There were a number of noteworthy foreign policy events last week. Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced that Sevastopol is not Ukrainian but Russian territory, and the State Duma came to the defense of Arnold Meri, a former high-ranking official in Estonia’s Communist Party who has been charged in Tallinn with genocide for his role in deporting civilians to Siberia following World War II.
We are truly living in a society that suffers from the Russian post-imperial syndrome. But what is most important is what is left after the empire falls.
Consider the Roman and British empires. The subjugated people hated their colonialists and revolted. But when those empires collapsed, it turned out that the vast Roman and British cultural heritage continued to dominate even after the local populations gained independence. The Latin language survived longer, and over a broader territory, than did the Roman Empire itself.
The empires of Genghis Khan and the Ottoman Turks also collapsed, but none of the people they conquered has a kind word for them today. You won’t find a Bulgarian or a Serb eager to show you the ruins of Ottoman defensive fortifications on their territories.
True, the Mongols greatly influenced the civilizations they defeated. For example, before falling to the Mongols, Afghanistan was a prosperous country with major cities and an extensive agricultural system. It was a highly prized territory, one that dozens of would-be conquerors had tried to seize, including Alexander the Great. But after the Mongols razed all the Afghan cities, decimated the population, and destroyed the country’s complex irrigation system, Afghanistan was reduced to a country of mountains and barren deserts.
What can the Mongols take pride in today? Where are the gems of science and art that adorn the peoples that fell under their rule? Did the Mongols give them laws? A written language? New rights?
During tsarist times, the Russian Empire followed the example of the Roman and British empires. With all of its cruelty, it conquered the eastern territories and the Caucasus with valor and bravery. Like the Roman Empire, they gave more to their subjects than they managed to seize from them.
The Soviet Union, however, was built more along the lines of the Mongol empire. It ruthlessly destroyed everyone and everything, and the first to fall victim were the Russian nobility, peasantry, merchants and intelligentsia. The Soviet Union left the same legacy in Russia as the Mongols did in Afghanistan — destruction. None of the former Soviet republics will ever put up monuments to Pavlik Morozov, the mythical 13-year-old Pioneer who was praised for turning in his own father to the authorities. The former Soviet colonies also do not sing the praises to the NKVD, nor have they adopted the Soviet legal code.
Yet the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union represented Russia’s last historic opportunity. It could have become an attractive metropolis for surrounding countries, a reliable trade partner or a place where other countries’ elite came to study — just as people from Britain’s former empire still come to Oxford and Cambridge. The Soviet Union of Josef Stalin and Lavrenty Beria suffered a crushing defeat, but the Russia of Pushkin and Dostoevsky still had a chance to fill the void. Gogol, though Ukrainian by birth, wrote his masterpieces in Russian. Chechen insurgents who die beneath Russian tanks write poems about the freedom of their people in the Russian language, much like Lermontov before them.
The former KGB thugs who now control the country are stomping Russia’s last historical chance into the dirt. They are doing everything to show the world that Russia is led not by civilized, respected leaders, but by a street gang from Lubyanskaya Ploshchad.
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show
on Ekho Moskvy radio.