Marco Rumignani's blog

Nationalism in the case of Russia:

December 25, 2013
The following work’s theme shall be nationalism in Russia.
Since the creation of the Romanov’s empire in the 17th century by Peter the Great, until Vladimir Putin, Russia has been a global nation. This ex-superpower keeps having an impact on the international scene.
The Medias regularly deal with this country: military interventions in the Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Abkhazia), energy policies, or nuclear cooperation.
Yet, the question of minorities and Human Rights also appear regularly in the Medias. Many of these Medias, most notably in the west, assimilate these questions to a social phenomenon: nationalism.
To set an example, a book written by Vladimir Sorokin in 2006, called “Day of the Oprichnik”, describes a closed Russia to West, and dominated by a totalitarian regime. In this book, the components of Russian nationalism are gathered. It can be called a turn back to the past. It is important to notice that dimensions are not distinct from each other.
From Charles Maurras to the "Protocols of the elders of Zion", from Alfred Rosenberg to the neo-nazis movements, nationalism is a multi-faced hydra.
Nationalism can be described as any “thought based on the affirmation of the supremacy of national values” (according to Raoul Girardet).

This definition was also given by Charles Maurras, who distinguished state based on legislation from state evolving in reality. Nationalism is therefore founded on the concept of nation: the people are what creates its sovereignty.

Max Weber compared nation to a political power. To Weber, indeed, nation is a form of solidarity among individuals, linked with memories of a common destiny, compared to other group. Nation is therefore a particular community, unified by a myth and a common project.

These definitions helped distinguish several forms of nationalisms: liberal (19th century France and Italy), authoritarian and conservative (Bismarck’s Germany, France’s Boulangism), and fascism. Given certain eras, nationalism holds different aspects.

Nationalism is built upon many dimensions, that we shall examine here in the case of Russia: identity, and rejection of the outside.


1)      Identity as a dimension:


·         Ethnicity as a component of Russian identity:


Russian ethnicity is often called “rossity”. A “Russian nationalist” would be a person who feels that belonging to this ethnicity would be like belonging to a political and organic body. This promotes national homogeneity, and to declare certain regions like the only viable place for other communities (e.g.: this perspective isn’t new, and it was already applied under the Czar, in the “self-governed” regions, notably for the Tatars).


This “Eurasian” nationalism stands for a territory, a culture, a race, and an identity. Preservation of this identity goes along with exaltation of the land, and a “Russian soul”. Russia has always been considered as a territory stuck between Europe and Asia, between “two worlds”. [1] Russian nationalism is thus essentialist.[2]


Another element of identity has been used for political purposes: panslavism, used in the 19th century in order to extend Russia’s influence in the Mediterranean Sea (through Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks), and in order to justify autocracy. This “unification” was opposed to European empires at the same time. Moscow carried a messianic role of “Third Rome”.


Nikolaï Danilevsky stated that Russia was a state recently created.[3] Russia was in full development, and had a promising future, while western societies were already fully developed, and were facing decadence. This creates a strong tie between belonging to a state, and belonging to an ethnicity.[4] It is the “Narodnost”, which was created by elites.


As we can see, identity of Russia comes from historical elements (essentialist), but it was also developed for political purposes (constructivist).


Nostalgia and history as components of identity:


National identity is often based on past events, which can be used as references to the population. Traditions are set forward, and so are nostalgias (czarist, soviet, or both). Belonging is thus necessary, because it determines the type of policy that shall be used. The nostalgic element is thus a component of Russian identity: nostalgia towards the USSR, to Stalin, to the Czar, to the Empire, to a protected Russia, feared Russia and with a patriarchal power.


Identification to the past allows hanging to myths, which are social constructions, in the sense given by Smith. For instance, the words “Great Russia” are mythical, for they are the aim of many policies.[5] It is an imperial imagery of Russia, not a statist one. From that, we find the idea of a “Third Rome”, once again. This explains policies of unification that were operated, either under the Czars (ethnical cleansings of Polish and Finnish people), or under the soviets (deportation of people with Chinese, Korean or Chechen roots). It is Czarism, and Stalinism.


