20 years under Putin: a timeline

CI: The book you and your colleagues put together in the course of this project is called Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space. How would you define this space?

AS: The post-Soviet space covers all territories that have been under the control of the Russian Empire over the course of the past 17-18 centuries that all became part of the Soviet Union. They also all experienced the fall of the Soviet Union.

The question of what we should call the subject of our study was important. Would it be The history of Muscovy? The history of Russia? The history of the Russian Empire? We decided that it would be more appropriate to think about this space through the prism of empire and imperial society.

CI: Why did you pick “empire”? Why this particular wording?

AS: When it comes to the term, it is not important that the legal title of the state included the term ‘empire’. What’s important is the category of the empire as an historical term, which is defined by two dimensions:

1. The history of an empire is the history of sovereignty and conflict, of violence and conquest. An empire’s expansion could be peaceful or not. Conflicts arise as part of expansion or in its aftermath. We didn't want to write the history of the Empire in the propagandistic, Soviet model. We are not interested in using the "friendship of the nations" rhetoric.

2. An empire is always about difference and diversity. It always has many different religious groups, linguistic groups, ethnic groups, and others. It also has a complicated social structure, in part created by distinctive cultural features turned into the features signifying a citizens’ belonging to a social group—and vice versa.


Map of Russian Empire in 1895


CI: Empire isn’t solely a Russian phenomenon, the world has seen a number of colonial empires: the Holy Roman Empire, the German, the British, etc.

AS: Of course. And we are drawing parallels and looking at different historical empires. In the words of American sociologist Seymour Lipset, “He who only know only one country knows no country.” Which is to say that comparison is the basic analytical procedure for, including history. If you want to understand one country, to begin, you have to compare it with another. Then you can see and distinguish what is unique about it, or see what the two have in common. When it comes to the experience of the colonial empires, there has been a great deal of studies done by Western historians. They created the tradition of post-colonialism, which became an important innovation in the realm of the social sciences and the humanities in general. In studies of the Russian empire, we find either imitations of the post-colonialist model or that this model is completely ignored. We would like to find out what the experience of studying the Russian Empire can contribute to the overall theoretical understanding of empires.

We must remember that empires are a kind of social and political structure that has existed for much longer than the nation-state. The latter arose more like a beautiful and influential idea—for example, people in revolutionary France fell in love with it…The model of the ‘nationally’ homogenous state has always been an ideal and a political aim, but never an actual possibility. In Russia, historians study 19th century European nation-states, but often forget that there was no such thing as England at that time, only the British Empire. And it wasn’t only in Europe: it was in America, South East Asia, and so on.

CI: When it comes to the post-Soviet space, it seems that there are not only clear conflicts and instances of violence but other complicated and even paradoxical situations…

AS: Interestingly, the paradoxes and contradictions have not always appeared as they do from our contemporary perspective. For example, the 1830 and 1863 uprisings. From a contemporary perspective, these may appear to be ethnic conflicts between Russians and Poles. In the context of the time, it was more complicated: the logic of historical memory about Poland (not to be confused with the so-called “ethnic” Poland) coincides with the logic of imperial sovereignty (not to be confused with the logic of a Russian nation-state). This conflict was consistently played out along class lines (the Szlachta vs. the peasantry) and religions boundaries, not just ethnic ones. In order to describe this phenomenon, our project uses the term uneven diversity. Contemporary historiography tends to rely on the idea of an even-handed diversity: the Russians are on one side, the Poles are on the other, and these two ethnic groups have some kind of thing that they can’t share, thus the conflict. But what if you were to take into account the social factor? What if the Polish-ness and Russian-ness of the time were not how we understand them today? If we don’t look at these other things, we are looking at the past reductively.

CI: In the USSR, over-simplified narratives about the past prevailed.

AS: Those reductive narratives result from the nationalist discourse. Hence the idea of England exists only on the islands that essentially have nothing to do with the worldwide British Empire. Look at typical historical maps. Maps of Western Europe in the 19th century will show England, but not British India; France, but not Algeria.

You talk about a sober perspective on history. Yes, it’s sober. On the one hand, an empire always mean that there is expansion, violence, the exploitation of resources in order to attain what Niccolo Machiavelli called grandezza.

CI: Yes, grandezza. A pretty word. "Greatness" in English.

AS: Yes. And on the other hand, it is anachronistic to believe that inter-empire conflicts led to the ethnic tensions and conflicts of the 20th century. My colleagues and I support having a sober perspective on historical truth here, as well. This is why if the dynamic of the relationships in the imperial space are more complex, we will discuss them as such. This is another example of what you may refer to as a healthy attitude toward history: we are not trying to fit historical scenarios into the model that would be most convenient to use in light of contemporary political memory, i.e. to claim the past to a particular group and explain the logic of history through the reference to collective identities that exist today.

CI: Putting a group in a certain light is a favorite activity of politicians. Along with generalization and over-simplification.

AS: Indeed. Over-simplifying can be worse than stealing.