An empire dies slowly

January 2, 2014

Stalingrad is the center of action in one of the world’s great novels, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, spent months in Stalingrad in 1942 under constant bombardment. The description he gives of those who defended it against the encircling Wehrmacht is of a struggle, often hand-to-hand, across a ruined city between the troops of two totalitarian states. It was the war’s central turning point when the Red Army broke its hold on the encirclement.

Five years after Joseph Stalin fell from favor in 1956, Stalingrad become Volgograd. On Sunday bombs hit the city’s train station and a trolleybus, killing more than 30 people. There is a kind of symmetry in this attack and those that had reduced Stalingrad to rubble. The preservation of the city took a near suicidal feat of arms on the part of the Red Army, which in turn saved the Soviet Union. The bombings in Volgograd were Islamist suicide attacks, and they are likely to be a critical point in the slow death of the Soviet empire.

The passing of great empires can last for many years, and often decades. The effects of the withdrawal of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires from the vast territories they once commanded can still be felt. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s without a civil war like the one that nearly killed the new Soviet state between 1918-21. There have been, however, major conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kyrgizia and a full-on, if brief, invasion of Georgia by Russia. Only the first and the last of these have been extensively covered by journalists. The attack in Volgograd signals that there are more conflicts to come.

Islamist-inspired terrorism is now Russia’s most urgent problem. It threatens to stop the Winter Olympic Games that are set to take place in Sochi — a few hundred miles from Volgograd — in  six weeks. In a July video message, Doku Umarov, who styles himself as “Emir” of the North Caucasus, enjoined others to “use maximum efforts on the path of Allah to do everything possible to disrupt these demonic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

There are many who already see the Olympics and other grossly inflated sports occasions as nationalist posturing, and may even agree with their description as “demonic dances.” But the more telling phrase in the video is the “bones of our ancestors.” Umarov, a shrewd and ruthless man, is tending a fire that he hopes will become a conflagration across Russia. The Soviet Union buried the bones of many ancestors — most of these in the Stalin era — in the North Caucasus, the ethnically heterogeneous, mountainous region in Russia’s south. Various tribes there were pounded into submission through terror, deportation and a brutal semi-modernization of their economies.

Violence is growing in the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as in Chechnya, where all resistance was thought to have been wiped out after the second Chechen war was won by Russia. One of the first suspects of the suicide bombing of Volgograd’s train station was Oksana Aslanda — from the Tabasaran ethnic group in Dagestan, the members of which are Sunni Muslims. The group has been known for the current world champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, whose father is a Tabasaran. Isinbayeva and Aslanda illuminate the tragedy of the North Caucasus; half enfolded into Russian society (Isinbayeva’s mother is Russian) and half pulled toward the claims of its ancestors’ bones and toward extreme forms of a once-marginalized religion.

These groups are attracting Russians who are excited by their militancy and eager for an ideology that replaces the moral and ideological emptiness of modern Russia. Pavel Pechyonkin, an ethnic Russian and former paramedic from Dagestan, is the only suspect in the second Volgograd bomb in a trolleybus. In response to his parents’ pleas to end his dedication to terrorism, he responded that Allah had commanded him and, “Why shouldn’t we leave their children orphans?”

For Umarov, who wants to shift ethnic resentment from the passive to the active, the framework of resistance is Islamist jihad. Elsewhere it is more civic. The Ukrainian demonstrations in favor of an agreement with the European Union largely ended in mid-December, when Vladimir Putin promised cheap gas and financial aid in return for a continued allegiance to Russian geopolitics and possible membership in a Eurasian customs union. But the savage beating of the investigative journalist Tatyana Chernovol, who had been posting online photographs of the extensive estate of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, re-ignited mass protests in Kiev over Christmas.

Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union meets a ready response in some regions: Volgograd’s city council has proposed changing its name back to Stalingrad and has retained the Stalin-era names for city districts. The district in which the trolleybus was bombed is called Dzerzhinsky, after the first boss of the Soviet secret police, which became the KGB. For many Russians, continued imperial sovereignty over the neighboring states is still a natural state, but one that is now challenged by terrorist and civic movements.

The reconstitution of an empire as anything stronger than a benign and powerless shadow is impossible. Once political elites have acquired their own power and national sentiment pulls the country away from the imperial center — as has happened in the former Soviet Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia and is now happening in Ukraine — the empire is lost.