Identity was defined mostly through minority elites of Russian society, and this same ethnicity was the result of territorial expansionism; today’s Russia was founded on this expansion: it was the “Moscow reunification” operated from Ivan 3rd until Nicolas 2nd for 300 years. This expansion created a multicultural and multiethnic landscape, in which less than 50 % of the population spoke Russian, and was forcedly converted to Orthodoxy.


Until 1917, the majority of the elites belong to another cultural and linguistic group (Germans, Swedes, Poles). The “national soul” (or “Volia”) isn’t really a matter of roots, but rather the result of policies conducted from the top to the bottom of society. Nostalgic and historical components of identity are thus linked to constructivist approaches, described by Hobsbawm: nationalism is a social construction.


·         Religion as component of identity:


Religion is a central figure in Russia. Russia has its own messianic role, regarding panslavism. Yet, where does this role come from? Which authority provides this destiny to Russia? Two tendencies emerge within the spiritual features of Russia: Orthodoxy, majoritarian and ruling, and Paganism, tied to peasantry. We shall however focus on Orthodoxy, because it is tied to political history of Russia, as well to panslavism.


Orthodoxy designated the rectitude of the Christian religion.[6] It is “Raskol”: the religious schism. The introduction of Orthodoxy as main Russian religion rejects Latin influence, and Roman Christianity. The figure of Alexander Nevsky is a symbol: defeater of Teutonic knights, this hero defended a people and a land by vanquishing an invader who wanted to impose its religion. The vision of Orthodoxy is thus purified from all western influence. It is “Holy Russia”.


Secularization under Peter the Great has often been perceived as treason by his countrymen, notably peasants, who were the majority of the population until the 1920’s. There was a gap between European elites and the masses attached to Orthodox values. Atheism brought in the soviet era didn’t deprive the people from their true believes.[7]


2)      The dimension of reject:


    Historical rejection:


In the definition of ethnic nationalism, we stated that nationalism coming from panslavism was the result of a reaction, a return of balance, against social phenomena. Nationalism exists, because the current system isn’t efficient, and too much western oriented. Rejection of imported values from the West, as well of any foreign element, is a rejection of modernity, tolerance, acquired values following the 1991 events, and of minorities.


One example, following World War 2 was the decision of soviet leaders (notably Jdanov) to impose the “great Russian brother” as the example of socialism for Central and Eastern European countries to follow. Policy of isolationism towards the West took the concept of identity: Russia (assimilated to the Soviet Fatherland) was facing once again the West, seen as a menace. Anti-capitalism turned into anti-cosmopolitism.


All enemies of socialist edification became enemies of Russian nation. Here, we find the elements defended by the movement “Pamjat” (which existed under Perestroika): anti-west, fighting against ethnic minorities (especially Muslim communities of Caucasus and Central Asia), and assimilating Marxist anti-capitalism to racial anti-Semitism.


Also, during half of 19th century, intellectuals developed theories that Russia should stay apart from the West (Saint-Petersburg was too western oriented). The real heart of Russia was Moscow. Russia is a unique nation, different from Europe and from Asia, according to Chaadaev.[9]


Russia was thus isolated from two continents: neither Catholicism, nor Confucianism. Russian identity resulted from its difference: Orthodoxy and the Russian people are the bases of identity. Russia is therefore a religious community, organic, ethnic, independent, from any external influence, preserving its integrity.


The creation of Russian identity would be the result of a return of balance, of a reaction against implemented foreigners, and let’s not forget that Czars developed this idea of a Russian besieged fortress. The Crimean War would reinforce this idea: the Western powers (former models) would turn into adversaries that had to be defeated, in order to impose Russia on the international arena. This was also developed in the USSR, with the “Great Patriotic War”, which ties the soviet people to the “soviet motherland”. The purpose was the edification of socialism in one country only. [10]·    


The recent rejection:


More recently, Russia has perceived the policies of the European Union as negative ones. Indeed, European Medias, as much as the European institutions and governments, formulated reproaches to the Russian government concerning Chechnya, the isolation of Kaliningrad, freedom of press and speech.


