Wednesday, May 23, 2018

‘There is Not Now and Never has Been a Russian Nation,’ Tsipko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – The recent events in Armenia are especially disturbing to Russians because they demonstrate something the Armenians have and the Russians do not, a nation whose members don’t need to seek any special “national idea” and who are not indifferent to the shedding of blood of their compatriots, Aleksandr Tsipko says.

            In an essay posted online last week provocatively entitled “The Russian Nation is a Myth,” the longtime social commentator says that “peoples who are distinguished by a sense of unity, by concern for one another, by the ability to view the misfortunes of their neighbors as their own don’t seek and do not seek any national idea.”

            Examples of such peoples are the Jews, the Armenians, and “among the Slavs, the Poles,” Tsipko says. But no one who has considered the question would put Russians among them either at some point in the past or now, something that the current hoopla about finding a Russian national idea only underscores (

            “All Russian thinkers who have searched for a Russian idea somehow haven’t taken note of the obvious, that the Russian nation as a single organic whole has never existed and that there is nothing in common between the overwhelming majority of the population and the tiny clutch of educated Russia.”
            Throughout the imperial period, Tsipko says, there were in fact “two nations,” the mass of illiterate peasants who could not even read the thinkers who claimed to speak for them, and the tiny literate intelligentsia who produced these thinkers but who had little but active disdain for those they purported to speak on behalf of.

            Anton Denikin, the leader of the White Russian movement, wrote in his Studies of the Great Time of Troubles that “even the church and religion did not enter into the body and blood of the Russian people.”  As soon as the February 1917 revolution happened, soldiers stopped crossing themselves and army churches were converted into recreation centers.

            Because that was so, Tsipko argues, “the Bolsheviks in Russia were able to do what the communists couldn’t in Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia: lead the people to the destruction of the church and to outrages over national shrines and memorials of the past,” something the Bolsheviks themselves fully recognized.

            Leon Trotsky, for example, said that the revolution won out because its leaders “were not afraid to make use of the distrust and hatred of illiterate Russia to ‘the man in glasses,’ to the rich and to professors, not to mention hatred to the nobility.”

                And as Denikin put it, “what national idea could one talk about if soldiers from among the peasantry when quitting the front began to say: ‘We’re Tambov men; the Germans won’t reach us.’”

Tsipko says that his point here is not to start a debate about any Russian national idea but rather to provoke “a serous discussion on the formation of the Russian nation as something organic and integral and about what is necessary for the transformation of the people into a nation that Russians clearly lack.”

The Poles whom Russians don’t like provide a clear example of “when a nation begins.” It begins when as in 1980, people in Poland said, “a Pole doesn’t’ shoot at another Pole,” and acted on that principle, a remarkable advance over 1970 when the Gomulka government in fact shot people.

The first sign that the people in post-Soviet Russia were not a nation came in October 1993 when the Moscow population showed indifference or curiosity but not anger and concern about the fact that some Russians were prepared to kill others.

Of course, Tsipko continues, “there wasn’t a Russian nation in 1917 when ignorant Russian did away with the educated one; and there wasn’t a Russian nation either at the start of the 1990s.  Neither the authorities, nor the church, not the leaders of the RSFSR congress of peoples deputies did anything in order to avoid the shedding of blood.”

Even more, he says, “there is no Russian nation now when people who call themselves Russians demonstrate a shocking indifference to the death and suffering of millions of their own compatriots who died as a result of Stalin’s terror.” Instead, over the last decades, the share of Russian people considering Stalin’s repression a crime has fallen from 72 to 39 percent.

Feeling united by the joys of victory “is not difficult to achieve, even if these victories carry hidden within themselves new misfortunes.”  But genuine national unity exists only when a people feels a common sense of loss for the suffering of others among its number. That is something Poles and Armenians feel but that Russians do not.

Indeed, Tsipko says, “our Russian tragedy consists in the fact that we do not have and have never had the most important thing for the establishment of a nation – the ability to feel for the suffering of our compatriots and to view a national tragedy as a personal one.” The reality is that there are virtually no such among the Russian people.

“The Poles would curse forever a leader who killed even one figure equal to Florensky, Mandelshtam, Kondratyev, Chayanov or Nikolay Vavilov,” the Russian commentator say; “but with us, on the contrary, any reference t the destruction of the Russian national elite by Lenin and Stalin is condemned as ‘blackening Russian history and the Russian people.’”

And Tsipko concludes by observing that Russia’s current tragedy “consists not only that we have not evolved into a full-blown nation … but also in that [we are not capable of acting like a community capable of] speaking without fear the truth about ourselves, about our history and about our own powers that be.”

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