Last empire of Europe. War against Ukraine exposes Russia’s Imperial Identity

Evil Russian doll
Evil matryoshka

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has exposed the imperial identity of Russia, writes Botakoz Kassymbekova, assistant professor of modern history at the University of Basel.

Despite Putin’s claims that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, there is a lack of compassion and empathy among Russians towards the violence being committed in Ukraine by Russia. A poll by the Levada Center showed that Russian support for the war remained above 70% throughout 2022, with evidence of atrocities having little impact on public opinion.

This lack of empathy towards victims of imperial aggression reflects the imperial identity inherited from the Soviet and Czarist eras that views Russia as a unique civilization with a sacred imperial mission. Modern Russian national identity is rooted in this imperial mission, which places obligation and sacrifice above individual human rights. Some opposition figures in Russia blame Putin for the invasion but ignore the root cause of the conflict, which is Russian colonialism.

According to Kassymbekova, modern Russian national identity remains firmly rooted in notions of a sacred imperial mission that perceives Russia as being a unique civilization locked in an eternal struggle against various constructed foreign enemies. Hundreds of years ago, the messianic vision of the czars gave rise to the idea of Russia as the Third Rome and leader of Orthodox Christianity. In the twentieth century, this belief in imperial exceptionalism was harnessed to identify Russians as the nation that would save the world from capitalism and lead a global communist revolution. Today’s Russia has seamlessly inherited the USSR’s Cold War-era animosity toward NATO, the United States, and the Western world in general.

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