From Nezavisimaya gazeta, Aug. 30, 2023, p. 7. Condensed text:
A lot of things disappear when an era ends: Illusions and hopes are shattered, myths are busted, and a new reality sets in. The environment people live in changes. Things that used to be central to generations of people sink into oblivion.
The ruling elites in authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes often intentionally create utopian ideas and myths, and promote them among the masses. With their massive brainwashing operation, they sell a utopian worldview to millions of people. This enables them to unite diverse political and social groups around the national leader for the sake of a specific goal. At the same time, this is a powerful tool for perpetuating a leader’s personal power. Russia is no exception; it has had quite a few such examples in its history.
It is common knowledge that Russia’s foreign policy has always been expansionist. Russia has been seeking expansion throughout its history. It is precisely this expansionist zeal that drove the emergence of the Russian state.
We can see this trend back in the days of Kievan Rus, the ancient Russian state of the early feudal era, in the ninth through 12th centuries. We can see it in the era of feudal infighting in the 12th through 15th centuries. We can see this in the era of the centralized state of the Tsardom of Muscovy in the 15th through 18th centuries. And we can see this after the Russian Empire was established in 1721, when Eurasian continental expansionism became the focus of Russia’s (at times aggressive) foreign policy. As a result, by the time the 20th century started, Russia was the largest nation on the planet.
The myth of world communism.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, they avidly picked up the torch of Russian continental expansionism – only with a communist twist and on a global scale.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the ruling elite of the young Soviet republic adopted the expansionist ideology of a global proletarian revolution. The early generation of Soviet Bolsheviks ([Grigory] Zinovyev and [Lev] Kamenev, [Vladimir] Lenin and [Leon] Trotsky, [Joseph] Stalin and [Nikolai] Bukharin) wholeheartedly believed in it. They had little doubt that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 would soon be followed by similar revolutions all over the world, that revolutionary ideas would spread like wildfire across continents, and that all of Europe (and even America) would soon be Soviet.
Trotsky was particularly radical in his revolutionary zeal, because he positioned himself as the chief mastermind behind the October coup and the ideologue of permanent revolution, i.e., a continuous revolutionary process on a global scale.
In order to coordinate this global revolution, the Communist International (Comintern) was founded in 1919, with Moscow as its headquarters. It established national communist parties as its sections in various countries and quickly turned into a foreign policy tool of the growing Soviet empire. But soon it became obvious that the entire idea was just a pipe dream, a chimera. Under pressure from the other Allied Powers, the Comintern was dissolved in 1943.
The Soviet state propaganda of the 1960s and 1970s was built around a few key ideas that represented the system of myths advanced by the Soviet Union in its foreign policy.
One idea was that American imperialism had sprawled across the globe, preventing the world from advancing toward a bright communist future. Today, it is pretty obvious to everybody that the Soviet Union’s foreign policy during the cold war was merely a mirror image of US policy. The two superpowers worked to contain each other, using basically the same tools to carve out zones of global geopolitical influence.
Another idea that was widely promoted in Soviet academic and educational publications was that capitalism was doomed, having advanced to its final stage of imperialism, and that there were three centers of power in the imperialist world competing against each other (the US, Western Europe and Japan). Then, as tensions between them began to escalate, sooner or later the capitalist system would collapse and communism would triumph all over the world.
Three groups of actors were heralded as the leading drivers of the anti-imperialist movement: the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the international communist movement and the national liberation (or anticolonial) movement. It was up to these three forces to bring down imperialism, which stood as a mighty levee in the way of human progress.
Escalating tensions within the imperialist system, the collapse of its colonial system, reactionary trends in its politics, the major crisis in bourgeois politics and ideology – all these were presented as symptoms of a “general crisis of capitalism” plaguing the West. This utopian theory existed for decades. It was taught ubiquitously in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, and was never questioned.
Similar utopian dogmas were part and parcel of the party’s Third Program, adopted at the 22nd CPSU Congress in 1961, which vowed to transition to communism within the next 20 years, and of its new, revised version, adopted at the 27th Congress in 1986 and based on the utopian doctrine of “developed socialism.”
