the tsar Alexander the 2nd with Jesus Christ after he announced the emancipation of serves. In the foreign policy sphere ruling and educated classes were traditionally even more in unison. The forms or reasons of such like-mindedness will be discussed in the following part of this essay.

After the crisis of 1917-1921 manifested in the collapse of the old tsarist Russia, communist takeover and the civil war, caused by various systemic shortcomings of the empire and the context of the WW I, a period for the renewed ruling class-educated class tandem started and lasted almost until the collapse of the USSR. Stalin was a champion of a new model, substantially relying on cultivation of a new “red” intelligentsia and partial physical eradication of the old one. It is also worth mentioning that he successfully played game with the part of emigrant intellectuals, even former anti-Bolsheviks, convincing them that his new red Russia was a continuation of the former empire. Naivety of those emigres, who eventually were ready to reconcile with terrorist regime, shows one important point which is crucial for the logic of this essay: As old, so the new intelligentsia was in consent with the new communist ruling class on the international standing of the USSR/Russia. Communists did not use the term Empire but in reality this consent was based on mutual acceptance of empire-like positioning and global ambitions of the state.

Before we go to the second part and characterise the traditional imperialism of Russian educated class and its intelligentsia part until today, few words on Intelligentsia-Kremlin collaboration in the post-Communist/post-Soviet Russia:

By 1991 like in 1905, large part of intelligentsia went into the political organizations. As in the past, they, as well as famous individuals from the literary art may have been critical of one or another aspect of internal policies of the government: in times of troubles, emanating in the storming of parliamentary building by troops loyal to the president in 1993 it could not have been otherwise. There was a serious difference with their ancestors from tsarist times: part of the intelligentsia was openly opposing to the first war in Chechnya. But by and large, then government was also quite bewildering on this issue. What united majority of the independent educated segments of the society and ruling class was again the re-emerging imperial mood which reached its summit in times of Putin. But now, after 24.02.22 Things are being changed and meeting of young scientists with Putin, organized by the president of the Kurchatov institute, Mikhail Kovalchuk, who was named by the host of the independent Russian TV “Dozd” a “high priest” of Putin`s “religion”,[3]can hardly compensate it.

Traditional Imperialism of Russian educated class

Here is no space for the discussion who and when started the creation of Russian identity, heavily embedded in the imperial attitudes internally or, especially, externally. Was it an initiative coming from the rulers themselves or their intellectual advisers? Is somehow Philotheus of Pskov (by the way, then intellectual), to whom historians attribute the very formula of “Moscow - the Third Rome” responsible for it or his words did not mean much beyond purely Christian/ecclesiastical advices to the grand duke Vasilii III between 1514-1521? The only point, one has to bear in mind with regards of this formula is the following: Whatever were the true intentions of this medieval monk, after centuries, not so much the rulers of Russia but some representatives of then educated class started spreading their interpretation of Philotheus’s words as a call for Russia’s spiritual and political leadership as far geographically as possible.

By default, empires have two dimensions: One is how the society – subjects or citizens of the empire are handled, what is the internal system, cementing unity. The second concerns its external outlook – its ambitions region-wide or the world-wide, its inclinations for an expansion. Russian ideology, covering both directions, though having particular stress on the former, was eventually sealed by the formula of count Sergei Uvarov, the minister of education under the tsar Nikolay the first, who, by the way, was a scholar, advocated for scholarly freedom and friended with Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The formula was the “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality”.  Too many representatives of Russian educated class, and especially, its dissident-like part, defined as intelligentsia, would reject at least the first component of such formula. However, the vitally important characteristic of Russian social or ideational development throughout the end of XVIII-beginning of XXI centuries is the tendency of the brightest representatives of Russia supporting territorial claims of the ruling class in one form or another. This support could have been deriving from enlightenment/civilianizing angle, from pan Slavic convictions, from geopolitical calculations or even from the pacifist believes like in case of Lev Tolstoy. But in all cases, it helped Tsarism to maintain empire until it could survive. This conscious or sub-conscious tandem, though in rather perverse form, continued afterwards.

As an evidence of the above said, one does not always necessarily need to screen political/ideological texts which by themselves are great in numbers. Fiction and poetic masterpieces, which could ignite equally the imagination of high-rank officials, busy professionals and the representatives of radical intelligentsia can be even more telling about the dominant mood of the ruling and educated classes, than particular treatises of ideologists or journalistic calls. Therefore, let us refer to such pillars of Russian high culture, as Pushkin or Dostoyevsky were. Traditionally, the very intelligentsia used to be raised on their texts. Though one also has to take into account that those famous writers were by themselves under the influence of less widely known but no less influential philosophers and historians.

