Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Post-Soviet Nationalism and the Future of Russia

Comment by Andreas Umland
Special to Russia Profile

The Kremlin’s Nationalist Policies Could Have Serious Consequences

The roots of Russia’s currently rising nationalism are threefold: pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” the belief that Russia has a special mission in world history, goes back several centuries. Contrary to what many in the West believe, Russian nationalism was an important element of Soviet ideology beginning in the 1930s. Like in the early 19th century, when Moscow’s so-called Slavophiles applied German nativist thought to Russian conditions, ideas of various Russian nationalist movements today are often imported from the West.

One of the factors accounting for Russia’s recent nationalist resurgence is the way of thinking learned in Soviet schools and universities – a Manichean world-view which sharply distinguishes between “us” and “them.” Although the basic definitions of “us” and “them” have changed, a number of Soviet stereotypes, about the United States, for instance, have persisted.

The major determinant in the recent rise in Russian nationalism is that the Kremlin’s political technologists have discovered it as a tool suitable for reconfiguring political discourse in general. In the Kremlin’s new political reality, President Vladimir Putin is not competing with alternative programs or parties. Putin’s opponents are not socialists, liberals or other Russian political movements. Instead, Putin is juxtaposed against Chechen terrorists, Estonian fascists, Georgian russophobes, Ukrainian neo-Nazis, American imperialists, Western conspirators, and, in general, to those non-Russians who desire to destroy, divide or at least humiliate Russia. In this atmosphere of paranoia, it is only logical that those opposing Putin are not acknowledged as constituting a legitimate (not to speak of useful) political opposition. Instead, they are represented as a “fifth column” of the West, as traitors who are, in Putin’s words, skulking around foreign embassies like jackals.

All this has made politics an easy game for the Kremlin. If the government is busy defending the country’s pride and integrity, it is impossible to observe all the niceties of freedom of the press, pluralistic public debate or fair party competition. Instead of debating what is best for the country, political discussants are searching for a plausible pretext to label any outward opposition as an enemy of Russia.

The radical, often neo-fascist wing of Russian nationalism, naturally, has been rising together with the movement as a whole. To be sure, both the Kremlin and mainstream public discourse demonstratively condemn manifest expressions of racism. Yet, the extremists - whether active in the neo-Nazi skinhead movement or publishing in high-brow conspirological journals - are part and parcel of the xenophobic hysteria that has recently consumed much of Russian society. A widespread fear among Russian and Western analysts observing the rise of Russian nationalism is now that the Kremlin could lose (or, perhaps, is already losing) control of this genie it has let out of the bottle. Russian nationalism could transform from a political tool of the Kremlin into a societal force of a proportion beyond the limits of manipulation.

A main difference between the Russian and Western forms of nationalism is that, in the contemporary West, the intellectual and political mainstream of a given country usually more or less clearly distances itself from any strong nationalist movement. While the Russian mainstream is quick to condemn racial violence, its relationship to the worldview behind such violence is, in contrast, ambivalent. Thus, authors who, in the West, would be regarded as being far beyond the pale of permissible discourse, such as the ultra-nationalist publicist Alexander Prokhanov or the ideologue of fascism Alexander Dugin are esteemed participants in political and intellectual debates on primetime TV shows. The bizarre, pseudo-scientific ideas of the late neo-racist theoretician Lev Gumilev are required reading in Russia’s secondary schools. Gumilev teaches that world history is defined by the rise and fall of ethnic groups that are biological units under the influence of cosmic emissions.

In recent years, the government has started to persecute racial crimes more actively than before. This is likely because the growing skinhead movement is damaging Russia’s international reputation. Extreme nationalism has already made the Russian Federation an unattractive study destination for dark-skinned international students who are regularly beaten and sometimes killed in Russia’s university towns. In trying to stem this tide, however, the government deals only with the symptoms of the phenomenon. To get to the root of the problem, the whole logic of current Russian politics would need to be changed – something that a well-meaning ministerial bureaucrat obviously cannot do.

If the kind of nationalist developments that have taken place in Russia over the past eight years continue into the future, we will not only witness a second Cold War, but the Russian Federation might become something like a new apartheid state in which foreigners and non-Slavic citizens are treated separately from white citizens of Russia by governmental and non-governmental institutions. Given this trend, some observers do not hesitate to speak of a “Weimar Russia,” comparing post-Soviet conditions to those in inter-war Germany. Though it is not (yet) likely that Russia will turn fascist, it seems even less probable that Russian society will become more tolerant any time soon.

The Kremlin needs to fundamentally change the way it defines Russia’s relationship to the outside world. It needs to take resolute action against the already considerable infiltration of various social institutions such as schools, universities, youth movements and the mass media with radical nationalism. If this does not happen, the Russians will be a lonely people, and Moscow will be an isolated international actor in the new century.

Andreas Umland teaches at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev, edits the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society," and compiles the bi-weekly “Russian Nationalism Bulletin." This comment is a summary of an interview that he gave to the Russian-language information agency “Washington ProFile,” Washprofile.org.