20 years under Putin: a timeline

Nationalism has become an acute issue in modern Russia. Looking back at the country's history, author and sociologist Poel Karp discusses whether a "liberal nationalism" is possible in Russia. He concludes that Russia needs such a political force, as the country has no other way to neutralize the explosive imperial ambitions that blew up the USSR.


The Soviet regime killed millions of people, established the Gulag, and deprived the people of even the basic legal protections.


Many think that the events of 1917, at least those of October, could not have happened had the Czar or Kerensky been savvier. But they did happen, because the regime rejected social change obstinately for a long time—and when it did accept any change, it did so reluctantly.

Since Ivan the Terrible, Russia had been ruled by the feudal system and the institution of serfdom. When bourgeois relations prevailed in Europe (if not according Danton, then according to Bonaparte,) it was possible to assess the damage cause to Russia by feudal reaction and return at least to European feudalism by abolishing serfdom. Novosiltsev and Kotchoubey, Stroganov and Speranskii, and even the Czar himself knew it. But the victory over Bonaparte dissuaded them from hurrying to dismantle the system. Alexander I did not abolish the serfdom in 1801; Alexander II did so only after the ’Crimean defeat in 1861.

Almost forty years before the Crimean defeat, the vanquishers of Bonaparte came out into Senate Square to protest the installation of Nicholas as ruler. The new Czar—according to Shevchenko, “the neglected brake”—hung some of them and sent others to prison. After the uprising, he could have realized that the monarchy had not kept pace with the rest of the country and convened a State Duma, even if without full powers. But it was not Nicholas I who established the State Duma in 1825, but Nicholas II who did so in 1905. He could not bear even Stolypin, not to mention Witte, who were convinced monarchists, thinking of them almost as revolutionaries. As a result, he got involved in a big war that was beyond the strength of the backward and autocratic Russian Empire.

The Czar could not crush the rebellions of the spontaneous February Revolution in the capital. By the third year of the war, the city was left without food—everything was falling apart. But the interim government was slow to convene a Constituent Assembly. And Lenin, realizing that “the day after tomorrow is too late”—the Constituent Assembly reforms would remove the revolutionary situation!—hastened to seize power.

Named the Workers’ Party, Lenin’s faction dominated the revolution using peasant and –anti-imperialist slogans. And the first decrees were in the same vein. In the 1917 Constituent Assembly elections, the Bolsheviks gained around a quarter of the votes. For a party that was previously almost unknown, this was a triumph—but insufficient to establish absolute power. Therefore, the Assembly broke up, and there were no free elections in Russia for a very long time. Peasants who had led in the revolution were forced into collective farms. The regime killed millions of people, set up the Gulag, and deprived the people of even the protections of the miserable old laws. So 74 years passed. Albeit under a different flag, we still lived in an imperial, autocratic, and, except in the area of weapons production, backward country.

In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union, trying to become the strongest nation in the entire world, was caught in a severe crisis, but the nomenklatura, the ruling class of the new revolutionary situation, stood up. The country has remained an empire ever since—constrained, but still autocratic and monopolistic. Every time, we find ourselves in the same position.

It is high time to recognize that the full and complete development of the Russian state is hampered not just by the bad character or deficient professional skills of the ruler, but also by the structure of the society and the structure of the state.

After Ivan the Terrible, it was feudal reaction that did not allow Russia to return to Europe; after Alexander II, it was the unresolved national and agrarian problems. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin quickly adopted untenable pseudo-solutions and set up a totalitarian system under the guise of a Marxist socialist utopia. Some say that in 1991, Yeltsin began the shift to capitalism and a market economy, and that we just have to finish building the political institutions to support this transition. But Russia today rests on the same three pillars it always has: empire, monarchy, and government monopoly of management. And in fact, it has not moved to capitalism.

