Nation and Nationalism in Russia

Richard Sakwa. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Russian nationalism is as exiguous and protean as its English counterpart (Anderson 1983: 12). Both were subsumed into larger entities; English nationalism into the larger idea of Britain (Colley 1992); and Russia became the core of an imperial project (Hosking 1997). Russia was at the heart of the tsarist empire and then the Soviet Union. Only at the end of the twentieth century did the English and Russian nations emerge from the detritus of the dissolution of the larger imperial missions and take on autonomous forms. In Russia, however, the traditional emphasis on the state rather than the nation or a democratic polity undermined the development of both. Nation-building traditionally took second place to territorial expansion, and the very idea of a democratic and sovereign Russian nation remains ambiguous. Four concerns will be at the centre of our account of Russian nationalism: the tension between imperial and national identities; the process of national identity formation; the relevance and applicability of the concept of nationalism to Russia; and the tension between nation, state and polity-building projects.

Historical Context

The success of the early modern tsars in unifying the various principalities around Muscovy meant that by the sixteenth century Russia had become one of the most cohesive and strongest European states. The ‘gathering of the lands’ across ever-larger expanses, however, dissipated the ‘national’ element and the tsarist system increasingly operated on a supranational basis. Imperial Russia from Peter the Great’s time was no longer a nation-state but subsumed numerous ethnic identities in a system focused on the person of the monarch. According to one scholar, ‘the defining characteristic of Russian statehood was the absence of ethnocentrism based on the coincidence of national and political borders’ (Agadzhanov 1993). The under-development of national consciousness only reinforced the concept of statehood (gosu-darstvennos) while at the same time exalting its great power status (derzhavnost).

National Identity and Nationism

Throughout the modern period Russia has faced the challenge of what it was, and its people in turn had to decide who they were. The failure of the romantic but doomed attempt to assert some sort of popular sovereignty in the Decembrist uprising of 1825 placed the question of democracy and constitutionalism firmly on the agenda, but at the same time endowed them with the patina of failure. For the Russian intelligentsia the question ‘What is Russia?’ became an obsessive theme. The notion of an intelligentsia, of course, is a peculiarly Russian phenomenon, defined ‘as a body of educated people who felt responsible for their country’s future—a group not unanimous in its views but united by the common ethos of a struggle against reaction’ (Walicki 1979: xv). The notion of an intelligentsia, used in this sense, is an ethical category, one that took on political features when defined as an opposition to the government. As Andrzej Walicki puts it:

The questions Russians were asking themselves at this time were all concerned with their national identity: ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where do we come from and where are we going?’ ‘What is the common contribution we can make to humanity?’ ‘What can we do in order to carry out the mission entrusted to us?. (Walicki 1979: xv-xvi)

The problem remains as acute in the first decade of the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth (Billington 2003).

The debate continues to this day over the concept of the nation and nationalism, with three major differences. The messianism of the past, the view that Russia could use the ‘privilege of backwardness’ to chart an alternative path of development that would show the more developed world how it should really be done, has weakened, although not entirely disappeared (Duncan 2000). Russia’s tragic twentieth century has demonstrated, after all the sacrifices, enthusiasm and mountain of corpses, precisely What is Not to be Done, as Lenin did not quite put it. After the fall of Soviet communism the question became ‘What is to be Undone?’; and the answer in the 1990s appeared to be almost everything. At the basic level it was long assumed that Leninism had at least resolved the problem of the state in Russia, but the events of 1991 demonstrated that it had failed to do so at every conceivable level—internal governance, external borders and national identities.

The second difference is the dissolution of the intelligentsia itself. The intelligentsia as a distinct caste had emerged in the reign of Catherine the Great in the second half of the eighteenth century, where the question of Russia’s future development took hold of educated society. It was under Catherine that we see a growing divergence between the elites of power and the elites of the mind; or, as Foucault would put it, between knowledge and power. Thereafter the Russian intelligentsia considered itself a source of political authority in its own right, a third force between the government and the propertied elite, the opposition that the government would not allow to take political form. Today the picture is very different. Post-communism has achieved what 74 years of communism was unable to do—to destroy the status of critical thinking and the ethics of the intellectual and the word as the conscience of the nation. In a peculiar way communism, of course, by its very persecution of free thought and association, elevated and granted them a status that long ago had eroded in the West. The critical role of the intelligentsia was perpetuated by the Soviet system’s peculiar blend of modernity and tradition. ‘Normality’ has now returned to Russia, and the struggle for resources and survival has undermined any residual claims of the intelligentsia to a critical ethical status. This is one reason why the eternal ‘What is Russia?’ question is today conducted in such a diffuse manner, and with the exception of some marginal groups is not at the centre of popular concerns.

Finally, the remaking of Russia as a nation-state is taking place at a time when what we might call ‘classical nationalism’ is itself, while apparently triumphant after the disintegration of the colonial empires and the dissolution of communist internationalism, being hollowed out by liberal globalization. Marxist and liberal predictions that nationalism would gradually die out appear finally to be coming to pass where states have entered broader communities, such as the European Union. A profound commitment to what has been called neo-nationalism (we shall call this nationism), however, remains prevalent in these countries, demonstrating that nationalism, even and perhaps especially in postmodern supranational contexts, is part of the larger question of ‘identity.’ In the post-Cold War era the politics of ideology have now given way to the politics of identity in which the sense of the nation is a cardinal element (Smith 1986, 1991). Identity is—like the nationalism that it selectively reflects—part of a larger set of shifting relationships (Rajchman 1995). National identity provides the cultural matrix and symbols for nationalism, which represents the politicization of a community’s culture, typically in the form of a programme for group development (Schopflin 1991). In Russia the cultural question of national identity predominates over any more focused classical nationalistic project. This is why it is useful to call the former ‘nationism,’ to describe the ideological penumbra around the nation-state, the defence of its existence and attempts to understand its civilizational identity, while leaving the term nationalism to describe projects that seek to extend the nation’s power and glory. Russian nationism is not synonymous with ethnicity, and indeed embraces the cultural specificity of the many peoples that constitute the country. It is more than the civic attempt to extend equal citizenship to diverse communities, but it is less than an ethnically-defined characterization of the dominant community. The Russian nation is like a sponge, drawing in many peoples, with unclear borders across Eurasia, and constantly changing its shape but always remaining recognizably the same (Bassin and Aksenov 2003).

