The 4th of November is the traditional day for the so-called Russian March, a protest parade for various nationalist groups. Both inside and outside Russia Russian nationalism is often looked at with suspicion if not identified as an immediate threat to peace. Plenty of articles will be written about the marches. You can find them elsewhere. The question is I am interested in is not why groups connected to acts of ethnic violence are allowed to march their banners through town, but why many ordinary and often very sympathetic Russians show moderate sympathy with the plight of their more extreme nationalist compatriots. Here I would like to provide some context to that question by translating one of the most convincing cases made for Russian nationalism I have encountered.
I realize that the aim to ‘understand Russian nationalism’ sounds a little provocative. One of the first specialized books about Russia that I read was ‘the Mind Aflame’ written by Valery Tishkov, who served as Minister of Nationalities under Boris Yeltsin. In one of the chapters of the book Tishkov argues the case for a Rossian nation based on citizenship rather than ethnicity. In the light of ethnic conflicts erupting during and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that was a case with considerable merit. It was an attractive idea, especially to a foreigner, who understood little of Russia. The citizens of the Russian Federation would come to associate themselves with their new country on the basis of the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution, and not the imperialistic sentiments of the past.
Russians would become Rossians. This significance of the difference of only this one letter is difficult to convey into the English language for we use only one English word ‘Russian’ for two Russian words that differ in meaning greatly. The article cannot be understood if both Russkiy and Rossiiskiy are translated in Russian, so I chose to translate Rossiiskiy in Rossian. The notable exception is the term ‘Russian Federation’, which is translated from Rossiiskaya Federatsiya. It would have been too dissociative to translate that into Rossian Federation.
Until very recently I consistently used Rossiyane and Rossiiskiy when speaking with Russians, even though I knew many of them would look at me as if I came from another universe. Gradually I began to understand the bottom up origins of Russian nationalism. By now I have weathered down my elitist multicultural idealism and insistence on the eradication of ethno-cultural nationalism. If Russians want to call themselves Russians, so will I.
I very important reason for that is what happened at home. In the past years many citizens of developed countries, myself included, have had to reconcile their idealistic ideas of a globalizing world breaking down state borders with a resurgence of nationalist sentiments caused by those same forces of globalization in our own countries. In my own country, the Netherlands, the current minority government relies on the voting power of an openly nation, whose ideas border in racism or are just that.
Furthermore, it has become political wisdom that to exclude or ridicule these nationalist sentiments is tantamount to political suicide or from the point of view of social sciences rather counterproductive and shortsighted. We have realized that nationalism will not disappear into the dustbin of history, not in out lifetime at least, and that we have to take the phenomenon very seriously. And if this is true for the countries in the West, so it is for Russia.
In a country that twice disintegrated along ethnic borders, the National Question, is like the rope, about which one does not speak in the house of the hanged man. We however do have to talk about it. If not in election time, than perhaps at high brow conferences, one of such which took place in Yaroslav last week.
At these conferences however we really hear but just one idea: the cultivation of an All-Russian civic nation as a counterbalance to ethnic radicalism. According to this idea ‘our task is to build an all inclusive Rossian nation, while preserving the identity of all peoples living in our country’. The president spoke these words at a meeting of the State Council in Ufa, thereby echoing the Soviet idea of ‘a new historical community’. ‘If we fail’ – I quote the president at a different meeting – ‘our nation awaits a sad fate’.
This new civic nation has been under construction since the days of Yeltsin, but 20 years after its appearance, ‘the new Rossia’ as before exists as a state without a nation and concerns about its fate continue to linger.
What we have here is a paradox. On the one hand, by assigning itself the task of building a nation the state admits that our nation-state does not yet exist in the full sense. On the other hand the state assumes the role of the demiurge [God like creature, JM], capable of creating a new nation-state from top down.
[Translators note: If by now you are being confused by the use of the terms ‘Rossian’ and ‘Rossia’, you may want to read the introduction above. JM]
It is difficult to reconcile these two points, ‘but other countries have succeeded’, the president said at the aforementioned State Council in Ufa. ‘And we should too.’
