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Russian politics: the burden of national myths

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National myths have always played an important part in Russian politics, from 15th-century ‘Moscow as the 3rd Rome’ to Soviet, and now Russian, views of USSR/Russia’s role in the region. The power of the myths is such that a putative opposition government could well end up as no more than a clone of Putin and his regime, says Mykola Riabchuk

Mykola Riabchuk
13 March 2012

The danger looming in some Arab countries that radical Islamists might hijack anti-authoritarian revolutions poses a similar question in respect of future anti-government protests in Russia: how powerful and how radical are the nationalists within the protesters’ camp, and how far would they proceed with their presumed radicalism if the incumbent regime were at some point to crumble?

In the short to middle term this looks unlikely, though the regime’s inability to deliver much-needed reforms in the country, to curb corruption, and to re-establish some sort of legitimacy for its rigid authoritarian policies, must all be considered potential contributory factors to the eventual inevitability of such a collapse.

Radical parties/groups or mere individuals in any political coalition are in a tricky position. On one hand, the dividing line between the radical and not-so-radical groups is often fluid and situation-related. On the other, any political opposition, especially anti-authoritarian, requires the broadest mobilization possible, involving opposition members of various colours and ideologies, who will quite naturally once more go their separate ways when victory has been achieved.

'Very few Russian nationalists are disciplined, courageous, and honest enough to recognize that the much-needed emancipation of the Russian nation from the Russian empire requires primarily that they liberate themselves from the imperial myths and complexes deeply entrenched in the Russian psyche.'

This was the case in most of the post-communist countries where democratic movements pursued an agenda that was not only anti-authoritarian but anti-imperialist and national-liberation. They all had a significant nationalist element, though this is now largely ignored or underestimated, probably because the deeply entrenched anti-nationalistic bias in Western scholarship and politics regards nationalism as incompatible with liberalism and democracy.

Russian imperialism

Russia is an imperial nation, but Russians have been always reluctant to frame their nationalism in terms of national liberation, though attempts have been made to represent Yeltsin’s rebellion against Gorbachev and the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union as the emancipation of the Russian nation from the Russian empire. Within this model of thought, Russia is usually seen as the main, if not sole, victim of Russian imperialism:

‘Russia was never an empire in the traditional Western sense of the word. If it was indeed a prison for anyone, it was for the Russians, who gained nothing from exploiting the colonies because Russia had no colonies — it had peripheries, to which it gave more than it took. One can understand why these borderlands were necessary: fundamentally the logic was based on military-political considerations. Russia is caught in the world’s crosswinds, at the heart of Eurasia, protected from enemies by neither mountains nor seas.

Coat_Russia

The use of the double-headed eagle as a Russian coat of arms goes back to the 15th century. With the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the Grand Dukes of Muscovy came to see themselves as the successors of the Byzantine heritage. In 1625 the double-headed eagle appeared with three crowns, interpreted as a symbol of unity between Great Russia, Little Russia (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus).

Some territories — indeed the Caucasus — were necessary acquisitions only because they at the time were the sole means of putting an end to the constant incursions and halting the aggression. But the peripheries were not subjected to systematic exploitation because the Russian tsars had not learned this European science. Alas, it was the Russian people who carried all the burdens and obligations of nation-building. If anyone was enslaved — in the direct meaning of the word — it was the Russians.’ (Konstantin Krylov blog in Russian).

The Russians were disadvantaged by their oppressive empire, whether ruled over by tsars or commissars. Their development was undoubtedly held back, but they enjoyed many privileges that other nationalities did not. As a group, they were spared from many dreadful policies, such as the extermination of the native populations (Siberia and the Far North), mass enslavement (Central Asians), genocide (Ukrainian peasants and Kazakh nomads), summary deportation (Chechens, Balkars, and Crimean Tatars), persecution (Poles and Germans), segregation (Jews), and more.

The professed self-victimization of Russians tends to obscure all these ‘peripheral’ developments, by promoting instead the myth of the ‘mission civilisatrice’. It also opens up the dangerous possibility that they will abdicate the responsibility for the colonialism and imperialism that Russians as the main imperial stakeholders do bear, and, even more dangerously, shift that responsibility on to ‘others’ – Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and, of course, the Jews who arguably ruled the Russian empire.

Imperial myths

Very few Russian nationalists are disciplined, courageous, and honest enough to recognize that the much-needed emancipation of the Russian nation from the Russian empire requires primarily that they liberate themselves from the imperial myths and complexes deeply entrenched in the Russian psyche. The myth of a primordial ‘Slavic-Orthodox unity’ [Slavia Othodoxa] and eternal ‘Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian brotherhood’ is crucial for the entire Russian (imperial) identity. Invented at the turn of the 17th century to portray Muscovy as the dynastic-cum-political and ecclesiastic-cum-spiritual successor to medieval Kyivan Rus, it effectively derailed the eventual development of modern (national) Russian identity, as well as the modern national identities of Ukrainians and Belarusians. The newborn Russian empire successfully appropriated all the sacred, primordial, spiritual features of ‘Slavia Orthodoxa’ but imbued them also with state symbolism and a political agenda – something that never happened on that scale with similar pre-modern phenomena such as Muslim ‘ummah’ or Western ‘Pax Christiana’.

