The Curse of Russian Imperialism: Martin Schulze Wessel on Imperial Optics, False Dichotomies, and the Need to Reconsider East European History

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Martin Schulze Wessel – author of the new book Der Fluch des Imperiums. Die Ukraine, Polen und der Irrweg in der Russischen Geschichte (Imperial Curse. Ukraine, Poland, and the False Paths in Russian History) – traces the ideas that have shaped Russian imperialism and reflects on their devastating contemporary force; explores key moments in the parallel and entangled histories of Poland and Ukraine and how those histories have been shaped by Russian imperialism across the centuries; dissects what he calls Germany’s “imperialism of a second order” and emphasizes the urgent need to revise Russia-centric interpretations of East European history.

Martin Schulze Wessel is a Professor of Eastern European History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He is the former chairman of the Association of Historians of Germany. He acted as the speaker of the German-Ukrainian Historians’ Commission between 2015 and 2022 and is one of the members of said Commission today. 

Der Fluch des Imperiums. Die Ukraine, Polen und der Irrweg in der Russischen Geschichte has been published by C.H. Beck.

Ferenc Laczó: In the first instance, your new book studies a triangle. It provides a historical interpretation of Russian imperialism in connection with Poland and Ukraine. Why have you chosen to focus on Russia’s relationship to both Poland and Ukraine, and what new perspectives does such a dual lens enable?

Martin Schulze Wessel: The main idea of the book is that Russian imperialism was shaped by Russia’s relationship to Poland and Ukraine. Poland and Ukraine have parallel histories with regard to their relationship to Russia. They built independent polities in early modern times. The Rzeczpospolita Poland-Lithuania was the most influential power in East Central Europe while the Hetmanate of the Cossacks, a forerunner of a national Ukrainian state, gained independence only in the 17th century for a short period of time. Both of these states were absorbed or partitioned by Russia in the 18th century. Ukraine became part of the imperial core and was regarded by Russians as an integral part of the Greater-Russian nation while Poland became a kingdom after the Napoleonic period which was under the control of Russia.

The thesis of my book is that the Tsarist Empire’s confrontation with Poland and Ukraine deeply shaped Russia’s imperial and national identity.

Russia’s imperial history can only be understood with regard to its relations with Poland and Ukraine. In the 18th and 19th century there was a Polish question, and later, in the 20th and 21st centuries, a Ukrainian question emerged. This means that Russia’s rule over Poland and Ukraine was disputed, i.e. it was questioned by the Poles and the Ukrainians and by international politics. This resulted in certain internal problems for Russia, but also challenges in the field of international politics. The Russian public, i.e. the publicists and literati, reacted to this with an imperial ideology that asserted Russia’s uniqueness and incomparability.

In my book, I am therefore concerned with the connections between international politics and internal questions: what identity did Russia develop in the confrontation with the Polish and Ukrainian questions? My answer is that in Russia national identity and imperial claims merged in a pernicious way. 

More generally, how would you compare your approach with those that have been used in previous studies of Russian imperialism?  

The literature on the subject of empires fills entire libraries. For me, studies that examine the long history of the Russian Empire were particularly important, such as Richard Wortman’s book Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II, which focuses on the representations of the Empire or, to give another example, Valerie A. Kivelson and Ronald Grigor Suny’s excellent book Russia’s Empires, which explores the history of Russia, the Soviet Union, and the present Russian Federation through the lens of empire to discover how and why Russia expanded and repeatedly fell under the sway of strong, authoritarian leaders.

There are many excellent studies on the internal order of the Russian Empire, and about how diversity was managed by the Empire, but relatively few good studies on the relationship between empire and imperialism in Russia.

This is the question that interests me most in my book: how are international politics and imperialist-nationalist identity building in Russia related to each other? 

The book focuses on the history of Russian imperialism and clearly emphasizes its contemporary strength too. Which developments in history might help us explain the peculiar and devastating force of Russian imperialism in our times? More particularly, what do you consider to be at its origins and what are some of the foundational ideas that shape contemporary Russian policies of military aggression and mass violence against Ukraine and Ukrainians?

My book starts in the time of Peter I when a Russian hegemony over North-East Europe and East-Central Europe was established. For this purpose, Russia formed an alliance with German states such as Prussia and Austria, and it pursued a targeted infrastructure policy in the export of its raw materials,  which at that time were not gas and oil, but timber. Russia secured the traffic routes and built up a system of influencing politics in Europe and especially in Germany.  The parallels to the present are really striking. But, of course, I do not want to say that Peter’s and Putin’s policies are identical. But Peter’s time marked the beginning of a development that leads to the present.

Russia was embarking on a certain path, which was characterized by a high degree of path dependency. Since the time of Peter, domination of East-Central Europe, that is, Poland and Ukraine, becomes a feature of Russian policy.

