The Saker interviews Dmitry Orlov
The Saker interviews Dmitry Orlov from The Saker
“I think that the American empire is very much over already, but it hasn’t been put to any sort of serious stress test yet, and so nobody realizes that this is the case”
If I had to characterize the current international situation using only one word, the word “chaos” would be a pretty decent choice (albeit not the only one). Chaos in the Ukraine, chaos in Venezuela, chaos everywhere the Empire is involved in any capacity and, of course, chaos inside the USA. But you wouldn’t know that listening to the talking heads and other “experts” who serve roughly the same function for the Empire as the orchestra did on the Titanic: to distract from the developing disaster(s) for a long as possible.
I decided to turn to the undisputed expert on social and political collapse, Dmitry Orlov whom I have always admired for his very logical, non-ideological, comparative analyses of the collapse of the USSR and the USA. The fact that his detractors have to resort to crude and, frankly, stupid ad hominems further convinces me that Dmitry’s views need to be widely shared. Dmitry very kindly agreed to reply to my questions in some detail, for which I am most grateful. I hope that you will find this interview as interesting as I did.
The Saker: How would you assess the current situation in the Ukraine in terms of social, economic and political collapse?
Dmitry Orlov: The Ukraine has never been viable as an independent, sovereign state and so its ongoing disintegration is to be expected. The applicability of the concept of collapse is predicated on the existence of an intact, stand-alone entity capable of collapse, and with the Ukraine this is definitely not the case. Never in its history has it been able to stand alone as a stable, self-sufficient, sovereign entity. As soon as it gained independence, it just fell over. Just as the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), it had reached its peak of economic and social development just as the USSR was about to collapse, and it has been degenerating and losing population ever since. Thus, the right model for discussing it is not one of sudden collapse but of steady degeneration and decay.
The Ukraine’s territory was stuck together by the Bolsheviks—first by Lenin, then by Stalin, then by Khrushchev. It was Lenin who lumped in its eastern regions (Donetsk and Lugansk specifically) who previously were part of Russia proper. Stalin then added eastern lands, which were at various times Polish, Austro-Hungarian or Romanian. Finally, Khrushchev tossed in Russian Crimea in a move that was unconstitutional at the time, since no public referendum had been held in Crimea to decide this question as was required by the Soviet constitution.
Prior to this Bolshevik effort, “Ukraina” was not used as a proper political or geographic designation. The territory was considered part of Russia, distinguished from the rest by a prefix “Malo-” (small) and called “Malorossiya. The word “ukraina” is simply an archaic form of the Russian word “okraina” (outskirts, border land). This is why the definite article “the” is required: the Ukraine is literally “the outskirts of Russia.” The Soviets endowed this border land with a make-believe identity and forced many of its inhabitants to officially deckare their ethnicity as “Ukrainian” in a successful bid to gain an additional seat a the UN.
This political concoction was supposedly held together by a Ukrainian ethnic identity, which is itself a concoction. The Ukrainian language is some combination of southern Russian village dialects with a bit of Polish thrown in as flavoring. It has a lilt to it that Russians find enchanting, making it well suited for folk songs. But it never had much practical merit, and the working language of the Ukrainians was always Russian. Even today Ukrainian nationalists switch to Russian if the subject matter is demanding enough. Religiously, most of the population has been for many centuries and still is Russian Orthodox.
In my conversations about the Ukraine with many Ukrainians over the years I discovered a shocking truth: unlike the Russians, the Ukrainians seem to have exactly zero ethnic solidarity. What binds them together is their commonality of historical experience as part of the Russian Empire, then the USSR, but this historical legacy is being actively erased. After the Soviet collapse and Ukrainian independence there followed a campaign to de-Sovietize and de-Russianize the Ukraine, deprecating this common historical legacy and replacing it with a synthetic Ukrainian identity based on a falsified history that is alien to most of the population. This fake history lionizes Nazi collaborators and attempts to rub out entirely all memory of the Ukraine’s once very active role in the larger Russian world.
Thus we have a mostly Russian-speaking, historically mostly Russian territory where most of the people speak either Russian (some of them with an accent) or a sort of Ukrainian patois called Surzhik, which is Ukrainian-sounding but with mostly Russian words (the overlap between the two languages is so great that it is difficult to draw the line between them). Supposedly proper Ukrainian is spoken in the west of the country, which had never been part of the Russian Empire, but it’s a dialect that is mostly unintelligible in the rest of the country.
In spite of this confused linguistic situation, Ukrainian was imposed as the language of instruction throughout the country. Lack of textbooks in Ukrainian and lack of teachers qualified to teach in Ukrainian caused the quality of public education to plummet, giving rise to several generations of Ukrainians who don’t really know Ukrainian, have had little formal instruction in Russian, and speak a sort of informal half-language. More recently, laws have been passed that severely restrict the use of Russian. For example, people who have never spoken a word of Ukrainian are now forced to use it in order to shop or to obtain government services.
The artificial, synthetic Ukrainian identity is too thin to give the country a sense of self or a sense of direction. It is a purely negative identity: Ukraine is that which is not Russia. The resulting hole in public consciousness was plugged by making a cargo cult of European integration: it was announced that the Ukraine was leaving the Russian world behind and joining the European Union and NATO. Most recently the intent to join the EU and NATO was written directly into the Ukrainian constitution. In the meantime, it has become abundantly clear that neither EU nor NATO membership is the least bit likely, or necessary: the EU got everything it wanted from the Ukraine by forcing it to sign the Association Agreement while giving nothing of value in return; and Ukrainian territory already serves as a playground for NATO training exercises.
Thus, with regard to social collapse, there really isn’t much to discuss, because the term “Ukrainian society” has very little basis in reality. If we drop the conceit that the Ukraine is a country that can be viable if separated from Russia, what can we say about its chances as part of a Greater Russia?
Here I have to digress to explain the difference between a proper empire and the USSR. A proper empire functions as a wealth pump that sucks wealth out of its imperial possessions, be they overseas, as in the case of the British Empire, or part of the periphery, as in the case of the Russian Empire. The latter inherited the traditions of the Mongol Empire that predated it. The Mongol term “tamga” was often used to indicate the annual tribute to be collected from newly conquered tribes as the Russian Empire expanded east. (Many of these tribes were previously Mongol subjects who understood the meaning of the term.)
Here is the key point: the USSR was not a normal empire at all. Instead of functioning as a wealth pump that pumped wealth from the periphery to the imperial center, it functioned as a revolutionary incubator, exploiting the resources of the core (Russia) and exporting them to the periphery to build socialism, with the further goal of fomenting global communist revolution. The various ethnic groups that were grossly overrepresented among the Bolsheviks were all from the periphery—the Jewish Pale, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltics—and they thought nothing of sacrificing Mother Russia on the altar of world revolution.