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Soviet Empire as “Family Resemblance”

  • Mark R. Beissinger


Empire has become a common analytical frame through which the Soviet state and its collapse are interpreted. Commenting on the other contributions to this forum, Mark R. Beissinger examines the limits and utility of this concept, arguing that empire needs to be understood, not as a clearly bounded transhistorical model, but as a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” whose meaning and referents have altered significantly over time. The article then probes the ways the concept of empire has been redeployed in the Soviet context, addressing in particular the role of nationalism in the making of empire, the injustices associated with empire, and the contested boundary between the multinational empire and the multinational state. It concludes by arguing for a more interpretive approach to Soviet empire as a way of relating to authority rather than a common set of political practices.



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1. On the ways in which the meaning of imperium changed over the course of Roman history, see Brunt, P. A., “Laus imperil,” in Garnsey, P. D. A. and Whittaker, C. R., eds., Imperialism in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Eng., 1978), 162, 174; Lintott, Andrew, “What Was the ‘Imperium Romanum’?Greece and Rome 28, no. 1 (April 1981): 53–67 .

2. On multiple meanings of the word even prior to the nineteenth century, see Koebner, Richard, Empire (New York, 1961); Pagden, Anthony, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-c. 1800 (New Haven, 1995).

3. For a small sampling of the voluminous literature, in both political science and history, that has used empire and colonialism as frames for understanding the Soviet state, see Rudolph, Richard L. and Good, David F., eds., Nationalism and Empire: The Habsburg Empire and the Soviet Union (New York, 1992); Dawisha, Karen and Parrott, Bruce, eds., The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspective (Armonk, N.Y, 1997); Barkey, Karen and von Hagen, Mark, eds., After Empire: Multiethnic Societies and Nation-Building: The Soviet Union and the Russian, Ottoman, and Habsburg Empires (Boulder, Colo., 1997); Lieven, Dominic, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (New Haven, 2001); Motyl, Alexander J., Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (New York, 2001); Suny, Ronald Grigor and Martin, Terry, eds., A State of Nations: Empire and Nation- Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (Oxford, 2001); Northrop, Douglas, Veiled Empire: Gender and Poiuer in Stalinist Central Asia (Ithaca, 2004); Hirsch, Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, 2005).

4. Ekspress khronika, 14 August 1990, 2.

5. Ekspress khronika, 19 February 1991, 1.

6. Cherniaev, A. S., Shest’ let s Gorbachevym (Moscow, 1993), 294-96. Even Gorbachev refers to eastern Europe in his memoirs as a “colony” of the USSR. See Gorbachev, Mikhail, Zhizn'i reformy (Moscow, 1995), 1:554 .

7. Nesostoiavshiisia iubilei: Pochemu SSSR ne otprazdnoval svoego 70-letiia? (Moscow, 1992), 420.

8. For example, a banner hving in August 1991 across the White House by Russian demonstrators massed in the tens of thousands read: “Down with the Empire of Red Fascism!” For public opinion polls showing that a majority of Russians in December 1991 favored the Belovezhskoe Treaty that put an end to the USSR, see Wyman, Matthew, Public Opinion in Postcommunist Russia (New York, 1997), 166 .

9. Martin, Terry, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca, 2001), 19 .

10. Habsburg historian John-Paul Himka has observed that “in a section of the globe where national oppression and dissatisfaction remained rife in the 1920s, the Soviet Union stood out as an exception” and “exercised considerable attraction on members of national minorities in the new East European states.” John-Paul Himka, “Nationality Problems in the Habsburg Monarchy and the Soviet Union: The Perspective of History,” in Rudolph and Good, eds., Nationalism and Empire, 86.

11. For a similar critique of the application of the colonial interpretive frame to Soviet history, see Slezkine, Yuri, “Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Socialism,” Russian Review 59, no. 2 (April 2000): 227-34.

12. See Geddes, Barbara, “How the Cases You Choose Affect the Answers You Get: Selection Bias in Comparative Politics,” in Stimson, James A., ed., Political Analysis (Ann Arbor, 1990), 131-50.