When Russian influence was challenged, Russian policy but also Russian public opinion reacted sharply: a good example is the Polish uprising of 1830-31 which threatened Russian rule over Poland. At that time, the Russian national writer Alexander Pushkin wrote an anti-Polish poem addressed to the European public. It was titled: Klevetnikam Rossii (“To the detractors of Russia”). In it, Pushkin put forward a sharp alternative: either the Slavic rivers will unite in the Russian Sea, or the Russian Sea will dry up. This means that either Poland will be assimilated, or the Russian Empire and the Russian nation will cease to exist. All or nothing.

Of course, this has been a false, ideological alternative: there was much that lay between the assimilation of Poland and the complete, existential defeat of Russia. Such false dichotomies have been posed again and again in the Russian public sphere and they are posed again today in relation to Ukraine.

Another pattern that can be observed in 1830 and that is still effective today is the idea that Poland and Ukraine are not actually independent historical subjects, but always act on behalf of the West as the fifth column of Western Europe or the United States.

You show that Russian imperialism brought Russia into the European system of states some three centuries ago, but later it also often implied anti-Western and anti-European ideas. Russia’s Westernization could mean the strengthening of superiority complexes versus Ukraine and Ukrainians. Russian imperialism could also lead to increasing isolation. Could you briefly elaborate how the relationship between Russia, Europe, and imperialism has evolved across the centuries? What have been the main stages of this ambiguous or even paradoxical relationship?

Russia has exercised domination in its western periphery for more than three hundred years. Repeatedly, Western states have attempted to contain Russia, and since the 19th century a liberal discourse critical of Russia has emerged in Europe.

The opposition to the West was thus inscribed in the tradition of Russian imperial self-image.

The contradiction between the dominant role Russia played in the eastern half of the continent and the defensive position it found itself in vis-à-vis progressive thinking in Europe promoted exceptionalist ideas of Russia’s historical mission.

Slavophile thinkers like Fyodor Tjutchev demanded that Russia should no longer be measured by the European yardstick. Formed in the 19th century, this complex of imperial and nationalist ideas is still with us today. These ideas are having a devastating effect on Ukraine in the current war, and they prevent Russia from taking a place in a multilateral European and global order.

Next to showing how imperial politics, foreign policy, and identity constructs have interacted over time in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia, your book also analyzes the parallel and entangled histories of Poland and Ukraine. Could I ask you to highlight a few key moments in these histories and how they have both been shaped by Russian and Soviet empires and imperialisms? What key conclusions can one draw from comparing Poland and Ukraine in such an interpretative frame?

In general, one can say that Poland and Ukraine share a common history characterized by Russian domination and Polish and Ukrainian resistance to it. But the two histories are not uniform. With regard to Poland, only some Russian pan-Slavists adhered to the idea of the unity of the Russian and Polish peoples. In the 19th century, Russian rule over Poland fluctuated between the exercise of hegemony and a closer empire, with Poland having its own institutions and, to some extent, its own constitution since 1815.  Poland was part of Russia’s outer empire in the 19th century and again between 1945 and 1989. The Polish uprisings of 1830-31 and 1863 failed, but they made Russia painfully aware of the high cost of its imperial rule over Poland. This was a lasting experience. Stalin participated in a new partition of Poland in 1939, but left the ethnic Polish parts to Germany, fearing anti-Soviet uprisings in Warsaw and other Polish cities. Moscow did not apply the Brezhnev Doctrine to Poland when Solidarność rose up.

Ukrainian relations with Russia differ from Russian-Polish relations. Ukraine gained power in military alliance with Moscow in 1654. This was the time when Ukraine achieved statehood for the first time. In 1667, the Ukrainian Hetmanate was divided between Russia and Poland, into the “left bank” territories to the east of the Dnipro and the western “right bank” territories. Ukraine became part of Russia’s inner empire after the Battle of Poltava in 1709. The hetmanate was formally abolished under Catherine II. Despite the ethnic difference between Russians and Ukrainians, from the Petersburg administrative perspective Ukraine was just a southern part of the Tsarist Empire, without any privileges. In the Russian discourse, the term “Little Russians” became established which expressed an ethnic marginalization of the Ukrainians.

In the first decades of the 19th century there was a strong sense of national Ukrainian belonging in noble Ukrainian families that had played a leading role in the hetmanate. In Ukrainian literature, there was a vivid memory of Ukrainian statehood.

Similar to Poland, this historical memory became a driving force of the Ukrainian national movement. At the end of the 19th century, there was a “Ukrainian question.”

This means that the demands for Ukrainian autonomy had become so loud that they could not be ignored in St. Petersburg. There, however, only a repressive response was found to address the new challenge. One reason for this was that Russian politicians perceived the Ukrainian question as analogous to the Polish question and saw it as a massive threat to the imperial Russian nation.

The Ukrainian question took on the role that the Polish question had played in the 19th century, namely that of the greatest challenge to the empire.

It is remarkable that there were attempts to build up a joint Polish-Ukrainian strategy against the Russian Empire. In the 1830s and 1840s the circle of Adam Czartoryski made a first attempt to develop a Polish-Ukrainian strategy for joint liberation from the tsarist empire.

