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02.03.2012. An Unfinished Story

Russian international affairs specialist Dmitry Trenin has published a book, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story. It was first published in English and was written for a foreign audience, which I know it has found. The Russian edition will come out soon. 

I read the book in English. It was enjoyable and impressed me with its author’s intellectual courage. Trenin has made an elegant attempt to embrace the un-embraceable and achieve the impossible - to explain what happened to Russia, within Russia, and with its foreign policy while the country’s post-communist and post-imperial transformation is still far from complete. Indeed, the process is still in full swing and its results are not yet clear and perhaps are only now starting to become discernible.

The book will spark debate among its readers, many of whom were participants and even makers of history. My objective is not to join the debate, but simply to recommend the book to readers. History itself will settle the debates if it continues and is not interrupted as happened in 1917 and almost happened in 1991-1999.

I recommend this book simply for its quality. It gives us the almost impossibly analytical and detached view of a man concerned for his country, the view of a Russian who in the 1980s was a Soviet officer and over the following 20 years transformed himself into one of the best Russian foreign policy analysts.  

The book contains clear personal notes, even confessional at times, but, perhaps because of his non-confrontational approach, or maybe overcoming the passionate emotions that inevitably swell in the heart of anyone who has lived through an unfinished revolution, Trenin does his best to remain emphatically sober and detached.
This detachment is my only serious reproach towards the book and its author. Trenin, who works at the Carnegie Moscow Center, seems to fear saying anything too unpleasant.

This comes through in his treatment of the more than incompetent U.S. policy towards Russia; and he is even more sparing in his assessment of Russia’s own policy. Perhaps this stems from a reluctance to be too categorical in his conclusions, and his compromising line is not so much the result of some kind of political correctness, but rather an attempt to maintain an analytically detached approach.

But let’s turn to the actual text. Trenin used as his main instrument the argument that the Soviet Union’s collapse was the collapse of an empire. I am not sure that Russia was actually an empire rather than simply a large multiethnic state that fell apart when the pillar that had supported it since the 1917 revolution – the communist ideology and communist party – crumbled. 

But some kind of methodological approach is needed in order to analyze such a complex event as the Soviet Union’s collapse. Trenin’s methodological tool looks further justified in the sense that many of Russia’s builders saw it as an empire, and it was thus one. Sergei Witte declared that, “there is no Russia: there is the Russian Empire”. The unique feature of this empire was that, aside from its capital cities, it had no metropolis.

Trenin writes that the incentive for his work was the conviction that too many people around the world saw the Soviet Union’s collapse – which few could even conceive just three years before it happened – as an inevitability, and the Russian Federation as a given. Trenin, on the contrary, tries to show that much in the Russian post-communist transformation that differs vastly in nature from the processes taking place in Central and Eastern Europe can be explained by the post-empire factor, which many scholars have tended to underestimate.    
Trenin stresses the astonishingly peaceful and relatively ‘bloodless’ nature of the Soviet collapse, giving most of the credit for this to the Russian people and leadership, as well as – a neglected point – to the Soviet armed forces’ commanders and officers, and the hundreds of thousands of suddenly impoverished nuclear industry scientists and workers who did not let ‘one sixth of the Earth’s surface’ become a ‘nuclear Yugoslavia’. Dozens of thousands of former Soviet citizens died in interethnic conflicts, but the number of victims of the Soviet Union’s collapse was many times smaller than during the collapse of European empires led by democratic metropolis states. 

In Trenin’s view, post-imperium period is a lengthy historical stage. The post-imperial syndrome makes itself felt not just in the center, but also on the fringes of the former empire. The way out from the empire lies in the implementation of new projects – national, integrationist, or global. There is no unified post-Soviet space, and each of the former Soviet republics has followed its own road.

In his analysis of Russia, Trenin makes constant and justified reference to the transitional nature of its internal and international condition. Russia is no longer an imperial power, but has not yet become a republic – such is one of his arguments. A fragmented society in which private interests clearly dominate over public ones at every level and people are alienated from authorities who concentrate on their own self-enrichment have made modern Russia a country that has a population but not yet a nation, a country in which the state itself has been privatized to a large extent.

Despite all this, Trenin sees the period Russia is now traversing as a time of nation-building on a new basis, rather than that of a terminal decline, as many think. The old imperial governing method of a vertically organized dictatorship is gradually but inevitably giving way to a web of horizontal ties between more or less autonomous entities. When a sufficient number of these ‘entities’ realize the impossibility of achieving their goals through their individual strategies only, this will form the foundation for emergence of a republic in its literal sense of a ‘common undertaking’ in Russia. Then former subjects and current consumers will start to become citizens. Judging by the events following the Duma election, this process has already begun - earlier than many thought would be the case. 

