Staunton, December 4 – Russia will benefit from removing the ethnic content of the concept of a Russian nation, Emil Pain says; but those benefits will largely be lost if such an entity emerges as appears to be the Kremlin’s goal not autonomously from below but rather as in the past imposed from above.
Yesterday, the Polit.ru portal carried the text of remarks about “Popular Sovereignty or Official Natinality: Alternatives of Nationality Policy in Russia” that the Moscow specialist on ethnic conflicts delivered to the Fourth All-Russian Civic Forum last month (polit.ru/article/2016/12/03/pain/).
Pain says he welcomes the idea that “the population of Russia should gradually get accustomed to the term ‘rossiiskaya natsiya’ after decades of understanding the word ‘nation’ only in almost exclusively ethnic terms.” And he adds that this is a step forward from the 1990s when the powers that be did not speak the word “nation” at all.
“But,” he continues, “there are ever more clear signs” that what is being advanced subverts “the essential character of the phenomenon: instead of the nation as a society” that controls the state from below is “a nation” that remains subordinate to the state and is “’being constructed’ in all senses of this word by the state from above.
And that trend, Pain says, “can be called the latest historical cycle of the re-animation of ‘official nationality’ which has always been opposed to the idea of the civic nation as society based on the principles of popular sovereignty” (stress in the original). He devotes the rest of his talk to showing why that is the case and what Russians should do to stop it.
What is happening now, he begins, is the third cycle in the history of the Russian state’s dealing with the use and meaning of nation. In the first, which occurred at the beginning of the 19th century, the regime worked to stratify and ethnicize the concept of nation so as to delink it from its original idea as a call for the population to control the government.
That resulted in Uvarov’s famous trinity – Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality – and in Count Petr Valyuev’s reduction of nation to the idea of nationality which he viewed not as a political entity but as “a conjunction of cultural customs of this or that people,” including the Russians. Pain points out that Valuyev also introduced the term “the nationality question” which he equated with the threat of “ethnic separatism.”
As a result of these efforts, Pain continues, “the one time revolutionary content of the nation was put at the service of imperial ideology and state interests [and] the suppression of the civic qualities of the nation occurred successfully. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, people simply forgot about the civic nation altogether.”
In the second cycle, Pain says, Stalin shifted from a commitment during the first years of Soviet power to fighting “great power chauvinism” and thus Russian nationalism as well to the “restoration of the imperial idea of a hierarchy of peoples” with the Russians put at the top as “the elder brother” of all the rest.
By the last years of his rule, Stalin had introduced state anti-Semitism as the basis of policy and, drawing on Uvarov’s ideological conception, insisted that “Russian-Soviet culture” not only promoted paternalism and ‘a special path’ but was inherently in opposition to the outside world.
In short, Pain says, “the Soviet variant of official nationality was based on exactly the same three main elements of the Uvarov original: “a negative ideological consolidation against foreign enemies,” the belief that the Russian people found popular sovereignty and democracy alien, and a commitment to paternalism.
Thus, under Stalin, “state nationalism developed but independent nationalism was harshly persecuted. Even participants of student circles who tried to study the works of Russian nationalists were repressed and dispatched to the GULAG.”
That suppression was so successful that “independent Russian nationalism which developed after the death of Stalin during the Khrushchev thaw couldn’t elevate itself above the Valuyev ideas about the nation as about an ethnic community,” a position that did not pose a threat to the powers that be.
In the third cycle of this development which is taking place now, the Putin regime finds itself in a position where independent Russian nationalists have lost support in the population largely because their words are no different than what people hear on government-controlled television.
Thus, once again, the state is trying to create an official nationality in order to block any aspirations for popular rule. Unfortunately, Pain says, there is little occasion for optimism that the Russian people are prepared to fight against that at least in the near term.
“The most important consequence of the cyclic reproduction of the idea of official nationality is the suppression of the civic self-consciousness of Russians” and “the atomization of society” of the kind described by Erich Fromm in his book, “Flight from Freedom.” Twenty years ago, “almost 40 percent of Russians” said they believed they should force the state to do what they want; now only 13 percent say that.
Thus, “the striving of Russians to the realization of popular sovereignty is falling, and another important sign of the growth of civic self-consciousness has not appeared in Russia – a desire to take part in the administration of the country.” More than half of Russians say they don’t want to be involved and don’t think they have a chance to be either.
What is taking place, Pain argues, is “the de-politicization and de-civicization of Russians which have finally lost the aspects of the nation in its initial understanding as a society which controls the state and returned to the status of a population, a labor and demographic resource” for the state.
“Without the development of national-civic identity, a democratic system cannot exist.” Still worse, such a society “cannot oppose the imperialism of the archaic periphery and the political-administrative habits of Russian sultans.” Consequently, they will spread ever more broadly across Russia.
“Unfortunately,” the ethnic specialist says, “for the time being there is not political force visible in our country which is capable of beginning the deconstruction of this imperial consciousness. More than that, the discrediting of the basic ideas of a civic nation is continuing, not only by the authorities but by the opposition.”
According to Pain, “liberal society … isn’t defending the idea of a civic nation. They are demonstrating the stereotypical and Soviet-style understanding of the nation and do not distinguish vertical, statist, and imperial consciousness from the horizontal of the national.”
As a result, “today in Russia, anti-liberal nationalism of the imperial type is being well supported by the anti-national liberalism of the intelligentsia. All this undermines the desire and faith of people in the possibility of society ever controlling the state,” exactly what the current rulers of Russia want.
To overcome this situation, Pain argues that there must be a new appreciation of the way in which the nation, properly understood, is linked to the ideas of freedom and democracy, more possibilities for the development of alternatives to the “stratified” nation on offer, and the preparation of “’a road map’” for promoting “civic consolidation.”
“Our research shows,” he says, that in Russian cities, “horizontal ties” are being formed and are playing a key role in blocking “the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts.” And it is in Russia’s cities that there is the greatest potential for the rise of mass protest attitudes, “although for the time being most of that is shown in people voting with their feet.”