The Commonwealth of the Barbarian Kingdoms: Independent States in the Search of the Empire

The search for the analytical strategy adequate to such strange object as the Commonwealth of the Independent States inevitably generates the idea to turn to the comparative method. However, this immediately begs the problem of the search for the comparable: there is a number of obvious reasons why, for instance, the European or African Unions, The British Commonwealth, or the Organization of the Islamic Conference, although formally meeting the requirements of the task, fit only in the formal terms. The way out might be the diachronic view that implies inclusion of the political constructions of the previous years into the research field. This, of course, should be done with caution since the heuristic and especially the forecasting value of such research is rather limited, as Jacques Paganel puts it, “comparison is the most dangerous figure in rhetoric that I know”. However, it might prove meaningful to draw one curious parallel with the enigmatic object “CIS”, stipulating in advance that it by no means claims the total or any other explanatory power, but rather is a mind game that is not useless at least because it allows to think beyond the usual contemplations. The closest (actually, the one that directly inspired) analogy is the works of Joshua Forrest, in which he compares the state-formation process in the modern Africa and the Medieval Europe1 Forrest 1994, 2004: 42—43. See also Herbst 2000.1 with all courage one needs for such non-trivial approach as well as with all caution.

The essence of the suggested parallel is reflected in the name of this article, in which the current situation in the post-Soviet space is compared with the state of the early Medieval Europe, around the 5th—9th centuries. The basis is the similarity in the points of departure of those events that led to the formation of the CIS as well as the current situation on the whole and the events that occurred in Europe at the dawn of the Middle Ages. In both cases the collapse of the Empire took place.

Two specifications need to be made here:

1. Of course, “the fall of the Western Roman Empire” is a stereotypical formula taken out of the school textbooks. By no means was its history suspended in 476, it continued in different and various ways throughout the subsequent centuries, and as some think, even nowadays. Odoacer’s deposition of Romulus Augustus and transfer of the Emperor’s insignia to Constantinople by no means implied denial of the empire, usurpation of its prerogatives, going beyond its meaningful horizon, but on the contrary, the motive of the latter (unlikely that of the first one) deed was the desire to vest the important symbols into their only fully legitimate sovereign. This act did not humiliate the empire, but yielded due praise to it, even demonstrated the loyalty, but still it suggested that in the West there was no legal decider upon the imperial foundation anymore. The Empire was still thought of as a norm, it prevailed in the space of ideas, but within the real politics one had to do without it and learn how to breathe in the emerged political vacuum. Therefore, at the earliest opportunity the empire was restored — Renovatio took place, result of which, by the way, had practically nothing to do with its prototype.

2. It is unthinkable to again restart the discussion whether the Soviet Union was the empire or not, and therefore I just have to state my own position: it was, although a rather specific one2 See Suny 1995; Zaslavsky 1997; Martin 2001; Kaspe 2001:181—196.2. Thus, the collapse of the USSR can also be identified as the dissolution of the empire. Similarly to how in the 5th century the debris of the empire had to develop on their own and learn how to live without the empire, the Soviet Union is still present in the space of the ideas (especially in Russia, but also in other countries); this feeling might also be negative, and it is very likely that the suspicions regarding Russia’s intentions to restore the USSR spoken out by some neighboring countries at the slightest pretext or without it at all are also nurtured by the fact that the USSR is still alive within the worldview of these sensitive, sometimes paranoid, observers).

What is it to be done with this parallel? First of all, one can just make fun of it, let’s say, viewing the New Independent States as the barbarian kingdoms with Lukashenko, Shevardnadze, Kuchma, Nazarbaev, Timoshenko being the projections of various Ataulfs, Theodorics, Siagriuses, Recarreds, Clotilds etc. Wouldn’t Yeltisn in the wolf’s furs and with the iron armor look wonderful? All of this is really easy to imagine, the more so it is the personalistic regimes that prevail in the post-Soviet space, whereas the examples of the political barbarism are not far to seek. “Gongadze’s head”, the mysterious poisoning of Yushchenko, the tragic life and especially death of Gamsakhurdia — it is so easy to imagine these stories expressed in the language and style of the Medieval chronicles...