France is the textbook model of a nation, which was build from top down. The French crown did mold the French people out of a fairly diverse population. Can and should we follow their example? The French state was able to complete this task because it had a foothold outside the nation – in the divine right of kings. Does the Rossian presidential dynasty have a similar reserve of strength? The other question is: Did we not already experience something similar? The Russian ethnos emerged as a nation with state power as its starting point and this process didn’t require 20 years, but several centuries. After our turbulent history, the decision to start a new nation building project from scratch can only be considered audacious. So before we redouble our energies to build a ‘new historic community’, why don’t we compare it with its predecessor?
Optimists say that we do not necessarily need to choose between ‘Russians’ and ‘Rossians’. After all the promise is given that ‘the identity of all peoples, living in our country’ will be preserved in the process of nation building. The problem however consists in the fact that for [ethnic] Russians their identity is also an attribute of state power. Without the state, the Russian people can possibly preserve itself as an ethnos, but we can never realize ourselves as a contemporary nation.
What is the difference between the one and the other?
According to British researcher Benedict Anderson contemporary nations were created by the printing press. This is a pretty accurate metaphor for the formation of an ‘industrial’ identity. An ethnic community reaches the stage of a nation, when it acquires developed mechanisms to multiply and spread carriers of its identity and the national identity itself is enshrined in the form of a literary culture (including a developed literary language, traditions in art, a collection of fundamental texts shaping self-consciousness, and so forth. )
A tribe or a people may reproduce itself in a primitive way – with the help of oral tradition and direct contact between family and neighbors. For a nation that is not enough. To continue itself in generations, a nation needs cumbersome (and costly) social machines, acting primarily under the aegis of the state.
Applied to our question, this means, that when [Russian] schools, media, the army, the state apparatus and ‘mass art’ are all [re-]branded into Rossian, it does not necessarily follow that the state is building a truly new nation. It does follow that the state may very well destroy the country, because we do risk to loose our Russian nation in the process of building ‘a nation of Rossians’.
From this paradox follows that it is clear who the authorities want us to be, but we have not determined yet, who we want to be ourselves. In this piece I will pose five choices with regard to our identity. Do we want to be Russians or Rossians?
1/ Do we want to be citizens or serfs?
Despite the endless references to the concept of a civic nation building project, the nation of Rossians is a project of the bureaucracy not of its citizens. The ‘Rossian nation’ is an appendage to the administrative apparatus of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Russian Federation. The Rossian citizens are not the founders of the state, but its excipient, an exercise of an administrative construction, which appeared independently of it.
The constitution leaves no doubt. The multinational people of the Russian Federation cannot create the Russian Federation simply because it already exists as tan entity defined by its borders and its judicial and territorial structure. Even by his name our ‘souvereign’ [President of the Russian Federation] is connected to the federative form of a territorial structure.
Our constitution completely derives from the logic of the historical process. The function of founder of the state, which we live in was first performed by the Soviet nomenklatura, creating the administrative-territorial division of the USSR [ the RSFSR of which Yeltsin was elected president in 1991 and seceded from the Soviet Union in the same year, JM ] and after them by the Rossian nomenklatura, who intercepted the power at the center, strictly within the framework of the outlined borders together with the ‘inherited’ population.
The question of the nation arose only when this nomenklatura began to worry about how to secure the loyalty of the population under their jurisdiction.
The state that resulted from this undertaking (the decision of the bureaucracy to acquire itself a nation) can only with difficulty be called ‘national’. The same applies to the new Rossian nomenklatura, who decided to adopt an ideology [for the people, JM], without being shaped by an ideology themselves.
This is a very important point. The theme of the ‘civic nation’ emerges in our new history not in the context of demands from citizens to the bureaucracy, but in the context of demands from the bureaucracy to ‘its’ citizens. This leaves an indelible imprint on the political fate of our nation under construction and markedly distinguishes it from the genuine civic nations in modern history.
By contrast the public side of present day Russian nationalism (as in nation building and not common xenophobia ) is not bureaucratic, but civic. Its basis is the educated class living in the cities. They demand loyalty, not from the nation to the bureaucracy, but from the bureaucracy to the nation. Theirs is the claim of a national majority for its own nation.
