Monday, September 14, 2015

Russian Regionalism ‘a Cultural Revolution’ from Which Political Change Will Come, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 14 – “Regionalism in the first instance is a cultural revolution which changes consciousness;” and politics, when it eventually reemerges in Russia, will be “only the result of these changes,” according to Vadim Shtepa, one of Russia’s leading advocates of regionalism says.

            “Many now faceless and indistinguishable Russian regions are having to work literally ‘from nothing,” he continues, because they have been so unified by the hypercentralized imperial system. But they are making strides in that direction and in ways that many do not see as politically relevant (

            What they are doing, Shtepa says, is creating their “own unique brands,” a step some might be inclined to dismiss as “simply a fashionable hobby” but in fact it is becoming “an economic necessity of the era of glocalization” and especially important it is a step that many are taking without regard to the opinions of those in power today.

            Shtepa makes his point in the following way. He suggests that too many people talking about the future of Russia do so without a clear understanding of either reality or possibilities.  If Russia fell apart tomorrow “on the model of the USSR into 85 independent states, this would represent not the establishment of really new countries but the division of the imperial amoeba.”

            That is because, he says, how could anyone divide much “the paternalistic political consciousness which dominates everywhere?”  What you would get, he suggests, would be analogous “not to the Baltic countries but to the Central Asian khanates, only the place of the Kremlin tsar would be taken by some local ‘Turkmenbashi.’”

            But such a variant is highly improbable given that none of the current governors has an independent political base. Instead, all have been named by the Kremlin. And building regional identities based on ethnocratic principles, Shtepa suggests, are also highly doubtful, given the globalization and glocalization sweeping the world.

            One thing all such improbable predictions have in common is an assumption that Russians can and do participate in politics.  That is untrue for all but the very highest figures of the regime. Real politics for everyone else does not exist, and consequently, thinking in political terms about the future gets in the way of understanding.

            “When politics returns, this will immediately be clear to everyone,” but even before it does, certain basic principles of what this politics will look like can be described. One o fthem is the impact of glocalizaiton, “the dialectic synthesis of the global and the local,” in which regions become players because they are interested in attracting resources from elsewhere.

            To understand these processes, one needs a very different political consciousness than the one cultivated by the imperial “’power vertical.’”  And one needs to recognize that the advantages that glocalization can bring will happen only when the de-imperialization of Russia leads to “the liquidation of Moscow hypercentralism.”

            Moscow is both a perpetator and a victim of this hypercentralization, Shtepa says.  It is a both because the Bolsheviks made it the center of all things and allowed it to homogenize others but in the process destroyed “the historical Moscow identity” (

            “The de-imperialization of Russia is in the first instance economic decentralization, and only in this case will Moscow have the chance to preserve its urban identity.” One thing this may involve is a change in names. A decade or so ago, the word “Ingriya” seemed “exotic” to many, but not is has become “a recognized and inalienable element of the urban political landscape” in St. Petersburg.

            That is because, Shtepa says, “the Intermanlanders organically combined the megalopolis and its surroundings, local mythology and contemporary culture.”  It is “unfortunate” that Moscow has not yet found a way to do something similar: instead, its residents “identify themselves with the imperial capital.” 

            Twenty-five years ago, Mikhail Epshtein wrote what is “a prophetic essay about the future [and multiple] ‘Russian republics.” (printed in Na granitsakh kultur (New York: Slovo, 1995; available online at His argument wasn’t understood because both Russian liberals and Russian patriots were “imperial centralists.)

            Epshtein’s point was simple and profound, Shtepa suggests. If one looks back in time, one sees that in pre-Horde times, there was an extremely varied and complex “map of Russian principalities and many-faced Russian lands. Russia [in fact] initially was born as a community of Russias, as something more than one country.”

            “Imperial propagandists present [today’s recovery of] this regional differentiation in the darkest colors as if it would inevitably lead to unending ‘fratricidal’ wars. In reality, however, Russia’s regions don’t have anything to divide among themselves. They have only one opponent – the oppressive single imperial ‘vertical’ that steals from them all.”

            And “among themselves, they easily will find a common language and establish direct and equal ties.”  As for the empire, it “can rule only as long as it divides the regions among themselves and interferes with their independent mutual interaction.” In a globalized and glocalized world, the empire’s task is ever more impossible to carry out.

            “In more developed countries, they understand this dialectic,” Shtepa says, noting that “each of Japan’s 47 prefectures actively pushes its local brands, making them recognizeable throughout the country and abroad.”   But unfortunately, for the time being at least, Russia is not among those who do.

            “A new politics will arise only there where there is a powerful cultural background,” he continues. “Until the middle of the 19th ce ntury, Finnish consciousness was quite provincial, suppressed by two neighboring empires, Sweden and Russia.” But then its leaders many of whom weren’t even Finns “created a contemporary and independent Finnish national culture.” 

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