From Soviet Ethnofederalism to Russian Nation-State

Although expounding an internationalist ideology, once securely in power the Bolsheviks were forced to recognize the strength of national feelings. Communism was a cosmopolitan and internationalist ideology, but it had come to power in one specific country and was compelled to acknowledge the persistence of national identities despite the ideology’s stance that internationalist class principles would take priority (Suny 2002). Rather than being resolved, the nationalities problem in the USSR was managed, and when that failed, suppressed. The elaborate ethnofederal system imposed by the regime, granting certain titular nationalities the trappings of statehood, gave formal expression to nationalism but deprived it of any real power. Bolshevik policies sustained national identities, as in their insistence in Point 5 of the Soviet passport for each citizen to register their nationality, and thus undermined the goal of creating a new nationality, the Soviet people.

The creation of ethnofederal units in the Soviet Union was a concession to a part of the population identified by its ethnic characteristics, introducing an ingredient into the process of Soviet state-building that would ultimately destroy it. Article 15 of the 1936 Soviet constitution stated that the union republics were ‘sovereign’ with the right of secession from the Union. Early drafts of the 1977 constitution deleted references to sovereignty, but it was restored precisely to differentiate them from Russia’s autonomous republics, autonomous oblasts and national districts. Article 76.1 stated: A union republic is a sovereign Soviet socialist republic that has united with other Soviet republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.’ The Russian word soyuz here means ‘alliance’ rather than the English meaning of ‘union.’ The USSR was in theory an alliance of sovereign states—but Russia’s own sovereignty was institutionally less developed than in the other 14 republics, lacking its own party organization, academy of sciences, KGB and other bodies that were to be found elsewhere. Russia was a superfluous link between the regions and the union centre and deliberately kept weak. During perestroika the belief that Russia had been exploited by the centre came to the fore, and Boris Yeltsin used these perceptions to fuel his bid for power.

Russians were the largest single national group in the USSR, with a population in 1989 of 149 million, representing 51 per cent of the Soviet population. A declining birth rate from 1960 made Russians an ever-smaller proportion of the total Soviet population. By 1979 the ethnic Russian part of the population was less than half, if the number of mixed marriages and children opting to have Russian as the nationality placed into their passports is taken into consideration. This represented a major psychological turning point and emphasized even more clearly the multinational character of the Soviet Union. In 1989 Ukrainians comprised the second largest group, with 52 million (17.8 per cent), and, together with the Belorussians at 10.3 million (3.5 per cent), Slavs made up nearly three-quarters of the total population. The differentiation of Russian nationism from a broader East Slav one is still far from complete.

Russian nationalism in the Soviet era took many forms and ranged from the officially acceptable to the unorthodox. The extreme right stressed the racial purity of the Slavs in a language couched in anti-semitic allusions and imbued with militaristic patriotism. They were particularly harsh in warning against the Chinese threat. Less extreme but still on the right was a tendency called National Bolshevism, derived from Nikolai Ustryalov, who in 1920 reversed what was to become the official slogan and argued that the new regime was ‘socialist in form, nationalist in content’ (Agursky 1987). Stalinism became imbued with a sense of Russian-centred Soviet nationalism (Brandenberger 2002), but Mussolini was mistaken when he argued that Bolshevism had disappeared in Russia and in its place a Slav form of fascism had emerged. Soviet nationalism on the whole had little in common with the fascist type since it was not based on the militant projection of one ethnic group at the expense of others—in fact, quite the opposite (Martin 2001). The Russianization that did occur was largely part of the modernization process, although there were features glorifying Russia (Russification). Latter-day national Bolsheviks praised the Soviet regime for having recreated the Russian empire and restored Russia to great power status. Soviet nationalism certainly projected its Russian credentials, but any Russian patriotism that deviated from the Soviet path was persecuted as much as any other national deviancy In certain respects expression of Russian nationalism was the least tolerated since the other nationalities had their own republican party leaderships to shelter behind whereas Russia, as noted, lacked its own communist party and other attributes of statehood (Barghoorn 1976; Allensworth 1980; Brudny 1999).