In other words, as a nation of Rossians, we are serfs to our state (literally, when the Soviet Union was divided by the nomenklatura, we found ourselves attached to a specific piece of territory). As Russians we are its potential owners, citizens seeking their sovereign rights.
2/ Do we want to be the children of a long history or a brief moment of inertia?
I will not argue that identification with a certain territorial identity cannot not produce a civic identity. For this to happen, the state does need to do more than to call the population citizens in name only.
The largest nations in modern history; the Americans, British and French, emerged as such from the furnace of revolutions. For a nation based on shared values and not ethnic ties to emerge, these values have to be bonded by shared experience, foremost the experience of a political struggle, in which citizens enter the arena as the principal historic power.
Which revolution gave birth to the Rossian nation? Was it the August revolution of the year 1991 [the public reaction to the August putch, JM]? If that is the case, the new nation bares all the hallmarks of that ‘revolution’: provincialism and triviality. Not only the great historical revolutions, but also to the velvet revolutions of our Eastern European neighbors had more fortitude. The anemia of the authorities and civil society, both the cardboard dictators [the organizers of the Putch, JM] and the cardboard revolutionaries [the adversaries of the coup, JM], created the conditions for to the aforementioned bureaucratic take-over and resulted in historical destruction and geopolitical catastrophes [the break up of the Soviet-Union, JM].
The Rossian nation did not emerge as the result from a concentrated effort of historic aspirations, but as the by-product of the inertia leading to the collapse of the Soviet system.
The 1917 revolution was also accompanied by large military defeats that were quickly forgotten. Many contemporaries and descendants, however did see it as an event of global historical significance. On such a foundation it could truly have been possible to build ‘a new historical community’, a new community based on a new ideology and way of life. Despite these favorable conditions however this community did not take shape. So how on earth can a ‘new historic community’ take shape in the Russian Federation, when it does not even have the required core of shared values?
In other words, when we are a nation of Rossians, then we are the children of the year 1991. And that is a rather poor genealogy. When we are Russians, then we are the descendents of a long chain of generations, a people that has experienced the lessons of several world wars, experimented with several forms of statehood and most importantly it is we, the people, who constitute the link between all these historic forms.
The latter is extremely important. The problem posed by the ‘discontinuity’ [разорванности] of Russian history is often discussed. It appears as if we are not able to connect the different historical periods as chapters of our own fate.
The concept of the Rossian civic nation aggravates this problem and obstructs its resolution. The new nation cannot knowingly be seen as the carrier of preceding forms of statehood, because it is solely the derivate of borders, of a political-legal form and the ideology of this specific state, which are aspects that have changed in our history at a dizzying pace. What’s more, in the long line of statehoods (Kievan, Muscovian Rus’, the Petersburg empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation) each consecutive state was more or less founded on the rejection of its predecessor.
For Russians part of their identity is an attribute of Rossian statehood. Outside that statehood the Russian people can perhaps preserve itself as an ethnos, but we cannot realize ourselves as a contemporary nation. One of the slogans, prepared in the framework of the state order for a Rossian nation, says: ‘Many peoples, one country’. At a closer look this probably well-intended slogan must be the result of unbelievable historical nihilism.
My point is that in a historical context, our country is not ‘one’ at all: Varagian Rus’, the Muscovian Tsardom and the Soviet Union did not only have different territories, but also completely different political-geographical forms. They were completely different ‘countries’. ‘The country is only one’ when the Russian Federation absorbs all that has been before. That is why from the point of view of historic continuity it is much more appropriate to make the direct opposite assertion: ‘Many countries, one people’.
The only possibility to bring together these different ‘countries’ of our past and create from them some sort of ‘eternal Rossia’, is to consider all historic attempts of Rossian state building, including all its troubles as parts of one ethno-national Russian history. Then continuity could be restored and the fragmented Rossian periods could get a common carrier: a common language and culture, self awareness, a pantheon of heroes and so forth. True, these common carriers will very subjective. But that is what national histories are: drama, constructed around the subjective character of the leading character.
