Empire, exceptionalism, and the rhyming of history

This article was written by Kevork Oskanian (University of Exeter)
This article was published on
Top of a building in Nizhny Novgorod with statues

'We do not belong to any of the great families of the human race:

we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. […]

We belong to that number of nations which do not seem to make up an integral part of the human race, but which exist only to teach the world some great lesson.’ – P. Chaadaev, 1836.


Almost two hundred years have passed since these words were written by the one Russian philosopher to whom many of the debates on Russia’s place in Western modernity can be traced. Piotr Chaadaev lived in a period of Russian history marked by a conservative form of authoritarianism, and, simultaneously, simmering dissent. This was the reign of the extra-ordinarily reactionary Nicolas I; but it was also a period in which, following the 1825 Decembrist revolt, and the 1830 Polish uprising, Russian elites were forced to formulate a view on the position of their Empire in a rapidly changing, modernising world. Intellectually, this age of repressed ferment resulted in the well-known debate between Russia’s Slavophiles and Westernisers; politically, it led to stagnation, Russia’s demotion as continental Europe’s dominant power, and its humiliating defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56.

For all the time between today and Chaadaev’s travails – he was declared insane and confined by the Tsarist authorities – these very same words could have been uttered by a modern-day Russian politician. Its various constitutive elements – the claim to civilisational specificity, and the mission to ‘teach the world a lesson’ - have, in recent years, become a mainstay of contemporary Russia’s exceptionalism.  We usually associate that term with the United States and its ‘manifest destiny’. But, as Holsti has pointed out, it is applicable to many other Great Powers – including the Soviet Union - which are, in fact, are prone to exhibit foreign-policy behaviours justified by: an obligation to liberate others; freedom from constraints in that goal; a hostile external world; a need for external enemies; and a perennial portrayal as a victim. Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and contemporary Russia all laid claim to such exception; and, unfortunately for their subalterns and neighbours – including the Ukrainians – this made a hierarchical, adversarial worldview a common theme in all three of Russia’s iterations; not least the current, post-Cold War one.

In fact, Putin’s current views on Ukraine exhibit all aspects of exceptionalism as defined by Holsti: Putin aims to ‘liberate’ the hapless Ukrainians from a ‘Nazi’ government, free from the constraints of the Liberal International Order (LIO); he sees them as ‘brainwashed’ by a hostile West – the enemy of choice in a long-standing narrative of his, and the primary source for Russia’s contemporary sense of victimhood.  The erasure of Ukrainian agency – indeed statehood - inherent in his discourses is clear: his Western neighbours are reduced to pawns on a geopolitical chessboard, created by the Bolsheviks and an accident of history, misled by a leadership that is no more than an American instrument. They exist primarily to re-affirm Great-Power Russia’s worldview. A hundred fifty years ago, the enemies and manipulators would have been the Polish gentry, vilified in Tsarist times as a prime internal threat targeting the hearts and minds of Ukrainians with ‘Jesuitical’ poison; one hundred years ago – when the Bolsheviks similarly reconquered a short-lived independent Ukraine - they would have been ‘bourgeois nationalists’ manipulated by a capitalist West. The enemies might have changed, the ‘civilising mission’ – if it can be called that – may have shifted towards an explicit form of Russian nationalism; but the exceptionalist pretence remains quite recognisable to any observer.

Ukraine and Russian exceptionalism

Indeed, Ukraine has always had a central place in dominant Russian imaginaries – and its exceptionalisms. If there was one common theme uniting these myths, it was the denial of Ukrainians’ – or “Little Russians’” - agency in favour of the Russian state. Apart from their obvious rejection of Ukrainians’ separateness, most 19th-century Slavophiles and Westernisers cast Russia as either their protector or moderniser, by virtue of its long tradition of organised statehood; official policy in the second half of the 19th century was based on the repression of a separate Ukrainian linguistic identity. The Soviet Union’s class-based ‘liberating’ mission oscillated from an uneasy tolerance of Ukrainian specificity  - especially in the 1920s and 1960s – to its outright repression; but, above all, it came to involve a genocidal ruthlessness when it was imposed on the ‘unreliable’ Ukrainian peasantry in the 1930s. Depending on the submissiveness of governments in Kyiv, post-Cold War Russia similarly vacillated between periods of acceptance of Ukrainian statehood, and attempts at more direct hierarchical control, culminating in its downright rejection and the ongoing, tragic war.

This reversion to a particularly aggressive, imperial form of exceptionalism was, however, far from inevitable: the direct questioning of Ukraine’s independent statehood is a relatively new phenomenon. For most of the period preceding 2014, Russian leaders – including Putin – at least paid lip service to Ukrainian sovereignty, while simultaneously harking back to the close cultural, religious, social links between the two countries. Yes, there were ominous threats in the 1990s regarding Crimea, but these ebbed away, notably as soon as Russia received continued basing rights for its fleet in Sebastopol; there were also attempts to intervene in presidential elections – the poisoning of the pro-Western Yushchenko during the 2004 presidential campaign being a prime example – and tussles over the transit and supply of gas. But seldom – if ever - where they accompanied by the direct, explicit questioning of Ukraine’s continued independence as a sovereign state.