13. For example, although Francine Hirsch recognizes the strong desire of Soviet rulers to distance themselves from European imperialism, she takes “as a given” that the Soviet state is fundamentally analogous to European colonial empires. While Hirsch rejects the “prison of peoples” approach to Soviet history, she fails to address why the “state-sponsored evolutionism” she describes is fundamentally different from the nationbuilding practices of other multinational states and what specifically makes it “colonial.” Indeed, Hirsch argues paradoxically that although, in her view, the Soviet Union was analogous to colonial empires, it did not break apart due to nationalism or to its colonial character; rather, nationalism in the late 1980s only filled a void caused by ideological and economic decline. Hirsch, Empire of Nations. See also Northrop, Veiled Empire, 22–23.

14. The term conceptual stretching originally comes from Sartori, Giovanni, “Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review 64, no. 4 (December 1970): 1033-53. For suggestions concerning a different vocabulary, see Laitin, David D., “The National Uprisings in the Soviet Union,” World Politics 44, no. 1 (October 1991): 142-43.

15. For the notion of “family resemblance” as distinct from “conceptual stretching,” see Collier, David and Mahon, James E. jr., “Conceptual ‘Stretching’ Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis,” American Political Science Review 87, no. 4 (December 1993): 845-55; Goertz, Gary, Social Science Concepts: A User's Guide (Princeton, 2006), 35–46 . The classic example of a “family resemblance” used by Wittgenstein is the concept of a game. Different games have many characteristics in common, but all games do not share a common set of characteristics.

16. As Bruce Parrott explained, “The advent of nationality as a key criterion of political differentiation and of nationalism as a potent instrument of political mobilization fundamentally altered the internal dynamics of empires. Partly in consequence, by the middle of the twentieth century the term was commonly used to denote a political structure in which one nation dominated others, often on the basis of an authoritarian metropolitan state.” Bruce Parrott, “Analyzing the Transformation of the Soviet Union in Comparative Perspective,” in Dawisha and Parrott, eds., TheEnd of Empire1? 6.

17. Some may feel uncomfortable with treating empire in part as claim. Yet, political scientists routinely treat the modern nation-state, “empire's nemesis,” as involving a significant dimension of claims-making, in its claims both to represent a distinct and legitimate political community and to the exclusive right to rule over a bounded territory (sovereignty). Each of these also involves important third-party dimensions in others’ recognition of these claims.

18. See Robertson, John, “Gibbon's Roman Empire as a Universal Monarchy: The Dedine and Fall and the Imperial Idea in Early Modern Europe,” in McKitterick, Rosamond and Quinault, Roland, eds., Edward Gibbon and Empire (Cambridge, Eng., 1997), 247-70; Koebner, Richard and Schmidt, Helmut D., Imperialism: The Story and Significance of a Political Word, 1840–1960 (Cambridge, Eng., 1964).

19. A number of works associate empire with domination. See Lichtheim, George, Imperialism (New York, 1971), 9 ; Finer, S. E., The History of Government from the Earliest Times (Oxford, 1997), 1:8 . By contrast, for the understanding of empire as a form of control, see Doyle, Michael W., Empires (Ithaca, 1986).

20. Both words have roots in Roman law, with imperium referring to the public domain of the state, and dominium referring to ownership and private power.

21. See Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), 15–17 .

22. Original leaflet in possession of the author.

23. Pettit, Philip, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford, 1997), 4–5 .

24. Young, Iris Marion, “Two Concepts of Self-Determination,” in Sarat, Austin and Kearns, Thomas R., eds., Human Rights: Concepts, Contests, Contingencies (Ann Arbor, 2001), 25–44 ; Young, Iris Marion, “Self-Determination as Non-Domination: Ideals Applied to Palestine/Israel,” Ethnicities 5, no. 2 (June 2005): 139-59.

25. Moore, Barrington Jr., Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (London, 1978).

26. Suny, Ronald Grigor, “Ambiguous Categories: States, Empires and Nations,” Post-Soviet Affairs 11, no. 2 (April-June 1995): 185-96.

Soviet Empire as “Family Resemblance”

  • Mark R. Beissinger


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