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The Russian Public’s Imperial Hangover

Even as their government prepares them for the shock of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, most Russians continue to endorse Putin’s imperial dream.

Ukraine Russia Putin
President Putin watches the Zapad 2021 joint strategic exercises of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus.

Even as their government prepares them for the shock of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, most Russians continue to endorse Putin’s imperial dream. Why do the overwhelming majority of older Russians not only accept but support their country’s war on Ukraine? The common answer is that they have no choice: the authorities, with backing from the FSB, have systematically identified and punished those who engage in public acts of disloyalty. Under such circumstances, who would dare protest?

Russians are hostage to Putin’s Kremlin. Period. 

Those seeking a silver lining are quick to point to the existence of underground opposition groups who have torched factories and public buildings. But which of those many conflagrations were the work of Russians themselves, as opposed to Ukrainian saboteurs? We won’t know this unless and until the Ukrainian army emerges victorious. For now, however, even the existence of a small but active Russian fifth column does not refute the fact that the Russian populace remains passive, even as tens of thousands of their brothers and husbands return from Ukraine in caskets. 

But are they merely passive? Even after a year of war, credible Russian opinion researchers and bloggers affirm the presence of millions of what Russians call “hurrah patriots.” These zealots go far beyond the dictates of mere survival to mouth the Kremlin’s slogans. Granted, such zealots tend to be older, but many younger Russians sing in the same key. This brings us back to why so many Russians not only accept but support their country’s war on Ukraine?

Those who study Russia give short shrift to the psychological impact of imperialism on the Russian masses. Topics like centralized planning, the mega-industries that dominate the economy, ideology, and corruption have rightly garnered attention. But largely neglected is the state of mind fostered by imperial rule and its hold over the populace.  This may be one the most enduring legacies of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors. 

Forty years ago a brilliant writer from Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008), laid out the impact of authoritarianism on individual psyches in a bone-chilling novel, A Day Lasts More than A Hundred Years. The work blends such unlikely ingredients as the mythic past, Soviet rule, and intergalactic space. Yet its plot is simple. In ancient times an invading warrior tribe takes captive a Central Asian resistance fighter. As they do with all of their captives, the conquering tribesmen subject him to a harrowing process, binding his head in a cap made from the skin of a freshly slaughtered goat.  The hat gradually shrinks, causing unbearable pain, which few survived. When the cap is finally removed, the victim has lost all consciousness of himself as a human being, his family, his entire people, and their past. His captors called such transformed beings “Mankurts,” zombies, who have been stripped of their individual and collective memories. The Mankurt is now entirely at his captors’ mercy, a slave without past or future, who meekly does whatever they demand of him.  

Surprisingly, the official journal Novyi Mir published this disturbing story in 1980, as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s reign sank into terminal stagnation. A decade later, on the eve of the collapse of the USSR, Aitmatov teamed up with director Hojaguly Nariyew from Turkmenistan  to turn the Mankurt story into an acclaimed film. Aitmatov got away with this because his international renown rendered him untouchable. It helped that he had been an officer of the Writers’ Union of the USSR and a member of the Supreme Soviet. 

Soon all those who had suffered under Russian rule —Ukrainians, Balts, Tatars, Chechens, and the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus — were asking themselves whether they, too, had not been Mankurtized. The collapse of the Communist Party and the USSR itself opened the door to remedial actions. Leaders of the newly independent states understood that the best antidote to Mankurtism was to revive their national memory and identity. 

Activists and scholars turned out books and films on heroic moments in their national pasts that Moscow had suppressed. Uzbeks reclaimed the memory of the Jadids, educational modernizers of the early 1900s who embraced modern knowledge, only to be exterminated by the Communists. Kyrgyz recovered memory of the 1916 Urkun, the mass revolt against the Tsar’s 1916 draft that left 220,000 Kyrgyz dead. Kazakhs wrote about the horrific Moscow-induced famine of 1930-1933 that killed two out of five Kazakhs. Tajiks honored the memory of the Basmachi, anti-Communist partisans who took to the mountains after 1917. And across the Caucasus the new leaders honored the national governments that had emerged briefly after World War I, only to be cut down by the Red Army. Ukrainians also participated in this movement by documenting the “extermination famine” (Holodomor) of 1932-1933 that took some 3.9 million lives, and when they celebrated the anti-Communist partisans who fought Moscow for a decade after the end of World War II. 