Given the said, we can put the same Alexander Pushkin in the context of historian Nikolay Karamzin and philosophically minded thinker Piotr Chaadaev. This trinity shows the continuum within the “golden age” Russian educated class from the elite-member intellectuals to rebellious intelligentsia representatives. Pushkin is somewhere in between on this continuum, being fascinated with the Derzhavin’s multi-volume “History of the Russian State” and befriending with anti-orthodox Chaadaev, who was officially declared insane.

Imperialism, expressed by the trinity is first and foremost reflected in their attitude towards ever rebellious Poland. In fact, relations with Polish nation, whose ethnic core territory - Masuria and Warszawa, as well as so called Kresy Wschodnie of the former Rzeczpospolita (where slowly but steadily Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalism was to be born) - was incorporated into the Russian empire, were shaping civilizational patterns and ambitions of the latter. Karamzin’s historical thoughts were by and large developed in confrontation with the idea of Polish independence. Most vividly Pushkin’s adherence to the idea of Russian imperialism has also been expressed in verses dedicated to the war against Polish uprising of 1830-1831. His “To Slanderers of Russia” expressed poetically its main ideational essence, as seen by Pushkin himself and, apparently by the Russian educated elite:

Кто устоит в неравном споре: Кичливый лях, иль верный росс? Славянские ль ручьи сольются в русском море? Оно ль иссякнет? вот вопрос.

Chaadaev was fascinated by this verse, writing a letter “few words on the Polish question” in the same mood, while Adam Mitskiewicz accused the poet in betraying the idea of freedom, they jointly dreamed of during the Decembrist’s affair.

For the sake of truth, one has not to forget that a section of young Russian officers, who took part in a plot against authoritarian rule in Russia in 1825, like future revolutionary democrats in the 60-ies during the second Polish uprising, had attempts of tactical cooperation with Poles. Though nothing concrete and substantial has ever come out of it: No noticeable part of the Russian society developed any understanding of Polish cause. An exception, proving the rule, could be Herzen. Poles responded in no less straightforward verses. One is of Rajnold Suchodolski’s:    

Kto powiedział, że Moskale

Są to bracia nas Lechitów,

Temu pierwszy w łeb wypalę

Przed kościołem Karmelitów.


The social power and role of these verses, reminding elite theorist Gaetano Mosca’s thoughts about rulers’ and poets’ interaction as an important variable for the regime operation, revealed itself in a peculiar form: In 1869, when not only geopolitical but civilizational distancing from Europe was on the rise in Russia, historian Nikolai Danilevsky published his work „Europe and Russia” contributing to the ideological imperialism in the “Slavophil” form. Polish historian Andrzej Novak, calls it „a bible” of Russian Pan Slavism.[4] Indeed, Danilevsky attempted to proclaim all Slavs, including Poles, the most and deepest religious nations, who are “rightfully religious, unlike German-Roman Europe. He advocated for all Slavic political union and doing that, used the verse of Pushkin, quoted above.[5] In his turn, Andrzej Novak titled one of his seminal books “Kto powiedział, że Moskale Są to bracia nas Lechitów”.


Influence of Danilevsky’s thoughts strongly resonates even in contemporary Russia and it will be mentioned below how it feeds current Russian nationalism. But here, while talking about old Russia’s unity of rulers and intellectuals in one or another form of imperialism, I would like to mention few no less important figures, without whom Russian culture is inconceivable. Mikhail Lermontov died before Danilevski wrote anything, but like Pushkin, he belonged to the generation of those who were grown on Karamzin’s thoughts about the great Russia and European “ungratefulness”. However, unlike Pushkin, who openly preached the war against Poles, Lermontov just ridiculed them in one of his verses.[6] More outspoken was Feodor Dostoevsky, who was expressing his irritation with Poles also before Danilevsky’s treatise has been published. “Where this Polonophoby came to the great writer” was rhetorically asking contemporary literary criticist Oleg Belov.[7]


