At first impression, it seems that the greatest among all Georgians - Joseph
Stalin - is back. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, his most implacable enemy, the author
of the major anti-Stalin work, Gulag Archipelago, is dead.
Moreover, while the world hailed Solzhenitsyn as one of the major forces in the
20th century that helped destroy Stalinization as the political ideological
system in Russia, he soon fell out of the public mind. Few ordinary Russians
came to his funeral. For the majority, his Gulag was as irrelevant as The
Secret History of Procopius of Caesarea or the Annals of Tacitus of Rome.
Indeed, for quite a few people, Stalin is once again popular as the man who
created the great Soviet - read Russian - empire; and it is not accidental that
Alexandr Prokhanov, editor of one of the
most influential Russian dailies, Zavtra, proclaimed that in the recent war
with Georgia, the Georgian "battalion Solzhenitsyn" was destroyed by the
advancing Russian army.
One could assume that these Russian forces advancing toward Gori, Stalin's
birthplace in Georgia, were hailed by a huge effigy of Stalin, possibly the
only one that remains in the world. Here, as if still alive, and looking
dignified, he hails Russian soldiers as he did in 1945 when they marched in Red
Square in Moscow during the victory parade that followed the end of World War
This seems to explain why the comparison between the recent Russian invasion of
Georgia and the Soviets' imperial buildup launched by Stalin is so popular in
the Western media.
But this is not the case: the war has irrevocably broken the relationship
between the Russians and the other peoples of the former Soviet Union, that is,
the war has in fact finally destroyed the legacy of Stalinism.
It is true that Stalin has been associated with the legacy of Russian
nationalism. His empire looked like the Russian empire of the tsars; he praised
Russian nationalism and deported millions of those minorities whom he suspected
of disloyalty into the heartland of the empire. Still, his empire was not just
a Russian empire; it was not an empire for Russians and by Russians. The empire
transcended the narrow confinements of Russianness, not just because Stalin
himself was not Russian, but because of the nature of the empire.
Imperial expansion did not benefit Russians. Russian gas and oil, machinery and
education - all were spread to the outskirts of the imperial domain; and, with
all the nastiness and discrimination of his rule - the case of Russian Jews and
Germans in the late Stalin era is a good example - Stalin's elite and, later,
the post-Stalin elite, was multi-ethnic.
Moreover, it is the Russified minorities - so similar to Stalin himself, who
were the greatest patriots of the empire. These trans-ethnic elements of the
empire (it's not a Russian but actually an Eurasian empire) permeated all of
Soviet rule. And through a web of marriages, datings and friendships, a new
people emerged: the Soviet/Eurasian people.
This was not just a Soviet propaganda statement. Still, all of this began a
process of continuous destruction from the beginning of the post-Soviet era in
the early 1990s. The price of gas and oil was increasingly raised to everyone.
Even Russian friends - such as Belarus - were slowly compelled to pay the same
prices as the distant lands which had never been a part of the empire. Ethnic
violence against the people from the Caucasus and Central Asia became common.
The recent Russo-Georgian war was the last straw: from now on, Moscow, the
Third Rome, the capital of the Eurasian empire to which all the numerous people
of the empire have had a feeling of awe, a feeling that Moscow is also their
capital, became a city of a foreign state. This feeling of Russia's foreignness
is shared not just by the people of the Caucuses and Central Asia, but also by
friendly Belarus, which offended Moscow by not supporting the Georgian war.
Now, Russia is more alone, more alienated and hated among the republics of the
former Soviet Union than at any other time in Soviet and post-Soviet history.
And while Russia was able to inflict a great blow against Georgia, Russia has
not been able to withstand a protracted war in the North Caucuses. Chechnya has
in effect been abandoned to President Ramzan Kadyrov, who exists if not de jure
but as an independent ruler, receiving tributes in the form of subsidies from
While Russia cannot be either a new edition of the Stalinist Soviet Union or a
reinvention of itself in the form of say a German Third Reich, the United
States is seen by a considerable segment of the Russian elite as the country's
major geopolitical rival, as a grand empire.
Still, the US's inability to defend its proxy Georgia, which it implicitly
encouraged to attack South Ossetia, setting off the war, is a reflection of the
broad geopolitical burden of Iraq and Afghanistan on the US's shoulders. These
geopolitical debacles are related to America's increasing economic problems,
for which no viable solution can be found in the context of present
social-economic arrangements. The collapse of the American global imperial
presence is structurally similar to that of the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Neither Russia nor the US can be true imperial powers.
The geopolitical structure of the global order created by Stalin and his
American adversaries in the aftermath of World War II is collapsing, not just
on the Russian side but also on the American side. This implies that the future
- at least the immediate future - is not so much for Pax Russika or Pax
America, but most likely a push for increasing global anarchy.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.