In all the newly independent states this passion for national recovery was genuine and deep. But did this process also take place in Russia? Conscientious Russians like Andrei Sakharov toiled to rehabilitate long-reviled figures and movements from their own past. But their effort was only one element of what took place after the collapse of 1991 and, in light of subsequent events, the less consequential part. For the past that Russian reformers sought to reclaim was not sufficiently compelling to resist a counter-movement from those who still sought to rule through Mankurtism. Leading this powerful current were the FSB (KGB) and the Russian army, both of which survived the collapse of the USSR.  Beginning even before his appointment as president in 1999, KGB veteran Vladimir Putin was maneuvering to place himself at the head of these neo-imperial forces.  

Putin realized that autocracy and the Soviet imperial idea had deep roots not only in governmental, legal, and educational institutions, but in the psyches of ordinary citizens. Its legacy is like a hangover, but one that can be passed down, even to those who did not drink it in at the source. Yet to acknowledge that Mankurtism maintained its grip on millions of Russians is not to explain why it persisted. Nor can its survival be attributed solely to Putin and publicists like the fanatical Alexander Dugin. Nor does it suffice to say simply that millions of Russians had internalized it. How did Germans and Japanese who had internalized their leaders’ fascism emancipate themselves after 1945, when so many Russians after 1991 failed to do so? 

 The ominous combination of passivity and chauvinism evinced by so many Russians today has far deeper roots in Russian society and history. Down to 1861 fully 80% of all Russians were serfs, under the strict control of landlords or the state. This form of slavery meant they were tied to the land but could be sold at will. Following Russia’s defeat in the first Crimean War of 1853-1856, Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861 (two years before Lincoln’s emancipation of America’s slaves), thus removing what his father had called “a gunpowder magazine beneath the state.” But even though serfs gained certain freedoms, they were still confined to their communal villages and obliged to make pay reparation to the state for another forty-six years.  Making matters worse, in 1928 Stalin re-collectivized the entire Russian peasantry, converting them once more to the status of serfs, this time of the Communist state. In other words, most Russians knew even partial freedom for only two decades prior to recent times.

All of Russia’s great writers, and many foreigners, have written about the impact of serfdom and the village commune on the Russian psyche.  Some idealized the peasantry and their village communes, defending them as the keeper of the nation’s values. Others attacked them both, identifying them as the source of Russia’s backwardness, its alienation from Europe, and of a national psychology based on dependence, subservience to Moscow, and disengagement from civic life. Recent studies affirm this latter view.   

This is not to say that all Russians suffer from this psychology. Quite the contrary. Russia’s independent-minded intelligentsia has enriched the nation’s culture and European civilization as a whole. Where would we all be without Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, or Pasternak; without Mendeleev, and Kapitsa; or without Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev? However, for all its achievements, Russia’s intelligentsia has always existed more as a separate stratum of Russian life than as an emanation of the society as a whole. 

It is this separation that may account for the persistence of the psychology of serfdom/slavery—call it Mankurtism– among the Russian populace at large. It has survived tsarism, Communism, and even the massive urbanization that has recently taken place. This deeply rooted identity of dependency does not prevent Russians from living good lives, from being resourceful and productive, from laughing, or appreciating the beauties of nature. But it enables those at the top, if they are so inclined, to play upon and manipulate the mass of people.  It may explain the passivity we see among so many Russians today, and the success with which Vladimir Putin has been able to manipulate the public mood so as to support his backward-looking wars of conquest. 

Will this ever change? Modern communications, expanded travel, and the passage of time may erode this psychology of dependence. But modern life alone will not bring about its demise. Progress will depend also on fundamental political and legal reforms, the transformation of Russia’s schools and, above all, universal civic education. These are all tasks that only Russians themselves can perform. Whether and how they chose to do so will depend on how Putin’s war against Ukraine ends.  Meanwhile, well-wishers abroad can provide ideas but not money tied with  “conditions” on its use,  which fatally tainted such efforts after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. 

Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Written By

Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. 



  1. Jim

    May 8, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    Given the drone attack on the Kremlin and numerous public statements by public & elected officials in the West calling for “regime change” and even “dismemberment,” the Russian People (over the time of the war) have come to realize this war is existential for Russia.

    Now, if you think your country’s survival is at stake, are you going to support the war that defends your country’s sovereignty & independence?

    The answer is obvious.