Soviet Marxism juggled ​​the social order. The capitalistic system is different: we have to work not because of a direct dependence on people or institutions, but for the need of a means of subsistence; too, capitalism depends on a voluntary recruitment of workers. Payment for labor in the form of wages, of course, is not always fair. Too often, there is the retention of surplus value, as Marx revealed. But even if divine justice does not govern market prices, it does somewhat work to create a short-term objective reality. A worker does not exert his effort as a matter of duty; he sells it—or rather, he rents it out to a capitalist, who buys it on the labor market. Since the labor market is responsible for the state of social relations, the prices tend to still be fairer than those set under the tyranny of the feudal lords or nomenklatura. The labor market is the distinguishing marker of capitalism; all other markets and commodity–money exchanges occurred in antiquity. But there was no capitalism even in ancient Rome: one could buy slaves in markets, but the slaves didn’t sell their manpower.

Despite more than twenty years of Russian reforms, a free labor market has not yet been created. In the Soviet Union, all workers labored for the same enterprise, called the Soviet Union, and the market was thus both useless and impossible. Now the state’s monopoly on the management of the economy is not called public ownership, but its control is clearly evident in the so-called oligarchs’ state leadership, with their attendant corruption, and in the exclusion of independent small and medium enterprises, which, if there were many, would create an economic element with which the “Czars could not cope” (Pushkin). This monopoly also limits the creation of companies that could attract a workforce that was not previously in demand in cities with a single military factory. Worker displacement—a necessary mechanism of the market—is hampered not only by a paucity of housing construction, but also by many surviving Soviet restrictions, starting with the residence permit (previously called the propiska, now renamed the “registration”). Nor are there any clear laws on the minimum wage or unemployment support that meet the standards prevailing in the developed countries in the 21st century. Ethnic conflicts between locals and migrants is also a problematic area.


Since Ivan the Terrible, Russia had been ruled by the feudal system and the institution of serfdom. (Ilya Repin. Barge Haulers on the Volga. 1870-73).


And the country, which has more than enough workers, even with a low level of productivity that if raised to the level of other European countries would further reduce the demand for labor, illegally brings in migrants. The current scope of the illegal immigration is only possible through the illegal patronage of the rulers. And, to justify the inhumane treatment of cheap labor, the regime does not talk about the smuggling, but about the illegal entries. Even more monstrously, the regime treats autonomous natives, who have full rights to live and work as citizens in any part of Russia, as illegal immigrants.

The regime’s support for such an order and the indifference of the authorities to workers (who in developed countries sell their manpower on the labor market, but in our country fall into a state of dependence similar to slavery) shows that our government does not want to convert to the capitalistic economic and social system. We should not expect political change from such a government, and we should not expect to move away from imperialism, autocracy, and the state’s monopoly on management of the economy.

It is high time to recognize that the full and complete development of the Russian state is hampered not just by the bad character or deficient professional skills of the ruler, but also by the structure of the society and the structure of the state. A society whose members depend on authorities is not a society but a military unit. A federation in which subjects do not provide for themselves but live on the charity of a paternalistic power is not a federation. The vertical of power, which still focuses on the same person at the top of the hierarchy, dooms the people to silence. The government decides everything for itself without paying attention to the people. Or, pro forma, it puts its solutions to problems in the people’s mouths.

Beginning with Ivan the Terrible, the Czars did not care as much for the external autocracy (in other words, independence from the khans,) as for the internal autocracy and obedience to the Czar, who increasingly worked to destroy unauthorized aristocrats, former dukes united in an integrated Russia, and the mighty boyars who replaced the service nobility. But the Czars’ power was not as complete as that of the Soviet or current rulers. It was more difficult to deprive the dukes’ heirs of their property than it was to shoot the Soviet rulers’ children or later the oligarchs themselves. A society consists of different social groups, different classes, the number of which, moreover, is constantly growing, not shrinking, we are told. Some groups want total power, while others are aware of the need for democracy, that is, the social compromise of different groups.

The regime’s indifference to workers shows that our government does not want to convert to the capitalistic economic and social system. We should not expect political change from such a government, and we should not expect to move away from imperialism and autocracy.

