European Network Remembrance and solidarity. 

By Alexander J. Motyl 

This text was originally published at in a series of articles analysing the changes of 1989-1991 from today's perspective. The website is a part of social and educational campaign Freedom Express organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity".


Two concepts—empire and fascism—are central to understanding the Autumn of Nations of 1989 and its mirror image, the Assault on Nations, which took place 20-25 years later when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The Autumn of Nations began the collapse of the Soviet Russian empire; Russia’s Anschluss of Crimea marks Vladimir Putin’s most serious attempt to revive a post-Soviet Russian empire. Separating these world-historical events was Russia’s transformation from a Weimar-type democracy to a fascist regime. The obvious historical parallel is imperial Germany’s collapse in 1918, the transformation of Weimar Germany into Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler’s first stabs at reviving empire by annexing Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. 

In taking place at the end of the USSR’s existence, the Autumn of Nations capped a process of Soviet Russian empire building that began in 1918-1922 with expansion into most of the non-Russian nations that declared independence in 1917-1918, continued in 1939-1940 with the annexation of eastern Poland and the Baltic states, and ended in the 1940s with the inclusion of the satellite states of Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Russian empire in 1989-1991 appeared to herald the “end of history” and the “end of geopolitics” in Europe; in reality, it began a two-decade long process of imperial revival by post-Soviet Russia. The ongoing attempt at reimperialization will fail, however, and possibly produce the Putin regime’s collapse. A second Autumn of Nations could then occur. 

The Autumn of Nations—the domino-like collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 that culminated, symbolically, in the breaching of the Berlin Wall on November 9—was the direct product of three developments. First, Communist totalitarianism in both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had gone into terminal decline by the 1970s. Second, civil society forces—as best represented by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland—took advantage of totalitarian decay to construct parallel societies throughout the 

region. Third, Mikhail Gorbachev’s relentless pursuit of glasnost and perestroika, as well as his attack on Communist Party primacy and encouragement of Popular Fronts in the non-Russian republics, eviscerated totalitarianism, weakened the center’s control of the periphery, and unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. As the Soviet Russian empire grew weaker, the Eastern Europeans were able to replace puppet Communist regimes with democracies. In turn, the empire’s partial dismantling further weakened totalitarianism within the USSR, thereby enabling the non-Russians to take advantage of the failed August 2001 coup to declare independence and then, with Russia’s connivance, to bury the Soviet Union in December. 

Imperial Germany collapsed in 1918 as a result of defeat in war. In contrast, the Soviet Russian empire collapsed in peacetime as a result of Gorbachev’s attempt to reform totalitarianism. Because both empires collapsed rapidly, suddenly, and comprehensively, they did not undergo the progressive territorial decay that declining empires usually experience. New states emerged, but the many economic, cultural, and social ties that bound them to the imperial core remained. No less important, the suddenness of imperial collapse produced economic collapse in former imperial cores and peripheries, while generating shock, humiliation, and resentment among the former imperial nations and creating pockets of “abandoned brethren”—co-nationals of the core nation residing in the former colonies or in adjacent territories. 

The chaotic period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s proved to be similar to Weimar Germany in the 1920s. In both cases, imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political humiliation were blamed on democracy. And Vladimir Putin turned out to be Russia’s version of Adolf Hitler. Both came to power legally, developed cults of the personality, dismantled democracy, revived the economies, employed chauvinism and neo-imperialism to legitimize their rule, remilitarized their states and promised to make them great powers again, and made it their mission to in-gather abandoned brethren. 

Like Hitler, Putin constructed a regime that may legitimately be called fascist, and not just authoritarian. Fascism is a non-democratic, non-socialist political system with a domineering party, a supreme leader, a hyper-masculine leader cult, a hyper-nationalist, statist ideology, and an enthusiastically supportive population. Like authoritarian systems, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, and elections; are highly centralized; give pride of place to soldiers and policemen; have a domineering party; restrict freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; and repress the opposition. But unlike authoritarian systems, fascist systems always have supreme leaders enjoying cult-like status, exuding vigor, youthfulness, and 

manliness. And unlike authoritarian leaders, fascist leaders are charismatic individuals who promote a hyper-nationalist vision that promises the population, and especially the young, a grand and glorious future in exchange for their subservience. Unsurprisingly, full-blown fascist systems, being the instruments of charismatic one-man rule, tend to be more violent than average authoritarian states. 

