Staunton, November 6 – Few observations of Western scholars have been mentioned more often in the last few weeks in Russia that British sociologist Benedict Anderson’s observation that “a nation is an imaginary community,” a collection of people tied together not simply by primordial ties but by the belief that they are a community.
That has happened because of Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his support for the idea of new legislation about a civic Russian nation, an idea that on the one hand is nothing more than a recognition of citizenship but that on the other because of Russian realities carries with it threats to both the non-Russians of that country and the ethnic Russians as well.
One of the most thoughtful comments on this development has been offered by Russian commentator Igor Yakovenko who puts Anderson’s insight into the Russian context and explains why Putin’s idea is simultaneously so banal and even meaningless and so potentially dangerous (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=581E0DC7613C0).
An unavoidable consequence of the lack of freedom, he suggests, is “degradation and in the first instance degradation of the administrative hierarchy, a trend that in turn leads to the commission of administrative mistakes, among which the share of ordinary stupidities only increases.”
“To the number of such stupidities has been added the decision to adopt a law about the civic Russian nation which is condemned to become laughable for some, a scarecrow for others and the subject of action for still a third,” Yakovenko says.
Those behind the law “inevitably get lost” in the differences between “’rossiyane’” and ‘russkiye,’” the first of which has to do with membership in the state; the second with membership in the nation. The problem is that if everyone in Russia is called the first, what should be done with “the Russian world” abroad? And if everyone in Russia is called the second, how will Chechens or Tatars react?
It is at this point that Yakovenko cites Anderson’s insight. He points out that “a Jew may not know Hebrew or Yiddish or wear the kippa or may work on Saturday but all the same he can consider himself a Jew and all those around him will understand him to be one.” The same is true with “Russian patriots” abroad who don’t speak Russian but identify as Russians.
According to Yakovenko, the specific problem of those who live on the territory of the Russian Federation is that their population “cannot become a political nation because it consists not of citizens but of subjects. Putin’s ‘civic Russian nation’ has television as the place of its assembly.”
Namely from the box emergence “the vaunted ‘unity of the people,’ be it civic or ethnic Russian. Television is the organ of collective imagination in which ‘the civic Russian nation’ exists,” in which it can be transformed instantly into the ethnic Russian nation and then back again. On television, “this is easy.” In real life, not so much.
As a result, a civic Russian nation “exists in the imagination of Putin and his entourage.” They view it as clay they can turn into anything they like. “That is how [Russian leaders have] imagined their subjects, and they all were quite surprised when it suddenly turned out that this community, which existed in their imagination turned out to be very different from reality.”
Putin is going to experience that “unwelcome surprise” in the future beyond any question. There are real people in Russia and not just those who are like those which exist only in the Kremlin leader’s imagination.