To understand how we got where we are today, we have to go back to the latest iteration of Russian exceptionalism as it emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union, and a period of intellectual ferment – some would say chaos – in the 1990s. At the time, Russian society was confronted with a loss of identity as its source for seven decades – the Soviet Union – had disappeared. A hodgepodge of possibilities, going from extreme nationalism, over Soviet communist nostalgia, all the way to Western-style liberalism appeared as bases for a redefinition of the Russian world-view. While liberalism was a damaged idea – not least because of the neoliberal policies pushed through by the Yeltsin regime – the debate on Russia’s place in the world was not settled by the time Putin gained power; the space to refashion the ideological field was wide open, given sufficient determination.

Putin was far from being a committed ideologue, save perhaps for a quasi-nihilistic interest in Machtpolitik, that is, the accumulation of power for power’s sake; but even if he explicitly rejected a coherent state ideology in the style of the Soviet Union’s Marxism-Leninism, as he himself stated in 1999, his country’s society was in need of a new ‘Russian idea’. Putin thus created a loose assemblage from the menu of ideologies on offer in the previous disorderly decade.  From the red-brown coalition of nationalists and nostalgic communists, he took a selective view of the Tsarist and Soviet empires as continuous expressions of Russian greatness: selective, because, just like the communists and nationalists, more internationalist and progressive elements of the USSR in particular – nativisation, and the revolution itself – were minimised, the glories of industrialisation and the Great Patriotic War – notably against the Nazis – stressed, alongside the conservative, Orthodox values of Tsarist times. From the liberals, he at least adopted the language of the free market, democracy, and the rule of law – both domestically and internationally.  Domestically, this ‘bricolage’ gave him the ability to speak to a wide variety of constituencies; internationally, it enabled him to engage in the hegemonic Liberal International Order while at the same time claiming ‘leadership’ over the shared Soviet space, based on a shared historic experience.

This pretence could not last. It soon became clear that Putin was either unwilling, or unable to push through the kinds of reforms which would make Russia internally conform to the normative requirements of membership in the upper – Western-dominated - echelons of the LIO: his ‘restoration of the power vertical’ involved ‘sovereign’ curbs on democracy, and regular breaches of the rule of law, while the ‘free market’ was certainly interpreted in a very statist sense, particularly when it came to strategic industries like defence and energy. And worse for countries surrounding the Russian Federation, the attempt to maintain leadership in the former Soviet space was brought to nought by an inability to compete – as a provider of public goods – with Western entities like NATO and the European Union. Political and economic realities – the perceived threat posed by Russia, the attractiveness of the Western political and economic model over the Russian one and its material wealth – outshone any references to a shared history, which, in their tone-deafness, ignored Russia’s position as a threatening former imperial metropole.

It is this failure which came to a head every time a subaltern risked definitively slipping out of Russia’s orbit, as during the 2008 war in Georgia, the 2014 Crimean annexation, and today’s war in Ukraine. Indeed, it would be simplistic to pretend that Putin always behaved and spoke on a wide variety of issues – including Ukraine – the way he does today. In previous years, there was an attempt to make Russia’s hierarchical aspirations conform, at least superficially, to liberal precepts, with the Eurasian Economic Union – the issue that precipitated the Ukrainian crisis in 2013-14 – as the most prominent example. These attempts at reconciling Russian regional hegemony with liberalism failed miserably; what was left was naked empire, based on the ‘red-brown’ aspect of the composite ideology adopted at the very beginning of his rule. ‘Westernisation’ – Russia’s inability to substantially engage in it, its neighbours’ willingness and ability to do so – played the crucial role in this evolution.

It is important to stress the difference of this holistic view of Russian exceptionalism from the more prevalent linear causal explanations of Russian behaviour. This imperial exceptionalism was fundamentally entangled with the broader structural – in the constructivist sense – environment provided by the LIO, and the agencies of both the West, and Russia’s subalterns. To reduce the view of Ukraine’s and Russia’s predicament to a neat set of unidirectional, causal factors – be they internal to Russia, like a self-contained imperial reflex, regime type, or Putin himself, or one external to it – NATO expansiondemocratisationEU integration – only provides a partial picture prioritising the trees over the proverbial forest. Liberal hegemony – in the European context, founded on NATO, EU, democracy – interacted with both the Russians and their neighbours, and vice-versa, to produce the current tragedy; far from being a collection of dependent variables reacting to linear forms of causality – as envisaged in so much of the positivist explanatory scholarship on the matter - Western, Russian and Ukrainian agencies are inseparably entangled through their mutual constitution, and the Westernising effects of the LIO.

What does this mean for the future? First, the above should act as an admonition against decisions based on a view of Russia’s exceptionalism as somehow unique. As Holsti implied, great powers will tend to have their forms of exceptionalism: in fact the United States has long acted as a model in that regard. In its case, exceptionalism has long remained fundamentally entangled with the LIO and, through it, Russia’s own. A measure of self-awareness on the potential inconsistencies and many assumptions that underly any form of exceptionalism would therefore be called for.

Second, one should always remember that exceptionalist adventurism can be expensive to uphold in the face of material reality: something which applies to all great powers, not least, Putin’s Russia. This is where we should put Chaadaev’s admonition within the full context of his, and our own times. Russia remains a power with a retrograde political and economic system which does not deliver for its people. And even if Putin might gain a pyrrhic victory in Ukraine, his inability to reform and grasp the dynamic potential of Russian society provides a parallel to the stagnant reign of Nicolas I. And that reign, we all know, ended in catastrophe and humiliation on the Crimean peninsula. History may not repeat itself in the future; but it might certainly come to rhyme.


Photo by Pavel Neznanov on Unsplash