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Between nation and empire – Russia

Russia has lost an empire and not yet found a role. Only the Russians themselves can decide what that should be, and it will take some time. The new Russia will certainly not arrive this May 9, when Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War. It may not emerge till May 9, 2025, or even 2045, but we should never abandon hope for that other Russia, and we must keep faith with those Russians who are working for it.

The phrase, “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, was first applied to Britain, by a former United States secretary of state. The British know as well as anyone how initially uncomfortable it is to lose an empire, and how difficult to find a new role. Some would say Britain has still not got there. And, by the way, the fate of the original, heartland empire, the one that forged the four nations of these islands – England, Wales, Scotland and (now only a small part of) Ireland – into a supposedly United Kingdom, is still unresolved. That is a major theme in Britain’s general election. Yet, at least, these internally complicated islands were surrounded by water, so that most of the British empire was “overseas”.

Russia’s, by contrast, has been a land empire, growing patch by patch over centuries. As the historian, Geoffrey Hosking, argues in his book, Russia: People and Empire, Russia’s historical problem is that it has never been able to distinguish clearly enough between the nation and the empire. In fact, “the building of an empire impeded the formation of a nation”.

Moreover, while the British empire was slowly dissolved across more than 20 years, the Russian-Soviet empire was dismantled in little more than two years, between 1989 and 1991 – one of history’s most spectacular vanishing acts which can repeat itself anytime on any other land mass again and again! Greedy empire rulers of nations like China, US, India, etc should learn and rethink, sooner the better.

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