Aleksandr Podrabinek: On Empires – A Bugbear for Simpletons

15 May 2023

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

A drunk searches for it where the light is, not where he lost it. A fool does what’s easy, not what’s useful. 

Tearing Russia to shreds is simpler than changing the way of life in the country. A simple and clear goal has overtaken both those who have suffered at the hands of Russian expansionism and those who dream of being in the driver’s seat without putting in any particular effort.

The idea is that Russia is dangerous for those around it because it’s big. Why it’s going to be less dangerous if it becomes small no one can intelligently explain. Of course, from the historical perspective, a small state with a small population, being well isolated from the outside world, gradually loses all its military potential and imperial ambitions. A hundred years ago this could be counted on to solve the problem.

Today the possibility of starting a worldwide Armageddon has little to do with the extent of a territory or the size of its population. An example of this might be the relatively small North Korea and Iran, which are rattling their nuclear weapons and other military developments. At the same time, the world community cannot reliably isolate even the nastiest of pariahs. International sanctions do complicate economic life, but they are increasingly like a sieve through which finances, goods, and technologies enter the country under sanctions.

Let’s say Russia disintegrates into a few dozen regions, as lovers of simple solutions dream. Weakening the best-armed regions will take years, if not decades. Nuclear weapons do not require large expanses; they would fit easily on the territory of Moscow Oblast. Will the threat to world security vanish in that case? I’m afraid it will only increase. If the former regime is preserved and the possibilities of waging conventional war decrease, the temptation to use a nuclear weapon will increase. It has to be clearly understood that an aggressive authoritarian regime does not become a peaceloving and democratic one just because the country is smaller and has lost population. This is a case where size does not matter.

Let’s compare two countries that have very similar geographical and historical parameters: Russia and the United States. Both countries today have vast territory: Russia has 17 million square kilometers (first place in the world); the United States, 9.5 million square kilometers (fourth). Russia’s population is 145 million people (ninth in the world); the United States’s, 330 million (third). In both countries, state building in the modern sense began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even slavery was repealed in both countries almost simultaneously: in 1865 in the United States; in 1861 in Russia.

Their rates of territorial expansion were also similar. Both countries expanded rapidly, especially at the early stages of statehood. By the early sixteenth century, the Russian state, which formed as such during the reign of Ivan III Vasilievich, occupied an area of 2.5 million square kilometers. As of 1991, the Soviet Union occupied an area of 22.4 million square kilometers. This is how Russia expanded. If we don’t count the territories Russia sometimes had to give back, then the rate of expansion comes to approximately 103 square kilometers a day. This is like the country annexing one Paris every day.

The United States grew just as fast. For its first 150-200 years, the future United States consisted of thirteen provinces that were a part of British North America and occupied about 1.3 million square kilometers. After the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and victories in its wars with Great Britain, the United States began its territorial expansion in a westward direction. U.S. territory was finalized as of 1959, after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. Thus, U.S. territory increased on average approximately 123 square kilometers a day. Here the United States beat out Russia!

Annexation of new territories to the United States did not always proceed peacefully by any means. In the 125 years of its campaign to subdue the Indian territories, the United States waged more than 40 wars against the indigenous population of North America.

This was how the territories of two countries formed—the United States and Russia. Very similar in dimensions and methods. Today, though, we have two large countries with similar histories but at the same time completely different political systems. Democracy has triumphed in the United States; dictatorship in Russia. Neither the extent of territory nor the history of its expansion explains anything. The reasons why one country becomes aggressive and dangerous for everyone, including its own people, and the other becomes peace-loving and well-organized have to be sought elsewhere, just not in size or imperial past. Ultimately, many present-day democracies are former empires: the British, the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman. France, Spain, and Portugal were colonial empires, and that hasn’t prevented them from being modern democratic states.

In the twenty-first century, imperial ambitions look unseemly, of course, and, we’ll say it directly, savage. It’s hard to think of anything more foolish than boasting about large territory and dreaming of its expansion. We have to understand, though, that the war against Ukraine is dictated not by the desire to expand Russia’s territory. War is the only possible way to preserve the country’s authoritarian regime. War and political repressions are two methods of survival for a dictatorship. Without them it would tumble down like a house of cards. Naturally, the war has been flavored with an imperial sauce, which makes it easier for Russia’s archaic social consciousness to justify the aggression. At least that’s what the Kremlin is hoping, although that political archaicism is gradually leaving our life. Attesting to this is the vanity of attempts to construct a state ideology—an administrative tool of yesteryear. There is no doubt that most people in Russia do not approve of the war against Ukraine. The people have no imperial dreams whatsoever, as lovers of simple solutions in other countries expound. When the Soviet Union collapsed, no one lifted a finger to put the shattered freak back together. What empire complex! If there was one, it’s a thing of the past. And it’s possible that even back then it was nothing more than imposed state propaganda—from Uvarov, Trotsky, Stalin, Brezhnev, and their henchmen. Today the only people receptive to this propaganda are those who out of simplicity take it at face value.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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