The Sochi Olympics will take place among the highest tension. The area will be flooded with secret service and other troops for dignitaries, athletes and spectators, who will be nervous about an atrocity. For all the lavishness of Putin’s $50 billion Olympic splurge, the events will take place not just on the bones of ancestors, but on the still crumbling infrastructure of a Soviet empire that money and hard power cannot rebuild. Russia needs to show that it is ready for a post-imperial era. Unfortunately, Putin is not the man to usher it in.

PHOTO:  A woman reacts while standing near flowers placed at the site of an explosion on a trolleybus in Volgograd December 31, 2013. REUTERS/SERGEI KARPOV


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He might still have some potential. Releasing the prisoners was good. Now if he can get over his homophobia. Wonderful as usual John Lloyd.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

It’s so difficult when one is trying to reason with (armed) uneducated dogmatics trying to maintain local power in the absence of established government institutions.
I don’t know what Putin’s Russia is doing to generate some inclusion, but in my opinion that’s what really needs to happen. Whether that is possible, or desirable by the parties involved is another matter. It appears to be a rather unique situation.
As in the defense of Stalingrad, the people must all be for one union at fundamental, secular levels with the welfare of all peoples as a foundation.
From my casual observations I firmly agree with the author that Putin is certainly not the leader to generate positive change. Tolerance and inclusion are what will most benefit the Russian people and the Russian state.
Good Luck!

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive

John Lloyd’s Russophobes’ Club is making another predication for Russia.
I thought there could be nothing more misleading than Kathy Lally/Will Englund’s (WaPo) writings. I was wrong. Mr. Lloyd exceeded the level and raised the disinformation level to a new unheard-of high.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd, what about our own stupid crumbling empire called the USA??????

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Delighting in the deaths of innocent people is the mark of… John Lloyd.

Posted by MWA33 | Report as abusive

An excellent article on the reactionary politics plaguing the Ukraine and Russia. Putin’s Russia is hopelessly sclerotic and corrupt and its geopolitical embrace of the Ukraine will amplify the latter’s corruption as well. Both countries will be left behind by globalization and the rise of Asian economies. But Putin’s dreams of irredentism continue unabated.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

In 20 years we will be in the same place. In fifty years we will be just like the muslim states. We have both the tyrannical spy government of the old soviet union and the religious fanatics of the middle east and thus it seems natural that we would proceed to repeat their declines and malignancies. Although, we may be a special and strange combination of the two. I guess that’s what will be know as American exceptionalism. You know, massive corruption and religious violence. Wouldn’t that be special.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Crumbling infrastructure? I’ve seen some of it for myself. Russia is rapidly building modern three-lane freeways many hundreds of miles from Sochi. It’s very impressive, and not just a showpiece for the Games but an infrastructure investment for future business development and the economic integration of the Russian realm. If Russia was already imploding from internal forces, no-one would bother bombing Russia cities! They would spare themselves and bide their time for a better opportunity.

Care to write an opinion piece comparing the Putin years with the Yeltsin years, from a Russian perspective?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

p.s. Not just modern three-lane freeways, but also new rolling stock for their railways, new inner city infrastructure, the renovation of many public, educational and religious buildings and parks. Is corruption more pervasive in Russia than in some Western countries? Probably. Is Russia so corrupt as to prevent anything meaningful from being done for their strategic position? Not at all, no way… We should just watch that we don’t fall slowly into the same state of degeneration we perceive in their countries, and wake up one day to find that the boot is on the other foot!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

I too have worked in Russia and I would not call most of their infrastructure ‘crumbling.’

Inadequate, disjointed, behind-the-times, under-serviced, may be more like it. For example: Sewage treatment and pollution control there are some of the worst in the world. I have seen better municipal waste facilities and cleaner water ways in Africa. But Russia’s are not ‘crumbling’, mainly because they never built good systems to begin with.

It is a pretty disgusting place, once you leave the hotels and do a little poking around.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Great article by John Lloyd.

And, to gain additional perspective now, it is useful to step back and ask ourselves, Why did Russia have such a cataclysmic political upheaval as the communist revolution of 1917? Why did 50 years of political destruction happen in Russia and not in America?

The short answer is serfdom.

The large wealthy class of Russia before the revolution can be seen in old photos in the grandest hotels and ballrooms, champagne in hand, wearing the latest expensive tuxedoes and fashionable dresses from France, smoking cigars from Cuba, each having multiple servants attending them, the servants also dressed in expensive livery clothing.

If anyone has not yet read the books of Leo Tolstoy, you have missed reading perhaps the greatest writer in history. During his boyhood Tolstoy’s family owned thousands of serfs on vast farms and timberland. As a boy he was educated by private tutors imported from France and Germany, an example how wealth and a protected upbringing makes such a pronounced difference in the development of a human being.