Looking at Russia’s international role, Trenin analyzes the concept of ‘great power’ that Russian leaders starting with Boris Yeltsin have used in their rhetoric. Applied to the modern Russian Federation, ‘great power’ means above all the state’s strategic independence, Trenin concludes. Post-imperial Russia did not succeed in becoming ‘part of the West’, and did not become the West’s ally. At the same time, Russia has asserted its place in the world as an independent strategic player that can not only advance its own interests but also influence the global balance.

The Russian Federation is a reality. Trenin notes that its current borders, which many have called ‘unnatural’, in actual fact largely coincide with Russia’s mid-seventeenth century borders following the annexation of Siberia but before Ukraine’s entry into the empire and Peter the Great’s conquests. This national nucleus stayed loyal to Russia during the period of imperial collapse in 1917-1921 too. Modern Russia’s ‘problem regions’ – the North Caucasus, the Primorye and Amur regions, and Kaliningrad – became parts of Russia after 1650 and their closer integration into the rest of the country requires particular attention. 

History is unpredictable, but I think that so long as there are no disasters or outright stupidity, Russia in 20 years’ time will settle down within its current borders along with its union with Kazakhstan and Belarus and, in a large measure, Ukraine, or a large part of it at least. This would coincide roughly with the borders that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, (so far) the last Russian genius, proposed.
Russia, despite all the rhetoric of the last two decades, did not manage (and later did not want) to integrate into the West, but nor did it start throwing its resources and aspirations into restoring some likeness of the empire now lost. The CIS became an incubator for new countries rather than the instrument for their reintegration into a ‘Greater Russia’. In spite of its support for projects such as the Eurasian Union, Moscow does not wish to become once again the former peripheral territories’ sponsor, helping them to develop at the cost of Russia’s own resources. Furthermore, Russia’s partners do not wish to become the pedestal for a ‘Great Russia’. The integration that is underway, and not just on paper, involves pragmatic projects such as the Customs Union. This process is not running on autopilot. As Trenin notes, creating the Common Economic Space alone requires big changes in Belarus’ political and economic organization and it will be many years before a currency union becomes a realistic prospect. 
Trenin describes Russia today as a ‘Euro-Pacific country’ in geopolitical terms. He introduced the term several years ago now and uses it to emphasize Russia’s cultural and historic roots while at the same time indicating the road ahead. This century is seeing the global center of economic, political, and military power shift to the Pacific region. Russia’s historic task now is to substantially raise development levels in its eastern regions, integrate them with the rest of the country, and use eastern territories as the basis for its own integration with the emerging Pacific community and thus fix itself to the Asian economic locomotive. 

Trenin notes this task’s priority but at the same time also stresses the importance of Russia’s relations with Europe, which intrinsically is the country’s primary external modernization resource. He supports the idea of a Euro-Atlantic security community that would eventually demilitarize Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the NATO countries. Trenin thinks that unless the foundation for stable Euro-Atlantic peace is laid, it will be impossible for Russia to achieve stable and enduring political relations and deeper economic integration with the EU. 

Let me add for my own part that it is a pity that the latest – and the deepest in its history so far - crisis the EU is going through, is making it withdraw into itself, turning even the theoretical possibility of Russian-EU integration into a more distant prospect.
At the end of the book Trenin lays aside his analytical detachment, voicing some truly bold and even provocative conclusions and proposals, with which I fully agree. Let me conclude this review with the following lengthy quote: “A key challenge for Russia’s foreign policy will be to learn to live alongside a China that is strong, dynamic, assertive, and increasingly advanced. To avoid becoming an adjunct to the Chinese economy and a political semi-vassal of Beijing, Russia will need to focus on its Far Eastern territories much more than before. It will have to achieve dual integration: Pacific Russia’s integration into the Russian Federation and Russia’s integration as a whole into the Asia-Pacific. Russia’s cutting-edge, twenty-first century frontier lies to the east, where it has both a need and a chance to catch up with its immediate Pacific neighbors: China, Japan, and South Korea. … if Peter the Great were alive today, he would decamp from Moscow again—only this time to the Sea of Japan, not the Baltic. ...Russia would do well to think of Vladivostok as its twenty-first century capital. It is a seaport, breathing openness. Its location ... puts Russia in immediate contact with the world’s currently most dynamic peoples. In addition, Vladivostok’s location close to the Russo-Chinese border would actually serve as an ultimate guarantee of peace and territorial integrity.”

This elegant and absolutely correct thesis makes a worthy conclusion to Trenin’s fine book. True, I note with a kind but slightly ironic smile, having devoted his book to overcoming the empire, Trenin ends on a beautiful note in the true post-modernist spirit by proposing to continue the great imperial project pursued by daring Russians like Yermak, Poyarkov, Dezhnev, Bering, and the tsars.
But Russia’s story has no single reading, and, let us hope, is still far from its end.

// Originally published in Russian in Russia in Global Affairs magazine (Russian edition) #1, 2012