    Remember the Poland speech of President Biden in Spring of ’22 where he stated, himself, “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.”

    It was walked back, but then reiterated by others.

    The point is simple, when the President of the United States says he wants regime change… you better listen.

    The Russian People have listened and know the designs of Russia’s opponents… regime change and in their maximalist, grandiose dreams… “dismemberment.”

    The “unconditional” Russian objectives are two-fold, demilitarization & denazification.

    Will they get that?

    I worry it’s a bridge too far.

    Because whatever happens, for Americans & Europeans… and I argue the rest of world, the prime objective is to avoid a General European War.

    But warmongers, “War Junkies,” need their fix and are blind to anything other than their own grandiose dreams for victory in war… any war.

    But when it hurts the Sovereign, the American People, they have to be stopped.

    I’m tired of seeing the American People’s money be used by a war crowd who can’t shoot straight.

  2. 404NotFound

    May 8, 2023 at 4:13 pm

    Putin, despite his human failings or faults, singlehandedly rescued Russia from the abyss.

    Which leader is blemish-free perfect.

    George Washington himself had a large number of slaves and allegedly fathered illegitimate kids with some of the female ones.

    Putin saved Russia from the terribly evil crazy era of Yeltsin who with his gang of robber barons and supported by bill clinton literally brought Russia to its knees.

    It all began with Gorbachev, another terrible person, that directly destroyed the USSR.

    But Putin rescued Russia which without his leadership would have turned into a banana republic living & operating under American stewardship.

    What did Putin say on march 1 2018. “The west has never listened to us. They better listen now.”

    And came the election of Biden that was rigged and arranged by the FBI and media that colluded with one another.

    Biden ensnared Russia into the proxy war in Donbass that was totally unavoidable for Russia BECAUSE the region is right on its very front doorstep.

    But Biden, like hitler, has fatally miscalculated badly.

    All Russia needs now is to hurl a coupla nukes at biden’s ukro foot soldiers.

    Biden would not dare reply. Indeed like hitler, he would totally and fully be unable to do do so.

    Result is chaos in the markets and banks and shopping malls.

    And people shooting each other in the streets, in enclosed buildings, in homes and even on the highways.

    Biden is finished. Kaput.

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 8, 2023 at 4:31 pm

    1 million men of draft age left Russia to avoid serving/dying for the corrupt authoritarian Russian culture.

    Actions speak louder than words.

    The Russian people are apathetic, not supportive of Russian authority.

  4. Gary Jacobs

    May 8, 2023 at 6:50 pm


    Avoiding a general war in Europe is not done by weakness. It requires a balance between strength and statecraft. A level of nuance that you have repeatedly proven yourself incapable of.

    Everytime the west has shown utter weakness to Russia, they have proceeded to start new wars and take what isnt theirs at the expense of their neighbors.

    Furthermore, pretending/implying that you are sure it was Ukrainians that attacked the Kremlin is absurd.

    FAR more likely to be either a false flag, or amateur Russian partisans.

    If you are so %100 convinced based on available [lack of] evidence that it was Ukraine that attacked the Kremlin with such a puny drone, I have a bridge in the Kerch Strait I can sell you.

    FAR more important to Ukraine at this point is the wave of explosions that have gone off at fuel depots all around Western Russia, and occupied Crimea. Those are legit Ukrainian drone strikes.

    There have also been a number of bombs that have derailed freight trains in Russia recently. Those were carrying fuel as well.

    It’s rather ironic for all the talk about Ukraine lacking ammo that you would think they would spend the ammo that they do have on a mission with Zero military purpose.

    Proving once again you dont understand the Ukrainians at all.

  5. 403Forbidden

    May 8, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    Let’s talk about the american public hangover now engulfing the world’s ultra hyperpower.

    Today, the american public is highly proud of its vast armaments industry that rakes in trillions of dollars in sales.

    It also thinks highly of or have a very high regard for america’s onerously militarized foreign policy.

    There’s little or no objection to US military presence in over 145 nations abroad.

    US soldiers, advisers, special forces, equipment, weaponry and technicians and/or operatives are present in virtually every ongoing or prevailing crisis and conflict happening around the world.

    The result is a great hangover afflicting everybody today arising from US forever wars and endless interventions post-1945.

    That was or is vedy easily encapsulated by biden’s recent statement that he has a hell lot of wisdom.