Different areas have unique features, and their residents have particular interests. Large, historically developed regions need enough independent open space, even if their affairs are directed by higher spheres of authority. In the vertical of power, the upper sphere takes all the rights and sends down instructions to each powerless vertical step and horizontal space. The vertical negates even the separation of powers, drawing the legislative and judicial branches into the executive. As a result, the Soviets who were first considered the hope of democracy later had only to echo the party committees that regulated the executive power. In the Soviet Union, it was not the Soviets who had the power; rather, the Committee and the Soviets became the screens and technical tools of totalitarianism.

A Czar, a general secretary, a president who symbolizes the state—these are undemocratic, most often totalitarian, powers. This is particularly evident in a diverse country such as Russia, which needs parliamentary, even multitier, democracy. Income levels in Smolensk are different from those in the Don region, and it does no good to suppress one or the other in order to keep the provinces poorer than the capital for the sake of obedience. Even Leningrad did not have its own publishers, besides offices in Moscow, and Leningraders could publish books only with the permission of Moscow. Otherwise there would be many more cultural and scientific centers in Russia, but less submissiveness. The Communists sacrificed everything for this.

Democracy is needed in Russia for the state to fully develop its economy. In 1915, Lenin wrote perceptively in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism about the evils of monopolies. But in 1917, in his The State and Revolution, he suggested that the entire economy of the country function as a united syndicate, an idea that became the foundation of the Soviet monopoly. It is this Leninist monopoly, which was not shaken by the distribution of resources to obedient “oligarchs,” that Russia must overcome in its quest to return to a competitive state. Competition is the key to the nation’s development. Moderation and adequacy are not enough for Russia. The state must improve the lives of ordinary people; their current living conditions are still very far from being able to blame the people for consumerism.

The social contradictions of Russia have been felt the most acutely in the form of ethnic conflicts—which is why they have rarely been recognized as social. These conflicts are a direct consequence of the setup of the Russian state, which had already become an empire by the time of Ivan the Terrible. Modern times saw the creation of many empires: the Spanish, British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Turkish. As time passed, the relationship of the mother country with its overseas colonies became different. Some of the empire disintegrated when the benefits of the mother country’s possession were less than the cost of the colonies’ maintenance; most of these holdings, however, were let go peacefully, although with bitterness. And in the Russian Empire, the appropriation of new countries and new lands inflamed the national issue.

The Russian Empire had no overseas colonies, but it did have colonies in close vicinity, and it was framed as a single state. Some say that the Russian people today must take a lead in the state. But the state under the Constitution is not Russian but multi-ethnic, and the persistent desire to consider it as solely Russian only exacerbates the national issue. In everyday life, Russians and subjugated peoples are usually mutually tolerant. But in ethnic Russian areas the natives of colonies are often met with unfriendliness, even though in colonies, Russians are tolerated. What is needed to change the situation is not to declare the imperial Russia ethnically Russian, but to detach a Russian nation state that would alone be able to moderate Russian imperialism and care about Russian people—not about Russian satraps in the colonies. The modern Russian state is, of course, bigger than the state under Vasily III, who united all the Russian lands. Over half a millennium, many colonies became Russified. But even with a high level of forced assimilation, not all of these territories are Russian lands. They need to figure out their relationship with Russia—how autonomous they will be, whether they will form a confederation with it, whether they will separate from it. The answers to these questions are up to the conquered peoples in their historical territories. We are told that “today in Russia, the challenge is not to build an independent nation state. Italian, Czech, and Hungarian revolutionaries who sought to get free from external domination dreamed about this.” As if the Chechens, and not they alone, dream about something else.


Neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia live by the principles “Czech Republic for the Czechs” and “Slovakia for the Slovaks,” while Russian nationalists demand "Russia for the Russians."


