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Leonid Bershidsky

Is Breaking Up Russia the Only Way to End Its Imperialism?

Overcentralization hasn’t worked to make the country peaceful and prosperous.

Once again the world is talking about breaking up Russia.

Once again the world is talking about breaking up Russia.

Photographer: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine showed the world that a resurgent Russia means, of necessity, an imperialist Russia. And it revived discussions about whether Russia needs to be “decolonized,” or perhaps “defederalized,” to bury its imperialist ambitions and subdue its military threat. A breakup of today’s Russia, similar to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is seen as a possible, for some even the most desirable, outcome of a failed Ukraine invasion. Regrets are voiced that the US didn’t make it a goal in the 1990s, when post-Soviet Russia lay in ruins and struggled to hold onto one, tiny secessionist region: Chechnya.

These discussions bring on a sense of literary deja-vu — a Russia turned into a quilt of statelets has been almost too easy to imagine since the Soviet Union came apart with such seeming ease. In the 2013 novel “Telluria,” Vladimir Sorokin, one of the most uncannily precise prophets of Russia’s turn to fascism, had one of the characters write of the Russian empire: