The Strange Case of Russian Nationalism

FEATURES | March 24, 2014     

The Strange Case of Russian NationalismSochi and then Crimea may have played to the Russian soul, but they masked weaknesses and incoherence in today’s Russian nationalism. The country will – to be sure – accept ethnic diversity, but its people will fight to the death for territory

Today’s Russian state – the Russian Federation – is plagued by complex, world-historical tensions around the question of national identity. Although Westerners typically presume the existence of a strong, even aggressive Russian nationalism, explicit Russian nationalism is today politically weak. To be sure, Russian nationalism has greater growth potential than its two competing post-Soviet ideologies – communism and liberalism. But this nationalism is diluted and undermined by contradictory dynamics issuing from two historical-strategic logics: first, the imperial logic of pre-Soviet Russia; and second, the grammar of Soviet federalism. Both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union bequeathed to the Russian Federation a kaleidoscopic legacy of different ‘nations’ with ethno-territorial enclaves, juxtaposed with a popular aspiration for a more homogeneous, united Russian nation. And so while most states in the EU in general – and Western Europe in particular – have learned to negotiate the tension between the legitimacy of central government across vast spaces and competing ethnic claims to chunks of national territory, Russia’s challenges in this respect are far from resolved.

As the Russian historian Alexei Miller has argued, Russian state-building has historically been dominated by imperial and federal principles. Russian nation-building was typically at best implicit – even underground – in character. With the exception of the Russification policies that took hold at the end of the 19th century through to the start of the Soviet period in the second and third decades of the 20th century, the Russians did not, as a general rule, undertake to Russify, through force or repression, most of the other ethnic groups on their territory – as did, say, the French. Au contraire: Russians lived alongside other religions and cultures for centuries, fully integrating non-Russian elites into the common state hierarchy. Indeed, under the Soviets, the central government in Moscow even stimulated ethnic and cultural diversity across the country.

In the same breath, however, the Russians have seldom been, and today are nary, prepared to lose territories controlled by Russia but otherwise populated by non-Russians. Therein lies the curious character of Russian nationalism in this early new century: largely porous in respect of majority-minority relations (except in a few spheres of public life), but strongly identifying with, and committed to, the defence of the entirety of the territory of Russia. The issue of the relatively small Kuril Islands, integrated into Russia after WW2 and disputed to this day by Japan, is a case in point: Russian public opinion is nervous about any hint of negotiations between Moscow and Tokyo in respect of a compromise solution. And yet the question of the Kuril Islands is nearly never explicitly discussed in public – that is, there is no political force or politician promoting the maximalist stance in respect of these islands and Japan. Rather, what seems to prevail is a collective taboo setting very firm psychological and behavioural boundaries for political elites. These boundaries were confirmed in the curious context of the otherwise pragmatic and largely technical border agreement brokered by President Vladimir Putin with China in 2004. That agreement deprived Russia of a tiny island and part of another island on the Amur River. Although these islands were little known by the Russian public, the agreement was used as ammunition against Putin even by those who had previously supported him on most issues. These boundaries will also make it nearly impossible for Moscow to retreat, in the foreseeable future, on its occupation of Crimea.

Why, then, do we say that Russian nationalism is politically weak? Answer: The dominant political figures and major political parties of the two post-Soviet decades have outright refused to make, or have been very cautious about making, any explicit nationalist claims that could alienate non-Russians inside Russia. The Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, once considered the most nationalist of all Russian parties, is headed by a leader who has publicly stated that his “mother was Russian, and [his] father was a lawyer.” (Russians understood right away that Zhirinovsky’s father was in fact Jewish.) His rhetoric swings between allusions to imperial greatness and ethnic Russian claims, while his own persona contradicts his bona fides as an ethnic nationalist. More importantly, all three Russian presidents of the post-Soviet era carefully avoided explicit statements or speeches in favour of a Russian nation-state. Instead, they spoke (and continue to speak) of a multinational people in Russia and about Rossyane – a political neologism denoting, since 1991, all of the citizens of the Russian state, but a term largely bereft of emotional resonance.

