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Det fallna imperiet review

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Issue number: 2023:1


Det fallna imperiet: Ryssland och väst under Vladimir Putin

(The Fallen Empire: Russia and the West under Vladimir Putin)

by Martin Kragh
reviewed by Darcy Hurford

Towards the end of The Fallen Empire, the author describes the completion on 9 May 2020 of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Patriot Park outside Moscow. The date was significant – 9 May is Victory Day, the date of the Soviet victory over Nazi forces that brought to an end what in Russia is known as the Great Patriotic War. The cathedral is dedicated to this anniversary and to the military feats of the Russian people. Commissioned by the ministry of defence in 2018, the building drips with symbolism. Its main cupola is 19.45 metres in diameter (a reminder of the year 1945). The clock tower is 75 metres tall (the church was completed 75 years after the war). The highest of the smallest cupolas is 14.18 metres, as the war lasted 1,418 days. It lies on the site where the Red Army repelled a German military offensive. Its mosaics depict many well-known historical battles – but also the intervention in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the two Chechnya conflicts, the suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 and interventions in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

The description seems worth lingering on as, in many ways, the cathedral feels like an architectural summary of current Russian policy as analysed by Martin Kragh, researcher into Russia and the former Soviet Union, in The Fallen Empire. While commemorating a world war in which Russia was invaded, it blends in interventions widely regarded elsewhere as Russian aggression, and confirms the high social status of the military – all with the blessing of the church. It’s a book that has topped best-seller lists in Sweden, and understandably so.

A central argument is that the dissolution of the Soviet Union has played a decisive part in Russia’s development since 1991. It left unanswered questions about national identity and what constitutes the territorial, political, cultural and ethnic limits of the country. This is not unique to Russia, of course, the same happened in the wake of the collapse of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and when the French and British empires came to an end. The differences lie in what happened next.

The book moves chronologically, starting with the Soviet period, through to glasnost, Yeltsin, the foundation of the Russian Federation, the first elections and Putin’s rise to power, interventions in Georgia, Crimea, Donbas and Syria, continuing (nearly) up to the present day.

Kragh notes that the Soviet Union was largely a Russian-speaking affair– hence Russians and Russian-identifying people were mainly more inclined to consider themselves ‘Soviet’ and felt the collapse of the Soviet Union more keenly as a loss of identity. One of the most-cited quotes of Putin is that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest political catastrophe of the twentieth century. This is not so much about nostalgia, says Kragh, but the fact it left at least twenty-five million ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who identified primarily with Russia outside the borders of the Russian Federation. The feeling of loss, ‘phantom pains’ from the fallen empire, together with perceived/real insults from the West are what fuel both a desire to see the return of Russia as a great power and anti-western sentiment.

And Putin seems happy to aim for this. A blank slate when he first entered politics, he contrasted with Yeltsin – more self-contained, sober – which worked to his advantage. Yet he acts within a Russian historic tradition. He didn’t launch his career with a plan to annex Crimea or pursue a policy of confrontation with West; that came later. Kragh traces the developments of Russian foreign and domestic policy and points to recurrent features.

This includes a substantial look at disinformation, propaganda and manipulation of public opinion and gives numerous examples, as well as the modus operandi of Russia in relation to foreign states – for example the UK, setting of the assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko and attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. In neither case was there any attempt at concealment, or concern for bystanders, let alone the law. This part of the book is reminiscent of Peter Pomerantsev’s 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda, which dissects disinformation in more detail, with many of his examples taken from Russia.

What is the end game? Kragh notes that dictators don’t tend to end happily – even Ukraine’s Poroshenko faced prosecution. Giving up power voluntarily is dangerous. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, The Fallen Empire ends on an optimistic note, in that one day, things will change, as in Russia they always do. Let’s hope that happens.

Brown haired man in grey blazer against yellow background.
Martin Kragh. Photo: Mikael Lundblad.

Det fallna imperiet: Ryssland och väst under Vladimir Putin

Fri tanke 2022

340 pages

Foreign rights: held by the author

Martin Kragh is Deputy Centre Director at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and associate professor at Uppsala university.