One can also find the content as well as instructive analogies, e.g., concerning the cultural situation. The Russian language still remains lingua franca among the CIS’s countries as Latin did in Europe in the Early Middle Ages. However, it is step by step becoming the advantage of the elites, what is more, the ageing ones — it is being replaced by the local languages and dialects, and the language itself is rapidly becoming vulgar (sermo vulgaris). The structure of the political culture is also similar — putting aside the evaluative judgments, one can liken the representatives of the post-Soviet elites derived from the party nomenclature to the carriers of the Roman tradition, in some sense GalloRomans. On the one hand, the common biographical background facilitated and sometimes still facilitates their communication with each other, just because all of them are the carriers of the certain standards of the political and even everyday life behavior. On the other hand, their ranks are being increasingly filled with people with absolutely new, by no means Soviet — that is, in the framework of this analogy, “barbarian” — background, such as Saakashvili or Yushchenko, which entails inescapable communicational dysfunctions. One can also think of those intellectuals, carriers of the high culture, who once used to function within the imperial space being aftermath squeezed into the narrow frameworks of the new barbarian statehood, and also of how they react to this situation. Mamardashvili, Salmin, Aytmatov, Suleymenov — aren’t they similar with Boethiuses and Cassiodoruses? In both cases there are “solace in philosophy” as well as participation in the political practice with the latter usually being not that successful...

However, another episode seems to be the most substantial one. There were a lot of barbarian kingdoms, and by no means had all of them sustained the Dark Ages. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards, the most ephemeral power such as “Syagrius Kingdom” — the list can be continued. At the same time, some other (Franks, as well as Allamani, and Anglo-Saxons with the proviso that the “Norman” conquest took place, which is clear) appeared to be luckier. What has become the criterion of survival of one or another polity, and what, actually, can be considered to be the variable that determined its destiny ranging from consolidation to degradation? Could it be so that the variable that was important at that time might also appear to be mutatis mutandis meaningful today?

It is reasonable to assume that such variable — of course, not the only one — is the way of interaction of the existing political order with the world of values, the opportunity to legitimize the existing political order through the reference to this world. There is no point in deliberately arguing in favor of the statement that the political order does not come down to the sum of the rational techniques and organizational decisions, that it needs being legitimized, or otherwise it will be inefficient and nondurable, since this attitude is either of axiomatic nature or means nothing for a person dealing with politics. It is this state that does not survive which citizens or subjects do not regard it as reflecting a certain idea about the good and therefore, do not assign the status of the political good to the state itself3 See, e.g., Höffe 1994; Strauss 2000. However, one can just reread Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, especially the thoughts of the latter on the main distinction of the political order from the one “established by a gang of robbers”(De civitate Dei: IV, 4).3.

However, the state can not always produce the meaning of its existence with its own efforts. Usually, it obtains it from the instance that Edward Shils calls the “earthly-transcendental center”. Such centers are functionally necessary since the legitimization of the earthly center is “to be in accordance with certain fundamental norms, inherent in cosmos, or the order of nature, or decreted by an ultimately transcendental power”4 Shils 1988: 254.4. Therefore, within all societies in one or another way special institutions are formed that claim to be the earthly representatives of the supreme truth (regardless of what is exactly implied by such truth). Moreover, it also concerns to the fullest extent the secular societies — the “sacred” is interpreted here strictly in Durkheim’s sense. “The central zone partakes of the nature of the sacred. In this sense, every society has an “official” religion, even when that society or it exponents and interpreters, conceive of it, more or less correctly, as a secular, pluralistic, and tolerant society”5 Shils 1975: 3.5. We need one more quotation from Shils: “The earthly-transcendental center... may stand in a variety of relationships to the earthly center. The government, the possessors of economic power, the political elite, and the institutions through which it works will ordinarily claim that they, too, represent the ideal, that they are the agents for bringing and maintaining justice in the world. The incumbents of the earthly-transcendental center might affirm the earthly center or it might criticize it for being in disaccord with the transcendental center”6 Snils 1988: 255.6.

