Putin’s adventure in Ukraine is based on the idea of a glorious past that harks back to the mighty Russian empire.
As a late Ottoman historian, I am accustomed to discussions on empires and the nation-state. In my field, much examination is made on the idea of empire and the current predicament of the modern world.
The nineteenth century was a multi-polar world during which the empire was the preferred option of state configuration. The ruling elites neither knew nor desired anything else. So, when the nation-states emerged and became popularised, to some degree these were more against the grain than natural.
When the Ayasofya in Istanbul was reverted from a museum to a mosque, critics complained of Turkish ambitions to return to an imperial Ottoman State. Others argued about the building’s Byzantine past, or whether it was Ottoman. The idea of empire was back on the agenda.
How could Ayasofya's legacy of empire ever be removed? The building itself was a symbol of empire just as the city it resides in.
Empires of the mind?
In 1943, Winston Churchill remarked, “The empires of the future would be the empires of the mind,” suggesting that subsequent Western empires would not wage war with each other but coexist in peace. If only that statement were true.
For some, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative of a great Russian empire arouses an imagined memory of a glorious Russian past prior to the two Great Wars. Putin’s imagination, of course, is conjecture, but that doesn’t mean it is not real either. Equally, for the West, and in particular Western Europe, the idea of a ‘rising’ Russian Empire summons alarming memories, the notion that an empire will once again be on its doorstep.
It’s not that Western-European states don’t have their own narratives and imaginations of their own empires – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson once boasted of Britain’s imperial past – yet speak to people who were victims of British colonialism, and very few have encouraging things to say.
In that sense, Churchill continues to be a divisive figure in regards to Britain’s colonial empire, a hero for Johnson and a villain for many impacted by his policies and the British Empire’s violent past.
As Oxford historian Robert Gildea has shown, the idea of the empire of the mind is very much about how one imagines their empire. Contesting views regarding an empire’s past are very much about one’s reading of history, how different people instrumentalise the past, and how memory is manipulated regarding the understanding of how their empire ought to be and presented. Empires of the mind, however, are not simply invocations from the past, they continue to shape people and nations today. While many would have us believe that states like Russia are attempting to rekindle the notions of an empire of old, did the empires ever leave us?
Modern empires are hidden
The United States, for instance, still has territories beyond the mainland, not to mention its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which some would categorise as ‘New Imperialism’. It can also be considered an empire because it has an ideology and state apparatus that supports and promotes this ideology globally. It attempts to shape the world in its image.
It is fair to assume, as professor and scholar Daniel Immerwahr has, that the US being an empire is not beyond question but what is worth noting is how the US has successfully hidden it.
One could say, in fact, that “empire” is not hidden, but simply not spoken of. The difference with America however, is that unlike Russia, Britain or China, its memories of empire are not from an imagined past, but of the present.
Whether a rhetorical tool or not, for Europe, the Russian advance is not just an attempt for Ukraine, but of an imperial attempt for the Baltic states, with the extreme being Russian forces on the gates of Germany itself. So much so that it enabled an unprecedented move in which German spending on defence went up from $55 billion to a staggering $107 billion, with the Germans also offering the Ukrainians military weaponry. Today, the French and British support such a move. Going forward, I wonder how they would react to Germany and the narrative of its empire once again.
The consequence of such a move has already left its mark on Eurasian imaginations by the desire to further militarise Europe, which will only intensify nationalist rhetoric against Europe’s Muslims and ethnic minorities.
It’s not just Muslims in Western Europe that need to be concerned, as Albanians and Bosnians alike will have to be aware that any Russian success will possibly galvanise Serbia and its own intentions and imaginations of empire. Whether Russia is successful or not, the world will forever change, and now that the world is changing, it may be difficult to stop the sun from setting.
The empire strikes back?
Various states and their media will continue the need to divide the world into binaries. Narratives of good and bad often downgrade our understanding of war, contestation and the idea of empires.
With 193 nation-states around the world, there is a tendency to assume that this is the world order, that change is unlikely, even impossible perhaps, that national identity and sovereignty will be here forever.
Our loyalties, identities, our rights and very being has been given to the very idea of the modern nation-state to the point that we are unable to fathom anything else. While the nation-states emerged from the collapse of empires, what Churchill was short to suggest was that the future would be without empires.
What if I said that the empire, which was the way in which human beings had always configured themselves, would naturally make its return in this short interregnum of modern nation-states. Will the Russian advance facilitate a world of great power empires again?
Granted, this is not the first time the nation-state’s decline has been questioned. Indeed, the nation-state has proven to be a lot more robust than some detractors had imagined. But while disparagements of the nation-state may have been premature, what was equally premature was the notion that the empire was dead.
A new hope?
While politicians and media outlets depict their ambitions and fears regarding the return of empires, global historians have continued to stress on a more nuanced reading of the history of empires.
Beyond the glorified narratives of great empires and their rise and fall, historians point to the mechanics of how empires function. Historians have made the case that the idea of empires is natural, and human configuration to this form is inevitable.
Historians of the empire are asking what is the empire? If the empire was a widespread practice, are there different types of empires? And are/were all empires the same? Is it fair to place the Chinese, Japanese or Ottomans perhaps under the same Eurocentric imaginations of the Western colonial empires?
In essence, what global historians are pointing to is not the glorification of the idea of empire, but rather a better understanding of it. Locally, empire implies political complexity, cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. Globally, it highlights contests regarding ideology, history, geography and finite resources.
It can be of no surprise that China and Russia evoke these feelings for Western European states and that colonial Britain and France continue to celebrate their empires of the past. And that the US is not simply a nation-state but a modern empire.
With this in mind, Russia’s failure in Ukraine might facilitate an even stronger western world, or maybe, Russian success might facilitate the return to a multi-polar world again where empires are once again the go-to model.
This would suggest that when large empires collide, smaller states will become proxies, medium states may find opportunities, and when empires collide the world will feel like a much smaller place. We may not be seeing the end of the nation-state just yet, but what we may see is a return to empires being at the top of the political hierarchy, providing a model once again for other states to want to emulate.
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