Imperializing Russia: Empire by Default or Design?

Le programme PONARS Eurasia vient de publier une note de Marlène Laruelle sur le sens de la notion impériale dans le discours d’Alexandre Douguine :

(Pierre le Grand par Paul Delaroche)

President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is both a strategic conflict with the West to reshape the post-Cold War European order and an identity project for Russia. While the strategic aspect has been well studied, the second roots of the war are more complex because the Kremlin has produced multiple ideological narratives on Russia’s nation building. This nebula of contradicting frames has been used opportunistically, and interpreting which node is genuine enough to inspire causing such calamity in Ukraine has not been obvious. The notion of Russia projecting itself—still or again—as an “empire” has gained momentum because Putin justified the invasion in the name of restoring Russia’s imperial legacy. In his June 9 speech, he praised Peter the Great’s policy of “return and consolidate” and stated that it was his mission to emulate the Russian Emperor.

Yet using the “empire” lens to understand the entirety of Putin’s presidency is mistaken; this has been an evolution, a theme that has gradually gained dominance from a pool of many ideas. The Kremlin reinvented Russia as an imperial power because other forms of great power expression, especially soft power, failed to deliver what the Russian authorities were hoping for: the right to shape the post-Cold War order in Europe and in Eurasia. Moreover, references to historical models serve different purposes. They inform us about the aspirational nature of the political regime, its international recognition, its territorial projections, and its cultural nostalgia. Based on these two assumptions, this memo first looks at the evolution of the “empire” theme in Russian presidents’ speeches, and then explores different readings of the imperial reference: historical continuity, decommunization, autocracy, and territorial expansion. It does not discuss whether Russia is indeed an empire or whether it retains colonial features but how the Russian political language reinvented Russia as an empire.

Reinventing Russia as an Empire

A search of presidential speeches from 2000 to 2022 (see Figure 1) shows that the theme of ”empire” became more prominent after 2011, with peaks during the crisis years of 2011-2014 and 2021-2022. As expected, during his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev referred less to “empire” than Putin, although he did participate in relaunching the theme from about 2011.

Figure 1. Mentions of “Empire” in Presidential Speeches, 2000-June 2022


Looking at which tsars Medvedev and Putin have referenced (see Figure 2), one can notice the unchallenged preeminence of Peter the Great ahead of all others with 64 mentions. Here too, the turning point is 2011 (under Medvedev’s presidency), with 22 mentions of Peter before and 42 afterward. But it is the meaning of the references to Peter the Great that has evolved the most. They peaked during Putin’s first term to celebrate the modernizer who opened the famous “window on Europe.” Putin’s 2003 citation is emblematic of that vision: “Peter I dreamt of a country strong, dynamic, and open to the world. And he didn’t only dream. He did open Russia to the world, and the world to Russia.”

Peter then disappeared in the first three years of Medvedev’s presidency until 2011, when the Russian president mentioned him as the “creator of a strong and open power (derzhava).” After that, Putin’s references to his reformist role discard the “window on Europe” and emphasize Peter’s status as a derzhavnik—one who believes in greatness. Putin associates his name with ideas of defense, a robust northern fleet, military schools and procedures, laws and procurators, and most recently, references to the Emperor’s reconquest of lost territories and “return and consolidate” policy. We can also presume that Peter the Great’s 43-year-reign is, too, pleasing to Putin, who seems to see himself in power until his death.

The other tsars receive episodic mentions, and all have their minuses for Putin’s self-vision. Alexander II was too liberal, and it cost him his life. Nicholas II was weak, did not resist the forces of revolution, and abdicated. Even the most autocratic leaders had shortcomings: Nicholas I lost the Crimea War, and Alexander III was more isolationist than expansionist.

Figure 2. References to the Main Russian Tsars in Presidential Speeches, 2000-June 2022


The Empire as Russia’s Longue Durée

References to Russia’s imperial past have been used in Putin’s language as part of the narrative of Russia’s “one-thousand-year statehood” (tysiacheletniaia gosudarstvennost’). What matters here is the historical continuity of the state beyond the many changes to the country’s borders over time and the country’s two major political disjunctures in 1917 and in 1991. This insistence on state continuity is nothing specifically Russian: France’s roman national is built on the continuity between the French monarchy and its enemy, the French Revolution, taught to young pupils as one and the same state entity whatever its political identity.

With Putin’s conservative turn in 2012, the Kremlin’s official language shifted heavily toward more history and culture to the point of becoming one of the central components of Putin’s discourses, increasingly more detached from everyday realities. Many close observers of the presidential administration have been mentioning that with age and isolation, Putin has been gradually diving into Russia’s history in search of his own historical legacy. 

The president has become increasingly involved in culture, religion, and history, reflecting the securitization of Russia’s nation building. In 2014, for instance, the Presidential Administration used the term “history” more than it had in the past two decades, to the point that Russian history outpaced themes related purely to Russian cultures, such as literature (literatura or slovesnost’), classical music, cinema, composers, thinkers, folklore, and tradition. This historicization of Putin’s speeches has thus contributed to the growth of references to Russia as an “empire.”

Lire la suite sur le site PONARS Eurasia