    Said the old sage “I have garnered a hell lot of wisdom at my age, and I know a hell lot more than most people.”

    That’s the hangover afflicting the american public, including their chief executive of their republic.

    It’s a very terrible hangover, and a very extremey erroneous or misguided and dangerous one. There’s no medicine for it in this world.

    Only the fires of hell can elleviate it.

  6. TheDon

    May 9, 2023 at 3:48 am

    404 has not found his brain.
    The world wont allow expansion to old soviet boarders and its apparent Russia doesn’t have the ground troops. WwII was different. Everyone fought. Now Russia has lost 100099 soldiers, massive equipment, and almost captured a 1×1 mile rural town. A mimitary disaster of putins pride.
    Russia may take more land short term, but long term deaths will continue.
    Nucks are insane and would mean immediate retalitation and complete end of Russia. Not a good strategy 404.
    The world has played putins bluff. Everyone sends equipment with little concern.
    Its the most historic loss since the Persians defeat.
    Yep Putin will be in history books but as a paranoid leader.
    Russia was trading, cooperating in space programs, selling fuel, grain and squandered peace for 1 square mile.
    Russian demographics would reverse with prosperity. This insane war has resulted in 100000 leaving and 100000 deaths of young men. In 19 yrs the population will skew to old russians with a void for care and minimal citizens for troops.
    Russians need to grow some and overthrow putin.
    While your at it, Krill should be imprisoned for life. He is the only power that could have stopped putin. Krill will see his mistake at the gate he wont enter.

  7. Gary Jacobs

    May 9, 2023 at 11:19 am


    Poland has brought together several of the points I have made to you repeatedly over the course of many threads under many stories on 1945, including this one.

    From the healing of past differences with Ukraine, to calling out Russian imperialism, and leading the regional countries to stand against Russian aggression… while still keeping the door open to future relations with Russia… Poland is the perfect example of what I was getting at in my last post combining strength and statecraft.

    Poland’s international profile and weight have grown due to its leadership in support of Ukraine and its prescience in warning of Russia’s imperialist intentions over a decade ago. Not to mention its multibillion $$ arms purchases, and its openness to be a hub of transit for military support for Ukraine as well as taking in millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s imperialist aggression.

    So when its government delivers a formal and comprehensive foreign policy statement as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau did in presenting his “Exposé” to the Polish parliament last month, it’s worth a close look.

    In a justified ‘we told you so’ section, Rau reviewed Russia’s threatening language and actions, starting with Putin’s diatribe at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and Poland’s warnings about it at the time.

    He urged the international community to keep Russia ‘beyond the community of civilized nations’ until its aggression against Ukraine ends.

    At the same time, and in contrast to the views of many Poles and others in Eastern Europe with direct experience of Russia’s brutality, Rau noted Russia’s democratic potential:

    “It can be the Russia of Andrei Sakharov and Anna Politkovskaya,” recalling the liberal minded nuclear scientist turned democracy activist and the murdered Russian journalist.

    Rau qualified his remarks that such a Russia is possible only after Russia withdraws from Ukraine and gives up its imperial pretensions.

    However, it is still rather notable that a Polish foreign minister in a formal statement does not rule out a better relationship with a future, better Russia. This skillfully sets up Poland to be a leader as Europe debates its longer term future with Russia.

    Rau also advocated Ukraine’s EU and NATO accession “as soon as possible… because it is in Poland’s most vital, existential interest.”

    He explained that the long complicated Polish-Ukrainian history could lead to “considerable frictions” but history shows that their quarrels benefit only Moscow.

    Rau advocated “permanent cooperation” between Poland and Ukraine, implicitly recalling the best republican and multinational traditions of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that included most of present day Ukraine.

    Rau’s approach rests on decades of Polish rethinking about Ukraine, including a largely successful effort to turn aside nationalist narratives. Especially understanding that Ukraine has long since earned its way past the fact that some Ukrainians collaborated with Nazis against Poland in WWII.

    You should really try doing a better job of wrapping your head around that concept and stop pretending you know better than the actual people affected by it.

    Most importantly, this view is shared across the Polish government and within most of the political opposition, except only the hard right. That’s quite a bit of irony for you.

    Rau was also enthusiastic about NATO’s role and mission to defend allied territory from attack and, again unsurprisingly, urged NATO to ‘denounce’ the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that included unilateral NATO limitations on new stationing of substantial combat forces on the territory of NATO members.

