We have been through this before. Well, almost.
In the 1960s, American and European cities were convulsed by riots and antiwar protests, and in the early 1970s the Watergate scandal threatened to derail American democracy. Then, as now, the Kremlin was jubilant as Western democracies seemed to teeter on the brink.
But soon enough, Americans were landing on the moon, the Vietnam War ended, Nixon was forced to resign, and it was the Soviet Union’s crumbling facade that could no longer disguise its own social rifts and divisions. Within the next two decades, Western democracies continued to thrive, if unevenly, while the Soviet Union lost its empire and itself fell apart.
A century ago, preparing the ground for the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin famously predicted that the chain of imperialism could be broken at one of its weaker links, Russia. Today, too, behind a seemingly resurgent Russia and its strongman leader lies a weak and fragile Russian state that may prove Lenin prescient again.
The Russian Federation has an economy overdependent on oil and gas; together with armaments, they account for 90 percent of its exports. With long-term economic prospects ever dimmer, Russian demographers are also warning that the country is about to enter a demographic crisis similar to the one in the 1990s. Even when there is a population growth, the numbers of the newborn vary dramatically depending on religion and ethnicity, with an average Muslim growth rate far exceeding the national average. If this trend continues, Russia is on track to become a majority-Muslim country in the middle of this century. Like Israel, Russia may one day face a choice between ruling over a predominantly Muslim population or giving sovereignty to its Muslim enclaves.
To forestall that possibility, two months ago the Russian parliament passed a law that would allow anyone who speaks Russian or has any connection to Russia and the former Soviet Union to become a Russian citizen. The goal is to increase Russia’s population by millions from among those living in neighboring countries and occupied territories. It is one indicator of how large a role Russia’s demographic crisis plays in Moscow’s expansionist ambitions toward neighbors that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
But attempts to increase Russia’s Slavic population do not help define Russian national identity, an existential question that has consumed many generations of educated Russians. It continues to raise questions about the sustainability of the Russian Federation, in which a multitude of ethnic and religious groups are spread across 21 republics and occupied Crimea.
“Who are we and why?” asks the protagonist in a recent novel, “Maidenhair,” by the Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin. Where does the Russian empire end and the Russian nation begin? On a global scale, what is Russia’s relationship to the West? These have always been the principal questions in Russia’s perennial search for its national identity, and still there is no clear answer in sight.
The Kremlin’s most recent idea of a law defining the Russian nation came to an inglorious end on March 2, after five months of deliberations. It had not even reached the draft stage, despite President Vladimir V. Putin’s full support and encouragement. The resistance came from many quarters: Russian nationalists who want the dominant status of Russians enshrined in law; the Orthodox Church, which fears losing its present position as a national church; and above all, the non-Russian ethnic elites, who suspect that this was a Kremlin ploy to deprive them of the privileges that their current national and territorial autonomy allows them within the Russian Federation.
Emil Pain, an expert on national issues in Russia and a prominent critic of the law, compared it to the notorious notion of “official nationality” — an imperial, autocratic idea adopted under Emperor Nicholas I in the 1820s. The problem, Mr. Pain maintains, is that instead of promoting the idea of a nation of free citizens, the Kremlin wants a nation subordinate to the state and its leader. As Valery Tishkov, an adviser to Mr. Putin who was charged with drafting the law, acknowledged, “The society is not quite ready to accept a notion of a united nation that encompasses all nationalities” — yet another reminder that Russia remains less than the sum of its parts.
Here lies Russia’s historic conundrum, born of its enormous size and diversity: One cannot forge what Mr. Pain calls a “civic nation” — a pluralistic and participatory democracy — from a tapestry of religions, tongues and customs without devolving power away from Moscow. But that would risk encouraging demands for more autonomy from some of the 21 non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation. On the other hand, concentrating power solely in the Kremlin and its strong leader means continuing an imperial tradition of keeping the country together through what the Soviet-era human rights leader Andrei Sakharov derided as a “messianic expansionism.” So defining Russia in opposition to the outside world, the West in particular, has become the standard Kremlin default position.
In the last decade, Mr. Putin tried to find a path toward restoring Russia’s imperial identity through a number of ill-fated projects: the Eurasian Commonwealth, the Russian World and the Russian Civilization — all in opposition to the West and its liberal political ideals.
If the 19th century gave us Russian literature and arts, and the 20th science and a fatally flawed ideology of totalitarian socialism, 21st-century Russia has little to offer beyond subversion of Western democracies and revanchist forays along its borders. Stuck between apocalypse and revolution, in the words of the 20th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, fragile Russia is still searching for a sense of national identity.
Recent anti-corruption demonstrations have occurred in more than 100 Russian cities, a strike by truckers is now in its third month, and a younger generation has grown less susceptible to television propaganda. With Mr. Putin clearly not ready for any compromise, those are among a few indications that Putinism, as a political system, may be headed for a crisis — one in which Russia could ultimately go the way of the Soviet Union.
If it does, however, given the ruthlessness of its leader and the enormous fortunes at stake, the next demise may turn out to be far less peaceful than that of the Soviet empire that Lenin began.
Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, is completing a book titled Russia’s Twentieth Century.