Reflections of the Russian Empire

Ivan Kytka

český novinář, dlouholetý zahraniční zpravodaj ČTK, ČT či BBC

The generation of late baby boomers to which I belong is unlikely to see normalized relations or even friendly relations with Russia. This is not a step into the unknown – they have lived a significant part of their lives in subconscious uncertainty and fear. But it wasn’t until Putin’s regime that it turned the cities and countryside of its western neighbour into a permanent shooting gallery. Beyond its weapons, it is testing the cohesion, resilience and courage of the rest of Europe.


But Russia’s alternately expanding and collapsing empires have been part of Europe’s geopolitical reality for nearly five centuries. And so the two decades from February 1989 (the withdrawal from Afghanistan) to August 2008 (the invasion of South Ossetia) may be seen by posterity as a historical aberration. An abnormality in the history of a country that, if it stops expanding, will disappear. So if we want to better read the Russian present and make it at least a little predictable, we cannot do without looking in the rear-view mirror. All the more so because, to paraphrase Orwell, in Russia itself “the past is erased, the erasure is forgotten, the lie becomes the truth”.


The stereotype of the “evil empire”?

An informed introduction to the study is the fairly slim book Russian Empires by English historian and professor at Montreal’s McGill University Philip Longworth (John Murray Publishers, 2005). A factual anatomy of Moscow’s four historical attempts to create colonial empires, it offers informed parallels to contemporary events. Without their knowledge, Moscow’s actions necessarily appear dislocated in time and space. The book offers its reflection and anchoring. Albeit with the limitations of the timeframe in which it was published.


According to Longworth, when Tsar Ivan IV conquered the German-speaking Baltic in the late 16th century, the Germans artfully used their then-new printing presses to tarnish the reputation of the Russians with sensational reports of atrocities committed. According to them, the Russians not only massacred their enemies but cut off their limbs, quartered and roasted young girls on the fire, stabbed small children and buried old men and women alive in their houses. Longworth comes to a conclusion he could hardly defend after the recent massacre in Buchi, Ukraine: “It established a tradition of stereotyping that (later) inspired President Reagan to define the Soviet Union as an evil empire.”


Russians as the protectors of happiness and prosperity

Longworth attributes Russia’s past imperial successes to the persistence of its rulers, its military determination, and the occasional high degree of autonomy it allowed its dominated territories. “We do not come as enemies, but as friends and protectors ensuring prosperity and happiness. … (Internal affairs) will be administered according to your ancient laws and customs. … Prompt payment will be secured for supplies and food provided for our troops,” stated one of the first edicts issued in Russian-occupied Finnish territory after the victorious war with the Swedes in 1808. The caring Tsar Alexander even ordered the establishment of food warehouses in the occupied territory to provide aid to the poor Finns.


“As is often the case with expanding empires, some people along the presumed route of the Russian military march offered obedience to the future ruler before he even arrived,” Longworth notes.


As the author notes, Russia’s expansion of the first half of the nineteenth century was only halted by the lost Crimean War of 1855: “Russia lost for the first time in a century and paid the price in the subsequent settlement. The border on the Danube shifted, it was forbidden access to the Black Sea. The westward advance was halted. Russia’s position as a European land power and its prestige suffered a serious blow. Russia took a time out.”


Ex-President Yeltsin as the Kremlin’s Faust

If Longworth offers a broader historical context (the last three chapters are titled The Rise of the Colossus, The Rise of Soviet Imperialism and The Autopsy of a Collapsed Empire), Putin’s Men (HarperCollins Publishers, 2020) by former Financial Times Moscow correspondent Catherine Belton details Vladimir Putin’s path to the presidency.


Subtitled How the KGB regained control of Russia and then stood up to the West, it explains how various factions of the former Soviet structures quickly established themselves in the new economic environment in the 1990s, only to re-claim power at their end, including the “Faustian” deal between Yeltsin’s entourage and a former KGB officer.


For some reason, Belton’s epic work has not yet found its way into the editorial plans of Czech publishers, although it should be required reading for politicians and academics who have anything to do with Russia, even remotely or indirectly. In short: it describes in detail the mafia practices that brought economic stability back to Russia in the late 1990s and with which “Putin’s people” are now destabilising Europe.


Nobody knows what to do with themselves, let’s put our heads together

As the British columnist and academic Edward Lucas (who occasionally publishes in the Czech Republic) pointed out last week, knowledge of history or military expertise alone is not enough to understand contemporary Russia.

“In addition to spies, we also need semioticians – experts and interpreters of symbols – and literary and art critics,” Lucas wrote in the London Times, continuing, “Theologians and experts in church law are rarely involved in questions of national security. But now they are needed.” He adds psychologists and experts in the theory of knowledge to the list of professions needed for informed analysis of contemporary Russia. “None of this will replace the undersized Ukrainian artillery. But it can prevent another Russian war,” Lucas argues.

Ivan Kytka is a Czech journalist, long-time foreign correspondent for ČTK, ČT and BBC.

This article was taken from the Czech original published at Časopis Přítomnost.

published: 4. 7. 2022

Datum publikace:
4. 7. 2022
Autor článku:
Ivan Kytka