Thursday, March 29, 2018

Three Kinds of National Identities – Ethnic, State, and Civic – Now Competing in Russia, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – Participants at a roundtable organized by the Liberal Mission Foundation called to discuss two new volumes by ethnic specialist Emil Pain suggest that three kinds of national identity – ethnic, state-centric and civic – are in conflcict in Russia and that the outcome of that competition will determine the country’s future.

            What makes this significant is that most of the debate about the definition of a new Russian nation has assumed a contest only between ethnic and civic, with state-centric definitions, themselves very different than and add odds with both, typically conflated with one or the other.

            Former economics minister Yevgeny Yasin, who chaired the meeting, noted that “according to the Levada Center, the most important sign of a civic nation, a sense of civic subjectiveness … has fallen since the 1990s, raising the question: “Is the development of a civic nation in Russia possible in such conditions?” (

            Emil Pain, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, gave the main talk. He argued that “under current political conditions, the participation of people of liberal views in any political institutions serves no purpose … but to take part in theoretical discussions is useful.” As for himself, he has avoided political activities since 2012.

            The main thesis of the new book, Nation and Democracy, of which he is the co-author, is that “a civic nation, that is, a civic society which has taken control of the state and redirected it for its own interests will become in the future the basic condition for the resolution not only of inter-ethnic problems but also for the development of democracy in Russia.”

            Russia moved in that direction in the early 1990s and with the 1993 constitution was on its way to becoming a nation state, Pain said; but “the national project has been deformed in the 2000s when the authorities began to destroy” the baases of local government and treaty agreements between Moscow and the republics and regions.

            “It is important to stress,” Pain said, “that this regress was in no way connected with any characteristics of Russians as the ethnic majority of the country. Those very same Russians, including thoe born in the USSR, showed their capacity for civic activity and for mastering liberal-democratic norms in countries where those norms were not suppressed by the powers.”

            Unfortunately, he continued, “certain scholars – Abdulatipov, Mikhailov, and Tishkov – assert that civic self-consciousness in Russia is growing.” They do so by misinterpreting research conducted by the Institute of Sociology which shows that ever more residents of Russia are inclined to identify with state institutions rather than nations.

            But “in reality, this is an imprecise interpretation of the results of the sociological research: it incorrectly interprets identification with the state as a synonym of civic identity.”  The two are not the same.  Russian liberals are linked with national identity and nationalism but do not focus first and foremost on the state but on the community and its rights and powers.

            Such links and identifications can best grow not from the top down but from the bottom up and in places like major cities, where “civic ideas have always been formed.  From classical times, the words ‘politics’ and ‘poliss,’ ‘citizenship’ and ‘urbanity’ have common roots. The same thing is true now.”

            A second speaker, political analyst Kirill Rogov, argued that the current confusion about nations and national identities began with the Maidan in Ukraine. “We saw in the Maidan a certain combination of elements of a a pro-European choice, ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism.” But not everyone saw it the same way.

            “The West,” Rogov said, “viewed the Maidan as a manifestation of civic nationalism, but Russian propaganda presented it as a manifestation of ethnic nationalism” and promoted a certain vision of state national identity and nationalism at home to counter the possibility of such a development within Russia.

            Beyond question, he continued, “this collision was prefigured by the events in Russia” a few years earlier “which also demonstrated the possibility” of a coalition emerging that would include both liberals and nationalists. And the state offered “’imperial nationalism’” as a substitute for that.

            “The term ‘imperial nationalism,’” Rogov said, “is not entirely correct. More properly this is state nationalism because it is the specific nationalism of a continental empire in which imperialism has ot an expansionist coloration but on the contrary, it realizes itself in the idea of preserving the perimeter” of the country.

            A third speaker, Aleksey Kara-Murza of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy said that he agrees with Pain that “the nation is the most important instrument of a liberal politics. He is right that liberal culture constructed on the primacy of the free creative personality is formed in the struggle with two opponents – autocratic despotism … and unlimited cosmopolitanism.”

            There is a strong tradition in Russian liberalism of fighting with the former but a much less developed one involving struggle with the latter, Kara-Murza said.  But it does exist and should be expanded upon. It goes back to Petr Struve who in the early years of the 20th century said his primary task was “’to marry’ nationalism and liberalism.”

            He was chairman of the pan-emigration congress of 1926 in Paris where he declared his goal to be the formation of a Russian civic nation in exile, one opposed to the Soviet empire. That idea took shape in Vasily Aksyonov’s novel, The Island of Crimea, where in Muscovy, they live in an imperial fashion “but in ‘our Crimea, we live by national and liberal values.”

            Struve argued that true patriotism is liberalism, something many today do not understand because the regime has “privatized” patriotism: “Who is not with us, is against us. Who is not with us is not a Russian. [And] who is not with us is against Russia. The liberals are again and that means they must be rejected.”

            Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, was the fourth speaker.  He began by noting that Pain had drawn parallels between the outcome of the Iranian revolution of 1979 and “the authoritarian-traditionalist turn of the last decade in Russia,” parallels which are not simply superficial but reflect common characteristics of countries trying to catch up with the West.