Anti-Polish Slavophilism was quite widely spread in 60-ies and 70-ies of the XIX century in Russian cultural and political centres. So called Slavic committees, created throughout Russia after the Crimean War and operating in European capitals were perceiving Polish people as “Judah of Slavs”. In 1877 196 notorious citizens from Krakow (Austro-Hungary) appealed to the Slavic committee in Petersburg with worries, accusations but also hopes (Some of them were aristocrats of Ukrainian descent) but never got an answer.[8] That was a climate, when Lev Tolstoy was entering the podium of internationally known writers. He admitted that anti-Polishness was implanted in him from the childhood, but claimed that he then became distanced from it.[9]


It would be probably not easy to see in his late pacifist worldview direct imperialism but his famous “to Polish woman”, published in 1909, still bears imprints of accommodation to imperial reality, as well as adherence to some of pan Slavic ideas. In this letter the writer was answering to a Polish reader, who demanded from him the support of Poland’s straggle for political identity. Tolstoy preaches in response that all peoples should be free from violence and participation in violence. Accentuation that Russian is an oppressor is not right; Russians or Austrians rule over Poland because Poles want to commit violence against them. Solution is in mutual love, religiousness and Slavs have special ability for that. In one of the draft version of this letter Tolstoy also wrote that fighting with the empire with singing “jeszcze polska nie zginęła” looks like an insect warring against elephant and the way out of the conflict should be the disobedience to unjust orders by all sides.[10]


Pan Slavism was not an only popular current in Russian political/intellectual life. So called Westerners, pro-Europeans, who gained rather substantial portion of the seats in Russian parliament, granted by the emperor since 1905, had their own, geopolitical and/or nationalistic reasoning to support greatness of Russia. In any case, their prominent representatives, Constitutional Democrats agreed to negotiate with the Polish caucus only on the reform of the education system.[11] It was explainable, since in this time of imperial crisis even one of the brightest and apolitical representative of the “silver century” of the Russian literature Alexander Block was writing verses on mythologized cradle of “Russian greatness”, Kulikovo battlefield.

Bolshevism transformed imperial idea in a peculiar way. One can apply again Andrzej Nowak’s analysis of this process: Genuinely internationalists, gradually Bolsheviks followed the logic of geopolitics and power and started reintegration of well-known national minorities. Of course, one should not discount Soviet dissidents. They supported Hungarians, Czechoslovaks and, of course, Polish anti-Communist movements. But was it genuinely anti-imperial support? Except in some individual cases, it is not very clear. By and large the Soiviet times has shown that two main currents of then Russian political thought, being off springs of enlightenment – Communists, as well as emigrated liberals, still thought imperial, while slowly but steadily, a new form of pan Slavism, namely Eurasianism was emerging.    


Democratisation in the USSR and its eventual collapse returned the issue of an empire back to the broad public discourse. Probably it is understandable (though not justifiable) that the dissident poet, the Nobel prize winner in the literature Iosif Brodskij wrote over the ruins of the USSR “on Ukraine’s independence”. This verse sounded like a curse. As Ekaterina Margolis says, the verse shows if not territorial than metaphorical/linguistic imperialism, which could have been transferred to him through the acquaintance with the representative of the “silver century” – Anna Akhmatova.[12]

As to the academic community, it also soon started to revive cultural and political heritage of the tsarist empire. Paradoxically, at least on the level of the discourse, less imperialistic was initial circle of the first president of Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin. One may question, how deep and genuine their democratic inclinations were, but it’s clear that their choice was pragmatic, coming from the desire to have Western support in rather difficult transitional period. One should not forget that immediately after the dissolution of the USSR imperial niche was occupied by the remnants of the communist party and newly emerging populists and marginals like Zhirinovski or new Russian “brown shirts”. But quite soon, probably already in 1992-1993, the crisis of identity of the Russian society, analysis of which is beyond the scope of this essay, pushed the core of democrats towards the revival of imperial symbols. By and large, one can agree with Nowak’s vision, that Soviet nostalgia was growing as well as popularity of the “Moscow – third Rome” mythology was rising, Alexander Dugin’s Evrasianism, imported from the émigré circles and party based on Danilevsky’s heritage was also about to emerge. society had no experience of the existence in the form of the nation-state and the ruling elite had to handle this situation.


