Vladimir Putin’s Imperial Anxieties
As Russia’s economic crisis deepens, President Vladimir Putin will need to turn his attention to keeping the lid on domestic discontent. But Putin’s understanding of the imperial nature of the Russian state could potentially hamper his ability to craft policies that give the country the best chance of avoiding a repeat of history.
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Putin and his closest Kremlin allies belong to a generation of Russians molded by the last decades of communism, and were traumatized by the implosion of the Soviet state. To them, the events of 1991 were a “major geopolitical catastrophe.” Although clearly cognizant of the past, and rueful of its consequences, Putin’s interpretation of Russia’s history raises questions about whether he has learned the lessons needed to manage the country’s eternal ‘nationalities’ question.
Blame for the Soviet collapse, in Putin’s view, rests squarely with Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Already in 1991, while serving as an official at St. Petersburg mayoral office, Putin sharply criticized Lenin’s nationality policies, charging the Bolsheviks with “planting a time bomb under the edifice of a unitary state that is called Russia.” Leninists, he continued, “divided our [unified] Fatherland into separate principalities that heretofore never figured on the map of the world.”
Vladimir Putin has pushed the “Lenin ruined Russia” meme at several recent public appearances. At a January 2 meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education, for example, Putin attacked the constitutional design that Lenin suggested for the Soviet communist state. “In the end that idea led to the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said. “They planted an atomic bomb under the building that is called Russia that later exploded.”
Several days later, at the regional forum of the All-Russian People’s Front in Stavropol, Putin elaborated on this theme. Stalin, he argued, was right in his 1922 polemic with Lenin when he urged a more centralist approach, under which all former borderlands would be included as autonomous units into the Russian Republic. Lenin’s federalist blueprint, one that provided subjects of