By Gwynne Dyer

This is not another pipe-sucking reassessment of Mikhail Gorbachev’s failed attempt to democratise the Soviet Union thirty years ago. It’s about why the Russians still don’t get it.

Gorbachev was hated by most older Russians because the Soviet Union, the country they were born into, broke apart on his watch. His current successor, Vladimir Putin, is now waging a war to put it back together, but Gorbachev, Putin and most other Russians have all made the same category error. They thought the Soviet Union was a country.

It wasn’t. It was an empire, fundamentally no different from the half-dozen other European empires that carved most of the world up between them in the preceding few centuries.

The British, the French and Dutch empires never confused their empires with their own countries, because their colonies were separated from the homelands by thousands of kilometres of ocean. It was trickier for the Russians, because all their imperial possessions were adjacent to their own homeland.

The Russian empire fell into the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917 and was renamed the Soviet Union, but its borders didn’t change except in the far west, where Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland gained their independence.

That’s where the popular confusion in Russia comes from. Because the Communists claimed to be ‘anti-imperialist’, and even abstained from using Russian nationalist tropes until Stalin’s time, it was easy for Russians to think the Soviet Union was all the same ‘homeland’. But the subject peoples noticed.

So when Gorbachev abandoned the threat of force as a means of keeping the empire together in 1991, the non-Russian nationalities took that as a signal that they could leave. And their departure really wasn’t “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century” (as Putin claims); it was the final act in the dismantling of the European empires.

Of course the subject peoples left. To outsiders, some of them seemed quite similar to Russians – the Ukrainians, for example – but their real historical grievances were as deep and irreconcilable as those between the Irish and the English.

Trying to put the decolonised pieces of that former empire back together now is as foolish and futile as a British attempt to reconquer Ireland would be. Yes, Russians and Ukrainians have a lot of shared history. Yes, it’s hard for people who don’t know them well to tell them apart. But no, they will not live happily together.

Is this the ‘narcissism of small differences’ that Sigmund Freud talked about? Yes, but some sort of shared identity is needed if we are to live together peacefully and productively in the large numbers that have become standard since the rise of the mass civilisations, and constructing such common identities is hard work. 

So two languages, Russian and Ukranian, that are really no further apart than Glaswegian English and Jamaican English, are erected into a sharp dividing  line between different ‘nations’ by Ukrainian nationalists.

History, fake or true, helps too. Russians share a story about an alleged genocide of Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine in the present; many Ukrainians believe that the famine of the early 1930s (the ‘holomodor’) was deliberately caused by their Russian rulers. 

There only so many people whom you can hope to bring into the same identity, which is why there are 52 countries in Africa, and seven countries where Yugoslavia used to be. It’s just part of the decolonisation process, but the Russians have not yet grasped that this is what they are going through.