Look at Britain and Spain. Both lost enormous empires and both got over it. OK, Spain had to fight a civil war to figure out its post-imperial identity. But Britain is amazing. Shed the empire, shrank to a small island, but still a clear leader in the world.
Russia never found a way to explain its history to itself in a productive way. After the fall of the USSR, people were desperate for an explanation of what happened. Why has our history been so shitty? Why are we in such deep excrement while everybody else who matters is doing great? There needed to be a story, a narrative explaining things.
It was easier for Ukraine and the Baltics because they could always say, “we were conquered and dominated. This is not our fault.” But Russia couldn’t say that.
The explanation that arose in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse was “we are bad, we are inferior, that’s why we are in this bad place.” But that’s unsustainable. Nobody can live with the consciousness of inferiority and feelings of irredeemable guilt. In the absence of a future-oriented, positive narrative, Russia slid into the persecution fantasy of “the West keeps us down on purpose because it hates us.” And that led where we all can see right now.
This is an enormous failure of the Russian cultural elites. It’s their job to come up with stories that are palatable to the people. In Spain there was a whole cultural movement trying to figure out the post-imperial identity after the disaster of 1898. In Ukraine right now, the leading thinkers, philosophers, professors get together to figure out an identity for Ukraine that’s not rooted in victimhood. Yes, we all wish they’d done it back in 1991 but these people were all in high school back then. And those who were of age snoozed on the job.
Germany after WWII, the same thing. Writers, philosophers, thinkers coming up with a narrative that doesn’t deny responsibility but helps people look forward in positive ways. Obviously, Germany has problems but they are in a different galaxy from Russia’s. It’s doable. But only when somebody stops pouting and starts doing.