Besides cooperation, however, there was also competition and conflict between Poles and Ukrainians. In Galicia, a competition arose between Poles and Ukrainians for political influence within the Habsburg Monarchy. At the end of WWI, a Polish and a Ukrainian state emerged, which existed in parallel for a short time after 1917. On the one hand, they waged war against each other, on the other, they also cooperated against Soviet Russia. The greatest break in relations was the massacres in Volhynia and Galicia at the end of WWII, when Ukrainians committed mass violence against the Polish minority living there, which was met with acts of revenge from the Polish side. However, in post-Stalinist times, there were many connections. In the outgoing Soviet Union, Polish Solidarność supported the Ukrainian opposition. Today, during the Russian war against Ukraine, the multi-layered Polish-Ukrainian relationship has the character of a close, and also emotionally based, alliance.

Your book has been published in German. It in many ways addresses a German audience and contributes to an ongoing debate in Germany. It also features Prussia and Germany as sort of a fourth main actor in the story. You dissect the Prussian and later German tradition of forming an alliance with Russia at the expense of “the countries in-between” – that is to say East Central Europe. You at one point write of recent and current German “imperialism of a second order” when it comes to taking over Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s imperial optics. Would you say that your book is also an attempt to critically examine German belief systems and political culture? If so, which misconceptions and distortions did you aim to critique in particular?

Germany experienced a radical decolonization of its identity after the catastrophe of the World War II. The great power ambitions were abandoned once and for all. Since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, even the German expellees have come to terms with the fact that Germany’s former eastern territories like Silesia and Eastern Prussia are now parts of Poland and Russia.

It is astonishing to see that, despite the decolonization of Germany’s political thinking about itself, colonial views and attitudes still somehow exist in German political and historical discourse. For too long Germany has adopted the way Russia looks at its former colonial territories, by which I mean the countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union and became independent in 1991.

In Germany, but also in some other Western countries, the Russian view of Ukraine has simply been adopted. As a consequence, Ukraine has been denied the ability to form a state, rarely explicitly, but often implicitly. This has supported Russia’s view of Ukraine as a failed state which was one form of anti-Ukrainian Russian propaganda long before the beginning of the war in 2014. This is what I mean by the secondary colonial attitude of Germany. 

How do you view the ongoing debate in Germany that concerns the need to revise the tradition of Russia-centric interpretations and policies when it comes to Eastern Europe? Have such attempts to re-examine the problematic aspects and consequences of this tradition finally gone mainstream since last year? How much and what exactly has changed in German public discussions and mainstream perspectives since February 24 2022?

In Germany, it took a long time to open one’s eyes to the full extent of this crime and to draw conclusions from it. One reason for this lies in dealing with German history. The incomparable horrors of the Holocaust and the German war of extermination in Eastern Europe have had an inhibiting effect when it came to naming and shaming Russian violence.

Only lately did the Germans develop an awareness of the fact that the crimes of the Nazi era, from which Ukraine suffered particularly severely, obliged them to show solidarity with those who were attacked.

I wished to ask a question of a more theoretical and methodological kind. When I read your book, I was struck by the numerous stark echoes one can hear on its pages. Past centuries indeed appear to have foreshadowed much of what is going on today. Then again, your agenda is clearly also that of historicization. Could I ask how you have aimed to combine an approach that highlights aspects of the past that are of particular relevance today with an approach that shows the past to be a foreign country? Would you say that your book is ultimately a history of modern and contemporary times or rather one that searches for the origins of our times and thereby amounts to a “history of the present”?

It is a contribution to the history of the present. The intention of the book is to show and analyze Russian political traditions, including the myths and obsessions that led to the present war. I have tried to analyze the long-term discourses that are supported by certain traditions of Russia’s imperial policy.

In the war against Ukraine Russia’s long-term structural legacies come to the fore. At the same time, my book is an attempt to tell a story. This is the story of an imperial era that began at the beginning of the 18th century and that hopefully is ending soon.

I wanted us to close with the hopes and fears you have today based on all the fascinating insights contained in this new book. You discuss Russian imperialism as a path-dependent phenomenon. You also call it a curse in your title and describe Putin’s radical and violent imperialism as having a self-destructive logic. You show how underdeveloped the tradition of Russian self-criticism is when it comes to the history of Russian imperialism. Based on all that, what do you fear most and what are your greatest hopes at the moment when it comes to the acute and urgent subject of Russian imperialism?

I believe that the long traditions of imperial attitudes in Russia can only be broken if Russia loses the war.

Only then is there a possibility that Russia will radically reassess its own traditions. Only then is there a chance that Russia will become a state which can be trusted. Only then can the European security order be restored.

Russia must not only withdraw its troops from Ukraine, but also abandon its revisionist imperial aspirations. For Russia itself, too, a farewell to empire is the best way. Russia must reinvent itself as a civil society. This is not going to be easy and the process will certainly take several decades.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity

In cooperation with Oliver Garner and Lucie Hunter

This interview appears simultaneously at Visible Ukraine and at the Review of Democracy

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