Firstly, in Yeltsin’s times, and then, increasingly, under Putin, the establishment tried to rely on the idea of “Russia the Second Rome”. According to Nowak, this idea was an invention of the Soviet philosopher-turned into political scientist, Alexander Panarin. In a way, it was an attempt to merry liberalism with Imperialism and as such, it was a reminiscent of XIX century experiments, linked to the reign of the Alexander the 1st and Alexander the 2nd, or with the ideology of the old constitutional democrats. But Panarin lived under new circumstances, hence, he was advocating the partnership with “the First Rome – USA” and obtaining from Americans a permission to be an autonomous watch-dog of liberalism in order to control “ethnocraicies” in the East. Panarin was critical of Dugin-like anti-Westerners but only under the above mentioned condition.[13] In 2003 Anatoli Chubais, high rank official of Yeltsin’s and then Putin’s administration came up with the idea of “the Liberal Empire”.


The practice showed unsustainability of this concept and the first to suffer was liberalism. As Anne Appelbaum writes, Russian imperial thinking is a source of authoritarianism.[14] Not only Putin but intellectual Panarin eventually moved to the well-tested concept of ~the Third Rome” alienating from the West. The turn was triggered by the Ukrinian “Orange Revolution”: Kremlin became especially worried of having democratic processes at its doorstep. Ukraine was taking place of Poland in the Russian discourse and this fact – “forgeting” Poland - can be seen as mortal wound of the Russian Empire. However, post-Soviet educated class was still entertaining itself with the rediscovery Stalin and worsjipping his cult: an example of it could be the widely disseminated book of Natalya Narochinskaya, a person, close to the ruling elite, which declared that Stalin was a follower of Danilevski and he saved the empire.[15] Writings of Putin himself, from 2020-2021, in an essence follow the same logic. 


Farewell to the Empire – emerging dominant tendency

Nowadays, thangs are being changed: only officials (some of them, as Russian non-governmental sources tell, only officially) and marginal figures (like Dugin or Girkin/Strelkov) continue to advocate of maintenance or restoration of the empire. Support of the war in Ukraine dropped substantially among ordinary citizens and it all shows unprecedented split within Russian educated, as well as ruling classes. It is noteworthy that Russian society is increasingly losing war zeal. Usually the warmongering has to be encouraged not only by governmental media and/or other propagandists but independent and talented enthusiasts. In 1914 or 1941 Russian high culture has been enriched with patriotic masterpieces but now the society is basically left at mersy of ironical ballades of Slepakov.[16] It can hardly be compensated by attempts of film actor Okhlobistin to warm the government-gathered crowd with exclamations from Ivan the Terrible’s times.[17]

Recognition of Georgia’s brake away regions, occupied by Russian troops as independent states was shocking not only in Tbilisi and Washington or Brussels, but also in Russian political circles beyond the Kremlin influence. But the speed or the scale of such 2008 developments appeared insufficient to ring the alarm bells. Then was a speedy annexation of Crimea which fuelled euphoria. Russian education class remained complacent and only score of the people condemned this act and openly went against the romanticist interpretation of the history as an ideational basis of such blatant violation of the international law. It seemed that in 2014 imperial idea of the Nikolas the 1st times was finally winning over. But disillusionment quickly followed, culminating in 24.02.2022.

At that very day the moment of awakening of intelligentsia/educated class has come. Unprecedented process of curing from imperialism has started, because if setting the Poland free was giving hopes, farewell with Ukraine, unavoidability of which struck the critically minded Russians with the bomb shelling of Kiev by Putin, ruins the main ideational pillar of the Russian empire: “Moscow – third Rome” is in inconceivable without another motto, taken by imperialists from old Slavic chronicles – “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities”. In this ideational matrix if Kiev is “lost”, Third Rome becomes pure mirage, not expanding its arm even to the civilizational centre of Eastern Slavic tribes and seems that educated class increasingly accepts such future.

Disillusionment of intelligentsia, its concentration on the deadly effects of imperial dreaming came with the realisation of the terrible scale of the war. Putin personally might not be seeing it, or ignoring it not only because of his strong conviction into imperial mythology but also his criminal upbringing based on the belief that compromise is a weakness, unavoidably to be followed by the punishment. He may still have many supporters but as famous Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev says “Almost all representatives of Russian intellectual elite are abroad now and I do not see imperial thinking from them”.[18]

There are many evidences to agree with Grozev. Just to bring two: In March 17 scientific journal Т-инвариант published a letter with thousands of signatures of the representatives of Russian educated class, speaking about Russia’s sole responsibility for the on-going war, which started due to geopolitical ambitions and dubious historiosophical phantasies of Russian rulers.[19] In June 24, 2022 popular Russian writer Liudmila Ulitskaia stated: “I feel that great project of Russia comes to an end. Archaic schemes Russia is hanging on will fade into oblivion”.[20] And such evidences are plenty.