 It also includes NATO interventions in ex-Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Yet, by getting out of the communist system, Russia hoped to create an economical, legal, security space with the European Union: “Partnership and Cooperation Agreement” of 1995. West’s stands were perceived as intrusions coming from above, since Russia was in a weak state in the 1990’s.[11] Thus, Russia quickly turned to isolate itself from the West.


Since 1993, Russian foreign policy took a new step to distancing itself from the West.[12] Moscow prevented to disintegrate itself, after the soviet collapse. New intellectuals stood up, proposing a new Russia, incarnating Eurasia. This joined myths that were imagined in the 19th century. Eurasianism has a political aim: creating an image of Russia outside, in order to build it inside. Moreover, the European Union excluded Russia for Schengen enlargement: the more this space widens itself, the more the economic barriers and tariffs get higher for countries outside the Schengen space. Although Russia has a huge territory, we cannot forget that politically there is an asymmetrical dilemma. This prevented the creation of a common neighborhood (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova).


Isolationism to the West helped giving priorities to regional integrations. For instance, the Organizationm for Collective Security Treaty. Critics sent by western governments in 1999 on the second Chechnya War had an effect: it took back all assistance in technology and finance for Russia. To Russia, it was quite a radical change in foreign policies: indeed, to the Russian government, intervening in Chechnya was aimed at preserving its territorial integrity. From then, Russia had to admit that its sovereignty (in the sense developed by Hans Morgenthau) wasn’t an essential element for its foreign policies. A lack of comprehension emerged between the West and Russia.


Reversely, the orange revolution in Ukraine, and the rose one in Georgia, brought a halt to the leadership of the “Russian Empire”. Yet, the regime in Georgia, at that time, could be seen as autocratic, meaning that close allies to the West don’t have to be democratic regimes. This aspect is pointed out by Russia, which interprets atlantist policies of Georgia as evidence of russophobia in relations with the West. Under an institutionalist perspective, we would describe these events as a communication dilemma, which could be solved by institutional elements set between both parts.


A cultural approach would show the civilizational differences between Russia and the West: European individualism facing Russian collective spirit (“Narodnost”). Confrontation between the West and Russia would be the result of Europe’s will to universalize its values, at the expense of Russia’s own identity. Suspicion and exclusion therefore emerge.


As a conclusion to this, whether on historical manner, or in a more recent one, Russia will always keep its excluded status with the West. Eurasianism is thus a reaction towards the West. This reaction has a political aim (constructivist), but it holds it roots within Russia’s own identity (essentialism).

[1] CARRÈRE D’ENCAUSSE, Hélène, La Russie entre deux mondes, Fayard, 2010, Paris

[2] SMITH, Graham, « The mask of Proteus: Russia, geopolitical shift and the new eurasianism », in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 24, nr 4, Blackwell Publishing, 1999

[3]TUMINEZ, Astrid S., Russian Nationalism since 1856, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000 , Oxford

[4] RUSCIANO, Franck Louis RUSCIANO, « The construction of National Identity », Political Research Quarterly,Vol. LVI, nr 3, September 2003

[5]TUMINEZ, opcit, pp 11

[6] FRANKLIN, Simon, « Identity and religion », in Simon FRANKLIN et Emma WIDDIS (dir.), National Identity in Russian culture, Cambridge University Press, 2004, Cambridge

[7] Stalin’s speech in 1941:

[9] TUMINEZ, opcit pp, 64

[10] HAMANT, Yves, « L’idéologie soviétique et l’idée nationale russe », in Michel NIQUEUX (dir.), Question russe Essais sur le nationalisme russe, Editions Universitaires, 1992, Paris

[11] PROZNOV, Sergei, Understanding conflict between Russia and the EU: the limits of integration, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, Basingstoke

[12] SMITH, opcit


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