With each new stage, the same Soviet elite, the same people occupying top positions within party and government institutions were coming up with new ideological inventions, leading people deeper and deeper into a world of illusions and painting an entirely false picture of the world for them.
The evolution of capitalism.
But real life, as it often happens, did not conform to theories. The “general crisis of capitalism” never brought about the triumph of communism all over the world. On the contrary, the Soviet Union collapsed, plagued by a number of fundamental contradictions, and its fall led to the collapse of the entire socialist bloc. The international communist movement found itself in a major crisis, having failed to achieve its stated goal.
The situation in the West looked very different. Western capitalism successfully dealt with its crises. Instead of dying, it evolved – primarily by shifting toward socialism and neoliberalism. In keeping with the principle that “to survive is to adapt,” capitalism became more regulated by the state, more humane and more appealing to people. Social responsibility on the part of the state and business owners became a norm in the Western world.
It did not occur to “forward-thinking” Soviet ideologues that capitalism could adapt in the face of crises, overcome its defects, and constantly evolve and improve.
The same old tune.
Today, the same old tune is used to whip the Russian population into an anti-Western and pseudo-patriotic frenzy. It is incredible how naïve people are and how easily they buy into ideas fed to them by all-powerful state propaganda. New myths are being created, and people are adopting a new utopian mentality. These myths are inculcated around the clock by a new generation of well-paid, professional political manipulators who regularly appear on various television talk shows.
As Stalinism is being surreptitiously reinstated, these propagandists are spreading new dogmas: that globalization and the entire “Anglo-Saxon” world (what is that even supposed to mean in the 21st century?!) are in crisis; that a new global anticolonial revolution is brewing (and this with only 17 colonies left in the world!); that the US has lost its dominant position in the world (even though the Soviet Union fell apart!); that a great anti-American revolution is just about to spread through the whole world like wildfire; and that the West is generally in decline (is this the second coming of the “general crisis of capitalism”?!).
Such claims assume a solid evidence base. Is it there? Let’s take a closer look.
Unofficial empires in today’s world.
The US’s [global] domination is an objective and ever-present factor that first emerged in the early 20th century and continues to this day (much to the chagrin of today’s pseudo-patriots in Russia) – even if the scale of this domination, its nature and its manifestations have evolved over time.
Over the nearly 250 years of its history, the US has been steadily growing and developing, and as a result of its global expansion in the 20th century it is an “informal empire of today’s world,” which has penetrated nearly all countries and continents – and at the same time has integrated them into itself. That is the long-term strategic policy of the US, the “nation of all nations,” the modern superpower.
The US accounts for 25% of global industrial gross domestic product and remains the economic giant in today’s world. The US secures its global domination with 12 military-political blocs and over 1,000 military bases and installations at strategic locations around the world. Over 80 countries have a US military presence.
The US is a nuclear superpower that plays a dominant role in global economy, finance, warfare, innovation, direct investment and culture. It retains its appeal, as evidenced by the massive never-ending inflow of immigrants around the world. Around 1 million people arrive in the US annually.
Holding over 70% (8,150 [metric] tons) of the world’s gold reserves, the US is an undisputed leader in gold reserves.1 This helps the US dollar remain a global currency. Even though only 3% of the Russian people think the US dollar is a reliable currency (which is ironic, given that 60% of the Russian people prefer to keep their savings in US dollars, amounting to a whopping $226.6 billion!), in the long run the US dollar is still the world’s most popular and most stable currency. It is also the primary global reserve currency.
1[Sic; while the US has the most gold reserves of any one country, it holds only about 25% of the world’s gold reserves. – Trans.]
Reactions to US global domination vary from resentment to support. Almost 70% of the global population recognizes US leadership and generally sees it in a positive light. At the same time, the rise of the US to the heights of geopolitical dominance has always been met with a degree of anti-American resentment. The strongest anti-American sentiments today are found in Jordan, China, Palestine, Pakistan, Lebanon, North Korea, Russia, Belarus, Cuba, Austria, Slovenia, Venezuela and Iran.
