Staunton, November 10 – “The identity of a great power and historical memory about its imperial inheritance in combination with the desire to bring together ‘a divided nation’ can be a dangerous cocktail, especially if people propose a forcible solution of the issue,” according to Aleksey Miller, a professor of St. Petersburg’s European University.
That combination already exists in Russia, has been encouraged if not actively promoted by Vladimir Putin, and is gaining acceptance among many Russians, a situation that obviously threatens Russia’s neighbors but also if less obviously Russia itself, the scholar continues (globalaffairs.ru/number/Irredentizm-i-krizis-natcionalnoi-identichnosti-19125).
In an interview in the current issue of Rossiya v globalnoy politike, Miller discusses the irredentism and argues that in Russia’s case, “all the dangers arising from a powerful identity of a great power and from its imperial heritage which tempts some to view present-day borders as ‘accidental’ and ‘unjust’ are combined with nationalism. And this is a very dangerous mix.”
“When such strivings become an important part of ideology and play a role in the construction of identity,” the St. Petersburg scholar continues, “then at a certain moment it is possible to simply lose control over them.” And that is especially true if leaders appear to be giving such views legitimacy either by their statements or their actions.
After his 2007 Munich speech, Puitn was asked by Dmitry Kiselyov whether it was not time to declare Russians “a divided nation” and take action. Putin responded not by saying that people should stop talking such nonsense but rather by suggesting that “one need not talk about this at the top of one’s voice.” That encouraged many.
And the Kremlin leader’s actions regarding Crimea did even more, Miller suggests. That event also led to a redefinition for many of the Russian world. Prior to Crimea, many had accepted Patriarch Kirill’s definition of that as a region where Moscow should promote cultural values by soft power. After Crimea, “there was no place for such talk.”
But there was another side to this question as well, and it has created problems in Russia, Miller says. “In 2014, many considered that Crimea was the beginning of a big move, ‘a Russian spring’ but with time it became clear that this is not the case.” And consequently, it became obvious that there needed to be a reformulation of the concept of “’the Russian world.’”
What was needed but what many have resisted is a return to the definition Patriarch Kirill had offered earlier, of the Russian world as a cultural and non-aggressive construction. But many were not interested in going back to that, and this has become a problem for the Russian state.
That is especially the case because of the promotion by the authorities of World War II as the center of national identity, a militant position that means the Russian world has become like a suitcase without a handle, too important to discard but too difficult to carry. What is needed, Miller suggests, is to look inside the suitcase and find out what should be saved and what let go.
The issue of a union of Russia and Belarus is “in part an irredentist problem, but in general, this issue is much wider.” It involves “nationalism, identity, relations to the past, historical memory, and much else besides. Addressing Russian communities elsewhere by territorial change is another matter altogether as Ukraine has shown.
Any Russian policy of reuniting irredentas in a territorial way, especially when there are “notes in the spirit of Molotov,” clashes with Russia’s interests in cooperating with China or the West. At the very least, it will make it extremely difficult for Russia to present itself as “a supplier of security in Central Asia” and elsewhere.
Promoting the resettlement of Russians from abroad into Russia is another matter, but going beyond that to challenge borders entails real risks, the European University professor says. Unfortunately, Moscow has done a very poor job in promoting the return of compatriots from abroad because it demands that they show how they will be “needed” by Russia.
That shouldn’t be done, Miller says. Someone who applies to return “simply has the right to do so because he is a Russian. No tin the sense that his father and mother are Russians but that he himself is Russian.” Jews who want to resettle in Israel aren’t asked to show how they are “needed” by Israel, and Russians who want to resettle in Russia shouldn’t be asked that either.
If one defines irredentism “in the very broadest sense” as “a striving to ‘save’ the members of one’s people who are located beyond state borders, then this is a type of irredentism, but it is about resettlement” rather than changing borders. That is something Russians need to understand and act upon.