Expressions of the Russian national idea in the Soviet period were as fragmented as today. The conservative nationalists, like the group around the Molodaya Gvardiya publishing house of the Komsomol organization, can be characterized as Russites and neo-Slavophiles. They worked within the establishment and were shielded by Politburo member Dmitry Polyansky and allegedly by the KGB, since they served as a counter-weight to unorthodox Russian nationalists, who focused on religious or human rights issues. The two tendencies are labelled ‘cultural Russian nationalism’ and ‘dissident Russian messianism’ by Duncan (2000). The semi-fascist and anti-semitic features of some elements in this tendency represented morbid symptoms of the stifling immobility of the later Brezhnev years. In the November 1972 issue of Literaturnaya gazeta Alexander Yakovlev, then acting head of the Propaganda Department of the CPSU’s Central Committee, in an article entitled ‘On Antihistoricism,’ condemned the anti-Leninist stance adopted by nationalists and neo-Stalinists in some official publications, and denounced the awakening of Russian self-consciousness as ‘patriarchal mentality, nationalism and chauvinism’ (Yakovlev 1972). In response, in 1973 he was dismissed from his post and sent into ‘exile’ in Canada to serve as Soviet ambassador. Recalled by Mikhail Gorbachev, he was made a member of the Politburo and developed the increasingly liberal ideology of perestroika in the second half of the 1980s—for which he earned the hatred of the Soviet Russophiles.

During perestroika a number of ‘historical-patriotic’ groups among ethnic Russians emerged, such as Pamyat (Memory), Otechestvo (Fatherland) and Spasenie (Salvation). These groups found their support among intellectuals and, perhaps surprisingly, among scientists, but gained little support among the mass of Russians when they placed themselves to the test of the ballot box. Alexander Yanov argued that the alleged erosion of Marxist-Leninism ideology would give way not to the triumph of Western rationalist or liberal ideas but instead cleared the way for a variety of nationalist ideas while permitting a revival of the Slavophile versus Westernizers debate of the nineteenth century over the role and path of Russian development. He argued that a so-called Russian party, the fusion of unofficial and official Russian nationalism, would come together as the basis of an authoritarian but ‘sanitized’ (that is, non Marxist-Leninist) new ruling ideology (Yanov, 1978). In the event, the Soviet Russophile trend remained marginal, although it was given formal expression later in Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).

The moderate orthodox nationalists were represented by the ‘village school’ of Russian writers such as Vladimir Soloukhin, the author of Vladimir Back Roads, and Valentin Rasputin, who actively campaigned over ecological issues (above all to preserve the purity of the world’s largest fresh-water environmental treasure, Lake Baikal), joined by the painter Il’ya Glazunov. They criticized the excessive pace of industrialization, which caused great damage to the environment and Russian village life. The Moscow Headquarters of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPIK) was familiarly known as the ‘Russian club’ for its exposition of Russian nationalist sentiments. On certain issues this tendency mobilized as a powerful lobby, notably to protest against the building of a cellulose plant on Lake Baikal. Similarly, the widespread anxiety provoked by the scheme to divert the flow of the Siberian rivers from North to South were acknowledged by Gorbachev to have contributed towards the plan’s cancellation in August 1986. Major cultural figures like Academician Dmitry Likhachev gained official approval to start a fund to preserve Russian cultural artefacts.

Russian nationalism was coloured by the paradox that while the Soviet state ensured Russian political pre-eminence, in economic terms Russia was far from being the most prosperous. Unorthodox Russian nationalists condemned the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the excessive internationalism whose burden fell disproportionately on Russian shoulders, the distortion of Russian history and the imposition of socialist realism in place of Russian romanticism. National Bolshevism was condemned by more religious nationalists for espousing a Russian patriotism without a Christian foundation, based purely on the great power status of the Russian part of the Soviet Union—communism with a national face. Religious patriots stressed that Soviet nationalism was in fact antithetical to genuine Russian traditions; the Russian patriotism incorporated into Soviet nationalism, they insisted, served to buttress the power system but had little to do with genuine national traditions (Dunlop 1976,1983,1985).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn argued that Russia should be permitted to pursue its destiny freed from the burden of empire. Liberal patriots like him argued for the conversion of Russia from a military superpower to a spiritual great power, which they insisted would pose no threat to non-Russians or the outside world. Russian patriots of this sort (labelled pochven-niki, part of the soil-bound tradition associated with Dostoevsky) were contemptuous of Western democracy but merciless in their condemnation of Soviet totalitarianism (Solzhenitsyn (ed.) 1974). The authoritarian implications of such views derive from their sense of moral absolutism; the attempt once again to remove politics from society and instead impose an organic theocratic government of justice and order.

The All-Russian Social Christian Union for the Liberation of the People (VSKhSON) of the 1960s tried to sustain a uniquely Russian path, not democratic but benignly authoritarian, and endowed with a theocratic vision of Russian uniqueness. These themes were taken up by the journal Veche, edited by Vladimir Osipov, which between 1971 and 1974 proclaimed itself the voice of the ‘loyal opposition.’ It was marked by a liberal nationalism which condemned ‘the bureaucracy’ and was concerned with the regeneration of Russia based on the Church and village traditions and focused on Siberia as the rampart of a reborn nation from which the threats from China and the West could be rebuffed. All of these tendencies played their part in the post-communist context, joined by new tendencies that sought to respond to the challenges posed by the fall of the USSR.

In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn (1974) pointed out that the Soviet Union was an empire ruled not by a nation (a role usually con sidered to have been fulfilled by the Russians) but by a political party, the CPSU There appeared to be no way out of the realm of ideology for the Soviet Union since there was no nation (unlike China) which could ‘nationalize’ the revolution. As part of the broader attempt to revive the state under Gorbachev the trappings of national statehood came to life in the 15 union republics (and in some autonomous republics such as Chechnya and Tatarstan), and the Soviet state found itself surplus to requirements. However, it was not nationalism as such that was responsible for the disintegration of the USSR: the failure was above all political, the inability to transform the ‘sixteenth republic’ (the Soviet state) into a viable polity rooted in a national community (Beissinger 2002). Only in the wake of the disintegration did the various republics seek to root their (sometimes enforced) state-building in a national (but not necessarily nationalist) discourse. Indigenous elites, typically former party functionaries, grasped at the symbolic power of nationalism to consolidate their own regimes and then proceeded to ‘nationalize’ their states (Brubaker 1996). In Russia the ‘nationalizing’ agenda has at best been weak.

