The collapse of the Russian Federation. Few visionaries spoke about it just a year ago, and the wider public did not take them seriously. Six months ago, after the full-fledged war began, Ukrainians began to speak about it en masse but as coveted future rather than as a real prospect. Now, this debate has gone far beyond Ukraine, focusing on the vision of that collapse. Pragmatic thinkers are still skeptical about these conversations. And they have every right to be that: no sufficient socio-economic preconditions for the Russian Federation to collapse are in sight. However, the rapid evolution of the quality of this debate calls for a closer look at it from different perspectives. Below is one of them.
When someone dies, their body only begins to gradually decompose after their soul, the essence of human being, leaves it. Similarly, a state starts falling apart when its essence, something that makes it strong, makes its citizens proud and serves as the cornerstone of its national memory, ceases to exist. This essence usually exists in the dimension of ideas. It is the intangible root, the source of the vital energy to which a nation goes back in difficult times. It is the invisible meeting point for the nation. For as long as it exists, people return to it in order to feel part of the whole. When it disappears, people go into Brownian motion and run amok like a herd of sheep. A war of all against all begins. In sum, this creates external signs of a collapse which analysts use to diagnose the inevitable collapse. The state can continue to exist by inertia then, but its days are counted and the collapse is a matter of time.
Mononational states do not tend to have problems with the essence because it is shaped by the ethnic or political nation that has a common language, culture, history etc. This essence can exist without changing for millenia. For multinational states, having common essence is more challenging. Therefore, they are by default more prone to fragmentation.
What is – or was – the essence of the Russian Federation? What makes the Russians proud? What makes their country great, in their opinion? Russia has several such essential elements. Victory in WWII must have been the key one. Average Russians do not necessarily know the gruesome details of that victory, erased by propaganda. But the fact of the victory is fundamental. Their propaganda spent years strengthening its importance. Hence the mass celebration of May 9, all kinds of ‘victory madness’ and ‘our grandfathers fought.’ The cult of victory strengthened the belief in invincibility in the Russians. Victory united Russia. When the Armed Forces of Ukraine put it up for a reality check, it turned out that the invincibility, heroism and sacrifice that stood behind it had long drowned in history. Their belief in their own invincibility is ungrounded. Day after day, the war is killing that belief, driving the Russian nation to its knees. So this pillar of Russia’s essence is now crumbling rapidly. This is a mental knockdown. And it will be very hard to wake out of – mental blows are the hardest to deal with.
Rivalry with the US is another thing that makes the Russians proud. Modern Russia always asserted itself through it. It inherited this ‘skill’ from the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union was a decent rival for the US in many aspects – although it rarely led while mostly following instead – by the time the Russia-Ukraine war started, the list of those aspects narrowed down to just security aspects. Rivalry with the US blinded the Russians, fed into their arrogance in the attitude towards most countries and peoples of the world, and served as a strong motivation for them for staying within the cohort of the world’s powers in something at least. The war showed that Russia cannot compete equally with Ukraine, let alone the US, even if Ukraine is not even in the top 50 countries by GDP. Developed countries have already drawn their conclusions. On the one hand, neither the US, nor the EU doubt now that Russia could be neutralized with someone else’s hands without direct confrontation. On the other hand, sitting down at a table to play any game with it is accepting damage to their reputation. When you go for a confrontation with a weaker neighbor, even its smallest successes are a blow to your reputation. Russia risked a war with what seemed to be a weaker Ukraine. This was a mistake for which Russia paid with its access to the club of the world’s powers. Developed countries are now disgusted by the possibility of a direct clash with Russia as a weaker rival. Russia has thus lost the key trigger that, for many years before, helped it get up at the critical moments and walk away with a jackpot. This could lead to a mental drinking spree of the nationwide scale. And that is just one step from collapse.
The made-up history of descent from the Slavs and Kyiv Rus is the third object of pride for the Russians. On the one hand, this fantasy is the foundation for their myth about descent from the ancient ‘Russian people’ On the other hand, it gives Russia the moral right to see itself as the ‘collector of the Russian lands’ and act accordingly, as the brainwashed Russians see it. Notably, this pillar of Russia’s essence is being ruined not by factors of history, demography of today and tomorrow, but by military reality. It is the people who are genetically not related to the Slavs or Europeans who fight and die for the ‘forever Russian lands’ the most. So Russia’s actions in this war are driven by the people originating from the opposite side of Eurasia who have no right to claim the lands located in the center of Europe or the history of this land. They first attack, kill, rape, steal and loot. Then they flee the counterattack of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Then they burn down their mobilization centers and protest mass mobilization. All while they are called urka, banabak and other derogatory names in the center of their country. Where is the place of the Slavs in all this? Where is the limit to the brainwashing after which all these ethnic groups that, by virtue of fate, have become the key actors on Russia’s side, realize that all the energy that Russia demonstrated in this war is theirs only, and they are entitled to decide where to channel it – to the deadly and bloody war against Ukraine that has not wronged them in any way, or to subjugate the center of their state that constantly abuses them, including sending them to die. The demographic structure of all wartime social processes in Russia dispels the claims of the Russians for the legacy of Kyiv Rus. This is where the older brother shows the younger son of his father born out of wedlock his proper place even though that younger son has fared pretty well thanks to good luck.
When we criticize Ukraine during its independence from the Soviet Union as a fragment of it that has not managed to transform, let’s remember that Russia is also a fragment of it. It has kept many of its ideological features, but hollowed them out of their essence, turning them into a farce. And it has squandered the fairly solid economic foundation that propped those ideas. Russia and the Soviet Union do still have something in common. I may be wrong but before the Soviet Union collapsed, the collective public vision of reality voiced by the Soviet citizens of every level and status was starkly different from reality itself. The essence of the Union had died while people were still talking about it as if it was alive. The same is happening now, but within the current Russia, a smaller Union.
Taras Shevchenko once wrote, “In your own house… true justice, strength and liberty.” Russia today has no liberty. It has lived without justice for years. And its strength is fading away. So who still sees this house as their own? And if so, maybe we don’t need to go forward – the law of nature will complete the decomposing of this carcass.