Here one should stipulate that the emancipation of the “earthly center” from the “earthly-transcendental” one, obtaining by the former the prerogatives and functions of the latter and thereby deriving the meaning of the state existence exclusively from the fact of its existence are, of course, possible. However, the only problem is that for this decision to become truly compelling, the idea of the nation-state should be brought to its ultimate strain in its most organicistic form, to deify this state without exaggeration (indeed, there are prerequisites for that: “Nationalism, by its ability to unite the dead, the living and the yet unborn in a single community... provides humanity with a secular version of immortality”7 Smith 2004: 261. See also Mosse 1994.7, nationalism is inherent with the “strong affinity with religious imaginings”8 Anderson 2001: 33.8), to worship the constructed idol — and almost surely to provide it with human sacrifices. As Benito Mussolini coined it in 1925, “tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato”“9 Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”.9. Well, some states really endeavored to reach this desirable condition. However, such attempts appeared to be of a suicidal nature, while any faint efforts to repeat them in the modern world are usually severely suppressed, which can not fail to impact the popularity and prospects of the political programs elaborated in the same spirit.

In this sense, it is clear that at the end of the Early Middle Ages only those political organisms managed to survive that somehow or other integrated into the macrostructure Pax Christiana (which earthly-transcendental center was the Roman Church with its first political derivative, also not entirely “earthly”, being the Christian Empire). It is the Church that they’ve obtained the special legitimizing sanction from, being by its nature the sacred, i.e. the value one that allowed them to sufficiently consolidate and strengthen. “The most Christian kingdom” of franks is its best example, but not the only one (for instance, it is similar special sanction given to the rulers of Asturias, Galicia, Basque Country, Marca Hispanica that provided for the success of the Reconquista and gradual establishment of the Christian polities on the Iberian Peninsula). After that, much later, the rebelled states blew up this macrostructure from inside, having beneficially expropriated the material and ideal resources of the Church as well as those of the Empire being mutually exhausted after the stiff fight. Actually, the far-reaching consequence manifested in the emergence of the sovereign territorial nation-state stricto senso — as a specifically modern political form being self-sufficient and autotelic that no longer needs (or thinks that it does not need it) legitimization from outside or above. However, this is already another story10 For more details see Kaspe 2008: 86—154.10: for now we are only discussing the fact that the barbarian kingdoms not having received such special sanction from “above”, not having entered the alliance with the powerful external sources of legitimacy, remained just accidental and situational formations and descended from the arena of the European history.

Similarly, the New Independent States feel their own deficiency, experience the acute deficit in legitimacy and are searching for its sources and legitimizing entrance into some macrostructure. However, it is not the Church since in the modern secular world this variant is inacceptable. New Independent States seek to enter the empire. One can notice their search for the external sources of legitimacy with the naked eye, and it is reasonable to try to evaluate, at least simply by listing all possibilities, which sources they are looking for and which implications one choice or another might provoke.

The most evident source is the West. Although there are some nuances related to the preferences towards the European Union or the USA, actually, they are not important. Again, the support for this thesis is beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that in both cases the ultimate goal is the Empire of the West. It is this term that many specialists (and their number is growing) think of as adequately describing the state of the modern world11 See Ignatieff 2003; Cox 2003, 2004; Ferguson 2004; Kaspe 2008: 241—289.11. The degree of confrontation between Europe and the US is often exaggerated, but whichever mutual feelings of the Europeans and Americans are, they can not survive without each other. Their mutual complementarity is not only described and well-founded by Robert Kagan12 Kagan 2004.12, but also consistently confirmed by the representatives of the European political elites that are by definition more responsible than the free intellectuals: “The West is and shall remain one. We cannot have two Wests. Europe needs America and America needs Europe <...> A conception of European unity founded on a fanciful wish for self-sufficiency would be morally suspect and politically dangerous”13 Berlusconi 2006.13; “I have always been an Atlanticist and a great admirer of the American spirit and I want to do more to strengthen our relationship with the US even further. And we should acknowledge the debt the world owes to the United States for its leadership in this fight against international terrorism”14 Gordon Brown’s statement to the press before his first visit to the US as the Prime-Minister. See Gabuev 2007.14.

What other centers can become the external sources of legitimacy for the New Independent States (at least for some of them)? There are hardly any. Sometimes such status might be ascribed to China (for the Central Asia), but this scenario is barely plausible. China is undoubtedly treated with respect, it is being feared of (it is not clearly to what extent this fear is reasonable), it is the object of desirable cooperation, but the inter-civilization differences are far too great. Furthermore, China in contrast to the West, is not inclusive, it has never sought to include “alien”, “other” societies through the cultural and value expansion. Some observers postulate the existence of the global “Chinese project” worked out for the centuries ahead; but if it is not a banal conspiracy, and this project exists, it has not been presented urbi et orbi yet.