And one can figure out that not only Chechens need independence, but so do the majority of Russians who suffer not from external domination, but from the possession of colonies, which are being retained by the imperial government with their blood and toil. It is a sin to forget that Russia was enslaved not by aliens, not by Mongolians, but by the Russian authorities, and that the British Empire was secured by the development of capitalism while the Russian Empire was secured with the oppression of its own people. Russia requires new wars and new victims to keep those who do not want to remain in the Empire firmly in its power. It would seem that for every nation—both the greatest and the not-so-great—the attainment of self-dependence is in the interest of all. All who position themselves as nationalists have to stand together for that.

But they say to us: “There is no and cannot now be a liberal nationalism.” And, indeed, the Russian nationalist today is a common imperialist. Preaching nationalism to the nation, he denies it to others. Russian liberal nationalism does not yet exist as an organized movement. But why can it not in the future? When the Russian nationalists’ movement demands the right to self-determination for others—and when such self-determination is greeted by millions with silence—this will be a liberal, not imperial, Russian nationalism. Russia needs such a political force more than anything else; she had no other way to secure the explosive imperial pretensions that blew up the USSR. As the regime encourages these pretensions and the Russian people’s strength is directed toward holding the empire together, feeding this insatiable thirst for power rather than taking care of itself, the threat of the death of Russia is growing.

National governments, not colonial creations, dominate in today’s world. There have been many civilized divorces. Neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia live by the principles “Czech Republic for the Czechs” and “Slovakia for the Slovaks.” The Scottish government has openly called for a separation from England, but London has not ordered that Edinburgh be bombed. There is no reason to oppose granting conquered people the right of equality between citizens of different backgrounds and different religions, or between women and men. All these values are indispensable features of democracy. There are more inequalities in empires, which always know who is first among equals. In a nation state, social problems and contradictions are in the foreground, whereas empires, covering these problems with nationalism, shy away from their clarification and solution.

Our government muzzles the voices of our own people harder than the voices from abroad—until this leads to a disaster. And when disaster comes, it seems that the government wants what’s best. But it wants the best for itself, not for the people or the country.

Alas, it has been forgotten that the Chechen independence movement was the first one that supported Yeltsin in his effort to curb the power of the Soviet government over Russia, when the incumbent Chechen authorities supported the Kremlin. Having achieved independence, Yeltsin thanked the Chechens for their support with war. This was the first demonstration of the true face of the new Russian government; long before Putin, it made clear what citizens should expect from the regime, and why it would not make the country richer, but lives on its wealth of mineral resources.

Alexander Podrabinek writes correctly that our government behaves not stupidly but maliciously. But the goal of its malignity is not a secret. By putting Pussy Riot in prison, defending Magnitsky’s killers, and populating the migrant camps, it is sowing fear. People see these actions and take them as a warning. And foreigners’ views do not depend on whether our government is behaving maliciously or stupidly. When Stalin provided Hitler with access to the Volga and the Caucasus, not only the heroism of our soldiers changed the situation, but also the fact that they managed to ride in Studebakers and fight in Douglas Bombers—without that, the war might have ended otherwise. The United States and Britain discovered that our victory was more useful to them than Hitler’s victory would be. And when the Soviet Union was collapsing from within, U.S. President Bush had also an occasion to save it and to persuade Ukraine to keep it safe, but this time without success. The West does not always consider it necessary (whether this is smart or stupid is an open question) to resist the evil intent or stupidity of our totalitarian regime. Overseas leaders judge by law and order and are often forced to consider the needs of the local people as a more relevant concern. Our government muzzles the voices of our own people harder than the voices from abroad—until this leads to a disaster. And when disaster comes, it seems that the government wants what’s best. But it wants the best for itself, not for the people or the country.

I want to see the country in which I have lived my life not as a totalitarian empire, but as a democratic, free, antimonopoly state from which the economy, culture, science, art, religion, and private life are separate. This would raise Russia’s chances to prosper as Germany and Britain have, two countries that are ahead of us in almost everything except weapons of mass destruction. Are we able to be among the first not only by force of arms? It depends not only on the circumstances, but also on Russians’ ability to overcome self-deception, for which they often fall.