The majority ethnic group of the modern Russian state – Russkye – does not today have a proper political name. An implicit nationalistic mood is therefore carefully contained and managed – granted, sometimes with difficulty – by Russia’s political elites. The rhetoric of the greatness and independence of the new Russia under Putin on the global stage – including in the recent Sochi Olympics – certainly plays with these Russian national feelings, and may be used as a proxy for Russian nationalism, but it quite conspicuously never gives them their name. This is a key omission, even if on some scenarios – including in respect of the future of Crime and, more broadly, the Ukrainian question – this nationalism may very well intensify and become less susceptible to self-limitation, control or channelling.

The Russian Federation is today composed of some 80 political-territorial units, including regular territorial entities (regions, oblasts, krais, etc.) – mostly in Russia’s West – and more than 20 national or ethnic republics or ‘autonomous oblasts’ – including Dagestan, Chechnya, Tuva and Yakutia – in Russia’s South and East. Some 160 different ethnic groups live on the territory of Russia. Still, ethnic Russians account for some 82 to 85 percent of the total population. No other ethnic group accounts for more than five percent of the population: according to the 2010 census (never very reliable), Tatars make up nearly four percent of the population, and Ukrainians just under two percent. Defenders of the current ethno-territorial structure of the Russian Federation in the 1990s and 2000s used to stress the number of different ethnic groups and nations living in Russia. By contrast, most nationalists note the high proportion of ethnic Russians as proof of the country’s relative homogeneity. Two contradictory claims about the country therefore emerge: a) Russia is a traditional, homogeneous nation-state, with a small proportion of minorities; and b) Russia is a highly diverse, multinational country. For their part, the Russian constitution and founding documents refer only to “the multinational people of Russia,” and never to the “Russian nation” – effectively in support of the multinational idiom.

External observers often underestimate the import and dominance of the post-Soviet multinational framework in Russia. Indeed, they often misunderstand the fact that, over the centuries, Russian nationalism has rarely been the dominant ideology in respect of the evolution of the relationship between the territory of Russia and the symbolic community of the Russian state; that is, they fail to appreciate that the Russian public project was, for the most part, never driven by a nation-state-building imperative, logic or vector.

The nucleus of the Russian regular state was born in the 15th century under the rule of Ivan III. Thereafter, throughout its history, the state constantly increased its size from its nucleus in Moscow to the culturally and ethnically proximate Russian region-states, gradually incorporating distinct populations with their own religions, customs and languages. The first block in the future federal structure was put in place by Ivan IV through the conquest of the Kaganate of Kazan in 1552, and one of the last and hardest conquests took place in the 19th century: Chechnya. This prolonged territorial expansion was reversed only at the end of the 20th century. (Such expansion proved impossible in Central or Western Europe, where the density of population and the level of civilization were already very high.) In Russia, the great socioeconomic, religious and ethnic diversity of the new territories was embedded in the larger physical and spiritual context of great geographic contiguity and continuity. Conquered or attached territories did not become bona fide colonies; rather, they preserved essential differences from the metropolis or centre. Religion, rather than ethnic origin, was the main social marker distinguishing peoples, and religious diversity was tolerated and even protected by the Imperial Crown. On this score, political allegiance in the Russian Empire was directed toward the Emperor (the Tsar), to a lesser degree to the Russian Orthodox faith, and finally to the Fatherland (understood as the empire).

Tatars or Germans adopting the Russian Orthodox faith would become ‘Russians’ in a generation or two. Different terms were used interchangeably to denominate this group: Russians, Great Russians, Rossyane. However, across the vast territory of the empire, the formation of a distinct Russian national identity and the Russification of the non-Russian population took place relatively late – to wit, in the second half of 19th century. Indeed, Russification policies predominantly touched Russia’s Western provinces, triggering rejectionist movements in the well-established national communities of Poland and Finland. Russification pushes also generated competing nationalist movements in Ukraine and Byelorussia, which were previously seen as variations of the Great Russian community of Slav and Orthodox peoples of the Russian Empire.

