Staunton, June 24 – Nationalism in open societies typically serves as a reinforcing link between the population and its rulers, Dmitry Shusharin says; but in totalitarian regimes, it more commonly serves as “an instrument of alienation of the individual from humanity,” thus making him or her more subject to control by the powers that be.
That distinction is especially important to remember as one watches the evolution of Russian nationalism as Vladimir Putin seeks to move Russia ever more completely from the incompletely open society it was becoming after perestroika to a neo-totalitarianism political system.
The Russian publicist developed this idea in a book, Russian Totalitarianism. A New Edition several years ago, and today, Novyye izvestiya has published a key except from it on exactly this point (newizv.ru/article/general/24-06-2020/inostrantsy-eto-gady-imperstvo-otchuzhdaet-rossiyu-i-russkih-ot-chelovechestva).
“The Russian ruling elite,” Shusharin says, “regardless of what it was called always was concerned not to allow the formation of a civic Russian nation” of the kind that became the basis for the rise of modern nation states elsewhere. “This has been a constant of Russian politics and Russian history, regardless of the ideological form of the powers that be.”
Russian autocracy and then Russian totalitarianism were thus varieties of a common form of ethnic statehood of the Russians which viewed all others as alien and a threat. That led those regimes to work to “stop ethnogenesis on the entire territory of the empire.” The supposedly internationalist Soviet system simply used different means to the same end, he argues.
The Russian ruler in these systems is “not simply the father of the people: he is part of the personality of each representative of the people, a tribal head, an inevitably sacred figure who requires not only physical but also spiritual defense,” Shusharin says. No people under him is so closely connected with this idea than the ethnic Russians. The others are viewed with suspicion.
One manifestation of this are the periodic attempt to “declare all the population of Russia ethnic Russians” or to insist that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Under the tsars, the notion of “the triune Russian people” consisting of Russians, Little Russians and White Russians was official policy.
This idea remains in the consciousness of Russians to this day. That means in turn that efforts to oppose Russian imperialism and Russian nationalism are typically nothing more than “amusing,” because the latter share more with the former than they are usually willing to acknowledge.
“The goal of Russian imperialism” – and that is the form of nationalism under its authoritarian and especially totalitarian regimes – “is the alienation of Russian and Russians from the rest of humanity. In essence, this is the core content of totalitarianism” and sets Russia and its form of nationalism apart from others.
The Russian kind of nationalism does serve as a prop for the Russian state but it also leads that state to promote the idea that Russians are not one people among many but a people superior to others and to view all opponents of Russia and Russians as fascists for precisely that reason.
That has many dangerous consequences, but it also means that the decision of the Ukrainian people to break away from this concept and not the August putsch is what put an end to the Soviet Union. “The Russian empire began to be formed in Pereyaslavl and was born at Poltava.”
“And Ukraine inflicted on this empire a mortal blow in 1991. Consequently,” when Russians like Vladimir Putin “talk abut this as a geopolitical catastrophe, it became clear that the war of Russia against Ukraine is something that could not be avoided.” Ukraine’s existence threatens the self-understanding of fundamentally totalitarian Russian nationalism.