The serfs in Russia could be punished by the wealthy man as he wished. It was common and legal to have a serf whipped and even put to death. (Though I must be careful not to impugn Tolstoy because was certainly the opposite; he fought for freeing the serfs.)

Russia before the revolution was a giant economy where many millions of peasants and factory workers lived in extreme barefooted, brutalized poverty, and the wealthy class was even richer than the wealthy classes of America and western Europe.

This is the environment in which the fires of communist revolution burst into 50 years of struggle, mass murder and destruction.

There had been earlier attempts at revolution in Russia, but alas the wealthy Russian plantation owners always WON.

In America our wealthy slave-owning plantation owners of the Southern states, who united to fight against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, LOST.

In other words when we, like this article by John Lloyd does, shake our heads at Russia and assume that Russia’s travails originated in communism, we are wrong.

We should be realizing instead that Russia’s travails of today originated not in communism but in the UNFETTERED CAPITALISM and the brutalization of the masses by the immensely wealthy class of Russia, on a gigantic scale over a hundred-year period.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

I wish you were right about the title, I really do.
Unfortunately today’s Russia is strongest since 1980’s. Russia is a pivotal force in US-China fight for world hegemony. And Russia has chosen alliance with China (US underestimated Russia in 1990’s and worked hard in China’s favour by treating it badly). China gets natural resources (from Soviet sphere of influence) and military protection. Russia gets leverage of China’s vast economic power. Both support each other in any contacts with outer world, the perfect duo. Some rules of alliance: 1. Russia has monopoly over natural gas and crude oil supply by pipelines from Middle East and former Soviet Union area to Europe. (Netherlands and Norway reserves will be mostly depleted in 10 years and then Russia will have tight energy grip on EU). 2. Russian sphere of influence is Europe (with exclusive rights in Ukraine and Belarus) and Chinese is Asia. Central Asia is co-governed by means of Shanghai Co-operation Organization.
2 interesting cases from last year showing that “An empire dies slowly”:
A. Fight for rule 1. Keeping it is of utmost importance to Russia and breaking it to Qatar/Gulf States/EU/US so we have now war in Syria and quasi-war in Iraq. The only possible land routes for Middle Eastern natural gas and crude oil pipelines to Europe are through these countries. Caspian route is also closed as Iran and Turkmenistan both generally abide rule 1. and are not prone to foreign sponsored internal strife). Syrian war bargain for EU/Russia: 200 billion cubic meters (cm) of natural gas a year from Persian Gulf at half LNG/Russian price (200 USD per 1000 cm instead of 400 USD per 1000 cm)=200 USD gain per 1000 cm = 40 billion USD a year. It is definitely worth fighting from economic point of view. And 2013 Syrian battles were won by Russia. No way to oust Assad in a few years.
B. Fight for Ukraine. UE/US are so busy with internal crisis (and EU afraid of Russia) that even not tried to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence. The Yanukovych price was not high: less than 50 billion EUR in loans/aid in 3-5 years timeframe, just enough to cover losses from split with Russia and for him to win 2015 re-election. But it was Russia that paid and Ukraine is in Russian sphere of influence, I hope not indefinitely.
BTW, Which empire did you really had in mind ?

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

As one former prominent Soviet political dissident recently said, “Russia is yet again shows the world a great social experiment, as there have been instances [in history] when a country was ruled by a military dictatorship and generals, but I can’t recall that a country was ever ruled by a secret service.” (my translation)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Until mid’90s we didn’t realized that most of ‘punitive psychiatry victims’ were actually in need of medical help. Many of those were ‘dissident’ – i think correct american term is ‘tin foil hats’.
And then there’s classical ‘dissident’ problem – they’re always struggle _against_ something. Never _for_.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

I love 2 things about your country, Russia:
1. pervasive corruption, lack of judicial&governance infrastructure, difficulty in doing business,
2. rigid, legacy of Soviet Union structure of Russian economy: mining (mainly hydrocarbons), weapons and metallurgy. Structure not changed in latest 20 years.
1&2 means:
a. Russia will be strong enough to play significant role in world politics&economy but only playing (as always in the past) its energy&military cards.
b. Russia will never have modern, diversified economy like United States, Japan or Germany.
United States never considered Soviet Union/Russia as formidable economic rival similar to Japan in 1980’s or China at present.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

