Empires v nations: a battle as old as time
For most of history, imperialism and diversity have gone hand in hand
‘Let me make this perfectly clear. Putin is Emperor Palpatine. The Ukrainian people and all those who stand up for democracy around the world and here in America are Rey Skywalker, Jyn Erso, and the Rebel alliance. Pick your side.’
Put like that, I think I’m with Putin.
This tweet, by former George Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, attracted much amusing scorn at the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine. It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in cringe…
American political commentary has for some time been dominated by pop culture references, in particular those two great modern fables, Star Wars and Harry Potter, which have replaced the classics as the source of communal knowledge. I’m not convinced that children’s books or films aimed at selling toys, enjoyable though they are, have that much to offer in the way of deep wisdom, compared to more ancient texts; I may be a declinist, but it is not commented on enough that America’s most-praised public intellectual didn’t know who St Augustine was.
These epic children’s stories serve as modern-day myths for a reason, drawing so heavily on older narratives and archetypes. Star Wars creator George Lucas studied anthropology and borrowed heroic narratives from around the world for his story; it also drew on historical folk memories of recent and ancient conflicts, in particular the Second World War, which has become the modern West’s origin story, its epic struggle between God and the Devil.
The most recent Lucas trilogy featured a plucky band of rebels in an existential struggle with a great empire (a story that drew heavily on… previous Star Wars films). In this tale of good and evil there was on one side a band of allies from every race on earth, and on the other a group joined by ethnic descent, a dynamic true to life and seen in countless wars and conquests since the Bronze Age. It’s the story of the Old Testament, the Persian Wars, and of such modern conflicts as the Vietnam War.
Yet of course Star Wars performed a role reversal to suit the sympathies of modern American audiences. For in reality, it is empires which are multi-cultural, and plucky rebels who tend to be linked by blood — whether it was ancient Greeks fighting off a Persian army of Medes, Babylonians, Egyptians and Sumerians, or Vietnamese nationalists in combat with French, Senegalese and North African troops.
So it is today in Ukraine, a rebel nation fighting off conquest by a neighbour 50 times its size. Ukraine’s position on the cultural fault lines of Europe has left it a multicultural inheritance, even after the depredations of Hitler and Stalin. Its heroic president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a member of a 40,000-strong Jewish population, vastly reduced by the horrors of the early 20th century, but still surviving; indeed for three months in 2019 Ukraine had a Jewish president and prime minister, a first outside of Israel and quite an achievement for a supposedly ‘Nazi’ state. There are also Tartars, although many were cut off by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, having only been allowed back from their central Asian exile in the 1980s. There are Romanians, and, of course, a substantial Russian minority.
Yet these groups are relatively small in number, and Ukraine still has the composition of a typical European nation-state, built around a dominant ethnic group enjoying a super-majority.
Russia, in contrast, is home to around 50 ethnic groups, including — just the European ethnicities with more than half a million people — the Tatars, Bashkir, Chuvash, Mordvins and Udmurts, the latter known for having the reddest hair in the world (their homeland is an eastern outpost in this red hair map of Europe.)
There are also 1.5 million Muslims in Moscow, the largest of any European city aside from Istanbul; these include Tatars, Azeris and members of various other Caucasian groups who moved north in the 1990s to escape war and find work. Such is Russia’s diversity that even within Europe it contains a Buddhist republic just north of an Islamist tyranny run by a Moscow-approved warlord.
Russia has always been more like an empire than a nation, a fact reflected in its understanding of itself. In Russian there is even a differentiation between Russkiy (ethnic Russians) and Rossiskiy (the Russian nation). As has been often said, Russia’s tragedy is that it became an empire before it became a nation, and in part the Bolsheviks defeated their reactionary opponents because they were better able to continue the Russian Empire. This ‘prison of peoples’ continued under Communism, the Soviet Union being just another multicultural empire, with Marxist class analysis used to first encourage and then to crush minority nationalism, but primarily aimed at stigmatising Russian national pride.
The new Russia is also an empire, one whose autocratic leader shares with Bolsheviks and western progressives a distrust of ethnic nationalism, indistinguishable from its most pathological variance, Nazism. The Russian president might sound like a standard crazed nationalist in his recent outbursts, ranting about traitors and rich cosmopolitans, but his ideology is not ethno-nationalist in the same way that European populism is. The Nashi movement, Putin’s sinister-looking youth cult, was designed to end the ‘anti-Fatherland union of oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis, and liberals’; ‘Nashism’, the philosophy behind it, is translated as ‘ours-ism’ but our-ism does not mean along ethnic boundaries.
(Indeed, although Putin likes to show up at church occasionally, he’s not even that socially conservative, certainly in regards to gender roles. Russia still has by far the world’s highest abortion rate, and among the lowest church attendances in the Christian world. Poland has respectively the lowest and highest.)
Putin recently went on television to tell viewers: ‘I'm Russian. As they say, all my kin are Ivans and Marias. But when I see examples of such heroism as this young man N. Gadzhimagomedov, an ethnic Lak, and our other soldiers I want to say: I am Lak, I am Dagestani, I am Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew, Mordvin, Ossetian.’
The Russian army is indeed hugely reliant on ethnic minorities, who have taken a disproportionate number of casualties. Magomed — Mohammed — appears regularly among the list of wounded, while Putin’s army of course includes that most feared of all martial races, the Chechens.
Russia’s status as a multicultural empire may be geographic destiny but it was certainly a product of history, too, and in particular the legacy of the greatest contiguous land empire in history, that of the Mongols — ‘Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar’, as the slightly derogatory old saying went.
