Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Russia ‘No Longer an Empire but Not Yet a Nation,’ Emil Pain Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 –Russian historian Aleksey Miller recently observed that “Russian never was, is not and never will be a nation state” (, Emil Pain reports, to which ethnographer Valery Tishkov “angrily” responded that it is if it calls itself that (

            Of course, if one follows Tishkov’s logic, Moscow’s leading specialist on ethnic conflicts says in an important new article on the Republic portal today, “a country which calls itself a democracy is one -- even if this is North Korea in the time of the rule of the Kim Dynasty” (

            Since World War II, countries have wanted to position themselves as nation states even if they lack most of the characteristics of such regimes, Pain continues. Russia has found itself caught, however, between those who insist like Miller that it can’t ever become a nation state and those who argue like Tishkov that Russia is one if it says so.

            Both of these positions, of course, are ideological; but taken together, they lead to “one and the same outcome: a rejection of the goals of developing a civic nation in Russia,” either because there is no need for that – “the nation already exists” -- or because it can never exist.  Both positions, Pain suggests, are wrong and get in the way of progress.

            “Since the adoption of the 1993 Constitution,” he continues, “one can speak about the appearance in Russia of the first formal-legal signs of a nation state.”  But the horizontal ties necessary to give real content to those forms have remained weak, while the imperial nature of the country has been restored by the state.

            As a result, Russia finds itself betwixt and between: It is “no longer an empire but it is not yet a nation,” Pain argues.  He points to the findings of the Levada Center that “the most important sign of a civic nation, a sense of citizenship and popular sovereignty, have not been strengthened.” Instead, participation of “its formal citizens” in political life has fallen.

            Over the last two decades, he continues, “both the signs of imperial and subject consciousness regarding the bosses and neo-colonial hostility toward minorities and in general to the culturally ‘alien’ have intensified,” not because of any special feature of the ethnic Russians but because of the actions of the Russian state.

            That state controls ever more aspects of life and “now the Kremlin rules the regions just as the Russian tsars ruled the provinces of the empire.”  But that is not a stable situation because among other things the demographic situation in the various parts of the Russian Federation has changed and is continuing to do so.

            In tsarist and Soviet times, “the size of the ethnic Russian population in the colonized regions grew, but now it is growing smaller in the majority of the republics of the Russian Federation,” something that is giving rise to “a multitude of conflicts” especially over the central issue of languages.

            Another demographic change that undermines stability is the increasing mobility of the population. In the 1926 census, only 25 percent of the Soviet population lived beyond the places where its members were born. Now, according to the 2010 census, 53.8 percent do – and unlike in Soviet times, people are moving of their own volition rather than at the order of the state.

            “Numerous investigations show,” Pain says, “that migrants from the national republics who settle in the cities of Russia already by the second generation are characterized by radically different norms of behavior than their counterparts who remain at home. For example, Chechens in Tyumen oblast … are as different from Chechens in Chechnya as Russians in Estonia are from Russians in Russia or Turks in Germany from Turks in Turkey.”

            This process of cultural adaptation is slow and is not without conflict. In Russia over the last decade there have been conflicts between local residents and migrants first in small cities and settlement like Kondopoga and only then in the major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. But that shift is critical.    

            Since 2000, the center of gravity of the ethno-political problem in Russia hs shifted from the regions to the cities, and this transformation is typical not only for the post-Soveit and post-imperial space” but rather is typical of the majority of countries of the global north, “although it has its own Russian features.”

            “The new ethno-political processes are changing the essence of Russian nationalism,” Pain says.  Russian nationalists have shifted between those who want to give up some of the periphery such as the Caucasus in the name of creating a nation state and those who want to maintain or even revive the empire beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

            But Pain suggests, “the new post-Crimea upsurge of this imperial wave in Russian nationalism has led to a situation in which this ideological direction has practically ceased to exist as an independent force and has dissolved in the state’s ideology of ‘official nationhood.’” That, however, is unlikely to last.

            Some at the mass level of “the lower cells of Russian nationalists” will “inevitably seek new forms for their self-realization and possibly in this search a transformation will occur with them much as one can see in the case of Aleksey Navalny,” who has moved from national populism to anti-corruption and anti-elite ideas.

            According to Pain, “Russian society is experiencing but still doesn’t recognize the crisis state of its post-imperial situation. This crisis is developing slowly and unequally but unceasingly as well, and in connection with this, it reflects a clash between the inherited ‘imperial order’ and the new social, economic and political conditions” in the country.

            “The most important result of the unrealized project of a civic nation in Russia is the weakening of trust in public institutions and other members of the community.” As a result, there is less “active solidarity” and more “passive loyalty to the ruler.” That may suit some in power but it cannot last.

            “The preservation of the current eclectic monster” that is the Russian Federation today “is no longer an empire but it is not yet a nation,” and consequently, Pain says, it is generating a growing number of problems for itself, its rulers, and others. The only hope is the civic institutions which are overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities will spread to society at large.

            His own research, Pain continues, shows that is happening, albeit slowly and with much variation, a clear indication that “Russian no longer can live as it lived in the era of classical empires” but has not yet found its way to forming a nation and a nation state. The path forward will be long, but it is one that others have managed to traverse. Russia can as well.

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