Central to the reimperialization projects in both Nazi Germany and Putin Russia was the fact that both leaders could draw on already existing imperial ideologies to justify their claims and legitimize their rule. Most interwar Germans to the right of the Communists continued to view their country’s place in Europe in terms of two Wilhelmine leitmotifs, Weltpolitik and Lebensraum. Weltpolitik justified economic imperialism, while Lebensraum promoted eastern colonialism by German farmer migrants. Both concepts amounted to an imperial Zeitgeist that facilitated popular acceptance of Nazi propaganda by identifying abandoned brethren in those German-speaking parts of the former Habsburg empire that remained unclaimed by a plausible post-Habsburg imperial ideology, as well as in western Poland, Prussia, Danzig, and among the Volksdeutsche of Eastern Europe. The Nazi variant of the ideology could logically claim that Anschluss was the only viable solution to the plight of the brethren. 

In post-Soviet Russia, almost all Russian elites adopted the neoimperial language and logic of Russian greatness, historical destiny, and geopolitical primacy. Russian elites did not have far to look for an ideology bursting with imperial content. Although official Communist ideology had disintegrated during perestroika, many of its tenets survived, especially those resonating with the great power dimensions of Russian political culture. In particular, these were the “leading role” of the Great Russian people, the primacy of the Russian language as a “vehicle of inter-nationality communication,” the “friendship of peoples,” the continuity between Russian imperial and Soviet history, and “proletarian internationalism.” Inasmuch as the ethnic Russian communities in the non-Russian successor states were identified as abandoned brethren pining for the motherland, Russian policymakers and publicists invented a “near abroad” populated by “blood relatives” and developed elaborate schemes for protecting their rights. In particular, the necessity, desirability, and inevitability of some form of “integration,” as a means of simultaneously promoting Russia’s strategic interests and defending the abandoned brethren, became a central theme of Russian political discourse. All these ideological tropes became formal components of the self-legitimating neo-imperial ideology developed by the Putin regime. 

The soldiers and policemen (Putin’s siloviki) who run fascist states have a natural proclivity to toughness and weaponry. The hyper-nationalism, state fetishes, and cult of hyper-masculinity incline fascist states to see enemies everywhere. The cult-like status of leaders encourages them to pound their chests with abandon. And the population’s implication in its own repression leads it to balance its self-humiliation with attempts to humiliate others. Unsurprisingly, imperial rhetoric preceded imperialist behavior in both Hitler Germany and Putin Russia. At first, they relentlessly asserted their “rightful” place in the sun and the need to right the alleged wrongs wrought by imperial collapse. After a few years of discursive saber-rattling, they engaged in actual territorial claims. Hitler’s attempt at reimperialization started with the annexation of the Sudetenland and Austria, continued with the dismemberment of Poland, culminated in history’s most destructive war, and ended in abject failure. By war’s end, Germany lay in ruins and was soon to be divided into two hostile states for four decades. 

Putin’s attempt at reimperialization started with the dismemberment of Georgia and—as of this writing—culminated in the annexation of Crimea. The timing of his invasion was very much determined by the collapse on February 21, 2014 of the authoritarian Yanukovych regime in Kyiv and the triumph of the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” that began in late November 2013. “People power” was a direct threat to Putin’s fascism and had to be stopped. Invading Crimea by claiming that its Russian population was under threat from Kyiv was the ideologically mandated rationale that Putin chose for his expansionist goals. 