Russian nationalism started to play a key role in Russian governance only under Alexander III (after the assassination of Alexander II by anarchists). This new nationalistic state logic later contributed to the breakup of the empire, creating more tensions than unity. By contrast, the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Tsarist order sought to win the support of the emerging non-Russian nationalist and anti-imperial movements in order to reunite the territory of the Russian Empire within a new symbolic order. To this end, borrowing from the Austro-Hungarian social democrats, the Bolsheviks mobilized such terms and formulae as ‘national-territorial division,’ ‘national-cultural autonomy,’ ‘right of self-determination,’ ‘nation,’ ‘small peoples,’ and ‘entitled nation.’ Of course, national-territorial autonomy was granted on the strict condition of loyalty and subordination to the central political body – the Communist Party – imposing strict discipline and obedience, but otherwise flirting with many species of national pride through symbols of independence and the recognition of various nations. As part of this policy, each Soviet citizen had an ascribed ‘nationality’ – that is, an ethnic association symbolically connected to a specific territory within the USSR. At its apogee, the Soviet Union was composed of 15 republics, each bearing a different national label: Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, und so weiter. And within the Russian Soviet republic itself, there were numerous territorial enclaves still, each with a distinct ethnic title. These enclaves were inherited almost without change by today’s Russia.

In the Soviet period, the heads of these national entities, appointed by the centralized party-state network, were usually non-Russians. They represented the entitled ethnic population or group. The party structure also reflected this ethno-territorial division, with each republic having its national party. The ethnic Russians, for their part, had no right to such symbolic privilege, even though Russians were often portrayed through official propaganda as the ‘big brother’ of the other Soviet nations. In other words, while Russians had no ‘entitled’ political representation in the USSR, they nevertheless provided the backbone of Soviet identity in the form of a secondary or supra level of identification hovering over and above the ethno-territorial entities. This supervening Soviet identity was understood as ‘universal,’ but drew conspicuously on some of the highest cultural achievements of the Russian culture. A Russian ethnic and cultural superstructure therefore served as the basis for an ever-expanding world Union of Soviet Republics, bringing in new nations and using Russian as the lingua franca.

If the Russian-Soviet melting pot used Russian nationality as a cultural vehicle for a higher non-national identity, it did so at the price of banning explicit public claims to Russian national identity. The apparent contradiction between a universal Russian identity and ethno-territorial policies favouring non-Russian nations generated tensions for Russians and non-Russians alike. Where it occurred, violence or repression against non-Russians was often seen as a manifestation of Russian nationalism, while ethnic Russians themselves gradually started to feel deprived of clear political representation, as the Russian nation fused into the general, anational Soviet. By the start of perestroika under Gorbachev, acute nationalistic claims were on the rise in more than half of the 15 republics, while up to 30 percent of the population of the USSR arguably already considered itself to be primarily Soviet (rather than Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian or Moldovan). This means that, in the net, and in the long run, the experiment of forging a new Soviet identity side by side with the promotion of ethno-territorial diversity contributed slightly more to the development of ethnic nationalism than to the building of an overarching political community.

Russian nationalism famously grew after WW2. Still, it never had political articulation until perestroika. Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies, launched in the 1930s, were part of his flirtation with Russian nationalistic moods. His relegitimation of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943 was specifically aimed at boosting patriotic feelings during the war against the Germans. (Consider the irony that a Georgian leader who spoke Russian with a strong accent was the most dramatic face of 20th century Russian imperialism coopting Russian nationalism.) A thicker Russian patriotic posture predominated in the military command and in the secret services. It had some practical implications: Jews, Tatars and Lithuanians were not allowed to populate the upper ranks of the KGB from the 1960s; and several top mathematical and scientific universities had tacit quotas on Jews in order to limit their presence in the sensitive military technology sectors, as they were considered likely future émigrés.

In the first decade after the dissolution of the USSR, a federal framework seemed to be the only plausible solution for integrating national-territorial enclaves – many of which were making claims to sovereignty – in the ambit of a new Russia. Federalism was also associated with democracy and liberalism (the dominant Russian ideology of the 1990s), with the electoral programme of Boris Yeltsin stating in 1996: “[Federalism] is a territorial form of democracy.” This post-Soviet federal approach to internal diversity was conceptually close to Soviet multinational federalism but, crucially, lacked the ideological glue of the old Communist and Soviet communities. Russian nationalism, through the federal logic, ceded political and symbolic weight to non-Russian republics, thereby becoming intellectually marginal. And the lack of a positive imagined community common to the entire country led to an official search for a new ‘national idea.’ This search – in its positive and negative manifestations alike – has to date yielded little fruit. (The Sochi Olympics were doubtless part of this search. The fate of the Ukrainian question will clearly also feed this search.)