From Empire to Federation

Russia did not have an empire; it was an empire—although towards the end it became more classically a colonial power both in internal and external aspects. The USSR had been an empire-state, like the Bismarckian Second Reich and the Habsburg empire, based not on the colonial model of subjugated peoples but rather on a system in which all came under the tutelage of an abstract principle, in this case incarnated in the form of the collective emperor, the Communist Party (Lieven 2003). Neither the Russian empire nor the USSR had been nation-states in the conventional sense, but neither were they, according to the patriots, empires in the colonialist sense. Beissinger stresses the ambiguity in the distinction between states and empires, with the tsarist empire in particular representing ‘a confused mix of empire and state-building’ (Beissinger 1995: 158). While Russians were over-represented in all-union institutions, giving the Soviet Union the appearance of a Russian empire, the ethnofederal system had, as it were, become increasingly ethnicized but not federalized by the advancement of national elites to positions of power in their respective republics. In the post-Stalin era it was not clear whether protest against the system used the language of nationalism, or whether nationalist movements in the old regime had no other option but to become movements against the system itself. In the last years of perestroika nationalism was used as a battering ram against the communist system and what increasingly became characterized as the imperial Soviet state as well (Suny 1993).

The End of Empire

The debate over whether the USSR was an empire or not continues to this day. For the subjugated peoples of the Baltic, Western Ukraine and some other places there is little to discuss: the Soviet regime perpetuated (and indeed intensified) Russian imperial dominance. For the rest, however, the question is not so clear; while repressing overt forms of nationalism, the Soviet ethnofederal system sustained, and in some cases engendered, nationhood. The USSR certainly differed from the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman or even the British empires, which were based on very different dynamics. A geographically compact ‘empire’ such as the Soviet Union, with a high proportion of the core ethnic group living in the other territorial units, is usually called a multiethnic country (Hough 1997: 373). As Simonia argues, ‘Soviet imperialism was a rather unusual phenomenon …. The new, rather specific “metropolitan country” finally took shape as a central bureaucratic party and state machinery (establishment), with the military-industrial complex (MIC) as its mainstay. All the republics, including the Russian Republic, found themselves in the position of one big colony exploited by this metropolitan country (Simonia 1995: 20-21). This is the theory of the Soviet party-state as a hypothetical sixteenth republic, the empire of ideology, lacking national roots or a national identity but subjugating all the other republics equally—albeit in different ways.

Although Soviet leaders ‘had long identified themselves with Russian nationalism, it was a superpower nationalism and not an ethnically centred one’ (Hough 1997: 238). Russians retained an ‘all-union’ concept of territory. As the Soviet ethnographer Yurii Arutiuniyan put it, ‘Wherever they lived they actively used their own language and almost always clung to their own culture’ (Arutiuniyan 1991: 21). In most parts of the USSR Russians behaved as if they were at home and failed to learn the local language, assuming that the local peoples should learn Russian, whereas most other peoples remained loyal to a distinct homeland. It was this generalized ‘imperial’ attitude that made it more difficult for Russians after 1991 to identify with the Russian Federation as a separate homeland. The challenge now was for them to become Rossiyane (inhabitants of the Russian republic) more than Russkie (ethnic Russians). In recognition of the multinational character of the country Yeltsin promoted a civic Rossiiskii(supranational) identity (Tolz 1998,2001).

The passage from empire to nation-state entails not only the institutionalization of a new political form but also the recasting of fundamental political categories. In his proposals for the post-Soviet order presented in 1990 Solzhenitsyn called for a Russian Union comprised of Great Russians, Little Russians and White Russians. Solzhenitsyn (1991: 15) argued that, ‘The time has come for an uncompromisingchoice between an empire of which we ourselves are the primary victims, and the spiritual and physical salvation of our own people.’ Khazanov (1994: 164) notes that ‘Many Russians conceive the nation as an ontological category and/or confuse nation with ethnicity.’ In Russian, he notes, the word ‘nation’ (natsiya) means ‘ethnic group,’ a ‘people,’ ‘but not an aggregate of all citizens of a given state.’ The notion of Russia as a nation emerged slowly and is to a large degree a product of the geopolitical realities that emerged in 1991.

Russian Ethnofederalism and the Threat of Disintegration

The tension between sub-national ethnic identification and the state continues into the post-Soviet epoch. ethnofederalism remains a potent force for the disintegration of the Russian Federation, seen most notably in Chechnya. Russia is a multinational nation state, but in the 1990s it increasingly became a multi-state state, with areas like Tatarstan and the Chechen Republic retaining only a tenuous unity with the rest of Russia. A multi-state state is a precarious invention, and the leadership under Vladimir Putin from 2000 recognized that the future lay either in the establishment of a more ordered federation regulated by the rule of a single law and constitution, or the path of confederalization and possibly disintegration (Kahn 2002).