Of course media is monopolised in Russia and we still see imperial hysteria in the pro-Kremlin talk-shows. But the numbers of their followers is dramatically shrinking. Some actors, writers, professors still make patriotic statements and attend Kremlin-organized gatherings or concerts. Though as another popular writer, literary criticist and one of the most colourful public intellectuals Dmitri Bykov says, it is just an attempt of a revenge of short sighted and less talented people to be taken against their superior colleagues, who prefer not having anything common with Kremlin. In any case, imperial virus is still floating around but the breakthrough has happened.

There is one question left: how far territorially the disintegration of the empire may go. There is no agreement on that among growing liberal circles of Russia, but declamations over the return of Crimea to Ukraine is becoming a matter of the good taste. As to the legal borders of the RF, they should be discussed separately. Anti-imperialists choose to talk about genuine federalism and that is understandable. The main objective is to deprive the Kremlin from the material and intellectual/ideational ability to mingle in the internal affairs of its neighbores. And yet, it may take time: Still many ordinary Russian believe that it was Ukraine, who attaked Russia.

Vision for Future

The essay started with the assumption that any political system needs not only the rulers’ ability to rule, based on the pragmatic interests which would also take into account socio-economic demands of the ruled, but it also needs the set of inspiring ideas. Otherwise it becomes questionable, why the separate polity is needed within the given borders. Particular readings of the history and visions for the future acquire the paramount importance in this respect. Only in this way the endurable collective identity can be formed, without which connection of rulers and the ruled, as well as links within these segments of the society become artificial and fragile. Identity construction is an intellectual work and that is why the educated class is needed. Hence, if the idea of Russian empire is fading away, at least, it is questioned by that very educated class, some substitute ideologemes are needed.

A lot of the theorists or historians internationally were mindful that Russia did not have an experience of being just a nation-state. Since the modern nationalism came into existence, such modality of the collective consciousness was always blurred there in imperial self-perception.[21] Indirectly, Putin’s famous half joking exclamation that Russia’s borders do not end anywhere (2016), reflects it. Yeltsin’s liberal associates genuinely wanted to construct civic nation of “Rossijane” but by and large in vain.

The Putin and Putinists’ greed is killing the imperial idea, revealing its empty and bloody substance and that is the only positive outcome of the war in Ukraine. But since any nation needs an idea of nationhood, and history, as a reservoir of such ideas, is still indispensable, it becomes important to look for other ingredients of national/regional identity or the aim of collective existence. Recently well-known Russian political scientist, Vladimir Pastukhov brought an idea that the historical experience of Rzeczpospolita may be attracting interest of some Polish and, possibly, Ukrainian and/or Lithuanian politico-intellectual circles.[22] Of course, he underlined that this ancient example of multinational commonwealth cannot be replicated in its original form but Pastukhov agrees that it may be an ideational/civilizational trigger for intensive cooperation and a search for the modern forms of integration between the its heirs. Only pragmatic principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law or economic liberalism, which are the driving forces of the contemporary international system, are not able to make concrete national societies define themselves and look for cultural linkages with likeminded.

As constructivist current in the theory of international relations shows, complexes of historical amity-enmity play the crucial role in regional security complex construction.[23] One can add, that the same is important in nation-building as well. In combination with strategic or geopolitical considerations, the sense of historical linkages and cultural affinities may play role in reconstruction of Rzeczpospolita or, more precisely, a la Pilsudski “Intermarium” ideas. But where is the place of Russia here, which was considered as a threat, against which this very projects have been formed in the past? If Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian (together with Belorussian) peoples may search for amity in the past, what else then enmity can they jointly find vis-à-vis Russia and vice-versa? It is not a secret that Russian security elite (Putin himself and recently the director of the foreing intelligence service of the RF Sergey Narishkin) pay a special hostile attention to Polish-Ukrainian rapprochement and, as it was indicated above, the very idea of the Russian empire was conceived in historical rivalry with Poland.

It is worthwhile to mention that Vladimir Pastukhov also indicates that possible restoration of rzeczpospolita in one form or another is a defeat of Russia, and Putin’s greed and aggressiveness is responsible for this defeat.