    That Founding Act once again gives the lie to Russian [and your] complaints about NATO expansion. NATO made repeated concessions to Russia, including limiting the number of NATO troops that could be stationed in countries bordering Russia…while at the same time extending the security umbrella so that if Russia ever came back to their imperialist tendencies, those countries on its border would still have Article 5 protection.

    That was and is the right balance of strength and statecraft. It is Russia that needs to retire its imperialist tendencies to the dustbin of history…and make a better Russia for itself, rather than trying to steal from it neighbors.

  8. Marek Kryda

    May 9, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    Thank you Frederick for this incredible article. I research the impact of the Viking Age in Central and Eastern Europe, and Slavery, military Slavery, and mental enslavement are still core problems in this part of the world.

  9. Jim

    May 9, 2023 at 1:20 pm

    Gary writes, “Avoiding a general war in Europe is not done by weakness. It requires a balance between strength and statecraft. A level of nuance that you have repeatedly proven yourself incapable of.”

    Let’s take the first sentence.

    This is what Neoconservatives… and many others claim, when their belligerent policy falls short.

    They blame “weakness” on the President’s part. I heard, in the day, Obama was weak, Trump was weak, Biden is weak… there was even a few who claimed Bush was weak in an instance or two… when the Neoconservative policy is failing.

    It’s never the underlying structural or philosophical underpinnings of the policy… no, it’s always presidential “weakness.”

    Okay… Gary adds an important qualifier, “a balance between strength and statecraft.”

    Yes, Gary, I agree, but you omit ‘Restraint’ and that is the fatal flaw in Neoconservative thinking.

    They have “no reverse gear” and no ability to admit or course correct when their policies inevitable failure.

    Neoconservatives have no ‘Restraint,’ in their ideological framework.

    I do visit nuance in my analysis… in contrast Neoconservatives jam a square peg in a round hole leaving wood splinters covering the floor.

    You demonstrate that ham-handedness in your analysis on a regular basis.

    Another problem… Neoconservatives default position is to “go to war” or on the sly, behind the scenes, “color revolutions,” or coups.

    It doesn’t work anymore… if it ever did.

    But you cling to your failed ideology because it’s all you know… you claim nuance… but in reality, every issue is a nail… and all you got is a hammer.

    It’s time to take the hammer away.

    Before your ideology ends up blowing up the world in a series of nuclear mushroom clouds.

    Because that’s where Neoconservative ideology leads to…

    BOOM!… Mushroom… the END.

  10. Jim

    May 9, 2023 at 1:57 pm

    I must add when a President chooses less than the full on Neoconservative Policy prescription he is also called, “Weak!” … repeatedly “weak.”

    By the usual Chorus.

    How many times has that happened.

    Or the President gets a BIG “Hurrah!” from the usual suspects when he does follow Neoconservative Policy… and in contrast then later he is called, “Weak” when what was recommended and he followed doesn’t work out as advertised.

    And the policy needs rescuing.

    Because Neoconservatives never want to admit the inadequacy of their ideas and notions of foreign policy.

    And, what’s worse, they often wrap their ideas in the flag… and anybody who disagrees is disloyal.

    Pure Balderdash… the last refuge of a scoundrel.

  11. Sofronie the Monk

    May 9, 2023 at 2:26 pm

    As always, Russia is a few decades behind the Western world. This is basically a European power desperately struggling to keep a hold on its colonies, what France, the UK or Portugal went through almost a century ago.

    Indeed, many Russians are still incapable of understanding that not even all the members of the Russian Federation are actual Russians (Chechnya, for example), let alone the neighboring countries. Hence why they persist in their moronic idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian world), this fabled and ill-defined area which wildly fluctuates based on Russia’s strength at any given moment.

    So this is nothing more than a colonial war, with a Russian twist where the colonies are rightfully part of the “Russian world”. At least, the Westerners had the decency to admit that the people they conquered were different, Russia tries to eliminate the very identity of its colonies.

  12. Roger Bacon

    May 9, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    Sigh. I promised myself I’d stop responding to trolls but…

    404, you are misinformed. Washington fathered NO children, legitimate or illegitimate. Whether the issue was his or his wife’s no one is certain. At least you re right about the US’s stolen 2020 election (and 2022 midterms, and Georgia runnoff election).
    Also, stop including a call for nukes in every post. It’s totally irresponsible.

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