May be, the Islamic World? It is true that the attempts to use Islam as the legitimizing factor in some parts of the post-Soviet space took place, but were quickly rolled back since the political elites of the states that coddled it just became scared. The prospect of the emergence of the Big Caliphate is not removed from the agenda, but there is no point in discussing it in the chosen context since the Caliphate will consist — if it does — of rather different states from those that we know today15 Compare the recent speech by Doku Umarov having denied the “Republic Ichkeriya” and declared the formation of the “Caucasus Emirate” (http:// www.lenta.ru/news/ 2007/10/31 /emirat).15.

There is Russia left that also seeks to play the role of the value center of attraction, or to be more precise, that is just realizing that it should play such a role. Now there is much talk (for example, Gleb Pavlovsky or Modest Kolerov) about the transfer to the “politics of values”, which makes sense — the bare pragmatism is inefficient exactly because it is bare (like the naked king who appeared to be politically inefficient). The politics that is not related to the values and is restricted by the self-interest lacks chances to win any broad political support. This aspiration to underpin the Russian politics with values (or present it as being loaded with values) has both internal (that is not within our discussion) and external dimensions. The other thing is that in both cases it is absolutely unclear what exact values we are talking about. Not all the values are equally useful. The value vacuum does not suggest that one should randomly turn to any values — even a person being parched with thirst is able to differentiate between the clean water and guck. Bush calls the US the “lighthouse of freedom”, which one can totally disagree with and, let’s say, assign this role to Venezuela, but both positions are at least clear. The USSR was the “lighthouse of communism”. Someone can position its polity as the “lighthouse of the true Islam”, or “negritude”. But which “lighthouse” does Russia claim now, which message is it sending to the world? It is impossible to be the lighthouse of itself. Looming without the purpose, content, and meaning is senseless. However, we still want to believe that this easily explainable disease of “non-distinction of spirits” can be overcome16 For more detailed treatment about its origin and symptoms see I.Kaspe, S.Kaspe 2006.16.

If it is solved, what can the Russian value self-identification be like, and consequently, which reactions to one or another choice can we expect from our faraway partners as well as our close neighbors? The major variants are scarce here. The global empire of the West has already been shaped; whether one likes it or not, it is the super powerful center of attraction, the mass that perverts all the powerful lines of the world, attracts or rejects all other political bodies. Not going into details, there are only two options for the Russian value choice: either moving towards this center, or away from it, either stating (and proving) clearly: “we are West” (the clear euphemism “North” is also acceptable), or similarly clear claiming: “we are not West”.

The second variant is rather hard, because in reality nobody wants to lose those comforts and benefits from the friendship with the West (even the cool one that we have now) that Russia has been using for two decades (it is worth noticing that of course the elites enjoy the most part of the comforts and benefits, which predisposes them towards certain behavior); because it contradicts the basic trends of the Russian history, within which it is the West, but never the East, that has been the example, orienteer and referent (even if from time to time the negative one); finally, because when it obtains its logical end, it will again demand new denial of Christianity or its absolutely villainous pagan-isolationist perversion, which is, to our fortune, next to impossible against the background of the beginning of convergence between the Churches. Actually, this variant implies construction of the alternative empire, however, neither do we have resources for that (the ones at hand might be enough only for the mock, sordid, pitted decor), nor is there any space in the world order. The empire of the West has reached the qualitatively terminated (and increasing in the quantitative terms) universality, penetrating with its networks and embracing with its infrastructure the whole habitable world. It lacks borders — not only intentionally, but also practically; it lacks alternative power centers in terms of the comparable might; nor does it have the external barbarians, whom after realizing due to these or other reasons that they can not be principally civilized, it could shut itself off and shrink into shell from. In terms of the imperial construction globalization has come to its end — in the sense that there are no more geographical zones or social processes that are outside the influential sphere and interests of the empire. Everything that is happening in the world today is part of the domestic affairs of the global empire of the West, at least it is the way it acts, more or less successfully (to be more precise, with greater or lesser speed) overcoming resistance of the dissentients. The temporal deviations aimed at realignment of forces occur; but not capitulation.