I fully agree with the above mentioned Russian contemporary intellectual that only Russia itself should be blamed for the spread of anti-Russian attitudes in the neighborhood and attempts to think of “cordon sanitaire” against Moscow, but as a way out of a gridlock and possible direction of the development of modern Russian political/civilizational identity, the very idea of the Rzeczpospolita should be given a second thought. As the history is the identity formation, Russian society needs an alternative perspective on Polish-Russian relations back in the 16th-17th centuries. It was not only the time of Szlachta poised at Moscow, king Stephan Bator at Pskov gates or Bogdan Khmelnitsky leading pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine. In these years there also were elite-level negotiations on giving Russian tsars a Polish crown or vice-versa, Kievan-Mohila academy, founded under the patronage of the Polish king, was orthodox but teaching Latin and spreading the knowledge about Europe in Russia. Polish language and books were the main intellectual and cultural attractions of Moscow nobility in the second half of the 17th century. In a way, in parallel to looking at Rzeczpospolita as at the obstacle of Russian emerging geopolitical ambitions towards Europe, Russian elite and the educated class has been seeing their Western neighbors as bridge, a gateway to that very European culture.

By the end of the 18th century, when the Rzeczpospolita became weak due to ambitions of neighboring empires and internal squabbles, some of Polish thinkers (Jan Potocki, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski) entertained themselves with the idea of subordination to Russian empire, given the condition that Russia will follow the enlightenment path.[24] As we all know, things developed into opposite direction. The empire appeared to be unsuitable form for the enlightenment and liberalism, though Russian thinkers, even in the 21st century (like Anatoly Chubais in his article of 2003) still thought otherwise. So it is the right time to think of non-imperial elements of Polish-Russian encounters as the foundation for a new, post-Imperial regional and national identity.

For this purpose, Russian educated class should think of the similarities and/or attractions in the old commonwealth civilization, now divided into national entities of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus and work on the association with this emerging Central/Eastern European region without any imperial claims whatsoever. It will not be easy due to the past and especially recent animosities and ever scaring size of Russia. But the size issue can be mitigated into the following way: If and when Russian Federation will be mature for genuine democratization, it can only acquire the form of genuinely federal/confederal political entity: there is now way around, given its very diverse ethno-regional composition. Hence, for the beginning only that part of Russia, namely its Western part (but including Moscow and Petersburg) may become the laboratories of, so to speak, Russia’s rzeczpospolitisation. Of course, it will demand enormous intellectual effort and will not be easy. It eventually may require the generational change. But given the current processes within the Russian educated class, the foundations can be laid down immediately.

Polish memory is heavily shaped by Katyn tragedy; Ukrainian memory will not be freed from Bucha images in the foreseeable future. But neither Polish-Ukrainian 20th century interactions are free of atrocities. Nothing should be forgotten but the tragedies can be jointly mourned if there is a good will for this.

And last but not the least the project rzeczpospolita/Intermarium 2 cannot be sustained without strong linkage with Euro-Atlantic security community and the European integration. It will be just a second, lower but in certain aspects autonomous, identity driven layer of the common liberal area. So the participants should work jointly to make those ideas sound and supported in Brussels and Washington, where positive regional initiatives are generally favored. If the support is obtained from the global centers, it will ease the spread of rczeczpospolita culture into the Eastern reaches of Russia. What is needed for it, first and foremost, is the acceptance by Russians that their destiny should be the Europe and not China. In this case, not only Rzeczpospolita idea but the vision of Bush and Gorbachev times about the stability from Vancouver to Vladivostok may materialize.


Working on this essay through the NED funded project “Promoting Dialogue and Shared Values to Improve Policy-Making”, on December 26th, 2022 it was presented on the working group meeting, dedicated to the deliberations on the regional implications of Russian military aggression in Ukraine. In a Q&A part the question emerged, whether Russia’s war is a function of imperial policy or the pains of never ending nation building. I think these two, namely imperialism and the nationalism sometimes go parallel to each-other. Non-acceptance of Kiev’s right to have the sovereign policy does derive from long lasting conviction of Russian nationalists, that “Kiev is a mother of the Russian cities”, hence, belonging to Russia. Putin is definitely infected by such believe and sees the aggression through “irredentist” lens. But this is not the only lens: Readiness to violate the international law and security arrangements, grab territories of neighbores, demand an exclusive geopolitical zones of the influence not only for “strategic” needs but also for the restoration of “prestige” in international affairs are elements of imperial thinking. They are present in Kremlin’s rationel.