            These involve not cultural distinctions and details, Gudkov said, but rather “the inertia of underlying institutions” which define how elites and those who support them feel: “mass resentment, complexes of national incompleteness, the pursuit of compensatory gratification, the defensive isolationism” and so on.

            Most Russian liberals, he continued, are put off by and do not want to have anything to do with nationalism in general or Russian nationalism in particular given the history of the latter both before the revolution and in Soviet times when it was associated with some of the most reactionary and offensive notions.

            Of course, there were exceptions among the ruralist writers and people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gudkov conceded. But they have become less influential as the current Russian regime has revived some of the more extreme forms of Russian nationalism under the control of the state.

             For most liberals, Russian nationalism is understood as “Russian conservative or imperial nationalism” rather than with the foundations that could lead to the development of democratic values.  And yet, “the entire end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century show that the development of democracy always rested on the idea of national representation.”

            According to Gudkov, “any successful democracy one way or another operates or includes in itself the idea of a nation as a civic or collective … consolidation for the defense of the ideals of national culture, national economy, security, territorial integrity or on the contrary expansion.”

            In this way, “the nation and democracy or the idea of liberalism have something in common – the representation of the whole. But it appeals to ‘unity in diversity,’ considering the national community as an organic collection of autonomous formations, groups, social divisions and so on.”

            Gudkov said that “in various republics of the former USSR it had a different nature [than in Russia]: it was emancipatory and a conservative national movement at the same time. All of them included within themselves the potential of anti-imperial consolidation, including an anti-Russian movement as well as the potential or idea of representation of diversity.”

            In Russia today, he continued, “we are dealing with conscious efforts of the authorities to restore great power imperial nationalism which destroys any potential for autonomy, group consolidation or the idea of representation.” But that effort has not destroyed the interest of many Russians in a different form of nationalism, one combined with liberalism.

            Focus groups say, he said, that they would like to see “a certain ‘liberal conservatism’ or ‘liberal nationalism,’ without the extremes of political correctness or multi-culturalism” and even believe that such a nationalism could serve as ‘a positive collective identity’” in the Russian Federation.

            Such people recognize that an empire is “incompatible with the idea of civic or national and social representation,” that it leads to “the sterilization” of society and the destruction of “inter-group ties,” “a sharp simplification of history and ideas about society,” including about ideas involving representation.

            Viktor Sheynis of IMEMO was the fifth speaker.  He argued that “the main link connecting liberalism and democracy is not the nation but civil society.”  Russia was moving in that direction between 1906 and 1917, but it failed to achieve its goals because society was insufficiently developed to support democracy. 

            Ethnicity or the nation may help or hinder the development of civic society but it is not the same thing, according to the economist.  In the post-Soviet world, he suggested, the hopes that the development of the nation will lead to democracy are weak because of the strength of imperial and anti-imperial values and because of the time needed to overcome both.

            A sixth speaker, Vasily Bank, noted that “unfortunately, national problems and conflicts with us in the country have as it were gone underground. In fact, no one is working on them, especially the executive power. The corresponding structures that had been involved are being disbanded,” making the situation worse.

            If this doesn’t change, he suggested, “the problem will go out of control and we will face another Chechnya.”

            Gudkov then made an intervention before Pain made his concluding remarks.  Gudkov said he wanted to illustrate his ideas about “compensatory imperial nationalism” by pointing out that after the annexation of Crimea, “xenophobia fell sharply. Very sharply.” But not because aggression fell but because it was redirected at a different target.

            Further, he suggested, “today we have a very homogenized and common mass consciousness. Young people are the most pro-Putin group” and simultaneously the most anti-Western at an ideological level and the most pro-Western in terms of consumerism and mass culture.

            In summing up the discussion, Pain said that Russians have forgotten that the term “nation” was originally applied not to an ethnic group but to the idea of “popular sovereignty.”  For nearly a century after the French revolution, Russians did understand that. Only after 100 years did an ethnic understanding of the nation become predominant.

            Pain said he does not think it will take another century to return to the original idea in Russia.  What is a civic nation? “It is civil society which controls the state.” It isn’t imperial but supports “a national-federative political milieu.” At the same time, “no one will give this voluntarily.” It must be sought and fought for.

            “In Russia between 2010 and 2014, a new anti-imperial nationalism arose. Then, for the first time, nationalists among whom were those who went to the Bolotnaya square and called themselves national democrats proclaimed as the main idea of nationalism – the state for the nation and not the nation for the state.”

            But with the annexation of Crimea, “a large segment of Russian nationalists returned to the ranks of imperial nationalism,” Pain continued. It lost its way as it integrated with government officials and thus was “almost completely replaced by state nationalism. The state defined the rules the game in the sphere of nationalism as well.”

            But civic or liberal nationalists are coming back, Pain said.  “They are already here, in the ranks of those who support Aleksey Navalny and who despite the xenophobic ideas at the start of his movement now march “under slogan of a profoundly civic nationalism.”  That at least gives some basis for optimism about the future.

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