Russia remains a federation consisting of a number of different units: 21 republics, 57 ordinary regions (oblasts and krais plus two cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, with the rights of oblasts), eight autonomous okrugs and the Jewish autonomous oblast, a total of 89 so-called ‘subjects of the federation.’ The Federation Treaty of 31 March 1992 sought to regulate relations between the various units and the centre, but it was only with the adoption of the new constitution in December 1993 that, formally at least, all the subjects of federation became equal in status. The new constitution did not recognize the various declarations of sovereignty adopted by some republics, yet the signing of bilateral treaties between the federal authorities and the subjects of federation, beginning with the one signed with Tatarstan in February 1994, formalized ‘asymmetry’ in Russian federal relations. This period of federalism à la carte came to an end under Putin as he sought to establish a more uniform system, with the unimpeded priority of the writ of the constitution across the country. As part of this most regions ‘voluntarily’ renounced their bilateral treaties (by the time he came to power 46 had been signed with 42 regions).

The price paid by Yeltsin to keep the country together was regional segmentation. A rich variety of regional regimes emerged as subjects of the political process in their own right, rather than as actors in a national political process. Yeltsin’s approach can be defended as a realistic response in conditions of minimal state infrastructural capacity, and the disastrous attempt to exert the state’s despotic capacity is evident in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s neo-Brezhnevite bargain between regional elites and the centre encouraged a dynamic of sovereignty dispersal that undermined the integrity of the state. The segmentation of sovereignty only superficially took federal forms; rather, federalism was used to legitimate the aggrandisement of regional powers. State-building became fragmented, and in the regions the very idea of the centre became something alien. In his study of Russian national identity on the basis of extensive elite and popular interviews, Bo Petersson (2001) stresses the way that ‘otherness,’ one of the key elements in national identity formation, in Russia is directed as much towards ‘the centre’ as it is towards outsiders.

Path dependency suggests that earlier institutional choices limit and define later choices. This is nowhere more true than in the area of nationality relations, where the development of a distinctive form of ethnofederalism circumscribes post-communist Russia’s institutional choices. Russian federalism, like the USSR earlier, institutionalizes ethnicity in the form of ethnofederal units, and despite the urgings of Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, to re-establish a unitary state on tsarist lines (the gube m iya model where ethnicity lacks institutional representation), such a move is effectively precluded today. Nations in Russia remain defined in both political (ethnofederal) and ethno-cultural forms. It was the tension between the two that provoked the disintegration of the USSR, yet the Russian Federation in the immediate term is unlikely to suffer the same fate on a global scale. While a republic like Chechnya at one time looked as if it would be successful in its bid to secede, its tragic example means that few others are likely to follow (Hale and Taagepera 2002; see also Hale 2004). The predominance of ethnic Russians, at 81 per cent of the population, moreover, entails a different dynamic to that in the USSR.

Post-communist Russia has become an entire borderland, the distinguishing feature of post-imperial identities. The very existence of Russia as a state has been questioned. Ryszard Kapuscinski in his bookImperium formulates the problem succinctly:

[F]ollowing the disintegration of the USSR, we are now facing the prospect of the disintegration of the Russian Federation, or, to put it differently; after the first phase of decolonization (that of the former Soviet Union) the second phase begins—the decolonization of the Russian Federation. (Kapuscinski 1994: 172)

The strongest exponent of this is Rafael Khakimov, one of president Mintimir Shaimiev’s chief advisers in the early 1990s and still an influential figure in Tatarstan. He espoused the ‘decolonization’ model, contrasting a Moscow-based officialdom and ‘a provincial, colonial nation living in another world’ (1993: 16). In his view, as the regions struggled for greater cultural and economic autonomy and gained ever more legal sovereignty, Russia itself would gradually disappear:

Russia will increasingly become an ephemeral notion limited to rather vague emotional slogans. There is no hope of preserving Russia in its earlier condition. Russia’s borders have lost their legitimacy There are no legal norms whereby its approximate borders could be defined … Regional interests and the idea of regionalization offer a way out of the impasse for Russia. (Khakimov 1993: 62)

In this way sub-national (regional) identities emerged as one of the dominant discourses of the 1990s, condemning the Russian state-building endeavour as fundamentally illegitimate. For Khakimov, Russia as a geopolitical reality is destined to disappear.

It was fear of this coming about that prompted Putin to restore state coherence. He took advantage of the widespread desire to restore greater integrity to the state, and to give form to the political nation. While ethnofederal separatism remained strong in Chechnya, elsewhere the strong regional identities of macro-regions such as the Urals and Siberia now lack a separatist dynamic. Putin is more of a nation and state builder than an empire restorer, and rejected any forceful attempts to restore anything like the former Soviet Union. In internal politics he recognized, with the terrible exception of Chechnya, that any attempt at an overtly authoritarian solution to Russia’s myriad problems, like the August 1991 coup earlier, would provoke the result that it seeks to avoid, namely the disintegration of the country. He recognized the multiplicity of post-communist identities, as long as they remained within the framework of the constitution, and recognized the authority of the federal authorities.

On the level of nationality politics this means that one might simultaneously consider oneself a Russian, a Tatar and, residually, a Soviet person, while politically favouring democracy and the restoration of closer links between the former republics of the Soviet Union. It is for this reason that Valery Tishkov (director of the Institute of Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an adviser to the government) argued for the development of a multicultural nation on the basis of a ‘dual and not mutually exclusive identity (cultural-ethnic and state-civic).’ The formula proposed a strategy of ‘the gradual de-ethnicization of statehood and the de-etatization of ethnicity’ (Tishkov 1995: 9). This to a degree is the programme pursued by Putin in a type of neo-Jacobin republican state-building endeavour.