We already have a pretty diverse economy, Wantu…whatever.
Your generalization is excessive and rather applies to the 1990s.
Say, the updated “Lada” brand keeps leadership on the car market: they sold 189 552 cars in January-May 2013; with Renault on the second place with 85 784.
I drive “VW” assembled at the plant ca. 50 miles from me, in Kaluga region.
My HP desktop was assembled not far from St. Petersburg.
It is already happening.
However, at the Lloyd’s Russophobes Club people used to see what they want to see; not what the things are.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

What a brilliant Russo-phobic piece by John Lloyd. Bravo! There isn’t even pretence of objective analysis. I wonder, normally, people don’t just spew hatred so profusely… It appears John Lloyd yearns for Russia to be governed by easy-to-buy, democratically elected kleptocrats controlled by a bunch of Oligarchs who are wedded to the West through bank accounts, real estate, childrens’ education etc. Beware what you wish for, John, as it might just come back to bite you.
As to the empire thing, John, Russia grew by taking poorly governed or ungoverned lands, oftentimes back from its former conquerors (Tartars), or by offering protection to those peoples who were in the process of being exterminated by others (Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Bessarabia etc). They became part and parcel of the cosmopolitan project where national elites preserved (or increased) their ranks, titles and possessions (just look at the Georgian heritage of the current head of the Romanoff family), where commoners could rise to become ministers (Stolypin comes to mind here). What is happening in the Caucasus is not about nationalism, at least not any more. It’s about religion. Read up on Huntington and ease up on the empire stuff, will you?

Posted by Tyshkevich | Report as abusive

Late ’80s-’90s hurt us badly, but problem is – you can’t just import foreign rules and you’ll be damned if you import foreign CEOs en masse. But change compared to ’90s can be seen by naked eye. Same time we realize that in west corruption is institutionalized via lobbyist and PAC packages. Nicer looking and cheaper for buyer.

As for military vs economy…if history teaches us anything it is that powerful and diversified economy only can arise when one is able to protect it by ALL means. Century ago there also were ‘world market’ and ‘free trade’…then world burst aflame as economical tensions spilled to other venues. Not to mention sad example of Africa still bein’ colonized and plundered.

And for ’80s Japan bein’ competitor to US – in 1990s we saw that ‘bubbles’ are unsustainable, good thing is that USA didn’t realized that same rules apply to them too. All empires built on moneylending eat themselves in the end – or reset via wars.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

When I read Lloyd’s headline, I thought he meant the U.S.

“… The area will be flooded with secret service and other troops …”.

Yes, like the New York Marathon.

Here’s an excerpt from the CNN article, John, in case you missed it.

“At least 1,500 cameras were positioned along the route to help boost security, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.There were baggage screenings and surveillance helicopters. Runners were screened and inspected before taking their starting positions, according to police..

Bomb-sniffing dogs and scuba divers scanned bridges and shorelines. Counterterrorism officers escorted ferries carrying runners.”

Yet another confused article about Russia from a former member of the British Communist Party no less. Before you enshrine rubbish on the internet, take a moment to READ. Putin says “Russia does not aspire to be an empire.” and also, “Russia is not the Soviet Union”. Got it, John?

And to compare the German 6th and 4th Panzer Armies with a rag-tag rabble of Sunni Islamists? Please have a few more martinis.

The dog barks. The caravan passes.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

@OUTPOST2012.NET, @chyron
Diversification, quantity:
1. 2012 Russian exports 525 billion USD, 72% mineral fuels, the rest that is: 150 billion USD. Breakdown of the rest, main positions: iron and steel, fertilizers, chemicals, aluminium, copper, weapons. Share of machinery and high-tech, processed products less than 10%.
2. 2012 Russian budget (federal+local, source Rosstat): about 40% of revenues is from taxes and duties on extraction and exports of mineral resources (mainly crude oil and natural gas).
1&2: typical features of not-diversified economy with vast reliance on exports of fossil fuels. I do not have time for data mining, but above metrics are enough to prove my thesis. It is not about personal opinion or Rusophobia, try to discuss with numbers.
Diversification quality:
Lack of organizational infrastructure and the outcome is very low share of SME (small and medium enterprises) in job creation, investment, innovation in Russia. High barriers of entrance for new players (you have to be connected) and vast red tape (it is just easier to be connected).
West has its sins, but institutional corruption is a bit of generalization. Fortunately you still go to jail in EU for majority of activities described as lobbying in US.
As for the bubbles, just take a look outside your window. I undestand that some people just love harsh winters, but I’m sure it cannot be the only cause the Moscow rents are higher than in downtown Manhattan ?

