In this paper, the author attempts to apply the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by J. Nye, which has been established in the field of international relations and political science, to the historical domain, and specifically to the analysis of basic trends in the development of the Russian Empire and the USSR. The peculiarities of the balance of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power tools are identified with regards to the totalitarian (authoritarian) and democratic regimes. The concept of ‘smart power’ is placed into the context of historical research. The author points out the connection between the mechanisms of ‘soft power’ and the development of civil society. Russia and the USSR are presented as continental empires of the colonial type, which possessed internal colonies and dependent territories. Against the background of the general patterns of development of continental empires, which include territorial expansion, the specifics of the USSR are shown. It is determined that expanding the resource base under the dominance of the vector of extensive development, ensuring ‘security’ of the imperial ‘heartland’ at the expense of peripheral territories, and maintaining the geopolitical status have been the key drivers of development of continental empires. In relation to the USSR, the specific function of the metropolis, or capital city of the empire, is underlined. The author pays particular attention to the development of the eastern territories, and Siberia as an internal colony, that was based on the principle of ‘a region for the country’ while ignoring its own interests and internal needs. This has formed a stable matrix of suboptimal centre-periphery relations in the country. It is noted that the empire preserved itself as a single state based on the synergy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, projected both into the intra-imperial space and outside. The gradual degradation of the ‘smart power’ tools used by the Soviet regime is shown. It is concluded that the collapse of the USSR meant an imbalance and loss of efficiency in the use of factors and tools of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, and now Russia is still experiencing a post-imperial syndrome. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of satellite countries made it necessary to shift the emphasis to internal stabilization. However, the influence of two key arguments: nuclear weapons and huge resources and territory, ensured the preservation of the previous ambitions.