Constituting the Nation

Russia has traditionally had a strong state, a weak society and an under-developed sense of nation. The imperial idea substituted for nationalism, and thus Russia remained rooted in nineteenth-century ideas of national grandeur, but failed fully to enter the era of mass nationalism. Today, however, it would be misleading simply to say that Russia has a weak state and a weak nation: in fact, the country has an exceptionally strong cultural sense of its own identity, although this lacks clear political characteristics. In this respect both political nationalism and ethnonationalism are relatively weak, while cultural nationalism (the civilizational identity that we called nationism above) is extremely strong. As in so many other areas, terms and definitions that are appropriate for the rest of Europe have to be modified when applied to Russia.

Nationism and the ‘Russia Idea’

Post-communist Russia is engaged in a multiple process of political and economic modernization, accompanied by the passage from expansive ‘empire-state’ to a reduced notion of the nation-state. The national subject of these transformations has not been resolved, and thus the ‘Russian question’ remains on the agenda (Allensworth 1998). As we have suggested above, the very idea of nationalism is a highly ambivalent category and remains an arena where different representations of the national idea are contested. Before 1917 Russian nationalism became associated with the shift in empire-building strategy following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Alexander III sought to employ Russification policies to enhance the cohesion of an empire under strain from within from various stripes of revolutionaries and from outside by a new array of great powers (Germany, and later Japan). In the Soviet era Russian nationalism was submerged in the larger communist modernization and formally internationalist project. Today Russia once again finds itself facing renewed plans for modernization and international integration, provoking typical reactions ranging from adaptation to nativist rejectionism.

‘Nationalism’ as such is alien to the Russian tradition, where the focus has historically been on maintaining the state and advancing the culture. Igor Klyamkin noted that ‘Nationalism has not taken root in the Russian mentality, and contrary to the West, is perceived by Russians with suspicion’ (Klyamkin 1995: 19). Patriots in the Slavophile tradition consider nationalism yet another Western invention, like Marxism, imposed on long-suffering Russia. Pozdnyakov (1994: 61) insists that patriotism, love of the motherland and one’s people, has nothing in common with nationalism. In his view ‘Nationalism is the last stage of communism, the last attempt of an outdated ideology to find in society support for dictatorship’ (1994: 74). In Russia nationalism is a recent political phenomenon, and even then has shallow roots. ‘Russia has been a state-nation rather than a nation-state … identity has been centered on the state, which became an empire long before the population consolidated as a nation’ (Goble 1995: 163). The state was the primary agent of development and the focus of identity, with the society left to follow.

The ‘Russian idea’ is the term used to express ‘the conviction that Russia had been entrusted with the divine mission of resuscitating the world by sharing with it the revelation that had been granted to her alone’ (Szamuely 1988: 92). The monk Philotheus in 1510 penned his famous address to the Tsar arguing that ‘two Romes have fallen, but the third stands,’ suggesting that Moscow should take up where Rome and Constantinople had left off, a view that later took the form of the conviction that the Russian nation was a ‘God-bearing people’ (narod bogonosets). The theme of the individual’s duties to the state, the idea that collectivism, known as sobornos f or communality, was of a higher moral order than crass individualism, and the view of the Russian as otherworldly and idealistic rather than grossly materialistic like the Westerner, all contribute to the Russian idea (McDaniel 1996).

The belief that the country is fated to tread a distinct path is not unique to Russia, but its combination with a residual messianic belief in the transcendental virtues of Russian exceptionalism is. Almost every significant Russian writer has had something to say on the question of ‘the Russian idea,’ and the whole notion is at the centre of debate over Russia’s path of post-communist development and the relevance of Western notions of liberal democracy to Russia. The Russian idea in one way or another suggests a unique path for Russia, and reflects Nikolai Berdyaev’s view that Western capitalism and Soviet communism both represented blind alleys in the development of humanity (Berdyaev 1946). Dostoevsky was not the only one who believed that from Russia would come the salvation of the world. Nevertheless, he refused to be bound by any narrow nationalist agenda and sought to broaden Slavophile ideas to become the source of universal redemption (Hudspith 2004). However, as noted, messianism has been on the wane, and exclusionary forms of Russian nationalism find relatively few supporters. The potential for exploiting Russian nationalism, which both Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov in different ways counted on, was disappointed. There is no influential nationalist political party in Russia and Russian nationalism is not an independent subject of the political process. This may change, however, under the pressure of terrorist shocks and internal disorder.

State- and Nation-Building Projects: Official Nationism

National identity is both immanent (passive) and instrumental (projectural). In the active voice, national identity takes the form of a national project. A ‘national project’ is a predominating, coherent vision arising out of a complex of alternative variants of development models proposed by different political forces and individual thinkers of a given community. In the case of Russia today, its national project is multifaceted and highly fragmented, although some common themes emerge: the maintenance of the integrity of Russia as a sovereign multi-ethnic state, the entrenchment of political identity and economic self-sufficiency, recognition of its international great power status, and ensuring predominance in Eurasia. Some sections of the Russian elite take a rather more ‘democratic’ approach, emphasizing human rights, the development of civil society and enforcing the separation of powers and the rule of law. For the neo-communist left, there is greater emphasis on social cohesion and equality, while for traditional nationalists Russia should become the core of a new ‘state-gathering’ enterprise to restore the unity of the East Slavic world. Even some liberals have been attracted to such ideas, as in the call by Anatoly Chubais, one of the leaders of the democratic Union of Right Forces, in the December 2003 parliamentary election campaign to establish a ‘liberal empire’ based on Russia’s economic power over former Soviet states.

