Vasily Mazimovvasily/AFP/Getty Images

When annexing Crimea is not enough

In an expansive mood, Russia sets sights on the Moon

April 17, 2014 5:00AM ET

Faraway lands and lengthy sea voyages were the hallmarks of the French and British imperial ambitions back in the day. Historically, Russia could not be more different. To capture natural resources, this empire expanded to contiguous territories and colonized them from within.

In recent months, “internal colonization” — as the prominent Cambridge University scholar Alexander Etkind called it — got a new ticket to life. The notion of the “near abroad” — say, Ukraine or Moldova, still interpreted by Vladimir Putin as Russia’s sphere of influence — could be easily manipulated to fit the country’s imperial profile. A similar case could be made for adjacent Finland and even the Arctic, which Putin, many say, has been eying possessively. The Moon, on the other hand, is a completely different story. It neither borders Russia nor comes with a substantial Russian minority. What is more, it has a vexing history of stars and stripes flying over it.

But now that those stars and stripes have faded to white: Establishing a “permanent foothold” on the Moon is Russia’s next objective. In a programmatic article published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta (the Kremlin's mouthpiece) on April 11, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that Russia had completed the theoretical phase of space exploration. It is now ready to put all that knowledge to use — that is, to colonize and exploit. “Cosmic romanticism,” in Rogozin’s words, gives way to “earthly pragmatism.” In Moscow, “Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me” may become more than a children’s classic soon enough.  

The push into space first appears to be a jarring break with the territorial logic of “internal colonization.” But as we will see, they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, Russia thinks of its history as “undivided and continuous,” the State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin asserted on April 10. With the exception of the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony, that is, which omitted this history’s unpalatable bits.

Of course, the “conquest” (including expanded communications, defense, and resource prospecting networks), Rogozin notes, will not happen overnight. The wait has to do with “the childhood disease of political self-determination,” which Ukrainians and Kazakhs apparently contracted in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. As a result, Baikonur, the world’s pioneering space launch outfit, was stranded in Kazakhstan. Many electronics and rocket parts factories stayed behind in Ukraine. These two countries, in Rogozin's not-so-subtle rant, are to blame for the decline of native cosmonautics. Sadly, Russia’s subsequent 20-year-long space stagnation, when “nobody thought about either new rockets or orbital stations,” hardly helped.

All that is about to change once Russia establishes its domestic “market for cosmic services.” If it sounds like a line from a 1960s flick, this is the intended effect. A massive space-age revival is under way, sans sentimentality this time around. A new extra-heavy carrier rocket, Russia’s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos reports, will eventually serve the mission, along with two new satellites and lunar rovers. Notably, the launches will originate at the brand new Vostochny cosmodrome, designed to ensure the country's independent access to space and currently under construction. By 2030, a lunar base should be ready.

In contrast to the increasingly privatized space race in the U.S. (given the current budget cuts at NASA, commercial venues may be the way of the future), Russia’s designs will safely rest in the hands of the state.

Our country has been fated to become a great cosmic power from the very inception of its statehood.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin

But why would residents of a country where 23 percent of the population live below the poverty line support the exorbitantly expensive program, skeptics may wonder? There is more than one answer. As stunned Russian sociologists discovered, many of their compatriots have grown accustomed to modest income and prefer its stability to the risk of change. Besides, wealth is strongly associated with criminality and Western materialism, both reprehensible. Of course, there are dissenting voices — in the oppositional Novaya Gazeta, a slew of sarcastic comments accompanied the summary of Rogozin's statements. But for most, longing for autarchy and international prestige outrank more mundane concerns — and ideologues like Rogozin sing to their tune.

Space colonies were once a dream of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky — the founder of cosmonautics, whose legacy is housed in a cozy museum in provincial Kaluga, about 100 miles southwest of Moscow, where I visited every summer as a child. But Rogozin's pronouncements share little with Tsiolkovsky's humanist and internationalist vision — they are both expansively imperialist and narrowly nationalist. Their explicit emphasis on Russians also sets them apart from the socialist era’s extraterrestrial exploits, conducted in the name of “the Soviet people.”

To strive for space, it turns out, is uniquely the Russian man’s burden, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s take on the colonial civilizing mission. “Our country,” Rogozin explains, “has been fated to become a great cosmic power from the very inception of its statehood. This has been predetermined by the national character of the Russian people, used to thinking in global categories and ready to sacrifice the everyday for an idea.” “Russian cosmos” is thus tantamount not solely to the global importance of the country’s space research and industry. It is “the question of Russian identity, a synonym of the Russian world. Therefore Russia cannot live without space, cannot dampen its dreams of conquering the unknown that so beckons the Russian soul.”

This metaphysical stance is but an extension of the grand narrative that is Russian history. On April 7, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a State Duma deputy and Head of the Education Committee, mapped the destiny to which Rogozin alludes:

Our Fatherland has a great past. A branch of an Arian tribe descended from the Carpathians and peacefully settled the Russian plain, Siberia, the coldest part of the planet, reached the Pacific Ocean, founded Fort Ross, absorbed the sap of the richest cultures of Byzantium, Europe, Asia, defeated the humankind’s deadliest enemy — Nazism, and paved the way into space.

The present moment, it follows, is all about crafting a great future for textbooks to come. The American approach seems rather more low-key by comparison. Following its upcoming $30-million remodeling, the Milestones of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum will retell the past to “inspire future innovations” — not craft the future itself. But Russia’s new space race looks all the more competitive now that NASA partially suspended its collaboration with Russia over Crimea’s annexation in mid-March.

And that is the thing: Russia’s latest iteration of “internal colonialism” in Crimea and the impending violation of this centuries-old model on the Moon may strike us as a paradox or inconsistency. In reality, they are mutually dependent: One fed the other. A sharp spike in cosmic euphoria followed Russia’s success on the Ukrainian peninsula. In a late-March poll, 46 percent of Russians stated that their country is the unequivocal leader in space exploration (the U.S. received only 21 percent of the votes). This is a dramatic surge compared to 2013, when Russia lead with only 35 percent, and the U.S. came in as a close second with 31 percent. Currently, as many as 42 percent of the respondents support their country's expansion in space.

It is then small wonder that Rogozin does not stop at the Moon — a mere launching pad for the exploration of “Mars and other objects in the solar system.” And in Russia, there is no shortage of dreamers. On April 8, cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin lobbied in the media to push past the orbital boundaries. It is a good thing that people like Misurkin still believe in cooperation: in outer space, they may rub shoulders with an international team of private settlers, who aspire to found a colony on Mars by 2015. Star wars look better on screens.

Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She writes about transatlantic culture and media during the Cold War. This year she is a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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