Back in the day, the Soviet Union’s anti-American foreign policy, which sought to challenge the US and the entire West, helped create an alternative, socialist empire, which only lasted a few decades before collapsing, as it was completely unviable. Its global downfall should have been a good lesson for all of humanity.
Any attempt to forge a new global anti-American coalition (which is what the Russian authorities are determined to accomplish, in a desperate attempt to regain the influence the Soviet Union once wielded) will likely fail. The interests of most countries around the world are closely intertwined with those of the US. They are bound to the US by strategic interdependence, which rules out any aggressive manifestation of anti-Americanism.
China has challenged the US, and it started its rise over 40 years ago. Its approach is similar to that of the US: Little by little, China is conquering new markets and new zones of influence around the globe. Having become the world’s factory, China is on track to become the world’s second “unofficial empire” and America’s primary global rival (after the collapse of the Soviet Union). But China’s imperial future will probably rely on a different set of factors.
According to macroeconomic forecasts, China will surpass the US in terms of nominal GDP within the next 10 years. Simultaneously, the yuan will challenge the US dollar and possibly replace it as the global reserve currency. At this point, it is hard to tell whether China will succeed in doing so. But if it does, the world will definitely see some fundamental changes.
Thus, there are only two unofficial empires in the world today – the US and China. Russia is a former empire, a leftover of the Soviet superpower, unable to get over the fact that it has lost its imperial greatness.
The fact that Russia is suffering from an acute form of postimperial syndrome today is, unfortunately, a perfectly logical development, not a historical anomaly. The only unusual thing about it is that it did not develop immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Instead, it manifested itself much later, when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin came to power. After 30 years, this latent syndrome, which did not raise any red flags initially, evolved into something menacing.
Three geopolitical programs.
Only three powers have global programs in the world today: the US, China and Russia.
First, there is the US. Throughout its history, the US based its geopolitical program on the ideas of American exceptionalism and messianism, the universal nature of American values, American domination and unquestioned leadership. Pursuing the policy of global expansionism, spreading its values and institutions far beyond its borders, and becoming an unofficial empire of today’s world in the second half of the 20th century, the US has consolidated its position as the main superpower on the planet.
China began to formulate its global program relatively recently. Its key stages include Deng Xiaoping’s reforms; the One Belt, One Road project; and the “community of common destiny” concept. All these elements are intended, one way or another, to help China achieve a leading position in pursuit of global progress.
One thing is clear: the US and China are the [only] two unofficial empires in today’s world. Interestingly, these two empires emerged in very different parts of the world and during very different eras, but the methods they are using to spread their global influence are very similar. No wonder their rivalry forms the main axis of confrontation in the world today.
Russia, on the other hand, has its own, special orbit. As the largest remaining piece of the former Soviet superpower, which was built from the ashes of the Russian Empire, Russia is hostage to its own imperial complex. This is the reason behind its current behavior in the international arena, with all the problems it creates for the world.
It is no secret that all colonial empires and metropoles, once they lost their colonies, inevitably suffered from nostalgia for a period of time, pining for their bygone greatness. This is known as postimperial syndrome. Former empires would develop it almost immediately, as soon as they realized that their colonial might was about to vanish.
For example, Winston Churchill was not too happy when World War II ended in a victory for his country, because he was clearly not ready for what happened next. He had been born and raised in the British Empire, and he could not put up with the fact that this empire was falling apart before his eyes. The same can be said about another contemporary of his, Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Raised in the French society permeated with an imperial mentality, de Gaulle found it hard to accept that France was losing one colony after another. But, having dealt with their imperial complexes, both Churchill and de Gaulle were able to adapt to the new situation.
Russia is suffering today from an extremely acute form of postimperial syndrome. Like the US and China, it is trying to formulate its own global geopolitical program. But at this point, Russia’s program is too feeble, shaky and eclectic. Just consider: This program (which is, in fact, just a mixed bag of ideas) is a combination of Eurasianism, the Russian world, vitriolic anti-Americanism, and a fight against unipolarity and the “decadent” West.