The fact that we perceive the barbarian king Vladimir and the Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin as faces of one and the same history, as avatars of one and the same leading character [the nation, JM] – is the undeniable proof that we live inside a Russian ethno-national myth.
Myths, if we believe Jung, are the source of energy and mental health. So why then is there so much historical schizophrenia? The answer is that our consciousness [the artificial state, JM] remains in conflict with the unconscious [the longing for a continuous history, JM]. We sense the discontinuity of our historical identity, but we cannot name it.
3/ Us versus them
‘Many countries, one people’ – I will not deny – sounds very provocative, but it is a true description of our situation. What’s more, it is true not only in the temporal, but also in the geographical sense. ‘Many countries, one people’ is exactly the formula with which we can describe our relation with the Russian populations in the Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other newly formed states.
After the break up of the Soviet Union more than 30 million Russians (according to the 1989 census more than 36.2 million people outside the borders of the RSFSR named Russian as their mother tongue) found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation. That is about a quarter of the Russian population of the Rossian Federation.
Even though the ‘new Rossia’ has not been won over by territorial revanchism like West Germany [the author refers to the fact that re-unification of lands formerly part of the Soviet Union is not official policy, JM], the Rossian nation building project has kept the Russian speaking citizens of other former Soviet countries ‘on board’ by never relinquishing the perspective of national unity (a hope expressed in the text of the constitution) and by its policy for (re-)immigration.
That fact [sic] that Russians outside the Russian Federation were deprived of a preferential treatment in the process of application for citizenship, that they did not become the addressees of a policy for the resettlement of the diaspora, is entirely the merit of the ideologists of the Rossian territorial nation.
By the logic of this project the citizens of Sevastopol [Ukrainian city and location of part of Russia’s fleet. JM] are part of a foreign nation, while the invaders of Budyonnovsk [read: Chechen terrorists, JM] are ours. This logic undoubtedly offends our national feelings and when it continues over considerate time, it simply destroys our national feeling. We already witness this today. Russian patriotism is clearly experiencing a clear genre crisis.
Another symptom of The Rossian nation building project is the concept of replacement immigration, which stipulates that the negative demographic balance can and should be compensated with ‘the import of population’ without taking into account their ethnic, socio-cultural and professional characteristics. In this area a true social catastrophe unfolds. I have in mind not only the problems created by the (lack of) integration of these immigrants, but also the lumpenization and archaism of the entire society under the pressure of their non-restricted influx. The lumpen entrepreneurs, from stall owners to billionaires, can only be satisfied by an almost ‘free’ [the cheapest, JM] form of labor. From the point of view of macro-social effects ‘free’ labor only exists inside a treadmill. The economy of cheap labor is for us in fact a trap. [Keep in mind that in Russia labor regulations and minimum wages are a lot less well enforced as in most western countries. The influx of cheap labor is therefore significantly more destructive. JM]
But even when there would be rational arguments for the policy of replacement immigration, the main problem remains the approach itself. Its logic supposes that the bureaucracy has the right to ‘import’ another people, when the existing people for some or other reasons does not suit them. This approach however is only logic when the nation is created by an administrative apparatus and by territory and not by a common culture, the link between generations and a common history.
In other words, Rossians constitute a nation that without hesitation replaces its own for foreigners. Russians on the other hand constitute a nation that unites all the carriers of Russian culture and has an identity that supercedes state borders. In our history borders have changed so often that we cannot determine our self by means of them.
That doesn’t mean that we should not value territory. On the contrary. Territory, in the case of serious threats, should not be defended in the name of the territory, but in the name of a jurisdiction. We need a force that inspires and not simply assumes the form of a vessel [an artificial structure of statehood, JM].
In the case of a critical threat to the existence of the Russian Federation we may expect as little of the ‘Rossian nation’ as from the proletarian internationalism in 1941. Once again it will be the Russians who will be called upon to defend the country. [The author refers to Stalin’s appeal to Russian nationalism to counter the threat of Nazism, JM] Even though this [Russian, JM] nation will not be interchangeable with the existing [Rossian, JM] state it may use the state as a state-bridgehead (similar to the Bundesrepublik Deutschland for the Germans during the cold war), or a state-asylum (similar to Israel for the jews spread over the world ). For that to become possible, much needs to change. But when it does, we no longer need to be concerned about the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation.