Greatly facilitating Putin’s reimperialization effort in both Georgia and Ukraine was a development that, paradoxically, hindered it elsewhere: NATO and European Union expansion to Eastern Europe and the Baltic. NATO and EU expansion wrenched these states from Russian’s sphere of influence and, at least formally, provided them with security guarantees. In addition, expansion enmeshed these states in a wide range of institutional practices that only deepened the political, cultural, and economic divide between them and Russia. But expansion also left Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova—as well as such westward-leaning countries as Georgia—in a security no-man’s land and in an institutional vacuum. Their vulnerability to Russia’s possible imperial predations and their isolation from the West and the world only increased. Ironically, the Eastern Europeans’ full integration in the West pretty much guaranteed that Putin’s attempted reimperialization would be directed at the countries in the no-man’s land: having been transformed by NATO and EU expansion into a buffer zone between Russia and the West, they were deemed by Moscow to be vital to Russia’s security. 

Will Putin go further than Crimea and try to annex southeastern Ukraine, all of Ukraine, or the Russian-populated territories of such states as Estonia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan? It is at this point that the analogy with Nazi Germany appears to break down. Nazi Germany was an economic and military powerhouse with the capacity to start and win any one-front war. Hitler’s mistake was to embark on a two-front war by attacking the USSR. Putin Russia, in contrast, is a corrupt and inefficient petro-state with an underdeveloped economy experiencing secular decline and a military that, despite recent budgetary infusions, performed poorly in the North Caucasus and has yet to prove itself in a full-scale war and a long-term occupation. Russia is also highly dependent on the West for its economic growth—a fact that provides both sides with leverage over the other. Hitler could start World War II with the rational expectation of victory. It is not at all clear that a rationally thinking Putin would want to start a land war with Ukraine. 

After all, the Crimean campaign was a grand and glorious little war that raised Putin’s popularity with the hyper-nationalist masses in Russia, cost no lives, and transpired quickly and inexpensively. It also turned Russia into a rogue state and mobilized the West against it, but Putin could reasonably argue that “Russian glory” was worth that price. In contrast, a full-scale assault on all of Ukraine—or even on Kyiv—would be extremely risky and costly, while offering no immediate tangible benefits to Putin or to Russia. The Ukrainians army, newly formed National Guard, and militias would fight in defense of their homeland. A subsequent occupation would entail the deployment of several hundred thousand Russian troops, who would be the targets of a popularly supported resistance movement. The West would probably provide military assistance to the Ukrainian partisans, and it would certainly impose ruinous sanctions on the Russian economy. Russian casualties would likely number in the thousands, and the hyper-nationalist hysteria in Russia would diminish as body bags arrive and Putin’s supporters realize that a devastated Ukraine and a war-weary Russian army are less appealing then a glorious little war in Crimea. 

Regardless of what Putin does with respect to Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, or other states with large numbers of Russian abandoned brethren, annexing Crimea, unleashing hyper-nationalist war hysteria, alienating Ukraine and the West, and isolating Russia may prove to be his undoing. As powerful as it was, Hitler Germany overreached only after starting a two-front war. Being significantly weaker, Putin may have already overreached by annexing Crimea. In any case, any further adventures in Ukraine or elsewhere will definitely overextend Russia’s capacities and produce the functional or genuine equivalent of defeat in war. If so, Putin’s brand of fascism is likely to collapse as well, and Russia could then experience a democratic revival. Fascist hyper-nationalism is, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy—effectively creating the very mortal threats it invokes as the reasons for its justification. 

If the ongoing Assault on Nations results in the collapse of Putin’s attempt at imperial revival, geopolitics will receive a powerful blow in Europe and all the nations of the former Soviet Russian empire—from Vladivostok to Berlin—may finally be poised to develop in the permanent absence of imperial hegemony. No less important, just as the Autumn of Nations created a powerful myth of democratic self-assertion, so too the failure of Putin’s reimperialization and the heroism of Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” are likely to generate new myths of popular self-empowerment in the quest for human autonomy. The European project can only benefit from such developments. 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, a specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR; the author of Imperial Ends: The Decline, Collapse, and Revival of Empires, 2001; “Russland: Volk, Staat und Führer: Elemente eines faschistischen Systems,” Osteuropa, January 2009; “Post-Weimar Russia,” Internationale Politik, Fall 2007; “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective,” Comparative Politics, January 1999. 




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