One reason for the weakness of projectual Russian nationalism today is that it has a small role to play in the current remodernization project. As Mikhail Molchanov puts it:

It is not paving a road to modernity. It is not being called upon to consolidate a socially divided society, or to create a new, postcolonial identity for the empire’s former subjects … This nationalism was born in the fight for resources that had transformed amorphous movements for democratization and decentralization into a struggle for full national independence, as only full independence gave the right to choose developmental paths and international alliances freely. (Molchanov 2000: 283)

With independence achieved, nationalism in Russia took on a subaltern role. In the passage out of communism statehood was thrust upon the local administrative elite, and they certainly were in no mood to allow various intelligentsia or religious elites to dominate state- and nation-building agendas.

The prolonged debate over the adoption of Russia’s new national symbols—the flag, emblem and a new national anthem—revealed Russia’s confused identity. According to Andranik Migranyan (2000: 3), ‘a country without symbols is only a territory, and the people a population.’ Putin insisted that ‘The difficulty over Russia’s national symbols is real. If we accept the fact that in no way we could use the symbols of the previous epoch … then we must admit that our mothers and fathers lived useless and senseless lives, that they lived their lives in vain.’ In a speech on 28 December 2000, Putin argued that Russia must ‘stop living in permanent contradiction with itself, and on this basis sought to forge a syncretic Russian national identity that drew on all phases of Russian history (Sakwa 2004). The adoption in 2000 of the tsarist eagle as the nation’s emblem, the republican tricolour of 1917 as the country’s flag, and a modified version of the Soviet anthem sought to reconcile all political generations. Soon after Putin returned the red star to the Russian Army, reinforcing the sense of continuity with the past, while refusing to restore the hammer and sickle or the name ‘Stalingrad’ to the city of Volgograd; although in 2004 the word ‘Stalingrad’ once more commemorated that most terrible of battles at the eternal flame by the Kremlin walls.

Putin’s model of liberal republicanism espouses individual citizenship against traditional communitarian views of group solidarity. The central principle of the 1993 Russian constitution is that individuals, not communities, are the supreme legal entity in the country. The USSR had been negligent in establishing a national identity, perpetuating separate ethnicized identities through the notorious fifth point in the passports issued from 1932. From 1997 Russia began to issue new passports. Ethnicity is no longer stated on the new passports, provoking a storm of protest in Tatarstan, Dagestan and some other ethnofederal republics. President Mintimer Shaimiev in Tatarstan, for example, feared that the officially recorded existence of non-Russian majorities at local level, in effect the source of ethnocratic power, was being deliberately undermined. Defenders of Tatar national identity were concerned that the end of the formal registration of nationality would lead to the identity of minority ethnic groups becoming lost in the amorphous mass of a denationalized citizenry. It appeared to be the first step towards the guberni-fication of Russia (that is, as noted, its transformation into a unitary state), a policy long advocated by Solzhenitsyn and Zhirinovsky in the belief that sub-national identities were no more than constituent strands of the rich tapestry that was the Russian nation. Being half Jewish himself, Zhirinovsky could speak with a certain authority on the question. Even Jews, long discriminated against on the basis of their passport identification, were hesitant about the loss of ethnic markers as Russia’s post-communist leaders sought to forge a de-ethnicized civic identity. This was the view defended by Tishkov, who insisted that the abolition of Point 5 was a major advance, removing one of the most divisive forms of totalitarian control, and allowing the emergence of a civic national identity (Tishkov 1996). Putin sought to give substance to Yeltsin’s idea of Rossiiskii citizenship. The de-ethnicized citizen became reconstituted as the subject of Russian political space.

The Nation Today

Nationalism is a set of competing symbols over which elites struggle, but in contemporary Russia there is little passion at the national level for the struggle. Nationalist fundamentalism remains a relatively minor political phenomenon. Perhaps more important is the escape from tradition, from the burden of messianic interpretations of Russian national destiny in either the traditional imperialist or communist forms. Post-communist democratization for Russia is a way of escaping from the burden of the past, and allows a reinterpretation of tradition that brings to the fore the democratic elements in Russian political culture (Petro 1995).

With the dissolution of communist power the Russian Orthodox Church provides a template for the definition of Russian-ness. As with Orthodox churches elsewhere, while the church does have a national-political dimension, in the post-communist context it is challenged by a number of other traditions, including the secularism with which the Soviet project was identified. Orthodoxy’s engagement with issues of social policy and political matters, as Noel Malcolm stresses, is more distant than is the case with Protestantism or Roman Catholicism: ‘The intellectual energies of Orthodoxy,’ he notes, ‘have been devoted to mystical theology, and the real focus of religious life is placed … on just one thing: the celebration of the liturgy.’ He goes on to argue that the alleged Byzantine legacy of ‘caesaro-papism,’ the fusion of temporal and spiritual rule, has been misunderstood, and that the problem is not so much Orthodoxy endowing politics with mysticism and fanaticism, but the inverse: ‘far from fusing themselves with politics, the Orthodox Churches withdrew from social and political engagement into a realm of contemplation and liturgical celebration’ (Malcolm 1998: 13). In Russia it is only belatedly that the Orthodox Church has begun to develop a social policy, but it remains a body torn between traditionalists who seek to impose the hegemony of the church on society, and those who see the church acting more modestly as an agent of moral and social renewal in a democratic pluralistic society (Knox 2005).

The distinction between nationalist and patriotic trends in Russian thought remains. Solzhenitsyn’s patriotism revived elements of the Slavophile critique of Western liberalism but sought to find a democratic way to institutionalize Russian exceptionalism. Right-wing nationalists, however, condemn the West in its entirety and retreat into isolationist policies. The collapse of the reform communist current duringperestroika opened the way for an open alliance between irreconcilable parts of the communist tradition, Stalinists and neo-communists, and right-wing Russian nationalism, something that Yanov had predicted more than a decade earlier.

