The Soviet Union is commonly described in the West as the “Soviet empire”—or even “Russian empire”—and in key respects this was indeed the case. During the Cold War, Moscow occupied and controlled a collection of states along its periphery, and the historical record of Russia’s expansion through conquest and colonization is abundantly clear. But in neither journalism nor academia has this led to what should have been a logical conclusion when it comes to understanding conflicts in the former Soviet space: Namely, to place these conflicts into the wider context of what happens when empires fall.
This lack of interest seems odd, given the Western liberal intelligentsia’s deep concern with imperialism and its critiques. When I covered the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath as a journalist for the Times of London, my prism was shaped by years spent working in South Asia—first as a student of imperial history and then as a journalist. It was therefore natural for me to see the disintegration of the Soviet space as a post-imperial process. This was perhaps the greatest difference between my perspective and that of most of my Western colleagues.
The Soviet Union was, of course, a very special case among empires. But that, to a greater or lesser extent, might be said about all of them. Huge differences existed between the British, French, and Spanish empires, let alone the Ottomans or the Chinese. A fundamental dividing line, however, cuts across them all: that between land and seaborne empires. Russia was a land empire—and in some respects remains one, in both its composition and its politics. This has had critical consequences during and after the Soviet collapse, continuing until today.
Notwithstanding the brutal ongoing war in Ukraine and the similarly brutal suppression of the Chechen rebellion, the conflicts and disputes that followed the Soviet collapse have been far from the worst in the history of empires, including relatively recent ones. In every case without exception, the end of empire has led to massive violence. In some cases, this occurred during and immediately after the imperial collapse. In others, the violence occurred after several decades had passed. In Ireland, the Middle East, South Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, the consequences of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and British empires—and of the nature of their dissolution—are still working themselves out today, generations later.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.