4/ Do we want Pushkin or Gel’man?
In literature about the national question Germany and France are often counterposed as models of nationbuilding. According to the first model the nation is based on a cultural community. In the second model the nation is based on a political community. In fact both models are just different starting points of one and the same proces; the process of the unification of the state and a national culture. In some cases the process moves from cultural unity to political unity. In other cases the movement follows the opposite direction.
This merger of politics and culture is the formula for the contemporaray nation-state and as the British philosopher Ernest Gellner correctly recalls of the contemporary industrial society. The nation state and its industrial economy needs the unification of the population on the basis of one language and one standard of behaviour and values.
Many argue that Rossia evolved in a fundamentally different way. They say the Russian Federation is a ‘multipartite’ state. [for clarity subsitite multipartite with federative as opposed to national, JM] In reality, Russia developed as much on the foundation of a dominant culture as did France and Germany. What is it that links the peoples of the Rossian territory? Is it that ‘natural fraternization’ about which Trubetskoy spoke? Of course, there is no such thing. These peoples simply lived under the influence of the Russian culture and language.
The Russian language and culture were of course also influnced by neighboring peoples, but it was the Russian language and culture in particular, that acted as the synthesizing element and came to dominate both quantitavely (in terms of prevalence) and qualitatively (in terms of development).
Thanks to the unquestionable dominance of the Russian language and culture and the long-term assimilation into it, our large country is suprisingly uniform. The myth about the unprecedented multiculturality of Rossia clearly falters before the experience of a truly multicultural country like Papua New Guinea, where approximately 6 million people are divided in 500 to 700 different ethno-linguistic groups.
When we make it our goal to increase the value of polyculturality per capita then we still have something to strive for. But when we desire a single nation than it can only be produced in the same way as before, by means of asimilation or integration on the basis of the Russian culture. There is simply no other high culture of a global significance at our disposal.
This idea is unacceptable for the proponents of the ‘Rossian project’. This is how chimeras are born. In official speeches and documents the Russian culture is more and more often described as some sort of ferment for the mythical multinational Rossian culture and its ‘multicultures’ (as was mentioned at one of the important meetings) that should be created in concert with the ‘new history community’. [The author describes the process of Rossifaction in which Russian culture would recede its place of dominance to a position of one among others. JM]
National cultures however are not media projects that can be made on order. They take centuries to form by sythesizing popular culture with the culture of the intelligentsia and aristocracy.
Sometimes this happened quite consciously. Dante, Luther and Pushkin methodically selected a literary language, which was swiftly picked up by their compatriots. The entire 19th Century was a period in which the cultural projects of the European nations were realised. The same was true for the ‘Russian project’ in literature, music, paintings and architecture.
So, when the time has come to form a new ‘Rossian culture’ for the ‘Rossian nation’, then we should ask ourselves who its creators are. Who are these titans? Oleg Gazmanov and his pop-song about the Rossian officers? Nikita Mikhalkov and his movie ‘12’? Or Marat Gel’man and his expositions ‘Rossia for everybody’?
To answer that question briefly, the project for a new ‘Rossian culture’ is realized in the shallow fields of consumption-propaganda and showbusiness with all the resulting consequences for the quality of the nation in question.