What is more, the true alternative to the present imperial world order should include not only political, but also value, cultural, technological, and finally, everyday life components. One can seriously treat it, only when those decisions are found that are able to meet competition with the aircraft carriers, cruising and ballistic missiles, elections, free press, human rights, dollar, euro, New-York and London stock exchanges, Hollywood, computer technologies (all the programming languages use the Latin alphabet, and moreover, the English morphemes), Internet, cellarer communication, ties, jeans, CocaCola etc. One should deal with all the items from this open list, those mentioned and not, simultaneously, rather than picking one of them. It means that one can not take it seriously. Neither China nor Islamists can offer even something close to that. Nor Russia.

On the other hand, the realization of the second variant (“we are West”) is also horribly tough since it requires overcoming the great inertia of the antiwestern sentiments accumulated in the last years. However, one should remember that they are rather an imposed hallucination, media phantom being transferred to the masses by the some elite groups with their only motives being exclusively pragmatic and situational: the elites themselves, as far as one can judge, are not smitten with any specific anti-western passions, except for some truly ardent (who seem to be mentally unbalanced) publicists. Second, one should also be aware that this inertia has lasted only for several years. There was one moment (at the turn of the 1980—1990s) when the deeply rooted prejudice against the West fell away like a predawn fog. It is true that the window of opportunity opened at that time was used in the extremely dull way and was shut soon. To what extent the West was responsible for that is a subject of a separate discussion. By all appearances, its role was huge, or may be even prevailing; however, let the West deal with its responsibility on its own (by the way, it is really solving the problem — this is not by accidence that the question “Who lost Russia?” is being persistently asked). This does not relieve Russia of its responsibility. However, the point is not that the opportunity appeared to be lost and who is to blame for that, but rather that it existed at all, that it was possible, that it is even able of provoking setbacks (for instance, in September 2001), and therefore, provided that the due efforts are made it could be reproduced. Politics is beyond doubts the art of the possible, but “...within the social institutions the sphere of the possible is much broader than it is usually thought of”17 Tocqueville 1893: 86.17.

Of course, now the special efforts will be necessary for its reproduction. One can point out the decision in its broadest form that is able to compensate for many risks, clear away phobias and fears: “we are not just the West, we are the strong West”. We are no less the West than the USA that is, strictly speaking, a rather odd country from the perspective of the European standards (compare, for instance, the American and European attitude towards weapons and death penalty), which does not prevent the US from being the leader of the Western world, possessing the status of nothing else but the pole of power. The strong action might be the decision (it is clear that the overall vector of the Russian foreign policy should be also harmonized with this action, which facilitates the task since the necessary tonality seems to be already found), which no one in the West will raise objections to, but rather will have to acclaim it and thank for it. One should decisively cut at least one knot of the world politics rather than tying them harder with the hope for the short-term payoff (mistaking in a strange way the reputation (being gradually established) of Geschaftmacher acting globally, but thinking locally for the symptom of the revival of the great power status). Dismantling Lukashenko’s regime and democratizing Belarus means that under no circumstances will such democratization be of the nationalist and anti-Russian character. Squashing the Afghan drug traffic is possible by directly entering the field already protected by the antiterrorist coalition and closely cooperating with the latter. Putting an end to the Iranian nuclear program. At least catching bin Laden and transferring him to the US court! These actions might seem and probably will seem fictitious, but why actually can’t they be implemented?

In a nutshell. The fate of each of the New Independent States as well as their Commonwealth will be determined not least by the answers for the following questions.

Will these polities (and this Commonwealth) be legitimized only situationally and technically, or also in terms of values?

Which center will become the source of these values and correspondingly, what will the values be like?

Can Russia become such center as the authorized sub-center of the West, or will the status of this center of the post-Soviet space become the subject of the full-scale competition between the West, directly as well as indirectly, and Russia confronting itself with the West in order to replace the latter?

In the framework of the second scenario, success and preservation of the Commonwealth can be accomplished only in case of the Western empire total collapse and nomination of the valuable alternative in the face of Russia. Logically, it is possible, but hardly probable, at least because (putting aside other considerations) in case of the crash of the Western omnipotence, another alternative, i.e. The Great Caliphate, will prove to be more competitive within the significant part of the CIS and even Russia itself, which is, however, undesirable.


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