Putin’s State of the Nation address

A good speech overall, but it must be about some other country in a parallel world. I’m going to pick one bit that I know all Russia-watchers in Blogistan will get exercised about.

Also certain is that Russia should continue its civilising mission on the Eurasian continent. This mission consists in ensuring that democratic values, combined with national interests, enrich and strengthen our historic community.

Judging by the context, Putin is talking about Central Asia. Russia shooting itself in the foot again… Here’s why.

First, “civilizing mission” gab is hopelessly passé. Nobody cares about the mission; instead, you’ll get branded a racist, imperialist, neo-Kiplingian and whatnot. Even Americans, out on a mission in Iraq, don’t dare to call it by its proper name.

Second, it doesn’t help that most of the civilizing in Central Asia was done by the Communist regime, so Kazakhstan got an Academy of Sciences together with collective farms. (Laurence Jarvik explains this in Uzbekistan: A Modernizing Society.)

Third, and here’s the gist. People will read Putin’s “civilizing mission” as an endorsement of an expansionist policy in Central Asia. Now I’m all for Russian imperialism when it benefits us, the Russian citizenry. The trouble is — a whole lot of trouble indeed — that since the 19th century, Russian imperialism has greatly weakened and held back Russia proper. The most grievous consequence of the resource outflow associated with the imperialist expansion has been an emptying-out of Central Russia.

In particular, Russia’s occupation of Central Asia during Alexander III’s reign now seems a mistaken response to Britain’s northward advancement. But the Kremlin seems to never learn. (Or, more likely, they have very different priorities.) What does Central Asia (except Kazakhstan) mean for Russia now? Immigrants and drugs, mostly. This is hardly offset by Gazprom’s monopoly on reselling Turkmenbashi’s natural gas.

Actually, there’s another pain down there: the lot of the civilizers — ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Ashkenazic Jews in Central Asia. Here’s Putin again:

We consider international support for the respect of the rights of Russians abroad an issue of major importance, one that cannot be the subject of political and diplomatic bargaining. We hope that the new members of NATO and the European Union in the post-Soviet area will show their respect for human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities, through their actions.

Sure thing, Latvia’s spasmodic yelping can get irritating at times but to pretend that Russians in Latvia suffer a more bitter fate than Russians in Turkmenistan or in Belarus, one has to have a little of Putin inside.

UPDATE. Laurence Jarvik believes Putin’s speech does apply to Russia after all. Moreover, he links to an excellent article by Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center — an article that is actually Chapter I of a book. The Spacial Dimension of Russian History made me jealous — I was just about to talk about Russian history as a history of settlement-colonization.

UPDATE 2. The Russian superlative does not uniquely translate into English: krupneyshiy can mean (a) the largest, the greatest, the most prominent; (b) one of the largest, one of the greatest, a most prominent/important. Putin’s appraisal of the USSR’s demise got mistakenly translated as “the greatest disaster.” I would prefer this:

First of all, we should admit that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the century. For the Russian people, it was a genuine tragedy.

An interesting take on the First Chechen War follows:

The country’s integrity was violated by a terrorist intervention and the ensuing Khasav-Yurt capitulation [i.e. the truce that ended the first war, negotiated by the late Gen. Lebed’ with Yeltsin’s support].

There is also a passage where Putin draws right from Hernando de Soto:

Secondly, it is necessary to help our citizens legalize in a simplified way the real estate that belongs to them de facto. I mean garages, housing, suburban cottages and the relevant land plots in different cooperative societies and horticultural associations.

The legalization procedures should be as simple as possible, while the relevant paperwork should not create additional difficulties for our citizens. Incidentally, this will open up such additional opportunities as the legal inheritance of property, and will allow citizens to take out a mortgage in a bank with this property as security.

What it tells me is that Putin’s advisors are well-read. Not much more.

UPDATE 3. Hurrah! I have found a link to Laurence Jarvik’s Uzbekistan paper — see above.


  1. “Civilizing mission” is just plain patronising. Putin’s language betrays him. Patronising doesn’t work, imagine America speaks of “civilising mission” in Russia -it is insulting. Russia and Central Asia are bound together, just like plenty of other regions are bound to Russia, you can’t help it. Russian government should simply follow some form of sensible engagement on the basis of shared history, heritage, views on human rights and so on. But patronising those peoples and regions is betraying its own bigotry and through it poisoning russian image in the minds of those people, undermining Russian policy in fact.

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