Monday, November 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Weakness of Russian Nationalism Allowed USSR to End Peacefully, Moscow Historian Says; Its Strengthening Could Threaten Stability

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 16 – Because the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union left Russian nationalism relatively weak, a Moscow historian argues, the end of the Soviet Union was remarkably peaceful. But if Russian nationalism intensifies, he says, that could threaten peace and stability not only within the Russian Federation but across Eurasia.
Because of that unusual pattern, Igor Zevelyev says, Russians need to explore both the possibility of creating a civic nation, something he argues does not yet exist in full form, or defining themselves as a civilization in the Huntingtonian sense rather than as a nation in the classical European one (
The end of the Soviet Union “did not solve ‘the nationality question’ for Russians” as it did for many other peoples. “On the contrary, it created one,” that has still not found a final answer despite the existence of a large number of factors that many expected would lead to a rapid rise in ethno-nationalism among ethnic Russians.
Among these were the fact that “for the first time in the last two centuries, Russians turned out to be the truly dominant ethnic group in their own country.” Moreover, writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provided an intellectual foundation for that. And the economic crisis of the 1990s “created the preconditions for political mobilization” on an ethnic basis.
But despite that, “Russian ethno-nationalism has still not become a serious force on the internal space of Russia and does not exert any significant influence on relations with neighboring states.” Instead, the “supranational aspects of Russian identity” – imperial, Soviet, civilizational, and universal – “continue to play an essential role.”
Because of “a whole series of historical circumstances,” Zevelyev says, “Russia, having risen up from the wreckage of the USSR, constituted an incompletely formed nation with a surprisingly low level of self-consciousness and without any mass national movement,” a situation very different from the situation in the Baltics, Armenia and Georgia.
The reasons for that are to be found in the past, the Moscow historian says. “Over the course of many centuries, there were not laid down in the consciousness of Russians so many clear and historically conditioned criteria which permitted [members of this community] to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them.’”
The Russian empire and its successor the Soviet Union were, “like the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, territorially integral formations: the center and periphery were not set apart by any natural boundaries.” Indeed, in the case of Russia and the Soviet Union, “the function of the center was played by a capital and not be any clearly designated intermediate territory.”
“In the course of several centuries,” Zevelyev continues, “the Russian elite was to a much greater extent interested in broadening the borders of the empire than in strengthening national self-consciousness,” and that, plus “the lack of clear borders between the empire and its Russian nucleus” has led some to conclude that “a dominating ethnic group did not exist in Russia.”
One result of that pattern, one Zevelyev suggests was intensified by Soviet policies, is that “in present-day Russia there is not a single political force which would consider the empire as an instrument for the advancement of the interests of ethnic Russians at the expense of other peoples.”
But while “the unformed nature of Russian national self-consciousness” might appear to be a problem in some respects, the Moscow historian says, it is “one of the key factors which explain why the collapse of the Soviet Union took place so peacefully, especially if one compares it with the bloody disintegration of the other communist federation – Yugoslavia.”
Moreover, he suggests, if Russia became a “normal” nation state with a well-developed sense of ethno-national identity, as many have suggested is a necessary next step, such a step could involve serious problems both within the Russian Federation, where there are many minority nations and internationally given that it could entail the revision of borders.
Although there is the possibility that Russia will move in exactly that direction, Zevelyev says that he hopes it will either move toward a civic nation or toward a civilizational project which will allow Russians and the country in which they live to avoid such outcomes – even though he acknowledges these would involve problems as well.

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