By Gwynne Dyer
Russian President Vladimir Putin will almost certainly not be in power three years from now. The war he foolishly began in Ukraine has fatally undermined his political credibility among the Russian elite (and among a large though mostly silent part of the population). One way or another, he will be replaced.
He may even save everybody the trouble by dying before he can be removed. He definitely doesn’t look well, his behaviour is increasingly erratic, and rumours that he is suffering from some terminal disease abound. So what will become of Russia when he goes?
Alexander J. Motyl thinks it may just disappear. In an opinion piece in ‘The Hill’, the leading political website in Washington, Motyl suggests that “ The Russian Federation could metamorphose into 10 or more states, only one of which would be known as Russia.”
That implies the permanent demise of a state that has dominated northern Eurasia for the past four centuries. It also ignores the remarkable homogeneity of that state’s population: 81% are ethnically Russian, while none of the many minority group even reaches 4%.
There have been occasions, most recently during the civil war of 1917-22, when Russia was temporarily carved up into rival jurisdictions, but the sense that there is a special Russian identity, even a unique ‘Russian civilisation’, always reasserts itself.
Russia is as unlikely to split up permanently as France or Japan. Motyl’s speculations on its break-up are wishful thinking, possibly motivated by the fact that both his parents were born in Ukraine.
It is understandable that Ukrainians might wish Russia to vanish, but that is not going to happen. Nor can we yet know what a genuinely post-Communist Russia would look like.
Although it’s 31 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all the people in senior political positions in Russia began their careers in the Communist Party. The ideology was dumped, but the administrative style and the factional struggles remain.
Moreover, one single man, Vladimir Putin, has dominated Russian politics for more than two-thirds of that time. It’s hard to disentangle what is intrinsically Russian in the way Russia has been run during the past two decades from what was just a result of Putin’s personality, but we are about to find out.
The default position is to say that the Russians are somehow fundamentally different from other Slavs. After all, the Poles and the Czechs got real democracy and genuine
prosperity after 1991, whereas the Russians got Putin, border wars, and genteel poverty.
But there were two big differences that had nothing to do with ‘national character’. One was that all the former ‘satellite countries’ of Eastern Europe immediately ditched their local Communist collaborators and got a whole new set of politicians, whereas Russia was essentially stuck with the old Commies wearing new hats.
The other difference was that the western Slavs experienced the change as liberation, whereas their former rulers saw it as a loss of empire that stranded tens of millions of Russians in places that were suddenly foreign countries.
It would have been unreasonable to expect these two sets of people to react in the same way, and they didn’t.
But it’s equally unreasonable to be convinced that Russians will go on behaving in the same ways when the ex-Communist ruling elite loses power (which may be imminent) and a new post-imperial generation takes over instead.
We have no idea what’s coming out of the box then. It could even be something good.