Staunton, November 26 – Since the early 1990s, the Kremlin has promoted the revival of an imperial identity among Russians, something that precludes anytime soon the development of a civic Russian one, according to Emil Pain, a leading Russian specialist on ethnic conflict at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
In a new book written with his student Sergey Fedyunin, Nation and Democracy: Prospects for the Administration of Cultural Diversity (in Russian, Moscow,2017), Pain argues that “Russian liberals, having rejected the idea of the nation have not been able to
Formulate an image of the future which a large portion of Russians share.”
Instead, he continues, they have watched in many cases seemingly passively as the Russian government since the early 1990s and especially since 2000 has revived the notion of empire that by itself makes impossible not only the development of Russian ethnic identity but of Russian democracy.
The Open Russia portal has now posted on line the chapter in Pain and Fedyunin’s book on “The Intentional Reconstruction of Imperial Consciousness: Stages and Mechanisms” in which the ethnic specialist makes this argument by tracing changes in Russian identity since the end of Soviet times (openrussia.org/notes/716553/).
“Post-Soviet Russia can serve as an obvious case of how imperial consciousness has literally been imposed on a society.” When the Soviet Union fell apart, few Russians felt they had lost anything by the exit of the non-Russian union republics. According to polls in 1993, for example, “only 16 percent” expressed “the slightest signs of regret” about that.
Instead, Russians overwhelmingly saw themselves as becoming part of the West, and only some marginal figures, “invoking ‘the will of the people’ without the slightest basis,” promoted a special Russian path or imperial revival. But as the difficulties of making the transition became clearer, by the mid-1990s, this positive view of the West began to erode.
By 2001, two Russians out of three agreed with the statement that “the Western variant of social organization in one way or another is not suitable for Russian conditions and contradicts the way of life of the Russian people.” And that was true not only despite but because changes in Russia “were less than for example in Poland or the Baltic countries.”
Changes happened there because re-entering Europe was the core national idea, Pain continues; but “in Russia, there was no such defense mechanism in popular consciousness: the movement toward Europe was not a goal in and of itself: On the contrary, this idea depended on several others.”
As a result, he says, “by 1990, another thesis had become popular [in Russia]: ‘Sovialism was not so bad; rather its leaders were bad,’ and by the beginning of the 2000s, even the Soviet leaders were being rehabilitated.” The return of Stalin from dismissive contempt to a central hero is a clear case of this.
Because of the difficulties of the 1990s, “traditional Soviet stereotypes arose among many Russians” including the notion that “stability and order” are only possible with “authoritarian rulers.” But that didn’t happen automatically. Instead, it was actively promoted by the political elite for its own purposes.
As a result, “in 2002, for the first time in 15 years … the disintegration of the USSR was viewed by respondents [to VTsIOM polls] as the chief and most dramatic event of this entire period.” And along with this, Pain suggests, Russians rapidly revived the enemies the Soviet Union had.
“In 1991, only 12 percent of those questioned considered the West (above all the US) an enemy; in 1994, already 41 percent did; and in 1999, at the time of the bombing of Belgrade, almost two-thirds – 65 percent – viewed the US as an enemy.” By 2014, this hostility to the West became “almost total.”
This growth of hostility toward the West “is not connected in mass consciousness with the revival of Soviet aspects of life in Russia,” Pain says. Rather most of them thought in the following way: “Well we’ve changed and become a democracy, but the West as before doesn’t love us [because of its] inborn Russophobia.”
“Alongside the return of Soviet consciousness in Russia at the end of the 1990s was gradually rehabilitated the idea of the empire in its pre-Soviet version.” And while the country was called a federation, it “has acquired (or more precisely restored) aspects of an imperial system.”
That represents a clear departure from Soviet times when Russians had been taught that empires and imperialism were by definition evil and to be rejected. But it reflected the efforts of people like Aleksandr Dugin and Aleksandr Prokhanov to promote the idea that a Russian empire was a good thing and should be revived.
But it arose in popular consciousness less because of their ideas than because “empire” became a business brand, the name of the most popular kinds of vodka, a designation for the best classes of hotels, and even a term to capture the best of taste or spirit. And “the neo-imperial style became dominant in architecture and city planning.”
This imperial consciousness “began to exert significant influence on political life” and leading to the revival of “imperial aspects in the political life” of Russia, the ethnic specialist continues.
The only way this trend can be opposed, Pain says, is by redefining the nation in a civic sense and “rejecting its traditional mythologization.” But for that to happen, he argues, Russians must first define who they are “in relation to power – subjects or sovereigns” because unless that happens – and in an imperial system, it can’t – no redefinition will matter.
“The development of the concept of civic nationalism” requires “the opening of the path for the transformation of society on the basis of liberal values, constitutionalism, and democracy.” But given the current imperial consciousness, any discussion of this can’t be taken entirely seriously.
“Today,” he writes, “Russia suffers from the reproduction of the model of imperial nationalism which gives the country instruments from the past which are unsuitable for life in the contemporary world.” And one can’t count on “a positive evolution of Russian nationalism” in this situation.
What Russians call imperialism is in fact “post-imperial consciousness, which includes nostalgia for the times of classical empires, resentment, and various kinds of political fears.” It is characteristic “not only for Russian state power supporters but also for representatives of various ethnic communities.”
But it can and must be challenged head on because “the liberal opposition,” as the numbers taking part in demonstrations show, “is more prepared for self-organization than are the Russian nationalists.”
Tragically, “etatism in essence is paralyzing social activity, but civic indifference is compensated for by the cult of the leader” and the mythologization of the people as “’ours.’” At the same time, however, there is hope because of the nature of the imperial consciousness now on public view.
“The very fact that imperial consciousness [in Russia today] does not have a clear ethnic dimension and is not translated via the channels of cultural tradition but rather is formed under the influence of socio-political circumstances and direct construction indicates that there is a chance for the radical reprogramming of such mass consciousness.”
That may require a major national trauma as was the case with Germany or it may occur as a result of evolutionary processes as was the case in France. But it isn’t something likely to be immediate in Russia because “at present there is not a single political force which is capable of beginning the deconstruction of imperial consciousness.”