The post-Soviet elites quite naturally resist any radical de-Sovietization of their fiefdoms since they cannot but feel that unmaking Soviets (or imperial, heavily mythologized ‘Orthodox Slavs’) into Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians would mean, in particular, remaking obedient quasi-feudal subjects into free, self-confident citizens.’

The imperial identity that was forged in this way appeared to foster essentially pre-modern non-civic values and paternalism. Formed by specific imperial discourses and practices, it still is supported, in modified forms, by the dominant powerbrokers in both Russia and Belarus and, with some fluctuations, in Ukraine. The post-Soviet elites quite naturally resist any radical de-Sovietization of their fiefdoms since they cannot but feel that unmaking Soviets (or imperial, heavily mythologized ‘Orthodox Slavs’) into Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians would mean, in particular, remaking obedient quasi-feudal subjects into free, self-confident citizens.

Unfortunately, it is not only the Russian government that is unable to recognise the problem. With the exception of a tiny group of committed liberals, the opposition fails to see it. In some cases they may agree to look again at Russian imperialist policies in the Caucasus and elsewhere, but they do not challenge the myth of ‘Kyivan Russia’ as the cornerstone of imperial identity and a major source of imperial resentments and anxiety. Nor they are eager to promote radical de-Sovietization, even though the entire project of making modern Russians without unmaking Soviets is highly problematic.

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition leaders who defines himself as a liberal nationalist, explicitly supports the need to restore the ‘organic unity of Russia’s past,’ from Kyivan Rus to the USSR. [Manifesto, in Russian]. Neither ‘Kyivan’ nor Soviet myths are seen as obstacles to a new Russian identity or, more generally, the modernization of Russia. This makes him more of a liberal imperialist than a liberal nationalist. When asked openly by Boris Akunin: ‘Do you regret that the USSR is no longer in existence?’ he prevaricated only slightly:

‘Everybody wants their country to be bigger, richer, stronger. That’s perfectly normal, and it’s what I want as well. .... The USSR was destroyed not by external forces, but by the Communist Party, the State Planning Committee and the Soviet political elite. ... That is historical fact. Another fact is that the core and the foundation of the Russian empire and the USSR was our country – Russia. And Russia remains, both economically and militarily, the dominant state of the region. Our task is to preserve and build on that. ... We should not deliberately be making plans for any expansion; our task is to become strong and rich ourselves, and then our neighbors will be part of our zone of influence; they won’t have any option.’ [Akunin blog, in Russian].

While he emphasizes Russia’s soft, rather than hard, power, he can certainly be regarded as a liberal. But his intention to build on Russia’s economic and military [sic] dominance in the region sounds ambiguous enough to make all the neighbours nervous. Especially in view of his full support for recognizing the independence of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria – hardly sustainable without Russian military occupation.

Observers are probably right when they interpret the ambiguity of many Navalny statements as a pragmatic (one might say opportunistic) desire to avoid alienating potential allies from either the liberal democratic or the radical nationalistic camp. His own views, however, on two crucial issues that determine, or rather obstruct, the development of a modern civic Russian identity – the Soviet legacy and ‘East Slavic unity’ – are not very different from those of his arch-rival Vladimir Putin.

Russian nationalism: imperial vs ethnic

In this regard, two strains of nationalism that have been competing in Russia for nearly two centuries ­– imperial/statist and ethno-cultural – have something very important in common: both of them are essentially non-civic. One of them, as Igor Torbakov notes, ‘worships the state, its power and international prestige’; the other one ‘glorifies the nation, its culture and faith’. In practical matters, however, the difference is marginal: as soon as ethnic nationalists assume power, they pragmatically become statist. Realpolitik constrains radicals almost everywhere, and there are no reasons to believe that Russia, substantially integrated in the global economy and international institutions, would be any exception.

'In fact, the main problem of today’s opposition, and of Mr. Navalny in particular, is that they would most likely simply become a reincarnation of Mr. Putin and his regime.'  

Economic hardship and ethnic resentment, allied with a general discontent with ‘imperial-style’ government, have resulted in the greater ‘popularity of ethnic nationalism at the expense of the imperial variety’. However, this does not mean that radical nationalists are going to assume power in Russia or, even if they are, that they would pursue more jingoistic and fascist policies than the current incumbents.

In fact, the main problem of today’s opposition, and of Mr. Navalny in particular, is that they would most likely simply become a reincarnation of Mr. Putin and his regime. Probably less corrupt and presumably more committed to genuine reforms, but nevertheless burdened with the same national myths and which will considerably hamper any attempts to modernize the country.

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