Staunton, November 4 – Unlike its counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world and despite the hopes of many inside Russia and beyond, Russian nationalism has never a partner of liberalism, the result of its different origins and evolution, according to Vladimir Malakhov, a senior scholar at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
If one compares nationalism in Russia with that in Europe, Malakhov says in an interview with “Ogonyek,” “one can see that our nationalism never was connected with liberalism,” unlike in Europe where the two were allied at least in the nineteenth century (kommersant.ru/doc/2330472).
“For example,” he says, “the vector of nationalisms among East Europeans at the end of the 1980s, among the Hungarians, Czechs and Poles, corresponded with the vector of liberal democracy. That is because for these states, the fall of the Berlin Wall automatically meant a movement to the West, to an open society, and so on.”
For Russia in contrast, Malakhov continues, “the fall of the Berlin Wall meant something else entirely: the loss of its status as a great power. Therefore Russian nationalism [in its current form] from the very beginning was anti-Western and anti-liberal.” But in fact the divergence between European and Russian nationalisms has deeper roots.
According to the Moscow scholar, it is more appropriate to speak about “nationalisms” rather than nationalism as a single phenomenon. “Everything depends on who is its agent in this or that case. It is one thing when nationalism is produced by the authorities; it is quite another when it arises from the self-activity of the intelligentsia or society’s lower status groups.”
Many in Russia now talk about nationalism as a stage through which Russia must pass to form a national state like those in Europe, but “this is demagogy,” Malakhov says. “The nation states of Europe were the product not so much of nationalism as of the political development of the 19th century, which passed from dynastic states to ‘national’ ones.”
Before 1917, Russia was an empire, but it missed this “train,” and it has no chance of catching it now. There has been a break between the nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Russia and that which exists there now. Indeed, Malakhov says, “there is much less in common [between the two] than one should have expected.”
“The present-day agent of nationalism in Russia are not the heirs of the nationalism of the era of the Union of the Archangel Michael or figures of the era of Alexander III, not to speak about more distant predecessors.” There was some economic nationalism under Alexander II that Friedrich Liszt would have recognized as European, but it did not last.
Today, “Russian nationalism is entirely different.” It has historical roots but they do not extend to tsarist times. Instead, the deepest go back to the period of the Khrushchev thaw. Exactly then, Malakhov says, there arose the two streams that now inform the Russian nationalist movement.
“On the one hand,” there were those were unhappy about de-Stalinization. And “on the other, were those who were “dissatisfied by the bureaucratic and atheistic spirit of the succeeding Brezhnev era.” And that led to the formation of “red” nationalists who “idealized bolshevism” and “white” nationalists who “idealized tsarist Russia.”
According to Malakhov, the small “brown” stream has always remained marginal despite its ability to shock, because “there is no real social support for people who appear under portraits of Hitler and to all appearances there won’t be.” This “exoticism” is simply “unacceptable for the overwhelming majority of Russians including those who sympathize with the nationalists.”
Another way in which Russian nationalism now is different from its European counterpart is the internal divisiveness and amorphousness of the movement. Nationalists in Western Europe for all their variety focus on three things: “social polarization, bureaucracy and migration.”
At one level, Russian nationalism looks similar: it is anti-immigrant, but it is much less anti-oligarch and anti-bureaucratic, Malakhov says. But even in its focus on immigrants, Russian nationalists are different: they focus on them because of a sense that the political institutions that are supposed to protect Russians from immigrants aren’t working as they should.
Today, Malakhov says, “the only unifying theme for Russian nationalists is the theme of migration.” But immigration and especially illegal immigration is the product of the greed of Russian business and the support Russian businesses get from the state. And both the one and the other are only too willing to redirect the anger of Russians away from themselves.
“The anger of the population is directed not at the authors and beneficiaries of the system,” Malakhov says, “but at the weakest link in the system, those who “have come into” the country. Not surprisingly, officials and business interests are only too pleased to play with the nationalists, to blame “ethnic conflicts” on the new arrivals, and thus escape unscathed.
If Russian nationalists ever re-direct their anger at those responsible for this system rather than at those who are also its victims, then Russian nationalism and Russia itself will enter a new day. Unfortunately, the Moscow scholar implies, neither of those developments is likely at least in the near term.