Staunton, January 13 – The continuing dominance of an imperial mentality among Russians and their failure to consolidate as a nation reflects the fact that the Russian state became an empire before the Russian people came together as a nation, according to Yevgeny Anisimov, a scholar at the St. Petersburg Institute of History.
In a 3700-word essay this week, Anisimov says that “Russian national consciousness as an integral phenomenon, as a complex of various ideas and social feelings in the assessment of itself and the world still has not taken shape because before Russians felt themselves to be a nation, they recognized themselves as an empire” (asiarussia.ru/news/5718/).
“Thanks to the powerful expansion of a despotic state, approximately from the beginning of the 16th century, a Russian empire arose and its values became the values of the consciousness of Russian people. The pre-imperial traditional values were then integrated and changed in the framework of the imperial ideology, thought and politics and firmly fused with them,” he writes.
While every empire has “the same end,” each has its own very specific beginnings, Anisimov argues. Russia is now exception, and the historian points to four particular “causes” which he suggested “conditioned the specific features of the Russian model of imperial consciousness:
First, he says there are those reflecting the internal historical development of Russia. There, these included “the despotic and fundamentally repressive power of the Moscow autocrats, the slavish mentality of the people founded in serfdom, hierarchies not of vassals but of state slaves” and the presence of “a general spirit of non-freedom.”
Second, there are those reflecting the way in which the Moscow state was formed on the basis of a struggle in the first instance with other Russian principalities. “The so-called ‘unification of Russian lands around Moscow’ was in fact an uninterrupted civil war and it became the field of battle on which were tried many of the principles of the imperial policy of the future.”
From Moscow’s perspective, “the imperial conquests were a continuation of the conquest of sovereign Russian principalities, of those natural state formations on the basis of which broke apart the archaic Kievan Rus and which in principle had a tendency toward a stable national existence as is shown in the history of Tver, Novgorod and Pskov.”
Third, Anisimov continues, “there is the tradition of the medieval Russian ideology with its characteristic ideas about a certain special role for Russia and Russians in world history – ‘Moscow is the third Rome,’ the exceptional religious unity of Orthodoxy, the ‘right’ of Russia to ‘the inheritance’ of Byzantium, ” ideas which have continued to this day albeit in different forms.
And fourth, there were those features which reflected the international and geopolitical notions accepted more broadly in the world of “’the rules of the imperial game,’” which posited the division of the world among great powers and which Russia could not fail to view itself as entitled to a part of.
The notion of the division of the world by empires dominated international relations from the Treaty of Westphalia to Yalta in 1945, he writes. “And Russia, like other empires as well, accepted the idea of the division of the world into zones of rule and influence … even as it secretly dreamed about world rule.” Without such dreams, “not a single empire could live.”
These four factors all contributed to the formation of imperial thought among Russians, and Anisimov traces the way in which they have continued, with new terms taking the place of old as the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union which was replaced by the Russian Federation but with the underlying patterns remaining the same.
Among his many observations, these are some of the most intriguing: Anisimov argues that these combined to make it virtually impossible for Russians to imagine that other Slavs, such as the Ukrainians, are separate peoples let alone that they should have separate states. Instead, for Russians, Ukrainians are identified as Russians “who speak bad Russian.”
Moreover, the historian argues, Russians because of their imperial consciousness have not distinguished between what they call the ingathering of Russian lands and the annexation of other lands because of them it is not about ethno-national identity but about loyalty to the sovereign – and thus in Soviet times, they could even talk about Bulgaria as “the 16th Soviet republic.”
That failure to make distinctions and to believe it was all about political loyalty has had two other consequences. On the one hand, Russians have insisted that all annexations are in fact voluntary when in fact they aren’t. And on the other, they have insisted that they are irreversible even when that has not been the case with other empires.
Throughout their history, Russians as an imperial people have needed “the stereotype” of an eternal enemy, although the actual enemy has changed many times. Moreover, they have acted often like a Europe-centric empire in that their views of their rights to subordinate peoples of the East have never been an issue for them.
Indeed, for Russians as for some other imperial powers, the notion that “the norms of international law and the values of Christian ethics” should govern their behavior over these peoples has never been accepted. Instead, they have felt that they are quite entitled to destroy “’the wild men’” of the East.
Anisimov also notes that “an empire is impossible without the extreme militarization of the metropolitan center. The army is the eternal love of the empire, it is the weapon of conquest, and it is also a model for society.” So too it has been in Russia with its hierarchies, verticals, and governors general.
“It is important to note,” he says, “that the movement to the East and to other parts of the world was not driven in Russia by demographic, economic or trade interests. They naturally played a role but they remained either secondary or phantoms and unreal. The inertia of imperial conquests was stronger than the voice of reason and good sense.”
One particular feature of the Russian Empire was the elimination of borders of the place of settlement of Russians and non-Russians” and the drive to eliminate the differences of the latter from the former. Such desires only increased “with the appearance of the ideas of nationalism and chauvinism,” things Russians “to a significant decree integrated” into their imperial consciousness.
“The ideas of Russian nationalism, which in many regards corresponded with imperial stereotypes” were broadened to include the ideas of “world rule. In this way, “the ideas of Russian nationalists could provide a basis for asserting the superiority of Russians over other peoples.” But in the end, they “could not become the doctrine of imperial conquest.”
Anisimov points out that 1917 shook the imperial paradigm, but the Bolsheviks stopped the disintegration of the empire and “the ideas of world revolution and ‘a universal commune’ quickly swallowed up the first shoots of national formations. The empire as before was gathered in and unified in correspondence with the new ideas about ‘proletarian equality’ of all peoples.”
That notion and the proletarian “messianism” behind it fit “easily into the framework of imperial consciousness of the past.” Under their terms, “the center of the World Socialist Republic would be in Moscow and the world would speak the language of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin – that is, Russian.”
By the 1930s, he continues, “the imperial ideas of a revanchist ‘assembly’ of supposedly lost ‘immemorial Russian lands’” was covered with the notion of “’exporting the revolution’” and fighting the enemies which surrounded the country.
Indeed, Anisimov says, “’Soviet’ was a euphemism for the pre-revolutionary ‘Russian’ in that as before it identified someone of an undefined nationality but who clearly was attached to an ideologized empire, in this case, the Soviet Union.” This equation happened because of the absence in both of any civil society standing apart from the state.
At the same time, the conviction spread among Russians that “Russia is not a metropolitan center” and that “its colonies live better” than it does, the basis for the view that the colonies were ungrateful and do not deserve even what they have been given and for the idea that Russians should not be criticized or held accountable for anything they do to them.
The collapse of the Soviet Union “did not lead to the collapse of imperial thinking in all its aspects.” Instead, it reinforced some of them, including the sense of being surrounded by enemies, the view that the former colonies were unjustifiably ungrateful, and the notion that Russia should not have to put up with their departure if and when it has the chance to reabsorb them.
“Imperial consciousness,” he writes, “could not come to terms with the possible separation from Russia, after Chechnya, of other peoples. For Russian people as before, the problem of self-identification and defining their place in the world and in Russia remained as before sharp” and unresolved.
And that crisis has been made worse, Anisimov says, “by the fact that the wave of Russian nationalism which has arisen in recent years has a clearly expressed xenophobic and fascist cast,” something that further restricts the possibility that Russians will shift from an imperial to a national idea anytime soon.
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