The ‘Russian project’ in culture on the other hand has been build on generations of outstanding representatives of the national arictocracy and intelligentsia. I will not miss the opportunity to mention the mixed origin of some of them, which supposedly makes them into non-Russians or ‘Russian-light’. References to this mixed origin of Pushkin or Zhukovsky [Vasily Zhokovsky, the foremost Russian poet of the 1810s, JM] is very important for the ‘officialdom’ of the argument made for example at Marat Gel’mans expositions ‘Russia for everybody’. And it is very revealing. Social ads in the football stadiums display slogans like ‘racism is for pigs’. The banana-racism of the soccer fans however pales in comparison with the racism of the propagandists of the ‘non-Russian nation’. [This year cameras captured how a banana was thrown at Brazilian player Roberto Carlos, JM]
The ridiculous tropes about Pushkin the Ethiopian or Zhukovsky the Turk can only thrive on the foundation of the most vulgar views in which nationality equals biology and a person, whose native language and culture is Russian, is not completely Russian, but only 7/8 Russian as in the case of Pushkin or half Russian as in the case of Zhukovsky. They probably think that when we all begin to count our share of ‘non-Russian blood’ our Russian identity will dissolve and we will have no other option but to identify us with the administrative apparatus and the territory. This is a real threat. That is why the resolution of the Russian nation project to significant degree depends on the question whether we will able to overcome this ‘racist conspiracy’ and our ability to choose our native language as the main carrier of our identity.
5/ Do we want to be a union of peoples or a conglomerate of minorities?
Having lost the stronger elements of the Soviet project; its integrating civic cult, the Rossian remake only repeats its weaker elements. I am refering to the policies with regard to the national republics and their diaspora.
When we take the idea of a single civic nation seriously, than its first axiom should be that there can not be any other nations within this nation. Ethnic groups may exist within the state, but they should be completely separated from the state. In Soviet times however many ethnic groups were artificially cultivated into ‘socialist nations’. Today they actively build their own national states under the umbrella of the Rossian Federation. In some places this process takes place demonstratively and defiantly, like in Chechnya, in other places it happens more carefully, but not less persistently, like in Tatarstan or Yakutia. The existence of republican aristocracies [on the regional level, JM] directly contradicts the declarations of civic unity [on the federal level, JM].
In society there is even less unity than on the political level. We often forget that a civic nation requires at least as much intensive community-building and even homogeneity as an ethnic nation.
I refer to a homogeneity of political culture and civic consciousness. Does this exist among the different parts of the ‘Rossian nation’? Unfortunately not, especially when we think of its Northern Caucasian parts. And I am not just talking about ‘legal nihilism’ [widespread unawareness of federal laws, JM], but also about the open existence of certain codes of beliefs, in which alternative ‘laws’ (like the Sharia or the notorious law of thieves, as a set of informal traditional norms) are placed above the civic laws. This rupture in our legal and political culture is not not shrinking. It is in fact growing, not the least because of the further dissapearence of the remains of the Soviet intelligentsia from the regional elites of the mountain peoples.
In other words, the project of the Rossian civic nation fails not only because of the ‘Russian question’, but also because of a set of loudly acclaimed ‘non-russian questions’. The latter in particular obstruct any progress. And it needs to be said that this is only natural, because integration of minorities will remain impossible as long as the majority is not integrated.
We can also see this in European states. EU member states moved very far in their attempts to factor out the identity of the titular nations and replace it with political correct censorship of school programs, their political lexicon and popular art. The goal of these policies was to make the idea of integration more acceptable for the minorities, but it had the very opposite effect.
A society, from which the cultural backbone is removed, has not even zero, but a negative assimilative potential. It does not inspire immigrants to integrate. On the contrary, it evokes among minorities the desire to fill the opening emptiness with their own ethnic and religious myths. And for the majority there is nothing else to do than to escape into subcultures or apathy.
So, a strong national culture, even one that is alien to minorities, is much better equipped to ensure their integration, than the emptiness left after its removal. In our case this is times times true. For the larger part of the peoples of Rossia the Russian culture is not alien at all.
Rossia indeed evolved as a union of peoples, but for this union to be possible, the recognition of its prime subject was needed: the Russians as the state-forming nation.
From the point of view of the minorities there are no valid reasons to oppose that recognition. Their rights after all are maximally realised in their own states, their own influential lobbies and cultural autonomies. The only thing that remains is to complete that colourful complexity with the national self-determination of the majority.
Sooner or later this will happen. The question is only if the territory of self-determination will be the Russian Federation or some other yet unknown country in our future.
The author Mikhail Remizov is the president of the Institute of National Strategy.