Thursday, August 22, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russians Must Take Nationalism Away from the Nationalists, Writer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 22 – Like Americans, most Russians view nationalism in a negative way, according to a Russian Jewish émigré living in New York, but they will not  be able to integrate their society and escape from the Soviet past unless they take nationalism away from those who call themselves Russian nationalists and make it part of their own value system.

            In an essay in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Mikhail Dorfman discusses the complicated relationship between ethnic and political identities in the Russian Federation and the ways in which the aversion most Russians feel toward nationalism has landed them in increasingly serious difficulties (

            Dorfman’s reflections, he says, were prompted by the recent case in which a St. Petersburg official decided a Tuvin couldn’t be a citizen of the Russian Federation because the latter didn’t speak Russian, a failure less of an understanding of geography than of history and psychology.

            Russians generally know that they live in “a multi-national state,” a term that is included in the 1993 Constitution but whose meaning is “rapidly disappearing,” Dorfman says.  The reason for that is to be found in the Soviet origins of Russian ethnic terminology and the impact of the demise of the USSR on them.

            Terms like “nationality,” “nation,” and “people” were defined by Stalin’s theory on “the solution of the nationality question.”  They determined, the writer says, what status a people had within the USSR and the attitudes people there had to others both inside that country and beyond its borders.

            “But together with the collapse of the USSR, Stalin’s theory lost its meaning,” Dorfman suggests. And it is a paradoxical outcome that “the phrase about a multi-national state was put into the Constitution [precisely] when for the first time in its history, Russia had become a nation state.”

            The country still has non-Russian regions, but “Russia’s multi-national character is deceptive. Russia now is a mono-cultural and largely mono-lingual state. And if there is any threat to Russian culture, then it hardly comes from national tensions inside of the Russian Federation.”

            According to Dorfman, “Moscow Russians, Moscow Georgians, Tatars, Jews, Armenian or Ukrainians of the second generation are all essentially people of one and the same Russian culture. Their native language is Russian.”  And this is true not just of the capital but of all of “urban Russia.”

             “Russians just like Americans react negatively to the term ‘nationalism,’ although both the one and the other have their own very strong nationalism,” not the nationalism “of marginal fundamentalist, extremist and fascist groups which call themselves nationalists” but “the powerful phenomenon which defined the history of the 20th century.”

            During the course of that century, Dorfman continues, “nationalism replaced the old imperial arrangements.” No force, “not monarchism, not social democracy and not communism” could successfully oppose it. Even within the communist bloc, there were “nationalist phenomena” like the USSR or the Polish Peoples Republic.

            This “triumph of nationalism” was accompanied by “a chain of large and small genocides and numerous crimes against humanity,” but up to now “no one has pointed to an alternative path toward the formation of a contemporary state.”

Within most nationalisms, there is an “imperial component.”  According to Dorfman, “the phenomenon of British nationalism-imperialism is interesting because it was in essence the first European nation,” one that grew out of the translation of the Bible into English and the ancient Jewish idea of a state-nation given by the Lord God.”

“For historical reasons,” he argues, “the Russian national project has lagged behind and still lags behind even in comparison to the Ukrainian.” The British have long been able to deal with a combination of English, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, but even “in the Russian mainstream, people are still struggling with the term ‘Russian nationalism’ on behalf of some imaginary [non-ethnic] Russian one.”

Among Russians there are still “survivals of the past of imperial consciousness which refuse to Ukrainians and Belarusians, peoples with a different national psychology and political cultural than the Russians, the right to self-determination.”  But cases around the world suggests such opposition will ultimately fail.

“For a multitude of social-psychological reasons,” Dorfman argues, “the identification of [non-ethnic] Russian will inevitably lose to the [ethnic] Russian one,” and consequently, he says, “it is time for society in Russia to nationalize the term ‘[ethnic] Russian’” and to take back nationalism from those who use it.

“Only when the national project wins will the idea of a common culture, one including the possibility of equality for all other identifications – pensioner, Orthodox, Soviet, entrepreneur, worker, intelligentsia and creative class – win out. Only when Russia cease to have complexes about its Russianness will it become a country where societal values are higher than ethnic ones.”

Dorfman concludes his article by recalling his own service in the Soviet Army in Tuva where an official queried him about his identification as a Jew on line five of his Soviet passport.  The official accepted him as part of the Soviet people and only wanted to know where he was from, despite the anti-Semitic propaganda of the time.

Dorfman’s argument is intriguing and suggestive, but there are at least three problems that he does not address, problems that seem certain to make the Russian national project he talks about far more problematic than he implies and perhaps ultimately impossible to achieve. 

First, just because people of one nationality learn the language of another does not mean that they shift their identities. Often their nationalism is spurred by this process: The Irish did not become modern nationalists until they stopped speaking Gaelic and started speaking English, and London faced a challenge to its empire not from Hindi-speaking peasants but from an English trained lawyer named Gandhi.

Second, there are deep fissures within Russian identity itself. Not only is it weaker than Dorfman appears to believe, but many who may be listed in the census as Russians in fact now identify as Cossacks, Siberians, Muscovites, or not in ethnic terms at all. Uniting them will be an enormous challenge.

And third, there are many nationalities within the Russian Federation who have no interest in sacrificing their cultures to fuse with ethnic Russian culture and identity.  If the Russian nation tries to insist on that, they are likely to become ever more interested not just in resisting that but in moving rapidly to create their own nation states independent of Russia.

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