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

@Wantunbiasednew “Diversification, quantity: … less than 10%… very low share of SME (small and medium enterprises) in job creation…”

Yes, but what is the baseline?

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

I work in heavy machinery production (turbines for nuclear stations, hydroelecteric plants etc). You must understand that while in relatively _independent_ developing countries(read India, China, Iran) we can compete with best western counterparts can offer, there’s no chance in hell that we’ll be even ALLOWED to compete in EU/USA markets or in countries heavily influenced by west.

Not to mention that in ’90s there were lot of actions by western ‘partners’ to kill off entire types of industry.
So every time somebody from west says ’bout our undeversified economy it sounds hypocrisy to my ears.

And housing prices in Moscow…while it’s not healthy, it is not INVESTMENT bubble, it’s harsh reality of current housing market here. Do you know that more than half of buyers paid those price up front and most mortgages began with large (20%-50%) initial payment?

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

More on rent – historically (thanks to free privatization after dissolution of USSR) we have one of highest percentages of homeowners in the world, but other side of coin is that despite massive housebuilding programs supply of flats available for _rent_ is lagging beyond demand (we’re now in transition to ‘adults don’t live with their parents’ model).

As for ‘harsh’ Moscow winters…well, don’t say that to people from Siberia and beyond Polar Circle. From EU Moscow may look like bein’ north, but really it’s relatively southern city. For.ex. in january light day in Moscow is almost two hours longer than in Saint-Petersburg (which is far from bein’ russian northernmost city too).

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

I believe that while we can provide 500,000 budget-paid places in our higher education system – we will be just fine.
We have reached a healthy number: 54 % of all bachelor, master and doctorate students are fully budget-sponsored.

Interesting, this hateful article delivered the opposite result.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

You have chosen really bad example of an industry for assesment of Russian (or any world country) diversification opportunities. You know better than me that power sector is the most politicized industry (after military industry) in any country. The boogey man here is national security so contractors and their nationality is chosen carefully. (For this particular industry I would say it is a very legitimate security concern). The second reason why not always price (assuming the same quality of Russian vs. “Western” supplier) decides is the nature of power sector itself. Plants (my first hand experience is only in coal power plants, but with nuclear it would be the same, it is even more important due to increased longevity: 40 year coal plant, 60-80 nuclear) need a lof of maintenance, that creates a lot of jobs during their life. The higher localization of maintenance the more local jobs. And again security is important here.
Btw, not the best moment (since 1990’s 😉 to sell nuclear plants in “Western” world. Major players try to localize as much of full plant cycle as possible, you would not sell much to South Korea, Japan, US or France with their indigenous capabilities. Other UE countries (Germany ?) have societies that are too s.upid (and too rich as well?) and invest in this expensive and not ecological called “renewables”.
China and India buy Russian plants as well as anybody else’s (French, US etc.) for the purposes of technology transfer. Iran is a legacy deal. But even with these barriers you secured contracts in Slovakia, Turkey or Vietnam.
For me Iran is the best example of oil rich country that with some success tried diversification. And their situation since 1978 was not a rosy one. Throw a stone at Iran, and in “mid-air”, US will find a good justification plus will help you with a 100 of their own.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive


Quote [about Russian empire before 1917]: “commoners could rise to become ministers (Stolypin comes to mind here)”

Could – yes, though not so often.

However, Stolypin is a very bad example, because he was anything but a commoner:

– Stolypins belong to a relatively old nobility, documented since 1566. And during XIX century they were anything but provincial gentry: hold high positions in army, a court, and government, intermarried with princes, etc.

– His father was a high rank general (up to 3 or 4 stars), one time used to be a military governor of what now is Bulgaria, and when he became old, was moved to a honorary post of Kremlin commandant.

– His mother was princess Gorchakov, decendant of one of branches of a Rurikind dynasty.

Posted by yurakm | Report as abusive


Well, i know that you said.
You just missed the point that in reality our markets are smaller that they seem. It’s true for majority of our high-tech products, while climate and logistics (and maintenance bills for basic infrastructure) inevitably makes our consumer goods pricier than those of EU or Far East. Not to mention that during ’90s much of USSRs intellectual property was either stolen and patented in West or bought at minimal price. And for too long we were forced to play by other’s rules – you know, casino-style rules where ‘the house always win’.
If ‘liberal free trade world’ paradigm was something eternal, then we would be stuck. Fortunately for us and people outside ‘golden billion’ that paradigm is rotten and cracking.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive