The invasion war against Ukraine by the Russian Federation spells the death throes of Moscow’s imperialism. The potential collapse of the Russian Federation is something the Atlantic Council’s survey of global strategists and foresight practitioners’ points to among the potentially biggest drivers of change over the next ten years. The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine could precipitate huge upheaval. Forty (40) percent of the survey’s respondents expect Russia to break up internally (Aylward et al. 2023). What could such a break-up result in?
Civil war is one risk. Marlene Laruelle, director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian studies, raise the question: Could Russia splinter? Cohesiveness is elusive in the world’s largest state by landmass, spanning 11 time zones. Twenty percent of its population belong to local Indigenous nations. Moscow is the third most prosperous city in the world and divisions are huge. The unraveling of this fragile multiethnic state could lead to more violence where a “collapse would generate several civil wars” and Moscow elites “would react with violence to any secessionism”, argues Laurelle (2022).
The so what of potential collapse of the Russian Federation is only beginning to be debated publicly. Urging Western nations to get ready is Professor Alexander Motyl, who argues it is time to prepare for Russia’s collapse and that not planning for the possibility of disintegration shows a dangerous lack of imagination. Centuries of imperial conquest of non-Russian ethnicities, means disintegration of centralized control and breakup of the federation deserves more attention. Very few managed to imagine the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Political units comprising the Russian Federation, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Sakha, may opt for self-rule. If the Russian Federation does not disintegrate, it is likely to become a client state of China. Working for disintegration are structural forces; Putin’s brittle and ineffective hyper-centralized political system; Putin’s personality cult as he faces defeat and visible aging; the gross mismanagement of the petro-state economy; the corruption; and the vast ethnic and regional cleavages in the last empire, argues Motyl (2023). The potential collapse of the Russian Federation carry risks as well as opportunities.
Recognizing benefits of the Russian federations disintegration is Janusz Bugajski, who also argues preparedness for the impending collapse. Bugajski sees the Russian Federation as a failed state, unable to transform itself into a nation-state or even a stable imperial state. The rupture of the Russian Federation, a federation in name only, is the imperial collapse following the disintegration the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union. This rupture is driven by elite power struggles and intensifying rivalries between the central government and disaffected regions. With centrifugal pressures fueled by economic distress and regional resentments, empires tend to collapse when they overreach. Controlling their own resources is more in the interest of the regions than sending their people to die for Moscow’s Empire, argues Bugajski (2023).
A potential collapse of the Russian Federation, as discussed by the authors referenced above, relate to disaffected parts of the federation opting for independent self-rule. Such a break-up have potential to be violent with considerable loss of lives.
There is no natural law stating that there must be a vast Russian empire. Things change. In the past, the Tsar’s Russian Empire once bordered both the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. These two old empires disintegrated in 1918 after losing their last war. In comparisons, neither the Ottoman or Austrian empires were as geographically vast as the Russian federation, but they were even more ethnically diverse. One of these imperial disintegrations resulted in considerably greater loss of lives than the other did. Nowadays, several states co-exist on the former territories of these old empires. At a point when conditions made gaining independence possible, people living there took the risks to achieve that. Democracy has grown strong in many of the new independent states that arose. By now, several such states are members of the European Union. People governing themselves without the yoke of a huge empire, may find happiness and prosperity more accessible to them.
All but one of the colonial empires that existed in the 19th century have dissolved by now. History tells us that no empire lasts forever. For many cities and peoples, the Moscow yoke once replaced the Mongol yoke. Repression and lack of independence has lasted long for many, but is not ordained to be eternal. Independence is not unheard of in Russian-speaking cities. Briefly described below are fifteen (15) cities who have all previously enjoyed independence at some point in the past and by now have between 400.000 to 5.5 million people living in each of them. To analyze the possibilities of the Russian federation disintegrating, knowledge about the past of some of the cities inside the federation can be useful. The cities’ locations arrange this brief description from the east to the west.
- Khabarovsk is in easternmost Siberia where Tungusic peoples are indigenous. On the site, a city named Boli grew up in the eighth century. In 722, Boli was the capital of the self-ruling Heishui Duhufu. In the mid-17th century, Cossacks, led by Khabarov, built a fort on the site to collect tribute from the natives and keep the Chinese Empire out of the Amur Valley.
- Vladivostok was the capital of the Provisional Priamurye Government established in 1920, when the White army controlled the city since 1918. In October 1922, the Red Army displaced the White Army, occupying Vladivostok.
- Ulan-Ude was, from April to October 1920, the capital of the Chita Republic, in eastern Siberia. In 1922, the Soviet Union annexed the Chita Republic. The first occupants of the area of present day Ulan-Ude were Evenki people and later Buryat Mongols.
- Tyumen is just east of the Ural Mountains. In 1585, Yermak’s Cossacks destroyed Chimgi-Tura, the former capital of the Sibir Khanate. The Moscow tsar ordered a fortress built on the site of the old Siberian capital of Chimgi-Tura and it became called Tyumen, from the Turkic and Mongol word for ”ten thousand”.
- Ufa is the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Presumably, a Bashkir city known as Bashkor or Pascherti existed on the site from the 5th century becoming among the largest cities of the Mongol Golden Horde. The Bashkir language is part of the Kipchak branch of the Turkic language group. Moscow’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible ordered a fortress built on the site of modern Ufa in 1574.