Russia and Ukraine both lay claim to descent from Kievan Rus’, the state founded by Vikings travelling down the Black Sea rivers to the riches of Constantinople. Converting to Orthodox Christianity and adopting the eastern Slavic language spoken by local tribes, the Rus (literally ‘rowers’) looked west. Marriages alliances were regularly formed with western monarchies, including England; Gytha, daughter of Harold II of England, married into the Rus’ ruling house, and through her all monarchs from Edward III onwards — and all English people — are descended from the last Anglo-Saxon king.
Yet the Mongols would change all that. As Razib Khan wrote in a recent post: ‘It was the Mongol conquest that brought to prominence the little-known Rurikid princes of Moscow, then a minor town in the northeast, elevating the Danielovich line that would give rise to the Tsars. The rulers of Moscow retained their ancestral language and religion, but their participation in the political games of the steppe (including intermarriage with Genghis Khan’s Golden Family) transformed them in ways that likely gave Russian despotism a unique flavor.’
The western part of Kievan Rus’ would go down a different path, with Kiev captured by the Lithuanians in 1362, who in 1385 finally became Catholic (the Lithuanians, as well as having a language so archaic it retains similarities with Sanskrit, were the continent’s last pagan holdouts). Kiev remained under the rule of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth for over three centuries, while ‘the nascent Russian Empire focused on swallowing up the Golden Horde’s successor states, thrusting eastward into Siberia on a scale to make America’s 19th-century phase of Manifest Destiny seem quaint.’
Muscovy’s Asiatic influences are attested by both history and genetics, as Khan found with DNA tests of modern Russians, which show a strong Tatar influence: ‘As is clear from genetics, history and geography, unlike Ukraine or Poland, Russia is a vast and diverse land that transcends ecologies and continents. Though its core ethnicity are East Slavs, drawing from the same roots as the Belorussians and the Ukrainians, the Russians became a Eurasian-inflected ethnicity who were assimilative, absorptive and expansive. They were ruling a cosmopolitan empire-state, as attested by the 1915 construction of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg.
‘Russia and Ukraine have many similarities, both superficially and substantively, but politically comparing them is a category error. At the United Nations, they are both present as nation-states, but the Russian Federation is a multiethnic and multireligious empire that is clearly heir to the Russia of the Tsars. Putin’s long-time girlfriend is a woman of Tatar Muslim background who converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 2003, a classic case in a long history of mixing between Russians and Turkic steppe people.’
Ukraine, in contrast, ‘is a 21st-century heir to 19th-century European linguistic nationalism, its elites’ sensibilities being forged in this century through existential conflict with Russia and alliance with the West.’ While Russia is an empire, Ukraine is a nation.
Putin’s Eurasian worldview, his talk of creating a Eurasian Union and a ‘civilisation-state’, is part of a continuity in Russian history, and under his rule Russia’s historically ambiguous attitude towards the Mongols has softened. During the Soviet era, study of Mongol rule was banned, but as Yaroslav Trofimov wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal essay, ‘modern revisionists, inspired by the “Eurasianist” ideology that sets Russia apart from the West, see the Russian state as the heir and beneficiary of that Mongol empire. They admire its ruthless centralism, its desire for conquest, its ability to maintain law and order — and its religious tolerance, which allowed Christianity and Islam to coexist.’
Just as Putin’s vision of Russian greatness is multicultural, so his anti-authoritarian enemies are often not western-style progressives but nationalists, combining a desire for greater Russian freedom with sometimes overtly racist views. This includes Alexei Navalny, who was stripped of his Amnesty ‘prisoner of conscience’ status after it was discovered that this brave opponent of the Kremlin was not a cuddly progressive.
That might seem counter-intuitive to modern westerners, who have largely forgotten that in 19th-century Europe liberalism and nationalism naturally combined, united in opposing the rule of aristocratic, conservative and multi-ethnic empires like the Habsburgs.
Russia’s authoritarian multiculturalism is similarly confusing because the West forgets that, historically, diversity has been associated with great empires. In contrast, liberalism emerged in the most homogenous lands in the West, nation-states with ethnic supermajorities, high social capital and strong private institutions. Only in very recent times has that dynamic altered, in particular with the modern United States, the Good Empire.
Although some western populists have shown sympathy for Putin, the Nation v Empire thesis was recently endorsed at the meeting of national conservative intellectuals in Brussels. Yoram Hazony, author of The Virtue of Nationalism, wrote how ‘Anyone who attended NatCon Brussels this week found out that there is no constituency for a pro-Putin position among nationalist conservatives. NatCons see this war as a contest between Russian imperialism and Ukrainian nationalism.’ For many western conservatives, for whom the nation-state is the basis of all that is good, there is a particular horror of imperialism, with its corruption of domestic politics, its vested interests, its military adventurism and forced diversity. But progressives in the 21st century have a somewhat more ambiguous attitude.
Indeed it’s not just Eurasian autocrats who show increasing sympathy for past empires. Two recent BBC documentaries about the Ottomans have portrayed it as diverse and racially tolerant, and even our view of the Mongols has softened, Genghis Khan having domestic policies that ‘would today open him up to accusations of being a politically correct, latte-drinking virtue signaller’, in the words of one author. (The only difference being that he’d drink the latte out of your skull.) But then the modern progressive state, designed to accommodate a multitude of faiths, has no other template to follow except for empires.
Such empires could be tolerant because the existence of racial or religious diversity does not threaten autocracies ruled by emperors or khans, in the way it does to a nation-state with an established ethnic identity and citizen rights. Much of this modern nostalgia looks back to the great cities of Eurasia, diverse and cosmopolitan, their skylines dotted with minarets, temples and church domes. And in the centre stood a palace where one might find someone just like Vladimir Putin, or Emperor Palpatine, whose rule over this array of peoples rested on his power to build a pyramid of skulls.
Ukraine’s struggle against this great empire is a heroic story as old as time — but it’s not as modern sensibilities would imagine or like.