Staunton, August 16 – A Moscow commentator says that the increasing invocation of the slogan “Russia for the Russians” shows that many who call themselves Russians know little or nothing about their history of their state or their people and raises questions about whether it is appropriate to speak about the existence of a Russian nation as such.
In a two-part essay posted on Slon.ru this week, Nikolay Uskov who was trained as a medievalist but now works as an editor and commentator, argues that whether they know it or not, Russians using this slogan are seeking to go back to a period in their history prior to that of Ivan the Terrible (snob.ru/selected/entry/63417 and snob.ru/selected/entry/63613).
Indeed, if some of those pushing that slogan knew more – such as the fact that the tsarist official Sergey Uvarov who came up with the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” idea was gay – they might be especially troubled given that many of today’s nationalists are also partisans of Moscow’s anti-gay propaganda law.
By the end of the 16th century, Uskov says, “Muscovia had finally ceased to be a state based primarily on the Great Russian nationality.” But even before that, he says, Russians were hardly a nation in any modern sense. “The Russian people was based neither on blood nor on faith.” Instead, it was “a political community which should not be called purely Slavic.”
Russia’s chronicles refer to two East Slavic tribes, the Slovens and the Krivicheys and two Finno-Ugric ones, the Chud and the Ves’, on the territory that became Muscovy. In 862, they were joined by “a third force,” the Scandinavians whom the chronicle calls “Rus,” and it was from that alien element that the country and ultimately the nation took their names.
After the fall of Kievan Rus to the Mongols, the population of that state fled in two directions, Uskov says, some to the West who as neighbors of Lithuania and Poland formed the future Ukrainians and Belarusians and others to the northeast along the banks of the Oka and the Upper Volga. These fused with the Finno-Ugrics as toponomy shows to become the Rus.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, he continues, “Rus approached to one of the main points of no return in its history” because at that time it was decided “who would become the master of Eurasia, Moscow or Cracow and who would” control the enormous space between Europe and Asia.
By absorbing the lands of the disintegrating Golden Horde and the Tatars in the first instance, Moscow turned out to be “much more successful than Lithuania,” a success that was not rooted in any Great Russian nationality or Orthodox faith but in the power and property of the rulers.
As Muscovy expanded, the share that the Russians composed of the population declined. Only about a third of the population under the center’s control spoke Russian, and in the 19th century, the tsar was who consided “most Russian, that is, Aleksandr III, was about one-eighth Russian by blood.”
The terms the Russian state has used show that. In the chronicles, “Rus” meant approximately what “all-Russian” means now. The Russian word for state (“gosudarstvo”) derives from the word for ruler (“gosudar’”) and the word for the authorities or the powers (“vlast’”) derives from that for property (”volost’”).
In 1833, Nicholas Inamed Sergey Uvarov to be his minister of public enlightenment, and the latter came up with the famous trilogy that nationalists like to cite, Uskov says. But this is “bad news for Mr. Milonov and Miss Mizulina” because Uvarov had a homosexual relationship with Prince Dondukov-Korsakov.
Nicholas I, of course, was less impressed with the trilogy and with Uvarov than are his epigones now. He replaced Uvarov with Shirinsky-Shikhmatov because he felt Uvarov was too liberal, and he was always nervous about nationalism because it might “drag Russia into war with its main ally, Austro-Hungary.”
Given all this, Uskov suggests, one must ask “does a Russian nation exist?” The 1917 revolution took its name off the map and “instead of Russia was the USSR, a country without nations but with the right of nations to self-determination” and ultimately the victim of its own policies.
“New, post-Soviet Russia would very much like to see itself as a nation,” but the question immediately arises: are groups like the Daghestanis, Chechens and Tatars part of it or not. And the lack of agreement on that, combined witth growing ethnic tensions and the loss of a single information space makes the Russian national project unlikely to be successful.
Uskov argues that one should remember that “the Latin word nation literally means ‘he who is born.’” The Romans considered any group base on blood to be “a community of a low order and characteristic of barbarism.” They called themselves not “the roman nation” but rather “citizens of Rome.”
The Romans opposed communities based on nature such as nations to those based on culture such as their own, Uskov continues, and they were always interested in stressing “the difference between culture and nature and between civilization and barbarism.” Russians could take a lesson from this rather than from those who want to return to blood as the basis of their society.
“For centuries, Russia was created as a political union in which neither blood nor faith had decisive importance at at the very least gave precedence to a combined movement of hudnreds of peoples toward a common goal,” the commentator says. It would be tragic if not disastrous if those calling themselves the Russian nation now went in an alternative direction.
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