In the exit from communism, two main paths were available for the communist party, social democratization or ‘Russification.’ The CPRF under the leadership of Zyuganov took the latter (Urban and Solovei 1997; March 2002). This placed them in direct competition with other nationalistic groupings, and meant that they were also essentially fighting for the same political terrain as authoritarian statists. One of these is Zhirinovsky’s LDPR. In his best-known work The Last Push to the South, Zhirinovsky argues that Russia’s geopolitical problems (and the world’s) would be resolved by a Russian advance to the Indian Ocean that would bring Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan under Moscow’s control. His thinking is imperial rather than nationalistic, although he clearly privileges ethnic Russians over all others as the core of empire. The imperial theme is strong in Dmitry Rogozin’s Rodina (Motherland) party, one of the main opposition groups in the Fourth Duma from December 2003. The Rodina party is potentially the vehicle for the ugliest manifestations of classical nationalism.

There are numerous right-wing (left-conservative) nationalists, a tendency that includes Alexander Prokhanov, Igor Shafarevich, Lev Gumilev (who died in 1992) and Alexander Dugin, called the Russian New Right by Thomas Parland (1993). The mere mention of the names above, however, shows the enormous variety in nationalist thinking. Prokhanov is obsessed with empire and is a Slavophile who insists on a ‘sovereign path for Russia.’ ‘Russia,’ he insisted, ‘will keep producing for the world, and particularly the Western world, the idea of a subtle irrationalism, of a universal love, of pan-humanity.’ He showed little of this universal love towards what he called the Occidentalists: ‘Today’s Westernisers in Russia are the liberals and radicals. They are criminals; they are destroying Russia (Prokhanov 1997: 76-7). Dugin’s geopolitical Eurasianism returns to the ideas of conservative Russian nationalists of the late nineteenth century, who opposed the liberalism of the West and bureaucratic absolutism in favour of a popular authoritarianism based on the unity of the tsar and the people (Gubman 2004). Lev Gumilev brilliantly but eccentrically expounded on the birth of nations (ethnogenesis) and Russia’s Eurasian destiny. Sharafevichs denunciation of Russophobia was in part accurate and in part demented, and is a theme taken up by the author Alexander Zinoviev. It is for this reason that Parland’s simple description of them as ‘right-wing’ is inadequate: the ‘left-wing’ component needs to be recognized: right-wing thinking veers into fascism at one extreme, moderates into democratic conservatism in the middle and runs again into Russified communism at the other end.

Yanov compares contemporary Russia with Weimar Germany, and although marred by sweeping generalizations and the failure to define terms, some of his points are valid. He insists that the transition to capitalism by no means denotes the triumph of democracy, that the failure of democracy in Russia would have enormous international security implications, and asserts that the West in the early 1990s focused too narrowly on economic reform and failed to support the broader democratization process (Yanov 1995). During perestroika the rise of the extreme right, above all the various tendencies of Pamyat, attracted much attention, yet when faced by the test of the ballot box they attracted few votes. Today there are numerous extreme rightist organizations, some of whom are fascists or neo-fascists, yet none can be portrayed as a genuine mass movement (Shenfield 2000). The fascistic Russian National Unity disintegrated leaving a residue in the inchoate racist violence of skinhead groups.

Social surveys agree that the major identities of respondents were social and professional, and only then ethnic and state (Grushin 2000: 8). A survey by the St Petersburg Institute for Complex Sociological Research (NIKSI) revealed that while 59.7 per cent are proud of being born in Russia, ‘serving Russia’ is a priority only for 2.7 per cent, appearing last on a list of priorities. Even ‘state-mindedness’ is not a slogan that attracts many votes, while a majority reject the use of military force for the sake of statehood, with statehood as such valued by no more than a third (Cheremnykh 1997). Other survey evidence suggests little support for imperial policies, although cultural nationalism remains strong. Russians are not only becoming citizens, but their citizenship is as much of the world as it is of a narrowly defined Russia. As in other countries, statist and cultural forms of nationalism transcend the old dichotomies of ethnic versus civic forms (Gans 2003).


As an exercise in nation-building the USSR proved an epic failure. The Bolsheviks tried to transform an empire into a state based on ill-defined notions of ‘socialist internationalism,’ and failed. Russia is now seeking to build a multinational state based on universal citizenship while exploiting the resources of only the mildest of forms of nationalism, a nationism that is inclusive and culturally based. The development of a post-communist national identity is distorted by a range of distinctive factors: the legacy of empire; the presence of some 25 million Russians in the former Soviet republics; the existence of ethnofederal republics within the borders of its formally sovereign republic; the humiliation of the geopolitical collapse at the end of the Cold War; the unprecedented scale of economic collapse and social polarization. At the same time, a number of salutary features reinforce a sense of national cohesion: the Russian Orthodox Church; the vigorous development of patriotic Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and numerous other confessions; a rich cultural legacy that represents a deep well of social capital; and a civilizational sense of national identity. The main problem today is to give this a coherent political form. While Russian nationalism in the late nineteenth century might have begun to reach the ‘mass movement’ phase (Hroch 1985), its history for most of the twentieth century has taken a very different trajectory.

Post-communist mass Russian nationalism has not been mobilized to pursue an aggressive or irredentist foreign policy, even though there is a broad consensus among elites that Russia must remain a great power. At home, the primordialist view of ‘one state—one nation’ has not taken root. Russia is at last becoming a nation-state based on principles of ethnic and religious diversity and civic inclusion. Nationism is triumphant, although the danger of nationalism can never be discounted.