Saturday, January 30, 2016

Russian Nationalism after Ukraine – Three Perspectives

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 30 – Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has both divided Russian nationalists and sparked a discussion among them about what they should be doing next.  Memorial, in cooperation with Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, organized a seminar on this at which three experts offered their views (

            Valery Solovey, an MGIMO professor and head of the New Force Party, says that two-thirds of Russians identify as nationalists in a way that is not significantly different from patriotism but only ten to fifteen percent support what might be called “political nationalism.” And they are split between 80 percent who support the Kremlin and 20 percent who oppose it.

            After the annexation of Crimea, he continues, “Russian nationalists both those loyal to Putin and those his irreconcilable opponents hoped to become the beneficiaries of the new geopolitical dynamic put in place by ‘the Russian spring,’” with some dreaming of a new empire and others about the formation of a genuine Russian nation state.

            But neither of these things happened. Instead, what did was “the worst of all possible geopolitical scenarios” as far as Russian nationalists were concerned: “a bloody and senseless war in the Donbas” and the formation there of “military-criminal regimes loyal to the Kremlin” but not to any Russian nationalist program.

            Nevertheless, “the broad involvement of Russian nationalists in this military-political adventure showed that their mobilization potential was extremely insignificant.” “No more than 5,000” Russian volunteers went to fight in the Donbas, a tiny number compared to Ukrainians who did so.

            Russians as a whole have not come out “sharply negative” against the war but neither have they “actively supported it,” Solovey says, adding that his conversations with Russians suggest that “the mass attitude of our fellow citizens to this conflict may be expressed in the following way: we don’t understand its goals and we don’t want to kill Slavs.”

            “As a result of its participation in the war in southeast Ukraine, Russia has suffered a bestial moral catastrophe.” And that has had particularly negative consequences for Russian nationalists because, despite the opposition of many of them to this war, “Russian nationalists have now begun to be firmly associated with it.”

            Russian nationalists, Solovey continues, are experiencing “a serious moral collapse because the agenda they could propose to society several years ago – ‘stop feeding the Caucasus’ and ‘stop migration,’ has become entirely irrelevant and even dangerous.” Russians now face an entirely different problem: “how to survive conditions of a deteriorating economic situation.”

            As  far as the future of Russian nationalism is concerned, the MGIMO professor says, “it is obvious that the current most intense frustration of the extra-systemic Russian nationalists is gradually being transformed into pain, anger and hatred. From now on, there isn’t going to be any talk of compromise with the existing regime.”

            It is thus “completely possible,” he suggests, that the situation of 2011-2012 will be repeated “when the nationalists united with the liberals and left in political and social protest.”

            Vladimir Milov, an economist and politician, argues that “it is completely obvious that there exists an enormous demand in contemporary Russian society for a respectable nationalist political force.” Unfortunately, he continues, there are six reasons why such a force has not emerged in the period since the demise of the USSR:

1.      At the end of Soviet times, Russian nationalists unlike nationalists in other reppublics “could not understand and accept the natural movement of [Russia] toward market capitalism and liberal democracy of a Western type.”  As a result, they were marginalized.

2.      The liberal reformers of the 1990s “adopted the mistaken course of complete rejection of Russian nationalism as a positive political phenomenon.”

3.      The Russian government “actively opposed the appearance in the Russian political mainstream of moderate nationalists fearing the appearance of an independent political force capable of independently coming up with an agenda” different than that of the regime.

4.      “The nationalists themselves in their majority were completely satisfied with their place in a marginal niche of the political spectrum.”

5.      The nationalists a clear and convincing program about how to move forward.

6.      The Ukrainian crisis split their ranks between the imperialists and the advocates of a Russian nation state.

The prospects for Russian nationalists as a political force will depend, Milov concludes, on their ability to give up imperial notions, escape from archaic ideas, and back modernization. On all those things will hinge their exit from the political margins into “the Russian political mainstream.”

And Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, offers a third perspective. He suggests that “Russian nationalism is a deeply dependent phenomenon, reactive and anything but independent.” Already in late Soviet times, Russian nationalists failed to take the lead in promoting the national consolidation of ethnic Russians.

Moreover, instead of promoting modernization and democracy as nationalists in Eastern Europe and many of the former republics of the USSR, Russian nationalists showed themselves to be “extremely conservative” at a time when society was moving in the other direction.

That was no accident, Gudkov continues. “Russian nationalism always was a reaction to a crisis of the powers that be. For example, it is a painful reaction to the unsuccessful modernization of the 1990s.” Russian nationalists were marginalized and could only criticize not propose something new.

“For example,” the sociologist says, “the project of the creation of a Russian civic nation in current conditions could not be realized because it contradicts the interests of the current regime.” Other Russian nationalists, including neo-paganism and racial superiority, have suffered a similar fate.

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