In the 1990s, the weakening of the federal centre – the Kremlin – led to the atomization of Russia’s regions, including new and renewed ‘asks’ and bids for regional autonomy. By historical accident, the national and autonomous republics were the parts of the country richest in natural resources. As such, local ethnic elites controlled the natural resources, while ethnic Russians were often discriminated against, and had limited access to power within local political, economic and cultural networks. As Russia entered the new century and its second post-Soviet decade, the intellectual irritation of Russian nationalist authors with the multinational diversity of Russian federalism rose. This supported Vladimir Putin’s push for the realignment of the regional barons to the new centre. After Putin’s 2005 amendment allowing the President of Russia to nominate the leaders of federal units without elections (reinstating, after the 2004 Beslan massacre, a muscular ‘power vertical’ from the Kremlin), the federal idea in Russia lost its constitutional sense – even while still maintaining, to some extent, the symbolic multinational framework. Let us note, however: Putin’s project has been that of a highly centralized and autocratic state that otherwise respects its internal ethnic diversity. It is not – to be sure – a nation-building project along ethnic Russian lines. Rhetoric aside, it remains to be seen whether the Crimea gambit changes this general grammar.

A new political nation encompassing various nationalities and ethnic groups under one common Russian identity is an alternative conception of the Russian state recently advanced by Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who also has insisted on the defence of Russia’s territorial integrity, including in respect of Chechnya). This new community would require imagining a much more open definition of ‘Russianness’ than the current post-Soviet idiom, which forces Russians to choose between ethnic homogeneity and territory. However, the purely ethnic (rather than cultural) identification of each individual inculcated by the Bolsheviks still makes most ethnic Russians reluctant to recognize as ‘Russians’ those who are ethnically not – even if the extant cultural codes are quite porous. This deeply entrenched ethnic identification among Russian citizens would appear to militate against the project of a new, post-ethnic Russian community. And yet the vast non-Russian territories of Russia make ethno-political nationalism plainly incompatible with the preservation over the long run of the entire expanse of Russia’s geography. In other words, only the promotion of new political and cultural forms of symbolic unity can help Russia get out of this box. If these new forms of unity do not emerge, then the tension between the logic of blood and that of territory will before long destabilize Russia (see the Feature article by Leonid Kosals in GB’s Fall 2012 issue). Crimea and Ukraine – exacerbating as they do the tension between blood and territory – will certainly affect the prospects and timetable of such destabilization.

The growing population of Muslims – many of them Russian citizens from various ethnic republics – in Russia’s largest cities constitutes a new challenge and trigger for more active Russian nationalist rhetoric – in some cases, even riots. Will the children of these immigrants from the Russian South one day feel themselves to be, and be recognized by others as, Russians? This is not an easy bet. The mood of Russian nationalist authors in this regard is deeply sceptical. Some of these writers, as well as the prominent opposition politician and blogger Alexey Navalny, have argued that, instead of “feeding the Caucasus” (especially in the form of military subsidies from the centre), letting Chechnya go would, in the net, be a better option for the Russian state. By way of reaction, a special law was recently passed by the Duma making it a crime to question or impugn “Russia’s territorial integrity.”

Of course, the majority of Russia’s nationalist commentators recognize full well that explicit Russian political nationalism endangers Russia’s territorial integrity, and as such that the potential price of such nationalism is high indeed. In other words, in trying to define the Russian nation, nationalists have to choose between national territory and national homogeneity. Thus far, the majority has chosen territory. This seems to be ‘in the blood,’ as it were, or otherwise in the cultural code – even if Navalny’s arguments about Chechnya suggest that the preference for territory will increasingly need to withstand greater intellectual scrutiny than in the past. (To be sure, there will be greater scrutiny in Russia of the Crimean move once the waters calm.)

The absence of a politically recognized Russian nation in Russia makes the state weaker and increases the symbolic role of the political leader, who must in turn personalize the unity of the implicit nation, while publicly defending the multiethnic character of the country. But this personification of Russian unity inevitably reduces to incoherence and inconsistency. It also ties Russian unity dangerously to the quality, decisions and fortunes of the leader. Russia’s political evolution will certainly have to move beyond this state of affairs and attempt to draw a more coherent and positive ‘imagined community’ linking the territory and its people. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed: Europe’s long and arduous history of ethnic conflict and nationalistic wars serves as a warning. But the wager is certainly worth making if the new Russia and its Russians are to invent the new content and psychological grammar that they so desperately seek.


Timur Atnashev is a lecturer and programme director at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA).

(Illustration: Peter Ryan)

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