Back in the beginning of XX century thinkers like Piotr Struve and Piotr Savicki thought of the possibility to combine nationalism and imperialism, seeing the Russian empire destined for such hybridity. Luckily, as the essay suggested, less and less Russian intellectuals are ready to sign under such visions and support Russia’s military actions notwithstanding whether they of imperial or nationalist nature. The main argument of mine is that, not the academic debate about the essence of the concept “empire”.


[1]  #ФейгинLIVE #Фейгин, Феномен рашизма. Беседа с Марком Липовецким, July 2022

[2] On the importance of ideational and normative factors for the sustainability of the ruling elite as understood by modern political scientists and sociologists, whose thoughts are more structuralist/systemic than that of the classic thinkers, see for instance: Field, G. Lawell, Higley, John and Burton, G. Michael, (1990), A New Elite Framework for Political Sociology, Revue Europeenne des Sciences Sociales, T 28, No 88, Published: Librairie Droz,

[3] Михаил Фишман, итоговая программа «И так далее». 5.12.2022

[4] Andrzej Nowak, History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, PISM, Warsaw, 2008, გვ 81

[5] Though, unlike Pushkin, he probably preferred not a metaphor of “Slavic springs uniting in the Russian see” but an interdependent “ocean”, connecting specific “Slavic sees”. The role of “sees” was given to Czechs, Serbs, even Romanians, Greeks and Hungarians, but not to the Poles. In Danilevski’s opinion, the latter nation should have still worked hard to deserve an autonomous place in “Slavic Federation” (p 422-431). Of Course, Russia was seen by the author as a leader of this federal system (p 437). At the end of the treatise, Danilevsky, however, returned to the metaphor of Pushkin and twisted it in a form still very much liked by contemporary Russian imperialistic historiosophers and esotericists: He preaches that the world history started with two springs on the banks of Nil. One went to Athens and Rome through Alexandria, being earthy and human, while the second went to Jerusalem and reached Kiev and Moscow as clean and heavenly as possible. So he deems it necessary to make all currents unite on Slavic valleys in a one reservoir (p556-557). N.Y. Danilevski, Europe and Russia, Fifth edition, S-Petersburg, 1895,

[6] Под фирмой иностранной Иноземец, Не утаил себя никак, Бранится пошло: ясно, немец, Похвалит: видно, что поляк. 


[8] Tanty, MieczysLaw, Polskie kontakty z panslawistami rosyjskimi po powstaniu styczniowym, str. 41-47, W: Unifikacia za wszelką cene, sprawy polskie w politice rosyjskiej na przełomie XIX wieku, Studia i materialy, pod red. Andrzeja Szawca i Pawła Wieczorskiewicza, Widawnictwo DIG, Warszawa 2002



[11] Szwarc, Andrzej, Wieczorkiewicz, Paweł, Uwagi o taktice przedstawicielstwa polskiego w II dumie państwowej, W: Unifikacia za wszelką cene, sprawy polskie w politice rosyjskiej na przełomie XIX wieku, Studia i materialy, pod red. Andrzeja Szawca i Pawła Wieczorskiewicza, Widawnictwo DIG, Warszawa 2002  

[12] 19:40, 9 июля 2022Екатерина Марголис, специально для «Новой газеты. Европа»

[13] Andrzej Nowak, History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, PISM, Warsaw, 2008, გვ 217-218

[14]Anne Appelbaum, The Russian Empire Must Die, The Atlantic, November 14, 2022

[15] Andrzej Nowak, History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, PISM, Warsaw, 2008, გვ 252-256






[21] The difficulties, experiencing by “imperial nations” to separate an empire from the very ethnic cores of their nationhood in their mental images of the “self” was, for instance, acknowledged on the theoretical level by Anthony Smith (Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, History, Tbilisi 2004) and on the level of the reflection on the Russian/regional history by the Polish historian Andrzej Novak (History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Warszawa 2008)

[22] Линчевание «Дождя», Китайский Тупик и Речь Посполита - Пастуховская Кухня / Владимир Пастухов 4.12.2022

[23] Buzan, BarryWæver, Ole (2003). Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Society. The Cambridge University Press, UK 

[24]  Andrzej Nowak, History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, PISM, Warsaw, 2008

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