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English lessons in the decline and fall of empires


I walked through the back streets of Moscow in early October 1993, skirting the soldiers besieging the White House, the imposing building of the Russian parliament. My destination: Lefortovo prison, where I was to interrogate nationalist parliamentarians and gunmen opposed to President Boris Yeltsin – who had locked them up before they could join the legislator’s revolt against his government.

It was a time that, in many ways, resonates with our contemporary restlessness.

The disheveled men gathered in this notorious political prison hated Yeltsin and his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev for their role in dismantling the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin lamented its collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Already in Lefortovo in 1993, the feeling of humiliation was palpable.

Ironically, the dissolution of the Soviet Union had been furthest from Gorbachev’s thoughts when he liquidated his larger informal empire in Eastern Europe: the former satellite states of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany which now make up much of NATO and Eastern Europe. flank. Although rightly mourned by many Westerners this week for his role in ending the Cold War, Gorbachev also sanctioned military force in a futile attempt to preserve empire: 21 protesters died in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi alone ; dozens more were killed in Riga and Vilnius, the capitals of Latvia and Lithuania in 1991 after the peoples of the Baltic and Caucasus countries on the Soviet periphery declared independence.

Even Yeltsin, who together with the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan formally dissolved the Soviet Union, then prepared to shed rivers of blood to prevent the Chechens from breaking away from the Russian Federation. Russia.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to stop the tapestry of empire from unraveling once the threads are drawn. This is my view as a citizen of the successor state to the greatest empire the world has ever known: Britain. The process can be long but it is inevitable. The Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe for three centuries, but it took a world war and three rival imperial powers to finish it off. After 1945, the overseas European empires disappeared within decades.

How long is the Moscow Empire? Two years was all it took to bring the Kremlin legions back to mother Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine today is an attempt to turn the clock back, but if his attempt fails, his successor will face new independence movements within the Russian Federation. More than 20% of its citizens are not ethnic Russians and these minorities are overrepresented in the armed forces fighting in Ukraine. If these soldiers return home defeated, the consequences could be disastrous.

Other European empires failed in similar attempts to arrest the decline. The French, Belgians, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese and British were reduced to their metropolitan core (although Scottish and Catalan nationalists would dispute this) but, like the rulers of Moscow, they often fought to stop the process.

The victory of the Allies in the Second World War gave the old empires illusory hopes of renewal. The British may have reluctantly abandoned India – ‘the jewel in the crown’ – in the immediate post-war period, but they fought to retain an empire in the Middle East until the intervention military in the Suez crisis of 1956 meets the disapproval of the United States and destroys the company. . The winds of change have also blown through its African colonies. By 1967, London could no longer afford an engagement in Southeast Asia “east of Suez”, despite the accumulated military victories against communist insurgents and predatory powers.

But unlike Moscow, London managed to halt the liquidation of its empire. Conservative and Labor prime ministers hated to give up Britain’s place at the negotiating table with the United States and the Soviet Union. As late as 1965, Harold Wilson boasted that the country’s borders were on the Himalayas. The veneer of imperturbability and a stiff upper lip helped the United Kingdom save face.

As historian John Darwin puts it, the transition from an empire to a Commonwealth of free nations ruled by the Queen could be presented to the public “as an act of farsighted politics, a triumph of vision, not a nervous failure”. The new nation states were loyal to the Crown; Britain’s liberal imperial mission has been fulfilled; the patriots could rejoice.

Thus, the British consoled themselves with the euphemism that they had “succeeded in declining”, while the French “suffered military defeat” in Indochina and Algeria and the Belgians left “chaos” in their wake. It is a heartwarming, but suspicious tale.

There has been no face-saving formula for Russian nationalists and no economic gain to dull the pain of decline and fall. Europe’s old powers enjoyed an unprecedented period of post-war prosperity as they shed their empires, but Russia saw its economy nearly halve in less than 10 years in the 1990s. Soviet Union “colonies” insult Moscow to this day and shudder at any Commonwealth-style association that serves as a cover for Kremlin domination. Nor does Russia have the comfortable cover of NATO – or the European Union, which breathed new life into future French, if not British, imperialists.

Today, Putin enjoys popularity in his country thanks to the success of Russian weapons in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Donbass. Even Gorbachev wrongly supported some of these interventions. The exploitation of natural resources brought temporary prosperity and stability. But Putin’s imperial bet in Ukraine may well be his Suez, his Algeria or his Vietnam. When the empire strikes back, it usually leads to disaster.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Has the time come for the British monarchy? Not So Fast: Martin Ivens

How a declining British town changed its fortunes: Adrian Wooldridge

Russian Kaliningrad is a microcosm of Europe’s woes: Andreas Kluth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

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