It also includes ideas of “sovereign democracy” and “deep people,” as well as longings for traditional values and the Orthodox [Christian] faith. All this mishmash is held together by the glue of conservatism. In a sense, this hodgepodge is reminiscent of anti-Western ideological inventions Russia saw nearly 200 years ago – namely, “the theory of official nationalism,” invented by Count Sergei Uvarov, who for 30 years remained the president of Russia’s Imperial Academy of Sciences and simultaneously the minister of national education. His triad of “orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” became the ideology of Russian monarchism, claiming that Russia’s existence and greatness relied on the Orthodox faith and nationwide support for the autocratic ruler.
Now, as for the conservatism that the current Russian authorities are so fond of, there is no clear-cut definition for it. There is no such thing as a standard form of conservatism that is universal and exists outside of any context. Conservatism is a fluid phenomenon. It seeks to conserve different things in different situations, and it differs from country to country. The conservatism that existed in Russia in the early 20th century and that is heralded today as a role model is hardly applicable to our current circumstances.
Today’s Russia, the largest remaining piece of the bygone Soviet superpower, missing its former greatness and influence and suffering from latent postimperial syndrome, accounts for only a small fraction of the global economy. Nevertheless, it still has a fairly powerful expansionist drive and unfulfilled ambition for global geopolitical influence.
After World War II, Russia used its expansionist experience from the Comintern days to quickly build its sphere of regional and global influence – only to lose it in the blink of an eye when the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, Russia is trying – so far to no avail – to get [that influence] back.
To this end, Russia initiated a number of new integration projects (the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, etc.) in an effort to create its own geopolitical zones and spheres of influence. Russia’s energy strategy, which worked quite effectively for a period of time, pursued the same goal. The world viewed it not only as a tool used by Russia to secure markets for its energy exports, but also as a key part of Russia’s efforts to establish its zones of global influence.
Russia paints itself today as the leader of the “global majority,” trying to rally former colonies and exploited nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America around itself and encouraging them to rise up against the “golden billion” [post-Soviet term referring to developed Western nations – Trans.], which has ruled the world for decades and now “seeks to perpetuate its global domination.”
Yet so far Russia has proved unable to compete in earnest against the US and China, or to become an independent geopolitical power center [that functions as] the locomotive of the anti-Western movement. Even the official mythology being brought back by the authorities is unlikely to help them achieve this goal.
The ultimate purpose of all these efforts is quite obvious. The ruling elites, supported by their oligarch cronies, are using patriotic and great-power rhetoric to fill people with illusions in order to perpetuate their rule at any cost, keep their wealth and preserve the current political regime.
In today’s information age, Russia looks stuck in the past, trading reality for illusions, putting its faith in an all-wise ruler or an iron-fisted autocrat in vain attempts to regain its former greatness, its lost domains and global influence.
It is also worth mentioning that many today tend to confuse two things – serving one’s country and serving one’s boss, to paraphrase [Russian 19th-century satirist] Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, who knew a thing or two about monarchy and bureaucracy. His words, first uttered back in the days of tsardom, still ring true today. The present-day lackeys of Russian authoritarianism (just like the governors of ancient vassal states) have completely forgotten the lessons of the past and unashamedly, with obsequious admiration, identify the head of the state with the state itself, the temporary ruler of the country with the great national and historical constant.
What a shame! What a disgrace!
Every nation, just like every person, has its own biography. It even has its own place of residence. But its most valuable asset is its unique character, which makes every nation special and unique. If you know the special character of your own nation, you can formulate a civilized and responsible foreign policy – something that is clearly a rarity in today’s world.
But that’s not all. If you have proper knowledge (not just myths) about other nations, it will help you understand them better. Furthermore, it will help you understand your own nation better. You will have a comprehensive and objective view of your own country, of its history with all the problematic chapters, with all the dark and tragic episodes, even if at times your country was misled by illusions. Those illusions have long been shattered, and there is no room for them in today’s world.