- Izhevsk, Ižkar in Udmurt, is the capital of Udmurtia, located west of the Ural Mountains. The Finnic Udmurt people built a fortified settlement on the site in the 5th century. In 1552, Moscow’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered the lands of the Udmurt people.
- Kazan is the largest city and capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. The urban settlement on the site of Kazan dates to around 1000, based on Czech coin found in the fort. Kazan was a border post between Volga Bulgaria and two Finnic peoples, the Mari and the Udmurt. The Mongol horde crushed the Bulgars in the 13th century and the surviving Bulgars and Kipchaks mixed to form the Kazan-Tatar population. Kazan became the center of their principality, where coins minted read —”Bulgar al-Jadid”, New Bulgar. In 1438, the city became the capital of the Khanate of Kazan. Moscow’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan in 1552.
- Astrakhan, first mentioned in the early 13th century, lies in the Volga delta that contained the Khazar capital city of Itil from the mid-8th century to the late 10th century. Mongols burnt it to the ground in 1395, but from 1459 to 1556, it was the capital of the Astrakhan khanate. In 1556, Moscow’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered Astrakhan.
- Makhachkala is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Dagestan. The city’s predecessor by the Caspian Sea is the city of Anji, meaning pearl in Kumyk, known from the 8th century as the capital of Kumyks, the largest Turkic people in Northern Caucasus. In the 1840s, the Russian Empire seized the Kumyk area and built a fort on the site called Petrovskoye, renamed to Makhachkala in 1921.
- Cheboksary is the capital of the Chuvash Republic, the homeland of the Turkic Chuvash people. It was marked on maps as Cibocar in 1367. The city’s Chuvash name Shupashkar means the ”fortress of the Chuvash”. In 1555, Moscow’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible had a fort built on the site and established a colony.
- Nizhny Novgorod was a fort built in 1221 on a conquered Erzyan people settlement called Obran Osh. In 1229, the Erzyan leader Purgaz failed to take the area back. Nizhny Novgorod avoided Mongol destruction and grew, becoming the seat of the powerful Suzdal Principality in 1350. Moscow incorporated the city in 1392.
- Yaroslavl, founded by Yaroslav the Wise between 988 and 1010, is a world heritage located by the Volga River. The city was the capital of the independent principality of Yaroslavl from 1218. In nearby Timerevo a settlement had formed in the 9th century and this ”proto-Yaroslavl” was a center for the Volga trade route. Moscow annexed Yaroslavl in 1463.
- Ryazan city was in 1095 called Pereslavl. The principality of Ryazan existed since 1078 and centered on the old city of Ryazan. In 1237, the Mongols destroyed old Ryazan, which never recovered. The seat of the principality moved to the town of Pereslavl-Ryazansky, which took the name of the destroyed former capital. Moscow annexed Ryazan in 1521.
- Tver became the capital of an independent principality in 1246. Tver vied with Moscow for supremacy by 1300. In 1319, the Mongol Horde entrusted the prince of Moscow with gathering all the tributes. Tver revolted in 1327 but Moscow joined forces with the Mongol Horde to subdue Tver. In 1485 Moscow’s Grand Prince finally seized Tver.
- Saint Petersburg became Tsar Peter the Great’s capital in 1712, replacing Moscow. In 1703, after capturing Sweden’s fort Nyenskans, construction of Tsar Peter’s new capital by the Baltic Sea had begun. Saint Petersburg remained the capital until 1918, when the Bolshevik coup enabled making Moscow the capital again. Leningrad became the city’s name until 1991, when it reverted to Saint Petersburg. The Neva River area once belonged to the Novgorod Republic. In the 12th–15th centuries, the trading Novgorod Republic expanded to the northeast, exploring the Northern Dvina, the White Sea and Barents Sea regions. The lands to the north were of great economic importance to the trading Novgorodians, who fought a series of wars with Moscow beginning in the late 14th century over those lands. Losing them meant economic and cultural decline for the city and its people. In 1478, Moscow’s Grand Prince Ivan II sent his army to take the city. Moscow’s forces destroyed the Novgorod Veche parliament, its ancient symbol of participatory governance, civil society, and legal rights, thus ending the independence of Novgorod.
Where independence once reigned, independence can be regained. The cities described above represent a culturally rich past of local independence, before the imperial expansion of Moscow at their expense. It appears unfounded to exclude any possibilities that people of once independent parts could consider gaining independence from Moscow. Based on the existence of past independence, I conclude that for people living in these cities independent self-rule can become an option for them to reach for.
How to counter the imperialistic aggression-war of the Russian Federation constitutes today’s most immediate issue for democracies. How to address a collapse of the Russian Federation and its consequences is an issue that deserves adequate thought in advance. This read has aimed to provide some food for such thought.
Beyond empires, there is hope for people. Freedom does however seldom come without considerable cost. I recommend wholehearted support to the defense of Ukraine. The freedom of the people of Ukraine depends on them getting the right tools to finish the fight and evict the invaders. The freedom of many other people may depend on such a victory for democracy and human rights. When the dark Vertical of Moscow fades, the brightness of hope is on the Horizon.