Monday, May 21, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Bolsheviks’ Combination of Empire, Nation State Behind Russia’s Current Problems

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 21 – Many of the Russian Federation’s most intractable problems today concerning the structure of the state and the identity of its citizenry are rooted in “the political miracle” the Bolsheviks pulled off in the 1920s: they were able to reassemble and then maintain the empire while creating a unique kind of nation state.
That combination was possible, Moscow commentator Sergei Shelin argues, for one reason only. The Soviet authorities were ready and willing to use forms and methods “available only to a totalitarian state” in order to imbue a common “spirit” among a critical part of the USSR’s population (
But once the state was unprepared to use force in a totalitarian way, that common spirit rapidly disappeared, leading both to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and to the unfettered rise of the “national” identities that the Communist authorities had promoted.
At one level, Shelin’s argument resembles those many analysts have made to explain the rise and fall of the Soviet state. But at another, his logic represents a particularly important contribution to understanding not only because of the vocabulary he uses but also because of his application of it to the situation in the Russian Federation.
A commentator who writes frequently on nationalism and ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union, Shelin advances this argument most clearly in his new critique of an April speech by Valeriy Tishkov, former Russian nationalities minister and current director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology.
Tishkov is “right,” Shelin says, “when he remarks that ‘the USSR … was a national state and the Soviet people was a community which resembled that of a civic nation. But [the noted ethnographer] is correct,” the commentator suggests, “only in part.”
“The quasi-civic people of the Soviet Union was the Communist Party and in general all people who were imbued with the spirit of party-ness. Namely this spirit, as long as it was strong, made the individual a part of a single ‘Soviet people.’ [And] in this sense, the USSR was in reality a national state.”
“But at the same time, the Soviet Union was an empire,” Shelin points out, “with a typically imperial division of its subjects into tribes and also a typically totalitarian harshness in these divisions.” In Soviet times, people were required to declare their “nationality” and those listed as members of that group were considered “’peoples.’”
And out of the creation or at least official designation of such groups, Shelin continues, there arose that very ‘friendship of the peoples’ which V.A. Tishkov perfectly justly would like to do away with. [Indeed, in important regards,] the model of the Soviet Union was its unique characteristic invention – the communal apartment.”
“On the one hand, the Moscow analyst says, “all its residents were (in the ideal) united by the Soviet spirit of collectivism and mutual assistant, which made joint existence possible.” But on the other, each had his or her desires and needs which “gave birth to daily conflicts of interests and made joint existence unbearable.”
A “very similar” system of centripedal and centrifugal forces existed between Soviet ‘peoples-nationalities’ in the USSR,” Shelin argues, pointedly suggesting that the country was a kind of oversized communal apartment that survived only thanks to force and the absence of any chance of leaving for somewhere better.
“At the twilight of the Soviet epoch,” he notes, “the spirit of party-ness dissipated and the centripedal forces disappeared forever.” In that new situation, “the Soviet cult of ethnicity remained” and has not yet been constrained in most of the post-Soviet states by any other force or set of values.
In the Baltic states and the other non-Russian republics that are now independent, governments have accepted this and sought to build a nation state by relying on and even building up the officially defined ethnicity that was one half of the Soviet “communal apartment” strategy.
But in the Russian Federation, Shelin points out, the situation has been much more difficult because many Russians want their country again to be simultaneously an empire and a nation state – even though they are not in most cases prepared to use the totalitarian methods such a combination requires.
Over the last 15 years, many Russians have concluded that the way out of this situation is to found in the ideology of a “civic nation,” the Moscow commentator says. But they have been disappointed because such a form of identity is, despite what Tishkov and others say, sadly lacking.
“The spirit of ethnicity and the spirit of poly-ethnicity when the population is poly-ethnic are not necessarily tings that stand in opposition to the civic spirit. With greater or lesser success,” Shelin argues, these two very different sets of values “can be combined with the ideology of a civic nation.”
But such ethnically rooted values will never succeed in eclipsing it, if the spirit of a civic nation is absence. And thus, the Moscow analyst continues, “the vacuum of a civic spirit and civic unity” represents “the main [non-ethnic] Russian nationality problem of today.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shelin says, it appeared that this civic spirit and unity had emerged, but its time quickly passed. And only when this form of identity re-emerges in the Russian Federation will the problems presented by the country’s ethnic, cultural and religious identities be resolved.
“Perhaps,” Shelin concludes, “they will be resolved by those civilized means which V.A. Tishkov proposed, and perhaps by means that are not civilized at all. There are no guarantees here and there cannot be any,” however much the former nationalities minister and others may hope.
But there is one thing that is certain, Shelin adds: While Russians continue to look back and hope for a combination of empire and nation state like the one the Soviets maintained, their country will be as Tishkov argues it should not be defined less by what it is than by what it is not.
That is, Russia will be a country with “a territory, an economy, a political system, and a bureaucracy” but not with “a nation” – and the absence of the latter, Shelin implies, could undermine all the others and spell disaster for the future of the country and its people.

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